Tentative exhibition outline

Subedar Malhar Rao Holkar notices 8 year old Ahilyabai

Seeks her hand for his Son 

      It has been truly said that Devi Ahilyabai’s entrance on the stage of history was something of an accident. She was born in 1725 in a middle-class family at Chounde, a village in Beed Taluka of Aurangabad district. Her father was the Patil of that village.

      In 1733, Malhar Rao Holkar, then on way to the Deccan, halted at Chounde. By this time he was already holding an extensive territory in Malwa and to the south of Narbada as well. His name was well known throughout India as the trusted commander of the great Peshwa Baji Rao. During his halt at the village, he happened to see Ahilyabai, then 8 years old, at the temple service. The cheerful countenance, intelligent looks and lively presence of the girl attracted his attention and he decided to seek her hand for his only son, Khande Rao. The marriage was celebrated in 1735. Ahilyabai proved to be a devoted wife and soon won the hearts of Malharji and Gautamibai by her responsible conduct, and an amiable and cheerful nature. No one at the time could foresee that the young pleasant mannered daughter-in-law of Malharji would be widowed at an early age, or that one day her name would be honoured and revered by persons of every caste, creed and colour throughout India.

      In the painting (Exhibit No. …) Malharji is shown noticing 8 year old Ahilyabai, dressed like a typical Marathi girl. In the right hand part of the painting the artist has shown Malhar Rao Holkar visiting the house of Ahilyabai’s father. A Brahmin is carrying in a tray fruits, sweets etc. Ahilyabai’s father is obviously overwhelmed by the arrival of so famous a soldier as Malhar Rao at his door to seek the hand of his young daughter for his son Khande Rao. Two ladies are looking at the impressive scene which suddenly raised the prestige of the Patil’s family and, in times to come, made the name of Chounde village famous in India’s history.

[Painting by Prof. V.N. Saksena]


Devi Ahilyabai Receiving Training in Arms 

      After the death of his only son (Khande Rao), Malhar Rao Holkar had to train his widowed daughter-in-law Ahilyabai so that she could share his own heavy responsibilities, both civil and military. In his few surviving letters to Ahilyabai, we find the veteran Maratha commander giving a few tips learnt during numerous successful campaigns. “Do not let artillery be away from your sight.” “Assess the strength and number of the enemy correctly and then despatch artillery.” “Do not rush head long. Allow personality and prestige their own effect to work.” “Least power and greatest weight should be your maxim.” “You reach Gwalior by rapid strides and oversee manufacture of guns and shells.”

      Malharji was extremely busy in the military campaigns in the north before B. of Panipat (1761) and was all the more busy after that catastrophie. Ahilyabai had to look into matters concerning civil administration as well as to the military needs of Holkar’s large Saranjam. We find Ahilyabai supervising casting of guns and cannons and their shells. When in 1767 Raghoba tried to deprive Ahilyabai of her legitimate right to administer Malharji’s vast territory, she got readied a battalion of women soldiers with which she was to confront Raghunath Rao, unmindful of his fame as the conqueror of Punjab. All these facts show that Ahilyabai had received necessary training such as in plying sword, handle of matchlock, and in the use of Javelin, a favourite weapon of the Maratha cavalay, and archery. Though after 1767, Devi Ahilyabai’s life was mainly devoted to religious and administrative matters and all military responsibility had been entrusted to Tukoji Holkar under directions of the Peshwa and Nana Phanavis, but in early years i.e. during 1754-67, she had to play the role which in those days was considered mainly men’s domain.

      In this painting, young Ahilyabai is shown receiving training in arms – the use of matchlock, Javelin, and other weapons without which she could not have led a campaign, such as against the Gohadkars, or given advice to even a veternal commander like Tukoji Holkar.

      Devi Ahilyabai’s pious, mother like image and her unmatched contribution in reconstructing temples, ghats, dharma-shalas and extremely devout nature generally hides from our minds the early days of this extremely talented lady, her ‘Durga roop’ when she would not hesitate to take up arms against injustice or to defend truth or righteousness.

[Painting by Dr. Dharm Singh]


Ahilyabai Leading Troops against Gohadkars 

      After the death of Khande Rao during the siege of the Jat fortress Kumbher in 1754, Malhar Rao Holkar tried his best to train Ahilyabai in matters concerning the governance, and tried to pass on to her part of his rich experience in wars and politics. He took pains to make her familiar with the political developments, specially in northern India, such as his dealings with Najib-ud-daula, the Nawab of Awadh, the advance of Abdali and his own movements. At the same time he was careful about the situation in his own ‘State’, and need to supress hostile powers, such as Gohadkars. In a letter dated 3rd February 1765 he wrote, “You were instructed to march direct to Gwalior without halting at Mathura even for a moment … On reaching Gwalior, arrange for a well-equipped artillery ready there … There must be a powerful artillery at Gwalior. Make proper provision for its maintenance for a full month…”

      We learn about Ahilyabai’s expedition against the Gohadkars from a letter of Malhar Rao himself. He wrote “A message told us that you captured Gohadkar’s fort with artillery. You should now stay at Gwalior and oversee manufacture of guns and shells.”

      In the painting, the artist has shown Ahilyabai leading her troops against the Gohadkars. She is mounted on an elephant. At the four corners of her howdah are tied four quivers. She is leading the troops against the enemy. The fort of the Gohadkars is in the background. In her army one can see troops carrying matchlocks as well as mounted cavalry with drawn swords.

