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Marathas and Bundelkhand – IV: Jhansi ki Rani

Two hundred years after Chhatrapati Shivaji had given that famous reply to Maharaja Chhatrasal Bundela, Rani Laxmibai had lived up to his name.

Chamak uthi san sattavan mein, yeh talwar purani thi,
Bundeley Harbolon key munh hamney suni kahani thi,
Khoob ladi mardani woh to Jhansi wali Rani thi.

— from a poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan

We now come to the fourth and the last part of this series. The values of swadharma and swarajya had been held aloft for a whole century by Chhatrapati Shivaji, Chhatrasal Bundela, Bajirao Peshwa and also by the entire Maratha army, which sacrificed itself at Panipat. Rani Laxmibai showed she belonged to that same exalted group when she put up her spirited defense of Jhansi in the summer of 1858. But, how did Manikarnika Tambe, the daughter of a courtier of the deposed Peshwa end up becoming immortal in India’s history as Rani Laxmibai ? We shall explore that in this article.

The debacle at Panipat was, for all strategic purposes a stalemate. The Marathas could not complete their dream of over running the Punjab region or the Ganga – Jamuna doab. Which in turn meant that the puppet at Delhi stayed. But through the brilliant statesmanship of Peshwa Madhavrao, Mahadji Shinde and Nana Phadnis, the Marathas were able to regain their position of pre-eminence across the whole swathe from Panipat to Karnataka. To the west, the Afghans disintegrated after Abdali (d 1762) and the Sikhs rose in the Punjab. And all over the country, the British had begun to spread the wings.

Things started going downhill around 1795, with the deaths of many Maratha stalwarts followed by a crippling drought in 1802. Like vultures hovering in the sky, the British knew this was their chance. If there was any time the Marathas wanted a Chhatrapati Sambhaji or a Peshwa Bajirao to rise, it was 1802. But such a leader was nowhere to be found, and the Marathas paid with defeat in the Second Anglo – Maratha War. The Shindes of Gwalior were defeated at Laswari and Assaye and had to give up parts of Bundelkhand as a result (Treaty of Surji Anjangaon – 1803). It would seem that Maratha influence on Bundelkhand, save for the faujdar at Jhansi, had come to an end. But fate had other plans.

Much can and has been written about all that transpired between 1761, the year of the battle of Panipat and 1818, when Pune was finally captured by the British. For the purpose of this article, we shall concentrate on 1818, which is where our story starts. That was the year the East India Company captured the capital of the Peshwas and made Bajirao II sign the ignominious treaty. He was pensioned off to a town called Bithur near Kanpur. Along with him, went many of his courtiers, including Moropant and Bhagirathibai Tambe, who settled in the holy city of Kashi. To this couple was born a daughter in 1828, whom they named Manikarnika. Meanwhile, at the house of the childless Bajirao, an infant of two years had been adopted. He would grow up to become Nanasahib Peshwa and along with the Rani of Jhansi and Tatya Tope, provide us with some of the most inspirational and enduring tales from 1857.

Not too far from Kanpur was Jhansi, which the Newalkar clan had been administering since 1756, as has been explained in the previous article. Gangadhar Rao Newalkar was the incumbent, and on the suggestion of Bajirao II, Manikarnika’s marriage to him was soon solemnised. They had a son named Damodar Rao, who died aged just four months. A baby named Anand Rao was adopted but soon afterwards, Gangadhar Rao Newalkar himself died.

It was about this time that Governor General Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse (1848) had begun to take effect all over India and proud states like Nagpur, Satara, Udaipur, etc. fell to the British without much of a fight. The East India Company had decided to recognise only blood descendants and annex any state where an adopted son was the heir. Among Hindu households at the time, it was common to adopt a suitable son to settle issues of inheritance etc. It would not be too long before the flames of this ridiculous law of Dalhousie singed Jhansi too.

The British swung into action. This was the time to annex Jhansi and make it a part of the British Empire. Dalhousie ordered Rani Laxmibai to give up her kingdom and accept a British pension of Rs 60,000, since the child Anandrao was adopted (1854). But Rani Laxmibai was stubborn. She would not give up her Jhansi just yet.

On March 29, 1857, a shot rang out at the Barrackpore cantonment in faraway Bengal. It had been fired by Mangal Pandey, and would set in motion a series of events that would later be known as India’s First War of Independence. Contrary to popular perception, Rani Laxmibai did not immediately jump into the fray. But when she did, in March 1858, her opposition to the British was the most resolute and awe inspiring.

