As a young girl her favourite pursuits were horse-riding, archery and self-defence, not usual hobbies for young ladies, but then Manikarma was not a regular girl. She was destined to be the queen who would soon show the world that courage and valour know no gender.
Born to Marathi parents on November 19, 1835 in Varanasi, her father worked at the court of the Peshwa of Bithoor. Her mother died when she was four. Thereafter, the Peshwa treated the young girl like his own daughter and took personal interest in her upbringing. She was given a liberal education by able tutors who taught her at home. She was brought up as independent and strong minded young lady full of self-respect, fit to be a queen. Soon she was married to the Maharaja of Jhansi, Raja Gangadhar Rao and as was customary, she was given a new name – Lakshmibai, after the goddess of wealth and fortune. Fate however was inclined to make her a goddess of war.
In 1851 she gave birth to a son who could not survive and died in infancy. Meanwhile the Raja’s health was deteriorating rapidly and the physicians expressed helplessness. He wanted to ensure an heir and a son for his beloved Rani and a future King for Jansi. He adopted his nephew Damodar Rao and ensured that a British political officer was present at the adoption to act as witness so that no succession issues would be raked up by the British later. His fears were not unfounded. As fate would have it, the very next day he died. In accordance with the Doctrine of Lapse passed by Lord Dalhousie, adopted children would not be treated as legitimate heirs and all territories without heirs would be annexed by the British. Accordingly Jhansi was sent a notice to hand over the territory to the British and the Rani was given a pension of Rs. 60,000.
The Rani would have none of it. She wrote to the British reminding them of her husband’s letter to them just before his death. He had requested that his son be treated with kindness and Jhansi be given to his widow after him. The actions of the British inflamed her as they were not only unfair but also an insult to the last wishes of her husband. She tried through repeated petitions to change the mind of the Company men and make them see reason. She even offered to ‘hold Jhansi safe’ for them. Her appeals fell on deaf ears as the Company was focused on profits and things like legitimacy or fairness were far from their mind. By use of this doctrine, the Company annexed many states adding four million pound sterling to its annual revenue. This blinkered policy ultimately became its undoing.
On seeing the unyielding attitude of the colonisers, the Rani began to strengthen the defences of Jhansi preparing her people for the oncoming battle. She raised a volunteer force of men and women, giving them military training and motivation to fight. She oversaw all war preparations herself. The people were ready to lay down their lives for their beloved queen and their motherland Jhansi. Lakshmibai’s courage, competence and strength of character inspired the absolute loyalty of her generals who were all courageous and capable warriors. She led them in battle and they followed her till the end.
The British attacked Jhansi in March 1858. An impressive resistance was put up and the attackers were kept out for two weeks despite heavy shelling. The odds were not even and the inevitable happened. The British troops broke through the defences and entered Jhansi. Surrounded on all sides, the Rani strapped her infant child on her back and rode out on her favourite horse Badal, slashing and fighting her way through the baffled Red-coats, surrounded by her faithful commanders. They rode out relentlessly and finally reached Kalpi where they joined forces with Tantia Tope and other rebels. She fought shoulder to shoulder with the rebels and was awe-inspiring. On the second day of battle, the 23 year old Rani lay down her life on the battle field. Sir Hugh Rose, the commander who captured Jhansi paid a rich tribute to the admirable Rani when he said “Here lay the woman who was the only man among the rebels.” She was the most outstanding leader of the revolt and a shining example of successful women leaders in the history of the world.