(Introductory write-up, Exhibit No.1)
SHRI DEVI AHILYA BAI HOLKAR – A DIVINELY GIFTED QUEEN OF IMMORTAL FAME
Research: V S BHATNAGAR
Ahilya Bai was born in 1725 in a middle class family. 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 noticed her intelligent looks and lively appearance and decided to have her as a bride for his only son Khande Rao (Exhibit No. … Painting) with whom she was married in 1735. By this time Malharji had risen both in fame and fortune. In 1741, he built his palace at Indore which place he had received from Peshwa Baji Rao in 1733, 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 undertook large scale construction works there (Exhibit No. … Painting) and the place became famous throughout India.
From 1748 onwards, Malhar Rao Holkar’s position in Malwa became firm and secure. He became ‘Kingmaker’ in Northern and Central India and master of an extensive territory lying on both the sides of the Narbada as well as Sahyadri. Ahilya Bai was a young lady at this time enjoying like any other Marathi girl the innocent pleasures which Narbada flowing by Maheshwar provided (Exhibit No. … Painting), unaware of the tragedy which was to befall upon her only a few years later. In 1754 her husband Khande Rao was killed when struck by a cannon ball during the seige of Kumbher (near Deeg in Rajasthan). Ahilya Bai wanted to become Sati but consented not to do so on earnest entreaties of Malhar Rao and his wife Gautmi Bai (Exhibit No. … Sketch) and, to quote her biographer, “gave to the world what otherwise would have remanied a Sealed Book – a splendid example of Aryan Rule under an Aryan Lady.”
From Malhar Rao’s letters we get a fair idea of how after the death of his only son, he trained his daughter-in-law, Ahilya Bai, in matters of state and governance. He kept Ahilya Bai informed about the political developments in North India, such as his dealings with Najib-ud-daula, and the Nawab of Awadh, the advance of Abdali and about his own movements making her familiar with the fast changing political conditions at that time. After Panipat (1761) he was the only Maratha Sardar whose presence carried weight in the North. In a letter Malhar Rao asks Ahilya Bai to have light guns and gun–balls manufactured. (Exhibit No. … Sketch) 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. (Exhibit No. … Painting). You should now stay at Gwalior and manufacture gun – balls. (Exhibit No. … Sketch) The ruler of Gohad must, this year be crushed.” In two letters relating to officials who had ‘defaulted in’ their duty, Malhar Rao asks her to make them return what they had taken or attach the parganah.
Malhar’s grand–son was young and the veteran of hundred battles knew that his daughter–in–law must be trained, as best as possible, in all matters relating to war as well as governance. 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 advice in a totally different field which even Malhar could have ever thought of i.e. in building ghats, temples, rest houses and, whenever required, she wrote letters, such as to a Raja of Orissa, (Exhibit No. … Document), 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 of each project (Exhibit No. … A document). Ahilya Bai’s contribution in the reconstruction of temples in all parts of India destroyed by the Muslim rulers, which she would visualise in solitude and plan to remedy the griveous wrong (Exhibit No. … Painting) has no parallel in our history.
After Malhar Rao Holkar’s death in May 1766, Ahilya Bai’s son, Maloji, received investiture. But Maloji died of insanity in April 1767 after a brief reign of 8 months. It was at this time that Peshwa’s uncle, the unfamous Raghoba, tried to prevent Ahilya Bai from succeeding to the vast territory of the Holkars. To meet Rahoba’s threat, Ahilya Bai prepared a “Regiment of women soldiers” (Exhibit No. … Painting) which she was to command, but such an eventuality did not arise as Pehswa Madhav Rao, Mahadji Scindhia and others supported her claim. The Peshwa rejected Raghoba’s advice to attach the Saranjam of the Holkars and directed his uncle to desist from further attempts against Ahilya Bai whose right to the management of affairs of Holkars jagirs was indisputable. Throughout Ahilya Bai’s career, her fortitude in times of crisis drew admiration from her contemporaries, which included the Peshwas, Nana Phadnavis and Mahadji Scindia.
On Devi Ahilya Bai’s recommendation, Tukoji Holkar (who was not related to Malhar’s family in anyway) was invested with the power of Subedar. However facts and courses of events, made Ahilya Bai the “de facto ruler” who received absolute obedience and respect from Tukoji to the commonest person.
Ahilya Bai’s undisputed position and respect was due to her exceptional qualities as a just and efficient ruler who ruled as if she was the Trustee of the State. She never observed purdah and held daily public audience (Exhibit No. … Painting) and was accessible to the commonest of her subjects. Forty years after her death, Sir John Malcolm wrote about her, “Her first principle of Government appears to have been moderate assessment and an almost sacred respect for the native rights of the village officers. She heard every complaint in person (Exhibit No. … Sketch), 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.”
Devi Ahilya Bai 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. We find from her letters that her tone is never harsh but calm and always supported by reasons. She rarely got angry but when provoked by injustice or wickedness none dared to approach her. When serious differences arose between her and Tukoji and the latter requested Mahadji Scindhia to intervene and Scindhia finding that Ahilya Bai was not prepared to compromise on principle vaguely threatened her, the venerable lady’s reply silenced Mahadji, the most powerful man in India at that time. (Exhibit No. … Sketch)
Malhar Rao Holkar 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 remained loyal and respectful towards her. Her approach towards them was always maternal and equitable. Even Tukoji Holkar addressed her in his letters as “Pure as Ganges, Mother like …”
Devi Ahilya Bai was very solicitous about the rights of her subjects of whichever rank they might be. With her there was no room for “favouratism, capricious appointments to important posts of unfit persons, and whimsical selection of flatterers for high offices”. She had strong dislike of flattery so much so that she ordered a panegrical composition brought by a poel to be thrown in the Narbada (Exhibit No. … Sketch). Her subjects had implicit faith in her benevolence and she was the final court of appeal whom any one, a commoner or noble, could approach with the hope of getting help or justice.
