My informant is a young Indian-American woman who loves to tell the stories of her Hindu faith and national identity. I sat down with her and recorded her telling me the story of Queen Rani of Jhansi, a historical figure who over time has over time morphed into a legend. I have transcribed the story here, in as exact phrasing as I could manage.
Informant: “Okay, so Jhansi Ki Rani is the- ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ means ‘Rani of Jhansi’, her real name was Lakshmibai, and she was married when she was very young. She’s originally from the court- her dad was in the court of a very important Maratha general. There were different kingdoms… yeah, different kingdoms-ish in India at this point: there were the Mughals, there were the Marathas, and there were the Rajputs.”
Me: “And around what time period is this?”
Informant: “Um… whenever the Mughals were there *laughs* Okay, this was when the Mughals were there but also the British. The British were involved in India as well at this point. And… basically she got married really young, she had a son… Also when she was young. And then her husband died who was the king of Jhansi, so she had to take over. And, she was kind of great. Um, there are a lot of stories about like her generosity, and just her generally being a badass. And like, she would dress in men’s clothes, and wear like a turban. Um, oh god this is not gonna be very good I’m so sorry *laughs* Um, but yeah. So, she was known for being just like, a great general. And like military strategist and she just struck fear into the hearts of the British. Like, there was one particular general I don’t know what his name was but he was particularly afraid of her, and he was one of the higher ups. And when she died, she died at like late 20s early 30s or something like that, so she died really young. But she died in battle. And they say she died with two swords in her hands on the back of her horse and she took out like eight people with her. And she thought- like she knew she was going to die so she asked her servants to burn-like, cremate her body so that the British couldn’t do anything stupid with it *laughs* I told you about this but I think they weren’t actually able to but the British didn’t do anything stupid out of respect for her. And um, I mean since then she’s been like a huge figure in all of India like there are many, many statues of her. Um, and I think the first all-female regiment of the army is called-is named after her.”
Informant: “Yeah, and so like in common language and phrases and stuff she’s like- her name is used like… when um- so the same way in America when you hear something you don’t believe you would say like ‘I’m the Queen of England’ or ‘I’m the Queen of Sheba’ *laughs*
Me: “Yeah, ‘I’m the Queen of Sheba'”
Informant: “So you would say, like, ‘I’m Jhansi Ki Rani’ the same way you would say all of those things. Like when you hear something you don’t believe.”
Me: “So she’s like a historical figure but also a legend almost?”
Informant: “Yeah there are a lot of like, I tried to stick to what I know, because there are a lot of really crazy stories about her and what she did. Rumor has it that she was a lesbian, because all the greatest historical figures are.”
Me: “Excellent. Do you know of any, like, crazy outlandish stories? That probably aren’t true but are still kind of popular?”
Informant: “I mean like the most common prevalent story is like… she killed twenty men in battle, like, in some crazy way – like she took out twenty dudes and then like she made a British general like turn tail, like his whole army turn tail and run because he saw her in the distance on the battlefield. Which I don’t completely believe that but it’s cool. It’s fun to think about.”
I love the idea that India has such a powerful female legendary figure in common vernacular. She seems to be a powerful nationalist figure, especially in her resistance to the British at the time.