In the almost 150 years since she belatedly committed herself to the revolt known as the Indian Mutiny, Laxmibai, the rani of Jhansi, has been the only leader to be described in positive terms by her adversaries. True, some reviled her as a villainess, but others admired her as a warrior queen. Indian nationalists of the early 20th century were less divided in venerating her as an early symbol of resistance to British rule.
The future rani was born to a prominent Brahmin family in Benares (now Varanasi) in northern India on November 19, 1827. Formally named Manikarnika, she was called ‘Manu’ by her parents. Her mother, Bhagirathi, died when she was 4. Under the care of her father, Moropant Tambe, her education included horsemanship, fencing and shooting. In 1842 she became the second wife of Gangadhar Rao Newalkar, the childless raja of Jhansi, a principality in Bundelkhand.
Renamed Laxmibai (also spelled as Lakshmi Bai), the young rani bore one son in 1851, but he died four months later. In 1853, following a serious illness, Gangadhar Rao adopted a distant cousin named Damodar Rao as his son — similarly, Gangadhar and the brother who had preceded him on the throne were adopted heirs. The adoption papers and a will naming the 5-year-old boy as Rao’s heir and the rani as regent were presented to a Major Ellis, who was serving as an assistant political agent at Jhansi on November 20, 1853. Gangadhar Rao died the following day. Ellis forwarded the information to his superior, Major John Malcolm. Ellis was sympathetic to the rani’s claims, and even Malcolm, who did not support her regency, described the young widow in a letter to Governor-General James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie, as ‘a woman highly respected and esteemed, and I believe fully capable of doing justice to such a charge’.
Under Lord Dalhousie, the British government had adopted an aggressive policy of annexing Indian states. Charges of mismanagement often offered an excuse. Another justification, applied with increasing frequency after 1848, was the Doctrine of Lapse. The British already exercised the right to recognize the succession in Indian states that were dependent upon them. As a corollary, Dalhousie claimed that if the adoption of an heir to the throne was not ratified by the government, the state would pass by ‘lapse’ to the British.
In spite of the rani’s arguments for the legality of the adoption and Ellis’ statements on her behalf, Dalhousie refused to acknowledge Damodar Rao as Gangadhar Rao’s heir. The new British superintendent, Captain Alexander Skene, took control of Jhansi under the Doctrine of Lapse without opposition. The rani was allowed to keep the town palace as a personal residence and received an annual pension of 5,000 rupees, from which she was expected to pay her husband’s debts. Damodar Rao inherited the raja’s personal estate, but neither his kingdom nor his title.
On December 3, Lakshmi Bai submitted a letter contesting the Doctrine of Lapse with Ellis’ approval, but Malcolm did not forward it. She submitted a second on February 16, 1854. After a consultation with British counsel John Lang, during which she declared ‘Mera Jhansi nahin dungee‘ (‘I will not give up my Jhansi’), she submitted yet another petition on April 22, and she continued to resubmit petitions until early 1856. All her appeals were rejected.
Meanwhile, discontent had been building among the sepoys in the British East India Company’s army. The General Services Enlistment Act of 1856 required all recruits to go overseas if ordered, an act that would cause a Hindu to lose caste. Rumors spread that the cartridges for the newly issued Enfield rifles were greased with either cow or pig fat, regarded as abominations by the Hindu or Muslim sepoys who would tear them open with their teeth. Assurances that the cartridges were in fact greased with beeswax and vegetable oil were not as effective as rumors of a systematic British effort to undermine the sepoys’ faith and make it easier to convert them to Christianity. In Meerut on May 9, 1857, 85 sepoys who refused to use the Enfield cartridges were tried and put in irons. The next day three regiments stormed the jail, killed the officers and their families and marched on Delhi, 50 miles away.
Thousands of Indians outside the army had grievances of their own against British rule. Reforms against the practice of suttee and child marriage, permitting widows to remarry and allowing converts from Hinduism to inherit family property were seen as attacks on Hindu religious law. Land reform in Bengal had displaced many landholders. Violence spread through north and central India as leaders whose power had been threatened by the British took charge and transformed the mutiny into organized resistance.
On June 6, troops at Jhansi mutinied, shot their commanding officers and occupied the Star Fort, where the garrison’s treasury and magazine were stored. The city’s European populace took refuge in the fort under the direction of Captain Skene. The fort was well designed to withstand a siege: It included an internal water supply, but food was limited, and about half of the 66 Europeans were women and children. On June 8, Skene led the British out of the fort, but they were massacred. On June 12, the mutineers left Jhansi for Delhi.
