After visiting places like Varanasi and Gaya, I learned about the restoration work that Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore and Maheshwar had done. Then I kept hearing about the way she ran the Holkan Subedari that she inherited from her father-in-law. I was curious and keen about this woman from Indian history. When I heard about a book on her written by the Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan – unfortunately, the book is not available in public domain. As luck would have it, Mehta Publishers just then sent me this biography Karmayogini of Matoshri Ahilyabai Holkar. The original book is in Marathi and the English translation I read is by author’s daughter Sangita Soman.
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The biography of Ahilyabai Holkar traces her journey from birth to death – literally. The story begins when she is a little girl playing with her friends. Malharrao Holkar spots her as a child prodigy and gets her married to his son. The son turns out to be worthless and the Subedari of Indore passed to Ahilyabai. It remains with the various male heirs during her lifetime but it is she who remains in command. You read the book and you wonder how she survived and thrived in such a male-dominated society of 18th CE, that too as a young widow. The book thankfully brings out her strength of character well enough for you to understand why.
Read More – Maheshwar – The city of Ahilya Bai Holkar
Very emotional storytelling takes you through various layers of Ahilyabai Holkar. She is a woman who never had a great personal life. She struggled to keep her husband away from vices and maybe women but failed. At the same time, she fought for the honor of her Muslim co-wives when the whole society was on one side for their post-death rituals. She faced the same relationship with her son who took on his father. She smartly chose a son-in-law and that did help her to an extent but not for too long. And She was widowed at a young age but had to see all her co-wives, daughters-in-law, grand-daughters-in-law and her own daughter perform Sati. She probably tried to stop all of them, but could not stop any of them.
Could she have done anything to enact a law stopping this? I don’t know – but her failed efforts do tell us about the force of societal norms. I wonder if no women took inspiration from her life that was mostly spent as a widow. We always associated Sati with Rajasthan, never knew it was so prevalent in central India in 18th CE.
At another level, Ahilyabai Holkar is the heir of Malharrao Holkar’s legacy. He trained her in politics, finance, and administration. She understood the relevance of being true to the Peshwas of Pune – who were the ultimate rulers of the region. Through this story, I understood how the various princely states worked in India. It was never one single empire but always a network of empires with loyalties clearly defined – not just politically but also financially. The financial structure is very interesting – you loot from others and you pay to your masters. The whole system is so well defined.
At another level, you figure out the personality that is needed to be politically astute – strong as steel but melt when needed. In the end, Ahilyabai admits her failure to raise her successor. And her mother-in-law turned friend tells her the reason – she was just looking at a Holkar, and not just a successor. She wanted to keep the Subedari within the Holkar family. I think the author has captured the essence of Indian society very well. In fact, I wondered, being a woman why she never looked at women as her heirs and only kept looking for male heirs. Is it difficult to look at your own biases even when you are living the life as an extreme exception? Having said that, I am not ruling out the fact that not many women may have had the kind of courage Ahilyabai Holkar had.
Read More – Heroines – Powerful Indian Women by Ita Mukhoty
The story of Ahilyabai Holkar also is a mirror of the life of noble homes in India, the role they played in the society. I loved reading about the privileges they had and the responsibilities they shoulder. Men more often than not, had multiple wives, including the wives from other religions and the wives who married their swords called Khand-Rani. They could easily marry outside religion. The cultural scenes of 18th CE are very well etched out. I liked Ahilyabai Holkar’s relationship with her in-laws, how they groomed her and remained her pillar of strength while she followed their advice. The bonding between the palace women is something that makes you feel its absence in the modern world.
The language and the narrative of the Karmayogini story are excellent. At times, I wished I could read this in Hindi as I know some nuances would have been missed. Great story and great storytelling. Karmayogini is a very well researched book.
Go, Read it.