Meet Lakshimbai, Rani of Jhansi, and Indian Queen who led an army against the colonising British during the Seopy Rebellion.
If you do a Google image search of Lakshmibai you will see a fierce Indian woman dressed in a man’s uniform, with her son strapped to her back, holding a sword and leading a charge against British soldiers. This was Lakshmibai, Queen of Jhansi.
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Case 1: Bite the Bullet, the Sepoy Rebellion- Lakshmi Bai Queen of Jhansi
Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history and then I explore how that story might be reimagined through song. This is Case Number 1: Bite the Bullet.
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Introduce the topic (0:30)
If you do a Google image search of Lakshmibai you will see a fierce Indian woman dressed in a man’s uniform, with her son strapped to her back, holding a sword and leading a charge against British soldiers. This was Lakshmibai, Queen of Jhansi and what I want to investigate today is what happened to cause this dramatic turn of events.
Story Time (1:06)
To understand how this happened, we have to go back to the very first globalised company, before Google, before Coca Cola there was the British East India Company. This company started as a group of merchants joining together to create a trading monopoly in the East Indies. They eventually expanded their trade to many countries including China and India.
Look there is probably about 20 hours of history and backstory contained in those last 2 sentences, but our story starts a little later down the track.
So, the British East India Company became a morally corrupt ruling powerhouse within India. Europe was in the midst of an Industrial Revolution and the resources that India could contribute to these burgeoning industries were helping to line the pockets of the East India traders with silk and gems.
The main way that they were able to begin to control India was through the use of private security forces which later formed into private armies. Remember, an army is generally used by countries for protection, not by private companies. Imagine, if KFC just decided to start an army- well, he is a Colonel so I suppose that might be legit. Anyway, these armies were not made up of British soldiers, they hired Indian soldiers who were of different faiths including Muslim and Hindu.
This brings us to the matter of religion. The British East India company brought their Christianity with them and missionaries attempt to converted and civilise the Hindu and Muslim soldiers and the wider population.
Another policy that the British had introduced was the Doctrine of Lapse. A doctrine is an official government policy and the British East India Company thought they were the government. If an Indian ruler died and did not have a male heir, then the British could swoop in and annex or take possession of that state. And this is where Rani of Jhansi comes in, but before we meet her, let’s do a brief introduction on the what is known as Sepoy Rebellion, the Indian Mutiny or the First Indian War of Independence.
The trigger that is said to have sparked the rebellion is the introduction by the British East India Company Army of a new Enfield rifle that required a special cartridge (which is the bullet packaging). In order to load the cartridge into the gun, the soldiers were required to go through a process that involved biting the top of the paper cartridge. I am not a rifle expert, but I am sure if you want to get more specific details on the rifle and the cartridge loading, there will be somewhere on the internet you can find out the finer points.
The problem developed, when rumours arose that the cartridges were greased with the fat of pigs and cows. In a predominantly Hindu and Muslim culture, where cows are sacred and pigs are forbidden to be eaten, this is a big problem. I say rumour, but in some sources, it is stated as fact, that is why it is important to find out from what perspective a source is written from.
The “biting of the bullet” was seen as an affront to the religious beliefs of the soldiers, coupled with the Christian missionaries trying to convert the population, the soldiers refused to use the cartridge, feeling that Christianity was being shoved down their throats.
Some of the soldiers were punished and the Sepoy Rebellion against the British Imperialists began to spread across the country. This was a large-scale uprising and there was much violence and bloodshed that occurred on both sides. But let’s get back to our heroine Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi.
Digging Deeper (5:04)
Rani means queen in Hindi and Jhansi is a historic Indian city of which Lakshmibai was the Queen. Let me begin with a terrible spoiler, Lakshmibai died at the tender age of 29. However, she left such an impression, that in India there are statues, songs, films and TV shows about her. In contrast, in many modern Western texts about the Sepoy Rebellion, she barely rates a mention.
Lakshmibai was born in 1828 – with a different name, she was renamed after she got married- and when she was 4 years old her mother died and she was raised by her father and learned horse riding, martial arts, sword fighting and archery. This was apparently unusual for girls at the time and in the Brahaman caste. She was married in 1842 to the Maharaja of Jhansi. She was 14 years old at the time and the Maharaja was in his mid-40s. It is easy to look at back at the past with a modern lens, but fourteen was the accepted age of marriage for the time. In fact, in Australia in 1892-which is 50 years later, a feminist called Rose Scott, tried to have the age of consent in Australia raised from 14 to 16 and the idea was laughed out of parliament.
Back to our heroine Lakshmibai. In 1851, when she was 23 years old, she gave birth to a son, but sadly he only lived for 4 months. 2 years later, her husband and her decided to adopt an heir- the maharaja’s cousin’s son. One day later her husband died. And this is where the afore mentioned Doctrine of Lapse comes into play. To remind you, if an Indian ruler died and didn’t have an heir the British would claim ownership of the state.
Although it was the custom of Indian rulers to adopt a son if they did not have a male heir, there was a special clause written into the doctrine by the BritishGovernor-General of India, that said adopted sons could not become rulers, only inherit the property. This challenged a long tradition of Indian rulers and completely dismissed their authority over their own state.
In 1857, the Sepoy Rebellion had broken out and in 1858 the British forces attacked, and Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi formed an army of men and women to defend against the British.
