This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here
For millennia, India has been an intensely patriarchal society. A country that reveres numerous goddesses occasionally stands accused of harbouring outdated attitudes towards women’s rights. Misogyny is a feature of certain sections of Indian society, particularly in the country’s rural areas, where village life is dictated by councils – called panchayats– comprised entirely of men.
And yet, despite this, through the ages, a handful of women have risen to the very top. These queens of the subcontinent leave behind a legacy that continues to inspire India’s women as they seek to redress the balance of power.
Razia Sultana – Razia al-Din – was the first (and last) female ruler of the Delhi Sultanate and South Asia’s first female Muslim ruler. The daughter of Turkish Mamluk Sultan Shamsuddin Iltutmish, she learned from an early age the key skills of leadership: military tactics and civic administration. Impressed with her courage and intelligence, her father gave serious consideration to naming her his heir. In the event, he was succeeded by Razia’s less competent half-brother.
Not one to take such a slight lying down, Razia instigated a public revolt against her brother and took the throne in 1236.
Her subsequent reign, though short-lived, was characterised by a just and generous rule, and the suppression of several rebellions. Initially observing the Muslim tradition of purdah, she soon decided to buck tradition and appear in public – dressed in male attire. Her increasingly assertive attitude upset the nobles who had promoted her ascendancy, believing that she would act as a mouthpiece for their own wishes.
Ultimately, Razia was deposed. In attempting to regain her throne, she lost her life, at the age of 35, undone by another of her siblings.
The Rani of Jhansi – real name Lakshmibai – was a Maratha queen of the princely state of Jhansi in northern India. Married at a young age to the maharajah of Jhansi, Lakshmibai suffered early tragedy with the loss of her first child. Her ailing husband adopted a son on his deathbed and left instructions that, after his passing, control of the state should pass to his widow. His wish was to remain unfulfilled.
After his death in 1853, the British East India Company annexed the territory, applying the nefarious Doctrine of Lapse. According to the doctrine, any Indian princely state where the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir” would fall to British management. Adopted children were deemed ineligible for the status of heir for the purposes of the doctrine.
Suspecting opposition, the British attempted to appease Lakshmibai by bribing her with the offer of an annual pension. The pension came with a condition – Lakshmibhai was ordered to leave the palace.
On 10 May 1857, the Indian Rebellion began.
Within short order Lakshmibai was drawn into the fighting, proving to be an able leader with a sound grasp of military strategy. By the time she was killed, in mid-1858, at the Battle of Gwalior, she had gained the respect of the British as a fierce and intelligent warrior.
She goes down in history as a symbol of resistance against the British Raj, an inspiration to the Indian nationalists that would follow her less than a century later.
Once listed by Vogue as one of the most beautiful women in the world, the Maharani Gayatri Devi is remembered for her elegance, charm, and refusal to conform. The daughter of the Maharaja of Cooch-Behar, Gayatri – or Ayesha, as she was fondly called – was greatly influenced by her mother who bucked the royal tradition of arranged unions and married for love. Such a marriage was rare in the circles into which Gayatri had been born, inciting disapproval and much scandalous gossip.
Undeterred, Gayatri followed in her mother’s footsteps, marrying a man she had fallen in love with, an unsuitable candidate, in the opinion of many, the Maharaja of Jaipur, Sir Sawai Man Singh Bahadur, a dashing royal with a weakness for polo and two wives already in tow. Whilst wives one and two were (by all accounts) happy to remain in purdah Gayatri was not one to shy away from the limelight.
The promotion of women’s rights became a lifelong mission for the young queen. In 1943, she opened the Gayatri Devi School for Girls which went on to become one of the finest schools in the country. She later became heavily involved in politics, winning an election in 1962 by securing a stunning majority of 175,000 votes, thereby earning a spot in The Guinness Book of Records.
Imprisoned for political reasons in 1975 for six months, she later became a campaigner for prison reform. A lifelong traveller, in her latter years, she would spend summers in Knightsbridge, London. She died in 2009, at the ripe old age of 90.
This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.
All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff.
My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.