Given Lakshmi Bai’s longstanding grievances against the government, the British were quick to blame the rising in Jhansi on her, but evidence of her involvement was thin. Skene’s deputies and personal servants reported that when the British asked the rani for assistance, she refused to have anything to do with the ‘British swine’. A Eurasian clerk’s wife who claimed to have escaped from the fort with her children reported that the rani had promised the British safe conduit. Her testimony has since been thoroughly debunked by S.N. Sen in his thoughtful study titled 1857, but the idea that she had betrayed the community inflamed British imaginations.
Lakshmi Bai herself sent an account of the massacre to Major Walter Erskine, the commissioner at Sagar and Narbudda, on June 12:
The govt. forces, stationed at Jhansie, thro’ their faithless, cruelty, and violence, killed all the European civil and military officers, the clerks and all their families and the ranee not being able to assist them for want of guns, and soldiers as she had only 100 or 50 people engaged in guarding her house she could render them no aid, which she very much regrets. That they, the mutineers, afterwards behaved with much violence against her and her servants, and extorted a great deal of money from her.. That her dependence was entirely on the British authorities who met with such a misfortune the sepoys knowing her to be quite helpless sent messages […] to the effect that if she, at all hesitated to comply with their requests, they would blow up her palace with guns. Taking into consideration her position she was obliged to consent to all the requests made and put up with a great deal of annoyance, and had to pay large sums in property as well as cash to save her life and honour. Knowing that no British officers had been spared in the whole district, she was, in consideration of the welfare and protection of the people, and the district, induced to address perwannahs to all the Govt. subordinate agency in the shape of police, etc. to remain at their posts and perform their duties as usual, she is in continual dread of her life and that of the inhabitants. It was proper that the report of all this should have been made immediately, but the disaffected allowed her no opportunity for so doing. As they have this day proceeded towards Delhi, she loses no time in writing.
In a subsequent letter the rani reported there was anarchy and asked for orders from the British. Erskine forwarded both letters to Calcutta with a note saying her account agreed with what he knew from other sources. He authorized the rani to manage the district until he could send soldiers to restore order.
Faced with attacks by both neighboring principalities and a distant claimant to the throne of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai recruited an army, strengthened the city’s defenses and formed alliances with the rebel rajas of Banpur and Shargarh. Her new recruits included mutineers from the Jhansi garrison.
The positive assessment of local British officials was not enough to overcome the British belief in Calcutta that Lakshmi Bai was responsible for the mutiny and the massacre. Her subsequent efforts to defend Jhansi confirmed their beliefs. In January 1858, Maj. Gen. Sir Hugh Rose marched toward the city. As late as February, the rani told her advisers that she would return the district to the British when they arrived.
On March 25, Rose laid siege to Jhansi. Threatened with execution if captured by the British, Lakshmi Bai resisted. In spite of a vigorous defense, by March 30, most of rani’s guns had been disabled and the fort’s walls breached. On April 3, the British broke into the city, took the palace and stormed the fort.
The night before the final assault, Lakshmi Bai lashed her 10-year-old adopted son to her back and, with four followers, escaped from the fortress. Her father was less fortunate. He was captured and summarily hanged by the British, who then plundered Jhansi for the next three days. After riding some 93 miles in 24 hours, Lakshmi Bai and her small retinue reached the fortress of Kalpi, where they joined three resistance leaders who had become infamous in British eyes for the atrocity at Cawnpore: Nana Sahib, Rao Sahib and Tatia Tope. The rebel army met the British at Koonch on May 6 but was forced to retreat to Kalpi, where it was defeated again on May 22-23.
On May 30, the retreating rebels reached Gwalior, which controlled both the Grand Trunk Road and the telegraph lines between Agra and Bombay. Jayaji Rao Scindhia, the maharaja of Gwalior, who had remained loyal to the British, tried to stop the insurgents, but his troops went over to their side on June 1, forcing him to flee to Agra.
On June 16, Rose’s forces closed in on Gwalior. At the request of the other rebel leaders, Lakshmi Bai led what remained of her Jhansi contingent out to stop them. On the second day of the fighting at Kotah-ki-Serai, the rani, dressed in male attire, was shot while on her horse and got grievously hurt. Since she did not want her body to be captured by the British, she told a hermit to cremate her. Upon her death on June 18th 1858, her body was cremated as per her wishes. Her samadhi sthal is in the Phool Bagh area of Gwalior.
Gwalior fell soon after, and organized resistance collapsed. Rao Sahib and Tatia Tope continued to lead guerrilla attacks against the British until they were captured and executed. Nana Sahib disappeared and became a source of legend.
British newspapers proclaimed Lakshmi Bai the ‘Jezebel of India,’ but Sir Hugh Rose compared his fallen adversary to Joan of Arc. Reporting her death to William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, he said: ‘The Rani is remarkable for her bravery, cleverness, and perseverance; her generosity to her subordinates was unbounded. These qualities, combined with her rank, rendered her the most dangerous of all the rebel leaders’.
