Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi

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This is not an FAQ, no one has ever asked me any questions about Lakshmibai, and nor am I any sort authority to answer them in any case. These are questions I have asked myself, and my own answers. This is me talking to myself.

When was she born?
What was her marriage like?
Was the annexation of Jhansi justified?
Was Lakshmibai involved in planning the Rebellion?
Was Lakshmibai licentious?
Was Lakshmibai implicated in the Mutiny and Massacre?
What was the role of Lakshmibai's Father?
Was Lakshmibai betrayed?
Was Lakshmibai really a Rebel?
What was her mental state after Jhansi?
What other traumas had she suffered?
What was the British attitude to Lakshmibai?
Could Lakshmibai have done anything to prevent the destruction of Jhansi?

When was she born?

Some claim a birth date of November 19th 1835 which would make her 22 at the time of her death. This date seems to stem from Parasnis though I am unaware of his source and this is the date recorded on her memorial in Gwalior. Others believe a date of about 1828 to be more likely, making her about 30 when she was killed.

Tahmankar for example claims she was born in 1827. His reasoning being that she was born in Varanasi, and her family moved from there to Bithur in 1832. He also states that at the time of her marriage which he places in 1842, her father was concerned that she would reach puberty without being married arguing for a later age at marriage. (Just to illustrate the confusion, the cover of Tahmankar's book claims she died when she was 23.)

This date is also supported to an extent by claims that she 'played' with Nana Sahib, Tantya Tope, and Rao Sahib. Since Nana Sahib was born about 1820 and Tantya Tope even earlier in 1814, the later birthdate of 1835 would put her 'playmates' into another generation altogether.

More recently (Dec. 2003) I have been able to confirm that she was married in, or about, May 1842. There is an entry in the Jhansi Treasury Accounts held by the British Library which reads: "To Maharaja Gangadhar Rao to cover the expenses of his marriage ... bill dated 21st May - 40,000 Rs".

If Lakshmibai had been born in Nov 1835, she would have been 6 and a half at this time, early even by standards of the time. Mahasweta Devi for one claims the 1835 date and that she was married when she was 8 years old; both of these claims cannot be correct. Further would it have been sensible for a man who had lost one wife, was no longer young and needful of an heir to marry a child and then wait several years before she could bear him a child?

Parasnis, who seems to be the source for the Nov 1835 date, states that she went with her father to Bithur when she was 4 years old. As Sinha points out, this move occurred after the death of her father's employer Chimunji Appa and his subsequent employment by Chimunji's brother. This happened in 1832, giving a birthdate of 1828.

In John Lang's book, Wanderings in India, from which the famous description of the Rani is taken, he mentions that he "had heard from the vakeel that the Ranee was a very handsome woman of about six or seven and twenty years of age", a description which his own does not contradict. If the Rani had been 26 or 27 in 1854, that gives a birthdate of 1827/1828. I can think of no reason why Lang or the vakil should misrepresent the facts.

All in all a birthdate of 1827 or 1828 fits. A birthdate of 1835, whatever the source of that date may be, does not and is contradictory.

In "Our Bones Are Scattered", Andrew Ward notes that in Bithur there is a legend that Manikarnika and Nana Sahib had fallen in love but that Baji Rao forbade the marriage. If true this indirectly confirms the later age of Manikarnika as this would not have happened if she had been 8 years old, but at 13 or 14 it is somewhat more likely. I would suggest that even the fact of the legend itself indicates the later age.

What was her marriage like?

Her marriage to Gangdhar Rao is usually portrayed as 'perfect', the perfect wife with the perfect husband in the perfect relationship. That is the myth, but in the real world?

First of all the 14 year old girl was married to a man about 20 years or more her senior. It is difficult to imagine a communion of souls.

Secondly, by all accunts she was an energetic, physical, girl and retained these characteristics as a woman. Gangadhar Rao, on the other hand sees to have preferred less physically demanding pastimes.

Thirdly, there was only the one child, at most. There could be many reasons for this. There may have been miscarriages, some people just find it difficult to conceive. As Gangadhar Rao's first wife also failed to conceive, the lack of children is more likely to do with him than anything else. Nonetheless it is Lakshmibai who would have been blamed and who would have felt the guilt.

