Ahilybai was a widow who became Malwa's queen. After her husband's death, Ahilya's father dissuaded her from performing Sati and crowned her the ruler of the kingdom
Ahilyabai was born on May 31 1725 to Patil Mankoji Shinde. She was from the Dhangar clan(classified as OBC today). While Dhangars were traditionally into herding, they took up arms & held several military /civil roles in various eras of history(especially during the Maratha resurgence).
In 1737, when she was 12, Ahilyabai Holkar was married to Khanderao , son of Subedar Malhar Rao Holkar. By the time she was married, the fortunes of the Holkar family had already waxed. Malhar Rao was a Subedar of territory comprising 30 Parganas yielding a revenue of at least 7 Lakh. In 1741, when Ahilyabai was newly married, her father-in-law Malhar Rao Built Indore palace & ordered the kanungo to populate the settlement with a promise of protection to traders. This began the rise of Indore from its background as a modest trading town Indrapuri to a great city.
While her father and father-in-law were frequently away to lead the northern campaigns of the Maratha empire, it was Ahilyabai Holkar who ran the administration of Indore. She had already become extremely popular due to her policy of mercy and justice towards people.
On 24th March 1754, when Ahilyabai was only 29, her husband Khanderao Holkar passed away in the siege of Kumher (Bharatpur) when a cannon accidentally hit him. The siege failed. The great Jat Maharaja Suraj Mal even constructed Samadhi for his opponent. But Ahilyabai became a widow. Ahilyabai had given up all desires of life and decided to perform Sati to accompany her husband at his funeral pyre. People requested her not to commit Sati. But she said, “He pledged to accompany my life long. Now he has left midway. Hence, it is proper for me to commit Sati”.
When she had made up her mind to perform Sati and was not relenting one bit, it was finally her father-in-law Malhar Rao Holkar who made fervent emotional appeals to stop her. He said, “Daughter, my son left me. If you leave me too, I will be without support. Let me die first”.
Malhar Rao Holkar finally burst into tears and fell at the feet of his daughter-in-law Ahilyabai Holkar. This fervent appeal forced Ahilyabai to give up her decision of committing Sati.
After the death of her husband, Ahilyabai Holkar was groomed by Malhar Rao both in Military and diplomatic affairs. This letter in 1765 from Malhar Rao addressed to Ahilyabai throws light on the situation. He sends her on a military expedition to Gwalior with the big artillery. This letter clearly shows not only that Ahilyabai was military trained, but she was also considered capable enough to run civil & military affairs. This is a fitting testament that a woman from humble origins could run important departments of the state in premodern Hindu India.
When Abdali invaded India again in 1765, Malhar Rao was fighting the Abdali-Rohilla army in Delhi. During the same time, Ahilyabai Holkar captured Gohad fort (near Gwalior). Malhar Rao in his letter instructed her to “manufacture gun balls and balls of smaller size”. While Malhar Rao was embarking on northern campaigns, it was Ahilyabai who secured the rule of Holkars in the Madhya Pradesh region. Malhar Rao's letters clearly show it was Ahilyabai who captured Gwalior and secured it for Holkar kingdom. Ahilyabai's strength was her artillery.
Malhar Rao passed away in 1766. Ahilyabai's son Maloji then became Governor. He was distressed at the loss of his grandfather & unprepared. Ahilyabai sent a very hearty & inspirational letter urging her son not to think of the past & direct his thoughts to the management of the state. Unfortunately, died within 8 months. Then, rather than adopt an heir, Ahilyabai petitioned the Peshwa to rule the Holkar lands herself. Ahilyabai already had an established record of military & civil competence. She was now the defacto Holkar ruling queen of Maheshwar.
On becoming ruler, Ahilyabai exercised her policy of justice and reconciliation. She pardoned rebel Chandrawat chiefs and granted them 31 villages. But they rebelled again. She crushed them militarily, forced a treaty & punished the rebel chiefs. The complete victory was secured.
The fame of her arms spread far and wide. However, even after crushing the Chandrawats, she chose to stick to her policy of mercy & pardon. Once again, she forgave and reinstated the Chandrawat chief and a dress of honor was given to him. The Chandrawats did not rebel again.
Ahilyabai's reign was famed for justice not only towards her own people but also her rivals. She frequently wrote letters asking about the welfare of women and children of rival chiefs who were imprisoned in jail. She made sure the prisoners received an adequate amount of food. When a farmer collecting taxes from the villages was robbed of all money, the merciful queen Ahilyabai instead paid the money to them from her own expenses instead of punishing them. Such a benevolent gesture is hard with a parallel in those days of loot, plunder, and mayhem.
The name of Ahilyabai had become a byword for honesty and Kindness. While she worked hard to run the affairs of the state, she never burdened people. When a specific year did not witness much rain, she did not tax her farmers even a penny. People saw Rajmata as their own mother.
Personally, Ahilyabai Holkar led an extremely simple and religious life. Her “palace” is shockingly modest & simple. She used to live in a small residence in Maheshwar. She never built anything for herself. Her “throne” was just a simple chair & did not have a single ornament. Ahilyabai rose at 5 AM every day for her Puja. She then heard the recitation of Puranas and donated to brahmins before consuming breakfast. She forsakes non-veg food, onion, and garlic. Except during durbar, she never sat on the throne. She wore plain white and slept on the floor.
Here is a map showing the temples built by the great Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore.
She built temples at Srinagar, Haridwar, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Rishikesh, Prayaga, Varanasi, Naimisharanya, Puri, Rameshwaram, Somnath, Nasik, Omkareshvar, Mahabaleshwar, Pune, Indore, Srisailam, Udipi, Gokarna, Khatmandu, etc
Excepting territories controlled by Afghans, Nawabs & British, she built temples everywhere. Without her, all Tirthas would have been in ruins and there wouldn't be any standing temple. She built numerous tanks for people's welfare.
She defended her kingdom and personally led armies into battle. She never plundered anyone. She developed Malwa into a prosperous kingdom. She rebuilt temples destroyed by Aurangzeb. She built Dharmashalas at many Tirthas.
Ahilyabai who built temples, orphanages, residences, and irrigation tanks all over India led a modest personal life. She used to live in this small residence in Maheshwar. She never built anything for herself. The Saint Queen used to sleep on the floor. Her lips always uttered “Shiva”
Ahilyabai never issued capital punishment. She took a personal oath from prisoners & released them. A prisoner who promised not to commit misdeeds again was released. Many such prisoners adopted an honest life and this generosity showed results.
Ahilyabai Introduced a 7/12 scheme wherein the state sponsored the expenses and cultivation of the farmers. The profits were also to be divided. Both the state and the farmers prospered. Ahilyabai removed all taxes for traders and there was no trader tax beyond custom. Her subjects weren't afraid to display wealth. She inaugurated the golden era of Malwa which although short-lived was effective.
Ahilyabai was also a great patron of arts and crafts. She promoted weaving and textiles by offering them concessions, advance and security. The famous Maheshwari saree industry owes its origin and growth to her. According to a tradition, the first saree was designed by her.
Ahilyabai Holkar also patronised various scholars of Vedas, Puranas, astronomy, astrology and medicine in her court. Scholars from all over India flocked to her court where they were given due respect and rehabilitation. She personally crowned Vedic scholars & washed their feet.
While a serial depicted Ahilyabai as a secularist who questions Hindu priests and rituals. Ahilyabai's own letters show that she styled herself as “Protector of cows and Brahmins”.