This is the sixth story in the series ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav – Celebrating seventy-five years of Independence’. This time it is a story of a woman warrior whose contribution to the Independence movement is not known to many of us.
This brave heroine Veerangana Jhalkari Bai, (pronounced Jhaalkaari Baai) lived in the same period and kingdom of Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi. In fact, she was a look- alike of the Rani of Jhansi.
Jhalkari Bai was born in the village Bhojla, near Jhansi to a couple Sadoba Singh and Jamna Devi on 22nd November 1830. She was the only child of her parents and therefore was the apple of her parents’ eyes.
Her childhood was that of a carefree life with all her desires satisfied. However, she never was interested in the kind of games girl children would play. That was a cause of concern to her mother but her father accepted it as her nature and let her be herself. Unfortunately, that carefree life came to an end with the demise of her mother even before she was an adolescent.
Now her father decided to mould her as per her aptitude and capabilities. He started training her in martial arts including archery and sword-fighting. She also learnt horse-riding.
Once when she had gone to the woods to collect wood, she was attacked by a leopard. She fiercely fought the leopard with the sickle, the only instrument she had and at one point the sickle slipped from her hands and fell. Jhalkari was not the one to give up easily. She fought with her bare hands and managed to kill the leopard. This was not an ordinary feat and word spread of her valour.
In another instance, one night, when the whole village had slept, people suddenly heard the cries of a man calling out frantically for help. Jhalkari could not keep quiet. Armed with a fat stick, she rushed out to find the source of the distress call. She found that dacoits had entered the house of the village headman and were threatening and beating him and his family members. With only the stick she had, she thrashed the dacoits single-handedly showing no mercy on them. The headman was so relieved and grateful and was in all praise for her bravery. Now she was the heroine of the village!
Word spread beyond the village about the courage Jhalkari had shown. This reached the ears of Puran Kori, a brave soldier who was serving in the artillery unit of the army of Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi. Puran was very impressed about Jhalkari’s deeds and he told his mother that he wished to marry Jhalkari Bai. His mother was equally happy and the proposal was welcomed by all the villagers of Bhojla, who took an active part in arranging a grand wedding ceremony for their beloved Jhalkari.
Jhalkari Bai had a happy life with Puran Kori as they shared common interests of martial arts and horse-riding. Both of them were brave-hearts and daring and their wedded life was blissful.
Once, on the occasion of Gauri Puja, Jhalkari, along with the women of the village went to meet Rani Laxmi Bai to pay homage to her.
When the Rani saw Jhalkari, both of them were extremely surprised at the uncanny resemblance they bore to each other. Their appearance, height, weight, gait and way of dressing were all so similar! Rani Laxmi Bai enquired about her background.
The Rani was so impressed by Jhalkari’s fearless and frank speech and attitude. She wanted her to join the ‘Durga Dal’- the women’s regiment which Rani Laxmi Bai was creating to strengthen the army of Jhansi. Jhalkari was overjoyed and so was her husband Puran. Jhalkari joined the regiment and was trained under the watchful eye of the Rani. The women were taught many aspects of warfare including the most difficult rifle-shooting. Jhalkari gained expertise in all that was taught. She soon grew to be a close confidante and advisor to the Rani.
Here is a little background about Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi (1828-1858). Laxmi Bai (whose maiden name was Manikarnika Tambe) grew up in the household of Peshwa Baji Rao II, and was married to Maharaja Gangadhar Newalkar of Jhansi. She was already well-versed in warfare and statecraft. The couple had a son in 1851 who died of a serious illness four months after he was born. So the Maharaja and the Rani had adopted a son (who was the child of a distant relative) soon after which the Maharaja died.
Though the adoption was done with British officers present, when the adoption papers were presented to the British they refused to accept the Rani as the Regent and her adopted son as the legal heir. They saw this as an opportunity to annex Jhansi as per the Doctrine of Lapse. According to the Doctrine of Lapse, when a ruling king did not have a natural male heir, the British annexed the properties as theirs. This included both immovable assets and movable assets such as jewels, horses, elephants, weapons etc.
If a male heir was adopted, the adoption had to be accepted by the British and it was only the personal property that an adopted heir could inherit and not the property of the state.
Hence in the case of Jhansi, the Rani was asked to leave the fort and live in the town palace with Rs.5000/- as monthly pension as her son was not recognized as her legal heir. The Rani protested against this injustice again and again sending petitions even with legal advice from British advocates from 1853 to 1856 continuously. However, all her petitions were rejected. Rani Laxmi Bai had then declared “Mera Jhansi nahi doongee” (I will not give up my Jhansi)
In May 1857 and the Sepoy Mutiny or the first war of Independence had started in Meerut. It was the first rebellion against the British by the Indian soldiers working in the British Army. Soon it spread to other places Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur and other cities like wild fire. The oppressed had now started to hit back with vengeance.
