5 Early Female Freedom Fighters of India: Women Who Led From The Front

Posted: October 10, 2015

Here are 5 early female freedom fighters of India, who wielded their swords and led from the front. 

Do you remember anything of your childhood? Silly question, of course you do! Your grandparents must have told you about your parents’ childhoods, do you remember anything of that? Do you know anything from your grandparents’ childhood or even their life? Or anything before that? Because all the while we live and enjoy and have fun on this land, there were people who actually fought for it.

You have heard the lecture again and again, about fight for freedom and can feel the yawn starting in your mouth. But, what you think of as a sleep-inducing tale of past is a violence filled saga where millions lost their lived trying to protect their land from foreign invaders. A lot of them were nobles, belonged to royalty. They were stripped of their titles and made to bow down to a foreign ruler who neither understood them nor tried to.

And, while you have heard of Tantya Tope or Bajirao, you are yet to hear of the female warriors of the Indian subcontinent. Most of them are forgotten, or terribly misconstrued. The textbooks hardly mention them apart from a paragraph or two. But, they are alive in folklores as goddesses, popular for their valour and their shining swords.

Here are a few names among many:

Abbakka Chowta of Ullal (1525-1570s)

Popular in Karnataka as a woman warrior and military strategist, she was crowned the queen on Ulllal as was the customs of the matrilineal inheritance. Not content with her marriage, she broke all ties with her husband who was the king of a neighbouring state.

Abbakka was known to be dedicated and secular queen with people from all religions and castes participating in her court. Trained in military warfare and swordsmanship, she defended her state of Ullal several times from Portuguese troops for whom the state was a strategic point. In the end, she was captured as a result of her husband’s betrayal who revealed a lot of her war strategies to the Portuguese.

She died the death of a hero while organising a revolt in the jail. Karnataka folklores sing of her as a goddess.

Kittur Rani Chennamma (1778-1829)

Rani Chennamma opposed the annexation of her state, Kittur, upon the death of her husband, when they did not accept her adopted son as the legal heir. This was the British strategy to gain territory in many states. In the subsequent war, the British lost heavily. However, showing a gesture of good faith, the Rani freed the hostages. However, these hostage generals, armed with more cavalry, declared another war. She tried to avoid the war as long as she could, in the favour of her people. But, the Rani lost the war and was taken as a prisoner.

Rani Chennamma was taught warfare, swordsmanship and horse riding which was common in the noble women of that age. Her acts of bravery were popular throughout the state. Folklores sing of her dedication towards her people.

Begum Hazrat Mahal (1820-1879)

When the revolt began in 1857, her husband, the Nawab of Awadh, had been exiled to Calcutta and the state of Lucknow was annexed by British. A divorced mother at that time, Begum skilfully organised the chaos, the state was in and motivated the masses to participate in revolt.

With the support of other freedom fighters, Begum successfully captured the state of Lucknow and crowned her son as the king. A military strategist and a brave warrior, she emerged as a leader people could look up to.

Later, the British managed to capture the state and Begum had to flee from the country, but she tried to organize troops in other locations. She spent her entire wealth trying to sustain all the refugees who had fled from the state with her. She was buried in a nameless grave in Nepal.

Rani Avantibai (1831-1858)

Rani Avantibai, like many other states, was made to surrender her state upon the death of her husband and absence of a legal heir. The Rani, made to live on a pension, secretly started to raise troops and popularise the British atrocities. When the revolt of 1857 stirred the unrest among Indian princes, she decided to lead attacks on the British troops and successfully captured several territories.

However, her troops could not hold the superior British army for a very long time and she lost her power 4 months later. She tried to reorganise her army but in the face of impending defeat, she stabbed herself with her own sword to avoid capture.

Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi (1835-1858)

We all know her as the symbol of India’s first freedom struggle, courtesy of NCERT. A mention of her name, one can easily picture a horse raised on it hind legs, a woman riding it, brandishing a sword in the right hand, a child tied to back.

She actively participated in horse-riding, sword fighting and archery, which were a part of her unconventional upbringing. Married at 14 and widowed by 25, Lakshmibai refused to surrender her state to British armies in the absence of an heir.

She motivated and prepared her troops for the impending battle, which came to be known as the Revolt of 1857. There are a number of stories of her death, but they all concur that she died fighting in the battle for her independence, a tale that was immortalized by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan in her epic poem, ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’.

A lot of these freedom fighters are now being ‘recognised’ as great rebel warriors by the government. As stamps are being issued, statues erected, roads renamed, the present generation is now being taught about the various queens, fighting with swords and riding on horses. But, while kids are still mugging all the different names they need to get the passing marks, it is more important to make them realise the sacrifice these women and many others, have made.

A lot of these women found the courage and skill to fight the battle against oppression, in their education and treatment. They were educated as a future ruler, not just as a wife to the king. This is a lesson that history has taught us. After all, lessons get over but Education goes a long way.

Images via: “Kittur Chenamma” by Suma – Flickr: Kittur Chenamma. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons  “Begum hazrat mahal” by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Faizhaider – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – “Avantibai” by Lodhirajp000t – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

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