[Painting by Bhanwarji]


Ahilyabai wants to become Sati but persuaded not to do so 

      Khandoji’s accidental death during the siege of the Jat fortress Kumbher in 1754 was a shattering blow for his aged father, Malhar Rao Holkar. Khandoji was his only son and heir to the vast dominion created by his own efforts. Grief stricken Malharji performed the last rites of Khandoji in the sacred city of Mathura. Ahilyabai was at that time at Mahesheswar. The only male successor in the family was Ahilyabai’s son Malerao, aged about nine years. Ahilyabai was determined to become Sati like other wives of Khandoji, a practice which seems to have become widespread among the ruling Maratha families. But then who was to look after the vast territory in Malwa and on both sides of Konkan carved out by Malharji? Who was to look after Malerao whose mental development and propensities were causing worry to everyone in the family? Who was to run the administration through Saranjami system created by Malharji who was too busy in the politics at Delhi. Even though quite aged by now, he could not jeopardise his life long achievements created by enormous labour and sacrifice. Khande Rao’s totally unexpected death had darkened the future of the Holkar state and the only ray of hope was Ahilyabai, that wise, broadminded energetic, deeply devout young widow of Khandoji from whom Malharji and his wife Gautami Bai had much expectations, and whom Malharji himself had chosen to be bride of his only son. Malharji and Gautami Bai now made earnest appeals to Ahilyabai to give up the idea of becoming Sati for the sake of the only heir to the Holkar state, for the sake of the family and, above all, for the sake of the Maratha movement which aimed at reconstruction of what had been destroyed during the past many centuries of alien rule drawing inspiration from the alien laws, values and culture. Ahilyabai had been virtually brought up in the Holkar family after her marriage with Khandoji, like a daughter, and was very close to Gautamibai. Maloji’s weak state of mind and disappointing prospects added to the feeling of helplessness of Malharji and Gautamibai. At last, their earnest appeal made Ahilyabai relent in her resolve, listen to the entreaties of her inlaws and consented to live life of a widow so that she might shoulder the responsibilities which had suddenly devolved upon her as a result of Khandoji’s death. At that time no one knew that by doing so she would be imparting a new dimension to the reconstruction aspect of the Maratha movement after a long ruinous Muslim rule. In the adjoining sketch (Exhibit No. …) the artist has shown the sequence of events narrated above. Having agreed not to become Sati, Devi Ahilyabai is shown looking into the state matters.

[Sketch in black and white by Dr. Sumahendra]


Daily routine of Devi Ahilyabai 

      We are fortunate to have a reliable account of the daily routine of Devi Ahilyabai as described by Bharmal Dada, her trusted and highly respected personal attendant, to the Devi’s great admirer, eminent historian and civil servant Sir John Malcolm. Bharmal Dada had the honour to serve Devi Ahilyabai for more than thirty years.

      Devi Ahilyabai Holkar rose one hour before day-break to say her morning prayers and perform the customary ceremonies which included the sacred sight of a black cow and Tulsi plant. She then listened to the sacred books such as Bhagwat, Purana etc. for a fixed period, and thereafter distributed alms and gave food, in person, to the poor … After breakfast which consisted of vegetable diet, she again went to prayers and then took a short repose. Then dressing herself, always in a white sari, normally without a border or a very plain one, she went about two o’clock to her Darbar (Court) to attend to the state business till six in the evening. After two or three hours were devoted to meditation, puja and a frugal repast, administrative and state matters were again taken up and she continued with this business till eleven in the night.

      “This course of life, marked by prayer, abstinence, and labour knew little variation, except what was occasioned by fasts and festivals (of which she was very observant) and the occurrence of public emergencies.”

      From the above account one can easily judge how well regulated was Devi Ahilyabai’s daily life and how “all her actions were sanctified by a strict sense of duty in all its forms. In fact she made her worldly life a stepping stone to parmartha.”

      In the painting (Exhibit No. …) the artist has portrayed the above account of the daily routine of the great lady within the constraints of space for depicting such a busy life, devoted to the satisfaction of her spiritual yearning, parmartha, and duty towards the state and her subjects.

[Painting by Dr. Dharm Singh]


French Commander Dudrenec Presenting Troops for 
Devi Ahilyabai’s Inspection

      The French military experts and captains, such as Marquis de Bussy, Rene Madec, Sombre, De Boign, all made their mark as commanders and helped win many a battle for their masters, with the help of their highly disciplined and organised infantry battalions armed with muskets and possessing better artillery than that of their rivals.

      Ahilyabai’s concern for the interest of the Maratha empire is evident from her letters. She was fully aware of the growing threat posed by the British. In one of her letters she wrote that the Peshwa should increase the strength of the army, and in co-operation with other powers make a common cause and crush the English. She was also concerned about the position of the Holkars vis-a-vis Sindhia as not long ago there had been “absolute parity in respect of territory, income, and the allowance of power and resources” granted to Malharji and Ranoji, the first founders of the two Houses, by Baji Rao Peshwa and his successor, but after Malharji’s death in 1767, that of the Holkars had certainly declined, making the difference between the two far too obvious. These were some of the important considerations which seem to have weighed with Devi Ahilyabai when she approved the appointment of the French Commander Dudrenec for the purpose of raising a few battalions trained in the European manner. De Boign’s battalions in Mahadji Sindhia’s service had already made his army the best in India.

      Dudrenec raised a number of battalions for the Holkar army. These well drilled troops, armed with muskets, were trained to carry out the precise orders of their commanders to attack or to make orderly retreat or to reform after a set-back and keep their position and formation come what might. Their discipline, order of command, and system of supplying water, ration, and ammunition even during the battle gave them a distinct advantage. Dudrenee continued to serve the Holkers even after Devi’s death is 1795 and is often mentioned in Waqai Holkar in various engagements during the time of Malhar Rao II, acquitting himself honourably.

      In the painting (Exhibit No. …) Dudrenec is presenting his trained infantry battalions for inspection of Devi Ahilyabai who is standing in the balcony of her palace. Tukoji Holkar mounted on a horse is standing near Dudrenec. Though deeply religious, Devi Ahilyabai never made a compromise with her duties as ruler and protector of her subjects.