In June 1857, at Jhansi also, there was an attack by the soldiers of the British Army on the British and in the following days, about seventy British were massacred by the mutineers.
The attack was by the Indian soldiers in the British Army but the British believed that the Rani had stoked the sentiments of the soldiers thereby leading to this happening. They also knew that the Rani had declared that she would not give up Jhansi and that she was raising a separate women’s regiment in addition to strengthening the regular army. This confirmed their belief that Rani Laxmi Bai was directly responsible for whatever had happened in Jhansi.
Angered by the multiple mutinies which were sprouting out in various parts of the country, they gave the job of crushing all the revolts to General Hugh Rose. Hugh Rose was the Commander of the Central India force. He decided to attack Jhansi and capture the fort and he surrounded the fort in Jhansi on 23rd March 1858.
The army of Rani Laxmi Bai fought very valiantly but they were outnumbered and they retreated into the fort. The Rani had requested help from Tatya Tope. He was her childhood playmate and also one of the key rebels who initiated the Sepoy Mutiny. Unfortunately, the British had defeated him and his army when they were on their way to help the Rani.
Try as they might, the British could not gain entry into the fort for few days. Everybody knew that if Rani Laxmi Bai was captured, she would be mercilessly executed by the British.
It was then, that Jhalkari Bai made a daring suggestion to the Rani.
“Your highness” she said. “I have a suggestion to make”.
“Speak up Jhalkari” said Rani Laxmi Bai.
Jhalkari spoke. “If the British somehow gain entry into the fort, it is important that Your Highness should not be captured, as the fight for Jhansi should continue and Your Highness has the task of garnering more manpower and material for that. So…” She was reluctant.
“Go on…” said the Rani.
“So, I suggest that Your Highness somehow escape with the Prince while I fool the enemies by donning your attire and posing as Your Highness. I will fight the British from the front gate. They will be fooled thinking that it is the Rani who is fighting, while Your Highness will get time to escape”.
“What a bold suggestion Jhalkari!” exclaimed the Rani. “Jhansi will be eternally grateful to you. Let’s execute it right away” she said.
Immediately, they set about carrying out the plan and soon Jhalkari, dressed up in the battle attire of the queen with armour and all, was looking just like Rani Laxmi Bai.
The British, as usual were trying to break into the fort by hook or crook and there was a traitor in the form of one Dulha Ju, who was a soldier in charge of the main gate at the Jhansi Fort. Bribed with money, the traitor opened the gates for the British on 3rd April 1858. This information quickly went in and Jhalkari Bai rode to the entrance of the fort valiantly.
The army followed her with war cries “Harhar Mahadev!” and “Jai Bhavani!”. General Hugh Rose was surprised to see the ‘Rani’ come out so easily and the fighting started. In this chaos, Rani Laxmi Bai, with her son strapped behind her back rode out of another gate with a small contingent of people unnoticed by the British to a place called Kalpi.
The British kept fighting with the army led by Jhalkari for one whole day till they found late in the evening that they had been fighting with the body-double of Rani Laxmi Bai! They had been deceived. General Rose was furious. They had been cheated and Rani Laxmi Bai had escaped right under their nose.
Jhalkari was captured and she boldly declared to General Rose that she was ready to die for her Queen. But the general ordered that she be kept in a secure place for the night. She escaped and once again and in the wee hours of dawn when General Hugh Rose tried to enter the fort, she was there, ready to fight, leading her army, much to his surprise.
That was a bloody battle on the 4th of April 1858 and one of the early casualties was Puran Kori, the brave husband of Jhalkari Bai. After Jhalkari heard the news, she fought with more vengeance. That attracted the enemies and as a result of their concerted effort, she fell to their bullets and breathed her last in the service of our motherland.
Rani Laxmi Bai who had escaped due to this daring act of Jhalkari, lived for a few months more and fought bravely from Gwalior and was martyred in June 1858.
The Government of India has honoured Jhalkari Bai by issuing a Postal stamp with her image. Her statue was also unveiled in the Guru Teg Bahadur Complex in Bhopal in 2017 by the then President of India Shri Ramnath Kovind. One of the oldest women’s hospitals in Lucknow has been renamed as Veerangana Jhalkari Bai Hospital.