“In latter days from Brahma came,
To rule our land, a noble dame,
Kind was her heart and bright her fame,
Ahilya was her honoured name,”
– writes poet Joanna Baillie in 1849 in honour of one of the greatest Maratha woman rulers of Malwa.
The Queen of Malwa, apart from being brave and proficient ruler, was also an erudite politician. She observed the bigger picture when the Maratha Peshwa couldn’t pin down the agenda of the British.
Referred to as the Philosopher queen, Ahilya Bai’s (1725-1795) ruled for 30 years over Indore is considered by one of the best reigns in the country.
Back in her times, education was a far cry in the village. Ahilya’s father, Mankoji Rao Shinde, who was the chief of the village, also home-school her to read and write.
Following the death of her husband and her father-in-law, the last straw came when the young monarch Male Rao too died, a few months into his rule, thus creating a vacuum in the power structure of the Kingdom. She did not let her grief affect the administration of the kingdom and the lives of her people in 1767.
Just a year into her rule, one saw the brave Holkar queen protect her kingdom – fighting off invaders tooth and nail from plundering Malwa.
In her letter to the Peshwa in 1772, she had warned him, calling the British embrace a bear-hug: “Other beasts, like tigers, can be killed by might or contrivance, but to kill a bear it is very difficult. It will die only if you kill it straight in the face, Or else, once caught in its powerful hold; the bear will kill its prey by tickling. Such is the way of the English. And given this, it is difficult to triumph over them.”
She was said to have warned the Peshwa against allying with the British. At that time, the British were trying to take advantage of the vacuum in Pune, pitting claimants to the Peshwai one against the other. She also supported Mahadji Scindia in the power struggle in the northern part of Malwa which, for a while, helped stabilise the region despite the problems in Pune.
The most significant contribution of Ahilyabai, however, comes in the preservation, reconstruction and refurbishment of a host of Hindu sites. From Gangotri to Rameshwaram, and from Dwarka to Gaya, she spent money on rebuilding temples destroyed under the Mughal rule, in restoring the past glory of holy sites, in building new temples and in building ghats for easy access to almost all major rivers in the Bharatvarsha. The list of the temple architectural interventions by Ahilyabai is endless.
Involved in a very modern way of governance, with an emphasis on providing physical and institutional infrastructure, moderate taxation and individual property rights, Indore saw it growing into a great mercantile centre under her rule.
Also read: The Queens of India-1… Why the Indian Navy remembers Queen Abbakka?
ભારતના પ્રથમ મહિલા શાસક ‘રઝિયા સુલતાન’
While Ahilya did not come from a royal lineage, most deem her entry into history a twist of fate. Ahilyabai died in the year 1795 at the age of 70. Her legacy is not enshrined in her name despite the works she undertook all over India. Part of the problem is the general absence of any non-Mughal, non-British narratives in contemporary Indian history books.