Book Review: The Women who Ruled India – Deccan Herald

History, in general, has been just that — His Story. This latest collection of 20 stories about women rulers from Indian history attempts to set right the gender imbalance.

Archana Garodia Gupta has written a racy, readable, well-researched tome about known and unknown queens, regents, warriors, and icons – then presented them, warts and all. These are not hagiographies – because ‘they were not always saints. They often made wrong decisions, took on wrong advisors’, survived misogynistic times. Nobles and courtiers were none too happy reporting to a female regent who ruled benignly while a young male heir came of age. And so attempts would be made to rush through a wedding of a 15-year-old heir-in-waiting to a reluctant but worthy daughter of a begum. In fact, I found the last chapter on the begums of Bhopal rather fascinating. It was the begums more than the nawabs that contributed to the city’s growth.

The book opens with the six Bhaumakara queens of Odisha, part of a dynasty that ruled from 8th to 10th centuries CE. Like every chapter, this one too begins with a quote from a resource — in this case, the Dhenkanal copper plate inscriptions.

Then there were the two Chennammas of present-day Karnataka. The 17th century Rani Chennamma of tiny Keladi is remembered for her defiance of the mighty Aurangazeb; while the beautiful, ‘very fair’ Kittur Chennamma stood up to the British in 1824. Immortalised in songs, books, films, she has often been termed India’s first woman freedom fighter.

The author has skillfully woven personal and the larger history together. Each queen’s quick biography also has a short afterword that gives one a sense of the period in its entirety. I was happy to read the stories of lesser-known smaller kingdoms. Occasionally, it can get a tad confusing, but a re-read does clear the picture. And along the way, the author delivers absolute nuggets of delightful information – clearly indicative of her ‘national quizzer’ background.

Here’s one: The city of Bhopal took birth in the 11th century, as Bhojpal, named as it was after the legendary King Bhoj.

And another: 42-year-old Emperor Jehangir married the beautiful Nur Jahan, 34, in 1611. She was his 20th and last wife, but most effectively, de facto ruler of the powerful, rich Mughal kingdom.

The chapter on Didda, the controversial lame regent of Kashmir (ruled, 958- 1003 CE), mentions a place Varahamula — modern day Baramulla. Didda needed to be carried around, even as she outlived her husband, a son and three grandson heirs to the Kashmir throne. The efficient, insecure and ruthless Didda then ruled in her own right as a queen till her death at age 79. Coins with the inscription, Sri Didda, are available even today.

Rudrama Devi (ruled 1262-89 CE) is the only independent female ruler mentioned by Marco Polo, traveller and historian. She ruled Orugallu (today’s Warangal), in the land of Kakatiyas — present-day Andhra Pradesh – Telangana. She had no brothers, and inherited the throne from her father Ganapati Deva, considered the greatest Kakatiya king. This well-trained queen ruled excellently through 40 years, all along defeating troublesome neighbours and rebellious nobles. She completed work on the impregnable Warangal Fort, built temples, water tanks (some still in use), and turned the dry Deccan into an agricultural paradise. Fine cloth, diamonds, were produced, mined, exported, riches earned.

Some of these rulers are familiar to us through history texts and historical films, TV shows, comics. Thus the accounts of Razia Sultan (the tragic Delhi queen who seemingly loved a slave, and ruled for four short years) or the iconic Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi (presented by the author as a resolute sober queen rather than the spitfire of recent popular Hindi cinema). But there are many lesser-known ladies who deserve to be known, understood.

The queen who chopped off noses, Rani Karnavati of Garhwal. This little-known queen of prosperous hilly Garhwal stood up to the mighty Mughal forces of Shah Jahan. Her forces defeated the Mughals — but they were allowed to leave only after leaving their chopped off nose bits!

The builder of highways, Rani Mangammal. This 17th-century queen of Madurai alternately battled and befriended her neighbours, “walking a tightrope to preserve her kingdom for 18 years”. Her legacy survives – the Kanyakumari-Madurai Mangammal Salai still holding strong.

The Attingal queens were the matriarchs of Travancore, mothers to the Travancore kings, yet followed the matrilineal route for their own territory, close by, through 400 years. “As per the Dutch historian Louise Ouwerkerk , ‘great were the surprise of (these) merchants when they found themselves negotiating trade treaties with bare-bosomed but dignified and capable Indian queens’.”

Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore, revered as a ‘philosopher queen’, governed excellently through the tumultuous 18th century, despite personal tragedies in later life.

The heroines of Chittor preferred to lead an army rather than commit jauhar or sati.

These diverse feminist icons, inclusive and tolerant rulers from the past, hold lessons for politicians today.

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