The Maratha Queen-Rajmata AhilyaBai Holkar Part-I


The Holkars

The family of Holkars are of the Dhangar or shepherd tribe. Malhar Rao Holkar was the first who obtained any eminence, or indeed rose from the ‘Shepherd-Boy’ to the ‘Subhedar’. Holkar, or more properly Hulkur are the respectable cultivator, or Ryot, of a village called Hull in Phaltan Paraganas (group of villages) under the reign of Nimbalkars. In 1751 A.D, Malhar Rao for his zeal and galantry in the preserving Awadh from Rohillas, the Peshwahs granted him the nomination of Deshmukhee of Chandore. John Malcolm, in ‘Memoirs of Central India’ writes “It is stated of this chief, that in his conduct to the Peshwah, and in the performance of all his duties as a member of the Mahratta confederacy, he did that from the heart, which Madhajee Sindia did from the head : the one was a plain, sincere soldier, and the other added to great qualities all the art of a crafty politician.”  Under this roof of zealous and generous Holkars, Ahalyabai married Khanderao Holkar (the only son of Malhar Rao) in 1737 A.D. at the age of 12.

Malhar Rao Holkar I
Source: IndoreHD

The Rise of Ahilyabai Holkar to the ‘Rajmata’ Ahilyabai Holkar

Khanderao Holkar some years before the battle of panipat was killed at the siege of Kumbhere in 1754 A.D. which added a great grief to Malhar Rao. Ahlilyabai had a son named Malerao, who felt ill in in young age. Ahilyabai being a Shiva devotee did penances for his son however he couldn’t survive the nature’s fate. Malhar Rao was seventy-six years of age when he died in 1766. With the death of Husband, Father-in-law and Son there was no heir to Holkar’s reign. Gangadhar Jeswant, the minister recommended her to adopt a successor to the reign. To secure the continuance of his own authority as minister, he intended an interference of Raghoba dada (aka Raghunathrao Peshwa) and thought that if other motives failed, a despair of successful resistance would compel her to acquiesce. However, Ahilyababi with all her righteousness and valour objected to such an interference and that as the wife and mother of last representative she had the privilege of selecting the successor. In the midst of this events, she consulted Maratha chiefs and other prinicipal adherents in Malwa. Hence, when Raghunath Rao  was making preparations to compel her to his terms, the troops of Holkars inspired by her enthusiasm were ready to combat. Maratha Chiefs Mahadji Shinde and Janojee Bhonsale also refused to unite with him and the important letter which stated that ‘the rights of widow of Khanderao over management of public affairs were indisputable’ from Madharao Peshwe (Madhavrao I) turned tables for Raghunathrao. Indeed along with valour and braveness, her remarkable politic display proved as a precedent for prosperity and reputation of Holkars afterwards.

Ahilyabai Holkar on a 1996 stamp of India
Source: Wikimedia

One can really imagine the sorrow, the grief which she would have gone through at the times when the throne of Malwa was at the question. The grief stricken times and the early training of Ahilyabai Holkar under Malhar Rao prepared her for the upcoming reign of hers. Ahilyabai’s reign, her administration which had ‘head’ driven laws/rules/duty combined with her ‘heart’ driven piety, solicitude and unconditional mother-like love formed the basis of her administration. Ahilyabai’s ‘head’ and ‘heart’ driven administration earned her a title of ‘Rajmata’ Ahilyabai Holkar.

Rajmata Ahilyabai’s Administration

Acharya Chankya’s work on Indian polity flourished during Chandragupta’s times. Times changed and with times the Indian polity too. Kamandak was believed to have lived in 7th or 8th century.  Kamandak, who calls ‘Acharya Chankya’ as his Guru, describes seven factors whose harmonious dealing within themselves, results in Rajya or Kingdom.

Let’s look at these seven parameters and understand Ahilyabai’s work through Kamandak’s lenses.