In modern India, Lakshmi Bai is regarded as a national heroine. Statues of her stand guard over Jhansi and Gwalior. Her story has been told in ballads, novels, movies and the Indian equivalent of Classics Illustrated comics. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi appeared as Lakshmi Bai in a political commercial in the 1980s.
‘Although she was a lady,’ Rose wrote,’ she was the bravest and best military leader of the rebels. A man among the mutineers.’ His praise is echoed in the most popular of the folk songs about her: ‘How well like a man fought the Rani of Jhansi! How valiantly and well!’
The above stated portion was written by Pamela D. Toler and originally published in the September 2006 issue of Military History magazine.
Y.N Kelkar’s “Itihasachya Sahali” or “Voyages in History” published in 1959 mentions the below stated portion from the memoirs of Damodar Rao Newalkar (real name Anand Rao), adopted son of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi and heir to the Jhansi throne –
“I was born on 15th November 1849 in Jhansi in a collateral branch of the ruling Newalkar dynasty. On my birth, the court astrologers looked at the stars and prophesied that I had a “Raj Yog” or destined to become a king.
And how tragically true this prophecy turned out to be! After a young age of three, I was adopted by Maharaja Gangadhar Rao of Jhansi. An application was sent to the East India Company’s representative in Bundelkhand to recognize my adoption, but my adoptive father died soon after before a confirmation could be received. After this, my adoptive mother, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi sent a representation of Lord Dalhousie in Calcutta to recognize me as an heir to the throne but this appeal was rejected.
The British East India Company declared that the kingdom of Jhansi would be annexed under the doctrine of lapse and that my mother, Rani Laxmibai would get an annual pension of Rs 5000. In addition Masaheb (Rani Laxmibai) would also inherit all the personal property of my father including the palaces and jewellery. Lord Dalhousie decided that I could inherit these personal assets of my late father but not the kingdom. In addition, there were 7 lakh rupees in the treasury in the name of my late father. When Masaheb requested for the same, she was informed that the British Govt would hold this money in trust till I reached majority and then, it would be handed over to me.
In 1857, my fate changed for worse. My mother never forgave the British for the annexation of our kingdom and she raised a banner of revolt along with the entire populace of Jhansi. Unfortunately, we lost Jhansi due to treachery and had to flee to Gwalior. In the battle in Gwalior, Masaheb became a martyr. My attendants (Ram Chandra Rao Deshmukh and Kashi Bai and others) would tell me that she carried me on her back on the battlefield. I was too young to remember this. After Masaheb’s death, I remained in Gwalior for the next 3 days.
Of Masaheb’s confidants, only 60 had survived the battle. Nanekhan Risaldar, a Maratha named Ganpatrao, Raghunath Singh and Ramchadrarao Deshmukh took me under their guardianship and with 22 horses and 60 camels, we broke away from the camp of Rao saheb, brother of Peshwa Nana saheb of Bithur and decided to find our own way out.
We fled along the inhospitable terrain, jungles and ravines and fled towards the direction of Chanderi in Bundelkhand. No village on the way was willing to take pity and help us due to the fear of reprisals by the British. Since a refuge in any of the villages was virtually impossible, we took shelter in a dense forest by edge of the river. Due to lack of any camping equipment, we had to sleep under the open skies. During the scorching heat of the summer, we would have sleep inside the deep forest amidst the trees. Our skin would burn due to the heat. We had no food and hence had to survive on fruits and berries found in the forest. Fortunately, Mother Nature took pity on us and we never slept hungry in the forest. We were afraid of going to nearby villages for help as there were British soldiers roving everywhere hunting for the rebels. Only in extreme emergencies would our men venture out, with life in their hands and get required provisions from local villages. This went on till the end of summer.
As monsoon began, things went from bad to worse. All forest paths would be flooded making it impossible for us to move. Remembering those terrible days sends shiver down my spine.
Fortunately god finally took pity on us. A local village headman informed us that as the British has set up a camp at Lalitpur, he could not help us directly but if we moved to a secret location in the forest as suggested by him, he would provide us with provisions over there. On advice of Naik Raghunath singh, we broke our camp and started living at different locations in small groups of 10 to avoid any suspicion. We reached an agreement with that local village headman that we would give him Rs. 500 every month plus 9 horses and 4 camels and in return, he would supply us with required provisions and keep us informed about British movements.
At this time, we were around 11 people. As agreed, we went to live in a cave by a steep cliff. Below the cliff was the Vetravati river. There was a temple of Mahadev nearby too. River Vetravati ran with a great force and there was a large and lovely waterfall. Around us, there were several lakes and ponds. The sheer pristine beauty of the place made us forget some of our sorrows. In this way, we spent two whole years as wanderers and fugitives.
