Jhalkaribai: Rani Laxmibai’s Lookalike Who Defended Jhansi against British in 1857-58
Jhalkaribai! While she remains in oblivion in the pages of History, she is revered as one of the bravest daughters of Bharat Mata in the Dalit community. She was one of the commanders of Durga Dal, the women contingent of the Jhansi army of Rani Laxmibai. She was also an advisor to the queen. Laxmibai consulted her on administrative and military affairs. Born and brought up in a humble background, she rose to power by sheer dint of her bravery and her love for the motherland.
Do you know it was because of the defence laid by Jhalkaribai against the British army that Rani Laxmibai could escape from Jhansi Fort? The British felt confused, as they thought she was the Rani of Jhansi. Such was the resemblance of Jhalkaribai with Laxmibai! Jhalkaribai purposefully misled the British army, leading from the front, giving a safe passage to the Rani of Jhansi.
Jhalkaribai was born to Jamuna Devi and Sadoba Singh, a Koli family in Bhojla village near Jhansi on 22 November 1830. The Kolis are a community with many subgroups; they inhabit the central and western mountain regions of India. She was the only child of her parents. She lost her mother when she was very young. Coincidently her lookalike Laxmibai also lost her mother when she was 4. Her father raised her as a single parent.
She was different from other girls of her community. Besides taking care of household chores, doing her duties of a lady of the household, Jhalkaribai was regularly involved in tending cattle and collecting firewood from the jungle. She was daring right from her childhood. She often went all alone with her axe to the jungle to collect firewood though she knew she might be attacked by wild animals.
Once she had an encounter with a leopard while herding her cattle. She killed the leopard with her herding stick! This feat of hers brought her fame in her neighborhood and beyond. On another occasion, she saved a village businessman from being looted by dacoits. She challenged a gang of dacoits who raided the house of the businessman and forced them to retreat. The village elders started revering her as their daughter and sister. The young and the old drew inspiration from her.
When Jhalkaribai grew of marriageable age, the villagers started looking for a groom for her. They wanted her to get married to someone as courageous as her. And they found a suitable groom in Pooran Kori, who was known to be brave and trained in the art of warfare. Soon after, Pooran Kori was inducted into the Jhansi army as a soldier. He became a well known personality in the Jhansi army for his skills and exploits.
On one occasion, Rani Laxmibai invited the women of the villages of Jhansi to attend Gauri (Goddess Shakti) puja at the Jhansi fort. Jhalkaribai accompanied the other ladies to the fort. Laxmibai’s eyes fell on her; she was was struck by Jhalkaribai’s uncanny resemblance to her. She learnt that she was the wife of Pooran Kori, one of the bravest soldiers of her army. She also learnt about her childhood exploits, how she killed the leopard and her encounter with the dacoits. Laxmibai immediately inducted her into the women contingent of the Jhansi Army called Durga Dal. More women joined Durga Dal.
The Rani herself trained the women army. Jhalkaribai’s learning was fast. She soon became an expert in the art of warfare – horse riding, shooting, using of all weapons used in war, etc. By dint of her courage and her skills, she rose to the power of the Commander of Durga Dal. Jhalkaribai was also a beauty with brains. Rani Laxmibai additionally appointed her as her advisor. The Rani started seeking her advice in administrative and military affairs and of creating strategies of defending Jhansi from possible attacks by the British and other enemy forces.
The British under Lord Dalhousie had rejected Damodar Rao’s claim to the throne of Jhansi, as he was adopted. They applied the Doctrine of Lapse and annexed Jhansi to their empire. Meanwhile in the early months of 1857, rumor about cartridges containing pork or beef fat being supplied by British sparked unrest amongst soldiers and the common men alike. And the first rebellion started in Meerut on May 10, 1857. Indian sepoys with the help of local civilians killed 50 Britishers. This news spread like wild fire and many a son and daughter of Bharat Mata rose in revolt against the British across the country. The news reached Jhansi. Laxmibai revolted against the British and declared independence.
Meanwhile, a group of mutineers, who were supporters of a rival prince claiming the throne of Jhansi, attacked the fort. Rani Laxmibai foiled their attempt, defeating them. The rulers of Orchha and Datiya, both allies of the British, attacked Jhansi in August 1857. They wished to divide Jhansi amongst themselves. The Rani assembled her forces. She set up a foundry to cast cannons within the premises of the fort. Yes! She successfully defeated the invaders. Jhalkaribai and Durga Dal played an instrumental role in defeating the enemy forces.
Laxmibai ruled Jhansi peacefully from August 1857 to January 1858. Towards the third week of March 1858, the British forces, under Commander Hugh Rose, marched towards Jhansi. They ordered the Rani to surrender and threatened destruction of the fort and the town if she refused. The battle between Rani Lakshmi Bai and the British forces began on 24thMarch 1858 and continued for 10 days until April 2nd. Jhalkaribai played an active role in this battle. There were heavy casualties from both sides. At last British forces were able to penetrate the walls of the fort and into the fort and the palace. All because one of the Rani’s commanders betrayed her, opening a well protected gate of the fort to the British forces.
It was Jhalkaribai who advised Laxmibai to run away from the fort so that she accumulated a force outside. The witty Jhalkaribai herself offered to defend the fort unto death by disguising herself as the Rani. Disguised as the queen, she galloped in her horse towards the enemy, taking command of the Jhansi army. Meanwhile, her husband Pooran Kori died while fighting the British. Jhalkaribai fought like a wounded tigress when she learnt about it, killing many British soldiers, until she was caught. With her adopted son Damodar Rao tied to her back, Laxmibai jumped down several feet from the fort and managed to escape.
The British Commander Hugh Rose and his men were overjoyed, as they felt they caught the Rani alive. Rose asked Jhalkaribai what should be done to her. She said, “Hang me!” Later, they learnt that she was Jhalkaribai, the lookalike of Laxmibai. She was hanged to death by the British. Though the actual date of the hanging is not in records, it was probably April 1858, as she was caught on April 2nd.
According to Bundelkhand folklore, the British commander was so stunned by Jhalkaribai’s wit, courage, and sacrifice that he said if every Indian woman was like her, the British would be bound to leave India soon.
Jhalkaribai was a Dalit. But didn’t she rise to power owing to her skills? Jhalkaribai struck fear in the hearts of the British army. Through her role in the 1857 war of independence and for the freedom of Jhansi, through her valor and sacrifice, she has left behind a rich legacy for millions to emulate.
My India My Glory salutes Jhalkaribai. Jai Hind!
1. Veerangana Jhalkari Bai, Mohandas Naimisharay
Featured image courtesy: Wikipedia and Google.