What ‘Really’ Happened In Jhansi?

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    Statues of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi dot cities and towns across India and a wide range of books, plays, television serials and movies have been inspired by her life.

    But how much of what we know of her and the times she lived in is authentic? We bring you the events that took place in Jhansi, from a rare and unique travelogue of a man who witnessed, firsthand, the events in Jhansi in 1857. This poignant account brings alive the life and struggles of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi and the kingdom she ruled.

    The author of the account, Vishnubhat Godse (1827-1904), was a poor Brahmin priest who lived in the village of Varsai in Alibaug district in Maharashtra, not very far from Mumbai. During those times, it was common practice for Brahmin priests to travel from one royal court to another, participating in religious ceremonies and seeking dakshina (alms).

    Godse had learnt from a family friend that the Queen of Gwalior, Baijabai Scindia, was planning to conduct a big yajna at Mathura at the cost of Rs 8 lakh. Godse, who had fallen on hard times, decided to try his luck and began his journey to North India (‘Hindustan’, as he calls it) on 30th March 1857. Little did he know that, en route, he would be caught up in a whirlwind of historic events.

    Godse was in Jhansi when the Revolt broke out. He was in Jhansi when the city fell and its people were massacred. After travelling across North and Central India, to places as far as Ayodhya and Bundi (in Rajasthan), he returned to his native village in 1860. He wrote a travelogue about what he had witnessed during his travels and called it Majha Pravas. The travelogue, written in Marathi, reads like a diary in parts and a news report in others. While the memoir is extensive, we bring you some interesting excerpts that bring alive those times.

    It was on 1st July 1857, in the cantonment town of Mhow, on their way North, that Vishnubhat Godse and his uncle first heard of the revolt in North India. Not sure about what was happening, they continued their journey north, through Ujjain to Gwalior. Here, they received news that the yajna at Mathura had been cancelled due to the ‘disturbances’.

    The Way To Jhansi

    After a brief stay in Gwalior, Godse and his uncle decided to try their luck in the court of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi. Godse’s uncle knew Moropant Tambe (Rani’s father) and hence they set out on their journey. Godse writes:

    The entire Hindustan had rebelled

    ‘There were no more obstacles on the way (to Jhansi) as the rebels and Company troops have left Delhi due to the stench caused by dead bodies of men and animals, and the soaring prices and scarcity of water. It is heard that, at present, they have decided to fight in Jhansi. The combat in Dilli (Delhi) has ended and they have gathered in Kanpur, where a battle is underway. As such, there will be no trouble on our way to Jhansi.

    ‘Hiring a cart for Jhansi and halting at places along the way, we set out on our journey. On the way, we met many people. We heard from them the stories about battles going on everywhere. The entire Hindustan had rebelled.’

    Dismay at Killing of British Women, Children

    Like other contemporary Indian chroniclers, Godse was very disapproving of the killing of British women and children that had taken place during the Revolt. He writes:

    ‘White (‘gore’ or British) women and children at Jhansi, Agra, Dilli and other places were killed. Then, the wise and old men began to say that there was no hope left… because the Vedas and Shastras do not ever permit killing women and children. Even if women commit a great offence, they should not be punished with death. Notwithstanding this, this hideous act was committed; therefore there was no hope for Indians to win. They (rebels) had gone beyond the cause of freeing the land.’

    Description of Jhansi City

    Jhansi was the capital of one of the most important princely states in North India, and Godse provides a vivid description of Jhansi as a grand and prosperous city. As a poor Marathi village priest, he couldn’t help but compare it to Pune, which for him was the epitome of a ‘grand’ city.

    This city is somewhat like Pune in its customs

    ‘The city is densely populated with well-constructed roads. Halwaipura and Koshtipura are the finest areas in the city. The people here are skilled and are adept in various trades. The bankers and moneylenders are honest and dignified. It is said that in the South, it is Pune, and in the North, it is Jhansi (that are well reputed cities). The best carpets and brass utensils in entire Hindustan are made here. The (miniature) paintings here are matched only by those in Jaipur and nowhere else…

    ‘In the south of the city is a Mahalaxmi temple. Being the family deity of the Jhansi rulers, it is well maintained. A lot of money has been spent on the construction of the temple. This city is somewhat like Pune in its customs.’

