Above: H.H. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar inaugurates an exhibition on Devi Ahilyabai Holkar, the warrior queen of India at Balgandharva Rang Mandir, Pune on 13th January, 2010
Devi Ahilyabai Holkar, A Divinely Gifted Queen
A Divinely Gifted Queen Of Immortal Fame
Ahilya Bai was born in a middle class family in 1725. Her father Mankoji Shinde was Patil of the village, Chounde, in Beed Taluka of Aurangabad district. "Her entrance on the stage of history was something of an accident." Malhar Rao was on his way to Pune when he stopped at Chounde for a while and saw the 8 year old Ahilya Bai at the temple service in the village. He atonce recognised signs of piety, intelligence and nobility in the girl and decided to have her as a bride for his only son Khande Rao. In 1737 she was married to Khandoji. By this time, Malharji Holkar was a famous man, having risen both in fame and fortune. In 1741 he built his palace at Indore over looking the river Khan and encouraged traders and merchants to come and settle there. In 1741 he issued a "warrant of protection" to those who would come and populate Maheshwar, promising grant of land and houses to his officers as well as to merchants, weavers and other craftmen. Later, Ahilya Bai chose Maheshwar as her capital and the place became famous throughout India.
From 1748 onwards, Sarkar Malharji's position in Malwa became firm and secure. He became 'Kingmaker' in Northern and Central India and rich tribute exacted from the princes of Rajputana and others, and various grants received from the Peshwa as Mokasa, Sardeshmukhi, Kamavishee and Patilki in recognition of his services to the Maratha empire made him rich and master of an extensive territory lying on both the sides of Narmada as well as Sahyadri. He had also received some grants of forts and places like Chandwad from the Emperor for helping him against own subordinates. Amidst all this success and plentiful enterprises, death of his only son, who was struck by a cannon ball during the siege of Kumbher (near Deeg in Rajasthan), on 24 March 1754, was like a bolt from the blue "to the great grief of his aged father and lamentations of his youngwife." Ahilya Bai gave up the idea of becoming Sati on the entreaties of Malhar Rao and, to quote her biographer "gave to the world what otherwise would have remained a Sealed Book – a splendid example of Aryan Rule under an Aryan Lady."
We get a fair idea of how Malhar Rao Holkar, after the death of his only son during the siege of Kumher in 1754, trained Ahilya Bai in matters of State and governance. He kept Ahilya Bai informed about the political developments, such as his dealings with Najib–ud–daula and how Awadh was seeking his help, and about his own movements. After Panipat (1761) he was the only Maratha Sardar whose presence carried weight in the North. In another letter Malhar Rao asks her to have light guns and gun–balls manufactured. Father–in–law's training was paternal but strict "... see that you reach Gwalior without halting for a moment at Mathura, though you wish to stop there." In a letter of 16 March 1765, Malhar Rao wrote, "A messenger told us that you captured Gohadkars' fort with a cannon : You should now stay at Gwalior and manufacture gun – balls the ruler of Gohad must, this year be crushed." In two letter relating to officials who had 'defaulted in' their duty, Malhar Rao asks her to make them return what they had taken (misappropriated) or attach the parganah.
Malhar's grand–son was young and the veteran of hundred battles knew that his daughter–in–law should be trained in all matters relating to wars as well as governance as best as possible. He advises her to fully weigh the strength and number of the enemy. "Do not rush head–long. Allow personality and prestige their own effect to work ... never let the artillery be away from your sight. "Least power and greatest weight" should be your maxim and rule".
Ahilya Bai used this maxim and rule in a totally different field which not even Malhar could have ever thought of i.e. in building ghats, temples, rest houses and whenever required, she would write letters, such a to a Raja of Orissa, the Nawab of Kurnool, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Nawab of Awadh, to the Rajput rulers politely conveying her desire to build a temple or a bathing ghat or to lay a garden near a temple at her own cost but quite often mere mention of her name sufficed and her officials and architects carried out, as directed by her, the construction works, keeping her in touch with the progress. So many works were undertaken at her initiative that wherever one goes in India, specially to a holy place venerated by the Hindus, one find works of piety and charity attributed to Ahilya Bai.
After Malhar Rao's death in May 1766, Ahilya Bai's son Maloji received investiture from the Peshwa as Subedar "with full powers and undiminished territory on the condition of rendering faithful service to the Peshwa just as Malharji had done."
Devi Ahilya Bai's concern for Maloji, the only surviving scion of Malhar Rao's family was natural; she wanted him to be a worthy successor of his grand–father who had painstakingly built a large kingdom. In a letter she expresses her unhappiness for his silence over 2–3 letters sent to him. "Be writing to us and that too in detail. You must console yourself as directed in these letters ... Direct your thoughts to the future management of the state as well as maintenance of your own status ... Entertain broad views and management plans that elevate you even to a higher plane of fame than ever attained in the family ... (4th June 1766).