1. Monarch

1a. Devi’s daily life narrated by his personal attendant Bharmal Holkar:

Sir John Malcolm narrates her daily life, ‘She rose one hour before daybreak to say her morning prayers, and perform the customary ceremonies. She then heard the sacred volumes of her faith read for a fixed period, distributed alms, and gave food, in person, to a number of Brahmins. Her own breakfast was then brought, which was always of vegetable diet ; for, although the rules of her tribe did not require it, she had forsworn animal food. After breakfast she again went to prayers, and then took a short repose ; after rising from which, and dressing herself, she went about two o’clock to her Durbar, or court, where she usually remained till six in the evening; and when two or three hours had been devoted to religious exercises and a frugal repast, business recommenced about nine o’clock, and continued until eleven, at which hour she retired to  rest. This course of life, marked by prayer, abstinence, and labour, knew little variation, except what was occasioned by religious fasts and festivals (of which she was very observant), and the occurrence of public emergencies.

Source: newsgram

1b. Foreign Policy

In Maheshwar Durbar letters(originally in Marathi)(1780 A.D.) Ahilyabai says, “The English are trying their level best to spread their powers in all quarters. It behoves the peshwa to enlist a good number of Shiledars and standing army. The enemy(English) have stationed their army in small groups but in various stations. They should be checkmated. Nawab, Bhonsale and the rest should make a common cause and crush the English.”
The Durbar letter shows Ahilyabai’s analysis of the shrewd far-sightedness of the enemy.

However, Ahilyabai had a different policy for dealing with shrewdness of Bhartiyas outside Maratha confederacy, Reconciliation first, arms next, finally justice mingled with mercy. Peace was her policy in main.

In 1759 A.D Madhao Singh ceded Ramapura to Malhar Rao for the aid he received. However the Chandrawats clan in Ramapura Pergana were dis-satisfied. After Malhar Rao’s death, a strong vent was observed within Chandrawats hence Ahilyabai for the matter of reconciliation offered 31 villages as grants to them.  Peace was restored for sometime however in 1771 A.D. leading on Chandrawats dis-content Maharana of Udaipur in absence of Tukoji Holkar marched upon Devi’s reign. Devi, with whatever number of men she entrusted Sharif-bhai (her bodyguard) to lead the men. Ahilybai’s army gained a decisive victory at palsuda (north of Mandsaur).  The entire arrangement and management of fight was  looked by Ahilyabai. A treaty was signed thereafter with Rawat Bhimsen Chandrawat titled, ‘Surety for Good behaviour’. The policy adopted here by Devi was, ‘Reconcilation first, arms next.’

In 1787 A.D, Rajputs defeated Scindia’s at Lalsot and later marched at Nimbheda pergana which was under Holkars, seeing this Chandrawats joined the Rajputs. Nimbheda was under the foe’s control now. Ahilyabai sent two of her commanders Abajipant and Ragho Ranchod on the battlefield. Scindia joined Holkars and combined their attacks on the foe. Shariff bhai, the Devi’s entrusted bodyguard was dispatched later Tulaji Shinde (Devi’s brother) with 5000 horses was sent too. Devi, too personally remained on and off the field. A fierce battle was fought at Mandsaur. This resulted in defeat of the Thakurs of kanur and Sadri, victorious Holkars led towards Ramapura and re-took it.  Chadrawats leader Bhawanisingh Chandrwat fled away to Amad. His brother was chastised with capital punishment. On the occasion of the complete victory of Ahilyabai’s army a grand Durbar was held at Poona where Nana Fadnis showered praise on Devi’s strategic and military planning for the fight.

To retain peace, a treaty was signed where the original copy of, ‘Surety for good behavior’ was sought. Later Bhawanisingh’s possessions were released by Holkars on five conditions,

  • The original copy of, ‘Surety for good behavior’ was sought and re-instated.
  • He should be prepared for service to Sarkar, and should co-operate Mamlatdars equipped with state service.
  • He regrets his past conducts, and if unfaithful in future all his villages to be confiscated.
  • Amad pergana and their villages were handled by Holkars, he shouldn’t interfere in the Amad Pergana.
  • A written agreement for payement of thirty thousand rupees was signed.

