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  • Rani Durgavati ruled the Garha Kingdom of Central India for around 15 years
  • She was an amazingly modern medieval monarch
  • Her people, the Gond tribe of Central India, have turned her into a goddess for the past 500 years
  • Why has the story of Durgavati been largely forgotten?
  • Why has her progressive rule become a footnote in history?
  • Was Akbar the only ‘secular’ monarch of Medieval India?
  • Nandini Sengupta, author of ‘Rani Durgawati: The Forgotten Life of a Warrior Queen’, puts it in context
  • A conversation from the Times Litfest 2023

Rani Durgavati was a feminist before the word was invented. The queen, who ruled the Garha Kingdom of Central India for around 15 years, was an amazingly modern medieval monarch, who pushed the envelope of her existence — as a medieval princess and queen — in every respect. She eyeballed — won’t-blink eyeballed — the greatest emperor of that time, Akbar.

But why has the story of Durgavati been largely forgotten? Why has her progressive rule become a footnote to the adversary she fought tooth and nail, the Mughal emperor Akbar? To explain, we bring you snatches from a conversation Nandini Sengupta, journalist and author of Rani Durgawati: The forgotten life of a warrior queen, had at the Times Litfest 2023 in a panel discussion with Anuja Chandramouli, author and new age Indian classicist. Also on the panel was Vaibhav Purandare, journalist and author of books including on Chhatrapati Shivaji.

“We can only understand Rani Durgavati’s story if you understand why she was remembered and why she was forgotten, and if that sounds like a conundrum it is because it is,” Nandini said. “If you go to Jabalpur, which is at the heart of her kingdom of Garha Mandala or Garha Katanga, this was a tribal kingdom. Most of the people in that land even to this day are tribal Gonds. Jabalpur and the adjoining districts of Narsinghpur, Hoshangabad, Dindori, Damoh, these areas were part of the medieval Garha Mandla. Rani Durgavati herself was not Gond. She was a Chandel Rajput princess. So, first act of rebellion; she was a Chandel Rajput princess who married a tribal Gond against her father’s wishes. After her husband dies, she takes over the kingdom, fobs off the most disagreeable brother-in-law, continues to rule a land so efficiently and so well that her people have turned her into a goddess for the past 500 years. And yet she was forgotten.”

Rani Durgavati has not been forgotten by her people, Nandini emphasised. Even now, for every special occasion the tribal Gonds wear yellow in honour of Rani Durgavati. The men wear yellow turbans and dhotis, the women wear yellow sarees. And this is not just for Rani Durgavati Balidan Divas, which is on the 24th of June, but also on other special occasions.

“For them she never died; but for the rest of us, we have forgotten her,” Nandini said.

Why has Rani Durgavati been largely forgotten?

“I feel that she has been forgotten for three very important reasons,” Nandini said. “Number one, she was a woman. Indian history’s male gaze is not unknown. We have series of really sassy, efficient kickass queens whom we have kind of airbrushed out of history because mainstream history goes from one The Great to another, all of them invariably male. So Rani Durgavati’s problem was that she was a woman. Number two, she was the queen of a tribal kingdom. Indian history’s Delhi gaze is also not unknown; everything begins and starts with either Delhi or Pataliputra and Rani Durgavati’s kingdom was an inaccessible kingdom in the heart of India which was tribal Gond. So, of course she will be forgotten.

“But I think the most important reason why she was also forgotten is because her adversary was a man known as Akbar,” Nandini added. “Akbar was an unusual monarch, but the point I’m making is that he was by no means the only unusual monarch of his time. And he has become so important in our narrative that his adversaries have been reduced to footnotes in their own story. Rani Durgavati is not the only one; the other person, also a woman, who has been reduced to a footnote is Chand Bibi. So Durgavati suffered from these three drawbacks.”