During these years, I was unwell the whole time. In the month of Bhadrapad, my conditioned worsened. My retainers were worried if I would even survive the ordeal. They begged the village headman to send someone to treat me. Even the village headman was shocked to see my pitiable and delicate state. He soon got a local doctor or a “vaid” who happened to be his uncle to treat me in secrecy. As I recovered from my illness, another problem arose. While fleeing Gwalior, we had around Rs. 60,000 with us which by now had been fully exhausted. Now, with no money to pay, the headman rudely asked us to leave and we had no choice but to comply. We gave the headman Rs. 200 and asked for the return of our horses. That charlatan returned only 3 horses and informed us that others had died!
We left as a group of 12 however, on our way further, we were joined by another batch of followers that had left earlier and soon became 24. We soon reached the village of Shipri-Kolaras in the Gwalior state. The locals there recognized us as rebels and put us all under arrest. We were in local jail for 3 days. Then under and escort of 10 horsemen and 25 sepoys, we were sent to the Political Agent at Jhalrapatan.
As our horses had been confiscated, we had to walk for days. My men could not bear to see my plight and carried me on their back by turns. Most of my mother’s men who had survived had taken asylum in Jhalrapatan. There was a Political agency nearby managed by a Political Agent named Mr. Flink. One of my mother’s risaldar named Nanhekhan was working at this political agency. He was a trusted aide of Mr. Flink.
He went to Mr Flink and said “ Late Ranisaheb of Jhansi had a son who is now just 9-10 year old. After she died in the battlefield, that little child had to live in the forest like an animal. His trusted followers have looked after him with care. What is the fault of this innocent child? What has he ever done against the British Raj? Please spare that child and entire Hindustan shall shower blessings on you”.
Mr Flink was a kind man. He sent a message to the Political Agent at Indore, Col Sir Richard Shakespeare, to which Colonel replied “If Rani of Jhansi’s son surrenders willingly, I shall see that his affairs are settled”.
Mr Flink asked Nanhekhan to take me to Indore. On the way we met Raja Prithvisinh of Jhalrapatan. He had great respect for masaheb and he treated me very well, promised that he would put in a good word for me with the resident at Ajmer.
We were kept in prison near Jhalrapatan for around 3 months. We had no money till then and so I was forced to sell the two bracelets or “todas” of 32 tolas each which belonged to late Masaheb. Those were the last remaining memories of her with me. And now they were lost.
On 5th May 1860, we reached Indore cantonment. There I met the political agent, Sir Richard Shakespeare. I was placed under guardianship of a Kashmiri official called Munshi Dharmanarayan (to teach me Urdu, English & Marathi). I was allowed to keep only 7 followers and all others had to leave. I was allotted an annual pension of Rs. 10,000, which I had no option but to take as I was only a child then.”
After this, the British Govt refused to hand over to Damodar Rao the 7 lakh rupees which it held in ‘trust’ for him and had refused to hand it over to Rani Lakshmibai. Damodar Rao lived the rest of his days in penury begging the British govt to restore to him some of his rights without avail.
After settling at Indore and reaching majority, Damodar Rao’s aunt – who was the wife of Damodar’ natural father, got him married at Indore. Damodar Rao’s first wife dies in 1872 (d/o Vasudeo Rao Bhatavdekar). Damodar Rao then married Balwantrao Moreshwar Shevde’s daughter and a son named Laxman Rao was born on 1879. The sad and tragic life of Damodar Rao ended on 28th May 1906. He was 58 years old.
His descendants still live in Indore. They use the name “Jhansiwale” after the land of their forebears. Amongst the attendants of Rani Lakshmi Bai, Deshmukh passed away in 1885 and Ramchandra Rao in 1888.
Damodar’s son Lakshman Rao died in 1959 and the Govt of UP had presented him a sanad and a monetary award on 10th of may 1957 in commemoration of his grand mother’s contribution after 100 years of 1857.
Moropant Tambe had 2 wives – Bhagirathibai and Yamunabai. Manikarnika (Rani Laxmibai) was born to Bhagirathibai and Chintaman Rao was born to Yamunabai. Chintaman Rao had a issue Govind Rao., Govind Rao had a issue Eknath Rao. Eknath Rao’s son Dr. Vilas Tambe stays in Nagpur on the Wardha Road where he owns and runs a private hospital. Moropant Tambe was a part of the 1500 strong troop which broke out of Jhansi Fort with his daughter. He was seriously injured, captured in Datia by his attendant out of fear, brought back to Jhansi and hanged.
Adaption from akshay-chavan.blogspot.co.uk/2009/09/rani-of-jhansis-descendants-tragic-tale.html.
The Scindias’ proximity to the British had earned them many rewards. In the Imperial Durbar in Delhi in 1877, Jayaji Rao had received the rank of a general and a 21-gun salute from the grateful empire.
Source Credits: HistoryNet, Cbkwgl and The Telegraph Calcutta