However, Maloji died in April 1767 after a brief reign of 8 months. Tukoji Holkar, who was not related to Malhar Rao's family in anyway, was invested, with Ahilya Bai's approval, with the power of Subedar on payment of Rs.16 lacs 62 thousand on the condition that he would serve the Peshwa in all his military campaigns. "Facts and courses of events, however, made Ahilya Bai the "De Facto Ruler" who received absolute obedience and respect from Tukoji to the commonest person.
Her high position and respect emanated from her exceptional qualities as a just and efficient ruler who ruled as if she was a Trustee of the State. She never observed purdah and held daily public audience and was accessible to the commonest of her subjects. Sir John Malcolm writes about her, forty years after her death, "Her first principle of Government appears to have been moderate assessment and an almost sacred respect for the native rights of the village officers and proprietary land. She heard every complaint in person and although she continually referred cases to the courts of equity and arbitration ... she was always accessible, patient and unwearied in the investigation of most insignificant cases when appeals were made to her for decision."
She was very particular about being just and fair. Whenever she felt that a Saranjami Sardar (noble) or even Subehdar Tukoji was unfair in his action or dealings or request, she pulled up the person gently but firmly, declining the request, giving reasons for her own decision. Malhar Rao had left behind a large territory to the north and south of Narbada yielding an annual revenue of Rs.73 lacs. It is creditable for Ahilya Bai that during her reign of 30 years, none of the Saranjami Sardars who held 36 mahals yielding altogether an annual income of Rs.32,57,000/- (with service obligations with a proportionate quota) remained loyal and respectful towards her. Her approach towards them was always maternal and equitable. Even all powerful Tukoji Holkar addressed her in his letters as Pure as Ganges, Mother like ...
Ahilya Bai was gentle, fair minded and forthright in handling the affairs of the government. For instance when Tukoji submitted a bill of war–expenses to Devi, a bill which was not sanctioned by her, and even suggested to her that the Sardars should be asked to make–up for the bill, she wrote back that it would be unjust to ask the Sardars to pay as allotments to them were in proportion to the number of men engaged in service and not a jot more, and the Sardars were present serving in the field. "Hence it is not justified under the circumstances to ask them to pay," she wrote. Tukoji, who held the supreme command of the Holkar troops, in another letter says that nothing great has been achieved since his arrival in the Deccan and asks for money as the Peshwa desired him to undertake a big campaign. Ahilya Bai replied, "From where the money will come? You say that the receipts from the Swadesh territory (Sourthern) have already been paid to Poona treasury. ... You were on the spot and nothing has been achieved.
"This is not fair." Reminding Tukoji about her father–in–law's principle to rectify a wrong without waiting for aid or orders, whatever might be its nature, she pulls up Tukoji for his delayed planning. "The schemes of campaign are being planned (by you) when the clouds have already appeared in the sky! How can artillery and other war material reach you in the rains?" Her tone is never angry or abusive but calm and always supported by weightily reasons. It was the purity of her heart, honesty of purpose, desire to be just and fair at all costs towards all, her devout nature, pure life and her spiritual strength which made others listen to her with reverence and obey her.
She was very solicitous about the rights of her subjects of whichever rank they might be. She turns down the advice to raise 10% tax from the Mahals of the Sardars saying, "Thy can't pay beyond their means." When a Sardar interfered in the matters and rights of a Pargana officials and all the Patils, Mamlatdars, Fadnis, Mazumdar, Jamadar came to her with complaint of injustice, she writes to the noble in question, "Dear Tulsaji Waugh – after giving a free audience to all a memoranda for future working of the Parganah is being sent to you ... You should not, henceforth no wise, interfere with affairs of Mamlat of the Pargana ... Please consult the officials first." Her object was to work for the welfare of all, high or low and "under her wise head and strong hand", the state witnessed unparalled peace and prosperity.
Devi Ahilya Bai, always took into account the past services rendered by a person or his forefathers and felt inclined to take a lenient view of ones omission or commission if honest admission was forthcoming, such as the case of a Chitnis who had failed to carry out orders of Tukoji Rao Holkar to join him, as his wife had died. "We have served Chhatrapati Shahu and Subbedar Malhar Rao ... " Her subjects had implicit faith in her benevolence and she was the final court of appeal whom any one, a commoner or a noble, could approach with hope of getting help or justice. Seeking protection, an official wrote, "My late father had served Your Highness for 60 years. He has left us under your kind protection. We were born, bred and brought upon your Highness's sustenance ..." The wife of Patel seeks her help for bringing reconciliation between mother and son.' She was accessible to all her subjects. The letters show that the Sarkar was not mere Government but a "caring 'Ma–Bap', solicitous of the welfare of the subjects."
