Rani Durgavati: The Warrior Queen of the Gonds



We all know that Maharana Pratap fought against Akbar in the valleys and ravines of the Aravallis. But almost a decade before the battle of Haldighati 1576 CE, in the thick forests of the Satpura ranges, Rani Durgavati the Queen of the Gonds, valiantly defended her kingdom against the Mughal army.


Rani Durgavati the Queen of the Gonds, valiantly defended her kingdom against the Mughal army

Rani Durgavati was born on October 5, 1524 CE in the family of Keerat Rai, the ruler of Kalinjar fort in Banda district of UP. Her family claimed descent from the Chandella rulers, who had built the temples at Khajuraho and repulsed the invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni. But by the 16th century CE, Chandella power had declined and areas around Kalinjar was all that remained of the original Chandella kingdom. Growing up in Kalinjar, Durgavati was well versed in horse riding, sword fighting and archery from a very young age. In Akbarnama, Abu’l Fazl writes

She was a good shot with gun and arrow, and continually went hunting.’

Rani Durgavati
Rani Durgavati|Wikimedia Commons

At the age of 18 in 1542 CE, Durgavati got married to Dalpat Shah, the eldest son of King Sangram Shah of the Gond Dynasty. The Gonds were a tribe which settled in the Gondwana (eastern Madhya Pradesh) region around the 13th century CE and rose to power eventually. They ruled four kingdoms - Garha-Mandla, Deogarh, Chanda, and Kherla in central India between the 16th and 18th centuries. (Sangram Shah, Durgavati’s husband ruled Garha-Mandla.


Durgavati was well versed in horse riding, sword fighting and archery from a very young age

Durgavati’s marriage to Sangram Shah, could have been a political or dynastic alliance, as a Rajput marrying a Gond was unconventional in medieval times. The Chandellas were involved in continuous wars with the Kalachuris who lived near Jabalpur and the armies of the Delhi Sultanate which was draining their treasury and weakening their authority. As a result of this marriage, the Chandellas became allies of the powerful and wealthy kingdom of Garha-Mandla. This dynastic alliance would be of help when Keerat Rai received help from the Gonds and put up a stiff resistance to Sher Shah Suri, the Afghan ruler of Delhi, when he invaded the Kalinjar fort in 1545 CE.

In the same year, Rani Durgavati gave birth to a son who was named Vir Narayan. But Dalpat Shah passed away in 1550 CE leaving behind a 5 year old heir. Thus, the Queen became a Regent and took control over Gondwana, ruling the kingdom.

A view of the Chauragarh temple
A view of the Chauragarh temple|Wikimedia Commons/ Motherphotography/ CC 4.0

An able administrator, Rani Durgavati shifted her capital from Singaurgarh fort to Chauragarh around 250 miles away, near Panchmarhi in Madhya Pradesh. It was a fort of strategic importance situated on the Satpura hill range.


The Queen became a Regent and took control over Gondwana, ruling the kingdom

In 1556 CE, Baz Bahadur, the Sultan of Malwa attacked the kingdom of Rani Durgavati as it lay to his immediate east. But Rani Durgavati successfully repulsed the attack, inflicting heavy losses to his army. This was followed by a temporary period of peace, but this was to change soon. In 1562 CE, Akbar defeated Baz Bahadur and brought the region of Malwa under Mughal dominion. Simultaneously, Asaf Khan, a Mughal general, conquered Rewa, which lay north of Rani’s kingdom. Thus, Garha-Mandla now touched the boundaries of both Rewa and Malwa, which were under the Mughals. An attack from either of them was imminent.

In 1564, lured by the prosperous state of Durgavati’s kingdom Garha-Mandla, Asaf Khan marched towards it with a huge army. To fight a defensive battle, the Queen is said to have moved to Narai Nala (Jabalpur district) situated between a hilly range on one side and two rivers – Gaur and Narmada, on the other. As the enemy entered the valley, Durgavati’s soldiers attacked them. During the battle, her faujdar or chief of the forces was killed and Durgavati decided to lead the forces herself. She chased the Mughal army out of the valley and emerged victorious.

Painting by the Mughal court artists Kesav and Jagannath from the <i>Akbarnama</i> (Book of Akbar) depicts the heroic death in battle of Rani Durgavati c. 1590-95 CE
Painting by the Mughal court artists Kesav and Jagannath from the Akbarnama (Book of Akbar) depicts the heroic death in battle of Rani Durgavati c. 1590-95 CE|V&A Museum Collections

The next day, the Mughal army returned, challenging her once again with heavy artillery. This time helped by her son, Durgavati is said to have mounted her elephant Sarman and led her troops. Her son, Vir successfully repulsed the Mughal army thrice but was seriously wounded and had to be taken to a secure place. Durgavati continued the battle and was apparently shot by 2 arrows one that pierced her ear and the other, her neck. Injured and clearly outnumbered Rani Durgavati knew she was facing imminent defeat. So instead of getting captured by the Mughal army, she decided to kill herself. Records state that Durgavati plunged a knife into herself and committed suicide on 24th June 1564 CE. She was 40 years old. After her death, her son Vir defended the kingdom from their capital Chauragarh fort, but he too died fighting.


Instead of getting captured by the Mughal army, Rani Durgavati decided to kill herself

Thus, the kingdom of Garha-Mandla was incorporated into the Mughal dominion, as part of the Subah of Malwa. After about 25 years, Chandra Shah, the younger son of Sangram Shah, claimed the throne of Garha-Mandla. The Mughal Emperor recognised him as ruler, in exchange for 10 districts, which remained with the Mughals. But the peace had been broken forever at Garha-Mandla. The 17th century CE saw numerous attacks on the kingdom from the Bundelas, followed by civil unrest. Finally in 1698 CE the kingdom of Garha-Mandla was invaded and annexed by the Marathas. They continued to control the area till 1818 CE when they were defeated by the British in the Third Anglo-Maratha War.

Under the British, this became the Mandla district of the Central Provinces and now is a district in Madhya Pradesh.

Today, the Chauragarh fort serves as a sunrise viewing point at Panchmarhi, one of the famous hill-stations of India, but the tourists who throng it are not aware of the brave Queen Durgavati who died defending this area against the Mughals.

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