Ahilyabai Holkar was the hereditary noble sardar of the Maratha Empire. In 1754, her husband Khanderao Holkar was killed in the battle of Kumbher. After twelve years, her father-in-law, Malhar Rao Holkar died.
After one year, she took over the affairs of Holkar fief. She protected her land from plundering invaders. She led armies into battle and appointed Tikoji Rao Holkar as the Chief of the militia.
Ahilyabai built hundreds of temples and Dharmashalas throughout India.
Early Life of Ahilyabai Holkar
Ahilyabai Holkar was born on 31 May 1725 in the village of Chaundi (present-day Ahmednagar, Maharashtra). Her father Mankoji Sindhia was the Patil of the village. Women then did not go to school, but her father taught her to read and write.
Malhar Rao Holkar, lord of the Malwa territory, stopped in Chaundi on his way to Pune. He saw the eight-year-old Ahilyabai at the temple service in the village. Recognizing her character and her devotion, he brought the girl as a bride for his son, Khanderao(1723-54).
Ahilyabai broke another tradition when she married her daughter to Yashwantrao, a brave but poor man after he succeeded in defeating the dacoits.
Death of Khanderao
In 1754, Khanderao, Ahilyabai’s husband was killed during the siege of Kumher.
In 1754, on request of support from Imad-ul-Mulk, the Mughal Emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur‘s Mir Bakhshi, Khanderao Holkar, laid the siege of Kumher fort of Jat Maharaj Suraj Mal of Bharatpur State who had sided with the Mughal Emperor’s rebellious wazir Safdar Jang.
When Khanderao was inspecting his troops on an open palanquin in the battle of Kumher, he was hit and killed by a cannonball from the Jat army.
After he died, his father Malhar Rao stopped his wife Ahilyabai from committing sati.
Getting the throne
In 1766, after 12 years of the death of Khanderao, Malhar Rao Holkar died. Malhar Rao’s grandson and Khanderao’s son Male Rao Holkar became the ruler of Indore in 1766. But he died on 5 April 1767 due to his mental illness. After the death of Khanderao, Ahilyabai became the ruler of Indore.
A letter to Ahilyabai from her father-in-law Malhar Rao in 1765 illustrates the trust Malhar had in Ahilyabai’s ability during the furious battle in the 18th century:
“Proceed to Gwalior after crossing the Chambal. You may halt there for four or five days. You should keep your big artillery and arrange for its ammunition as much as possible…On the march, you should arrange for military posts being located for protection of the road.”
Objections in the coronation of Ahilyabai
Ahilyabai petitioned the Peshwa after the death of Malhar and the death of her son, to take over the administration herself. Some people of Malwa objected, but the army of Holkar supported her leadership.
On 11 December 1767, the Peshwa granted her permission. She proceeded to rule Malwa with Subhedar Tokojirao Holkar(Malharrao’s adopted son) as the head of military matters. She was always available to anyone who needed her help.
Accomplishments of Ahilyabai
Ahilyabai developed a small village into a wealthy and beautiful city Indore. She built forts and roads in Malwa, sponsored festivals, and gave donations for the regular worship in many Hindu temples.
She built dozens of temples, ghats, wells, tanks, and rest-houses across an area stretching from the Himalayas to pilgrimage centers in South India. Ahilyabai supported the rise of merchants, farmers, and cultivators to levels of affluence. She also not claimed their wealth through taxes or feudal rights.
Education, Culture, and Arts during Ahilyabai Reign
Ahilyabai’s capital at Maheshwar was the scene of literary, musical, artistic, and industrial enterprise.
She invited the famous Marathi poet, Moropant and the shahir, Ananataphandi from Maharashtra. She also patronized the Sanskrit scholar, Khushali Ram.
Ahilyabai paid salaries to craftsmen, sculptors, and artists. She even established a textile industry in the city of Maheshwar.
Death of Ahilyabai Holkar
In 1996, to honor the memory of Ahilyabai Holkar, leading citizens of Indore instituted an award in her name, bestowed annually on an outstanding public figure. The first award was given by the Prime Minister of India to Nanaji Deshmukh.
Read about modern history of Maharashtra
Frequently Asked Questions
The death of Ahilyabai Holkar was natural. She died on 13th August 1795.
Khanderao Holkar had one wife only – Rani Ahilyabai Holkar. There is a confusion related to this topic but there is no strong evidence related to number of wives.