Women’s Day Special: India’s Greatest Women

by Swarajya Staff - Mar 8, 2018 09:25 AM +05:30 IST
Women’s Day Special: India’s Greatest WomenBegum Samru (Wikimedia Commons)
  • A collection of essays from Swarajya on eleven of the greatest women in Indian history.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day on 8 March, here is a collection of essays, published previously in various editions of Swarajya, on some of the greatest women in Indian history, belonging to varied walks of life.

1) The Incredible Story Of Begum Samru

A four-and-a-half-foot-tall girl picked up from the streets of Delhi by a kotha owner went on to rule a prosperous kingdom for 55 years, in a time where empires were tumbling and no man was safe. With her diplomatic abilities and her commanding presence, Begum Joanna Nobilis “Samru” is an unlikely feminist icon from the 18th century.

2) Didda, Controversial Queen Of Kashmir

Rani Didda’s (958-1003 CE) rule represents the peak of women’s power in Kashmir, which unusually had many women rulers both before and after her. She is sometimes called the Catherine of Kashmir, referring to the ruthless Catherine the Great of Russia. In spite of a leg disability and her gender, Didda was able to rule Kashmir with an iron hand for more than four decades. But men thought Didda was a witch!

3) She Gently Fell Asleep

Toru Dutt (1856-1877) was the unsung prodigy very few of us know about. A woman writer in the late 19th century, in an age of purdah and illiteracy, she was the first Indian woman to publish poetry in English. She was the first Indian woman to write a novel in English, and also the first Indian, male or female, to write a novel in French, all before her death at the age of 21. She had a prodigious talent for languages, and spoke Bengali, English, French, German and Sanskrit. She has been compared to John Keats and to the Bronte sisters, who were also precocious writers with tragically short lives.

4) Against All Odds

Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) had a slew of firsts to her name: the first woman graduate from Bombay University, the first woman to graduate in law from the University of Oxford, the first to practise as a barrister in both India and Britain, and the first woman civil servant in India. She achieved this success on her own, without belonging to rich or royal families. She was however not inducted in the post-Independence Indian hall of fame in spite of a life of service to Indian widows, probably because of her open support for the British Empire.

5) One Tough Lady

Tarabai, the Maratha Queen (1675-1761), can be considered perhaps one of the most important contributors to the breakup of the Mughal Empire. She prevented the Maratha Confederacy from disintegrating when it was at its lowest ebb, with almost all its forts in Mughal hands. Not only did she survive the huge Mughal onslaught, but with unusual aggression for a woman, carried the battle over into Mughal territory, raiding and then creating permanent outposts.

6) The Real Umrao Jaan

Mahlaqa Bai “Chanda” was the first woman to get her Diwan or collection of poems, Gulzar-i-Mahlaqa, published in the nascent language of Urdu in 1824. She probably served as the inspiration for Umraon Jaan Ada, the first Urdu novel. Mahlaqa was the only woman designated an omrah (noble) of the court, and was considered a sage advisor to the Nizam. She was a warrior who accompanied the Nizam into battle in male attire; an excellent archer and tent pegger. She was also considered one of the best Urdu poets of her age, and was an important patron of arts.

7) The Admiral Queen

Rani Abbakka Chowta was the legendary queen of Ullal near Mangalore, who fought off the Portuguese during the 16th and 17th centuries. She is commemorated as a great queen, ‘Abbakka Mahadevi’, a little like the Phantom in the comics by Lee Falk. She was known as the ‘Abhaya Rani’, for her fearlessness, and is considered the first Indian woman freedom fighter against colonialism.

8) The First Feminist

Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) was an early feminist and author. She was unique in her time as the only one to demand equality for women, rather than education so that they could be better helpmates to men. A free thinker, she did not even pay lip service to many of the holiest cows of those days, or indeed today. She was a rare feminist who could see the emancipation of women in modern terms, with equality as an inalienable right.

9) A Queen With A Mission

Queen Rudrama Devi ruled Warangal in the 13th century. She ruled for 40 years and presided over the golden age of the Kakatiyas. She is the only independent female ruler mentioned by Marco Polo in his journey across the world. He was mistaken in thinking her a widow of the previous king; she had inherited the kingdom from her father Ganapati Deva, who chose her as his heir over other male members of his extended family.

10) A Queen Who Would Not Yield

Queen Mangammal of Madurai fought off numerous hostile kings. She also created sturdy infrastructure, focusing on roads and access to water. The highway she built from Kanyakumari is still called Mangammal Salai. In her kingdom, she was very liberal in allowing the practice of all religions. When pressured to persecute Christians, she is supposed to have said that just as some were allowed to eat rice and others meat, so also was it lawful for each man to practice or adopt whatever religion seemed to him the best.

11) The Mughal Empire’s Christian “Saint”

Juliana de Dias Costa was a Portuguese woman doctor who lived in the Mughal Royal Harem for half a century, and served under the emperors Aurangzeb, Bahadur Shah I, Farrukhsiyar and Muhammad Shah. She gained great influence in the court and became a jagirdar; her large jagir is now a part of Delhi’s urban sprawl, constituting the areas of Okhla, Jamia, New Friends Colony, and the eponymous Sarai Jullena.

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