[Painting by Dr. Sumahendra]


Devi Ahilyabai in Deep Sorrow on Muktabai becoming Sati 

      Devi Ahilyabai’s daughter, Muktabai, was born in 1748. Her brother Malerao was senior to her by three years. With Malerao’s behaviour and annoying pranks becoming a source of severe disappointment to his mother, she became the chief source of love and comfort for Ahilyabai. Muktabai grew up as a young girl of agreeable nature and pleasing habits and like her famous mother, was devoted to religion and charities. Sometime later she was married to Yashwant Rao Phanse, a young Maratha Saranjami Sardar, from whom she had a son, Nathoba, for whom Devi Ahilyabai had deep love and whom she considered as her heir. However Nathoba died of consumption on 15th November 1790 and about a year later (3rd December 1791) Muktabai’s husband also passed away. Muktabai then decided to immolate herself with the dead body of Yashwant Rao. Devi Ahilyabai, so as to have at least one member of the family alive, tried her best to dissuade her daughter from taking this recourse but her answer was, “You are old mother … My only child and husband are gone and when you follow, life will be unsupportable, but the opportunity of terminating it with honour will then have passed.”

      Muktabai remained firm in her resolve and the venerable old mother “witnessed the dreadful scene with saintly calmness and firmness, which grief tried to overcome but could not shake.” Sir John Malcolm who visited the spot accompanied by Bharmal Dada thus describes this most pathetic, meloncholy and painful spectacle, “Ahilyabai walked in the procession and stood near the pile … Although suffering great agony of mind, she remained tolerably firm till the first blaze of the flame made her lose all self-command. After some convulsive effort, she so far recovered as to join in the ceremony of bathing in the Narbada when the bodies were consumed. She then returned to her palaces where for three days, having taken hardly anything to eat, she remained so absorbed in grief that she never uttered a word”. Her grief was all the more since she did not succeed in dissuading her daughter from becoming Sati whereas 36 years ago Malharji and Gautmibai had succeeded in her own case. Whether widow Muktabai would have proved as able a ruler as her mother and prevented decline of Malharji’s heritage will ever remain a moot question.

      In the painting (Exhibit No. …) the artist has depicted the whole sequence of these sad events. When all was over, Ahilyabai withdrew to a room in the palace absorbed in grief never uttering a word for three days.

[Painting by Dr. Dharm Singh]


Devi Ahilyabai Worshipping in a Shiva Temple 

      The Holkars were ardent devotees of Lord Shiva. This is evident from the construction and re-construction works undertaken by Devi Ahilyabai Holkar at the 12 Jyotirlingas (Somnath, Kashivishwanath, Omkareshwar, Rameshwar, Mahakaleshwar etc.) She built a large number of Shiva temples such as at Nasik, Kurukshetra, Ellora, Chounde and other places. In the construction of the Shiva temple at Gaya, we find Devi Ahilyabai giving detailed instructions regarding the quality of the stone being queried for the Nandi and desiring that the Assembly-hall of the temple must be “strong, beautiful and first-rate.”

      However, like any other Hindu, she also worshipped other Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Thus she built temples ddicated to Shri Ram, and Bhairav at Ayodhya. At Mathura she built Chenbehari temple and at Ujjain temples of Shri Lila Purshottam, Balaji, Ganpati, Janardan. She built temples at Chitrakuta, Pushkar, and at Prayag a Vishnu temple and regularly sent the Ganges water not only to the various Shaivite shrines but also to Dwarka, Panchavati, and Pandharpur. Her vision of the Hindu religion was not restricted by sectarianism.

      The painting (Exhibit No. …) shows Devi Ahilyabai worshipping in a Shiva temple. A few female attendants are standing near by. The Palki bearers are waiting for Devi to complete her worship. Some other devotees are waiting for their turn to worship Lord Shiva.

[Painting by Shri J.S. Chandel]


Devi Ahilyabai Inspecting Construction Work at Maheshwar 

      Shri Kshetra Maheshwar was a small Kasba prior to 1733. In that year Malharji Holkar took possession of the Kasba and the fort and had certain parts repaired while adding a few residential buildings. In 1745 he issued a warrant of protection to those who would come and settledown at Maheshwar, promising grant of land and other concessions. After this announcement, sahukars, shopkeepers, craftsmen and others began to flock to the Kasba from the surrounding territory.

      In 1767, Devi Ahilyabai made Maheshwar her capital. The construction of the palace, Government House, and the Narbada Ghat were the first works undertaken by Ahilyabai. Then the temples of Kashi Vishweshwar, Shri Ram, Shri Krishna and Shri Vitthala were built one after the other by her orders.

      The cloth weavers were allotted land for their own Peth near the fort. “Sahukars, traders and merchants from far off were invited and induced to reside in Peths named Aditwar and Mangalwar”. Malharganj was named after Malharji Holkar, Phanse-pura and Govindpura after Devi Ahilyabai’s son-in-law and her Khasgi Diwan. In course of time, Maheshwar became a centre of political, religious and cultural importance, from where the great lady guided the reconstruction of temples at Somnath, Mathura, Varanasi, Puri, Ayodhya, Gaya, and other places destroyed by Musalman rulers as per directions of the Shariat, and undertook construction of ghats, wells, rest houses for common people and the pilgrims on a scale not witnessed even in the time of Ashoka the Great. Its political importance can be judged by the fact that representatives of almost all important states and powers were either residing at Maheshwar or were regular visitors. For Nana Phadnavis, Maheshwar was the Northern Gate of the Poona’s government, for others a city of temples. In the list of 66 temples given by Shri Burway, we find temples of almost all the deities worshipped by the Hindus such as the temples of Kashi Vishweshwar, Gauri Shankar, Chaturbhujraiji, Ramji,Martand, Radha–Krishna, Vindhyavasini Devi, Ganapati, Parashuram, Maruti, Bhadra–Kali, Kala–Bhairava, Mahalaxmi, Vithala etc.

