For thirty years her reign of peace,
The land in blessing did increase;
And she was blessed by every tongue,
By stern and gentle, old and young.
Yea, even the children at their mothers feet-Joanna Baillie
The history of India has its own share of great women, throughout the ages who played a significant role as rulers, poets, warriors. Be it the Gond queen Rani Durgavati who defied the mighty Mughal army of Emperor Akbar, or the brave Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi who fought against the British their deeds were a part of folklore and history. In such an illustrious pantheon, there was Ahilyabai Holkar, the daughter in law of Malhar Rao Holkar, the founder of the Holkar kingdom. Widowed at a young age, took over as queen, she takes her place in history among other great queens like Catherine II of Russia, Elizabeth I of England and Margaret I of Denmark. Known for her wisdom and administrative ability she rebuilt many Hindu temples, offered facilities for pilgrims, and built a new capital at Maheswar on the banks of the Narmada.
On the 31st of May, 1725, Ahilyabai was born in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra to a Dhangar village patil Malkoji Shinde. Though she did not go to school, nevertheless her father taught her to read and write at home. Fortune unexpectedly came her way, when the ruler of Malwa, Malharrao Holkar stopped at her village on his way to Pune and saw the 8 year old girl at a temple. Impressed by her piety, he took her home as a bride for his son Khande Rao. Married in 1733, tragedy struck Ahilyabhai when her husband was killed in the Siege of Kumher fort by a cannonball. It’s believed a grief stricken Ahilyabai wanted to commit Sati, but her father in law dissuaded her, saying she was needed more than ever now, as there was no male heir, and only she could take care of the kingdom. Malhar Rao trained Ahilyabai in administrative and military matters, he had full faith in her ability and she did not let him down.
Proceed to Gwalior after crossing the Chambal. You may halt there for four or five days. You should keep your big artillery and arrange for its ammunition as much as possible….On the march you should arrange for military posts being located for protection of the road.
An excerpt from a letter that illustrates Malhar Rao’s faith in Ahilyabai, in one of the most tumultuous period of Indian history. Malhar Rao passed away in 1766, and though her son Malerao, took over he was too weak a ruler and passed away the very next year. She petitioned the Peshwa to take over the reign of Malwa herself, as she had been trained in military and administration by then. Though some of the nobles objected to this, she had the full support of the Holkar army. On many occasions Ahilyabai had led the army herself from the front armed with bows and arrows on her elephant. The Peshwa granted her permission to rule in 1767, and she was ably assisted by Tukojirao Holkar, the commander in chief of the army and her adopted son too in a way. With Tukojirao advising her on military matters, Ahilyabai proceeded to rule over Malwa in a wise and sagacious manner. She never let personal rivalries affect her administration, once reinstated a Brahmin who had opposed her earlier. She never observed purdah, held daily durbars and was always accessible to the public.
Her first principle of government appears to have been moderate assessment, and an almost sacred respect for the native rights of village officers and proprietors of land. She heard every complaint in person; and although she continually referred cases to courts of equity and arbitration, and to her ministers for settlement, she was always accessible. So strong was her sense of duty on all points connected with the distribution of justice, that she is represented as not only patient but unwearied in the investigation of the most insignificant cases, when appeals were made to her decision.” – Sir John Malcolm.
Ahilayabai ruled at a time, when the whole of Central India, Maharashtra, was facing power struggles one way or another, as well as intense battles being fought for the throne. It was to her credit, that during her 30 year long reign, Malwa was never once attacked and remained an oasis of stability and peace. While Indore developed under Ahilyabhai’s reign, into a prosperous trading town, she also developed her own capital at Maheswar on the banks of the Narmada. She built many temples at Maheswar, a fort, a palace, repaired many ghats. She also built many forts, roads in Malwa, donated to temples and sponsored many Hindu festivals. She also built many temples, ghats, wells, tanks outside Malwa too all over India. Maheswar during her time, turned out to be a center for literature and arts. The famous Marathi poet Moropant, the shahir Anatapandhi was patronized by her as well as the Sanskrit scholar Khushali Ram. The textile industry flourished in Maheshwar during her reign, and the city is home to the famous Maheswari sari. She also patronized many craftsmen, sculptors, artistes who made the city their home. Trade was encouraged in the kingdom, and many merchants, farmers, cultivators rose to affluence during her time.
Ahilyabai treated her subjects like her own children, and invested a lot of money in public works. Trees were planted along roads, wells were dug and rest houses set up for travelers. She reached out to the poor and homeless, gave them shelter and dignity. When the Bhils were harassing the caravans she talked out with them, persuaded them to give up their nomadic lifestyle granted them land for cultivation. Her daily routine was quite simple, rose an hour before daybreak to say her prayers, read the scriptures, and distributed alms to Brahmins. After breakfast, she took a short break, and then attended durbar listening to people, settling disputes, taking decisions on administrative matters. A devout Shaivaite, she would mark Shri Shankara on all royal proclamations along with her signature.
While Ahilyabai built and also repaired many temples all over India, some of her more famous works are rebuilding the Kashi Viswanath temple after it was destroyed by Aurangzeb, there is also an Ahilya Ghat at Varanasi as well as the Ahilya Dwarkeswar temple. Apart from that she also repaired the Manikarnika, Dasasvamedh Ghats, built Dharamshalas there.
The Chatri of her father in law Malhar Rao Holkar was built at Alampur in MP as well as many temples here. Also built the Treta Ram temple in Ayodhya. From Badrinath to Dwarka, from Omkareswar to Puri, from Gaya to Rameswaram, every holy pilgrimage site in India, had a contribution in one way or other from Ahilyabhai Holkar be it temples, ghats, dharamshalas, sponsoring of poojas, she did a yeoman service to the cause of Hinduism.
On 13th August 1795 Ahilyabai Holkar passed away, but her legacy would remain forever, in the form of temples, public works, chattris, dharamshalas. At every major pilgrimage center in India, you would find some memory or other of her work, not to mention Maheshwar itself.