Sometimes it is very difficult to separate the threads of truth from the vast fabric of a tale woven over decades. Such was the case as I set about unraveling the story of the girl named Manakarnika, fondly called Manu, the product of a family displaced by the tussle between the Marathas and the English. It is not my intention to retell the tale in anyway, but to hover around an aspect from the whole story, namely the relationship between three people who set about to change the scene in British India. That they were unsuccessful is the unfortunate part of their history, but then again, their actions eventually sowed the seeds of dissent in a passive field where those who came as traders became usurpers and later, holders of power.
And with that, let us move on from the lands of Venad, Cochin and Malabar and venture out far North, to the arid regions of Bundelkhand. A place where wars were fought, where rival kings and queens ruled and where the warring people rode furiously on their horses fighting, if not making merry, since time immemorial. As Joyce Lebra Chapman introduces Jhansi - igneous sandstone rock cropping rising abruptly from the level, barren plains punctuate the landscape and provide ideal natural defensive sites for forts….it lies south of the river Yamuna, where today scrub and tamarind thorns dot the arid soil. It was once a dense forested jungle, but then like the kingdom, the vegetation soon vanished from those areas. It was to this kingdom of Jhansi that the 12-13 year old Manu from Varanasi went after she was locked in marriage to the middle aged Gangadhar. But as I said at the outset I will not really explain the story of the lady and her days, for there are many books out there that glorify her deeds, some very expansively, some very deliberately, some in great nationalistic tradition, and some in downright filmy fashion with large dollops of exaggeration. Suffices to say that she was one of the lone voices who fought for herself and her people’s rights in the middle of a motley crowd comprising large numbers of kings, queens and leaders who quietly acquiesced to the overwhelming British superiority at that time.
Three characters rose to fame in that turbulent period where the unholy mixture of pigs, Enfield rifles, goras, beef and Kshatriyas resulted in an uprising against the new rulers and shook the British plans somewhat. I will hover around them in this study and leave the rest of the characters and events in the dark historic realms. Each of these characters was an interesting person, and one or two of them have books covering their exploits, but well, without much ado, let me introduce them. They were Nana Saheb, Tatya (Tantya) Tope and Rao Saheb. Nana Saheb became famous as the leader of the 1857 Sepoy mutiny, Tatya Tope was another rebel leader and Rao Saheb was with them most of the time. Interestingly each of these 4 characters was a Maratha, not Rajputs or Jats or Punjabis. How did this group of men get involved with Manu and on the wrong side of the British? Or did they? Were the stories of their childhood together a figment of imagination? To get to that you have to venture out in a study of Manu and her life, and that was the difficult part, for her story is largely a collection of many legends accounting the life of the Jezebel of Jhansi, the actions of the Rani of Jhansi, or the story of Rani Lakshmi Bai.
It is said that Nana, Tatya and Manu were childhood friends. Many an account provides interesting tidbits from it. Let us look for some and go to Bithur where Chimnaji Appa, the brother of the last Peshwa Baji Rao had settled in exile with his adviser and friend Moropant (Manu’s father) Thambe. Baji Rao lived here in peace, collecting his large large (£ 80,000) pension from the British.
Dhondu Pant (later known as Nana Sahib) was the adopted son of Baji Rao and Tatya Tope (Ramachandra Panduranga) the son of Pandurang Rao, a nobleman in Baji Rao’s court. Rao Saheb was Nana’s cousin brother (or nephew). These three were fiery leaders of revolts later against the British. And the young Chhabili spent their childhood with them. But did they really know each other since childhood? What details do we have of their friendship and was it an enduring friendship, if it existed?
It is said that the three boys (a fourth Bala Saheb also figures in the story, at times) and Manu were playmates in Bithoor, and it is with them that she became well versed in reading and writing (something girls were not allowed to do in those times) and horse riding and weapon usage. She was virtually a tomboy among them and their childhood is retold in a number of stories, some possibly legends. Let us look at some.
Once Nana Sahib fell down from his horse and was about to be crushed. But Manu showed great presence of mind and courage. She jumped from her own horse and caught hold of the leg of the horse which was about to stamp Nana. She quickly pulled out Nana and thus saved him. Though Nana had received serious injuries, she encouraged him by telling him that the injuries were ordinary and that he would be quite alright within a day.
