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"The reign of Ahilyabai, of Indore in central India, lasted for thirty years. This has become almost legendary as a period during which perfect order and good government prevailed and the people prospered. She was a very able ruler and organizer, highly respected during her lifetime, and considered as a saint by a grateful people after her death." - Jawaharlal Nehru (The Discovery of India/1946)

Rajmata Ahilyabai Holkar was the Holkar Queen of the Malwa kingdom. She is regarded as one of the most visionary female rulers of India. In the 18th century, as the Maharani of Malwa, she was instrumental in spreading the message of dharma and propagating industrialization. She is widely known for her wisdom, courage, and administrative skills. Born on 31 May 1725, in the village of Chondi in Jamkhed, Ahmednagar (Maharashtra), Ahilya hailed from a very humble background. Her father Mankoji Rao Shinde was the village head, and he taught her to read and write. As a young girl, the combination of her simplicity and strength of character caught the attention of Malhar Rao Holkar, the Lord of the Malwa territory. He was so impressed with the young Ahilya that in 1733 when she was barely eight years old, he got her married to his son Khanderao Holkar. Twelve years after her marriage, her husband Khanderao died during the siege of the Kumher Fort. Ahilyabai was so grief-stricken that she decided to commit sati. It was her father-in-law, Malhar Rao who prevented her from taking such a drastic step. Instead, he took her under his wing and trained her in military and administrative matters.


Ahilyabai Holkar – commemorative stamp


Ahilyabai Holkar – a painting

Her father in law, Malhar Rao passed away in 1766, and in the following year, she lost her son, Male Rao. She did not let the grief of losing her son overwhelm her. Keeping in mind the welfare of the kingdom and her people, she petitioned the Peshwa to allow her to take over the reign of Malwa. Although some of the nobles objected to this, she still had the support of the army, who had full faith and confidence in her, as she was well trained in military and administrative matters. On many an occasion, she had led the army from the front and fought like a true warrior. In 1767, the Peshwa granted Ahilyabai permission to take over Malwa. She ascended the throne and became the ruler of Indore on 11 December 1767. For the next 28 years, Maharani Ahilyabai ruled over Malwa in a just, wise, and knowledgeable manner. Under Ahilyabai’s rule, Malwa enjoyed relative peace, prosperity, and stability, and her capital, Maheshwar, was turned into an oasis of literary, musical, artistic, and industrial pursuits. Poets, artists, sculptors, and scholars were welcomed into her kingdom, as she held their work in high regard.

Ahilyabai also established a textile industry in Maheshwar, which today is very famous for its Maheshwari sarees. She held daily public audiences to help redress the problems of the common man. She also turned her attention towards various philanthropic activities, which ranged from the construction of temples, ghats, wells, tanks, and rest-houses in the north to pilgrimage centres in the south. Her most notable contribution was the renovation and repair of the famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple in 1780. The ‘Philosopher Queen’ as she is famously known, passed away on 13th August 1795 at the age of seventy. Her legacy still lives on and the various temples, Dharamshalas, and public works undertaken by her stand as a testimony to the great warrior queen she was.


Statue of Ahilyabai Holkar

In 1849, the poet Joanna Baillie so rightfully put it, when she wrote:
In latter days from Brahma came, To rule our land, a noble dame, Kind was her heart and bright her fame, Ahilya was her honoured name.