Though Ahilya Bai is well known for giving a large part of Central India peace and good administration during a most turbulent and anarchical period but is best known for her ‘charities’ and numerous building works all over India (Exhibit No. … List) 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, (Exhibit No. … Painting) 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 (Andra Pradesh), Shri Nagnath (Andra Pradesh), Kashi Vishwanath (Varanasi), Sri Trimbakeshwar (Nasik district) and Shri Ghirishneshwar (Andra Pradesh) there is clear mention in the Holkar State Records of her ‘charities’ and construction works. At Shri Somnath in Kathiawad, she “re–installed the idol” in a magnificient temple in 1789. (Exhibit No. … Painting) Her building works and charities at Varanasi include installation of the idol of Kashi Vishwanath in a temple (Exhibit No. … Painting) built by her near the place where Aurangzeb had destroyed the earlier one. She was no doubt tormented by vision of destruction of temples by the Muslim rulers like Aurangzeb and resolved to reconstruct them and build Ghats etc. (Exhibit No. … Painting) for which she decided to spend all her Khasgi income and rich treasure she had inherited from his father-in-law by sprinkling Ganges water and Tulsi leaves on it dedicating all 15 crores rupees for charitable works (Exhibit No. … Painting).
She sent from Maheshwar an idol of Shri Ramchandra Panchayatan for installation at Banaras (and one at Chitrakuta also). We have another list of constructions and charities by Ahilya Bai at Sapta-puris or seven sacred towns viz. Ayodhya, Mathura–Vrindavan, Maya (Haridwar), Kashi, Kanchi, Avantika and Dwarka revered by all the Hindus. (Exhibit No. … Document) 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 desire. Shri Dwarka, Shri Rameshwar and Shri Jagannath (where she built Shri Ramchandra Mandir, Alms House, etc.) These seven cities (Sapta–puris) and four quarters of Aryavarta (Char–dham) had become places of worship and pilgrimage as early as the Pauranic age. 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. (Exhibit No. …) Among these towns were Kurukshetra, Nemisharanya, Pushkar, Ellora, Chitrakut, Prayag, Pandharpur, Karmanashi river in former Bengal Presidency etc., places located all over India. Also, she arranged Ganges water to be sent to thirty–four shrines every year. (Exhibit No. … List) 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 politically and geographically 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.”
Ahilya Bai was singularly quick and clear in the transaction of public business. During her reign the 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 hereditary servants. 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 care of by the Devi.
On New Years day (Chaitra Sudi Pratipada) the learned, officers, clerks, and silehdars were honoured by her for rendering good service and for their achievements (Exhibit No. … Sketch). 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 hard to spread their hegemony in all quarters. With her approval French General Dudrenec was inducted in her army; the General in a short time raised four battalions trained in European fashion (Exhibit No. … Painting). With her consent Tukoji took part in the campaign against the English in concert with Scindhia and defeated the English troops under Goddard in 1780 (Exhibit No. … Painting). In a letter she says “It behoves the Peshwa to enlist good number of Silehdars and increase the standing army and the Nawab, Bhonsle and the rest should make a common cause and crush the English.”
Ahilya Bai’s rule is known for peace and tranquility and for “trophies of peace and not war” in that turbulent period. 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. She continued to work hard for the welfare of the people and her state despite a succession of bereavements in her own family, one of the saddest being her daughter Muktabai’s decision to became Sati despite her earnest entreaties (Exhibit No. … Painting). She bore the tragedy with her usual fortitude though inwardly she was a broken woman.
In that period of instability and turbulence Ahilya Bai had “one of the most stable reigns of the 18th Century. All through her reign, her relations with the foreign princes remained most amicable and cordial and she received such “allegiance and respect from feudatories and sovereigns which might well excite envy of any prince or princess in any part of the country.” 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.
Though an extremely pious lady who devoted considerable time in offering prayers and in meditation, she attended to the state business for at least six hours a day with utmost regularity. (Exhibit No. … Painting).
Among her many accomplishments was the development of Indore from a small Kasba to a prosperous town and so was Maheshwar, her capital on the bank of the Narbada. Her name and assurance of protection who patronage attracted Sahukars, merchants, traders, weavers etc. to Maheshwar and were allotted peths to settle down. The weavers who produced the famous Maheshwari saris were allotted a peth below the fort and they prospered on account of her patronage and interest in their work (Exhibit No. … Painting).
From 1766 till her death in 1795, Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar ruled a large part of central India 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 people grew happy. With her subjects her name is Sainted and she is styled as avtar (incarnation of divinity). Her life, it has been said, was not only “a glory to the womanhood of India but is even a worthy model for the high and the low, for the rulers and the ruled …” and her untiring efforts to resuscicate Hinduism and her unparalled contribution towards ‘reconstruction’ of what had been griveously damaged during the past six hundred years of Muslim rule entitles her to be ranked among the greatest figures in India’s long history.