The Revolt of 1857, a mass uprising against the British in India, threw up many great heroes, one of the most famous being Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. Like this brave soul, there was another Queen, the ruler of a small principality in Madhya Pradesh, who gave her life while taking on the might of the British. And she was only 26.
Rani Avantibai (16th August 1831 – 20th March 1858) was the Queen of Ramgarh, or present-day Dindori town in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh. Not only did she lead an armed revolt in 1857, she had also been standing up to the oppressive practices of the British, who had seized the Mahakosal region from the Maratha Rajas of Nagpur.
Heavy taxation had burdened the farmers and the Zamindars in Mandla, and from 1851, the British started confiscating one Zamindari estate after another. They also started laying claim to the forests, which had greatly upset the tribals. This led to widespread discontent among the people.
Avantibai’s husband Vikramaditya Singh was the grandson of the Zamindar of Ramgarh. When he died early, leaving two minor sons, the British seized Ramgarh in 1851 under the ‘Court of Wards’. This was an ambiguous rule that allowed the British to annex a kingdom if the ruler died without an heir. Even though they appointed an administrator for Ramgarh, Avantibai refused to back down and continued to rally her people against the unfair practices that had made life miserable.
On 17th May 1857, the Revolt broke out in Meerut and spread to many parts of North India. News of the uprising reached Jabalpur, where there was a large army contingent stationed. The next few months were those of nervous anticipation for the British, and by September 1857, they stumbled upon plans of a local uprising under Raja Shankar Shah, the Gond Raja of Garh-Mandla.
On 18th September 1857, the British arrested Raja Shankar Shah and his son, and killed them. The incident fired the local people to rise in revolt, and trouble started breaking out in parts of Sagar, Damoh, Mandla, Jabalpur and Seoni, in the region.
The revolt in Mandla began in December 1857 under the leadership of Rani Avantibai. She exhorted the rulers of neighbouring kingdoms to rally together and fight the oppression of the colonial administration. Avantibai raised an army of 4,000 men and drove out the British troops from Ramgarh. The British District Commissioner, Charles Waddington decided to take on the Queen in her capital of Ramgarh.
When Avantibai heard of Waddington’s troops advancing towards her kingdom, she retreated into the dense forests in the Devhargarh hills, from where he waged a guerrilla war and kept fighting till March 1858.
But time was running out. A large British force attacked Devhargarh but before they could capture her, the Queen died as a martyr, on 20th March 1858. Some say she took her own life to avoid being captured by the British.
As a tribute to her courageous spirit, the Department of Posts issued a postage stamp honouring the brave Queen Avantibai, on 20th March 1988. Another stamp was issued in her honour on 19th September 2001.
In Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur city, the Bargi (Rani Avanti Bai Lodhi Sagar) Major Irrigation Project has been named after her. Since she belonged to the Lodhi community, she has become something of a community icon.
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