By Shubhi Mangla
Ahilyabai Holkar was a strong woman and the queen of the Kingdom of Malwa in Indore. She was born in 1725 to Mankoji Shinde who was the patil of the Chondi village in Maharashtra, India. She was educated by her father, who taught her himself. She lived a humble and peaceful life but one day her life changed forever and led her to become the ruler of Malwa.
Malhar Rao Holkar, who served as a commander in Peshwa Bajirao’s army was impressed by young Ahilyabai. He married his son Khande Rao (Prince of Indore) to Ahilyabai and she became the bride of the Maratha community. She resided in the palace and learned statecraft and often accompanied the army to war. During a battle in 1754, her husband lost his life. Her father-in-law was extremely shattered upon his son’s death. He wanted Ahilyabai to look after the Kingdom and considered her his only son. She was soon introduced to the military and administrative affairs of the kingdom.
She took control of the Kingdom of Indore. As a ruler she led a very simple life. Ahilyabai lived on the banks of Narmada River at a pilgrimage site known as ‘Maheshwar’. There were very few leaders who gave up on luxuries and followed such a simple lifestyle. Ahilyabai proved to be a great warrior. As a skilled archer, she even fought with Bhils (tribes of Rajasthan) and Gonds (tribes of central India).
In 1766, the kingdom was passed on to her son Maloji who turned out to be an unworthy and cruel ruler. She sentenced her only son to death by being crushed by an elephant as he was found guilty to a capital offense. Ahilyabai again took control of the state. Rani Ahilyabai moved her capital to Maheshwar which was famous for textiles, literature, music and art, sculptures etc. She built the famous Ahilya Fort on the banks of Narmada River which was based upon the splendid 18th century Maratha architecture. She was a wise ruler, who was always ready to help her people. She always made herself available to aid needy people and also held a daily public audience at the court to listen to their grievances. All this made her a very respectable and beloved queen. Ahilyabai always spent the government money wisely. She built forts, roads, wells, dharamshalas and celebrated festivals and made donations to temples. She renovated temples and aided widows in retaining their husband’s property. Being a powerful leader, she had every reason to turn arrogant like any another ruler but Ahilyabai’s humility and modesty never vanished. Once a poet in her court wrote a book consisting of poems praising her Ahilyabai but the queen had it thrown into the river! For the reason that she didn’t want any eloquent praises. She employed forest tribes as travelling merchants for which they were paid well.
According to hinduhistory.info, “Two famous examples were the Vishnupad Mandir in Gaya and the Somnath Mandir in Gujarat. Every day she distributed food and clothes to the poor and to holy men and women. She would personally see any citizen who wished to lodge a complaint, whether it was a poor peasant or a rich merchant. Her success in administration stands out in contrast with most of the other important Hindu rulers of the time who were involved in petty feuds, and were not discharging their duties fully”.
Ahilyabai passed away in 1795 after serving as a ruler for 30 years. This period of time was legendary for Indore where the government was functional and the city had prospered. She was considered as a saint by many people for her work.
In memory of this great female ruler, the Government of India issued commemorative stamps in 1966. In the same year, the people of Indore also instituted an award in her name to be annually given to citizens who turn out to be outstanding public figures. Nanaji Deshmukh was the first recipient of this award.
Extracted from hindujagruti.org, this is a short English poem written by Joanna Baillie in 1849 in memory of Rajmata Ahilyadevi Holkar. It 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 mothers 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 tright her frame,
And Ahlya was her honoured name.”
Shubhi Mangla is a student of Journalism & Mass Communication in New Delhi, Currently working as an intern at Newsgram. Twitter @shubhi_mangla