The British soldiers eventually overpowered the defenders, but not before Lakshmibai made a final charge. This is the charge from which the famous image of her on horseback wearing men’s clothing, with her son strapped to her back and wielding a sword is said to be drawn from. Some sources depict him as a baby, and some texts refer to him as an infant, but digging a little deeper he was born in 1851, which would make him about 7 or 8 years old.
She escaped that night and fled to a neighbouring town where she continued to help in the resistance against the British. A few days later, while fighting on horseback, she was mortally wounded. She did not want the British to capture her body, so she asked a local hermit to cremate her body after she died.
My favourite description of her is by Vishnubhat Godse a poor Brahmin priest who stayed at the Jhansi court during the Sepoy Rebellion. He says, “Her two qualities worth mentioning are her bravery and her generosity.
Mostly, she was dressed in male attire. She used to wear a pajama with a vest of dark purple colour. On her head she wore a turban like cap. On her waist would be a cloth in which she tucked her sword. Ever since her husband died, she had given up wearing the nath (which is nose ring worn by married women) and other such ornaments except gold bangles on her wrists…
She was very fond of physical exercises. At the break of dawn, she would get up and exercise on a Mallakhamb pole for 45 minutes. After that she would take a round or two on her elephant.
I suggest you do a YouTube search of a Mallakhamb pole, it is kind of like yoga on a pole. 45 minutes of pole yoga every morning, she must have been incredibly fit. I love this description, it paints such a vivid image of what she wore and I especially love the elephant riding at the end.
I went down a bit of a rabbit hole in researching this episode. I came across a text called The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History, and Fable in India, and the author Harleen Singh mentions four early British novels that depict Lakshmibai as a shameless jezebel, a temptress who sexually coerced the British colonials. Interesting how this early British perspective on her is vastly different to how she is represented today.
In India, she is remembered as a symbol of resistance against the British, a warrior and fighter, and a woman who stood up to the oppressors and fought to save her people.
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I would love to hear any suggestions for future episodes, so please get in contact. You can follow me on Twitter @HistoryDetect, Instagram @HistoryDetective9 or email me at email@example.com
Now I would like to play you a song that I wrote which was inspired by Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi. It is called “Bite the Bullet”.
A bit of a side note, the expression “Bite the Bullet”, which means to do something difficult regardless, was first used in print by the author of The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling in an 1891 novel. Kipling was born in India, educated in England and later returned to India. There are some theories about the etymology or origin of the phrase, but I like the hypothesis that it originated from the Sepoy Rebellion.
This Kelly Chase, on the Case.
I bite the bullet for my son
You sit there sipping your tea
Looking like you rule the world
Yeah you expect it all for free
My revenge will soon be unfurled
You say civilise
I say oppression
You say mutiny
I say rebellion
You say jezebel
I say heroine
You’ve taken everything I love
And forced me to swallow your divinity
Now I’m taking off my gloves
I will reveal my masculinity
You say civilise
I say oppression
You say mutiny
I say rebellion
You say jezebel
I say heroine
I bite the bullet for my son
I bite the bullet for my people
I bite the bullet for the cause
I bite the bullet for me
If you are a teacher or student, you will find reflection questions in the show notes. Also, a link to the website with the transcript, song lyrics and a list of references is in the show notes.
(Find transcript here) https://history-detective.simplecast.com/
Next time on History Detective (Transition music🎼)
Next time on History Detective, we will investigate the discovery of the bones of Mungo Man and explore how he changed the narrative of Australian history forever. We will also see what museums have traditionally done with human remains and the ethics of bone collecting.
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BBC, 2006, The Origins of the Indian Mutiny, Episode 49, The Sceptred Isle: Empire a 90 part history of the British Empire, BBC Radio 4, Access Date 5 July 2020,
Blakemore, E, 2019, How the East India Company became the world’s most powerful business, National Geographic, Access Date 5 July 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/topics/reference/british-east-india-trading-company-most-powerful-business/
Byju’s: The Learning App, 2020, Doctrine of Lapse - NCERT Notes for UPSC Modern Indian History, Access Date 5 July 2020, https://byjus.com/free-ias-prep/ncert-notes-doctrine-of-lapse/
Daily Hunt, 2019, How Rani Lakshmi Bai Died? Daily Hunt, Bengaluru https://m.dailyhunt.in/news/india/english/lifeberrys+english-epaper-lifebeen/how+rani+lakshmi+bai+died-newsid-76633183
Dash, M, 2012, Pass it on: The Secret that Preceded the Indian Rebellion of 1857, The Smithsonian Magazine, Access Date 5 July 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/pass-it-on-the-secret-that-preceded-the-indian-rebellion-of-1857-105066360/
Gould, W, 2016, Five-pound history lesson: animal fat and the British empire’s biggest revolt, The Conversation: Australian Edition, Access Date 5 July 2020,https://theconversation.com/five-pound-history-lesson-animal-fat-and-the-british-empires-biggest-revolt-70004
National Army Museum, N.D. Why did the Indian Mutiny happen? National Army Museum, Chelsea, Access Date 5 July 2020, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/why-did-indian-mutiny-happen
Potholm, C, 2015, War Wisdom: A Cross-Cultural Sampling, University Press of America, UK
Singh, H, 2014, The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History, and Fable in India, Cambridge University Press, India
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020, Lakshmi Bai, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Access Date 5 July 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lakshmi-Bai
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020, Indian Mutiny, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Access Date 5 July 2020, https://www.britannica.com/event/Indian-Mutiny