Wife, Mother, Warrior Queen: the story of Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi

Updated: Sep 17

COVID has shown us an interesting pattern: across the globe, some of the most successful responses have come about in countries run by women.

Historically, women have not had many opportunities to lead or rule.

But there are some wonderful examples where women have done as well as, or even better than, the men.

And in the latest of this #SummerStories series, we're looking at another of them: Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, described by her enemies as:

"the most dangerous of all the rebel leaders"

Who was Lakshmibai?

Manikarnika Tambe (as she was originally known) was born in the holy Indian city of Varanasi in 1828.

Her father was the Commander of War for the local ruler, and she had an unusual upbringing for an aristocratic girl, learning to shoot, fence, and ride.

When she was 14 she married the Maharaja of Jhansi, and was given two new names: Lakshmibai (in honour of the goddess Lakshmi), and the royal title of Maharani (shortened to Rani). She was now the Queen Consort of an Indian Kingdom.

How did she become a rebel leader?

Lakshmibai had a son in 1851, but sadly he died at 4 months old. So when the Maharaja himself was dying in 1853, according to Indian tradition, he adopted a boy as his heir.

However, the British (who were ruling India through the East India Company at this time) refused to accept the boy's claim to the throne, and annexed the Kingdom.

Rani Lakshmibai is said to have cried out, "I will never give up my Jhansi!".

But she reluctantly accepted a pension, and left the palace - but not for long...

In 1857, the Indian Mutiny broke out, when Indian soldiers in the British Army rebelled against the East Indian Company rule.

This soon spread throughout India - and after an initial period of neutrality, Lakshmibai joined the rebellion.

Lakshmibai as rebel leader

Lakshmibai had taken control of Jhansi, and proclaimed herself Regent for her adopted son, who she believed was the rightful heir.

She quickly organised the rebels locally, set up a foundry, and organised defences for the city of Jhansi.

When the British arrived to put down her rebellion, they found a well-defended and prepared city. And a defiant Rani: according to one source, in response to their order to surrender she replied:

"We fight for independence. In the words of Lord Krishna, we will if we are victorious, enjoy the fruits of victory, if defeated and killed on the field of battle, we shall surely earn eternal glory and salvation"

A difficult battle ensued. But when eventually it was clear the tide was turning against Lakshmibai she decided to flee.

According to folklore she strapped her infant adopted son to her back, jumped on a horse, and escaped into the night with a retinue of guards.

After more fighting, she eventually reached the city of Gwalior which was being held by the mutineers.

There was a final battle, with the British forces attacking the city over three days. Lakshmibai was seen, dressed as in a cavalry uniform, fighting fiercely - but eventually she was killed.

The commander of the British forces commented she was buried with great ceremony under a tamarind tree under the Rock of Gwalior.

The Rani of Jhansi with her sword, shield and jewellery

Lakshmibai's legacy and reputation

It's clear to us in the present day how unusual and impressive Lakshmibai was, particularly as a woman in mid-19th Century India: not only becoming a ruler, but also a successful military leader.

There are statues to her in many places across India, often showing her on her horse with her son tied to her back. Universities, colleges, a marine park, a coast guard ship and a women's unit in the Indian National Army are named after her.

And she is a hero in literature, the most famous of which is the Hindi poem Jhansi ki Rani written by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, which states:

"She fought valiantly like a man, she was the queen of Jhansi."

And rather wonderfully, a Maharashtran ballad by B R Tambe states:

"You, denizen of this land, pause here and shed a tear or two

For this is where the flame of the valorous lady of Jhansi was extinguished...

Astride a stalwart stallion

With a naked sword in hand

She burst open the British siege

And came to rest here, the brave lady of Jhansi!"