None of this answers the question, but is not suggestive of the perfect union of myth. There is one event where Lakshmi Bai was able to publicly display her affection for her husband and that was his funeral, and even here one must be careful as peoples outward reactions to trauma such as death can belie their true reaction.

Lakshmibai seems to have kept her observance of mourning to the minimum. She is said to have broken her bangles, but she did not shave her head or take on the widows weeds as was customary. She also kept the mourning period to the minimum.

She did not become sati and I doubt that would have been expected of her, nor does it fit in with my conception of her character. Sati had been outlawed by the British some years before and not entirely without Indian support. Given Jhansi's pro-British stance it is unlikely anyone would have expected her to break this law. Gangadhar Rao himself expected her to be regent for his newly adopted son. The lot of a widow was, all too often, not a happy one. For many death on the funeral pyre was preferable to the alternative. However this would not be Lakshmibai's fate as she would inherit her husbands wealth and position. Another factor militating against such a thing was the presence of her father at the Jhansi court. If she were to die then he would lose his position and income so his interest lay in her survival.

She is said to have refused to shave her head until she had freed Jhansi from British rule. A sentiment that is understandable in 1858, but, I believe, unlikey even in 1857, and most unlikely at the time of Gangadhar's death and during the mourning period. At that time the annexation of Jhansi and subsequent grievances lay in the future.

Overall, what little we know does not suggest the idyllic marriage of myth.

Was the annexation of Jhansi justified?

In the wider context of British Imperialism in India, the answer can only be, no. However nothing is simple. Within the more limited context of the situation that existed at the time, there were agreements, contracts, rights, duties and so forth that had to be discharged. In that context, were the British justified? Their case looks remarkably weak to me, and can at best turn on a technicality. The problem for Lakshmibai was that the judge and court that would decide the case were not only the same institution, but the very same people she was opposing. There was no other court. That of itself was an injustice. I have collected references to the documents available to me and my own comments here.

Was Lakshmibai involved in planning the Rebellion?

It has been suggested that Lakshmibai was involved in some manner with the planning of the whole Mutiny and Rebellion. There is no evidence for it and her own actions do not suggest any wider involvement. It is possible that she or her agents met with those who subsequently played a leading role is of no real significance. It would be surprising if there were no meetings with other Indians of wealth, power or status, that must surely be considered normal business. Similarly it would be surprising if the role of the British in India, and their preference for it to be curtailed, was not discussed. Nonetheless that is not the same as, nor evidence of, planning the Mutiny. If anything one gets the impression that the Indian leaders were taken by surprise themselves, and in some instances, forced to play a part. Lakshmibai was, I believe, one such, except that she was forced into becoming a rebel leader by the British themselves.

Was Lakshmibai licentious?

No. Only the least reputable of British 'historians' claimed it to be so. Personally I would prefer it to have been true, her life was too short and she was deprived of too many of its' pleasures.

Was Lakshmibai implicated in the Mutiny and Massacre?

The rationale for the British action against Jhansi and Lakshmibai was that she and the townspeople were implicated in the massacre of the British. Some of the townspeople were involved, all of the forces of law and order joined the mutineers, and presumably so did some civilians. There seems to be no question but that the massacre was ordered by the one man, the leader of the mutineers, and carried out by a handful of men.

The British interviewed many people and took statements to determine what had happened. Sen examines 4 of these in detail and I assume that these are the most damning. The statements that these witnesses provide is hearsay, sometimes contradictory, and includes evidence that initially at least the Rani tried to aid the British, and was herself threatened by the mutineers, events that are attested by other independent sources. There is no hard evidence of Lakshmibai's involvement, no correspondence, no actual witness. I am sure that if there were then it would have been well publicised. Sen mentions a letter purportedly written by Lakshmibai incriminating her in the planning of the mutiny, and it is one that Sen easily shows as a forgery. That someone should have done such a thing suggests not only a lack of real evidence but a desperation to play down the doubts of her guilt.

After the Battle of Koonch a packet of Lakshmibai's letters was found. If they had incriminated her in any way we can be certain they would have been publicised. As it is they have disappeared, so at the least they did not incriminate her, and possibly demonstrated her innocence.

