AHILYABAI HOLKAR (1725–1795)
Ahilyabai was a princess married into the house of Holkar, rulers of Indore, who ruled Indore as regent after her husband’s death and is remembered for her bravery.
Daughter of Mankoji Shinde, she was born in Aurangabad. At the age of eight she impressed the Peshwa, the titular ruler of the Maratha nation, with her pleasant behaviour and looks, and he took her under his wing and married her to Khanduji, the son of his trusted assistant Malharrao, but Khanduji neglected her and indulged in various pleasures. Malharrao became the virtual ruler of the Marathas after the Peshwa’s death and entrusted all state responsibilities to his daughter-in-law. He trained her in the fine points of revenue collection, writing dispatches and management of the army, and on many occasions she accompanied him on campaigns. On one such campaign her husband died, and she prepared to commit ritual suicide (sati) on his pyre. Her father-in-law Malharrao persuaded her to live and rule Indore as regent for her son, Malerao who was the nominal subedar, or title-holder. Indore, under her rule, became an island of peace and prosperity in a sea of violence, and was proverbial for justice and wisdom.
In the beginning of her reign a Rajput clan rose in revolt, and she personally crushed it. Similarly when a Bhil tribe grew troublesome she arrested their leader. She used force and compassion as and when they were required. Raghoba, the Peshwa’s uncle, once planned to invade Indore, but Ahilyaabai organised a women’s regiment and sent a message to him: ‘It seems that you want to meet me in the field. I am prepared. I am but a woman, and it will not add to your glory even if I am defeated. But think of the consequences in case the reverse happens.’ This showed Ahilyabai’s shrewd understanding of political realities. Raghoba in the end visited her and apologised.
In spite of the glory she earned for herself, her son-in-law’s death and the sati of her only daughter were a great shock to her. She retired to her palace and lived a life of austerity till her death on 13 August 1795. She has been described by Sir John Malcolm in these words, ‘The success of Ahilya Bai in the internal administration of her domain was altogether wonderful …. She certainly appears, within her limited sphere, to have been one of the purest and most exemplary rulers that ever existed.’
Ahilyabai’s many public works remain as monuments to her goodness in the form of highways, wells, ghats, rest houses and temples. The road from Calcutta to Varanasi and the temples of Somnath in Saurastra, of Vishnu at Gaya and of Vishweshwara at Varanasi are some of her works surviving today.