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Lakshmibai, regent queen of the kingdom of Jhansi, was a fighter in the War of 1857 against the British and became an icon of the later freedom movement in India. She was born Manikarnika or ‘Manu’ to Moropant Tambay and Bhagirathi Bai. Her mother died at her birth, so Manu’s upbringing at the court of Baji Rao II in Bithur was different from that of other girls. She was educated in both Sanskrit and Marathi, knew the scriptures and Hindu texts and was fascinated by the stories of Maratha heroes. She was adept at wielding various weapons, excelled in physical culture and was a skilled horsewoman. Her childhood companions were Nana Sahib, the heir apparent to the Peshwa’s jagir, and his brothers Rao Sahib and Bala. Tatiya Tope, who was one of the leaders of 1857, was also a member of the Bithur retinue.

In 1842, she was married to Raja Gangadhar Rao, the King of Jhansi, then 40 years old; her name was changed to Lakshmibai on marriage. Gangadhar allowed Lakshmibai to continue her practice in weaponry and riding. He was a cultured man who enjoyed the theatre and put up well-received plays where he excelled at playing women’s roles. The Rani gradually began teaching the use of arms to the women of Jhansi because she thought it important in those turbulent times. They adopted a son, Damodar Rao. On the death of the Raja, the British, though bound by an old treaty to recognise the claim of the heirs to the throne of Jhansi, did not keep their promise and cited the Doctrine of Lapse as Damodar Rao was not the natural son of Gangadhar. They offered to pension Lakshmibai off but she refused. It was during these negotiations that the Rani made her famous declaration, ‘Main apni Jhansi nahin doongi.’ (I shall not give away our beloved Jhansi). It was, however, not until the events of 1857 that she was able to put her resolve into practice. With the British engaged in suppressing the revolts, she had a free rein in the affairs of the kingdom, although she faced two challenges to the throne, the first from Sadashiva Khondekar who claimed a right to be the ruler of Jhansi, and the second from Nathey Khan who attacked Jhansi with a force of 20,000 soldiers. Though the English had confiscated her weaponry, the Rani, a superb tactician and strategist, defeated the attackers roundly. She began preparations for war, which included training and equipping of the Jhansi army. She created the Durga Dal, an elite force of women warriors, many of whom distinguished themselves in battle, such as Jhalkari Bai (q.v.).

On 20 March 1858, General Rose and his army camped outside Jhansi. The battle that followed was ferocious and the people of Jhansi fought with magnificent courage. The British, however, had a vastly superior force and after Tatiya’s defeat Jhansi could not sustain the conflict for long. After the fall of Jhansi, the Rani escaped to Kalpi, where she joined forces with Tatiya Tope. Jhalkari Bai impersonated the Rani and was able to keep the British fooled for one week, thus buying Lakshmibai valuable time. The rebels once again challenged the British, and despite her allies’ defeat, the Rani, in an astonishing display of military tactics, managed to save a large part of her force from the trap the English had set. After Kalpi fell, the Rani and the Peshwa regrouped at Gopalpur. They took the fort of Gwalior at the Rani’s suggestion, but while the British prepared for the decisive battle, the Peshwa’s army spent its time in the pursuit of pleasure. The Rani herself led an extremely disciplined and loyal force known as the Lal Kurtis or Red Coats which included both men and women.

On 18 June the Rani fought her last battle. She cut a magnificent figure in her masculine attire, wielding swords with both her hands with the reins of her horse clamped between her teeth. When Lieutenant Walker pursued her after the defeat, she out-manoeuvred him and administered a salutary lesson. As another group began pursuing her, her horse refused to cross the Sonerekha canal, a jump that was vital to her plans. The English forces were soon upon her and though she fought ferociously, she met a hero’s death. General Rose said of her, ‘She was the bravest of them all’. Lakshmibai realised the need to involve all communities, castes and religious groups in her war against the colonial powers. She was one of the few leaders in Indian history to be aware of the contribution women could make on the battlefield. The women of Jhansi played a critical role in every area of military affairs, a fact attested by Vishnu Rao Godse, a Marathi writer who visited Jhansi under the reign of the Rani.
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