Born on 5 October 1524 in the family of Kirti Singh ruler of Kalinjar (Central India), Durgavati, belonged to the Chandel dynasty, which had built world famous temples at Khajuraho. Durgawati was the only child of Maharaja Kirti Singh. Growing up in one of the most formidable forts of India at Kalinjar, she was trained in horse riding, sword fighting and archery from a very young age. She absolutely loved hunting and had hunted many tigers in jungles around the fort.
She grew up into a beautiful, wise and confident woman. She had heard about the eldest son of King Sangram Shah of Gond dynasty, Dalpat Shah. The Gonds Tribe had settled in the Gondwana region (Eastern Madhya Pradesh) around the 13th century and rose to power. Though they were rulers of four kingdoms, they were not of royal lineage and were considered inferior to the royal Rajputs. Durgavati wanted to marry someone of her choice and not have a political or dynastic marriage. Maharaj Keerti Singh was well aware of his daughter’s liking and wishes but did not want to go against the Rajput rulers, and such a marriage would have resulted in him being outcast, and it would have upset fellow Rajput rulers. This was the last of Durgavati’s concerns.
She wrote a letter to Dalpat Shah, expressing her wish to marry him. He responded and led an army towards Kalinjar. Durgavati left the fort to join Dalpat Shah and a small army that had followed Durgavati to defeat Dalpat Shah retreated on seeing the army of Dalpat Shah. It was a match below the status of Durgavati’s family. It was made to look as if it was Durgavati’s decision alone and not her father’s.
After leaving Kalinjar with her husband-to-be, they reached Garha Fort, home of Dalpat Shah. They married there, and later that same year Durgavati gave birth to a son, named Veer Narayan. But, her happiness did not last long as Dalpat Shah passed away in 1515 leaving behind a 5-year-old as heir. Maharani Durgavati discarded the purdah (veil) and became Queen Regent. She took control over Gondwana, ruling the kingdom. She was an able administrator, and she moved her capital to Chauragarh. It was a fort of strategic importance. She used her energy, finances, and attention towards strengthening her Kingdom. In words of Vincent Smith author of Akbar The Great Mughal, “She carried out many useful public works in different parts of the kingdom and deservedly won the hearts of her people. Her name is still revered and remembered.”
The prosperity of her Kingdom soon attracted an attack from the neighbouring Kingdom of Malwa. In 1556, Sultan Baz Bahadur of Malwa attacked, and Rani Durgavati successfully defeated him and inflicted heavy losses on her enemy. This peace was short-lived, as Baz Bahadur did not stop trying, but every time he was defeated. At times his army was completely obliterated.
In due time Baz Bahadur was defeated by the army of Mughal Emperor Akbar. This brought Rani Durgavati’s prosperous Kingdom to Akbar’s notice. He could not believe that a mere woman was ruling such a huge and prosperous Kingdom. Asif Khan, military general of Akbar, attacked Rani Durgavati’s Kingdom. To fight a defensive battle, Rani Durgavati moved to Narai Nala, a place situated between hilly range on one side and rivers on the other. As the enemy entered the valley, Rani Durgavati’s army attacked and took them by surprise. She chased the Mughal Army out of the valley. The defeated army returned the next day with heavy artillery. Rani Durgavati mounted her favourite elephant ‘Sarman’ and led her troops along with her teenage son.
In the course of the fight Veer Narayan was seriously injured. Rani Durgavati continued the battle and was shot by two arrows in her head and neck. She knew she was outnumbered and faced an imminent defeat. So instead of being captured by the Mughal Army, she decided to kill herself. She killed herself, with her own dagger on the 24th of June 1564. She was still only 40 years old. After her death, her son continued defending the Kingdom, but he too died fighting.
Thus, the kingdom of the Graha Mandala was incorporated into the Mughal dominions. The spot where she killed herself has a small tomb. Passing travelers place a pebble on the tomb as a mark of respect for the great queen of Gondwana.