      Devi Ahilyabai took keen interest in the development of Maheshwar. In the present painting (Exhibit No. …). She is shown seeing the plans brought by an architect. His assistant with his instruments is standing nearby. Construction work is in progress in the fort and the palace with men and women carrying lime and stone. A greater part of the town and the palace look nearby complete.

[Painting by Dr. Sumahendra]


Ahilyabai’s Contingent of Women Soldiers 

      After the death of Ahilyabai’s son, Male Rao, at a young age in 1667, the question of succession to the vast territory left by Malharji Holkar cropped up. Ahilyabai firmly believed that legitimacy was on her side and she wrote to Peshwa Madhav Rao that in all fairness she should be entrusted with the task of administering her father-in-law Malhar Rao Holkar’s Saranjam which she was already looking after as per his directions. However Raghunath Rao or Raghoba Dada, the Peshwa’s uncle, had his own designs. Ahilyabai’s Minister, Chandrachuda was conspiring with him and they tried that Ahilyabai should adopt a child, their motive being that they might then be able to manipulate the situation to their own advantage. Ahilyabai informed the Peshwa “about the dangers that were ready to overwhelm her.” She was a fearless lady who had been trained by Malharji himself, after Khande Rao’s death in 1754, to meet any kind of situation. In a short time, she got a regiment of women trained in the use of muskets and other weapons to face Raghoba who was reported to be advancing towards Maheshwar. This regiment of women was to be in the fore-front under direct command of Ahilyabai. It was anticipated that Raghunath Rao (Raghoba), the victor of Punjab, would hesitate to fight against women soldiers as even a victory against them would only bring more dishonour to him as well as scorn of the people, than a defeat. His own soldiers might decline to fight against women. Faced with this dilemma, Raghunath Rao decided to give up the idea of forcing the issue with Ahilyabai. A letter from Peshwa Madhav Rao recognising Ahilyabai’s claim to administer the Saranjam of the Holkars further strengthened her position. The Peshwa also directed Raghoba to desist from all further attempts against “the respectable widow of Khande Rao, whose right to the management of affairs was indisputable.”

      The incident provides a striking example of Devi Ahilyabai’s strong character and her determination not to tolerate injustice whatever might be its source. Later, many occasions arose when she took a firm and principled stand against others, including Mahadji Scindhia and Tukoji, when she felt that they were supporting a wrong cause. The country saw that the gentle pious lady could also become Durga determined to punish the evil minded.

      In the painting (Exhibit No. …) Ahilyabai is shown discussing some points with the instructors of the women contingents. Some women soldiers are still perfecting their skill in the use of arms while those fully trained have lined up in proper order with their muskets and other weapons.


Devi Ahilyabai Transacting Business in Her Court 

      Devi Ahilyabai was very scrupulous in performing her duties as a ruler of the vast territory which included a large part of central India and territories to the north and south of Narbada, a creation of her father-in-law Malhar Rao Holkar. We learn on the authority of Bharmal Dada that she daily sat in open Darbar, without observing purdah, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., when she was accessible to the commonest of her subjects, and again attended to the State business from 9 o’clock until 11 in the night. This routine she maintained, save rare exceptions, till the end. When she took over the administration of Holkar’s territory, its annual revenue was Rs.70 lacs. As a result of her wise policies and better management, the revenue of the state rose to Rs.1 crore 5 lacs. Her thirty year long reign witnessed peace and plenty, absence of famine, social harmony, a contented populace and officials. It is creditable for Devi Ahilyabai that during her reign none of the Saranjami Sardars, who held 36 mahals, questioned her authority, and they remained loyal and respectful towards her.

      Devi Ahilyabai was very solicitous about the rights and welfare of her subjects of whichever rank they might be. As Sir John Malcolm writes, “She heard every complaint in person, and was always accessible, patient and unwearied in the investigation of most insignificant cases when appeals were made for her decision. … She gave a large part of central India peace and good administration during a most turbulent period and her 30 year long rule is regarded as a model of benevolent and effective government.”

      In this painting (Exhibit No. …) Devi Ahilyabai is shown discussing the State matters with her sardars and advisors. As usual, she is dressed in a plain white sari with a bindi of sandalwood paste on her forehead. She did not wear any ornaments save a rosary of beads. Few rulers in the long history of India have been as industrious and as solicitous about the prosperity and welfare of their subjects as Devi Ahilyabai Holkar.

[Painting by Bhanwarji]


Khande Rao’s Death 

      Khande Rao, the only son of Malhar Rao Holkar, was born in 1720 A.D. In 1734, he married Ahilyabai. Khande Rao grew up into a dashing cavalry commander, very sensitive about his own prestige and honour of his House, and proud of his troops. He participated in the Maratha campaign in Rajputana (1753) and in November 1753 arrived near Delhi where both Imad, the Mir Bakshi, and Intizam, the Wazir, tried to win his support on their side. On 10th December 1753, the Emperor sent 22 thousand gold coins and robe of honour for him which he rejected saying that he was not a servant of the Emperor and that he had come on his father, Malharji’s orders to join Imad, the Mir Bakshi, in his campaign against Surajmal Jat who had recently plundered the environs of Delhi and carried away considerable wealth. In January 1754, the Marathas approached the Jat forts of Deeg, Bharatpur and Kumbher to recover arrears of Chauth from Surajmal who had taken position in Kumbher fort. The siege dragged on for want of siege guns. On c.15 March 1754, Khande Rao, who had covered lanes right upto the walls of the Jat fort made, arrived in a palki and was inspecting the trenches when a Zamburak ball hit him causing his death. Malhar Rao was “mad with grief and anger at the death of his beloved son and vowed to extirpate the Jats in revenge.” Malharji first went to Mathura to perform the funeral rites of his son in the sacred city. The Emperor, the Mir Bakshi, even Surajmal Jat expressed deepest sorrow on the death of Khandoji but the gallant heir to Malharji had gone for ever.

