“These amazing women dominated their environments, each in her own different way, and set up a dynasty that is unique to not just India but world history even today.” Thus ends The Women Who Ruled India: Leaders, Warrior, Icons, the recent book by Archana Goradia Gupta, pretty much summing up the twenty stories it narrates.
Formal history has predominantly focused on men, perhaps even more so in India than elsewhere. By rescuing a score of major figures from obscurity, Gupta shines a light on their undeservedly lesser-known lives. At a time when history seems to be increasingly subject to manipulation by political ideology, it is imperative that history remain inclusive.
None became rulers due to natural succession.
From Rani Lakshmibai, Ahilyabai Holkar, Nur Jahan to Raziya Sultan, Didda and Chand Bibi, the women in this book, all pre-Independence, are both iconic and fascinating. Some of these rulers are well-known and feature in history books, but others thrive through folklore passed down the generations.
One common thread that binds these women is that none became rulers due to natural succession. They ascended to the throne in rare and specific circumstances such as the extremely young age of the male heir or the complete absence of one. The essays, like their lives, follow a pattern: childhood to marriage and then to a situation which pushes them to the forefront, left with no choice but to fight and rule, to protect the kingdom and the people from enemies. This they continue to do, at least until the male heir is old enough to supplant them.
Nur Jahan’s is the one story most will be familiar with. History remembers her as the ruler of the largest, richest and most powerful empire ever controlled by a woman. She was never the crowned ruler but was nevertheless considered to be the master strategist who managed the kingdom. A rare beauty, she is also remembered for her enormous contribution to architecture, literature, art and music during the fifteen years of her rule. In a cruel twist of fate, after losing a battle she was stripped of her luxuries and confined to a private house until a lonely death surrounded by obscurity almost eighteen years later. Her epitaph provides an apt description of the last days of her life:
On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose.
Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing.
It is the lesser-known names that beguile.
As interesting as the chapters on such famous (at least to Indian readers) warrior queens as Rani Lakshmibai and Raziya Sultan may be, Gupta does little more that recapitulate what has been written elsewhere. It is the lesser-known names that beguile. Striking a balance between the two is not an easy task. For instance, in the chapter “Twice-Told Tales: Truth and Myth”, Gupta recounts the story of the heroines of Chittor namely Rani Karmavati, Mirabai and Tarabai who chose to defy the norm by not committing sati. While Mirabai has been the subject of both books and movies, Rani Karmavati and Tarabai remain shrouded in mystery. Going back and forth in time, Gupta poignantly narrates the tale of their survival but fails to capture their magnanimity. The antics of Rani Karmavati perhaps deserve a separate chapter of its own.
In an attempt to stay true to their character, she has portrayed the women as they were, replete with flaws and strengths intact. A brief after-note follows each piece, demystifying common misconceptions and decoding the aftermath of each subject’s death. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t always live up to the potential of its subjects: an occasional surfeit of detailing can make it difficult to engage with the characters.
But spanning the length and breadth of the country, these stories—based on multiple sources and interspersed with observations and often sensational anecdotes—depict a cultural diversity present since time immemorial.
Namrata Madhira is a writer in Mumbai.