Lakshmi Bai was leading figure in the 1857 to 1858 Indian Rebellion against the rule of Britain’s East India Company. She was born in Benares in November 1828, and raised in the court of the peshwa (prime minister) where her father worked as an advisor. She ruled as the rani (queen) of Jhansi from November 1853 to March 1854, and again from June 1857 to April 1858. Lakshmi Bai was a warrior, refusing to surrender even when her troops were overwhelmed, and remained an inspiration for Indian freedom fighters after her death.
Her upbringing was unconventional for girls at the time, and her education was more extensive than that of other women in her society. She was taught to read and write, in addition to physical training. This included shooting and martial arts, and she was particularly skilled in sword fighting and horse riding. This defiance of patriarchal expectations remained prominent. Lakshmi Bai was a confident and independent leader; she trained other women to fight, wore turbans as opposed to veils, and addressed British officials directly. Her compassion for her people regardless of social class or wealth was also unorthodox and showed her to be a loving queen as well as a warrior.
When her husband, the Maharaja of Jhansi, died in 1853, their son’s claim to the throne was rejected by the British East India Company on the grounds that he was adopted. Despite being offered financial concessions, Lakshmi Bai refused to give Jhansi up to British officials, though she was still reluctant to actively rebel. There was relative peace until 1857.
The Indian Rebellion of 1857, also called the Indian Mutiny or the First War of Independence, began in May and reached Jhansi in June. Rebel sepoys (Indian soldiers serving under the East India Company) killed over 60 English residents; officers and officials as well as their wives and children. Lakshmi Bai was blamed for this, but she condemned the violence of the sepoys and there was insufficient evidence to support claims of her involvement. After being given financial compensation, British officers left Jhansi and Lakshmi Bai became its official ruler. The Rani’s rule was peaceful with minimal British interference until the East India Company invaded Jhansi in March 1858, with the intention of conquering and dividing it. Lakshmi Bai fiercely defended her city, refusing to concede to the British, but could not prevent the death toll of over 5,000. When her forces were overwhelmed, she escaped on horseback and joined Tatya Tope’s rebel forces in Kalpi. Along with her allies, the Rani defended Kalpi, but her forces were once again overwhelmed. She and the other rebels then moved to Gwalior to aid the Indian forces already there. They successfully occupied Gwalior for some time but were eventually defeated by British troops who slaughtered any Indian over the age of 16.
Lakshmi Bai was killed by British forces while defending Gwalior in June 1858, aged 29. The details of her death vary; it is unclear whether she was shot or killed with a sabre, though most accounts agree that she was dressed in a masculine uniform during her final battle. Nonetheless, it is definite that Lakshmi Bai died in combat while fighting for her country.
Although the Rebellion was ultimately defeated, Lakshmi Bai’s legacy is profound. She was revered by Indian revolutionaries and feared by British officials as they recognised her as a significant threat to colonialism. This was due to her capability as a leader and prowess in battle, which was even praised by her enemies. General Hugh Rose, who led the British attacks on Jhansi, Kalpi and Gwalior, described her fighting as masculine, saying “the Indian Mutiny had produced but one man, and that man was a woman,” a testimony to her immense ability as powerful people at the time were typically male. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment, an all-female unit of the Indian National Army during the resistance against colonialism in the 1940s is evidence of Lakshmi Bai’s status as a figurehead for the Indian independence movement. The Rani of Jhansi has been immortalised in books, movies, TV shows, songs, poems and nursery rhymes: a legendary figure and national heroine even today.