      In the Sketch (Exhibit No. …) Khandoji is shown inspecting the trenches near the covered passage going up to the walls of Kumbher fort. His palki is placed nearby. Some soldiers and officers are accompanying him. The cannons and the Zamburaks on the fort walls are pouring fire. Khandoji is in soldier’s dress, with sword, shield etc. In the other part of the sketch, he is shown lying on an improvised cot surrounded by physicians and officers who seem to have lost all hopes of his survival. In the third part, Malharji is shown giving Mukhagni (fire) to the pyre of his son.

[Sketch in black & white by Dr. Sumahendra]


Devi Ahilyabai’s Dislike for Flattery 

      Devi Ahilyabai was of a cheerful disposition which gave her personality a welcome warmth and a peculiar charm. By nature she was simple and straightforward as is evident from her letters and various incidents in her long reign. She always wrote to the point without wasting a word and her directions and commands were clear and direct. Her simplicity not only in her dress but also in her nature was a widely known fact. It is therefore not surprising that she had strong dislike for flattery. In all her appointments she never allowed unworthy people to occupy senior posts; those who wished to advance in her estimation and career through flattery had no chance in her regime. An incident exemplifying her dislike for flattery, a weakness of most of the renowned persons, is the subject of this sketch (Exhibit No. …).

      A poet brought a panegyrical poem full of vain and highly exaggerated encomiums praising the virtues and qualities of Devi. In any other court, the poet would have been richly rewarded by a land grant or handful of gold coins or a palki but Devi Ahilyabai, after hearing a few verses in her praise, observed that she was doing only that what her duty required of her and did not deserve all the high- flown exaggerated encomiums which the poet had used to describe her qualities and glory, and that all these flattering words were highly embarrassing to her and she was not one to tolerate such false praise. Saying so she ordered that the manuscript brought by the poet be thrown in the Narbada river. Hereafter no one dared to please her or win her approval or admiration by flattery or hyperbolic praise.

      The artist has tried to depict this incident which ought to serve as a lesson to all who happen to have power. The incident shows not only her love for truth, simplicity and honesty but also her innate modesty as well as a strong character. It was for such qualities that Devi Ahilyabai Holkar was admired by all her contemporaries and won enduring fame and respect of her countrymen.

[Sketch in black & white by Dr. Sumahendra]


Ahilyabai seeing sketches of the roads built by her 

      Devi Ahilyabai was a great builder of temples, dharmashalas for travellers and pilgrims, bathing ghats at the sacred spots, wells, chattis such as a Badrinath, alms houses etc. Her works were for the utility, comfort and convenience of the common men, and these were built throughout Bharatvarsha. Behind every structure she built or rebuilt had an object – to do that which might give satisfaction to the people, contribute to their happiness and restore in them a sense of pride and a happy feeling that a frail maternal figure from faraway Maheshwar was there to take care of them and to right the wrongs inflicted upon them for centuries, by Musalman rulers who tried to confirm their policies and conduct according to the guidelines laid down in Arabia in the 6th century! Devi Ahilyabai always attached importance to trade and commercial activities and encouraged the Sahukars and other businessmen to come and settle in her territory and carry out trading activities. For them need of roads was as important as was for the pilgrims coming from different parts of India to visit the holy places held in common veneration. With these twin purposes Ahilyabai built some of the most difficult roads specially the one which connected the regions to the north and south of the Vindhyas which not only gave impetus to trade but was also of much convenience to the common people and the pilgrims.

      Another road attributed to her runs from Kalighat to Puri and was particularly useful for the pilgrims of Bengal visiting Jagannath Puri, which is one of the four Dhams or Holy places of the Hindus. The building of the roads was part of Devi Ahilyabai’s plan to ensure the prosperity of the people, specially her own subjects, and to facilitate the growth of oneness among the people which their sacred places or tirthasthals fostered to a very great extent.

      In the sketch Devi Ahilyabai is examining the sketches of the roads which were built by her.

[Sketch in black & white by Dr. Dharm Singh]


Ahilyabai Dispensing Justice 

      Devi Ahilyabai’s love for justice was well known in her own times. Her subjects had implicit faith in her and she was the final court of appeal whom anyone, a Saranjami Sardar to the poorest peasant, could approach with confidence of getting justice. There are records of several cases which throw light on the manner she dealt with the cases brought before her and gave her decision to settle a dispute or to remove a grievance. Thus when there were several claimants to some property or inheritance of right of Watan, she would ask the Kamavisdar of the town or the area to investigate the matter, collect all the facts relevant to the case and produce them before the Panchayat and also submit the facts of the case to her. In case the decision of Panchayat did not satisfy either of the party she herself decided the case after hearing both the sides. In one case we find Devi Ahilyabai ordering even refund of the fine deposited in the State treasury when she noticed that a person was fined by the caste Panchayat as well as by the State official and the complainant had brought this fact to the notice of Devi Ahilyabai. In another case, in which a person was heavily under debt and the lender wanted to get the debt discharged, Ahilyabai decided that repayment should be ordered only if it was found that the debtor was in a position to pay.

      There are several cases on record when Ahilyabai personally heard appeal for justice and gave her decision after ascertaining the facts. The most important point to note is that her Court of Justice was accessible to the poorest and weakest and she spared no pains to know the truth of the matter so that justice might be done and her subjects protected from injustice whatever might be its source, including the State officers and Saranjami Sardars.