Bhawani Singh Chandrawat agreed to all conditions and acted accordingly.

1c. Avoidance of Red Tapism

The letters of civil administration reveals that, justice had a speedy solution. The panchayat system prevalent at those times is a testimony of the fact. The following daily account book of Maheshwar dated 14th August, 1778 reinstates the faith on panchayat system:
The kulkaran (Right of accountancy) of Mouza Bhatkan de Budruk (Pergana Utran) was in dispute. It was referred to Panchayat. The decision was given as follows: Bhagwat, Babaji and Daji Patil of the village arrived at Maheshwar and lodged a complaint against Laxman Jiwaji for enjoying the entire vatan, while they were half holders of the same. The kulkarni was summoned. The case was referred to a Panchayat. Old papers were seen; parties were heard. It was decided that patil owned half the vatan. They are commanded to respect the orders. In case, someone goes astray he will be reprehended.

1d. Where Mercy, Forgiveness and peace reigns there lies God

The rule was practiced by Devi, and was indirectly preached to her subordinates as well as subjects. The following request is the testament of the fact.  ‘A written request is submitted by AjmatKhan resident of Kasba Indore to her highness mother-like Ahilyabai Saheb. With Salutations confession is made that I was pardoned by your highness when I was charged for some military offence in Bapu’s Holkar army. I was also told that repetition of the offence in the future would not be over-looked. In obedience to your highness’ orders I pass a written bond to the effect that your highness graciously forgave me my past conduct; you should punish me with mutilation of my limbs in case I commit misdeeds of lie, quarrel, treachery and back-biting in future. ’

1e. Equity between the imperial exchequer and Saranjamis

Saranjami system of Malhar Rao Holkar created ‘Lords of Territory’ on condition of keeping a certain standing army. Malhar Rao Holkar had a double task- conquest and consolidate the Maratha confederacy. The saranjami system was successful during his times that Peshwas honoured this sardars of saranjams with gifts and garments. During Malhar Rao’s times the sardars were in camps with him or in separate camps under his direction. During conquests, Malhar Rao involved his family members in administration of Saranjam. The following letter addressed to Ahilyabai by Malhar rao is evidence of the fact (dated 16th March 1765): ‘A messenger told us that you captured Gohadkar’s fort with a canon. You should now stay at Gwalior and manufacture gun-balls and balls of smaller guns as before. The ruler of Gohad must this year be crushed. Please send my wife if you secure faithful and valiant guard and if you are sure of the safety of the road; otherwise let here remain there.’ The letter addressed to Ahilyabai infers that during the reign of Malhar Rao , Devi was taking silent lessons in civil as well as military administration.

The Saranjami system during Ahilybai’s time was quite different. The Sardars were kinglets of the ‘camp within camp’ wih several perganas under them, they had their own seals and had distributed Inams or jagirs of their own accord. The camps of each of this sardars sheltered astrologers, Pandits, Shastris, Puraniks, poets and physicians. Devi Ahilyabai made sure that she was watchful enough whenever any of the Sardar went astray. However, there remained a keen sense of equity between ruler and the Sardars, once a bill of war expenses was submitted to Devi by Subhedar Tukoji Rao from his camp. The Subhedar then requested that the Sardars be called upon to makeup the bill. Seeing this the Devi’s reply ran as follows: “The Saranjami Sardars have had their individual expenses. Our allotments to them are in proportion to the number of men engaged in their service and not a jot more. The Sardars are in person present serving on the field. How is one justified, under these circumstances, to ask them to pay.”

2. Minister

A monarch howsoever be well versed physically and mentally, councillors are also one of the seven traits under kamandaks definition of Rajya. Councillors for different departments were working for the Holkars but the final controlling authority was indeed Devi Saheb.

Emperors like Shree Ramchandra and Janak secured fortunate learned Rishis Vashistha and Yadnyavalka as the council ministers. Ramachandra Amatya Bawadekar, a disciple of Samarth Ramdas swami, served as minister of Raja Shiv Chatrapathi for forty years in the various rising and varying phases of Maratha movement. The effect of involvement of such ministers or councilors unconsciously or consciously served as tactical and strategic suggestions with the blend of moral fibre.       