Durgavati, Anuja Chandramouli pointed out, was a widow who refused to wear the purdah after losing her husband — a huge move in those days – and had a forbidden love story. “You mentioned the extremely irritating brother-in-law so there must have been pressure on her to commit Sati as well, because for some reason throughout history women have burnt on the altar of the male ego,” Anuja added. “But she refrained from doing that. And she chose sacrifice over dishonour. She was a great warrior who held her own, but when in the end she realised that defeat and disgrace was inevitable, she took the ultimate step of killing herself. I want to talk to you about this recurring theme we have throughout history of sacrifice being held superior to dishonour. And it’s something that has been weaponized to victimise women. Why did we allow this to happen using somebody like Durgavati’s name? I’m sure she would have hated it!”

Was Akbar the only ‘secular’ ruler of his time?

Nandini, before answering the question from Anuja about sacrifice over dishonour, took a relevant detour. “So you know in the case of Durgavati, firstly I just want to say one about this whole thing about ‘secular’ medieval rulers. There were a lot of unusual medieval rulers, Durgavati included. She had a lot of Muslim generals in her army who gave their lives for her. And mind you, these were Afghan generals who she had first defeated in battle and then they joined her and ultimately they gave their lives for her. So, this tolerance born of exigency and a genuine desire to have a more inclusive polity was by no means peculiar to Akbar alone. That’s number one. Number two is when we talk about this whole sacrificial image, we have to in the case of Rani Durgavati put that in context.

“Firstly, here is a woman who emphatically gave up purdah after being widowed,” Nandini said. “How do we know that? If you go to Jabalpur and surrounding areas, there are many murtis of Rani Durgavati. In every single one of them she is wearing chainmail, she’s astride an elephant, she has a naked sword and a shield in her arms. She is not a coy symbol of femininity. She is very much a ranchandi (warrior goddess). Her people refer to her as a ranchandi incarnation of Durga. So she is very emphatically not a coy feminine symbol. And there are many folk tales, which I have mined for my book, which show that she was repeatedly seen in public, which also very clearly establishes the fact that she emphatically gave up purdah. Why then did a woman like this choose to kill herself in battle?”

Why Rani Durgavati killed herself

Rani Durgavati killed herself, Nandini said, “very simply because she had already exhausted all other options”.

She pointed out: “Rani Durgavati ruled for about 15-odd years and in these 15-odd years they were as many as 51 skirmishes that she faced. Which means that she faced a skirmish every month almost, if not more. And out of these, three were very big. The last one, which is the decisive battle of her life, the battle of Narayan Nala, was spread over two days. On the first day when she led the battle, she won; the Mughals lost. The second day she would have won again; why did she lose? Because her generals — all men — did not listen to her battle strategy.

“So she lost because she had asked them to do something which they did not agree to because they thought they had already won the day,” Nandini said. “So she lost not because there was anything wrong with her strategy, but because the men around her let her down. She was grievously injured; she was losing blood. In medieval warfare, the monarch used to be on an elephant so that they would be clearly visible. The rank and file, who were fighting down below, had to see their monarch was alive and well so that they would fight on. The moment they saw that the monarch had fallen, they would desert; because they would try and save their own lives.”

Rani Durgavati took two battle wounds, Nandini said. “She got an arrow in her temple and then she got an arrow in her neck. So what happens with these arrows, she takes them out but the head is embedded. So she is losing blood, as a result of which she swoons, she falls down in her howdah. Her people, who are fighting below, find that she has collapsed. They don’t know that she is alive; they think she’s dead. So they start deserting. By the time she comes to, she realises that the battle is over. Her elephant is very badly injured. Her son was injured earlier in the day, she manages to ferret him out of the battlefield he lives to fight another day. And the narrow pass where she had tricked the Mughal forces into was filling up with water because this was 24th of June, this is the rainy season. So both the rivers on both sides of the pass, the Godavari and the Narmada, were in spate. So she realised she could not get out. The escape route was cut off.

“She was very clear that it was death before dishonour,” Nandini said. “She did not want herself to be desecrated or dishonoured by Asif Khan’s — Akbar’s general’s – armies. But she only took that final step when there was no other option left. As a tactical strategy. So that’s a little bit different from jumping into the jauhar fire.”

One thought on “Why Durgavati, warrior queen who took on Akbar, has been forgotten”
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