Indian history is full of brave men. But in the patriarchal country full of states fighting each other, there are standout names of women who have stood their ground when the going gets tough. They guarded their kingdoms, led reforms, and defeated enemies on the battlefield.
Perhaps one personality who shines the brightest in this list of women who were ahead of her time is Ahilyabai Holkar. And her birthday (May 31st) is a fitting occasion to remember the brave Maratha Queen.
Ahilyabai was born on May 31, 1725 in Chaundi (Ahmednagar) in Maharashtra. The 18th century was the period when Maratha’s military power was rapidly filling the vacuum left by the death of Aurangzeb, often referred to as the last great Mughal emperor. The Marathas had long traversed their traditional heartland and had a firm grip on northern India. In such a situation, although Peshwa, who ruled from Pune, was the leader of the empire, powerful Maratha families such as Sindhia (Shinde) and Holkar had created their own empires within the Maratha Empire in Gwalior and Indore respectively. Malhar Rao Holkar was a prominent lord in the Malwa region.
Ahilyabai’s father, Mankoji Shinde, homeschooled her and taught her to read and write. This was a time when women’s education was frowned upon in India.
Ahilya was not born into a royal family, but a chance encounter led to her being the Holkars’ daughter-in-law.
On the way to Pune, Malhar Rao Holkar saw young Ahilya feeding the poor near a temple. He was so impressed with her that he asked her to marry his son, Khanderao Holkar. As was common in the Middle Ages. Both married at a young age in 1733.
Her husband was killed in battle at Kumbher in 1754. Malhar Rao Holkar, Ahilyabai’s father-in-law, stood firmly by her side and forbade her from performing the sati ritual after her husband’s death.
Ahilyabai was ahead of her time, mastering the arts of politics, administration and statecraft under the tutelage of Malhar Rao.
Her important contribution remains the renovation of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in present-day Varanasi. She improved conditions in Malwa and helped restore Hindu places of worship in northern India. Ahilyabai ascended the throne on December 11, 1767.
Ahilyabai was not only a politician, but also a warrior. She was a skilled archer and rider.
After the death of Malhar Rao Holkar, the great patriarch and powerful lord, powers around Malwa began to encircle the domain of Holkar, believing it was ripe for conquest.
But Ahilyabai Holkar’s capable leadership saw the Holkar army defeat all opponents.
Ahilyabai’s skill as a ruler and his spirituality have impressed British historians and poets alike.
“Ahilyabai Holkar, the ‘philosopher queen’ of Malwa was evidently an astute observer of the broader political scene,” says British historian John Keyas.
“In the last days came from Brahma, To rule our land, a noble lady, Kind was her heart, and bright was her fame, And Ahlya was her honored name,” wrote the Scottish poet Joanna Bailie in 1849.
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