Not Just Jhansi Ki Rani, I Wish School Had Also Taught Me About These Badass Indian Queens

Our history textbooks have been replete with stories of women who exercised influence over kings or princes through beauty and charm, but maintain a convenient silence on the brave women warriors who reigned over huge empires on their own. Apart from Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi, who led the 1857 revolt of independence, I remember learning very little about Indian queens who fought wars, slayed enemies or presided over empires in school. I wish someone had told me about the mighty Tamil warrior Velu Nachiyar who took down the British 85 years before 1857, or the rich exploits of the Amazon queens of Travancore, who ruled for over 400 years.

I wish there was more in our books about the badass Begums of Bhopal, the kickass Mahadevis of Odisha or the bold queens of Chittor. I wish somebody had told me the fabulous story of the 13th century warrior queen Rudrama Devi, whose father chose her to rule over present-day Warangal as a Maharaja for over 40 years!

And I’m not saying this because these women had political power or saved dynasties, even though, I do think we could all do with more tales of women saving the world! 

Acknowledging the achievements of these mighty warriors is just a small step to uncovering their path-breaking legacies, and to derive more power from the strength.

While some of them may be known, the stories of many have been relegated to oblivion, celebrated either in folk memory or barely surviving in rare historical records. It’s almost a travesty, and one that should be corrected. Here’s a list of 11 of India’s most heroic warrior queens who were not afraid to challenge the status quo and who ruled with great punk and grit:

1)Keladi Chenamma: The Queen Who Challenged Aurangzeb

Rani Chenamma ruled the small kingdom of Keladi in Karnataka for 25 years from 1671 to 1696 CE. She is best remembered for her quixotic act of sheltering the fugitive Maratha king Rajaram, the great Maratha king Shivaji Bhonsle’s son and facing the wrath of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. The Portuguese called her the Reuna de Pimenta, or the pepper queen for her efforts in conducting trade in pepper.

2) Rudrama Devi: The Princess Who Became A Prince

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Rudrama Devi, or Rudradeva Maharaja, ruled Orugallu or present-day Warangal in the 13th century for 40 years and presided over the golden age of the Kakatiyas. She is the only independent female ruler mentioned by Marco Polo in his journey across the world. He was, however, mistaken in thinking that she was a widow of the previous king. In truth, her father Ganapata Deva chose her as his heir over other male members of his extended family for her bravery and valour.

Her official portraits always showed her in male clothing and went to public meetings dressed as a man.  Given the male name Rudradeva, she was always referred to as in the masculine by that name.

3) The Heroines Of Chittor: The Queens Who Refused To Commit Sati

More often, popular tales about Rajput Women see them immortalized in history either as defending their honour, or making enormous sacrifices for the men. But women like Jawahirbai and Mirabai, daughters-in-law and granddaughters-in-law of Rana Raimal of Chittor were different. They were all women who flouted the norm of the day by choosing not to commit Sati, and came into prominence after choosing to become widows.

4) The Begums Of Bhopal: The Queens Who Ruled For A Hundred Years

The principality of Bhopal is an outlier of sorts in Indian history, being the only kingdom which was ruled by four women rulers in succession for more than a century. The rule started with Qudsia Begum, and continued, while dynasties around them continued to be destroyed. Their able and inclusive rule, highlighted by effective decision making, helped make the kingdom of Bhopal an earliest prototype of the concept of welfare state

5) Rani Karnavati Of  Garhwal: The Queen Who Chopped Off Noses

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This Queen of Gharwal was referred to as ‘nak-kati rani’ or queen who cut off noses, by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and many Mughal chroniclers like Niccolao Manucci and Francois Bernier after a very infamous episode. Historical records show that a Mughal force sent to invade her kingdom was decisively defeated by her and sent back after their noses were chopped off! The regent also became a beacon of resistance for small kingdoms in Mughal India, inspiring them to preserve their kingdoms from invasion against the mighty Mughals.