Ahilya Bai is well known for giving a large part of Central India peace and a good administration during a most turbulent and anarchical period but is best known for her 'charities' and numerous building works all over India so much so that if there is a temple or a ghat "unnamed and unregistered", people attribute it to Ahilya Bai. As a Maratha historian observes, "Devi's name had become synonymous with charitable institutions."
Devi Ahilya Bai was a devotee of Shiva, but, like any other Hindu, held other gods also in great reverence. About 8 of the 12 Jyotirlingas of Shiva, namely at Somnath, Mallikarjuna (Distt. Karnool), Shri Omkareshwar (M.P.), Shri Vaijnath (Nizam's deminion), Shri Nagnath (Nizam's state), Kashivishwanath, Sri Trimbakeshwar (Nasik district) and Shri Ghirishneshwar (Verul, Nizam's state) there is clear mention in the Holkar State Records of her 'charities' and construction works. Thus at Shri Somnath is Kathiavad, she "re–installed the idol" in a magnificient temple in 1789. Her building works and charities at Varanasi include installation of Kashi Vishwanath in a temple built by her near the place where Aurangzeb had destroyed the earlier one, 6 private temples, Ganga mandir (temple of the Ganges), 3 temples on the Ghat, Mankarnika Ghat, Dashasvamed Ghat, Female Mankarnika Ghat, a few Dharmashalas, establishment of Brahmapuri for learned Brahman scholars etc. She sent from Maheshwar an idol of Shri Ramchandras Panchayatan for installation at Banaras (and one at Chitrakuta also). We have another list of constructions and charities by Ahilya Bai at Saptapuris or seven sacred towns viz. Ayodhya, Mathura–Vrindavan, Maya (Haridwar), Kashi, Kanchi, Avantika and Dwarka revered by all the Hindus. Thus she built at Ayodhya temples dedicated to Shri Ram, Treta, Bahirava, and Nageshwar and the Saryu Ghat, besides dharmashalas where pilgrims could stay either free or by paying a nominal sum.
The four dhams or quarters of Aryavarta are Badrinarain in the Himalayas (where 13 constructions were undertaken at her deisre and expenses such a Rangad Chatti, Bedar Chatti, Tanga Nath, Deva Prayaga Garden, grass fields for cows, Gauri Kund, Shri Kedareshwar temple etc.), Shri Dwarka, Shri Rameshwar and Shri Jagannath (Shri Ramchandra Mandir, Alms House, etc.)
These seven cities (Sapta–puris) and four quarters of Aryavarta (Char–dham) became places of worship and pilgrimage during the Pauranis age. It has been said that they represent a progressive step of Vedic religion towards what may be styled as "Hindu religion". We note that Devi's charities and construction works were made "with a full hand and a free heart" to sacred spots all over India and not in a particular region. In fact as per Records, 43 other towns of India also received her attention and she built at some of these towns, temples and ghats, at some other place wells, kunds (tanks), sanctioned annual gifts to a number of temples, and for some she sanctioned annual expenses for illumination. Among these towns were Kurukshetra, Nemisharanya, Pushkar, Ellora, Chitrakut, Prayag, Pandharpur, Karmanashi river in former Bengal Presidency etc., places all over India. Also, she arranged Ganges water to be sent to thirty–four shrines every year. Among these were Somnath and Dwarka (Kathiawad), Ramehswar, Eklingaji (Udaipur), Balaji Giri (Giri), Pashupatinath (Nepal) Kashi Vishwanath (Banaras) etc. It has been observed that, "the distribution of the Ganges water united divided India"; she had in this matter no provincial or regional approach but national outlook. Her attempt was to resuscicate the Hinduism which had suffered so much during the past six centuries of ruinous Muslim rule This is a significant aspect of Ahilya Bai's 'charities' and religious works. She in a way represented the best effort of the Maratha movement towards, "reconstruction" of what had been severely damaged during the past six hundred years of alien rule and yet, with true Hindu spirit, she scrupulously continued the earlier gifts to "Mosques and Musalmans and saintly Faqirs."
Writes Thakur "The Kshitras (Holy spots) and Tirthas are the various stations on the road of the progressive Hindu religion and the Devi has, so to say, sustained and strengthened these stations with her chartieis for good." She herself used to go on pilgrimages such as to Omkareshwara, Mankeshwara etc.
