Ahilya Bai Holkar – One of The Least Known Indian Social Reformer

A visit to India’s past will reveal numerous examples of women who influenced the world through their benignity, far-sightedness, aura, courage, and their character. But Ahilyabai Holkar (31 May 1725 – 13 August 1795) is regarded as one of the greatest queens of Malwa in terms of fame and respect. One of the least known social reformers of India, Ahilya Bai Holkar fought for the rights of women till her last breath. She is a respected Maharani (queen) and will remain to be so in all times to come.

“In latter days from Brahma came,
To rule our land, a noble dame,
Kind was her heart and bright her fame,
Ahilya was her honoured name,”

Joanna Baillie

Marriage

In 1733, she married Khande Rao Holkar. He was the son of Malhar Rao Holkar, a commander in the service of the Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao I and lord of the Malwa territory. Thus, her marriage to Khande Rao, which happened in a sort of accident, served as a stepping stone towards her rise to prominence.

She gave birth to their son Male Rao  and daughter Muktabai in 1745 and 1748 respectively.

Ahilya Bai never believed in traditions. She married her daughter to a poor brave man, Yashwant Rao, after he had beaten a band of dacoits.

Rise to position

In 1754, the young Ahilya lost her husband Khande Rao, her biggest support, to the battle of Kumbher. She was devastated. After 12 years of this incident, she lost her second biggest support, her father-in-law in 1766. As per the tradition, Male Rao succeeded the throne, but unfortunately, he also died after a short span of time in April 1767.

After so many tragic losses, she remained undismayed. She asked the Peshwa Madhav Rao I to take over the administration on her own and soon assumed the throne of Indore in December 1767.

The queen’s glory

Inspite of facing initial objections from a segment of her kingdom, the Holkar sect of Maratha army supported her. She ruled the kingdom for the next 30 years gracefully. She was a compassionate ruler and always remained accessible to her subjects. She always paid attention to their concerns.

She, along with subhedar Tukoji Rao Holkar, her military head, gloriously protected her kingdom from invaders and despoilers.

Under her years of reign, Indore achieved its utmost glorious peak. From a small village, she transformed Indore to a beautiful and prosperous city.

She undertook several infrastructural projects in Malwa and  frequently sponsored festivals. She regularly gave donations to Hindu temples.

The queen never used public cash to meet her family or personal expenditures. She contributed money from her personal funds to charity. She pursued literary, musical, artistic, and industrial endeavours in her capital Maheshwar. She even established a textile industry in Maheshwar.

Ahilya Bai had a great taste in literature and she herself was well read. As a result, her capital became home to a number of eminent citizens, including poet Moropant, Shahir Anantaphandi, and Sanskrit scholar Khushali Ram. Ahilya Bai was very fond of her craftsmen, sculptors and artists who were well paid for their work and held in high regard by her.

Accomplishments

The great queen adorned various cities with beautiful temples, wells, dharmashalas and ghats..

  • Bhusawal – Changadeva temple
  • Gaya – Vishnupada temple
  • Sinhpur – Shiva temple and ghat
  • Ujjain – temples of Ganapati, Janardana, Shri Lila Purushottama, Balaji Tilakeshwar, Ramjanaki Ras Mandal, Gopala, Balaji, and many other temples, 13 ghats on the Shipra river and many dharmashalas
  • Puri – Shri Ramachandra temple, dharmashala and garden
  • Dwarka – Mohatajkhana and Pooja House
  • Ayodhya – Temp[les of Shri Rama, Shri Treta Rama, Shri Bhairava, Nageshwar/Siddhnath, Sarayu Ghat, well, Swargadwari Mohatajkhana and dharamshalas

Other site names include Alampur, Amarkantak, Ambergaon, Bhimsankar, Burhanpur, Chandwad, Ellora, Gangotri, Haridwar, Jalgaon, Nathdwar, Prayagraj,Mathura, Sultanpur etc.

“Ahilyabai had one of the most stable reigns of the 18th century.”

Gordon

She also arranged for water supply form Ganga river to be received by temples like

  • Rameshwara Jyotirlinga, Tamil Nadu
  • Mallikarjunaswamy Jyotirlinga, Andhra Pradesh
  • Janardanaswamy temple, Kerala
  • Padmanabhaswamy temple, Kerala
  • Venkateshwara (Tirupati Balaji) temple, Andhra Pradesh
  • Mahabaleshwara temple, Karnataka
  • Subrahmanyeshwara temple, Andhra Pradesh
  • Pasupateshwara temple, Tamil Nadu
  • Dwarkadhish temple, Gujarat
  • Ranchhorji temple, Gujarat
  • Utkanteshwara temple, Gujarat
  • Vaijanath temple, Maharashtra
  • Tryambakeshwara Jyotirling, Maharashtra
  • Panchavati temple, Maharashtra

There are several other temples, the names of which have not been included here.

Legacy – After her death in 13th August 1795, she was succeeded by her commander-in-chief, Tukoji Rao Holkar (who was also the adopted son of Malhar Rao). He then abdicated the throne in favour of his son Kashi Rao Holkar in 1797.

Ahilya Bai Holkar was a woman ahead of her time. As a tribute to the great Indian queen, Government of India issued a commemorative stamp on 25th August 1996. Moreover, Indore International airport has been renamed to Devi Ahilyabai Holkar Airport and Indore University has been renamed to Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya.

Such was the great queen’s valor and legacy that even after 40 years after her death, Sir John Malcom wrote,

“Her first principle of government appears to have been moderate assessment,

 and an almost sacred respect for the native rights of village officers and proprietors of   land.

She heard every complaint in person; and although she continually referred cases to

courts of equity and arbitration, and to her ministers for settlement, she was always accessible.

So strong was her sense of duty on all points connected with the distribution of justice, that

she is represented as not only patient but unwearied in the investigation of the most insignificant cases,

when appeals were made to her decision.”