Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi


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In 1853 the governance of India was still in the hands of the East India Company. The Governor General of India being the Marquess of Dalhousie. The many principalities that made up India were each dealt with individually. Jhansi was one of those that were ruled not by the British but by its own monarch, the Raja. The Raja of Jhansi had maintained a pro-British stance throughout his reign. Jhansi had been pro-British ever since his grandfather had signed a treaty with the British in 1817 granting Jhansi to his heirs and successors in perpetuity. Gangadhar Rao made explicit reference to his loyalty and that of his predecessors in his will.

The British had a policy of 'lapse' whereby when an Indian ruler died without an heir the principality would be annexed and come under direct British administration. Under Dalhousie adopted children were not considered as heirs.

This latter point had more than a simple legal consequence. Indian custom was that an adopted child was the equal of a child by birth. Further there are certain rites which the eldest son is required to perform on the death of his father to save the fathers soul from hell. This is roughly equivalent to the Roman Catholic ritual of Last Rites. In denying the legitimacy of an adopted son they offended Indian sensibilities.

The Raja of Jhansi's dying request was refused, and the annexation of Jhansi was declared.

The annexation does not appear to have been due to the Rani's sex; it was not unusual for a woman to rule a state in India, or England for that matter. Nor was it because there were doubts as to her ability to govern. The British Political Agent, Major Malcolm, wrote that the Rani was 'highly respected and esteemed, and I believe fully capable of doing justice to such a charge.' He was not alone in that opinion and, as later events were to show, it was wholly justified. It can only have been due to, in essence, greed.

When the Rani appealed against the decision as she did on the December 3rd 1853 the local Political Agent, Major Ellis, wrote a letter in support of her case, Malcolm, perhaps getting a hint of the political wind did not forward it. A second appeal followed on February 16th 1854. The appeals were refused.

Lakshmibai then consulted with a British counsel, John Lang, who was in India and had had some success against the Company in the courts. This consultation is recounted by Lang in his book "Wanderings in India". During this consultation the Rani uttered the famous "Mera Jhansi nahin dengee". Lang's account is worth reading as it gives virtually the only indication of the character of the Rani, what the person was like.

According to Lang, the Rani had been advised to consult him by "a gentleman of the Civil Service, who had once been a Resident, or Governor General's agent, ... who in common with many other officials of rank in India regarded the annexation ... as not only impolitic, but unjust and without excuse". So even at the time Dalhousie's decision was controversial among the British.

Her third appeal dated April 22nd 1854 was drafted with regard to Lang's advice. There followed an appeal to the Court of Directors in London, at considerable cost, but it also failed.

The Rani maintained her petitions into 1856, her persistence is said to have irritated Dalhousie.

The comment of Sir John Kaye, the British military historian who worked for both the East India Company and the India, was that is 'so ungenerous, and being so ungenerous, so unwise'. Others who have examined the case tend to agree the annexation was unjust in that it went against the treaty of 1817 and that Dalhousie's case was incorrect. The East India Company did not have to answer to any proper court of law. The only limit on its powers were political considerations of what was possible. With the policy of lapse and its implementation it unwittingly overstepped the mark as it contributed to the 1857 Rebellion.

The Rani was forced into retirement, she was granted a monthly pension of 5,000 rupees, the palace now known as the Rani Mahal, state jewels and funds.

British Administration

With the annexation, the British replaced Ellis and possibly Martin with Captain Alexander Skene and Captain Dunlop. These men were considered to be relatively inexperienced in Indian affairs and less immediately sympathetic to the Rani.

In his book, The Rebellious Rani, Smyth has it that over the next three years the Rani "was steadily endearing heself to her people and fanning their resentment against the British". As she had been Rani of Jhansi for over 10 years she was already well known to her people, and as for the latter charge, she didn't need to do anything as the British worked on this for themselves.

