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Overlooked No More: Rani of Jhansi, India’s Warrior Queen Who Fought the British

Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

By the time Laxmibai was a teenager, she had already violated many of the expectations for women in India’s patriarchal society. She could read and write. She had learned to ride a horse and wield a sword. She talked back to anyone who tried to tell her to live her life differently.

But where those spirited ways might have been scorned in another young Indian woman, they would prove to serve her well as she went on to leave an indelible mark on Indian history.

In the mid-19th century, what became the modern nation of India was dotted with hundreds of princely states, one of which, Jhansi, in the north, was ruled by Queen Laxmibai. Her reign came at a pivotal time: The British, who were expanding their presence in India, had annexed her realm and stripped her of power.

Laxmibai tried to regain control of Jhansi through negotiations, but when her efforts failed she joined the Indian Rebellion of 1857, an uprising of soldiers, landowners, townspeople and others against the British in what is now known as India’s first battle for independence. It would be 90 years before the country would finally uproot the British, in 1947.

The queen, or rani, went on to train and lead her own army, composed of both men and women, only to perish on the battlefield in June 1858.

In the decades that followed, her life became a subject of competing narratives. Indians hailed her as a heroine, the British as a wicked, Jezebel-like figure. But somewhere between these portrayals she emerged as a symbol not just of resistance but of the complexities associated with being a powerful woman in India.

“Her story has come to us less as history and more as mythology,” Harleen Singh, an associate professor of literature and women’s studies at Brandeis University, said in a phone interview. “It’s female heroism that is bound to the family and the nation.”

She added, “In a way, she’s considered singular — and she is singular — because she fought for the nation, for something larger than herself.”

Laxmibai wasn’t of royal blood. Manakarnika, as she was named at birth, is widely believed to have been born in 1827 in Varanasi, a city in northeast India on the banks of the Ganges River. She was raised among the Brahmin priests and scholars who sat atop India’s caste system. Her father worked in royal courts as an adviser, giving her access to an education, as well as horses.

In 1842, Manakarnika married Maharaja Gangadar Rao, the ruler of Jhansi, and took on the name Laxmibai. (It was — and, in some parts of the country, still is — a common practice for women to change their names after marriage.)

By most accounts she was an unconventional queen, and a compassionate one. She refused to abide by the norms of the purdah system, under which women were concealed from public view by veils or curtains. She insisted on speaking with her advisers and British officials face to face. She wore a turban, an accessory more common among men. And she is said to have trained women in her circle to ride and fight. She attended to the poor, regardless of their caste, a practice that even today would be considered bold in parts of India.

While she was queen, the powerful British East India Company was beginning to seize more land and resources. In 1848, Lord Dalhousie, India’s governor general, declared that princely states with leaders lacking natural born heirs would be annexed by the British under a policy called the Doctrine of Lapse.

Laxmibai’s only child had died, and her husband’s health was starting to deteriorate. The couple decided to adopt a 5-year-old boy to groom as successor to the throne, and hoped that the British would recognize his authority despite the declaration.

“I trust that in consideration of the fidelity I have evinced toward government, favor may be shown to this child and that my widow during her lifetime may be considered the Regent,” her husband, the maharaja, wrote in a letter, as quoted in “The Rani of Jhansi: Rebel Against Will” (2007).

His pleas were ignored. Soon after he died, in 1853, the East India Company offered the queen a pension if she agreed to cede control. She refused, exclaiming: “Meri Jhansi nahin dungee” (“I will not give up my Jhansi”) — a Hindi phrase that to this day is etched into India’s memory, stirring up feelings of pride and patriotism.

Beyond Jhansi’s borders, a rebellion was brewing as the British imposed their social and Christian practices and banned Indian customs.

The uprising spread from town to town, reaching Jhansi in June 1857. Dozens of British were killed in the ensuing massacre by the rebels. The British turned on Laxmibai, accusing her of conspiring with the rebels to seek revenge over their refusal to recognize her heir. Whether or not she did remains disputed. Some accounts insist that she was wary of the rebels and that she had even offered to protect British women and children during the violence.

Tensions escalated, and in early 1858 the British stormed Jhansi’s fortress.

“Street fighting was going on in every quarter,” Dr. Thomas Lowe, the army’s field surgeon, wrote in his 1860 book “Central India During the Rebellion of 1857 and 1858.” “Heaps of dead lay all along the rampart and in the streets below.”

“Those who could not escape,” he added, “threw their women and babies down wells and then jumped down themselves.”

As the town burned, the queen escaped on horseback with her son, Damodar, tied to her back. Historians have not reached a consensus on how she managed to pull this off. Some contend that her closest aide, Jhalkaribai, disguised herself as the queen to distract the British and buy time for her to get away.

In the end, the British took the town, leaving 3,000 to 5,000 people dead, and hoisted the British flag atop the palace.

Left with no other options, Laxmibai decided to join the rebel forces and began training an army in the nearby state of Gwalior.

The British troops, close on her heels, attacked Gwalior on a scorching summer morning in June 1858. She led a countercharge — “clad in the attire of a man and mounted on horseback,” the British historians John Kaye and George Malleson wrote in “History of the Indian Mutiny” (1890) — and was killed. (Accounts differ on whether she was stabbed with a saber or struck by a bullet.) It was the last battle in the Indian Rebellion.

“The Indian Mutiny had produced but one man,” Sir Hugh Rose, the leader of the British troops, reportedly said when fighting ended, “and that man was a woman.”

The violence left thousands dead on both sides. The British government dissolved the East India Company over concerns about its aggressive rule and brought India under the control of the crown. It then reversed Lord Dalhousie’s policy of annexing kingdoms without heirs.

Today, Queen Laxmibai of Jhansi has been immortalized in India’s nationalist narrative. There are movies, TV shows, books and even nursery rhymes about her. Streets, colleges and universities are named after her. Young girls dress up in her likeness, wearing pants, turbans and swords. Statues of her on horseback, with her son tied to her back, have been erected in many cities throughout India. And, almost a century after her death, the Indian National Army formed an all-female unit that aided the country in its battle for independence in the 1940s.

It was called the Rani of Jhansi regiment.

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