6) Velu Nachiyar: The Queen Who Took Down The British 85 years Before 1857

Veeramangar (brave woman) Velu Nachiyar (r. 1780-90 CE) was the Queen of Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu. The little known queen is hailed as the first woman freedom fighter against the British in1770s, predating the kannadika Chennamma of Kittur in the 1820s and the much celebrated Rani of Jhansi. She spoke 10 languages and knew many martial arts including sword fighting, archery, adi murai and varma kalai.

When Sivaganga fell to the British and her husband was murdered, the queen managed to escape with her baby, and promised to reclaim her kingdom someday. With the help of another woman warrior – Kyuli who sacrificed her life by becoming a suicide bomber – the queen managed to finally take her kingdom back from the British. In 2014, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa inaugurated the Veeramangai Velu Nachiyar Memorial in Sivaganga and declared that 3rd January be celebrated as the queen’s birth anniversary in her honour.

7) Ahilya Bai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen

Referred to as the Philosopher queen, Ahilya Bai’s (1725- 1795) rule of over 30 years over Indore is considered by one of the best reigns in the country, by any man or woman. Practicing a very modern way of governance, with an emphasis on providing physical and institutional infrastructure, moderate taxation and individual property rights, Indore saw itself growing into a great mercantile centre under her rule.

8) Kittur Chennamma: The Queen Who Challenged The British

Kittur Chennamma(1778-1829), the Queen of Kittur( in present Karnataka), was one of the earliest Indian queens to lead an armed rebelllion against the British East India Company, in defiance of the doctrine of lapse.

Defeated in the third war, her rebellion against the British ended with her imprisonment. However, she became a celebrated freedom fighter in the state of Karnataka and a symbol of the independence movement in India. Since 1824, ‘Kittur Utsava’ has been organised every year in the month of October to celebrate her heroic rebellion!

9) Rani Tarabai: The Empire Builder

Tarabai, the Maratha Queen ( r 1700-61 CE) is regarded by some as one of the most important reasons for the breaking up of the Mughal empire after Aurangzeb’s death. She prevented the Maratha Confederacy from disintegrating when all of its forts were in the hands of the Mughals. The Queen, not only survived the Mughal onslaught, but also carried the battle into their territory, raiding Mughal territory and creating permanent outposts in them, with the result that Marathas controlled half the Mughal territory before they were effectively ousted by the British.

10) The Bhaumakara Queens: The Mahadevis Of Odisha

Odisha witnessed 100 years of able and just rule by six Mahadevi queens of the Bhaumakara dynasty. There are few references to them in ancient works of history or literature, except for a brief mention in an Arabic book on world geography. One of the most powerful among them was Tribhuvana Mahadevi who rose to power despite rebellions by feudal kings of coastal-central parts of erstwhile Tri-Kalinga region. Under the Mahadevi, women in the kingdom were educated and were also given special powers and administrative rights to issue land grants and charters. She commanded a standing army of 3,00,000 men and under her leadership, she suppressed many internal rebellions and threats from enemy forces of the Rashtrakutas and Palas.

11) The Attingal Queens: The Matriarchs Of Travancore

Kerala has a special identity in India as pennu-malayalam or the kingdom of women. Umayamma Rani( r16744-84 CE) was one of a long line of Attingal queens, the mothers of the kings of Travancore,but who ruled their own territory of Attingal for more than 400 years. The Dutch administrator van Rheede was struck by her ‘noble and manly conduct’, describing her as an Amazon who was ‘feared and respected by everyone’ when he met her in the 1600s. She was also the young queen known to even make ‘the king fly before her’, and as she grew older, her nerve only grew stronger.

While sexual freedoms were mostly permitted to men around the world, the Rani, history records, took ‘whom and as many as she pleases to the honour of her bed’. What is unfortunate, though, is that down the centuries, with only a few personal names have survived of the queens of Attingal.

Editorial Note: The author would like to thank Archana Garodia Gupta, whose book “The Women Who Ruled India”( Hachette India) inspired this article, and from where a lot of information has been directly sourced.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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