Over the course of the next few months thousands of soldiers revolted against their firangee masters and very soon Kanpur, Lucknow, Meerut, Delhi, and Kalpi were engulfed with the flame lit by the Bengal Regiment in Barrackpore. Leaders like Tatya Tope, Nanasahib, Ali Bahadur, Azimullah, etc. had risen to counter the EIC.

Nevertheless, the main target of the EIC at the beginning of 1858, was taking back Kalpi and all other areas under Tatya Tope. Kalpi, in Bundelkhand was the main target. Jhansi was to be captured along the way. Little did anyone know, that this to – be – captured – enroute place was to provide the toughest fight and witness some of the bloodiest battles.

For this campaign, the British government sent Sir Hugh Rose, a decorated military officer with vast experience in varied locations. He had served as a Colonel in the Egypt – Ottoman conflict and fought various Battles during the Crimean War for which he had received the French Legion’D honour. He was then promoted to Major General. He had also served in various diplomatic positions throughout the mid-east and Turkey. Added to it was his experience in Ireland, Gibraltar and Malta during his training as a soldier. The toughest test he would face would be from a twenty something woman, who had only fought a few battles near Jhansi.

He was soon promoted to General and sent to India. Hugh Rose arrived in India and soon raised a large army at the British cantonment in Mhow, near Indore. The Central India Field Force, as it was called, soon began its march north east to Kalpi. It had over four thousand well trained soldiers, as also various levies sent by the Nizam. With him was Captain Robert Hamilton. Another bunch of soldiers, led by Brigadier Stuart began marching north via Sihor. The strong contingents under Sir Hugh Rose laid siege to a fort named Rahatgarh in January 1858 and quickly captured it. Next were the towns of Sagar, Chanderi and a pass, which led to Jhansi. The Rajas of Banpur and Shahpur offered some resistance, but were beaten back.

Ergo, in the lead up to Jhansi there was hardly any opposition.

Jhansi ki Rani

There were two forts at Jhansi – one was the famous fort atop a hill, which had been reinforced in the previous century by Naro Shankar Motiwale. And the other was the Star fort, which basically consisted of barracks set up by the British after the 1803 treaty. In 1857, the sepoys rose against their British masters and were joined by the Risaldar of Jhansi and the Daroga – Bakshish Ali. Very soon the entire European population found itself completely surrounded by these men. Before long, a cry went up from the sepoys at Jhansi “Khalq khuda ki, mulk badshah ki, Raj Laxmibai ka”! Next, the Europeans were all put to the sword, including the women and children. It would be known as “the massacre of Jhansi”. The British took it for granted that Rani Laxmibai had ordered the killings and that was the end of any negotiation as far as they were concerned. Now they had two reasons to annex Jhansi!

The Rani of Jhansi on her part would not give up her fort and town to the British, since she was firm on her position that her adopted son deserved the throne. On the other hand, Dalhousie could not make an exception just for Jhansi, since that would definitely turn a lot of princely states against the British. Moreover, the British wanted to see Jhansi in their own firm hands. The sepoys at Jhansi, like their counterparts at Meerut, Lucknow, Kalpi, Barrackpore, Calcutta, and Guwahati had also turned against the British. But, while the soldiers were making their decisive march from Lucknow and Meerut to Delhi, Rani Laxmibai still did not wholesale open a front against the British. She did open correspondence though with Nanasahib and Tatya Tope.

It was known that the neighbouring states of Orccha, Mauranipur, and Gwalior were all pro-British. They had attacked Jhansi, and the Rani in turn, while not only beating back the attack, also wanted to render them entirely toothless. This would make it impossible for them to render any help to the British, when Sir Hugh Rose arrived. Also, in a brilliant move, she ordered her men to chop and clear away trees by the dozens in the vicinity of the fort. A scorched earth in the month of March and April can prove to be a great ally of a fort withstanding a siege. This simple move itself would have caused grave difficulty to the East India Company troops, but for the help given by Gwalior and Tehri.

At the beginning of March 1858, General Hugh Rose pitched his camp in front of Jhansi. With him were Robert Hamilton and Brigadier C.S Stuart. It had been barely two months, since they had left Mhow. Forts had fallen like nine pins after fighting for a few days, and in some cases not fighting at all. Even an important place like Chanderi had been overrun rather quickly by Brigadier Stuart. Two Rajas – that of Shahpur and Banpur had been successfully checked. So, it was presumed that Jhansi would fall quickly, without much of a fight.

