09 Mar Women’s History Month: Rani (Queen) Lakshmibai of Jhansi
Greetings, dear readers! If you watched my Facebook Live yesterday, you heard me talk about how as part of our celebration of Women’s History Month we’ll be bringing you four amazing stories of non-Western women rulers! These are stories that as white American women Dr. Donnelly and I had never heard of until recently. Even though Women’s History Month is an American celebration, we’re going global to highlight women’s stories from around the world.
As AR’s resident historian, I am well aware that women and their stories are often written out of the historical record. Therefore, growing up in America we are only told a small selection of stories about women leaders from our historical past. We certainly aren’t given time to talk about women leaders in other cultural contexts. So when Dr. Donnelly told me about a book she read about a warrior Queen in what is now India, it was not surprising that I’d never heard of her.
While I dove into loads of articles about the story behind Rani (Queen) Lakshmibai, I uncovered a fascinating narrative about heroic women in Indian nationalism. But before I delve into that, let’s learn a little about this Rebel Queen . Born as Manikarnika in 1835, we know that Lakshmibai had an unusual childhood for a woman born into the Brahman caste. Raised by her father after the death of her mother, many histories talk about her early training in martial arts, military strategy, sword fighting, and horseback riding.
At the age of 22, following the death of her husband the Maharaja of Jhansi, a kingdom in what is now northern India, she was proclaimed regent until the designated heir came of age. In 1857, she joined an organized rebellion against British rule in the region and the administrative control of the British East India Tea Company. During this rebellion, she organized a volunteer army, where women were given military training. She later assumed leadership of the rebels in the Bundelkhand region of central India.
By 1858, British troops attacked the fortified city of Jhansi. Dressed in military garb and leading the army, Rani Lakshmibai was killed in combat. But her story did not end with her death. As India fought for the next century to gain independence from Britain, she became revered in Indian history. Statues were dedicated to her and her story of bravery and sacrifice is included in every history textbook. During World War II, when the Indian army created an all female infantry they named it after Lakshmibai .
Depending on the sources I found about Lakshmibai, the rebellion was either a mutiny , revolt, or war of independence . Within the modern forming of Indian nationalism (which became a country in 1947), she has become the icon of heroic Indian womanhood. What I don’t have time to cover in this post is how representations of her speak to how gender and womanhood are constructed in India, how women are meant to be seen, and how India as a nation wants to be understood.
Stories of her military prowess and heroism are a part of a complex Indian history of their nation. The different representations that we can find of Lakshmibai reflect how gender and community are tied together — within India this includes regional, caste-based, and national communities — through the creation of heroic histories.
For Lakshmibai, her heroism is distinctly tied to her motherhood, with common depictions of her protecting her adopted son, and her martyrdom, her willingness to die for Indian independence. Through this post we’ve seen how gender is constructed (not so differently) in this particular non-Western culture. Next week Dr. Donnelly will be visiting the kingdom of Hawaii to talk about Queen Liliuokalani! If there are any fabulous non-Western women you think we should be talking about, comment below!