      In the sketch (Exhibit No. …) some poor peasants have brought their grievances for Devi Ahilyabai’s consideration in the hope of redressal.

[Sketch in black & white by Dr. Sumahendra]


Devi Ahilyabai examining the plans of Kashi Vishwanath and Somnath Temples 

      Devi Ahilyabai Holkar built hundreds of temples, bathing ghats at pilgrim centres and undertook various other religious and chartiable works. Among the temples which she built in all parts of India, two were particiuarly significant and their reconstruction gave immense pleasure and satisfaction to crores and crores of Hindus. Both Somnath and Kashi Vishwanath were held in highest veneration by the people, being two of the twelve Jyotirlingas, and were therefore favourite target of the Musalman rulers. Only about a century ageo Somnath and Kashivishwanath temples were razed to the ground on Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s orders. Earlier Mahmud Ghaznavi and Sultan Alauddin Khalji had committed this insolence and barbarity. Reconstruction of these temples by Ahilyabai Holkar therefore became all the more significant and cause of wide spread rejoicings. A grievous hurt inflicted on the psyche of the nation was being healed by a frail widowed queen residing at Maheshwar.

      An inscription at Varanasi throws light on the construction of Kashi Vishwanath temple by Ahilyabai. After praising Malhar Rao Holkar, the inscription says “… by her virtues Devi Ahilyabai had secured a permanent throne in the hearts of men … God Vishwanath appeared to her in dream and commanded (her to build the destroyed temple again). A worshipper of Tarkeshwar explained to her the dream. With his consultation the Devi then built a splendid temple of Kashi Vishwanath … A great sacrifice was performed, and amidst great pomp and ceremony, the idol was installed on Thursday the Shravan Vadi 8, Shaka 1712 (1790); the worshipper Murari got also permanent appointment and abode in Kashi …”

      The idol in the Somnath temple built by Ahilyabai in Kathiawad near the place when the earlier temple was destroyed by Aurangzeb twice, was consecrated in 1785 amidst widespread celebrations. It was a great event for all the Hindus of the country who rejoiced at Devi Ahilyabai’s attempt to built up what was broken asunder by the devotees of alien culture, values and religion.

      In the sketch (Exhibit No. …) the artist has shown Devi Ahilyabai examining the plans of the two temples which she ardently desired to rebuild. The architect is showing the plans and his assistant is standing nearby with his instruments.

[Sketch in black & white by Dr. Sumahendra]


Ahilyabai’s Territory 

      A major part of Devi Ahilyabai’s territory was in Malwa, a contiguous stretch of land, and while the remaining was in the form of scattered areas in as far off regions in Bundelkhand, Antarved, Khandesh, Narwar, Mewar, Jaipur etc. In Malwa, the Holkar territory was divided into 28 mahals, in Swadesh Prant it comprised 6 mahals and 15 villages, in Prant Nemar, it had 9 Mahals, in Khandesh 7 mahals and 9 villages, in Prant Antarved 7 mahals, in Prant Bundelkhand 2 parganas were under the Holkars, in Prant Dhundhar 2 mahals, in Prant Mewar 1 pargana, in Prant Narwar 5 village, in Prant Hadoti 7 mahals. This was broadly speaking the position. While in Malwa and Khandesh it was a close knit territory, some others had been acquired during 1745-65. From the entire territory, the annual revenue in the time of Malharji was Rs.75 lacs which during Devi Ahilyabai’s time, due to her wise policies and good administration, rose to Rs.1 crore 5 lac 37 thousand, which was more than thrice the revenue of Jaipur State at that time. Among the more important mahals were Patan, Zabuwa, Chikhalda (held by Govina Rao Buley, Rs.1,95,000/-), Mahatpur, Betma, Utran (Rajewagh, Rs.3,00,000/-); Karhai, Bude Narayangarh, parts of Raipur (Narayan Rao, Rs.96,000/-); Jaitpur, Machalpur (assigned to Lambhate, Rs.60,000/-); Tarana Mahal (Yashwant Rao Phanse, son-in-law of Devi Ahilyabai, Rs.1,15,000/-); Sawer Mahal (Baburao Waghmare, Rs.1,04,000/-); Panchpahad (Naro Ganesh, Rs.50,000/-); Jawara (Bhagwat and Khatke, Rs.60,000/-); Adawad, Ahur, Dhaiwad, Raipur (Rs.60,000/-). Some others were Pimploda (Govindrao Mahadik); Bagadra; Hasalpur, Harsola, Jamb, part of Budhe (Rs.33,000/-); Wadgaon (Pise, Rs.5,000/-); Nimbaheda (half, Shinde Chaundikar), Kaytha (Keshirao Holkar), Mauza Kasod (Mewar). Besides, there were some smaller jagirs or Saranjams also. The territory of the Holkars included seven forts – Maheshwar, Chandwad, Sendhwa, Asirgarh, Galna, Kushalgad and Hinglajgad.

      Even in Malharji time Indore, Maheshwar and Gwalior were emerging as the main bases of the House of Holkars. There are several letters from which the importance he attached to Gwalior becomes obvious. He wished this place to be well garrisoned and bristling with artillery to answer any threat from the north, especially for his Saranjam in Malwa. It goes to the credit of Devi Ahilyabai that she could maintain the vast territory – a legacy of her father-in-law – not only intact but as probably the best administered State in those times, where land-revenue was very modest, where justice prevailed and where famines, wars and oppression were conspicuous by their absence.


Khande Rao’s Chhatri 

      Khande Rao, Ahilyabai’s consort and the only son of Malhar Rao Holkar died on c. 15 March 1754 during the siege of the Jat fort Kumbher when he was struck down by a Zamburak shell. Though Devi Ahilyabai was determined to become Sati, she relented on the persuation of Malharji and Gautmibai to take care of the family, Holkar’s vast territory and her son, the only heir to Malharji creation.

