Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar

Rajmata Ahilyabai Holkar was the Queen of the Malwa kingdom. She was born on 31 May 1725 in the village of Chaundi, in the present-day Ahmednagar district in Maharasthtra.  Her father, Mankoji Shinde was the Patil (Head) of the Village. As was the custom in those days, the girls did not go to school, but her father taught her to read and write. When she was only 8 years old, recognizing her piety and character, Malhar Rao Holkar, a commander in the services of Peshwa Baji Rao-I, asked for her to be married to his son, Khanderao Holkar. Unfortunately, he did not live long. He was killed during the siege of Kumher in 1754. She wanted to perform Sati rites with her husband’s body, but her father-in-law made an emotional appeal to her against that. Her father-in-law died twelve years later, after which she took over the affairs of the Holkar fief a year later. She defended her homeland personally leading the armies into battlefield. Ahilyabai held public audiences every day to help address the grievances of her people. She was a very able administrator. She was famous for building numerous forts and roads in Malwa. Indore flourished into a prosperous city during her 30-year rule.

Ahilyabai was a great pioneer and builder of Hindu temples and built hundreds of temples and Dharamshalas throughout India. Her greatest achievement was to rebuild the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in 1776, which was demolished by the Moghal King Aurangzeb in 1669 and converted to a Mosque. A statue in her honour has been installed at the Kashi Vishwanath Dham (corridor) which has been inaugurated by the Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi.

As per the list of sites published by the Bharatiya Sanskriti Kosh, she embellished Kashi, Gaya, Somnath, Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Kanchi, Avanti, Dwarka, Badrinarayan, Rameshwar and Jagannath Puri. Outside Malwa, she built dozens of temples, ghats, wells, tanks and rest-houses across an area stretching from the Himalayas to pilgrimage centres in South India.

Ahilyabai died on 13 August 1795 at the age of 70. A commemorative stamp was issued in her honour on 25 August 1996. Many famous people have written in her praise, a couple are listed below:

“The reign of Ahilyabai, of Indore in central India, lasted for thirty years. This has become almost legendary as a period during which perfect order and good government prevailed and the people prospered. She was a very able ruler and organizer, highly respected during her lifetime, and considered as a saint by a grateful people after her death.”

  • Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (1946)

“Ahilyabai’s extraordinary ability won her the regard of her subjects and of the other Maratha confederates, including Nana Phadnavis. With the natives of Malwa … her name is sainted and she has styled an avatar or Incarnation of the Divinity. In the soberest view that can be taken of her character, she certainly appears, within her limited sphere, to have been one of the purest and most exemplary rulers that ever existed.”

  • John Malcolm (British Official), A Memoir of Central India 1820s

Vijai Singhal