Ahilyabai Holkar (31 May 1725-13 August 1775), the charismatic queen of the Maratha Empire in early modern India, was a visionary leader, a successful businesswoman, and a philanthropist. Moreover, she was a ruler who was way ahead of her time.
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Ahilyabai Holkar Biography
Queen Ahilyabai was born on 31 May 1725 in a Marathi Hindu family. Her father was Mankoji Shinde. He used to work as a Patil to the respectable Dhangar family. In those days women seldom attended schools but the queen’s father was enthusiastic about her daughter’s education and as a result, he taught her how to read and write.
There is little information available about the queen’s early life except for the fact that she was married young ( barely at the age of 6). She was married to Khander Rao Holkar in 1763.
Khander Rao Holkar was the only son of Malhar Rao Holkar, a subedar or a commander of North India appointed by Peshwa Bajirao. Back in the early 18th century India, the Marathas were a rising National Force.
In reality, 18th century India witnessed a series of turmoil. In 1707 Aurangzeb died and after that, the Maratha armies became the paramount force in India. They not only knocked at the doors of Delhi but also invaded Bengal several times (1743-44).
In 1748 even the Mughal Emperor sought Nana Peshwa’s help against Ahmed Shah Abdali. In 1761 the battle of Panipat took place and the Maratha Army, to defend Delhi and the Mughal throne, fought the battle.
These events always kept the Marathas busy. Malhar Rao Holkar was a great warrior and he was in charge of Malwa.
He was the father-in-law of the legendary queen. Moreover, he played a vital role in shaping the Queen’s character by instilling virtues in her. In the early 18th century India several battles were fought and hence the men were always at war.
Only the women were left at home to manage household affairs. As a result, the women were not only engaged to manage the home affairs but also had to venture beyond.
Rise to prominence
In 1754 Devi Ahilyabai’s husband Khande Rao Holkar was killed outside Kumbheri. Kumbheri was a small fort near Bharatpur (present-day Rajasthan). The untimely death of her husband was the greatest shock to the queen.
Next, she became a widow (barely at the age of just 30) with a young son named Male Rao and a daughter named Muktibai behind. The queen’s son was a great warrior but he started to show the symptoms of mental illness early.
Later in 1767, the Queen’s son died because of his disease. This was a time of crisis and her majesty felt that she should involve herself more and more in the administrative services. In this connection, it should be mentioned that she was earlier trained by Malhe Rao about the administrative services of the state.
In 1765 Ahmed Shah Durrani invaded Punjab. Meanwhile, Ahilyabai got hold of the Gohad fort ( near Gwalior ). There was no denying of the fact that Ahilyabai started to show her class as a trained ruler after the demise of her husband and her only son. She petitioned Peshwa Madhav Rao to get hold of the Holkar dynasty.
In the early 18th century Indian women could barely raise their voices for their rights but Devi Ahilyabai stood as an exception.
She was forced by two principal secretaries of the Peshwa to adopt a child of their choice because they conspired to sideline the queen from mainstream politics.
On the other hand, Ahilyabai did not surrender to her fate as was expected. She resisted.
She pleaded to the other Maratha chiefs to come in her support. As a result, she won the support of Peshwa Maratha Rao’s childless wife Ramabai. She even spread the rumor that she, along with Ramabai, was raising a women ‘s army to fight for her rights.
Finally, she succeeded. It was the chief of the Peshwas who ordered the men, conspiring against Ahilyabai, to stand down and therefore confirmed Ahilyabai’s legitimate rights to the khasgi Jahigir. Ahilyabai inherited the Khasgi Jahigir from her mother-in-law Gautamabai.
Once Devi Ahilyabai got control over the Jahigir, she appointed Tukoji, a distant relative of Malhar Rao, as the head of the Holkar Army.
As mentioned earlier the late 17th and 18th centuries India witnessed great turmoil.
Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was desperately trying to expand his boundaries by wreaking havoc across India. The other parts of the country were no exception. Unfortunately, little was done to protect the pilgrimage centers, temples, and holy places of the Hindus.
Once Devi Ahilyabai ‘s authority was established as the Holkar supremo, she turned her attention to these burning issues. Meanwhile, she generated fat revenue for her state with her adept business acumen.
A pious woman as she was, she started to rebuild pilgrimage centers and temples. She was completely successful in her endeavor. In addition to this, her efforts were noticed by the mass Indians and therefore people from all over the country turned to her for help.
Modification of Maheshwar
In the early 18th century Maheshwar was a small village devastated and almost depopulated due to Aurangzeb’s aggression. But in 1782 Devi Ahilyabai turned Maheshwar into a thriving city buzzing with busy activities.
First of all, she selected different areas for bankers and traders. After that, she invited them to come and settle on her land. Additionally, she offered them a 10-year tax holiday.
Next, she applied another business strategy which helped her revenues increase almost by 130% ( the concept was hitherto unknown) .she invited weavers from nearby districts like Mandu, Branpur, etc.
These experienced weavers experimented with cotton and invented a new fabric that looked like shiny silk. After that, they established Garbhareshmi Maheshwari Textiles, and their production- shiny silk cotton- suddenly became very popular.
In fact, the famous ‘ Maheshwari Sari ‘ came into existence because of Devi’s innovative ideas over two and a half centuries ago.
It was Devi Ahilyabai who first made her presence across the nation. In a word, it is almost impossible to reveal the exact numbers of the temples, ghats, Dharamshalas, and travelers inns that she built and rebuilt.
Only the evidence of her works can be seen throughout the nation. The examples of her construction works can be multiplied:
Jagannath temple puri and many more.
The greatness of her works lies in the fact that many of her works are operational even today.
Ahilyabai Holkar Road
Devi Ahilyabai was a devotee of lord shiva. She felt that the Hindu Sadhus and pilgrims needed roads lined with trees and Dharamshalas. Hence she started to construct roads with numerous trees and Dharamshalas for the benefit of the Sadhus and pilgrims. In post-independent India The State High Way 15 (West Bengal) was renamed Ahilyabai Holkar Road to pay tribute to Devi Ahilyabai.
Ahilyabai Holkar Death Reason
Devi Ahilyabai, a woman ahead of her times, remained the supremo of the Holkar Dynasty for more than 3 decades. Her rule shall always be remembered as the golden age not only in the history of the Maratha Empire but also in Indian history. On 13 August 1795, she breathed her last, at the age of 70.
Khasgi Devi Ahilyabai Holkar Trust
In 1962, after the independence of India, Khasgi Devi Ahilyabai Holkar Trust was built to manage all the properties and temples Devi Ahilyabai built.
Tv Shows: In 1994 a Hindi TV series entitled ‘The Great Maratha ‘ was broadcasted on Doordarshan. Mrinal Kulkarni played Devi Ahilyabai’s character.
In 2016 Urmila Kothare portrayed the character of Ahilyabai on Colors Marathi’s TV serial Punyashlok Ahilyabai Holkar.
Ahilyabai Holkar Serial
In 2021 Sony broadcasted a serial entitled ‘Punyaslok Ahilyabai (2021-present).
Ahilyabai Holkar Serial cast