Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi is one of the best known heroes of the Revolt of 1857. Yet very little is known about the little boy, her adopted son, Damodar Rao, who she was fighting the British for. The trigger for her taking up arms was the infamous law, the ‘Doctrine of Lapse’ by which the British were refusing to recognise ‘adopted heirs’ as legitimate successors. This was an excuse to annex states.
The story of what happened to the 9 year old boy Damodar Rao is both heart wrenching and forgotten.
This is the translation of the memoir of Damodar Rao, son of the famous Rani of Jhansi. It was first published in historian Y N Kelkar’s Marathi book Itihasachya Sahali or Voyages in History in 1951.
‘I was born on 15th November 1849 in Jhansi in a collateral branch of the ruling Newalkar dynasty. On my birth, the court astrologers looked at the stars and prophesised that I had a ‘Raj Yog’ or was destined to become a king. And how tragically true this prophecy turned out to be!
At a young age of three, I was adopted by Maharaja Gangadhar Rao of Jhansi. An application was sent to the East India Company’s representative in Bundelkand to recognize my adoption, but my adoptive father died soon after, before a confirmation could be received. Then, my adoptive mother, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi sent a representation to Lord Dalhousie in Calcutta to recognise me as an heir to the throne but this appeal was rejected. The British East India Company declared that the kingdom of Jhansi would be annexed under the Doctrine of Lapse, and that my mother, Rani Lakshmibai would get an annual pension of Rs. 5000. In addition Masaheb (Rani Lakshmibai) would also inherit all the personal property of my father including the palaces and jewelry. Lord Dalhousie decided that I could inherit these personal assets of my late father but not the kingdom. In addition, there were 7 lakh rupees in the treasury in the name of my late father. When Masaheb requested for the same, she was informed that the British Government would hold this money in trust till I reached majority and then, it would be handed over to me.
In 1857, my fate changed for worse. My mother never forgave the British for the annexation of our kingdom and raised a banner of revolt along with the entire the populace of Jhansi. Unfortunately, we lost Jhansi due to treachery and had to flee to Gwalior. In the battle in Gwalior, Masaheb became a martyr. My attendants would tell me that she carried me on her back on the battlefield. I was too young to remember this.
After Masaheb’s death, I remained in Gwalior for the next 3 days. Of Masaheb’s confidants, only 60 had survived the battle. Nanekhan Risaldar, a Maratha named Ganpatrao, Raghunath Singh and Ramchandrarao Deshmukh took me under their guardianship and with 22 horses and 60 camels, we broke away from the camp of Raosaheb, brother of Peshwa Nanasaheb of Bithur and decided to find our own way out.
We fled along the inhospitable terrain, jungles and ravines and fled towards the direction of Chanderi in Bundelkhand. No village on the way was willing to take pity and help us due to the fear of reprisals by the British.
Since a refuge in any of the villages was virtually impossible, we took shelter in a dense forest by the edge of the river. Due to lack of any camping equipment, we had to sleep under the open skies. During the scorching heart of the summer, we would have to sleep inside the deep forest amidst the trees. Our skin would burn due to the heat. We had no food and hence had to survive on fruits and berries found in the forest. Fortunately, Mother Nature took pity on us and we never slept hungry in the forest. We were afraid of going to nearby villages for help as there were British soldiers roving everywhere hunting for the rebels.
Only in extreme emergencies would our men venture out, risking their lives and get required provisions from local villages. This went on till the end of summer.
As monsoons began, things went from bad to worse. All forest paths would be flooded making it impossible for us to move. Remembering those terrible days sends shiver down my spine. Fortunately god finally took pity on us. A local village headman informed us that as the British had set up a camp at Lalitpur, he could not help us directly but if we moved to a secret location in the forest as suggested by him, he would provide us with provisions over there. On the advice of Naik Raghunath Singh, we broke our camp and started living at different locations in small groups of 10 to avoid any suspicion. We reached an agreement with that local village headman that we would give him Rs.500 every month plus 9 horses and 4 camels and in return, he would supply us with required provisions and keep us informed about British movements.