    Amid the description of this ‘grand’ city are the humble musings of a simple and homely man: ‘Even though there are no farms around the city, the vegetables are inexpensive.’

    The Revolt in Jhansi Begins

    On reaching Jhansi, Godse and his uncle met Moropant Tambe (Rani Laxmibai’s father), pleading for his help. Tambe put in a good word for them with Rani Laxmibai and they began living under her patronage. In his account, Rani Laxmibai is always referred to as ‘Baisaheb’ or ‘Jhansiwali Baisaheb’. He provides an account of the beginning of the revolt in Jhansi:

    ‘After ten (in the afternoon), Indians became desperate and started rioting by shooting carbines and cannons. It was a small cantonment with a few white people, all of whom were killed by Indian soldiers. Then they came over to Baisaheb’s wada and began to call on Baisaheb. They told her, ‘You are our ruler. We follow your orders and take salaries from you every month. Now you do whatever is necessary.

    ‘Later, Baisaheb proclaimed her rule in the city and started governance. Thereafter, on an auspicious day, she took up residence in Jhansi as before (the kingdom had been annexed). All the matters of the princely state were resumed.’

    Personality and Daily Routine of Rani Laxmibai

    From Godse’s account, we get a vivid description of Rani Laxmibai’s personality. It is perhaps the most comprehensive account of her reign in Jhansi.

    On her head, she wore a turban like cap

    Her (Rani Laxmibai’s) two qualities worth mentioning are her bravery and her generosity. Mostly, she was dressed in male attire. She used to wear a pajama with a vest of dark purple colour. On her head, she wore a turban like cap. On her waist would be a dupatta-like cloth in which a sword would be tucked. Ever since her husband had died, she had given up wearing the nath (Maharashtrian nose ring worn by married women) and other such ornaments, except gold bangles on her wrists. However, there would be a pearl necklace around her neck and a diamond ring on her wrist.

    ‘Every day, in the afternoon, she used to sit in the office. Diwanji (Prime Minister) used to stand in front of her with a bundle of papers in his hands. There used to be five to seven clerks. The magisterial, civil and procedural matters were handled by her.

    ‘Baisaheb was very fond of physical exercises. At the break of dawn, she would get up and exercise on a malkhamb pole for 45 minutes. Then, she used to ride and train on horseback. After that, she would take a round or two on her elephant. On Tuesdays and Fridays, she would visit the Mahalaxmi temple in a large procession.’

    British Return To Jhansi

    In March 1858, the British troops arrived in Jhansi and laid siege to the city. Godse writes:

    ‘After establishing order in Bundelkhand, the Saheb (British) came along with some army and garrisoned at a distance of one and a half kos (3 miles) west of Jhansi. The Company Sarkar had stuck public proclamations in all the villages near Jhansi, that there was going to be a battle in Jhansi city and after capturing it, there would be a massacre. The rule was that all men above five and below eighty would be searched out and killed. So no one should go there during the days of the battle.

    In the month of Vaishakh, as per their proclamations, the Company Sarkar armies arrived in Jhansi. Suddenly, to the North, West and East of the city, large flocks of people could be seen. Around 60,000 soldiers of the Company Sarkar laid siege to the city. But Baisaheb was prepared for war. The gunners took up positions at the fortifications.’

    Bombardment of Jhansi

    The siege was soon followed by heavy bombardment, causing havoc in the city. Godse believed that the British had an advantage due to their powerful telescopes:

    ‘On the third night, at about three hours at dawn, the battle began. Cannon balls began to rain heavily on the city. All the cannons from Baisaheb’s side began retaliating. The houses in the city collapsed and burned. The battle raged, day and night. For 4-5 hours, Baisaheb would seem to win. There would be heavy destruction of the Company Army and their canons would stop functioning and, then again, in 3-4 hours, they would seem like they were winning. Such ups and downs in victory and defeat went on.

    When cannon balls stuck the zoo, all the animals cried out and died at once

    ‘From the seventh day, the fort itself came under heavy bombardment. The Company people had powerful telescopes through which the entire fort and people working in it could be seen. They discovered that there was only one water source and bombarded it with cannons.

