By Anu Kumar
She stood up for her rights and her kingdom, and became forever etched in Indian history as a courageous woman who wouldn’t stand down to anyone. Hindi poet Subhadra Kumari Chauhan wrote a 126-line poem about Lakshmibai, titled ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’.
Manikarnika, or Manu as she was called, was born in Benares (now Varanasi). She lost her mother when she was only four and her father, Morepant Tambe, moved to Bithoor near Kanpur, to live with his cousin, a former Peshwa (or prime minister) in the Maratha Empire.
Little Manu had for her companions, two young boys almost her age: Nanasahib, Peshwa Baji Rao II’s adopted son, and Tantia Tope. She was an equal participant in all their activities, whether it was fencing, traditional gymnastics or shooting, but it was horse-riding that she especially liked.
Even later on, she gave her horses special names. As was the custom then, when she was in her early teens, Manu was married to Gangadhar Rao, the maharaja of Jhansi. She became Rani Lakshmibai, known in her small kingdom for her habit of riding between the palace and the temple, preferring her horses — Sarang, Badal and Pavan — to the palanquin.
At this time, the British East India Company was slowly and insistently taking over more and more territories. Jhansi in the heart of India held access to the west and north, and was in their sights.
In 1853, the Jhansi maharaja died, and British Governor General Lord Dalhousie refused to recognise the rights of Lakshmibai or her adopted son, Damodar Rao, to Jhansi. Lakshmibai read this as a rousing call for action.
Her childhood friends, Nanasahib and Tantia Tope, were already against the British for their attempts to deprive Nanasahib of his pension. It was the fierce resistance put up by these three friends that fuelled the fight against the British in 1857.
The uprising begun by soldiers in Barrackpore (now Barrackpur in West Bengal) became the First War of Independence against the British rulers in India. It took over a year for the British to quell it in a brutal operation, in which Lakshmibai and many others lost their lives. For her courage against the British colonizers and her martyrdom for her country, Lakshmibai continues to be a role model.
(Excerpted with permission of Hachette India from Wonder Kids: 100 Children Who Grew Up to Be Champions of Change by Anu Kumar. Paperback Rs 299.)