Monday, June 16, 2014

Phenomenal Woman: A Soldier, a Saint and a Queen

Once in every few centuries, some corner of the world sees the rise of a noble and capable person to power, who brings peace and prosperity to all the citizens, makes trade and agriculture flourish and receives universal admiration and genuine respect.  Such a person becomes a symbol of human possibility and a shining example for humanity for centuries to come. Such a person was Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar.
Born in 1725, in the family of the Patil (village head) of Chaundi (present day Ahmednagar), Maharashtra, Ahilya was a bright young girl. She was taught to read and write by her father although girls in those days were not. Destiny was to take her from home at a young age. Malhar Rao Holkar, the Maratha lord of Malwa territory was passing through Chaundi and according to legend, he noticed the piety of young Ahilya in the  local temple. He decided to take her back as a bride for his only son, Khanderao. In 1733, at the age of eight, she was married to Khanderao.
Thereafter, her father-in-law raised her like his own daughter, training her alongside his son in administration, military strategy, philosophy and all the fields of knowledge necessary for a ruler. He envisioned the couple taking the kingdom from strength to strength. Unfortunately, during the siege of Kumbher in 1754, Khanderao was killed, leaving Ahilya Bai a widow at the age of 29. Malhar Rao was heart broken but continued to put his faith in Ahiliya, treating her like a son and making her lead military campaigns on his name. He kept training her on every possible occasion with paternal strictness and affection. A letter to her from Malhar Rao in 1765 illustrates the trust he had in her ability during a tempestuous battle:
"Proceed to Gwalior after crossing the Chambal. You may halt there for four or five days. You should keep your big artillery with you and arrange for as much ammunition for it as possible….On the march you should arrange for military posts to be  located for protection of the road." He advised her to fully weigh the strength and number of the enemy. “Do not rush head–long. Allow personality and prestige to bring their own effect … never let the artillery be away from your sight. Least power and greatest weight should be your maxim and rule.”
In 1767, Malhar Rao died, leaving behind Ahiliya Bai as a capable heir to carry forward his visionary and benevolent style of rule. After Malhar Rao Holkar’s death in May 1766, Ahilya Bai’s son, Maloji, received investiture. But Maloji died of insanity in April 1767 after a brief reign of 8 months. Some officials questioned her assumption to rule thereafter, but others supported her. The army though was most enthusiastic for her leadership. She had led the army personally in battle and they had seen her command them to victory with four bows and quivers of arrows fitted to the four corner posts of the howdah of her elephant, facilitating her to rain arrows at enemies in all directions.  According to the wishes of her late father-in-law, Ahilyabai petitioned the Peshwa (Head of Maratha confederation) to take over the administration herself.  The Peshwa granted her permission on 11 December 1767. With this politically astute move Queen Ahilya Bai proceeded to rule Malwa in a most enlightened manner. Subedar (A rank equal to today's army general with administrative powers of a state governor) Tukojirao Holkar (Malharrao's adopted son) was appointed the head of military matters.  Ahilya Bai never observed purdah, held daily public audience and was always accessible to anyone who needed her hearing.
Among Ahilyabai's accomplishments was the development of Indore from a small village to a prosperous and beautiful city; her own capital, however, was in nearby Maheshwar, a town on the banks of the Narmada river. She also built forts and roads in Malwa, sponsored festivals and gave donations for regular worship in many Hindu temples. Outside Malwa, she built dozens of temples, ghats, wells, tanks and rest-houses across an area stretching from the Himalayas to pilgrimage centers in South India. Ahilyadevi also rejoiced when she saw bankers, merchants, farmers and cultivators rise to levels of affluence. In spite of their newly acquired wealth, she never lay any claim to that wealth, be it through taxes or feudal right.
There are many stories of her care for her people. She helped widows retain their husbands’ wealth. She made sure that a widow was allowed to adopt a son; in fact, in many instances she is said to have sponsored expensive and elaborate hindu child adoption proceedings herself, and given away, money, clothes and jewels as part of the ritual.
The only time Ahilya devi seems not to have been able to settle a conflict peacefully and easily was in the case of the Bhils and Gonds who plundered her state's borders. She was at the end able to find a way out of this problem by granting these tribals waste hilly lands and the right to a small duty on goods passing through their territories.
Ahilyabai’s capital at Maheshwar became a patron city of literary, musical, artistic and industrial enterprise. She patronised poets and scholars. Craftsmen, sculptors and artists received salaries and honours at her capital. She was instrumental in  establishing textile industry in Maheshwar. 
Indian, English and American historians of the 19th and 20th centuries agree that the reputation of Ahilyabai Holkar in Malwa and Maharashtra was that of a saint. even today she is revered as one in this vast region. Nothing has ever been discovered by any researcher to discredit her.
An English poem written by Joanna Baillie in 1849 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 bright her fame,
And Ahilya was her honoured name."

Collecting oral memories of her in the 1820s, Sir John Malcolm, the British official most directly concerned with the 'settlement' of central India, writes:
 "With the natives of Malwa ... her name is sainted and she is styled as an avatar or Incarnation of the Divinity. In the most sober view that can be taken of her character, she certainly appears, within her limited sphere, to have been one of the purest and most exemplary rulers that ever existed". 

Maharani Ahilyabai was an acute observer of the wider political scene. In a letter to the Peshwa in 1772 she had warned against association with the British, and likened their embrace to a bear-hug: "Other beasts, like tigers, can be killed by might or contrivance, but to kill a bear it is very difficult. It will die only if you kill it straight in the face, Or else, once caught in its powerful hold, the bear will kill its prey by tickling. Such is the way of the English. And in view of this, it is difficult to triumph over them."

Over the years, in independent India, the city of Indore, when compared to neighbouring cities has progressed dramatically. The spirit of Ahilya, deitified as a 'warrior saint queen' is believed to be blessing Indore even today. A good leader, a good soul leaves behind a legacy of goodness that affects generations to come. The faith and belief in the good vibes of Indore goes to an extent that locals often say,"If you have lived in Indore for a thousand days, you will  most likely never leave it."

No comments:

Post a Comment