Sir John Malcolm in his minute inquiries has brought out the name of Ambaddas puranik. Ambadass puranik used to read puranas to Devi and had unconsciously served as master doing the work of minister. Thombre in ‘Life and Life’s Work of Shri Devi Ahilyabai Holkar’ mentions 96 lists of books in Devi’s library, viz. Adhyatama Ramayana, Dnyaneshwari, Vishnu Sahasra Nama (Bhasya) etc, these list of written manuscripts gives us the idea of mental equipment of Devi.

Source: Lokmat News

Probably the greatness of different temples mentioned in these manuscripts would have inspired Devi to construct and re-construct temples and holy-sites, to do charities and endowments in different parts of India.  (We talk about such places in next article.)

It would be suitable to say, ‘Books and wide range of literature were the counselors’ for Devi.

3. People

The third head of Kamandak’s work is ‘The People’. The Devi’s solitude for the contentment and welfare of  the subjects can be gauged from the rules and regulation passed for the Mamlatdar. The instructions given to Malatdars were as follows:

  • The Bhills, Bhumaiya robbers and plunderers shall all be regularly checked and restraint.
  • Responsibility of exacting from Government Jamedars, Fadnis and other officers their respective official work
  • Annual donations, daily wages and temple allowances must be paid as usual.
  • Heirless property and treasure-trove connected with Jamedari vatan must be credited to Government Exchequer.
  • Remissions will be made according to precedents and usage in cases of accidents, treachery and plunder etc.
  • Remissions on account of ‘March of army through fields’ and on account of rain failure.

3a. People’s Contenment

The idea of contentment may vary with time however the modern idea of duty of sovereign towards his people is supply of food, clothing and the basic primary education. Sir John Malcom mentions a fact that during her reign of thirty years there was not even a pinch of famine, even though there were famines in Rajputana, Bundelkhand and Bengal. Supply of cheap clothing was provided to some extent as she tried by patronizing the weavers of Maheshwar whose clothing was in demand in Poona Durbar too. The Maheshwar waevers have inherited even now and is famous too.

On preservation and promotion of knowledge, every court and camp imitated Devi and as mentioned earlier Sardars of Saranjam preserved it too.

4. Forts

Maheshwar Fort; Source: Holidify

The times of Devis were different, the forts were of mere possession and maintenance. There were seven forts in the Holkar records: Maheshwar, Chandwad, Sendhwa, Ashirgad, Galana, Kushalgad, Hingalzgad. Maheshwar fort was of strategic importance as Nana Fadnis once expressed in the Peshwa’s Durbar as, ‘Mahismati (Maheshwar) is the northern gate of Poona’. Hence, it was honoured with Devi’s presence for thirty years. Chandwad held second position in being the centre of Devi’s activity.

5. Treasury

The Subhedar Malhar Rao’s annual treasure was accounting to seventy five lakh rupees as per Peshwa records. However, the Holkar’s records in Devi’s times accounts to One crore, Five lakhs and Thirty-seven thousand. Malhar Rao’s times had seen stir and strife however Devi’s reign was of peaceful policies, plain living and high thinking, general administration being of mild tone in nature.

6. Army

Subhedar Malhar Rao Holkar had innumerable triumphs hence he deserved a wide military reputation. ‘Cavalry and infantry’ was what he started it, however considering the times he understood the importance of artillery and hence he devoted much of his time later in big and small guns in his own territory or Mahals under Sardars of Saranjam.

