Glancing up from my phone to tell Alan what I’d learned, I saw a man standing before the statue of Ahilyabai, his hands folded in prayer. I watched as he prostrated, then sat in meditation at her feet. That’s when I understood Ahilyabai is much more than a historical figure, or even a heroine: She is a goddess.
She didn’t start out that way. Ahilyabai was born a commoner in 1725, in what is today the state of Maharashtra. Girls weren’t sent to school in those days, but her father, who was the village headman, taught her to read and write. This unusual advantage likely helped enable her place in history.
Far less unusual is the fact that she was married at eight years of age. Malhar Rao Holkar, the ruler of Malwa (in what is today Madhya Pradesh), stopped at her village for a visit. He saw the little girl feeding the poor at the local temple, and was so impressed with her character that he claimed Ahilyabai as a bride for his son. Soon after, Ahilyabai was married and living in the palace in Malwa as the wife of the heir to throne.
She grew up and had two children, a son born when she was 20 and a daughter three years later. I assume she fulfilled all the duties of the traditional wife and mother of her time and station in life, but even so, her intelligence set her on a different path. When her husband was killed in battle in 1754 and Ahilyabai tried to commit sati – at just 29 – her father-in-law stepped in and persuaded her not to kill herself. She was too valuable to him and to his people, he said: He relied on her insights and judgment for help in ruling Malwa.
(In case you haven’t heard of sati, it’s the practice of a wife burning herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Traditionally it was considered to be a holy practice, and voluntary, though it’s certain that at least some widows were forced to it. Sati was outlawed in the 19th century, but one sometimes reads of sati occurring even in modern times.)
Twelve years after the death of her husband, Ahilyabai’s father-in-law died. At first, Ahilyabai’s son Male Rao Holkar was appointed as the ruler, with Ahilyabai as the regent. But his reign lasted only a few months before he died. Male Rao was apparently insane, cruel and incompetent, depending on which accounts you read. In one story, he put scorpions into the shoes of some courtiers; they were bitten and died. For this, Ahilyabai herself sentenced him to death, and he was crushed beneath the foot of an elephant.
It sounds impossible: How could a mother do this? Let alone one so revered for her compassion and piety. But the story is cited by some as evidence of her divine wisdom and the depth of her caring for the people of her kingdom. She was not going to let them be ruled by a madman.
Ahilyabai’s 30-year reign is, in fact, considered to have been one of the best for the common people of India. She showed great compassion for the poor and laboring people of her kingdom, keeping taxes on poor people low (or nonexistent) while building forts, roads, wells, and rest-houses for travelers, and planting shade trees along roads all over the kingdom. She created a peaceful environment for farmer and merchants by making a treaty with groups that preyed on her people. She granted these groups the right to live in hilly land surrounding Malwa and to collect reasonable duties on goods passing through their territory.
Ahilyabai moved the capital of Malwa to Maheshwar, a small town on the Narmada River. There she established a textile industry that’s still an important economic force today. As you walk around the streets of Maheshwar, you hear the clack-clack-clacking of many handlooms resounding in the front rooms of modest houses.
Today’s royal family continues to support and expand this industry, offering free training at a weaving school they established for local people. The family also has several workshops, with attached schools for the weavers’ children.
Under Ahilyabai, Maheshwar became a thriving little city, and Ahilyabai hosted poets, musicians and artists of all kinds. She was constantly building temples, dharamshalas, chhatris and other monuments, employing many craftsmen, artisans and sculptors. She also developed Indore from a small village to a large and thriving city. Her activities spread across India, and she built temples as far north as Gangotri and Kedarnath in the Himalayas, as far east as Puri (in Odisha) and as far south as Rameswaram (in Tamil Nadu).
It’s easy to recognize the monuments that Ahilyabai is responsible for in Maheshwar and Indore – they are gracefully laid out, and beautifully embellished with sculptures. I particularly enjoy the fact that these are often of people from all walks of 18th-century Indian life – musicians, artisans, nursing mothers, sadhus, scholars.
While Ahilyabai is remembered today for the peace and prosperity that characterized her long reign, it’s interesting that she is also remembered as a successful warrior and leader of warriors. (Ahilyabai is often depicted as an archer.) It’s clear that military skill was necessary to assure the security of her subjects, a security that permitted a great deal of economic development.
Ahilyabai was also known as a diplomat, and it’s clear that she made use of both her military and diplomatic skills to protect her subjects. She was able to avert at least one war by telling the other ruler that it would be deeply humiliating to have his army defeated by an army of women.
Piety is another virtue attributed to Ahilyabai. She not only built many temples and dharamshalas, she also is said to have lived in a very simple way, possessing only three saris (and apparently she wove them herself). The Holkar palace in Indore is large, but Ahilyabai’s palace in Maheshwar is small and modest for a royal personage – it’s more like the traditional house of a Brahmin with ample means and a large family.
Ahilyabai also bettered the lot of widows, giving them the right to keep their husbands’ wealth, and to adopt a son if they did not have one. (Sons were an absolute necessity in traditional Indian life, as they stayed in their parents’ home when they married, and provided for them as they aged. Writing “were” is actually a little weird, because this is still the system in many Indian families today.)
As much as Ahilyabai’s life and actions challenged tradition, she also suffered for it. Her own daughter committed sati, which must have been a dreadful loss. It also seems Ahilyabai had no grandchildren; when she herself died at 70, she was succeeded by a military commander who had served under her for many years.
All these facts are interesting, but what’s most interesting about Ahilyabai is walking around Maheshwar, its ghats, fort, temples and streets, and feeling her presence and legacy. The rhythm of handlooms and spinning wheels in the streets; the schools where children play under huge trees; the beautifully designed and ornamented temples that are still alive with bells and chants – all this is descended from her rule. When you stand on the ghats looking up at the fort, or in the fort’s gateway looking down, it’s easy to imagine Ahilyabai making her way down the gracefully flowing stairs that lead to the water, a brass pot in her hand, ready to take her morning dip and say her prayers.
More information about Ahilyabai
The best resource I found for historical details about Ahilyabai is here: http://ahilyabai-holkar.blogspot.com/