      Devi Ahilyabai built a cenotaph near Kumbher in memory of her late husband. As was her nature, she was very particular about the progress of the construction work at the chhatri and other details. In a letter to Tukoji Holkar she wrote, “How far the work has advanced and what kind of stone is used. Enquiries should be made and all needs to be attended to immediately and the clerk and Khidmatgar should be ordered to mend matters where necessary.” In his letter of Margashirsha Budi 9, Tukoji assured her that the work on the Chhatri was progressing apace. “The quality of local stone is not very superior and the clerk and Khidmatgar have been instructed to be on look out for better one.” He further reported, “Riots and disturbances have already spoilt the garden. It is being replanted. We are trying to secure some more land from the Jat for the purpose of garden.” Tukoji further wrote, “A statue must be installed in the chhatri. Statues can be made this side but as I have already stated, the stone is not of the best quality. I have therefore to request Your Highness that the statutes be carved there (i.e. in Malwa). However your orders, whatever they be, will be honoured …”

      The chhatri now stands in Gangarsoli village, 5 kms from Kumber. It was built in 1754 after signing of a treaty between Malharji and Maharaja Suraj Mal Jat. According to one version Khandoji was cremated here. The memorial/cenotaph was maintained jointly by the rulers of Indore and Bharatpur.



Devi Ahilyabai listening to the Scriptures 

      “Hours snatched 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”, writes Sir John Malcolm about Devi Ahilyabai. We learn from the account of Bharmal Dada who served Devi for more than thirty years that she daily heard sacred books of the Hindus for a fixed period. This was an essential part of Ahilyabai most regulated life. Though Ahilyabai could read, and write excellent Marathi, but listening to Katha-vachaka who expounded many subtle points quoting relevant excerpts from various other works and recited sakhis, abhangas and dohas in musical tones, has been an old practice in India and is continuing even today. Ramayana, Bhagwat, Puranas, Jnaneshwari and many other works have been the favourite texts of the katha vachakas. Devi Ahilyabai worshipped all the Gods and Goddesses in Hindu pantheon, and built temples at Mathura, Dwarka, Ayodhya, Panchkuti, Badrinath, Rameshwaram, Gaya, Puri etc. dedicated to these Gods. Thus katha-vachak or recitor of the katha had ample options to choose from the sacred books of the Hindus.

      In this sketch (Exhibit No… ) Devi Ahilyabai is shown listening to sacred scriptures. A few attendants and ladies of the family are also listening the katha-vachak attentively. Devi’s Ahilyabai’s life was a model for those who wished to strike a perfect balance between fulfilling duties and obligations of a ruler of a State and gathering sustenance for spiritual elevation of self.

[Black & white sketch by Dr. Sumahendra]


Ahilyabai having vision of the Temples destroyed and

their re-construction by her 

      After recogniton of Ahilyabai’s right to administer the vast territories of Malharji Holkar by Peshwa Madhav Rao in 1767, one of the early decisions taken by her was to perform tarpana to formally dedicate the entire personal treasure, amounting to about sixteen crore rupees, which she had inherited from Malharji, for religious and charitable purposes. For this she took some Tulsi leaves and Ganges water in her palm and sprinkled over the treasure while a learned pandit recited the mantras.

      The task of construction and reconstruction of temples and to build dharmashalas, ghats etc. at the Tirthas of the Hindus throughout Bharatvarsha was a gigantic one. The sacred places of the Hindus – Varanasi, Ayodhya, Somnath, Puri, Ujjain, Mathura, Kurukshetra and hundreds of others had suffered widespread damage and destruction at the hands of the Musalman rulers, the most recent example being the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb The destruction and desecration of the holy shrines at Mathura, Somnath, Kashi Vishwanath, Kalkaji (Delhi) etc. had deeply hurt the feelings of the Hindus and the remains of these magnificent temples lying in dust and neglect were constant reminder of the humiliation suffered by the Hindus at the hands these uncivilized people who identified themselves with alien values, thought and culture. Devi Ahilyabai being a very devout lady of strong will and character took up this grand but difficult task of reconstruction of temples, dharamshalas, bathing ghats throughout Bharatvarsha – from Badrinath to Rameshwaram and from Somnath and Dwarka to Jagannathpuri – to cure the bruised spirit and hurt pride of the people of the country and to give them happiness.

      Though Ahilyabai had hundreds of tasks to attend to being ruler of a large territory, she accomplished this gigantic task of re-construction, taking personal interest in the progress of each project, whether at Varanasi, Gaya or Puri enquiring about the quality of stone, arranging to send expenses and writing personal letters to different rulers – the Nawab of Karnool or Hyderabad or to the Raja of Orissa expressing her desire to build a temple or a rest-house or a for purchasing land for grazing for the cows, always getting consent on account of the respect and prestige enjoyed by her. In course of accomplishing this gigantic task, which has no parallel in our history, she created some fine specimen of Hindu architecture.

      In the first part of the painting, we find Ahilyabai thinking in a melancholy mood the scenes of the destruction of Hindu temples by rulers like Aurangzeb. She is in a sad contemplative mood. In the other part of the painting, the artist has shown her imagining how she would like to see those temples reconstructed.

