When we think of Indian Queens of yesteryear only a few names pop up. Ahilyabai Holkar also belongs to this group of strong, fierce and independent Queens of pre-independent India. In fact, the city which has been a lot in the news recently, for being adjudged India’s cleanest city for the third straight year, Indore, owes it to Ahilyabai Holkar big time. How so? Among the many noteworthy accomplishments of Ahilyabai, was the development of Indore from a small village to a prosperous and beautiful city. However, she became a queen under quite tragic circumstances.
Apart from being a contributor and force behind the construction of dozens of temples across Maharashtra and nationwide, not much is known about the Holkar Queen of the Malwa kingdom. She was definitely a woman of substance and as such we must know more about her life and her inspirational works. So, let’s delve in!
Ahilyabai’s father, Mankoji Rao Shinde, was the chief of the village Chondi in Jamkhed, Ahmednagar, where she was born and raised. Women’s education was a far cry back then in such a small and remote village. Despite that, her father taught her to read and write.
A twist of fate
Ahilyabai did not come from a royal lineage. Her entry into the royal territory is deemed upon a chance meeting. The then Lord of the Malwa territory, Malhar Rao Holkar, spotted an eight-year-old Ahilyabai at the temple service feeding the hungry and poor. He was so touched by the girl’s charitable nature, that he asked for her hand in marriage to his own son Khanderao Holkar. She was just 8 years old when she got married in 1733.
She lost her husband Khanderao when he was killed in the battle of Kumbher in 1754, leaving her a widow at only 29. Following Khanderao’s death, her father-in-law Malhar Rao became the ruler. But yet again, within just 12 years of her husband’s death, Ahilyabai lost her father-in-law too. After this, Ahilyabai’s only son Male Rao Holkar ascended the throne under her regency. However, just a few months into his rule, on 5 April 1767, young monarch Male Rao died too. Thus within just a few years, Ahilyabai lost everyone she held dear.
Queen, Fighter, and Politician
She petitioned the Peshwa, to take over the administration herself following her son’s death and ascended the throne to become the ruler of Indore on 11 December 1767. Tales of her bravery are well-known as she, armed with swords and weapons, led armies into the battlefield on quite a few occasions. Apart from being a great queen and a fighter, she was also an erudite politician. She was quick to realize the agenda of the British and in a letter to the Peshwa in 1772, even warned him against befriending them.
Far and wide
Under her 30-year rule, Indore flourished from a tiny village to a thriving city. She built numerous forts and roads in Malwa and even generously sponsored festivals alongside giving ample donations to many Hindu temples. Such was her spirituality and belief in the Hindu religion that it reflected in the construction of dozens of temples, ghats, wells, tanks, and rest-houses stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the pilgrimage centers in the south. She is accredited with embellishment and beautification of various sites across India including Kashi, Gaya, Somnath, Ayodhya, Mathura, and many more.
Compassionate and staunch feminist
Ahilyabai held public audiences every day to help address the grievances of her people. Her helping hand and ear was always available to those in need. Not wanting women to suffer, her feminine side saw her aid widows in retaining their husband’s wealth and in adoption of a son.
Despite being a strong opposer of Sati, Ahilyabai’s biggest irony in life came when she couldn’t stop her own daughter from jumping into the pyre. Working tirelessly for the betterment of her kingdom and subjects till the very end, Ahilyabai passed away at the age of 70. Ahilyabai Holkar was indeed an inspiration to women then and so is she now.
Want to know about modern-day worriers who smashed social stereotypes to pave their ways? Check out these Happy Women’s Day images for their inspiring stories.