Born on May 31, 1725, in the village of Chondi in Jamkhed, Ahmednagar, today marks the 295th anniversary of the brave queen, Maharani or Rajmata Ahilyabai Holkar, regarded as one of the finest female rulers in Indian history. As a prominent ruler of the Malwa kingdom, she spread the message of dharma and promoted industrialisation in the 18th century.
Her father, Mankoji Rao Shinde, was the Patil (chief) of the village and home-schooled Ahilyabai to read and write despite women’s education being a far-fetched idea in the village.
Ahilyabai did not belong to a royal lineage, however, her entry into royalty is nothing short of a twist of fate. It was when Malhar Rao Holkar, an acclaimed nobleman in the Malwa territory spotted an eight-year-old Ahilyabai at a temple service feeding the hungry and poor, while on his way to Pune. Immensely moved by the young girl’s act of kindness and strength of character, he decided to ask her hand in marriage for his son Khanderao Holkar. Ahilyabai was married to Khanderao Holkar in 1733 at the tender age of 8.
Distress soon befell the young bride when her husband was killed in the battle of Kumbher in 1754, leaving her a widow at only 29. But she was forbidden from committing Sati by her father-in-law, who became her strongest pillar of support at the time.
The kingdom felt a strong vacuum when Malhar Rao passed away, soon followed by her young son. Ahilyabai, however, stood undeterred through all her personal losses, that too in quick succession. She channelled her grief when she decided to take matters into her own hands for the sake of the administration of the kingdom and the lives of her people. After petitioning the Peshwa after her son’s untimely death, she ascended the throne and became ruler of Indore on 11 December 1767.
Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar:
John Keay, the British historian, gave the queen the title of ‘The Philosopher Queen’. He said in her praise: ‘Ahilyabai Holkar, the philosopher-queen of Malwa, had evidently been an acute observer of the wider political scene.’
The Queen of Malwa was not only a brave queen and skilled ruler but also a learned politician. Her observation of the British and their agenda was something even the Maratha Peshwa had missed noticing. In a letter written to the Peshwa in 1772, she threw caution to the wind and said: ‘Other beasts, like tigers, can be killed by might or contrivance, but to kill a bear it is very difficult. It will die only if you kill it straight in the face, or else, once caught in its powerful hold; the bear will kill its prey by tickling. Such is the way of the English. And given this, it is difficult to triumph over them.’
Development work, philanthropy and more:
Indore prospered during her 30-year rule from a tiny village to a flourishing city. Ahilyabai is famous for having built numerous forts and roads in Malwa region, sponsoring festivals and offering donations to many Hindu temples. Her philanthropy reflected in the construction of a number of temples, ghats, wells, tanks and rest-houses stretching across the length of the country.
Her kingdom’s capital, Maheshwar, was a melting pot music and culture and she is known to have opened doors to stalwarts like the Marathi poet Moropant, Shahir Anantaphandi and Sanskrit scholar, Khushali Ram. The capital was also known for its distinct craftsmen, sculptors and artists who were paid handsomely for their work. The queen also established a textile industry in the city.
Through public audiences held daily in her court, Ahilyabai addressed the grievances of her people and always became available to anyone who needed her guidance.
Historians have noted how she encouraged all within her kingdom’s boundaries to do their best at whatever they took on. “Far and wide the roads were planted with shady trees, and wells were made, and rest-houses for travellers. The poor, the homeless, the orphaned were all helped according to their needs. The Bhils, who had long been the torment of all caravans, were routed from their mountain fastnesses and persuaded to settle down as honest farmers. Hindu and Musalman alike revered the famous Queen and prayed for her long life,” writes Annie Besant.
An English poem written by Joanna Baillie in 1849 reads:
“For thirty years her reign of peace,
The land in blessing did increase;
And she was blessed by every tongue,
By stern and gentle, old and young.
Yea, even the children at their mother’s feet
Are taught such homely rhyming to repeat
“In latter days from Brahma came,
To rule our land, a noble Dame,
Kind was her heart and bright her fame,
And Ahlya was her honored name.”
Ahilyabai was a woman ahead of her times, but her greatest regret remained her daughter performing Sati upon the death of her husband, Yashwantrao Phanse.
The queen died at the age of 70 after a 30-year rule and was succeeded by her commander-in-chief, Tukoji Rao Holkar I.
Centuries later, the brave and just queen’s legacy lives on in the form of the numerous temples, dharamshalas, and the large amount of social work she dedicated her life to.
A commemorative stamp was issued in her honour on August 25, 1996, by the Indian government. As a tribute to the ruler, Indore’s domestic airport has been named Devi Ahilyabai Holkar Airport. The Indore university too was renamed Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya.