The Rani of Jhansi

  By Saurav Basu, 6 June 2007; Revised 10 June 2007

Of all the characters in the epic mutiny of 1857; after 150 years later there is one name which stands tall over all others and yet ironically was one who was neither the initiator of the mutiny; neither among the leaders until the last stage and who had claims to nothing more than a small town…Yet, in many ways she was alone in her magnificence, a singular figure among a gallery of heroes. [1] She was Lakshmi Bai; and that small town immortalized forever is Jhansi.


Jhansi is a small town in the province of Uttar Pradesh, part of the region itself known as Bundelkhand. The town still feels that it owes its fame to that young Rani; who ruled for a mere 4 and a half years. It keeps alive the memory of its beloved Rani with her image on horseback imprinted all over; at crossroads; on hoardings; in parks her ubiquity conforming what people believe.


Jhansi: a brief history


Bundelkhand’s warlike history is steeped in a historical tradition of repulsing the imperial Islamic armies and being in the vanguard of Hindu resistance by acting as a rampart in protecting the Hindu civilization of the deccan. Way back in the 9th century, Rajput kings overthrew Afghan invaders. Bundelkhand lost its independence briefly to the mughal armies; but reclaimed it finally under the able leadership of  the queen, Durga Vati. As the head of the armies; she repelled three Muslim attacks, during the last of which she fell nobly fighting, on a heap of her slain countrymen. Travelers still place flowers or rock crystals at a monument raised by her people. [2]


The Raja of Orcha built the small citadel of Jhansi in 1615. In the 17th century;  Aurangzeb, keen to establish Dar-Ul-Islam in India ordered a frontal attack in the region but in a stunning reverse was beaten back, and lost his generals to Chhatra Sal., a Bundela Sardar. The latter won independence for his region and until 1732 peace reigned in the region.


When a fresh onslaught came from the Muslim viceroy of the region, Chhatra Sal now old and infirm appealed to the Maratha Peshwa for help. He responded, and the Islamic armies were beaten back. Out of gratitude, he ceded a third of his territory to the Peshwa Baji Rao I. Jhansi was included in this territory.


Raghunath Rao; the Maratha General assumed the throne of Jhansi in 1759. He was an efficient administrator. He retired to the holy city of Benares, several years later; and was succeeded by his brother Shivaram Bhau. Bhau realizing the decline of the Maratha power; made an abject offer of unconditional surrender to the East India company. The company naturally assumed him not to be an enemy, declined his offer of surrender, and confirmed him as a ruler. The greater achievement of both these rulers, was managing to maintain a cordial atmosphere and win over the Rajputs of Bundelkhand; who throughout history had no love lost for the Marathas.



When in 1818, the Maratha Confederacy ceased to exist, after their dismal defeat in the second Anglo-Maratha war; Jhansi was recognized as an independent state of hereditary principality. Shivaram, finally quit his throne and became a sanyasin, and was followed by his grandson Ramachandra Rao, whose servility towards the British knew no bounds. He begged Lord Wellesley to allow him to hoist the Union Jack over the fort of Jhansi.

He would emerge as an object of much hatred, for he had left the state treasury almost empty and took no measures to control famines due to repeated bad harvests. The rajput rulers of Orcha and Datia, took advantage of the situation and began to brew rebellion through the significant Rajput population of Jhansi[3] By the time he died in 1835, aged 29, he was neither happy nor were his subjects. An even worse ruler, Raghunath Rao, followed him; who died within 3 yrs due to leprosy. But even within that short span his debauchery had rendered the treasury empty, and revenue collections had dipped below the 3 lakh mark. The British hastily decided that Gangadhar Rao; the descendant of Sheo Ram Bhao would ascend the throne. It was to this man, that Manu, the future LakshmiBai would be married and metamorphose into the legend that was the Rani of Jhansi!




Benares in the 19th century was home to over 30,000 marathi Brahmin families. The Tambes were a Karhad Brahmin family from Vai in Satara. Balwant Rao Tambe, son of an ordinary soldier in the Peshwa’s army, at a time when the Marathas were a defeated power, chose to reside in this holy city. Moropant and Sadashiv were his two sons. Moropant was married to Bhagirathi Bai from the sapre family in Karar. Beautiful, and well versed in Hindu mythology, she gave birth to a beautiful young daughter, and the couple’s joy knew no bounds. She was named Manikarnika [a synonym for the river Ganges], and Manu at home. The world would remember her as the Rani of Jhansi.


Her date of birth remains controversial but modern scholars unanimously propose 1828[4], overruling that of erstwhile scholars like Vrindavan Lal Verma who chose 1836.


The Tambes were a traditional marathi family. Little Manu regularly visited the Kashi Vishwanath temple in her childhood and developed a deep sense of devotion and piety. They would later move to Bithur, where Baji Rao II, the last defeated and hopelessly decadent Maratha Peshwa had migrated to from Poona, and ushered in a new wave of prosperity in the previously anonymous town.


The childhood of little Manu was poles apart from that of any ordinary Indian girl… a child, she was supremely stubborn and would never take no for an answer. This indefatigable spirit would be the hallmark of her short military career too. Moropant had joined the exiled court of the Peshwa, Baji Rao II, along with his adopted son, Nana Sahib [another enigmatic and chief personality of the year 1857] along with Tatya Tope, arguably the finest native military campaigner of the same period.


Little Manu lost her mother at the tender age of four; and the heartbroken father chose not to marry again, and instead brought up his only child with great tenderness and care.

The motherless child would remain indomitable, and would share activities, which hitherto were considered the domain of boys, like flying kites, watching wrestling matches with keen interest. She would learn to read and write, by sitting with the boys, for which perhaps she was not encouraged but she was born to transgress suppressive norms of an essentially patriarchal society. Among her girlfriends, she chose to play queen and those who disobeyed her were fined. Some English historians naturally detected a streak of the tomboy in her. However, she possessed every grace of the fair sex, and knew how to exploit the abundant feminine charms at her disposal as evident time and again in her brief political and military career.


Significantly, in an astrology crazy nation, her astrologer’s had correctly predicted that she was destined to be queen and bring everlasting fame to her family, in spite of their humble origins.


Moropant Pande, rooted in tradition, took the astrologer’s advice seriously and started grooming his daughter for the high position, she would occupy in the future. Manu, was given a thorough training in the Sanskrit Hindu religious texts, some of which like the Bhagavad Geeta she could quote verbatim, as evident from the only Indian eyewitness account of Vishnu Godse. Her special training came in the form of riding horses, fencing, sword fighting and firing guns unlike the ordinary women of her times.[5]


A couple of incidents are ample testimony to her congenital determination and steadfast composure under adverse circumstances.


One day, while riding, Nana Sahib had an accident and fell from his horse and was covered with blood. Aghast, he started howling and braying. The little girl, rather than be petrified, calmly mounted him on his horse and riding it returned and narrated the whole incident without betraying any emotion whatsoever. Her father was very proud of her. Late in the night, Manu asked his father, why was there so much fuss about such a trifling thing. Nana was not a baby, and his injury was so little. The little girl could not reconcile the event with her treasured heroes of the Mahabharata like the young and dauntless Abhimanyu. Manu promised she would never be cowed down by circumstances like Nana and all her life she would demonstrate unflinching courage [6]


Little Manu always wanted to ride an elephant. One day, the Peshwa asked her to go along with Nana and his brother Bala on an elephant joyride. The little girl was delighted and eagerly waited for the moment but Nana who had not got over, the chastisement he had received at her hands for his cowardice the other day, in a vindictive mood, impudently refused to let her accompany them, and set off without her.

Little Manu flushed with anger, and tears came in her eyes, but she stood defiant. Her father’s attempts to mollify her only helped in further insinuating her. Moropant lost his patience, and exclaimed that fate had no elephants in store for her. The epic words which are a constituent of each of her biographies were swift and sharp, and passionately prophetic “I am destined to have not one, but ten elephants!”





Traditionally in India, the greatest worry for a father is to find a suitable husband for her daughter. The most hallowed text of the subcontinent, the Ramayana, demonstrates this where it is said, that King Janaka’s condition when Sita reached her marriageable age was like a poor man who had suddenly lost all his money! Moropant Tambe was no exception for her daughter was well past the age of puberty, and yet, he could find no suitable match for her. But he would soon receive a proposal, from a learned Brahmin astrologer Tantia Dikshit; who proposed her marriage to the Maharaja of Jhansi, a widower without children.


Manu left her carefree days behind, to fulfill the role that would leave an indelible mark in the history of Modern India. Her name was changed to Lakshmi. During the marriage ceremony; Lakshmibai said in clear, ringing voice “Tie the knot hard”

Her unfeminine conduct and boldness was shocking to the priests to whom a bride was expected to be reticent and put up a demure display. Nevertheless, she cast an impressionable appearance on most; and her declaration was considered as a solemn promise on her part to stand by her husband and people until death did them apart.


Gangadhar Rao, the husband, has been a controversial figure. Although the British had declared himself to be the official heir, due to the previous king’s debauchery and incompetence; coupled with natural disasters; and series of loot and plunder by the Bundela Sardars and increasing interference from the neighboring Rajput kingdoms of Datia and Orcha; the entire district had fallen in complete disarray[7] Gangadhar Rao appealed to the british for military help, as he was helpless in maintaining control over his kingdom. The british took control of Jhansi in 1838, and for four years Gangadhar Rao was a king without a kingdom but ultimately was restored his kingdom. It was for this reason, that the British in Jhansi actually enjoyed a reputation for being just, if not noble; especially because it was because of their help that the kingdom had not been reduced to absolute anarchy during the troubled times. Moreover, the reinstatement of their king, by the British naturally put a favourable impression on the citizens of Jhansi.


But it is the personal character of Gangadhar Rao which has been the subject of most debate. Indian contemporary accounts especially that of Vishnu Godse have severely reprimanded him and alleged that few fathers wanted to hand their daughters to him. Why he remained a widower for so long remains a mystery. Moreover, Indian authors claimed that he was around 40 when Manu married him, but Tapti Roy has conclusively proven that he was in his late twenties at most. He was also a patron of the theatre, and he used to perform certain parts assigned to women. Although, in those periods, men used to enact the roles assigned to women, for verily this reason, rumours used to freely circulate that he was gay or impotent to which the king was totally oblivious. One can appreciate the fact, that why accounts of parochial Brahmins like Vishnu Godse steeped in traditional virtues, were highly critical of the Rajah, for they could not appreciate the nonconforming unorthodox attitude of his, especially when pitted against the orthodox and sympathetic attitude of the Rani.


Yet, in his second stint as king, Gangadhar Rao ushered in a new wave of peace and prosperity in his kingdom. His collection of horses and elephants were nonpareil, the royal court was elegant in its design, there was a library, which housed thousands of priceless handwritten and rare Sanskrit manuscripts, which was unfortunately burnt down during the siege of Jhansi. There was a remarkable decline in crime rates across the town. Gangadhar Rao appointed responsible men for security, and demarcated separate domains for each of them. He also improved roads and sanitation. As Atkison, a statistical officer noted, people spoke of his rule with fondness and blessed his soul. While hagiographic accounts of the Rani attribute all this to her coming as the embodiment of the goddess of wealth; the eminent historian Tapti Roy asserts that these were all proof of Gangadhar Rao’s accomplishments. She rightly proclaims him to a man of diverse talents, a sensitive person; who was an excellent ruler in his own right.


It might be fruitful to let the adage “behind every successful man is a woman” apply in this case. The Raja’s virtual initial stint as king could not even take flight. Yet, his second stint as king along with his wife, cannot exclude the latter’s colossal contributions which must have occurred behind the scenes. The Rani must have blended in the background of his work, supporting him, advising him and cajoling him into incessant action. Some of the fine temples constructed during this period in all likelihood must have received a substantial thrust from the highly religious Rani.


The Rajah’s relationship with the British was one of maintaining a deliberate distance.

Once he compelled, the British cavalry to work on a Sunday because it fell on the occasion of Dussehra (by threatening to cut their wages.)


As for their personal relations, they must have been quite cordial. They cemented a deep bonding towards one another, and the Rajah often used to surprise her with myriad gifts. He unflinching broke tradition to go on a lengthy north Indian pilgrimage along with her, where she would get the chance to experience once again, the glory of the Ganges, on whose banks she had spent much of her childhood. The din of the temple bells of Benares would rekindle her cherished memories again.


They would return after six months, with the news that the Rani had at last conceived. Almost the entire city of Jhansi, turned out to greet them. Their was great rejoicing and fanfare. In time, she would give birth to a young son. But then disaster struck, as the child died in 3 months time. The whole city was engulfed in a pale of gloom. The raja was heartbroken, and became increasingly eccentric and soon began to be consumed by repeated episodes of bloody diarrhea.




Dalhousie, was perhaps the most ambitious of the governor generals in India. He was the first to destroy the power of the Punjab, and annex it. He ordered fresh enlistment in the army for expeditions into Burma. His final stroke was the annexation of Oudh, reasons being gross mismanagement by the Nawab. But his most audacious gamble was to proclaim the doctrine of lapse, which in Major Bell’s words “a disastrous and rapacious policy.”


According to this promulgation, the British government would directly annex any state whose king left no natural heirs, although traditional Hindu law allowed kings to adopt sons, to continue their rule and lineage. Surprisingly, the so called British fairplay was nowhere in sight, as not even a single question was raised in the British parliament against this move of Dalhousie. Blinded by greed, and the 4 million pounds in excess revenue generated in its wake, the queen and the British public left no stone unturned in eulogizing Dalhousie and deluging him with congratulatory texts. Indeed, at that moment, Britian for all its intellectual traditions, betrayed its real worth as a parochial nation of shopkeepers.


Satara, a kingdom in Maharashtra became the first victim of this farcical policy. It was soon followed by Jaitpur and Sambalpur in 1849. The next in line was the kingdom of Jhansi.




Gangadhar Rao’s condition progressively worsened, and sensing the approaching danger, and to prevent the state from lapsing into British hands, he decided to adopt Damodar Rao, a child of around five, from the same family tree of the Nevalkar family. The deed was done in the presence of the principal nobles of his court and Major Ellis, political agent of Jhansi and Captain Martin, officer commanding Jhansi contingents [7] The king asked the British to remember his fidelity towards them, and treat the child and the widow to whom he had vested administrative rights with utmost kindness. Gangadhar Rao died in November, 1853, and rendered Lakshmi Bai, widow and queen possibly under the illusion that ‘native fidelity would be rewarded’ by the British masters.




The position of widows in the Indian civilization has always been gloomy, and that reached its nadir in the 18th and 19th centuries. Moreover, she, as one belonging to a traditional Brahmin family was expected to fulfill the norms of a virtuous wife which included shaving her head, wearing white, and remaining in seclusion. But the emancipative spirit of the Rani refused to comply with mores, which essentially hindered her administrative prowess. She kept wearing her hair long, often wore jewelry, and put aside the custom of Purdah, which although originally unessential in India, had become the norm in Islamic India especially among high caste Hindu and Islamic women. Yet, in a shrewd move she maintained Purdah while communicating with British officers.


Getting rid of Purdah was also a vital means to establish a winning rapport with the public. A british writer, Meadows Taylor writes “she had no affections of personal concealment, and she sat daily on the throne of her deceased husband, hearing reports, giving directions, hearing petitions, and comforting herself as a brave minded woman had to do under the circumstances.”


Vishnu Godse’s eyewitness account says of her “she rose as early as three in the morning, and afer ablutions, sat for religious meditation till eight. Then for three hours she supervised the work in the political and military offices; when it was finished she distributed alms to the needy and distressed. She took her meal at midday and appeared again at the court at 3. The afternoon was devoted to the administration of the various departments of justice, revenue and accounts which lasted till sunset. She read the scriptures in the evening, and after a simple dinner, retired for the night


The Rani’s unostentatious lifestyle is in stark contrast, to the decadent lifestyle of contemporary kings. For instance, the last mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was so decadent that he had his slave girls perform his morning ablutions for him. Yet, for some inexplicable reason the historian William Dalrymple in his recent book “The last mughal”, finds a Sufi mystic enshrined in the same fellow!




The Rani realizing the gravity of the situation, immediately set forth a self composed legal document arguing forth her case. She referred to the treaties of 1817 and 1842, granted in recognition to the ‘uniform and faithful’ attachment of Britian of the ruling house of Jhansi. The second article of the treaty of 1817 confirmed the title of Ramachandra Rao and his heirs and successors which included adoption. Next, the Rani showcased the Hindu scriptures granting absolute legitimacy to adopted sons, for offering liberation to the departed manes. But the most compelling argument she reserved for the last. Adoption made by three Rajas in the neighourhood of Jhansi [Including the Rajput kingdoms of Datia and Orcha] were sanctioned by the British government, although the term ‘perpetuity’ did not occur in their treaties as it did in the treaties with Jhansi.


Ellis, took the points well and wrote to Malcolm on 24th Dec, 1853we have a treaty of alliance and friendship with the Jhansi as well as Orcha states, and I cannot discover any difference in the terms of the two states which would justify our withholding the privilege of adoption from one state and allowing it to the other.”


On the 16th of Feb, 1954, she further rammed the point home in a second petition to avoid any misconstruction of the language used in the treaties. The words warison [heirs] and janishinan [successors] where the former referred to natural and the latter to adopted heirs, in the event of there being no natural heir. She continued “treaties are studied with the utmost care before ratification; and it is not supposed that the term janishinan used to contradistinction to warison was introduced in an important document of this kind, of the authority almost of a revelation from heaven without a precise understanding of meaning” [9]


Indeed, in both these petitions, one comes across another vital ingredient of the Rani’s character and that is her intellectual acumen. One cannot but help admire the skills of these petitions; accurate in their facts, clear in their logic and moderate in tone something even more remarkable for the timeline in which she ruled; where intellectual traditions among Indian women were almost nonexistent. As Tahmankar sums up “It might be true to say that this remarkable young woman entered single handedly on her contest with Lord Dalhousie and if he had ever any intention of letting the decision depend on the merits of the case; she would have won  it; hands down.”


Lord Dalhousie, intention was solely to usurp the kingdom of Jhansi, and for this he was prepared to wage any number of pseudolegal arguments. The specious argument proposed by him was unlike Datia and Orcha which were Rajput kingdoms; Jhansi was never an independent principality.

This argument which abounds in fallacies and distortions has been effectively demolished by Indian writers such as Basu and Parasnis. But even a British writer of Dalhousie’s day, Major Evans Bell proved conclusively that the Raja of Jhansi was a hereditary sovereign. [9]




J W Dalrymple; the under secretary to the governor generation sent specific instructions to Malcolm who in February 1854 issued a promulgation which merely said that “the governor general had declined to confirm and sanction the said adoption.” The difficult task of breaking the news to the Rani fell on Major Ellis, the man who had always maintained a soft corner both for her and the kingdom of Jhansi.


Ellis called on Rani, on the 16th of March. Without much ado, he read the contents of the letter. The news came as a thunderbolt to the already apprehensive Rani but she said in a firm and determined voice “Apni Jhansi nahi dungi” – “I will not give my Jhansi


Some vulgar Marxist historians have made much of the above statement. They have claimed that it betrays a feudal mindset on the part of the Rani. On the contrary, this statement only asserts the Rani’s bond with her kingdom and her citizens were of the highest order; she belonged to Jhansi and all of Jhansi belonged to her; their affection towards each other was perfectly mutual. In her; her people found the embodiment of the perfect ruler; in them she saw her lifeblood. Moreover, the very fact that the Rani led such an inconspicuous lifestyle, oblivious to the decadent charms that feudal lordship had to offer naturally smashes to smithereens all doubts cast on her motives behind desiring to retain Jhansi.


As the news spread, gloom and sorrow spread across the town. It was the day of Holi; the festival of colour; of gaiety and wild abandon. But people of Jhansi did not play Holi that day; and since then Holi is not celebrated in Jhansi as a mark of remembrance for the solemn occasion. [10] Elsewhere, it was a day of mourning. The shops remained closed, no fires were lits. Thousands of people went to the palace barefoot and bareheaded; the Hindu sign of grief. The Rani consoled them, and asked them to return home.


As Ellis proceeded to complete the formalities like disbanding the Rani’s army; paying off the servants; the Rani retired into her chambers. She wept bitterly that day; and refused to touch any food or water.


The Rani subsequently moved to a modest three storeyed structure; the Rani Mahal.

The only provision favourable to her was that her son was allowed to retain the private property of his father. Even that came with a cache. The rani while being the legal guardian could not use the money or take decisions for her son’s future. For instance; when she decided to borrow money for her son’s thread ceremony from the amount; the British government refused it.  The Raja had some outstanding debts, which were settled from his private account rather than the state account. She was offered a petty 5000 rupees lifetime monthly pension. Dalhousie’s absolute disregard for the aspirations of the Rani can be gauged from the fact; that he refused to even hand over the state jewels and private funds remaining after settling the state accounts and which naturally belonged to the Rani. This also once again displays the pathetically pervert mindset of the Marcus of Dalhousie.


Soon, she started writing to several British authorities arguing her case. She was able to convince several people of the injustice meted out to her. She also consulted the famous lawyer John Lang, who matter of factly told her that futile would be any opposition. Lang was clearly overawed by the occasion for she was truly an extraordinary woman, who was at once clever, impulsive and polite and could mix in the right degree of womanly charm and strength of character befitting a ruler concerned about the interests of her kingdom, her subjects and her son. Her fluctuating moods, changing from anger to light hearted banter, her quick temper melting into a frivolous giggle, fascinated her visitor. [John Lang]


For the next three years; although uneventful in themselves were to set stage for bigger things to come. A hatred for all things British enveloped the town of Jhansi. The annexation they used to say, was worse than the murders committed by the thugs, who robbed and strangled people only one at a time; for Dalhousie had put a noose round the necks of the entire people.




The British Rule in Jhansi, initiated the process of the insidious but steady decline of Jhansi. The Indian aristocracy, and institutions were handed a death blow. The troops were cut, a few british officials replaced several Indian functionaries.


A decline in the traditional economy followed swiftly. There was little market now for the fine carpets, brasswork and carved furniture of which Jhansi had boasted; craftsmen became idle along with soldiers and shopkeepers. John Sullivan wrote “with the disappearance of the native court trade languished, the capital decayed, the people became impoverished while the Englishman flourished and acted like a sponge, drawing up riches from the Ganges and squeezing them down upon the banks of the Thames” [11]


Local religious considerations were obnoxiously set aside…cow slaughter was sanctioned. The temple of Lakshmi, for which revenue from two villages was set aside was deprived of its income despite the commissioner Gordon’s request to maintain the previous arrangement. In spite of the vigorous protests made by the Rani, on behalf of her people; the appeals were met with either callous contempt or an infuriating indifference.


Throughout her ordeal, which included losing her husband coupled with her dethronement; her composure and silent resolve to not forego her people and her son’s future were astonishing to say the least. That, she could actually win over both foreigners who never in their wildest dreams believed that an Indian woman could present her so forcefully and coherently; and even the conservative Marathi Brahmins despite her less than pious lifestyle expected of a high caste Hindu widow is indeed remarkable. That she was compared to Durga and Kali; the Hindu warrior goddesses are ample testimony to the fact that how she had sagaciously wielded religiosity as a political tool; verily the most powerful weapon in her arsenal. Tapti Roy says of her “She was the archetype of a devoted wife, a devout Hindu woman, a patron of the Brahmins and finally the wronged Rani, smarting under injustice of white rulers and fighting for the cause of her people much like Durga did in Hindu mythology


Meanwhile, John Lang, although a casual newcomer to the town could sum up the public feeling “the people of Jhansi did not wish to be handed over to the East India company’s rule


But the british agents like Capt. Skene were in a different zone altogether and could not sense any danger even as late as May 18, 1857!




Going into the causes of the mutiny is beyond the scope of this article. Yet, the definition by R C Majumdar regarding 1857 is perhaps most appropriate “To regard the outbreak of 1857 simply as a mutiny of sepoys is probably as great an error as to look upon it as a national war of independence” [12]


The garrison at Jhansi, commanded by Captain Skene consisted of part of the 12th Bengal Native infantry and the 14th irregular cavalry.


News of events in Meerut and Delhi must have trickled into Jhansi. But the British officers of Jhansi were caught completely off guard on the 5th of June, when the star fort was captured by the rebels along with the treasury amounting to 4.5 lakh rupees. The British forced to retreat back to the cantonment, made the decisive mistake of evacuating it and seeking refuge in the fort of Jhansi. Their paramount concern was naturally the women and children. Gordon and Skene appealed to the neighbouring Rajput kingdoms of Datia and Orcha for help. But as the rebels, led by Bakshish Ali surrounded the fort. It was just a matter of time, before the fort would run out of provisions and the British would be compelled to surrender. The few British officers like Taylor who were detached from the fort in attempting to placate the sepoys were killed. Gordon probably committed suicide in the fort. In desperation; Skene in a last ditch effort appealed to the Rani for help. And it is here that the picture gets murky……


The British though heavily outnumbered and short of supplies, as usual put up a stiff resistance.

What is now known with certainty is that the Rani could do nothing either due to the circumstances or of her own volition; and the British after being offered safe passage in exchange for the Jhansi fort by the rebels were mercilessly slaughtered in cold blood in the nearly Jokhun Bagh. All, including innocent British women and children except one Mrs Mutlow; a half caste Anglo Indian woman managed to escape by putting on the garb of a native, accentuated by her rather dark complexion.




The massacre at Jhansi is not the only incidence of barbaric brutality displayed during the revolt of 1857. At Cawnpore; the massacre at Sati Chowra on June 27, 1857 of British prisoners of war subsequently was followed by a fresh extermination of British women and children held hostage at Bibligarh. It is extremely painful, especially for an Indian to read the tyranny of his own countrymen which was displayed during the revolt of 1857 were every semblance of civility was cut asunder by the sword of fanaticism being wielded by the Indian sepoys. Unfortunately, Indian Historians of all schools, have sidelined the role of religion which shaped the ruthless character of the sepoys. In all these massacres; one invariably finds the muslim sepoys and their leaders being the chief instruments for instigating and perpetrating the atrocities against British civilians especially women and children. For instance, it was Azimullah Khan who ordered the extermination of English women and children held hostage at Bibligarh in Cawnpore.

This comes from an eminently respectable source like Andrew Ward himself [13]


“Nana said “he had taken the most solemn oath to allow the British to leave in safety, and therefore would not accord his consent to their slaughter.

But no one listened to him. To the hindus, he was a figurehead, to the muslims, a non-entity. Even the ambivalent Nunne Sahib was preferable; at least he was a Moslem and native of the Doab. Their allegiance to Nana was entirely dependent upon Azimullah Khan. Jwala Prasad sided with Azimullah and Moslems of the 2nd native cavalry. They said they were not bound by oaths and promises. Azimullah at sunset ordered the extermination of the British.”


The muslim view of the revolt was an opportunity to re-establish Dar-ul-Islam in India. That the revolt would coincide with the communal Wahabi movement, is no coincidence as pointed out by R C Majumdar. Naturally, what consummated was jihad against the Christian foe. And in jihad it was perfectly legitimate for a muslim to wield his sword against the infidel, to strike him until they submitted that their was no god but Allah. Similarly, the rapes, which took place, were mostly committed by the muslim sepoys chiefly because the Brahmin sepoys would have nothing do with impure English women. The latter were fighting chiefly to prevent losing their caste, and any mixing with the white women would cause them to lose caste. Secondly, they could not directly condone slaughter of women and children because they were wedded to their beliefs in the intangible law of karma, which inevitably would shape their destinies and when erred rebound fatally upon themselves. Finally the concept of holy war was totally alien to Hindus. Therefore; atrocities from the Hindu side were few and far between. But the so called secular historians conveniently choose to whitewash these facts, instead diverting attention by an incessant cacophony solely highlighting the vindictive British atrocities leveled against thousands of Indians.