    ‘They began to pound (Rani Laxmibai’s) wada with cannons. Everyone was afraid and went to the most secure room in the wada, right at its centre. There were five floors above it. We too went there. The cannon balls fell on the pilkhana (elephant stables) and all the elephants died.

    ‘Baisaheb had a zoo, where there were many different types of animals like parrots, mynahs, peacocks, deer and stags. When cannon balls stuck the zoo, all the animals cried out and died at once. There was no end to the havoc.’

    Fall of Jhansi & The Massacre That Followed

    On 2nd April 1858, the walls were breached and the British entered the city. Rani Laxmibai was forced to retreat to the Jhansi fort. There was a terrible massacre in the city:

    Halwaipura began burning

    ‘Baisaheb descended from the fort with 1,500 Afghan warriors while hundreds of British came from the other side. The British came with carbines and the Afghans could no longer defend with their swords. At that time, an old Sardar came to Baisaheb and said to her, “Maharaj, at this moment, proceeding further and dying by a gunshot has no glory. All those British (snipers) have hidden behind the buildings. Let us retreat to the fort, and rethink our strategy.” Saying this, he made her turn back.

    ‘Out there in the city, the British got in and with carbines killed every male they came across and set the city on fire. All men between the ages of five to thirty were searched out and killed. At the outset, Halwaipura began burning. What a terrible time the city went through then, one cannot imagine.

    ‘When the British found a man, they would torture him until he parted with all his money. But the British did not kill women; they stood at a distance from women and told them to hand over whatever gold and jewellery they were wearing. There were shouts and screams everywhere.’

    Rani Laxmibai Breaks Through The Siege

    Rani Laxmibai and a few of her followers tried to break out of the fort and escape. Most of her followers died during this attempt:

    ‘Baisaheb herself rode a white horse. She wore male attire, riding shoes and armour covering her whole body. She did not carry even a paisa coin on herself. With a resounding ‘Jai Shankar’ war cry, she descended from the fort and, crossing the city, went out through the north gate. The Company cavalry chased them for about a kos and a half (3 miles). Thereafter, Baisaheb’s horses were no longer in sight.’

    Hanging of Rani Laxmibai’s Father

    Godse barely managed to escape with his life by hiding but he lost all his earnings in the pillage that followed. He was also witness to the brutal retribution and the hanging of Rani Laxmibai’s father, Moropant Tambe:

    ‘When Baisaheb broke through the Company Army and left for Kalpi, most of the men with her died. Those who managed to escape were caught and hanged. Baisaheb’s father Moropant Tambe was injured and his thigh was almost severed. Yet he rode through the night and reached Datia the next morning. His body was drenched in blood.

    ‘He found a paan shop and he befriended the paan seller, giving him some gold. This paan seller reported him to the raja (of Datia), who promptly informed the Company Sarkar. The Company brought him to Jhansi in a doli and hanged him in front of the wada.

    Death of Rani Laxmibai

    Godse managed to escape Jhansi and reach Gwalior, where he was once again caught up in the Revolt. Tatya Tope, Rani Laxmibai and the rebels had managed to take the city from the Scindias. What is most baffling is that Rani Laxmibai’s death gets only three sentences in Godse’s account and it is dismissed in the most matter-of-fact manner:

    In the battle (at Gwalior), the Jhansiwali Baisaheb got wounded by a bullet, but she continued to fight. Just then, her thigh was wounded with a sword and she fell off the horse. Tatya Tope rushed forward and held her dead body. The Baisaheb’s body was taken to a designated place and cremated there.’

    Godse continued his travels and witnessed the fighting in Central India and Bundi, before returning to his native village Varsai in present-day Alibaug district of Maharashtra, in 1860. He had specifically requested that the travelogue he had written be published only after his death, for perhaps he feared retribution from the British. He passed away in 1901 and it was published in 1907. The original manuscript is in the Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal in Pune, while a number of English and Hindi translations are available.

    What Happened To Rani Laxmibai’s Son

    Rani Laxmibai’s adopted son, Damodar Rao, survived the Revolt and left his own memoirs, which can be read here

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