Sinha lists more than a few grievances:-

  • Grievances of the Rani
    • Reguired to furnish security for the upkeep of the personal property of Gangadhar Rao being held in trust for her son. She refused and Dalhousie relented.
    • She has held responsible for the debt of Rs 36,000 held to be the personal debt of Gangadhar rao rather that a debt of the state. Skene supported this position, but many did not, and Sir John Kaye called it an act of 'extraordinary meanness'.
    • The British allowed cow slaughter within the town, a measure guaranteed to offend Hindus and the Rani protested in a letter of Aug 21st 1854. Hindu sepoys of the 12th Regiment demonstrated against beef being exposed for sale within the cantonment. Skene considered withdrawing permission to be impolitic and the practice continued.
    • Villages which were assigned to the temple of Mahalakshmi, the family deity of the Jhansi royal family, for the upkeep of the temples, were 'resumed', ie returned to a normal status. Rs 1000 was added to the Rani's pension for her to provide support for the temples.
    • Lands granted by the Rani to three men in connection with the funerary rites of her husband were disallowed.
    • Of the lands and gardens in the Rani's possession, some gardens were granted to her, others and the land were resumed.
    • The Rani had to provide 4 guarantors for Rs 100,000 she wanted from Damodar's inheritance for his thread ceremony. The British required this in case Damodar should want it back when he has granted the trust. Ironically the British never gave him his inheritance.

    Sinha also lists that she was refused permission to move to Varanasi to "shave her head and lead a very simple life" as a widow. I doubt the Rani intended to do this, though she did use the threat of leaving Jhansi in her negotiations, an indication of her economic and political power in Jhansi and that the British viewed her presence there as of benefit to themselves. Also within the political context she had requested that Jhansi be put under the Agent to the Governor General in Central India, Sir Robert Hamilton, rather than the North Western Provinces. This was refused.

  • Grievances of the People of Jhansi
    • The dissolution of the Jhansi court meant that the army, courtiers and those who derived a living from the court lost their incomes. The impact of this was ameliorated slightly by the Rani remaining in Jhansi, hence the British reluctance for her to leave, and the new opportunities bought by the increased British presence.
    • There was discontent with settlements in land disputes and in the assessment of land values for tax purposes.
    • Stamp duty was required on all petitions lodged before a court, rendering justice too expensive for many.
    • Salt became a taxable item and the manufacture of salt was banned. The Salt Tax was taken by Gandhi in his campaign against the British. Salt has a great importance to health, something it is difficult to appreciate for those of us whose problem is too much salt rather than too little.
  • Social changes
    • The presence and work of missionaries was resented.
    • Abolition of infanticide, female infanticide in particular.
    • Widows were allowed to re-marry.
    • Sati was abolished.
    • Converts (to Christianity) were allowed to inherit.
    • Western education.
    • The development of the railway and telegraph systems were seen as threatening.

    Although some Indians, such as Ram Mohun Roy, supported some if not all of these measures, others felt they threatened their way of life. It was the higher castes who were most threatened in this way, as sati, female infanticide, the ban on widow remarriage were high caste practices, whilst the conversions, and education threatened their social standing and privileges.

The Rani in Retirement

Although much is made of her resentment at being denied Jhansi, and at having to pay her husbands debts, there is no evidence of this resentment. Apart from being advised by some British, she also 'much impressed the Political Agent, Captain Alexander Skene, with the force and charm of her personality and with her evident wish to remain on friendly terms with her British masters' (Hibbert).

It is difficult for me to judge what her life style may have been. As a high caste Hindu woman she would have been expected to observe purdah but with the death of her husband she cast that aside. Both as the Rani and as one of the richest people, if not the richest person, in Jhansi she would have had to conduct business both with the British and with local dignitaries. Also as Rani, she appears to have been accorded the respect of that office, at least by the Indian people, and to be called upon to exercise the duties of that office. Skene's account above suggests that the British also observed the proprieties.

She was said to have been meticulous in her religious observances. She practised rifle and pistol shooting, horse riding and physical exercise every day. Antonia Fraser mentions one Turab Ali who lived to be 113 and who died in 1943. He recalled watching the Rani practise horse riding with the reins held in her teeth with a sword in each hand. An image which is the popular one of her as she rode into battle for the last time.

And so the situation remained until 1857.


i) In the 1850's a rupee was worth about one tenth of a pound, giving her an annual pension of 6,000 of the 1850 pounds. Even today, Rs 60,000 will pay the wages of several servants. This sum can be compared with the stipend of just under Rs 10,000 per month (Rs 120,00 per annum) granted to the 'Jhansi Family' during the British administration of Jhansi in 1842.

ii) Should anyone think that these events are too distant, I was born only 8 years after Turab Ali died. The eyes of the 27 year old that looked on Lakshmibai as she practiced her riding came very close to looking on the sweet baby that I once was. There are people alive today, in 2001, who spoke with him.

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Next: Mutiny and Rebellion

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