The siege of Jhansi began on 22nd March 1858. Rani Laxmibai, now dressed in the attire of a soldier herself appeared on the ramparts to inspire her soldiers. An entire battalion of women soldiers had been raised by her to man the guns which poured fire on the British soldiers laying siege to the fort. Night turned into day and night fell again, but the defence of Jhansi was stout and resolute. Successive waves of soldiers trying to scale the fort walls were beaten back. A woman with a sword in hand was a rarity, and here was an entire battalion returning fire shot for shot! The cannons and guns on the fort never lost sight of the British army besieging the fort, including a woman who had till then been serving as a danseuse at the court!

Nor was the watch slack at night. As the Field Surgeon Dr Thomas Lowe tells us, one night Sir Hugh Rose decided to win the fort by launching a surprise night attack. But hardly had the first ladder been put up, that the sentry on watch sounded the bugle and that was the end of any nocturnal plans.

Rani Laxmibai also sent messages to Tatya Tope asking for help. He did arrive from Kalpi with reinforcements, but was unfortunately forced to retreat before he could reach Jhansi. This was 31st March 1858.

British guns continued to pound the fort. Hundreds had died thanks to the constant bombardment but the Rani of Jhansi held firm. It was her leadership that was making people fight and die for her cause. Parts of the city passed into the hands of Sir Hugh Rose, but the fort continued to fight. Cannon balls had managed to reach the Rani’s palace itself and also set ammunition on fire. But through the deafening boom of guns and confused din of the battle, Rani Laxmibai fought on. In fact in the words of a British Officer – “It is fortunate (for the British) that the men are not all like her.”

Finally around the 3rd of April 1858, she concluded that the fort could no longer be defended successfully. Along with a few of her cavalry she left the fort. It is said she made her horse leap from a rampart, so as to avoid detection by the British. Accompanying her was her father – Moropant Tambe – who had also been fighting from the fort. Unfortunately, Moropant Tambe was discovered by the British the next morning and brought back to Jhansi. On the 18th of April 1858, he was hung to death from a tree in front of the fort, and thus became the martyr during the First War of Independence.

But Rani Laxmibai had escaped! And she was on her way to Kalpi – Tatya Tope’s base. A certain Lt Dowker managed to spot her as she made her way to Kalpi, but Rani Laxmibai’s soldiers managed to injure him and push him off the track.

Sir Hugh Rose had lost hundreds of men at Jhansi, and on top of that had only achieved a partial victory. He soon moved to Kalpi, where Jhansi ki Rani once again gave him the slip and moved onto Gwalior. As with other places, the regiments at Gwalior had also by then revolted and eagerly joined Rani Laxmibai. It was now the month of June. The proud queen of Jhansi had successfully fought and evaded Sir Hugh Rose for close to three months! The ruler of Gwalior, seeing that he no longer commanded respect, escaped to Agra. By the 1st of June, Rani Laxmibai was in charge. But Sir Hugh Rose had brought fresh soldiers from Mhow and reinforced the ones already fighting the past few months.

On the 18th of June, Rani Laxmibai rode out wearing a soldier’s clothes, sword in hand. She charged through the lines of the 8th Hussar regiment sent to capture the fort. The odds were stacked against her. She could have easily surrendered, but instead Rani Laxmibai chose to fight on. In the thick of battle, an unknown soldier of the Hussar regiment killed her.

Rani Laxmibai was martyred on the battlefield, fighting for swarajya.

Two hundred years after Chhatrapati Shivaji had given that famous reply to Maharaja Chhatrasal Bundela, Rani Laxmibai had lived up to his name.

Even her adversary, Sir Hugh Rose, said on her death: “I beg to draw His Excellency’s attention to the great bravery shown by Her Majesty’s 8th Hussars Regiment , in the brilliant charge they made of the enemy camp, of which the most important result was the killing of Rani of Jhansi, who although a lady, was the bravest and best military leader among the rebels.”

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Aneesh Gokhale is the published author of two books. His second book “Brahmaputra” is about Lachit Barphukan , the Assamese contemporary of Chhatrapati Shivaji. His articles on Maratha and Assamese history have appeared in various online and print media. He has also given public talks on a dozen occassions.