Updated: Feb 22
A figure, draped in a sari, single-handedly faces a group of soldiers. With a ferocious cry, she fights off more than fifteen of them. She stands under the murti of Goddess Kali, a symbol of shakti (strength) herself, blood covering her hands and face in a deadly glare. The only thing on her mind is the safety of her child.
Dramatic in the way all Bollywood movies are? Sure. But all I could think of while watching this scene from Manikarnika was how badass this mom was.
Rani Lakshmibai was the queen of Jhansi, a kingdom in current-day Uttar Pradesh, India. After her husband’s death, she became the sole leader of the land. It was during this time that the British government had taken control of many places in India. Mutinies and rebellions against them led to mistrust in any Indian rulers, and eventually the British demanded that she surrender the city. It was here that the famous line, “Main apni Jhansi nahi dungi,” meaning ‘I will not give up my Jhansi,’ was spoken by Rani Lakshmibai.
She continued defending Jhansi against the siege. But even though a few surrounding leaders also gave their support to her, the British eventually breached the walls. What followed was a massacre. No man, woman, or child was spared, and almost 5,000 innocent civilians died. The queen was forced to flee on horseback. Even after this attack, however, she joined forces with other rebellion leaders and led a counterattack to regain her city. It was during this battle that she was severely wounded and eventually faced a courageous death.
Rani Lakshmibai’s strength and conviction in her role as a queen is admirable. During a time where women across the world were trapped in their homes doing household duties, she ruled a kingdom and fought against injustice. She trained other women from Jhansi to sword fight and ride horses, allowing her army to consist of both men and women. She was determined to fight for what was right rather than accept injustice. Even her British adversaries referred to her with reverence, comparing her to Joan of Arc.
But what amazes me the most is the fact that she accomplished all of this as a single mother to an adopted son. One of the main reasons the British tried taking over the kingdom was because the queen had no biological children. Instead, Rani Lakshmibai had adopted a relative’s son, Damodar Rao. British wouldn’t accept an adopted son as a legitimate heir to the throne, which is one of the reasons Rani Lakshmibai fought against them. Some of the most well-known statues and paintings of the queen depict her on horseback, sword in hand, with her son tied onto her back for protection. To me, this imagery represents how motherhood is a constant, beautiful challenge that is synonymous with strength. We see mothers who, everyday, struggle through hard situations at home, work, and in society. Yet, despite this, they come home to raise their children with the utmost care.
There’s a poem written by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan taught to students all over India describing the life of Rani Lakshmibai.
सिंहासन हिल उठे राजवंशों ने भृकुटी तानी थी,
बूढ़े भारत में भी आई फिर से नयी जवानी थी,
गुमी हुई आज़ादी की कीमत सबने पहचानी थी,
दूर फिरंगी को करने की सबने मन में ठानी थी।
चमक उठी सन सत्तावन में, वह तलवार पुरानी थी,
बुंदेले हरबोलों के मुँह हमने सुनी कहानी थी,
खूब लड़ी मर्दानी वह तो झाँसी वाली रानी थी।।
The thrones shook and royalties scowled
Old India was re-invigorated with new youth
Everyone realized the value of their lost freedom
Everybody was determined to push the foreigners out
The old sword glistened again in 1857
This story we heard from the mouths of Bundel bards
Bravely she fought, she was the Queen of Jhansi
Even today, the story of Rani Lakshmibai serves as a reminder to Indian youth - a reminder about courage, valiance, and strength. A reminder of the power of a woman with conviction in her heart and confidence in her gait.