Tale of Queen Ahilyabai Holkar by Zubaan

Ahilyabai Holkar, The queen who brought peace and prosperity with her wisdom.

Ahilyabai Holkar is regarded as one of the finest female rulers in Indian history. As a ruler of Malwa kingdom, she spread the message of dharma and promoted industrialisation in the 18th century.

Known for her wisdom and administrative skills, Ahilyabai had a humble beginning in a small village, near the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. She was born in Chondi to the village head, Mankoji Shinde, on May 31, 1725. Women did not go to school during that time, but her father himself educated her and taught her how to read and write.

Young Ahilyabai’s character and simplicity impressed Malhar Rao Holkar, who was the lord of the Malwa territory and served as a commander in service to Peshwa Bajirao.

So great was his liking for the girl, that Malhar Rao got Ahilyabai married to his son, Khanderao, at the age of eight, in 1733. Twelve years after the wedding, in the year 1745, Ahilyabai’s husband got killed during the siege of Kumbher fort. Grief stricken, it is said that Ahilyabai wanted to sacrifice herself by committing sati. But it was her father-in-law, Malhar Rao, who dissuaded her against it and instead, trained her in administrative and military matters.

After the deaths of her father-in-law in 1766 and her son, Malerao, the very next year, Ahilyabai petitioned the Peshwa to allow her to take over the reign of Malwa.

She had been fully trained in military and administration matters by then and she was brilliant at it.

Though some of the nobles objected to this, she had full support of the Holkar army.

On many occasions Ahilyabai led the army herself from the front like a brave warrior, armed with bows and arrows on the elephant.

The Peshwa granted her permission to take over in 1767 and Ahilyabai proceeded to rule Malwa in a wise and sagacious manner for the next 28 years.

During her reign, Malwa was never once attacked, when at that time the whole of Central India was facing a power struggle, with battles being fought for the throne. Under her rule, Malwa remained an oasis of stability and peace.

She turned her capital city, Maheshwar, into a literary, musical, artistic and an industrial centre. She even established a textile industry there, which is now home to the famous Maheshwar saris. Rani Ahilyabai never observed purdah, held daily public audience and was accessible to anyone who needed her ear.

Ahilyabai turned Malwa into a prosperous land, starting with improving the infrastructure of the place by building forts and road and repairing Ghats.

She built wells, tanks and rest houses across areas stretching from the Himalayas to pilgrimage centers in South India. She sponsored festivals and gave donations to build, repair and restore temples.

From Badrinath, Dwarka, Omkareshwar to Puri, Gaya, Rameswaram, every holy pilgrimage place in India had a contribution, in one way or another, from Ahilyabai Holkar.

Most notable of all was the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple, which she rebuilt and restored in 1780, 111 years after its destruction by Aurangzeb.

The warrior queen passed away on August 13, 1795, at the age of 70. Centuries later, her legacy lives on in the form of the numerous temples and dharamshalas, and in the amount of public work she dedicated her life to.

She built hundreds of temples, more than 30 dharamshalas and garibkhanas, numerous ghats and wells, all for the welfare of people. Ahilyabai Holkar’s 28-year-reign, during the 18th century, is still cited as a model of benevolent and effective government.