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Ahilya Bai Holkar: The Feisty Queen of Maheshwar


It was when I first came to Bombay in 1990 to work, I got to know of Ahilyabai Holkar. Not much beyond a simple fact she was a queen and that Churchgate junction was named after her, Ahilyabai Holkar chowk. Today there is a marble bust of hers at the junction, with a tacky modern pedestal. Later that decade I got a chance to visit Maheshwar, and I forgot all about Holkar though it was at Ahilyabai ghat that I fell in love with Narmada. Narmada overpowered me so much, that neither the ghat, nor the structures around mattered. But, Maheshwar stood in my mind and heart, as one of the places I most loved in this land.

Once again I got an opportunity to visit Maheshwar, in the rainy shravan. I want to see Narmada my dad wished and so a plan was made. We stayed on the banks of Narmada at the new Madhya Pradesh Tourism lodging it was comfortble to do so. We decided to take the boat that evening to the Ahilyabai ghat from where we stayed and told our driver to come and pick us up at the Fort entrance later. He asked us, if you go there today, what will you do tomorrow, “idar kya hai dekhne ke liye”? He was surprised when I told him, we will go again the next morning to the same place.

Ahilyabai Holkar

That was the time I looked carefully at the small little palace of Ahilyabai inside the fort. It looked too simple for a queen to be residing even if we were looking at only one part of her residence. There is a small board hanging inside the place which lists the number of temples she built/re-built across the length and breadth of the country during her 28-year long reign over a very small province in Malwa. I was dumbstruck. A diminutive widow (from what the statues around showed her to be, a little and pious lady always portrayed with a shiva linga held in her hands) with probably little resources compared to larger kingdoms could do so much, build temples and facilities from Kedarnath to Rameshwaram, from Somnath to Gaya.

I became a fan of Ahilyabai that day. To think of a lady who could rebuild a destroyed Somnath temple, the Kashi Vishwnath temple that fell to the orders of the Mughal ruler, it was not only money, also guts to do it, in territories outside her little Malwa. True that she reigned at a time Marathas were more powerful recouping after the loss at the Third Battle of Panipet. Yet, the history of temple constructions and how she did it, and what she did deserves a detailed study. An example for any devout Hindu who wishes to be rooted in Dharma and Nishta.

I am going to quote generously from a book which is available for free on internet, because that is the only detailed account of Ahilyabai I could lay my hands on as of date – ‘A memoir of Central India, including Malwa, and adjoining provinces’, by Sir John Malcolm. The praise Malcolm showers on Ahilyabai, he goes to great lengths to proves is founded on strong evidence he had. Her strong, firm rule, her accessibility and concern for citizens, the control she had on her treasurey, keeping the bifurcation of money that was meant for the army and kingdom’s use separate is an amazing story. She didn’t go to war like Rani Lakshmibai, but warned the adversaries well, displayed her capabilities to make sure there was no military attack on her state.

“The life of Alia Bhye (Ahilyabai) has been given at greater length than was contemplated; but it forms too proud an epodh in the history of the house of Holkar to be slightly passed over,” is how Malcolm ends his chapter on Ahilyabai.

What prompted that lengthy account of Ahilyabai – “…an extraordinary picture: a female without vanity, a bigot without intolerance; a mind imbued with the deepest superstition, yet receiving  no impressions except what promoted the happiness of those under its influence; a being exercising, in the most active and able manner, despotic power, not merely with sincere humility, but under severest moral restraint that a strict conscience could impose on human action; and all this combined with the greatest indulgence for the weakness and faults of others. Such, at least is the account which the natives of Malwa give of Ahilyabai; with them her name is sainted, and she is styled an Avatar, or incarnation of the divinity. In the most sober view that can be taken of her character, she certainly appears, within her limited sphere, to have been one of the purest and most exemplary rulers that ever existed; and she affords a striking example of the practical benefit a mind may receive from performing worldly duties under a deep sense of responsibility to its Creator.”

Is it then too much to say that she ruled on the strength of Dharma and Nishta? Look at her life, she was eight when her prospective father-in-law Malhar Rao Holkar noticed her at her native village in Ahmednagar and took her to Maheshwar and was soon married to his son Khanderao Holkar. He died in the battle of Kumbher and at that time Ahilyabai was not even thirty. She decided to commit Sati, and it was her father-in-law who prevents her from committing Sati and she decided to stay on and takeover the reins of her kingdom. Not only she lost her husband very young, but soon she had to cope with the tragic death of her only son and the heir to throne, afflicted with terrible mental illness. He lasted only nine months in the throne and the mantle fell on Ahilyabai.

“The hours gained from the affairs of the state were all given to acts of devotion and charity; and a deep sense of religion appears to have strengthened her mind in the performance of her worldly duties. She used to say, that she “deemed herself answerable to “God for every exercise of power;”and in the full spirit of a pious and benevolent mind was wont to exclaim, when urged by her ministers to acts of extreme severity,”Let us, mortals, beware how “we destroy the works of the Almighty.”