Before the mutiny occurred in Jhansi Lakshmibai asked for, and was granted, permission to raise a small bodyguard in view of the unrest in other parts of the country. She seems to have had less faith in the loyalty of the British garrison than their officers. Politically, this was a destabilising act. That Jhansi's most prominent citizen should feel it necessary to take such protective steps was a signal to all that she at least expected trouble. The British officers should have taken the hint. This act demonstrates that she neither involved in the mutiny which she was anticipating, nor that she expected to be treated kindly if it occurred.

I have collected the relevant documents available to me and also my own few words on their credibility here.

What was the role of Lakshmibai's Father?

Lakshmibai's father, Moropant Tambe, followed to Jhansi, after the mutiny he became a member of her government. Occasionally one reads of him, seemingly acting as her agent, and one of the witnesses, not one of the more reliable ones, reported that he was condemned to death by him. He is also reported as being in favour of resisting the British return to Jhansi. There is little reliable evidence that he was involved with the rebels, but he must have played some part. What was it?

Was Lakshmibai betrayed?

It is common for those writing her biography to attribute apparent mistakes to treachery by a third party. For example the British were told by someone unknown of the best place to attempt to breach the walls. Another has a Brahmin opening one of the fort's gates. She was similarly betrayed or tricked into not mounting an attack from the city when the British were engaged at the Battle of Betwa. Whether these betrayals were real or not, she was betrayed. Jhansi's record keeper, Gopal Rao, for one sent this report to the British, and this report by someone unknown to me. Further this quote from General Rose's report on the siege of Jhansi to Canning:-

'The two 10-inch Mortars created great havoc in the Fort, and having pointed out to Lieutenant Pettman, Bombay Horse Artillery, the position of a powder magazine respecting which I had information, he blew it up on the third shot....' (my emphasis)
This does not imply betrayal, but the British had good intelligence of the Fort's defences, they had their spies.

Was Lakshmibai really a Rebel?

Lakshmibai was not involved in the planning of the Mutiny, neither the whole mutiny nor the Jhansi mutiny in particular, nor was she complicit in the massacre. After the rebels left Jhansi she worked to restore it to law and order; professed loyalty to the British in her letters, asking them for aid. Defended Jhansi against the encroachments of Sadishav Rao, and the states of Datia and Orchha. She took no action against the British directly and none to further the cause of the Rebellion. Not what one might expect of the fire-brand rebel.

Whether she agreed with the rebels or not she had good reason to stay aligned with the British. In the third of her letters protesting the annexation she comments on the weakness of the her forces, and Indian forces in general, compared to those of the 'paramount power'. By January of 1858 she would know of the defeats of the rebels in Delhi, Lucknow and so forth, and after the trouble she had against the Indian forces of Orchha she would not have been in any doubts about her chances against a British force.

Even up to the a few days before Rose's force appeared before Jhansi, the British had intelligence that she was still uncertain as to whether to resist or not. Her advisers were divided on the issue, and she was inclined to hand Jhansi back to the British. It is entirely possible that single letter from the British would have tipped the balance.

Nonetheless, once the die was cast, she turned her energies entirely over to firstly, the defence of Jhansi, and then the battle against the British. Once she became a rebel, she became their best, most influential leader.

So the answer is both, yes and no.

What was her mental state after Jhansi?

None of the books I have read have addressed this question, not even the fictional ones. They just treat it as just any other day...

As she was making her escape from Jhansi, Lakshmibai was in a situation of such extremity that I have difficulty in thinking of others who had gone through something similar. She was not the first leader to lose a battle, but this was not just any battle or just any leader:-

  • She was not a professional soldier, and nor were many of her supporters. General Rose may have been able to view his losses with equanimity but what of someone who only a few months previously had never in her life seen anything remotely resembling a battlefield? A leader of effectively unarmed farmers? It seems to me that it would have been more personal for her.
  • Although the campaigns of Datia and, especially, Orchha would have given her a taste of the horrors of war, and perhaps inured her against them, if she needed it, what was happening in Jhansi was orders of magnitude worse. She herself would have inflicted some of those horrors.
  • Her supporters were being killed in their hundreds, her surviving family, friends, acquaintances were in the greatest peril. As was she. (Her father would be hanged within a few days.)
  • She had not only lost everything she had fought to preserve, but was now a witness to its destruction.
  • Those responsible for the destruction were people she had regarded as friends, people she had looked to for help.
  • She was running away. A sensible choice, both personally, and in the wider context, but she can not have felt good about it.
  • Did she feel guilt at the her failure to hold off the British?
  • Did she feel herself betrayed by the British?
  • Was she in shock? Did her mind anaesthetise itself against it all, enabling her to continue to function?

