The unknown heroines of India

A few like the Rani of Jhansi, Begum Hazrat Bai and Razia Sultana are mentioned in history books, but most have been forgotten by our historians.
Representational Image. (Photo | Sunish P Surendran)
Representational Image. (Photo | Sunish P Surendran)

During Navaratri, we celebrate Goddess Durga, who defeated several ferocious demons. But there were many real women who fought like Durga. A few like the Rani of Jhansi, Begum Hazrat Bai and Razia Sultana are mentioned in history books, but most have been forgotten by our historians.

Chandragupta and Ashoka Maurya had entire battalions of women warriors as their bodyguards. There were vishakanyas, who could poison enemies, and female spies. Kautilya ran a tight ship.

Kashmir was ruled by powerful women. Sugandhadevi ruled in the 10th century, followed by Didda, who built up an army that resisted Mahmud of Ghazni. Rani Karnavati of Srinagar defeated Shah Jahan’s army and cut off their noses! Rani Durgavati of Gondwana fought against Akbar’s army. Chennamma, Queen of Keladi in Karnataka, sheltered Rajaram, son of Shivaji, from Emperor Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb attacked Keladi, but Chennamma could not be defeated and the war ended in a treaty of peace. After Rajaram’s death, his widow Tarabai kept alive the resistance against the Mughals. Historian Jadunath Sarkar says, “During this period (1700-1707), the supreme guiding force in Maharashtra was … the dowager queen Tarabai. Her administrative genius and strength of character saved the nation in that awful crisis.”

The first freedom fighter against colonialism was Rani Abbakka Chowta of coastal Karnataka who repulsed the Portuguese in the 16th century.

In 17th century Tamil Nadu, Rani Mangammal of Madurai tread a difficult path, by concluding treaties with her husband’s enemies to develop the state’s infrastructure. In the 18th century, Velu Nachiyar, born into the Sethupathi family of Ramnad, married the Raja of Sivaganga. The Nawab of Arcot killed the Raja and made his own son king. Velu Nachiyar fled to Mysore, followed by the British who questioned Udaiyal, a girl grazing cattle, to divulge the queen’s whereabouts. When Udaiyal refused, the British tortured and killed her. Meanwhile, Velu trained an army of women from the Arunthathiyar caste, headed by Kuyili, and named them ‘Udaiyalpadai’. To regain Sivaganga, Velu hatched a plan to mingle with the local women going to the temple on Vijayadashami. When they reached the palace they took out their swords, but these were no match for British firepower. Kuyili then doused herself with oil and ghee, set herself on fire and jumped into the British ammunition room, blowing it all up. She was the first human bomb. Thereafter, the women took control of the palace and fort and the British had to make a treaty on equal terms with the Queen, the only time they ever did.

In the 18th century, Chitradurga fort in modern Karnataka was under siege by Hyder Ali. Seeing a man entering the fort through a hole in the rocks, Hyder Ali sent his soldiers through that hole. The guard had gone home for lunch and needed some water to drink, so his wife Obavva went to collect water from a pond near the same hole and noticed Hyder Ali’s army entering the fort through the hole. She used the onake or pestle (a long wooden club used for pounding paddy) to kill the soldiers one by one, hitting them on the head and quietly removing the body. Obavva’s husband, returning from lunch, was shocked to see Obavva standing with a blood-stained onake and several dead bodies. Later in the day, she was found dead, killed by the enemy. She is still celebrated locally as Onake Obavva.

Kittur Chennamma, queen of Kittur in modern Karnataka, led an armed rebellion against the British East India Company’s Doctrine of Lapse in 1824, but was defeated and died in prison.

The year 1857 saw many heroines. While we celebrate Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, few know of Jhalkaribai, a warrior and the Rani’s look-alike who killed a leopard with a herding stick. Rani Lakshmibai appointed her in the army. As the Rani fought the British, Dulhaju, a turncoat, opened the gates to let in the enemy led by General Rose. Jhalkaribai rode towards General Rose and declared she was the queen, giving Rani Lakshmibai time to escape. When the British learned of the deception, they arrested Jhalkaribai and hanged her.

Uda Devi formed a women’s battalion to defend Awadh against the British. During the Battle of Sikander Bagh, she climbed up a pipal tree and began shooting at the advancing British soldiers. Suspecting a hidden sniper, the British officers ordered his men to fire at all the trees and Uda Devi fell to the ground, dead.

Avantibai Lodhi was the widow of Vikramaditya Singh, Raja of Ramgarh. She led an army and defeated the British at the Battle of Kheri. The British set fire to Ramgarh. Avantibai moved to the hills of Devharigarh, followed by the British. When she realised she was facing defeat, Avantibai committed suicide by piercing a sword into her heart.

Pritilata Waddedar of Chittagong joined Surya Sen’s revolutionary group in 1932. Disguised as a Punjabi man, she led 15 revolutionaries to attack the Pahartali European Club, which had a signboard saying “Dogs and Indians not allowed”. One Englishman died and 11 were injured. Pritilata was caught by the police, but to avoid arrest, she swallowed cyanide and died.

Kanaklata Barua of Assam joined a youth group called Mrityu Bahini, who wanted to hoist the national flag at the local police station as a part of the Quit India Movement. The 18-year-old Kanaklata led a procession of unarmed villagers, chanting Vande Mataram. The police opened fire and Kanaklata was killed on the spot, followed by others. Matangini Hazra of Bengal was a revolutionary who participated in the independence movement until she was shot dead by the British police in front of the Tamluk Police Station.

The list goes on: Rudrama Devi of Warangal, the princesses of Chittor and Chand Bibi, among others. The Supreme Court has permitted women to take the NDA exam. The naysayers should learn about our successful women warriors.

Nanditha Krishna, Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai (

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