The Sardars of different Mahals were the key factor in Military importance, during Malhar Rao’s time there were 18 sardars with annual income of 18 lakhs for military equipment. The Sardars had to maintain the cavalry and infantry, hence their pride and prestige was carefully preserved during Devi’s times (as mentioned earlier). Devi during her reign also maintained solicitude for those who served in field.  The internal policy of military department is the testimony to the fact. In  a letter dated 12th February 1792, ‘Salutations to the mother-like Bai Saheb, We had a very tough fight with the Rathods near Medhta in Merwad. Mahaloji Pingle was with dear Kashirao. The said Pingle fell on field after an extraordinary display of his military talents. It behoves the Sarkar to take care of his brother and Son. It is requested that they shall be favored with a Sanad granting one village in every Mahal for the maintenance of their family. ’

7. Well-Wishers

The title of well-wishers includes family and friends, it includes all those that are tied with blood and birth as well as those joined by service. Shindes were in blood relation with holkars they were sardars who in their Saranjams fed and supported men of arms. Temples and monasteries were standing in territory of this Sardars. During her reign she built a statue with Chhatri in memory of Khanderao Holkar (her spouse) at Kumbheree.

7a. Tukoji’s Mother like relations with Devi

Tukoji Holkar
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tukoji Holkar was esteemed Maratha commander, he had established his character of Maratha warrior of zeal and valour during Malhar Rao’s reign. Sir John Malcolm writes off relations between Devi and Tukoji Holkar, ‘She elected for the commander of her army, Tukoji Holkar a chief of the same tribe but was in no way related to Malhar Rao Holkar. The divided authority established in the Holkar’s state, from the day of Tukoji’s elevation, had a charcter which, judging from common rules, was not likely to admit of its subsisting week; but it remained for above 30 years or more undisturbed by jealousy or ambition. This is to be ascribed to their virtues and moderation of parties, to their respect for each other to their having distinct and distant spheres of action.’  He further adds, ‘he never deviated from path, he was more than obedient; he was dutiful and all his actions were directed  to please and conciliate the princess to whom he was highly indebted for his high station. He constantly called her his mother but as she was much younger than him this relation was not engraved in his seal.’   

In conclusion, the seven traits of Kamandak’s version of Rajya under Devi Ahilyabai were fulfilled with piety and duty. The Devi’s times brought her in contact with two cultures. Being born under a patil chief in Deccan areas; to finally rising to Rajmata Ahilyabai Holkar. She didn’t create any new codes but hers rule was backed by piety and mother-like care. She had solicitude for Sardars who fed and supported the the military of Holkars as well as the men of learning. Temples and monasteries were looked under this territory of Sardars. This clearly suggests that the principle of ‘Decentralization’ of power was followed and with that the ancient knowledge was preserved and propogated.

In connection to ‘propogation of knowledge’, we have to make a respectful reference to the work, ‘Ahilya-Kama-Dhenu’ or ‘The duties of ruler’. She entrusted several Pundits for the compilation of work. The work deals with different branches of administration and is a collection of previous works with percepts historically arrived at for future guidance.

Finally, we know that how the soldiers of Alexander had great faith in him and they did certainly believe in him as of a ‘God-like’ person. However, this faith in the hearts of soldiers vanquished after the death of Alexander. In case of Maratha rulers the faith was carried even after the death of Raja Shiv Chhatrapathi. Rulers like Devi Ahilyabai’s reign were bound with duty and piety for subjects and it was backed up by Dharma. In times, when Tukoji Holkar waited for orders from Devi, she replied back with letters saying, ‘Take your own decisions; re-think how Malhar Rao would’ve acted.’   Her early training in administration was under Malhar Rao Holkar; after his death in later times she drew inspirations from him.

In the next article, we look at the the charities and religious endowments made by Rajmata Ahilyabai Holkar, for which she is respectfully recalled as Devi Ahilyabai till date.


  • Life and Life’s Work of Shri Devi Ahilyabai Holkar’, Thombre.
  • A memoir of Central IndiaVol. 1, Sir John Malcolm.
  • The History and culture of the Indian People– The Maratha Supremacy’, R.C. Majumdar
About Sairaj Desai 10 Articles
Sairaj is currently working in a start-up based on providing 5G solutions. He is a post-graduate from the communications background in IIT, Madras. His areas of interest include history, culture, heritage and science & technology.