And how did all this affect her subsequent behaviour?

There was another, more positive, process happening as well. From the death of her husband onwards, just as events had conspired to turn her to rebellion, so they also conspired to liberate her from the confines and shackles of conventional life. With the loss of Jhansi, she was now fully liberated and free to act as she saw fit.

What other traumas had she suffered?

All Lakshmibai's life had been more or less peaceful until the Jhansi mutiny, her life had not been without its painful moments, and again one wonders at the effect on her personality.

  • Her mother died when she was young, two years old according to Devi.
  • Her marriage meant leaving behind all that she had grown up with. A not uncommon experience, but no less difficult for the individual concerned. As it was her father travelled with her, and it is said so did her childhood friend, Mandar, who was to later die with her.
  • Marriage meant curtailing her own behaviour and instincts, to act not just as a wife, but as a Queen.
  • She is said to have had a child, a son, that died after 3 months. Bad enough, but as mother it would havebeen 'her fault'.
  • She would have also been at fault for her 'failure' to produce an heir.
  • One of the descriptions of her claims her face showed smallpox scars; if she had suffered from smallpox then so had others, possibly some close to her had died as a result.
  • The death of her husband. A Hindu wife must also carry the blame for her husbands death.

What was the British attitude to Lakshmibai?

On the one hand we have this quote from General Rose in his report to Canning:-

'...the inhabitants, from the Ranee downwards, were, more or less, concerned in the murder and plunder of the English.'

And many of the British considered her responsible to some degree for the massacre. On the other hand more than one communication from Canning spoke of investigating Lakshmibai's involvement in the massacre, and instructions were issued in the event of her arrest:-

'If the Nerbudda Field Force goes to Jhansi and takes the Queen prisoner, her trial should be conducted by a commission and not court martial.

Sir Hugh Rose should be instructed to send the Queen over to you and certainly you will appoint te best possible commission.

... a primary investigation must be conducted in order to determine if a trial is at all necessary...'

This was sent Sir Robert Hamilton and dated 11th Feb 1858. Although Lakshmibai was to be taken into custody, Canning seems to be of the opinion that the case against was not proven. But then in a comment to Cannings response to her letter to Hamilton of the 1st Jan 1858 we have:-

'...[Canning] was not agreeable to changing his ideas about her. The Queens' letter has been rejected outright.'

So it would look to be a case of guilty till proven innocence for Canning, and guilty for many others. Hamilton was one of the exceptions in that he seems to have been inclined to believe her innocence.

British policy of not communicating with her, and certainly not of rendering the aid she asked for, can only have been interpreted one way by Lakshmibai. The British had intelligence reports that indicated that she intended to return Jhansi to the British, that they took no action to communicate with her can only mean that they did not intend peace.

Could Lakshmibai have done anything to prevent the destruction of Jhansi?

Obviously she could have surrendered. That would have saved some lives, some destruction, but the British would still have searched out any who were, or suspected of being either mutineers or rebels for execution. I have seen nothing to suggest that Rose's force were as brutal as some others, but since Jhansi was the scene of a massacre it is likely that little mercy would have been granted, and that justice would take second place to vengeance.

One writer has suggested that she should have fled to Gwalior as soon as possible after the mutiny. Such an act would have meant leaving the people of Jhansi a hostage to fortune. Only Lakshmibai had the personal authority, and ability, to govern Jhansi, and she was not a person to abandon her responsibilities.

I can't think of anything more she could have done to convince Canning of her innocence in the massacre, or anything to ameliorate the British response.

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Last modified: 2005-09-23 23:23:02.000000000