[Painting by Bhanwarji]


Ahilyabai Rewarding the Weavers at Maheshwar 

      Malhar Rao Holkar gained possession of Indore in 1733 and the Kasba and the fort of Maheshwar a few years earlier to it. He took steps to develop both by guaranteeing protection to sahukars, traders and others. When Ahilyabai took reins of the government in 1767, she made Maheshwar, her capital and invited sahukars, merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans to come and settle down at Maheshwar. As conditions in almost all parts of India were very chaotic at this time, while there was complete peace, tranquility and good government in Devi’s large domain, people not only from the neighbouring areas but also from distant towns came and settled down at Maheshwar. Ahilyabai allotted land to the weavers for their peth below the fort. The sahukars, traders, and merchants were also allotted their peths named Aditwar, Mangalwar etc. Devi Ahilyabai gave patronage to weavers and took personal interest in their work and welfare. In course of time, Maheshwari saris produced by these weavers became famous for their cloth, designs, and lightness. The art of weaving and printing these saris has continued from generation to generation among these weavers. In recent years, the Royal Holkar House has again come forward to help the declining demand for the Maheshwari saris.

      In the painting (Exhibit No. …) Devi Ahilyabai is personally rewarding some of the weavers for their good work. She always felt happy among her subjects and never failed to reward good work and good service. In the background are Maheshwar town, studded with temples built by Ahilyabai, the houses of the weavers, the looms and other equipment used by them. There was no limit to Devi Ahilyabai’s interests and pains she would willingly take for the prosperity and welfare of her subjects and whether it was the development of a town, such as Indore or Maheshwar, or construction of a temple in far off Gaya, or Awadh or Puri or Badrinath, her eye for detail and sincere interest in every project, including improvement and development of Maheshwari sarees, ensured its success to perfection.


Devi Ahilyabai is her young days

Taking a dip in Holy Narbada 

      In Devi Ahilyabai’s life, Maheshwar had a special place. The town on the bank of Narbada came in possession of Malhar Rao Holkar in 1728 A.D. Ahilyabai passed many happy years after her marriage with Malhar Rao’s son Khande Rao in the fort and the palace built here overlooking the sacred river. Later, Maheshwar became a centre of great political, cultural and religious activity when Ahilyabai made it her capital.

      In her glorious life Ahilyabai had to suffer unusually large number of bereavements of loved ones which could have broken the heart of an ordinary soul. But there were many happy years in her life too when she was young, wife of a dashing Maratha commander Khande Rao and daughter in law of Malhar Rao Holkar whose name and fame had spread over a major part of the country and who was now master of an expansive territory. By nature cheerful and lively, she too had happy and carefree times when like any other young Marathi girl of 18 or 20, she passed many happy hours with her friends playing and frolicking in the garden or bathing in the Narbada with her sakhis. We all are familiar with the one portrait of her of later years – a pious sombre, dignified lady who had witnessed many personal tragedies and who could foresee that the future of the House of Holkars was not that bright which she had hoped for and for which she had striven so hard, and often forget her happy times in the early years of her most fruitful and remarkable life.

      In this painting (Exhibit o. …) the artist has tried to capture those happy days in her life showing young Ahilyabai coming out of the waters of the Narbada. A few lady attendants are ready with clothes and other articles while a few of her lady companions are preparing to come out of water.

[Painting by Shri J.C. Chandel]


Ahilyabai Supervising Manufacture of Guns 

      So long as Prince Khande Rao was alive. Ahilyabai led a homely life, like any other young Maratha lady of her age, looking after the family and household matters. But sudden death of her husband during the siege of the Jat fort Kumbher in 1754 made her undertake responsibilities which normally devolve upon the male members of the family. Under her father-in-law Malhar Rao’s care began her training more suited for a younger prince, and, as time passed, she had gained enough experience to be entrusted with any job requiring skill and responsibility, including those concerning the army. From the surviving betters of Malharji we get a fair idea of the responsibilities which she had to discharge under affectionate but strict instructions of her father-in-law. In a letter dt. 31st January 1765, Rajshri Malharji wrote to her “… Reach Gwalior (and) see that 1000 or at least 500 balls of big guns and as many as possible of small guns are manufactured. Arrange also for the manufacture of 100 small guns. Purchase a hundred select vessels big enough to hold one ser of powder each, for arrows … I have drawn your attention to the subject of small guns. Prepare first a model of a ball and then manufacture them. First make ample provision for expenditure for one full month of artillery and then proceed to Gwalior …”

      In his letter of 3rd February 1765 Malharji wrote to his daughter-in-law, “With rapid strides reach the Chambal, cross it and march to Gwalior. Arrange for a well-equipped artillery there…”

      The training of Ahilyabai in war, strategy and manufacture of arms was proceeding well but Malharji’s death in 1765 followed 9 months later that of her son Maloji brought a change in Ahilyabai’s role. While Peshwa Madhav Rao recognised her right to administer Malharji’s territories, on her recommendation Tukoji Holkar was entrusted all military matters and command. Devi Ahilyabai was no longer required to lead armies or look after manufacture of weapons. This was now done by Tukoji who always kept her informed about his military needs and the campaigns that he undertook in consultation with the Peshwa and Nana Phadnavis.

      In the sketch (Exhibit No. …) Ahilyabai is shown supervising the manufacture of guns, shells or balls for large and small guns and boxes to hold arrows as directed by Malharji Holkar. Some balls large and small are already made, a newly cast ball is being shown to her and is approved by her. An Iron smith is showing a newly cast small gun. The gun-carriages are parked in one corner. An official is counting the guns cast already; the bellows of the iron smiths are being worked continuously.

[Black & white sketch by Bhanwarji]



      The write-ups will be re arranged according to the final layout decided for the exhibition. These have been written keeping in view the space constraints.

      A few errors which might have crept in will be corrected in the final draft. Paintings which are ready are being sent.



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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. i m in indian navy.i m happy to know that pal baghel holkar are improving our old history.jay malhar jay samaj…pawan baghel

  2. Czar Alexander III

  3. great i like it

  4. I need to to thank you for this fantastic read!! I absolutely enjoyed every
    bit of it. I have got you saved as a favorite to check out new things you post…

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