She created temples, memorial chhatris for the deceased members of the Holkar clan, crated charities, brought to Maheshwar and settled a whole street of Brahmins, took care of them, fed them, looked at commerce, created a weaving culture at Maheshwar. Imagine within the patriarchal, varnashrama practicing generation a non-Kshatriya, non-Brahmin woman ruled firmly, with faith and fervour. We complain of patriarchy, but forget to learn from examples like a father-in-law preventing a daughter-in-law from committing Sati and asking her to rule his state. Mind you, Malhar Rao Holkar was a no less a man, was a trusted feudatory of Peshwa, a man who rose from a family of Dhangars, shepherds to become a ruler.

It was unfortunate though that Ahilyabhai couldn’t repeat what Malhar Rao did, and had to see her daughter die in the fueneral pyre of her son-in-law. What unbelievable tragedy for Ahilyabhai, she saw her husband die young, son die young, a grandson (daughter Muktabai’s son) die, son-in-law and ultimate tragedy of daughter committing Sati.

During a lecture on Ahilyabai’s Maheshwar, Sugandha Jogar, a noted historian, had tears swelling up her eyes when she recounted this tragic incident. She said I am not able to control myself though I have known this and told this many times before. Read for yourself the moving picture Malcolm presents from many eyewitness sources – “No efforts (short of coercion) that a mother and a sovereign could use were untried by the virtuous Alia Bhye to dissuade her daughter from the fatal resolution. She humbled herself to the dust before her, and entreated her, as she revered her God, not to leave her desolate and alone upon earth. Muchta Bhye (Muktabai) although affectionate, was calm and resolved. “You are old, mother, (she said) and a few years will end your pious life. My only child and husband are gone, and when you follow, life, I feel will be insupportable; but the opportunity of terminating it with honour will then have passed.” Ahilaya Bai, when she found all dissuasion unavailing, determined to witness the last dreadful scene. She walked in the procession, and stood near the pile, where she was supported by two Brahmins, who held her arms. Although previously suffering great agony of mind, she remained tolerably firm till the first blaze of the flame made her lose all self-command; and while her shrieks increased the noise made by the exulting shouts of immense multitude stood around, she was seen to gnaw in anguish those hands she could not liberate from the persons by whom she was held. After some convulsive efforts, she so far recovered as to join in the ceremony of bathing in the Nerbudda (Narmada), where the bodies were consumed. She then retired to her palace, where for three day, having taken hardly any sustenance, she remained so absorbed in grief that she never uttered a word. When recovered from this state, she seemed to find consolation in building a beautiful monument to the memory of those she lamented”.

I did not know till Jogar showed the Muktabai Chhatri at the lecture and said that it was the first chhatri ever to be built for a woman. What an extraordinary monument she created moving from grief to creating a monument of exquisite composition, beautiful sculptures, a monument of happiness. I rue to the fact that I didn’t know about this chhatri when I went to Maheshwar. Why aren’t there guides around, books sold that would highlight the history, significance of the architecture Ahilyabai created?

“There are few modern temples in India of more beautiful and finished workmanship than this monument of maternal love”, says Malcolm. How we are oblivious to the existence of such a monument.

Not only are we unaware of the architectural beauty of Maheshwar, we are not even bothered about the conservation of what she has left behind. I could see from my frist trip in 1999 to a trip a decade later the town had grown so much, changed, encroached on the heritage. I could also see how the quiet, beautiful Narmada had become aggressive and unpredictable. Who else but insensitive Hindus would have built dams so close to one revered Jyotirlinga shrine at Omkareshwar and another so close to Maheshwar. The dam waters are a threat to already dilapidated parts of Ahilyabai’s fort. Jogar said how the Muktabai chhatri which should be no less in terms of sentiment to a Taj Mahal if not in size an glory is now partially encroached upon by a local gym.

Hindus should be ashamed if they forget, abet erasing Ahilyabai’s heritage. The Kashi Vishwanath temple that you visit today is her contribution, the Vishnupad temple at Gaya was built by her and the citizens of a distant Uttarakhand were in praise of her for the dharmshala and a reservoir she built there.


Ahilyabai didn't support sati

Don’t do that to the memory of a Queen who wanted to promote prosperity all around her, “she rejoiced, we are told, when she saw bankers, merchants, farmers, and cultivators, rise to affluence; and, so far from deeming their increased wealth a ground of exaction, she considered it a legitimate claim to increased favour and protection,” as Malcolm recounts.

“She daily fed the poor; and on particular festivals gave entertainments to the lowest classes. During the hot months of the year persons were stationed on the roads to supply travellers with water; and at the commencement of the cold season she gave clothes to great numbers of her dependants, and to infirm people. Her feelings of general humanity were often carried to an extraordinary excess. The beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the river shared in her compassion; portions of food were allotted to them, and the peasant near Mhysir used in hot days to see his yoke of oxen stopped during their labour to be refreshed with water brought by a servant of Alia Bhye; while fields she had purchased were covered with flocks of birds, that had been justly as Alia Bhye used to observe, driven by cultivators from destroying the grain, on which latter depended for their own sustenance.”

An exemplary ruler in all aspects, an icon to revere.

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