The Indian Joan of Arc

The Indian Joan of Arc

Lakshmi bai, the Rani or Queen of Jhansi (1828-1858) was a remarkable woman and one of the leaders of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. She has since become emblematic of Indian rebellion against the encroachment of British imperialism and is celebrated by her country and people as a woman who lived contrary to the perceived notions of nineteenth-century Indian feminine decorum.

Many contradictory stories have been written about Bai that depict her as either an honorable head of state or as a ruthless, deceitful, and cunning warrior. Likewise, physical descriptions of Bai vary; some describing her as possessing beautiful facial features, and others describing her as badly scarred by smallpox. Nevertheless, she is considered an Indian national hero for leading the Jahnsi army against the British and is sometimes referred to as “the Indian Joan of Arc.”

Lakshmi bai was born in Poona into a Marathi Brahmin family. Her birth name was Maninkarnika and the date of her birth is believed to be November 19, 1835. Nicknamed Manu she moved to the holy town of Varanasi in the northern portion of India. Her mother died when she was four. her mother died when she was of four years. She was brought up in the family of her father’s employer the Peshwa of Bithoor who treated her like his own daughter.

Lakshmi bai had an unusual upbringing for a Brahman girl. Growing up with the boys in the Peshwa’s court, she was trained in martial arts and became proficient in sword fighting and riding elephants and horses. Two of her childhood friends were Nana Sahib and Tatya Tope, both of whom were active participants in the Great Rebellion.

Lakshmi bai married the Maharaja of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao who was more than twice her age. She was soon widowed. The pair had no children so following established Hindu tradition, just before his death, the maharaja adopted a boy as his heir.

Lord Dalhousie, the British governor-general of India, refused to recognize their adopted heir and annexed Jhansi in accordance with the doctrine of lapse and an agent of the East India Company was posted in the small kingdom to look after administrative matters.

Lakshmi bai decided to go against the British. She was just 22-year-old when she refused to cede Jhansi to the British. This was shortly after the beginning of the mutiny in 1857, which broke out in Meerut. With rebellion already taking place in India, Lakshmi bai was proclaimed the regent of Jhansi and joined the uprising. She rapidly organised her troops and assumed charge of the rebels in the Bundelkhand region. She was so successful that mutineers in the neighbouring areas headed toward Jhansi to offer her support.

Lakshmibal ‘s opponents were fierce. General Hugh Rose, of the East India Company’s forces, began the counteroffensive in Bundelkhand in January 1858. Advancing from Mhow, Rose captured Saugor (now Sagar) in February and then turned toward Jhansi in March.

East India company forces surrounded the fort of Jhansi, and the battle ensued. Offering stiff resistance to the invading forces, Lakshmi bai did not surrender even after her troops were overwhelmed and the army of her childhood friend Tantia Tope was defeated at the Battle of Betwa.

Despite the defeat of her forces Lakshmi bai managed to escape from the fort with a small band of palace guards. She headed eastward, where other rebels joined her. Together Tantia Tope and Lakshmi Bai then mounted a successful assault on the city-fortress of Gwalior. The treasury and the arsenal were seized, and Nana Sahib, the local leader, was proclaimed as the Peshwa. After taking Gwalior, Lakshmi bai marched east with her troops to Morar to confront Rose again. This time Lakshmi bai dressed as a man; she fought a fierce battle but was killed in combat.

According to a memoir purported to have been written by her husband’s adopted son Damodar Rao; he was among his mother’s troops and household at the battle of Gwalior; he says there were 60 men riding camels and horses. After the battle he fled and lived in the forest for two years. In that two years, Damodar and his retinue were whittled down by starvation and encounters British forces. Finally, Damodar Rao surrendered himself to a British official. His memoir ends in May 1860 when he was retired with a pension of Rs. 10,000 and seven retainers and put under the guardianship of Munshi Dharmanarayan, a loyal British subject.

Illustration: Portrait of Lakshmibai, the Ranee of Jhansi, (the 1850s or 1860s). Probably done after her death (June 1858): she wears a valuable pearl necklace and a cavalrywoman’s uniform.

Sources: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £0.99 Also available on:

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