That the british insinuated Indian sepoys through their high handedness in matters; both religious and economical is an understatement. Moreover, the British massacred loyal sepoys at Benares only on the suspicious of them possibly revolting in the future must have caused a great consternation among the other sepoys . Eventually, the British possessed by the bloodthirsty zeal for vengeance would wreck their revenge on guilty and innocent alike; which in the annals of modern history one can safely presume to be nonpareil. The so called Christian spirit and British sense of justice would be replaced with the solitary cry of “remember cawnpore”; and Hindu and Muslim villages would be burnt to ashes; women raped at will and children murdered in cold blood. The hypocrisy of the British could be gauged from this telling statement by R C Majumdar; “While every English child is taught through his history books; the horrors of Cawnpore; very few outside the circle of history of modern India have any knowledge of the massacre in cold blood of Indian men, women and children a 100 times of those who perished at Cawnpore




 Evil things were said of her, for it is a custom among us odisse quem laeseris-to take a Native ruler’s kingdom and then to revile the deposed ruler or his would be successor. It was alleged that the Ranee was a mere child under the influence of others, and that she was given to intemperance. That she was not a mere child was demonstrated by her conversation; and her intemperance seems to be a myth” Kaye, A history of the Sepoy War, Volume III, Pg, 361-62


It is absolutely improbable that the Rani had anything to do with the decision to cut down the British officers, the women and children. [15] Her vilification was based on the presumption that since her dethronement, she naturally harbored a fiery hatred against the British and she used the opportunity to avenge the insult meted out to her. However there is nothing to support this view But the testimony produced to bolster up this charge was based mostly on hear say and the witnesses contradicted themselves even in matters of personal knowledge [15]


The Rani would have been more or less a human being if she had not cherished strong sentiment against the British government for setting aside the adoption made by her husband and annexing Jhansi. Yet, the Rani was no friend of the sepoys. She was forced by the mutineers to help them with money, guns and elephants. The Rani herself says that she was threatened by the sepoys that if she hesitated to comply with their requests, they would blow up her palace with guns; and she was therefore “obliged to consent to their demands to pay large sums to save life and honour”. The Rani’s statement that she acted under duress is also proved by independent evidence, including early official reports about the mutiny of Jhansi. It is further supported by Rani’s conduct and attitude after the mutiny when she herself came in communication with the British authorities, sending a full report of the mutuiny and condemning the conduct of the sepoys, particularly the massacre of the Europeans.  [16]


Major Erskine and the deputy commissioner of Sagar who believed and fully endorsed the Rani’s version of events and who asked her to take temporary charge of Jhansi unlike their superiors cannot be said to be over credulous. Moreover, had she been in league with the sepoys the best course for her would have been to persuade the sepoys to stay with her, for their departure left her helpless not only against the British vengeance but against the aggression of her neighbors and the machinations of her relatives.




The British suspended their sentence until the moment they had secured victory at Kanpur and Delhi. But a scapegoat was to be found, of sufficient importance, and last but not the least, a grotesque character assassination was to be carried out.

The calumny against her often carried both racial and religious slurs; “She was a heaten, forgiveness of injuries was no article in her creed.”


That she was of high character was not unknown to the British “The rani is of high character and respected by every one at Jhansi”; says Major Malcom [17]


Yet the same Rani had transformed herself; to quote Forrest on behalf of Macpherson “into an ardent, young, licentious woman” [18] One can understand young and ardent but why on earth licentious. And why cast aspersions on her sexual conduct…the reasons lie in the 19th century Victorian psychology…The Rani certainly was not built in the mould of an average British female of the Victorian era expected only to throw lavish tea parties and gossip with alacrity …Sexual prudence was the norm, and for sullying the image of an oriental queen casting aspersions on her sexual mores would be the easiest thing to do…It is therefore not surprising that a couple of the then contemporary European pulp fiction novels based on her are themed on the ultimate white man’s fantasy; the oriental queen being unable to resist the sexual omnipotence of the white man and being rendered a perpetual slave to his desires.


The Rani’s exoneration was actually hindered in the early 20th century by the hagiographic nationalist accounts of authors like Mahendralal Verma themselves. They had to portray the Rani conspiring for months against the British; and actively instigating the so called first war of independence. This obviously queered their pitch; for if the Rani was in league with the sepoys; she must be held responsible for the massacre and if she was not; then she could not certainly be the initiator of the revolt which nationalist historians could not reconcile with their cherished theories of the Rani aspiring for a free India. It is now absolutely certain and thus, historically untenable to keep equating the Rani as leading a national war of independence while all the time, she did her level best to prove her innocence and maintain friendly relationships with the British as proven by several letters, she wrote them during that period.


It is imperative not to underestimate the astute nature and sensitiveness of this extraordinary ruler. That, the half feudal half militant revolt was bound to end in failure could not escape the notice of her; possessed as she was with a divine foresight and an unmatched percipient vision. The sepoys were known for their loot and plunder, and lacked both leadership and any distinct national character. William Dalrymple in his “the last mughal”; notes that for the common man on Delhi’s street the sepoy mutiny stood for danga fasad [rioting, arson and plunder] than any real fight for freedom.


At many places; it would not be far fetched to claim that even the native Indians were praying for British victory in order to put an end to the anarchy created by the sepoys. General Rose, himself was welcomed at parts of Bundelkhand by the native Indians. [HCIP seeking exact reference]


Secondly, progressive Indians of the 19th century unanimously believed that the British intervention in India; did have its positive points for eventually it would usher in an Indian Renaissance from the dark ages of Islamic rule. Therefore, it is not without reason to discover that the Rani not sharing any sincere ideological differences against the British government. Modern science and technology, and the very concept of an Indian nation intertwined with nationalistic ideals were indirect consequences of British rule. No wonder, that one of the greatest intellect’s of 19th century India in Bankim Chandra had written in Ananda Math that the British rule constituted a necessary phase of reform, before the real Hindu faith could be re-established. This line was deleted from English translations of the novel during the quit India movement.