At this time, we were around 11 people.
As agreed, we went to live in a cave by a steep cliff. Below the cliff was the Vetravati river. There was a temple of Mahadev nearby too. River Vetravati ran with a great force and there was a large and lovely waterfall. Around us, there were several lakes and ponds. The sheer pristine beauty of the place made us forget some of our sorrows.
In this way, we spent two whole years as wanderers and fugitives. During these years, I was unwell the whole time. In the month of Bhadrapad, my conditioned worsened. My retainers were worried if I would even survive the ordeal. They begged the village headman to send someone to treat me. Even the village headman was shocked to see my pitiable and delicate state. He soon got a local doctor or a “vaid” who happened to be his uncle to treat me in secrecy.
As I recovered from my illness, another problem arose. While fleeing Gwalior, we had around Rs. 60,000 with us which by now had been fully exhausted. Now, with no money to pay, the headman rudely asked us to leave and we had no choice but to comply. We gave the headman Rs.200 and asked for the return of our horses. That charlatan returned only 3 horses and informed us that others had died! We left as a group of 12 however, on our way further, we were joined by another batch of followers that had left earlier and soon became 24.
We soon reached the village of Shipri-Kolaras in the Gwalior state. The locals there recognized us as rebels and put us all under arrest. We were in local jail for 3 days. Then under an escort of 10 horsemen and 25 sepoys, we were sent to the Political Agent at Jhalrapatan. As our horses had been confiscated, we had to walk for days. My men could not bear to see my plight and carried me on their back by turns. Most of my mother’s men who had survived had taken asylum in Jhalrapatan. There was a Political agency nearby managed by a Political Agent named Mr. Flink. One of my mother’s risaldar named Nanhekhan was working at this political agency. He was a trusted aide of Mr Flink. He went to Mr Flink and said “Late Ranisaheb of Jhansi had a son who is now just 9-10 years old. After she died in the battlefield, that little child had to live in the forest like an animal. His trusted followers have looked after him with care. What is the fault of this innocent child? What has he ever done against the British Raj? Please spare that child and entire Hindustan shall shower blessings on you”.
Mr. Flink was a kind man. He sent a message to the Political Agent at Indore, Col. Sir Richard Shakespeare, to which Colonel replied “If Rani of Jhansi’s son surrenders willingly, I shall see that his affairs are settled”. Mr. Flink asked Nanhekhan to take me to Indore. On the way we met Raja Prithvi Singh of Jhalrapatan [Jhalawar]. He had great respect for Masaheb and he treated me very well promised that he would put in a good word for me with the resident at Ajmer. We were kept in prison near Jhalrapatan for around 3 months. We had no money till then and so I was forced to sell the two bracelets or “todas” of 32 tolas each which belonged to late Masaheb. There were the last remaining memories of her with me. And now they were lost. On 5th May 1860, we reached Indore cantonment. There I met the Politicial Agent, Sir Richard Shakespeare. I was placed under guardianship of a Kashmiri official called Munshi Dharmanarayan. I was allowed to keep only 7 followers and all others had to leave. I was allotted an annual pension of Rs. 10,000, which I had no option but to take as I was only a child then.’
This is where the memoir ends. Not much is known of what happened to Damodar Rao in his later life. But what is chronicled is that the British Government refused to hand over the Rs 7 lakhs which it held in ‘trust’ for him. Damodar Rao lived the rest of his days in penury begging the British Government to restore a few of his rights, but without avail. He married and settled down in Indore. In 1904, he had a son named Lakshman Rao.
The sad and tragic life of Damodar Rao ended on 28th May 1906. He was 58 years old. His descendants are still said to live in Indore and are said to use the name ‘Jhansiwale’, after the land of their forbearers.
Damodar Rao, son of the legendary Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi is a footnote, frozen in time and our history books as the little boy tied to his fearless mother’s back, as she fought bravely on the battlefield.