Another time, she asked Nana to allow her to climb up and sit atop the elephant next to him and Nana refused. Indignantly, she proclaimed, ‘One day I will have 10 elephants to your one, remember my words’.
And there is another story of an elephant running amok in Bithur when Manu clambered on to its back climbing over its trunk and tusk, and calmed the elephant.
Manu was born in 1828 though some books mention her birth year at 1835. She got married in 1842. Nana was born in 1820 and Tatya in 1813. So in Bithoor, a small town, and in Baji Rao’s palace area, you can see the young group romping about, though much separated in ages. Nana some 8 years older and Taya 15 years older to Manu. Would they have been playmates? Let us assume so.
As the story goes the 13 -14 year old Manu gets married to Gangadhar Rao of Jhansi in 1842 and is thereafter known as Lakshmi Bai. Jhansi itself had a checkered history. In 1732 Chhatrasal, the Bundela king, called in the aid of the Hindu Marathas. They came to his assistance, and were rewarded by the bequest of one-third of the Maharaja's dominions upon his death two years later. The Maratha general developed the city of Jhansi, and peopled it with inhabitants from Orchha state. In 1806 British protection was promised to the Maratha chief. In 1817, however, the Peshwa in Pune ceded all his rights over Bundelkhand to the British East India Company. The heirs to this state were always a problem, and when Ramachandra the eccentric ruler died childless in 1835, the British chose to recognize Gangadhar, his brother as the next ruler of Jhansi. That was how Lakshmi Bai ended up as Rani Lakshmi bai.
Why is Lakshm Bai’s story so difficult to get into? As events unfolded, the revolt happened in 1857 and the ruthless suppression and the fear situation after it resulted in nobody (i.e. from the Indian ranks) making a proper written account of the Rani, especially one that took a line opposite that from the British line which ridiculed her.
Back to Jhansi – Rao was a king more interested in the arts than anything else and very orthodox. Following a pilgrimage to Varanasi and Gaya in 1851, Lakshmi Bai delivered an heir, a boy named Damodar. However he died after four months and Ganghadar Rao was shattered. His health deteriorated and he passed away in 1853. Just before he died the royal couple adopted a 5 year old boy from the Nevalkar family named Anand Rao, upon Moropant Tambe’s prompting. There was another reason for the hurried adoption, that being the Dalhousie Doctrine of Lapse. With that last action, Gangadhar died and Lakshmi Bai became a widow at the age of 25, but she was a different person as always, she did not commit sati as was the practice and she did not shave her head. She remained herself and set about bringing the state under good governance. Nevertheless the British had other ideas of annexation and in neighboring areas, stirrings of discontent were brewing.
Before we get to the Sepoy mutiny, we must check out some reasons, for they are very interesting and not directly related to the Beef tallow. Late in the 18th century, after the battle of Buxar, the British realized the need to bolster their Bengal troops with local content. There was much political instability with the collapse of the Moghul empire and with the Afghan invasions and the Maratha moves, the British had to have a bigger set of armed forces. A large number of sepoys were recruited and installed in different areas not just for suppression of revolts, but also for governance and control in areas were firm action was needed. Hastings at that time believed in creating a high caste army and this resulted in enthusiastic response from the northern areas. Complications however arose when they had to be moved from the East to the West to fight the Marathas and Afghans. Crossing the seas was a problem, so also stay and dietary restrictions, but they were all taken care of in acceptable ways and many Hindu festivals were celebrated with gusto. Thus camaraderie was firmly established. But like all good things, this was not to last. Various tactical reasons and wars in the west resulted in a number of Rajput, Jat and Muslim entrants to the British army in the 1800-1820’s. Another problem manifested itself, the EIC coffers were drying up and maintenance of a big military establishment was becoming a problem. In 1830’s military reforms were announced and this irritated the high caste sepoys for they lost many of the ‘perks’ that had drawn them to the army in the first place. Permanent transfers to the NW, daily Batta loss, pension issues and pay differences between different battalions etc were the main reasons and then again there was this feeling that their high caste status was being infringed. The final trigger was the greased cartridges used in the newly introduced Enfield rifles.
