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The Maratha queens were great examples of courage and inspiration. Ahilyabai Holkar was one of them, whose praises are seldom acknowledged.
Like the Maratha kings, their queens were also examples of courage and inspiration. Ahilyabai Holkar was one of them, whose praises are seldom acknowledged.
We are all aware of the numerous reasons why our Queens are less prominent in the pages of history or are merely mentioned as kings’ wives. Even in the huge patriarchy back then, queens tended to play larger roles than they were credited for. Often when Kings were occupied in war preparation away at war, it was the Queens who handled matters of state.
Queens were also involved in providing education to children, keeping a sharp eye on activities inside the fort, hearing women’s domestic issues, providing employment to citizens, etc.
Ahalyabai Holkar was King and Queen, both of her time. After losing her husband, father-in-law, and only son, she wore the crown and commanded way better than any king could. She fought with every obstacle that came into her path and ruled for 30 years.
Although she was trained in the military and was not afraid of battles, she was known for winning battles with her warm and wise words.
Ahilyabai was born into a non-royal family on 31st May 1725 in the village of Chaundi, in the present-day Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. The Patil (chief) of the village, Mankoji Rao Shinde, was her father. While education was not considered a girl’s business back then, her father nevertheless allowed her to learn to read and write. She was stepping into her teenage period when her life shifted to the Malwa palace.
Ahilyabai was a kind girl, and it was when she was serving meals to the poor in the temple that Malhar Rao Holkar of Malwa spotted her. Malharrao recognized her worth right away, and asked for her in marriage to his son Khanderao Holkar without much delay.
As a young girl of eight, Ahilyabai married Khanderao Holkar in 1733. Their first child was born in 1745, a son named Malerao, and their second was a daughter named Muktabai, born in 1748. As a result of his mental health issues, Malerao died in 1767.
She was just 29 years old when her husband was killed in 1754, leaving her widowed. It was a great loss for her and following the tradition, she was ready to perform Sati. It was her father-in-law who showed faith in her from the start and saved her from Sati.
Likewise, it is said that it was her father-in-law who trained her in the military arts, and always let her take part in major affairs of the ministry. Furthermore, it was his efforts and faith in Ahilyabai that Indore found a generous queen of all time.
He died in 1766 and left all the responsibilities of the kingdom in her hands. Isn’t it a great victory for gender equality back then? A father-in-law bequeathing all his wealth, territory, and the throne to his daughter-in-law.
It is still common for men to hold their sons in higher esteem than their daughters-in-law. Instead of believing in a woman, they prefer to sell their property.
On 11 December 1767, Ahilyabai ascended the throne and became ruler of Indore. During the time when everyone was against a woman ascending the throne, her army stood by her. She didn’t waste any more time and started quality work. Within a year, Indore started achieving much more.
She was credited with the advancement of Indore from a small village to a prosperous, beautiful, and peaceful city. Her own capital, however, was Maheshwar, a town along the Narmada River. Her contributions included constructing forts and roads in Malwa, sponsoring festivals, donating to numerous Hindu temples, and establishing Dharamshala and shelters.
Additionally, she was a prominent social worker who established a free kitchen for the poor and pilgrims. She made sure nobody slept hungry under her rule.
Her major contribution was establishing the textile industry in Maheshwar. Since the town was unaware of handloom work, Ahilyabai brought in a few skilled workers from Mandu and paid them to teach their craft to the locals. It was a great employment opportunity for women as they barely had any skills except domestic ones.
Today thousands of looms exist in and outside Maheshwar providing employment to lakhs of uneducated women. Maheswari sarees are never out of trend. She could have taught handloom work to only men, but she took the initiative to make women financially independent. Women were and felt safe under her jurisdiction.
Besides her work to make the financial status of her people better, she also focused on making many changes that improved and enriched their lives. She ordered the planting of trees and maintained natural habitats.
Art, culture, and literature were also prioritized as many poets, writers, and artists were appointed in the palace. When she built the famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple, she made sure to use the skills and work of artists and sculptors in the best possible ways.
It was her contribution and efforts that made Malwar financially stable, and rich in agriculture, trade, and art.
She died on 13 August 1795 at the age of 70 and left the whole state in deep grief and agony.
An award was established in her name as a tribute by the Indian government, “Devi Ahalya Award”. The airport in Indore is now known as Devi Ahilyabai Holkar Airport. The Indore University has also been renamed Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya.
She could have done Sati after her husband’s demise. Or she could have lost courage and let the neighbouring territory occupy her legacy worth 16 crores then. But it was her motive to empower her kingdom and to show the world that women are not inferior to men.
Her work in Malwa is a tight slap for those misogynists who believe that women should not be given authority.
Image source: By Unknown author – Indore Travels, Public Domain, edited on CanvaPro
Bhumika is an English Majors undergraduate at the University Of Delhi and at this moment actively working with an NGO, as a content department associate that works for normalizing menstruation and promotes menstrual hygiene. She read more...
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