Finally, the Rani’s actions in placating the British also point out her concern for her people. She was well aware of the native carnage that inevitably followed in the aftermath of British retribution. Posterity has proven her true, for the British carnage at Jhansi subsequent to its downfall has been acknowledged by most leading historians. For one possessing nerves of steel; she could not be shaken by the threat to her life and liberty. But the paramount concern for her people compelled her to toe a cautious line, and sue for peace, even at the cost of her self-respect. However, by March 1858 she knew that her exertions were in vain as the British under their most able commander in India, General Rose, marched onto Jhansi.


The Rani’s ultimate exoneration came from unexpected quarters when the historian Parasnis, stumbled onto a letter written by an Englishman Martin in 1889 to Damodar Rao. “your poor mother was very unjustly and cruelly dealt with-and no one knows her case as well I do. The poor thing took no part whatever in the massacre of the European residents of Jhansi in June 1857


Smyth’s final verdict is “I myself come down on the side of the Rani, partly on the grounds that I think it was out of character, and partly on the evidence which I feel bears out on her innocence of actual complicity


Recently, a British author with unconcealed colonialist leanings, Saul David grudgingly exonerated her;


“In true Maratha fashion, she would have been unwilling to enter the mutiny publicly unless success was guaranteed…for this reason, and for this reason alone she was probably not responsible for the massacre” [19]




Kaye notes that on 8th July; the sepoys marched through the town of Jhansi and summoned the Rani. They demanded one and a half rupees booty in exchange for her kingdom, or else they threatened to install Sadashiv Rao in her place. The Rani, pleaded and bargained to settle for Rs. 15000 and the sepoys left on 11th July.


The first thing the Rani would do was to inform Major Erskine of the dramatic incidents which had unfolded at Jhansi and her deep regret at being unable to prevent the massacre of the English men, women and children. She also subtly sent the message that she had temporarily taken reign on the behalf of the British government. In her subsequent letter on July 14th, she wrote that she desperately needed British troops and reinforcements, for the local Rajput landlords had resorted to arson and plunder in the outskirts of Jhansi, and she with her skeletal troops would not be able to withhold their onslaught for much longer. Also, the enemy kingdom of Orcha was threatening to attack any moment. Orcha as we know was allied with the British throughout the mutiny.


Major Erskine assured her, that he was trying his best to salvage the situation for her and asked her to continue to maintain normalcy. He also sent a letter addressed to the people of Jhansi which stated that “the Rani will rule in the name of the British government, until British troops arrived at Jhansi” [20] But unfortunately for her, Erskine’s liberal views of her were in vain and thoroughly over-ruled by Malcolm and Dalhousie as soon as they had regained possession of Delhi.


But it was only the beginning of her troubles. The smarting Sadashiv Rao, with his few troops attacked Jhansi, but she repulsed his attack, and Sadashiv fled never to set foot again near Jhansi.


The Rani’s first challenge was to reinstate a sense of normalcy in her kingdom, which was perilously close to anarchy and ultimate political disintegration. Next, she needed to employ soldiers in her quest for ensuring law and order. She intelligently wooed a few sepoys who had not taken part in the massacre and not accompanied their rebel counterparts to Delhi. A few disbanded soldiers were next employed. 500 horse mounted bundela soldiers joined her, and nothing but her charisma could explain how these men tcould be inducted into her army in so short a span of time. Her two trusted lieutenants; Raghunath and Jawahar Singh ably assisted her.


The Rani, now decided to move back into the Jhansi fort. She had now taken a solemn decision to stand by her people for the faith they had reposed in her was the highest benediction a ruler could expect of his people; she would not let them down under any circumstances. Vishnu Godse writes “for nearly eleven months, during the return of the Rani of Jhansi, it seemed that British rule had ceased to exist in the whole of Northern India


But it was her misfortune that at the same time, the rulers of Datia and Orcha repeatedly threatened to attack her and liberally aided the dacoits of Puar who set in pandemonium amidst Jhansi. At this juncture, the Rani had to string alliances with whoever offered support and she could not be choosy about their conduct with the British. By now, all hope of help from the British had ceased and she had realized that in the latter’s eyes she was the numero uno enemy, marked for total annihilation. If death was a certainty, then to go down fighting till the last was the only option for subjugation was not a word in her dictionary.


The ruler of Orcha, set in a large army under the brutal Nathay Khan to capture Jhansi. For months, the Rani had been preparing in securing her defenses but the lack of resources meant she had not more than 1000 soldiers at her disposal. Desperate fighting from her soldiers partially repulsed their attack, but her enemies began regrouping to prepare for the final assault.

While Tapti Roy has claimed that her defense preparations before and after, were intended only to protect Jhansi from her neighbouring enemy kingdoms of Orcha; I cannot understand how the visionary Rani could not have been aware of the British threat to her kingdom and must have been preparing for the ultimate battle, once the British had for all practical purposes, indicted her of the massacre her by refusing to aid her against her neighbors, in spite of her numerous exertions to exonerate herself of the gruesome charges leveled against her.


Nathay Khan made a renewed bid to capture Jhansi but by then, the Jhansi had secured the support of some more Bundela chiefs. In another brilliant move, she put little resistance on Nathay Khan’s advancements until he came within range of her big guns mounted atop the fort. Nathay Khan was vanquished and this proved a great morale booster for Jhansi. There must have been voices expressing concerns over her ability to lead especially because she was young, inexperienced and most importantly a widowed Brahmin woman; but the victory managed to silence all her critics.