As this was going on, the civilian lords were also being affected. Baji rao died but the EIC refused to continue the grand pension to Nana Saheb and he was incensed. He continued trying to influence the British establishment until 1855 to change their decision but failed.
In 1851, when Lord Dalhousie deprived Nana Sahib of his father's pension, Tatya Tope also became a sworn enemy of the British. In May 1857, when the political storm was gaining momentum, he won over the Indian troops of the East India Company, stationed at Kanpur (Cawnpore), established Nana Sahib's authority and became the Commander-in-Chief of his forces. He later helped orchestrate the attack on Hugh Wheeler's entrenchment.
And so the mutiny happened in 1857. All the leaders like the Nana Saheb, Tantya Tope and the unwilling Rani of Jhansi, hoped to influence the discontented sepoys with religious overtones and get them to their sides further incensing the British employers and create an even bigger unbalance.
The three we met in pervious paragraphs had by now become personal enemies of the EIC. The dams were about to burst soon as many sepoys were also at their wits end, seeing their way of life threatened by foreigners. Questions were starting to be asked.
The rebellion started in Meerut in May 1857 with Mangal Pande’s actions. In June, Nana Saheb who lived a wasteful life thus far entered the fray and marched into Kanpur in June 1857 and ransacked the British cantonment stating that he would become a vassal of Bahadur Shah. This part of the story is a complicated one but ended up with the English in Kanpur getting routed. Tantia Tope joined in the massacre at Kanpur. The fighting continued until July when fresh British reinforcements started to arrive. Nana Saheb later retreated to Bithoor and escaped to live the balance of his life in hideouts in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Nepal or in far flung Sihor in Gujrat.
Tatya tope escaped and became a guerilla leader for much of a year leading skirmishes against the British. After losing Gwalior to the British, Tope launched a successful campaign in the Sagar, Madhya Pradesh and Narmada River regions and in Khandesh and Rajasthan. By Nov 1858, Rao Saheb surrendered. Tope was however betrayed by his trusted friend, Man Singh, Chief of Narwar while asleep in his camp in the Paron forest. He was defeated and captured on 7 April 1859 by British General Richard John Meade's troops and escorted to Shivpuri where he was tried by a military court. Tope admitted the charges brought before him saying that he was answerable to his masters Rao & Nana. He was executed at the gallows on April 18 1859. Legends however mention an impersonator was hanged and Tantya died later and lived in the garb of a Sadhu.
Lakshmi Bai’s father, Moropant Tambey, was captured and hanged a few days after the fall of Jhansi. Her adopted son, Damodar Rao (Anand Rao), fled with his mother's aides. Rao was later given a pension by the British Raj and cared for, although he never received his inheritance. Damodar Rao settled down in the city of Indore. He spent most of his life trying to convince the British to restore some of his rights. He and his descendants took on the last name Jhansiwale. He died on May 28, 1906, at the age of 58.
Dalhousie returned to England in 1856, before the mutiny. His health deteriorated amidst public outcry over his policies and he died in 1860. Today a hill station in Himachal named after him reminds one of his days in India. Hugh Rose fell sick after the Gwalior storming, but continued various battles in India. He later became the CIC of the forces in India and became a general in 1867.
The friends from Bithoor are now consigned to history books. The people of Jhansi possibly remember them now and then. The palace of Nana Sahib was reduced to rubble by the British in 1857 and the only traces remaining of it are some large well heads and broken palace walls.
Bithoor is forgotten; it had housed so many great names from the distant past and the near past, but after the town’s destruction by Gen Havelock, has never recovered any of its lost glories. Jules Verne wrote a book about the Nana Saheb (Steam boat) and many more were written on Nana and Lakshmi Bai by the people who remembered them.
And with that we turn the page, from this to the next.
Rani OF Jhansi – Lebra-Chapman
Rani of Jhansi – Jaiwant Paul
Rani of Jhansi – Rainer Jerosch
Rani Lakshmi Bai – Allen Copsey
Colonel Malleson wrote "...her countrymen will ever remember that she was driven by ill-treatment into rebellion, and that she lived and died for her country.....Recently Time magazine put her in the list of top 10 bad ass wives of the world.