The  Wise and Warrior Queen

In the male-dominated history of India which traces back to more than five millennia, one can find a handful of women rulers.  One of those very few who stood out for her exemplary bravery, exceptional military skills, visionary leadership, and philanthropy was Ahilyabai Holkar. Her life and leadership can be an inspiration for a multitude of women and men of today and tomorrows. 

Born to a Marathi Hindu family in the Chaundi village of Maharashtra on 31st May 1725, Ahilyabai Holkar was married to Khande Rao Holkar, son of Malhar Rao Holkar. She was from humble origins, and her father, Mankoji Shinde, used to serve as the patil (chief) of the village where she used to reside. 

Strong and Compassionate

Malhar Rao was a commander of Peshwa Baji Rao and the ruler of Malwa. He was impressed by Ahilyabai’s kindness in feeding the hungry and poor at a temple and requested Ahilyabai’s father, Mankoji Shinde, for Ahilyabai’s marriage to his son. Ahilyabai was only eight when she was married to Khande Rao Holkar and by the time she was 29, her husband was killed in a battle.

After her husband’s death, Ahilyabai wanted to commit the regressive practice of Sati but was thankfully strongly urged not to by her father-in-law. Eventually, Ahilyabai relented to  Malhar Rao’s urging. After her husband’s demise, Malhar Rao trained her in military and diplomatic affairs, eventually making her a skilled warrior and a wise ruler. 

She began ruling Malwa after the demise of Malhar Rao in 1766 and of Male Rao Holkar, her son with Khande Rao Holkar, in 1767. Her enlightened rule lasted almost 28 years.

Of course, she faced invasions from outside and political unrest within, but she handled those challenges successfully with courage and vision. On the one hand, she had the courage and strength to lead and direct her army in battles; on the other hand, she was extremely generous and compassionate to her people. This right amalgamation of strength and compassion, vision and sensitivity, which Ahilyabai displayed during her rule, could be the inspiration for many leaders and potential leaders in business and other walks of life, irrespective of gender.

Industry, Religion and Welfare 

Her rule was marked by egalitarianism, administrative dexterity, and compassion. She displayed a sincere commitment to the welfare of her subjects. As a queen, she protected the interests of farmers, tribals, and widows.  

Ahilyabai was accessible to her subjects and always extended help to the needy. These are, again, traits of a good leader of our times. Today being accessible to her/his team members and empowering the weak members of her/his team can facilitate a business leader to script her/his success story. 

Ahilyabai promoted trade and commerce, and gave better infrastructure for her people, as compared to the rulers of her times. She was pivotal in establishing a textile industry in her capital, Maheshwar, to empower her people economically. Maheshwar is famous for Maheshwar sarees. To her should go the credit for developing the famous Maheshwari saree industry. With her endeavours, she contributed towards making Malwa a prosperous land.

Her contributions towards promoting art and architecture are significant. One of her main contributions is transforming Indore from a small village to an elegant city. Ahilyabai commissioned several infrastructure projects in Malwaa. Her infrastructural creations went much beyond Malwa, though. She built several Hindu temples and rest houses throughout the Indian subcontinent.  Srinagar, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Prayaga, Varanasi,  Puri, Rameshwaram, Somnath, Nasik, Mahabaleshwar, Pune, Indore are some of the places where she built temples. 

Ahilyabai also renovated many temples across India that had been desecrated by invaders. One of her renowned projects is the reconstruction and renovation of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi.

She also paid serious attention to water management and constructed wells, tanks, and irrigation canals, which facilitated agriculture and daily life during her reign. 

Today’s political leaders can take inspiration from her in simultaneously taking care of the interests of commerce and welfare and being successful in both.

Patron of Art, Craft and Learning

Like most great leaders, the enlightened lady was ahead of her time. She was also a sincere patron of artists, craftsmen, and scholars. Scholars from all over India used to come to her court. 

During her reign, her capital, Maheshwar, became a hub of literary, musical, and other artistic endeavours in India.

Progressive Thinking

Ahilyabai also strove hard to eliminate social evils which did put a stranglehold on Indian society of those days, such as the deeply entrenched caste system and child marriage. She was not entirely successful in her endeavours, but her sincerity of purpose towards a comparatively more progressive society doesn’t have much room for doubt. One of the landmark steps during her rule was the removal of the traditional law, which empowered the state to confiscate the property of childless widows. 

Another of Ahilyabai’s significant steps was stopping capital punishment in Malwa. It was unthinkable for an 18th-century ruler to conceive of such a progressive and humanitarian step in jurisprudence. 

Such progressive and humanitarian ideas from Ahilyabai can inspire today’s leaders to envision a better tomorrow for all.

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