The Rani generously rewarded her soldiers and with time, it has become proverbial. Soon, she had restored the grandeur of the original Jhansi court. She held open courts, and anyone could walk in and present his or her case. She also took utmost care to uphold religious considerations of her subjects, whether Hindu or Muslim. For instance, she once again put a ban on cow slaughter, which the English had revoked.


From August 1857 to January 1858; Jhansi was at peace while Northern India was in the grips of a bloody revolt. All this time, she further reinforced her defenses. Unlike other leaders of the revolt, she wasted no time in underestimating the strength of her enemy. A fire brigade was mustered, and she started a factory exclusively for the manufacture of ammunitions and gunpowder. She had no guns, for the old ones had rusted. She started from scratch, by starting two factories to manufacture rifles, pistols and lances. The fort walls were strengthened. Emergency provision of food was made, especially for the poor.

As war seemed imminent, she called on men to enroll in her army. It is a tribute to her charisma that out of a population of 2,20,000, a force of 14,000 was raised, all of them volunteers! [21]


Even more unique was the induction of women in her army as troopers and gunners. In a socially constricted 19th century Indian society, were a chaste woman was expected to be restricted indoors, she had the vision to see the potential in those bonded women. In this regards, she emerges as a potent feminine symbol, emancipating her brethren from degenerated mores of yore. These women, would fight side with side with the men, take on watch duties, carry ammunition to the guns, relieve gunners and care for the wounded. So complete was their apparent liberation, that Vrindavan Varma, says that practically every woman of Jhansi was taught to ride, shoot and fence.


Another political masterstroke of hers was the celebration of the festival of Haladi-Kunku with great pomp and show. This re-established a sense of security in the already jittery citizens of Jhansi, who every day were anticipating the arrival of the British army and their subsequent carnage that was to follow. News of the defeat of the rebels at Delhi, and Cawnpore must have trickled into the ears of Jhansi’s citizens. But the celebration of the ancient festival, acted as a catalyst to boost the morale of the people of Jhansi. Even more importantly, women and men from all parts of the city took part in the festivities, and no caste distinctions were maintained, and ladies of high ranking officials and sardars mingled with wives and daughters of workmen and shopkeepers, something remarkably radical for her age.




General Rose, with a distinguished military career was entrusted the campaign to secure Jhansi. With a wealth of military experience, he was equipped with the finest two brigades along with British cavalry, infantry and firepower.


He opened his campaign in January 1858, capturing first Sehore, and Rahatgur. Next, the Raja of Banpur, an ally of the Rani was defeated. Next, he reached Sagar. The merchants of Sagar welcomed the arrival of General Rose. But from here, covering 125 miles to Jhansi proved to be a Herculean task, and it is  a tribute to the people of Bundelkhand, who displayed a tenacious resistance to the British march. The intense hostility of the common people here to the British forces was poles apart from their reluctance to be involved in the struggle anywhere else in India, and may be interpreted as taking shape of a national consciousness, and consummating into a popular uprising. One cannot help but admire the leadership skills of General Rose, who withstood such hostility and led the British govt. troops successfully to victory.


The bloody fighting continued unabated and General Rose skillfully maneuvered his troops through the heart of Bundelkhand overpowering one by one, all his enemies before he received a message from the governor general that Charkhari, a kingdom allied to the British had been besieged by Tatya Tope. But Rose, in a masterstroke refused to go to the aid of Charkhari, and continued his march onto Jhansi.


The Rani had meanwhile summoned help from her old friends, Nana Sahib and Tatya Tope. But Tatya Tope made the first of his many blunders in not reaching her in time, and General Rose unmolested arrived at the gates of Jhansi on the 20th of March, 1858




Lakshmi Bai knew that her fate was sealed, if and when she was captured alive. Yet, in truly democratic spirit she announced a representative meeting, and asked the representatives whether to prepare for battle or sue for peace. But the people enthusiastically reposed complete faith in her. It again emphasizes the sensitivity of the Rani towards her people; due to which she was even willing to surrender, if only that would save her people. In the entire episode of 1857, there is not another such leader, who can lay claim to the same. It is doubtful, there would be many such leaders in the annals of human history.


The Ranee thanked her people…According to Vishnu Godse, she said “we will fight for our freedom. If we are victorious we will enjoy our freedom, if defeated in the battlefield, we attain eternal glory and salvation…..” [22]


On the 25th of March; 1858; the guns of general Rose started bombarding the city from the East and the South. But the Rani’s gunners matched shot for shot. For five days, intense bombardment continued from both sides, but the British were able to make little headway. Even when the native guns were damaged, the women of Jhansi would repair them overnight. As Lowe says “we had silenced several of their guns and as often as they were silenced so often did they re-open from them to our astonishment




On the 31st of May, Tatya Tope arrived at the banks of the Betwa river with over 20,000 troops, containing the Gwalior contingent and several guns and ammunition. On his arrival, he lit a large bonfire to signal his arrival. The Rani answered by firing salvos from the all the batteries of the fort and city.


Tatya Tope is regarded by some as the most gifted of the leaders of 1857 from the Indian side. He fought in the old Maratha way never committing his entire force to any battle, frequent retiring even from excellent prepared positions, before a general engagement in the hope of wearing down the enemy. His guirella tactics ensured the prolongation of the revolt in Central India, long after its last ember had extinguished in the North as well as Oudh. His claim to fame can be said to be his decisive victory over the forces of General Wyndham near Cawnpore. [23]


General Rose, had also anticipated the arrival of Tatya. He re