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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.