Ahalyabai Holkar (1725-1795 A.D.) was the daughter-in-law of Malharrao Holkar, who was appointed by Bajirao Peshwa as the Subedar of Malwa with headquarters at Indore. Her husband Khanderao was killed in 1754 by a cannon ball during the siege of kumbheri. Her father-in-law Malharrao passed away in 1766. At his death he was the virtual ruler of Malwa. 11th Volume of Encyclopedia Britannica it is said: "From 1767 to 1795 Ahalya Bai ruled the State with great skill and understanding. Indore was an island of prosperity in a sea of violence and her rule became proverbial for justice and wisdom."
She was one of the exemplary rulers that ever existed and who played a leading part in the stirring events of the times. Surrounded by halo of glory, she is remembered to this day with reverence and affection for her saintly life and benevolent works. The many good thing that Ahalyabai did remain as monuments to her piety in the form of highways, wells, tanks, canals, ghats, rest houses and temples. The most note worthy among them are the road from Calcutta to Benares and temples of Somnath in Saurashtra, of Vishnu at Gaya and Vishveshwar at Varanasi. In fact, the list of her benevolent and charitable works is so formidable that no complete inventory there of is available. This is the life story of that great and good lady of yore which is being published in the bicentenary year of her death.
Ahalyabai Holkar, who ruled the Central Indian princely State of Indore between 1767 and 1795, was both revered as a pious woman and respected as an able ruler. The second half of the 18th century was a period of considerable confusion in India. Various independent force, including the British, the Marathas, the Sikhs and the rulers of Mysore and Hyderabad were attempting to fill the vacuum left by the disintegrated Mughal empire. Internecine warfare was common; Peace and effective administration were virtually non-existent. How Ahalyabai Holkar was able to achieve a stable administration within her state, resist the rapacious forces of surrounding powers, significantly strengthen Hindu institutions laid waste during Aurangzeb's reign, all the while receiving the respects and reverence of her peers and adversaries is the subject of Messrs Kamath's and Kher's informative book.
Indian women have been noted throughout history for singular characteristics: Mirabai foe her piety, the Rani of Jhansi for bravery, women of beauty too numerous to mention, administrator such as Mumtaz Mahal, and Machiavellian politician such as Indira Gandhi. Ahalyabai was perhaps unique in combining piety, bravery, and learning, as well as administrative and diplomatic talent in one person. The authors have used in depth research in 18th century vernacular source to support their conclusions about this remarkable woman. At the same time, they have presented a picture of 18th Century India which brings to life a tumultuous period, full of deceit and intrigue-deceit and intrigue which were remarkably absent in Ahalyabai's absent in Ahalyabai's person.
India today undergoes a period when regional interests seek to strengthen their bases as the erstwhile monolithic political system searches for new equations. Ahalyabai Holkar's abilities and success are exemplary for the actors on today's critical scene.
13 August 1995 happens to be the two hundredth death anniversary of one of India's greatest roles, the fortunate to have had some excellent women rulers who have left their mark in the pages of history; but of them all, Ahalyabai stands out for her courage and wisdom, her sagacity and humility and her total dedication to the welfare of her subject. Long before anyone thought of it Ahalyabai considered herself more a Trustee of God then a ruler of her people. During her comparatively long reign of thirty years her realm saw complete peace. Trade and industry grew; peasant could till their land in the sure knowledge that they would enjoy the benefits if their daily toil. Justice prevailed in the land and the wicked were bound to get their destined deserts. Ahalyabai was held in universal respect not only by her own people which is natural enough but by people all over India. To Ahalyabai no Indian was a stranger. From her own private fortune she gave away lakhs of rupees for the building of temples, tanks, embankments, ghats and caravanserais from one end of the country to the other. No part of India from the Himalayas to the holy city of Rameshwaram in the south was alien to her. In India saw a cultural unity long before Bankim Chandra Chatterjee could compose Vande Mataram or Rabindranath Tagore Jana Gana Mana. for Ahalyabai Bhart was one and indivisible, sacred and dear to her heart.
She had no enemies. Throughout her reign no one ever considered invading her territory. That would have been unthinkable. Even the British, then prevailing Invaders kept off. No greater tribute could ever have been paid to Ahalyabai then the one paid to her by Malcolm in his classic work A Memoir of Central India. in her concern for life she stands on par with Ashoka the Great. In many ways she was a true saint who lived a life of pure asceticism, shunning ostentation and royal trappings. It is not for nothing that she has been described as "pure as Ganga".
Unfortunately we know very little of her early life or of her travails. My co-author Vishwas B.Kher did most of the research work delving into available records of the Holkar Period, most of them in Marathi. A bibliography has been provided at the end of the book, for quick reference. The life of Ahalyabai has not attracted as many scholars as one would expect and there is very little contemporary research available. Beyond paying her their meed of praise historians have skirted that patch of political and social history in which Ahalyabai figured prominently.
We are grateful to Mr. Richard Holkar, scion of the Holkar family for contributing a Foreword and Mr. S. Ramakrishna, Executive Secretary and Director General of the Bharatiya vidya Bhavan who was quick to appreciate the significance not only of Ahalyabai remains a towering figure not only of her own times but of all time.
M.V. Kamath who retired as the Editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India in 1981, is a senior columnist and commentator on a wide variety of national and international issues. Starting his career in journalism in 1946 as a reporter in the Free press Journal, in a working span of four decades, he has been the editor, of Free press Bulletin, Bharat Jyoti, contributing editor, United Asia and Sunday Editor of the Time of India. he has also been the press Trust of India's correspondent at the United Nation and the Times of India's correspondent at Bonn, Paris and Washington D.C. A founder member of the Foreign Correspondents' Association, Washington D.C., he has covered every important international gathering between 1953 and 1978. An author of over twenty books, his literary works include B.G. Kher The Gentleman Premier, The Philosophy of Death And Dying, The Pursuit of Excellence, Professional Journalism etc.
V.B. Kher is a retired personnel executive. A keen student of Gndhism, he has edited for Navajivan Gandhi's writing in fifteen volumes, including a collection of Gandhi's search for the Supreme in three volumes. He was a trustee of Shri Sai Baba Sansthan of Shirdi from 1984 to 1989 and also the Chairman of its sub-committee for publication. His research papers and articles on Shirdi Sai Baba have been published in Shri Sai Leela and other periodicals and journals. He is also the author of a book on Indian Trade Union Law cases. Besides he has translated book from Gujarati into Marathi.
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