Rani Avanti Bai Lodhi is one of the unsung heroines of the Indian Independence movement.
Avanti Bai was born in August 1831 in a Zamindar family at a village in Madhya Pradesh. As a child, Avanti was fiercely independent. She, like some of her contemporaries, was trained in horse-riding, sword-fighting and archery and was very proficient in all of them. She was beautiful and intelligent and had, over the years, learnt the art of statecraft and military strategy.
Word spread about the charm and charisma of this bold and beautiful maiden. It reached the ears of the Raja of Ramgarh (presently known as Dindori) who was on the look-out for a suitable bride for his son Prince Vikramaditya Lodhi. The alliance fructified and Avanti Bai was married to Prince Vikramaditya Lodhi in 1849.
In 1851, the king died and Vikramaditya Lodhi was crowned king of Ramgarh. Avanti Bai had two sons Aman Singh and Sher Singh and life was going on smoothly till Vikramaditya fell ill. The Rani had to take the administration in her hands because her sons were too young. The British who waited like wolves for such opportunities immediately appointed an administrator by the Court of wards. (Court of wards was legal body created by the East India Company in 1797 and this body had the power to supervise and control the finances of states where the rulers had died or were not ‘capable’ to rule. Through this body the British poked their nose in choosing heirs and grabbed the territory eventually).
Their reasoning was that the King was not in a position to rule and take decisions independently and the princes were too young and therefore they did what they did. The Rani vehemently opposed this action of the British. In spite of that, the British appointed one Sheikh Mohammed as the administrator.
One should reflect here as to how the British looked down upon women. Our country did not discriminate women in education. This can be seen in so many cases right from Rani Durgavathi of the 16th century to Rani Velu Nachiyar who lived in the beginning of 18th century to Jhalkari Bai and Rani Laxmi Bai who lived in the 19th century. We see that they had mastered so many languages and were trained in all the so-called ‘manly skills’ and even commanded armies (sometimes all-women armies too). And in most cases, the fathers had played a big role in grooming their daughters. This is in stark contrast to the British (who considered themselves superior in culture and civilization) who did not consider women capable enough to rule. To suppress women further they brought in rules like the Doctrine of Lapse wherein if a male heir was absent, the land was taken over by them.
Rani Avanti Bai was furious at the appointment of an administrator and was planning on how to retaliate.
In the meanwhile, her husband Vikramaditya Lodhi passed away. In 1857, Avanti Bai took a bold step and threw out the British appointed administrator. The Sepoy mutiny had just started in May 1857 and there was chaos everywhere. Avanti Bai decided that this was the best time for her to take on the British. But hers was a small kingdom. So she sent handwritten letters to all the chieftains and rulers around Ramgarh.
Interestingly, it is said that she sent a box of bangles along with each letter with the following message – “If you have any intention of protecting the honour of our motherland and want to free her from the slavery of the invaders, join me with your armies. If not, wear the bangles sent with this message and hide in your houses”.
Most of the chieftains and rulers joined Rani Avanti Bai. In December 1857, she led her 4000 strong troops to a place called Khairi, near Mandla. Mandla which was, in the early sixteenth century ruled by Rani Durgavathi, a heavily forested place with a large tribal population. This had become a part of the British territory when the British had snatched it from the Marathas in the third Anglo – Maratha war.
The British condemned the agricultural practices of the locals and were imposing their own practices on them. They also imposed high rates of tax which the local people were not able to pay. Compelled to take loans from money-lenders for paying taxes, their lives were miserable. Hence the locals were enraged with the British and ready to rebel against them.
In Mandla, Rani Avanti Bai attacked the British and there was a bloody war. The British had expected easy victory but they were terribly defeated.
Shocked beyond words by the valour of this Rani, the British were seething with anger and wanted to take revenge. So, after two months they launched an attack on Ramgarh. Rani Avanti Bai and her troops fought extremely well, but this time the British were determined to crush her and had come with lot of weaponry. When they could not defeat the Rani’s army, they set fire to the place to destroy it completely. The Rani and her people had to seek asylum in the jungles of the hills of Devharigarh.
But the Rani could not resist from fighting even as she was hiding. The British were still staying at Ramgarh with their forces and Rani Avanti Bai, operating from the forests resorted to guerilla warfare, creating lot of confusion and chaos among the British forces. The same chief, General Waddington whom she had fought with at Mandla was commanding the forces here.
Over the days, the British increased their forces and filled Ramgarh with soldiers. They also surrounded the hills of Devharigarh and Rani Avanti Bai and her small army were trapped. Now, they came in large numbers hounding her to capture her alive. It was then that Rani Avanti Bai realized that just determination and grit alone without adequate manpower was not enough defeat a powerful enemy.
She had a trustworthy companion by name Umrao Singh and she told him her apprehension of being captured alive. She is said to have quoted the name of Rani Durgavathi who did not let the enemy touch her while she was alive and said that, that act of Rani Durgavathi should be never forgotten.
Umrao was an equally brave warrior and he started slaughtering the advancing British army but soon was lost in the maze of the soldiers. Rani Avanti Bai then decided to kill herself and jumped from the horse and drove her sword right through her belly. With blood gushing out, she fell down semi-conscious. General Waddington stopped the fighting and rushed to her and tried to revive her. Even in that moment he asked her who all were supporting her. But she had closed her eyes forever chanting “Hari Om!”. This was on the 20th March, 1858.
Like other unsung warriors, this history was not being spoken about for a long time. Later the Narmada Valley Development Authority has named a hydro-project in Jabalpur after her – Rani Avanti Bai Lodhi Sagar. The Government has also issued a postage stamp in her honour.