Ahalyabai Holkar – The Philosopher Queen

Ahalyabai Holkar was born on 31 May 1725 in Chowndi in India as the daughter of Mankoji Rao Shinde, who was the Patil or chief of the village and Sushila. She had five brothers. Very little is known about her childhood, and she received no formal education. There wasn’t even a school in Chowndi. However, her father taught her to read and write with the use of religious books. 1 Her daily routine would have consisted of offering prayers, listening to readings of scriptures and offering services. As was the custom at the time, Ahalyabai was married at the tender age of just eight. 2 Her new husband, Khanderao Holkar, the only son of Malhar Rao Holkar, was just 10. 3 Malhar Rao Holkar was the founder of the Holkar dynasty of Indore.

They were ill-matched from the beginning. She may have been his first wife, but he went on to marry at least four other women. Khanderao has gone down in history as a dissolute man and a drunk. Ahalyabai nevertheless controlled the household, and she was soon recognised by her father-in-law for her keen intellect. He began leaving her in charge whenever he was away. 4  Sometimes she accompanied her father-in-law, and he began to treat her more and more like his, as he found his own son useless. 5

Despite their strained relationship, Ahalyabai and Khanderao had several children. Her first child, a son named Malerao, was born in 1745, followed by a daughter named Muktabai in 1748. 6 In 1754, Khanderao went into battle completely drunk and was killed by a cannonball. His father was devastated as he always hoped that his son would reform and find his way. The widowed Ahalyabai decided to follow tradition and began to prepare for sati, which is a funeral custom where a widow throws herself on her husband’s pyre or commits suicide in another way shortly after her husband’s death. Her father-in-law managed to convince her not to do it, but Khanderao’s four wives immolated themselves on the funeral pyre, along with another nine women. 7

After the death of her husband, Ahalyabai’s role in state affairs began to expand even more, and state papers were issued in her name. Her father-in-law died in 1766, and he was succeeded by Ahalyabai’s son Malerao, who was by then 21 years old. Although Malerao had shown no signs of insanity before his accession, he began to take pleasure in the pain of others. Ahalyabai could do nothing and turned to prayer. He died on 27 March 1767 reportedly haunted by the spirit of a man he had murdered. 8 Malerao left no children and his two wives committed sati. There was now the problem of the succession. Her daughter was still alive but had married into another family and therefore, could not succeed. 9 Despite being challenged by several other contenders, Ahalyabai seized power.

Do not fight with a woman for you will never be able to obliterate the blot on your name by any means. I am, after all, a woman. If I am defeated in a fight, no one will blame or revile me. But if, perchance, you are defeated in the battle, you will become the laughing stock of the world. So it would be better for you and, in fact, it would be in your interest, not to venture into a battle. We have nothing to lose! – Message to one of her contenders 10

She appointed Tukoji Holkar to attend to the military side of things, and so began a personal rule that would last for over 30 years. After her husband’s death, she always dressed in white, without even as much as some embroidery. 11 The years to come were filled with grief. She lost her grandson and son-in-law and two of her brothers. She tried to stop her daughter from committing sati, but it was no use. Her grandson’s two wives also committed sati. Ahalyabai was so consumed with grief that she briefly lost consciousness. 12

Her endless activities began to take their toll. She had hardly ever been ill, but she came down with a “slight ailment.” 13 Despite it being described as slight, Ahalyabai apparently realised she was dying. On 13 August she lay down, chanting the name of God. She began distributing food and other gifts. She began to breathe slowly, and after one long, last breath it was over. 14

She was later described as “of middle stature and very thin. Though at no period of her life handsome, her complexion which was of a dark olive was clear; and her countenance is described as having been to the last hour of her existence agreeable and expressive of that goodness which marked every action of her life. She was very cheerful, and seldom in anger; but when provoked by wickedness or crime, the most esteemed of her attendants trembled to approach her.” 15

  1.  Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p. 32
  2.  Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p.33
  3. Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p.34
  4.  Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p.34-35
  5.  Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p.39
  6.  Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p. 41
  7.  Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p. 42
  8.  Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p.47
  9.  Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p.49
  10. Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p. 54
  11.  Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p. 84
  12.  Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p. 91-93
  13.  Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p. 174
  14.  Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p.174
  15.  Kamath, M. B. and Kher, V. B., Devi Ahalyabai Holkar: The Philosopher Queen p. 84



About Moniek 958 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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