During her reign annual revenue of the state, which was Rs.75 lakhs in Malhar Rao's time, rose to Rs.1 crore 5 lac. Her reign was marked by peace and plenty, absence of famine, social harmony and a contented populace and officials, both Saranjami Sardars as well as the heriditary servants. The Saranjami Sardars, who were bound to maintain the prescribed number of cavalry, formed the "Huzrut" or the standing army. Tukoji, the Subhedar, who represented the military aspect of Devi Ahilya Bai's administration, ever remained most respectful and loyal towards her. In a letter he expresses his sincere regret for going astray and requests that he and his entire family should live under Devi Ahilya Bai's orders. In another letter, he requests the Devi to bring his son to senses. When Ahilya Bai was deeply upset on her daughter Mukta Bai becoming a sati in 1791, Tukoji Holkar made an earnest appeal to her, "Until I come there, please do not think of going anywhere out; if you do, I again swear by the feet of the late revered Subehdar (Malhar Rao), and on my life." She organised a good postal system and all soldiers and subjects had faith that in case of their death in field or unprovoked violence, their family will be taken case of by the Devi.
Her solicitude for the peasants was well known as proved a by very moderate assessment. On New Years day (Chaitra Sudi Pratipada) the learned, officers, clerks and silehdars, were honoured by her for rendering good service. Ahilya Bai did not lay down fresh rules and regulations "Her's was a rule of commonsense backed up by religion; and whatever proceeded from her head and heart, satisfied her people and made them happy and contented."
She was conscious of the threat from the English who were trying their best to spread their control in all quarters. In a letter she says, "It behoves the Peshwa to enlist good number of Silehdars and increase the standing army and Nawab, Bhonsle and the rest should make a common cause and crush the English." But then direction of military operations was in the hands of the Peshwa and Tukoji Holkar had to carry out Pune's directions. If the latter lacked good sense, planning or misplaced assertion, as in Rajputana, the blame goes to the Peshwa and not to Ahilya Bai.
Ahilya Bai's rule is known for peace and tranquility and for "trophies of peace and not war" in that turbulent period where everywhere there were wars, political instability, sieges and conflicts. The only strife and struggle during 30 years long reign of Ahilya Bai was the Rampura affair but which brought to light both her diplomacy and statesmanship. As V.V. Thakur writes, "Peace was her policy in the main, when opposed she first tried re-conciliation. When that failed, recourse to arms was the next but necessary step. Stronger measures foreign to her nature when necessiated, and she faltered not. But at last all was forgotten and forgiven. An opportunity for repentance and reform was offered and the whole affair ended in "Justice mingled with mercy." There and many instances which support this assessment of the great lady who was venerated as a most pious and saintly, a mother like figure during her very life time.
In that period of instability and turbulence Ahilya Bai had "one of the most stable reign of the 18th Century so much so that her territories in Malwa were never attacked or disrupted by local battles during her reign inspite of wars all around." All through her reign, her relations with the foreign princes remained most amicable and cordial. The comfort, happiness and peace enjoyed by her subjects, in whose prosperity she felt a peculiar solace and sense of fulfillment, during her 30 years of rule were unprecedented in the annals of Malwa. The accounts of the State were kept with scrupulous exactness under her care and no decision was taken by any of her ministers, and even by Tukoji Holkar, without her knowledge and advice, such as employment of a French Officer named Chevalier Dudrenec who trained four battalions of her army, or policy to act in concert with Mahadji Sindhia in resisting the march of the English troops in Gujarat in 1780. The envoys residing at the courts of the Indian potentates were all appointed by her.
During her long rule in Malwa, Ahilyabai received "that allegiance and respect from feudatories and sovereigns, which might well excite the envy of any prince or princess in any part of the country". Though an extremely pious lady, who devoted much of her time in offering prayers and in meditation, she was always ready to attend to any task which required her tact and skill. "She always evinced a maternal regard for the welfare of her subjects and under her they were so happy and contented that no Indian Sovereign in any age could boast of a more contented raiyat". In fact she rejoiced when she saw her people – nobles, bankers, merchants, farmers–rise to affluence, without herself ever experiencing the slightest tinge of cupidity.
Among her many accomplishments was the development of Indore from a small village to prosperous city, though her own capital was nearby Maheshwar on the banks of the Narmada river from where she not only conducted the administration but also provided ample patronage to arts and letters.
From 1766 till her death in 1795, Ahilya Bai ruled Malwa with such ability that her thirty year long rule is regarded as a "model of benevolent and effective government." Under her maternal care the state prospered and the people grew happy. With her subjects her name is sainted and she is styled as avatar (incarnation of divinity). Indeed she was a Raj Yogin in the truest sense of the term, as Burway says.