This is a book I was actually waiting for. I was pretty sure there were many women rulers in India whose names are virtually unknown. I’ve been doing my own share of research but this book made me realize the depth of my ignorance.
Yes, I know the Begums of Bhopal had ruled for a 100 years albeit with the help of the British. Yes, I had heard of the Dhenkanal copper plates, but the 100 year rule of the Bhaumakara queens of Odisha was a revelation to me. The dynasty had lasted 200 years. Of the 18 rulers, 6 were female, and they had ruled long and well. Tribhuvana Mahadevi, the first of the queens had ascended the throne in 846 CE. And not a single queen had adopted a son to bolster her own legitimacy.
I had hitherto believed that Abbakka Rani of Ullal was a single heroic woman who had valiantly fought off the Portuguese for decades. Now I learn there were two Abbakka Ranis.
There are tales of well known women like Razia Sultan, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Chand Bibi who defended the two sultanates of Bijapur and Ahmednagar, Kittur Rani Chennamma, Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore, and Nur Jahan, who was the de facto Mughal as her husband Jahangir lapsed into an alcoholic stupor and left the reins of the empire in her hands.
The surprises came in the shape of the Attingal Ranis of Kerala, and Rani Karnavati of Garhwal who acquired the epithet ‘naak-katti rani’ after she cut off the noses of Emperor Shah Jahan’s forces whom she defeated and captured. Garhwal went on to defy Aurangzeb, and still managed to survive.
I had never heard of Didda, Queen of Kashmir, who ruled ably for half a century from 958 to 1003 CE. And the author tells us that Kashmir had many women rulers before and after Didda. Before Didda another queen, Sugandhadevi, had wielded power for 50 years, first as regent and later as independent ruler. When Didda’s husband died she cleverly avoided committing sati by staging a superb drama. In fact the book mentions several women who committed sati and several others who refused to do so. I found this part most interesting.
In the 13th century Rudrama Devi of Orugallu (now Warangal) was groomed by her father Ganapati Deva of the Kakatiya dynasty to take over the reins of the kingdom after him. She was made co-ruler in 1259 CE and later in 1262 CE she ruled independently, although she sat on the throne only after the death of the king in 1269. Only a few decades earlier in 1231 CE the Delhi Sultan Itutmish of the Slave dynasty had declared his daughter Razia Sultan as his heir, overriding the claims of his three sons. Razia refused to be called Sultana because the word meant ‘sultan’s wife’. She was the only woman to adorn the throne of Delhi and her reign was short-lived. Rudrama Devi, however, lived to be 80 years old and died around 1289 CE.
A chapter titled “The Heroines of Chittor” makes interesting reading. The author points out that “Karmavati, Jawahirbai and Mirabai were all women who flouted the norm in choosing not to commit sati and came into prominence only after being widowed.” Rani Karmavati did not choose to die when her husband Rana Sanga died in 1528 of wounds sustained in battle, having been defeated by Babur. Bhojraj, Rana Sanga’s heir apparent and husband of the poet-saint Mirabai had already fallen in battle the previous year.
Several years later, in March 1535, Chittor was besieged by Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. When the walls were breached with Portuguese cannons, Rani Karmavati led 13000 Rajput women to commit jauhar, while the men fought to the last man. Earlier the queen mother Jawahirbai had led a cavalry charge to defend the breach and died a glorious death along with several other women dressed in male attire. Fortunately for Mirabai she had left Chittor for Merta in 1534, and thus she survived. She lived on until 1547 extolling the divinity of Lord Krishna.
Tarabai, the warrior wife of Prithviraj, often joined her husband on the battlefield. She was acclaimed for driving off a war elephant with her sword. The couple lived in Kumbhalgarh, where Prithviraj was poisoned by his brother in law. Tarabai chose to die on his funeral pyre. Looks like sati was fashionable, but the women did have a choice.
Down south in Madurai in 1682 CE, Rani Mangammal refused to commit sati when her husband Chokkanath Nayak died. Instead she ably guided her young son Virappa Naik, who died seven years later of small pox. When his pregnant wife tried to commit sati, Mangammal forcibly restrained her. The lady Muthuammal later gave birth to a son Vijaya Ranga and subsequently committed suicide. Mangammal continued to rule as regent until 1705, when she died in mysterious circumstances.
I didn’t read the book – I devoured it.
Overall Assessment: If you’re a history buff, you’ll simply love this book
The Women Who Ruled India
Author: Archana Garodia Gupta
Publisher: Hachette India
Publication Date: December 2017
Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.