India’s History is replete with fine examples of women who ruled the world with their benevolence, charisma, far-sightedness, courage, and above all the strength of their character.
But, the respect, affection, and fame that Ahilyabai Holkar commands for her accomplishments as the benevolent, yet courageous queen of Malwa remains unmatched.
Who was Ahilyabai Holkar?
In latter days from Brahma came,
To rule our land, a noble dame,
Kind was her heart and bright her fame,
Ahilya was her honored name
– Joanna Baillie (Scottish poet & dramatist)
Ahilyabai Holkar was born in 1725 in the Chondi village in Bhid district of Maharashtra to Mankoji Shinde and Sushila Shinde. Ahilyabai’s father was the village Patil (Chief) and her mother was a well-read & pious woman. Though women’s education was not the norm in society in those days, Ahilyabai was taught to read and write by her father.
Years later, Ahilyabai created history by setting an ideal leadership for her land and people, reigning Malwa for 3 decades.
Young Ahilyabai’s tryst with destiny:
According to legend, Malhar Rao Holkar, a commander in the service of the Peshwa Bajirao stopped in Chondi village while returning to Pune when he saw the eight-year-old Ahilyabai at the temple service. This simple event changed the course of India’s history for good!
Malhar Rao Holkar was influenced by the charity and piety of young Ahilyabai as she was feeding the hungry and poor and decided to bring the girl to Pune as a bride for his son, Khande Rao.
However, the young bride lost her husband Khanderao to the battle of Kumbher, fought in the year 1754. This left Ahilyabai widowed at the tender age of 29. Only 12 years after the death of her husband (1766), Ahilyabai lost her father-in-law, who was her biggest support after Khande Rao. The throne then acceded to Ahilyabai’s only son, Male Rao Holkar under her regency. But, as if fate had it otherwise, young Male Rao too died after a few months of his rule in April 1767.
The warrior queen:
Ahilyabai was the brave queen of Malwa. She stood tall and undeterred even after the tragic loss of her husband, son, and father-in-law and assumed the throne in December 1767.
Within a year into power, her kingdom was surrounded by invaders from all across, assuming Malwa’s kingdom now acceded to weaker hands. However, the brave Holkar queen with an indomitable spirit to protect her land led her armies into the battlefield laden with weapons and expelled the rival forces who came to plunder Malwa.
Ahilyabai, the Compassionate queen of Malwa:
Rajmata Ahilyabai was a people’s ruler, warm and compassionate in her approach. She used to hold public meetings on a daily basis to address the grievances of her people. She ensured that she is readily available to anyone who needed her help.
The farmers were free and prosperous during her reign and not a victim of anyone’s oppression. They were self-sufficient and lead dignified lives.
Even the Bhil tribes, who had been tormented for most of their lives over generations were persuaded to leave their mountain residence and live the life of an honest and dignified farmer, peacefully.
An erudite politician:
An erudite politician, she understood the nerve of the Britishers better than the Peshwa himself. She was able to foresee the bigger picture when the Maratha Peshwa couldn’t pin down the agenda of the British.
In a letter addressed to the Peshwa in 1772, she warned him of the shrewd Britishers; calling the British embrace a bear-hug: “While other beasts, like tigers, can be killed by might, 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. And given this, it is difficult to triumph over them.”
Patron of art & literature:
As per Historical accounts, Ahilyabai motivated everyone within her kingdom to do their best. It was during her reign that the merchants produced the most elegant clothes, trade flourished phenomenally and art and culture reached its zenith.
Her kingdom was a melting pot of literary, musical, artistic, and industrial achievements. She had opened the doors of her kingdom for literary stalwarts like Moropant, Shahir Anantaphandi, and Sanskrit scholar, Khushali Ram.
Her capital was brimming with artists, distinct craftsmen, and sculptors who were paid modestly for their talents and received high regard for the queen.
The Social reformer & educationist:
Ahilyabai Holkar was a woman ahead of her time. She openly advocated for the rights of women. A well-read woman herself, she pioneered women’s education in a time when it was barred for them to get educated.
She was also against the inhumane and unequal practice of Sati Pratha.
An unmatched legacy, etched in people’s hearts:
Rajmata Ahilyabai died in the year 1795, at the age of 70 and the death of the noble queen with rare acumen and a benevolent heart of a saint was long mourned by the people of Malwa. Her legacy and memory are etched in the hearts of people all across India and abroad.