On June 18, 1858, Lakshmibai, the Rani of the princely state of Jhansi and one of the most important figures of India's First War of Independence, died while fighting against the British in Gwalior.
India's freedom struggle had seen many freedom fighters over the years, but the name of Rani Lakshmibai also known as Laxmibai stands out among them. The story of this freedom fighter is the stuff of legend.
Lakshmibai was born on November 19, 1828, in the holy town of Varanasi in a Maharashtrian family. She was named Manikarnika and was affectionately called Mannu by her parents, Morpant Tambe and Bhagirath Bai. Manikarnika lost her mother at the age of four and was raised by her father who worked for a court Peshwa of Bithoor district who brought up Manikarnika like his own daughter. He called her 'Chhabili', which means 'playful'. As a child, Manikarnika was educated at home and along with her academics, she was trained in horse riding, self-defense, archery and shooting targets with a gun.
Manikarnika got married in 1842 to the Maharaja of Jhansi, Raja Gangadhar Rao and was thereafter named Lakshmibai, a name which would go down in history and earn great respect. In 1851 the couple had a baby boy named Damodar Rao but died when he was only 4 months old. After the death of their infant son, the couple adopted the son of Gangadhar Rao's cousin, named Anand Rao who was renamed Damodar Rao, on the day before the Maharaja died. The adoption was in the presence of the British political officer. Raja gave him a letter requesting them to give Lakshmibai the government of Jhansi for the rest of her life.
The British, under Governor-General Lord Dalhousie, applied the Doctrine of Lapse, stating that they would not recognize the adopted child as the legal heir of the Raja and would annex Jhansi to British territory. Rani Laxmibai in the reaction of the unfairness on the part of British regarding her domain consulted a British Lawyer and appealed for the hearing of her case in London. The appeal was turned down. The British seized the state jewels of Jhansi and, in 1854, gave her a pension of Rs. 60,000 and ordered her to leave the palace. She moved into a place called Rani Mahal, which has now been converted into a museum.
Laxmibai began securing her position and formed an army of both men and women who were given military training in fighting a battle.
In May 1857, Indian soldiers were shocked and angry when they found out that the cartridges supplied to them by the East India company were being greased with pork and beef fat to keep them dry. Soldiers had to bite off the paper cartridge containing the gunpowder to load into their rifles. Since pigs are taboo for Muslims and cows sacred to Hindus, the soldiers were extremely unhappy with East India Company. This led to India's first War of Independence breaking out on May 10th 1857.
When Laxmibai got to learn about this news, she asked British political officer Alexander Skene if she could arranger herself a group of armed men for her protection. Skene agreed to her demands. Right till January 1858, Jhansi under Rani's rule was at peace. When the British finally arrived at Jhansi they discovered that the Jhansi Fort had been well guarded. Sir Hugh Rose, commanding officer of British army asked for the city to surrender with the threat that it would be destroyed. Laxmibai refused to surrender and went to defend Jhansi from the British. British bombarded the fort on March 24 but were met with heavy in return. Jhansi sent a request to Tatya Tope (a famous Maratha leader) for help. An army of 20,000 soldiers headed by Tatya Tope reached Jhansi, but they were unable to match up to the British forces. Fighting continued and Laxmibai learnt that her army was not resulting in anything and decided to leave Jhansi and joint the forces with Tatya Tope and Rao Sahib (nephew of Nana Sahib, a Maratha aristocrat who led the First War of Independence).
Laxmibai, along with her son Damodar Rao on her back, escaped from Jhansi one night and reached Kalpi where she joined forces with Tatya Tope. They occupied the town and prepared to defend it. The British attacked Kalpi on May 22, 1858. Laxmibai and Tope got defeated. Laxmibai, Tatya Tope, Rao Sahib along with the Nawab of Banda fled to Gwalior where they joined the Indian forces who were guiding the city. Laxmibai and her team wanted to occupy Gwalior Fort for its strategic location but were unsuccessful in trying to convince the rebel leaders in the area to protect Gwalior against the British
General Rose's annexed Morar on June 16th, 1858. On June 17th of the same year, near Phool Bagh in Gwalior, the British troops under Captain Heneage fought Indian forced being commanded by Laxmibai as they were trying to leave the area. Laxmibai dressed as a man in Sowar's uniform, completely armed on horseback, with her son tied on her back and began attacking the British troops. They attacked back and Laxmibai was wounded badly. Since she did not want her body to be captured by the British she told a hermit to cremate her. Her body was cremated as per her wishes on June 18, 1858. Three days after the death of Rani Laxmibai, the British captured the Fort of Gwalior.
Her tomb is in the Phool Bagh area of Gwalior. She continues to remain an inspiration to generations of Indians and is remembered for her courage, her fearlessness and determination . Even the British officer Hugh Rose who wanted to annex Jhansi described her as "clever and beautiful" and as the "most dangerous of all Indian leaders".
Laxmibai's name lives on right till this day and a medical college in Jhansi, the Maharani Laxmi Bai Medical College is named after her. She has also inspired generations of poets, writers and film makers who tried to capture her essence of who she really was. The most famous poem composed on the Rani remains the one written by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, titled 'Jhansi Ki Rani", which demonstrates her courage and how she fought hard till the very end.
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