Rani Jhansi (1828-1858) was born at Varanasi and was popularly known as “Manu”. In 1842 she was married to the Raja of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao, and given the name Lakshmibai. She was an excellent horse rider. She took regular exercise, practiced sword fighting and shooting with guns. An Indian writer remembers watching the Rani practise horse riding, holding the reins between her teeth with a sword in each hand. She trained her own regiment of women warriors.
The day before the Raja’s death in 1853, he adopted Damodar Rao as his son and heir. The East India Company, ruling India for the British at that time, did not acknowledge the Indian custom of adopting an heir. This excuse allowed them to take control of Jhansi. The Rani was forced into retirement with a pension, state palace and jewels. She was always careful to observe the Hindu religious traditions.
The Indian Mutiny began in 1857. Some of the British who were sheltering in the beseiged fortress of Jhansi, surrendered and were granted safe passage by the mutineers, but once outside Jhansi they were put to death. The Rani had been forced to give money and weapons to the mutineers to save herself from being deposed or killed. Although she wrote to the British to explain what had happened, some of them blamed her for the massacre.
She improved the army and defences of Jhansi. She raised a force of 14,000 volunteers and 1,500 sepoys. The British were ruthless in executing suspected rebels, looting and destroying as they advanced. The Indian defenders of Jhansi showed energy and enthusiasm, but this was not enough against trained, disciplined British soldiers with weapons and qualified officers. When the British troops finally stormed into Jhansi, the fighting was intense and the Rani was seen in the middle of it, directing and encouraging resistance. That night she managed to escape from Jhansi on her horse. In 24 hours she rode 100 miles to Kalpa. Back in Jhansi there was street fighting, looting, destruction and slaughter, the British soldiers “eagerly exceeding their orders”, killed nearly 5,000 people.
When the fortress at Gwalior was captured, Rani Lakshmibai was given a priceless pearl necklace. She wore this necklace with her battle dress in her final encounter with the British. Her death is described by J Henry Sylvester: “the gallant Queen of Jhansi fell from a carbine wound, and was carried to the rear, where she expired, and was burnt according to the custom of the Hindoos.”
Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi, became a legend and an inspiration, to those trying to free India from the British. Statues of her riding her horse and wielding a sword are found all over India. Buildings, streets and housing estates, even a cricket tournament and a women’s regiment in the Indian Army are named after her. Children know her story, so her name and that of Jhansi are inextricably linked, just as she wanted. “Mera Jhansi nihin denge!” - “I will never give up my Jhansi!”.