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Long before Hindu anxieties over Islamic invasions got inflamed in post-Independence India, Indore’s Rani Ahilyabai Holkar took on the task of temple rebuilding in Somnath and Varanasi. Visitors to these temples encounter her role even today – in the tales told by local people, priests and tour guides.
Rebuilding the demolished Kashi Vishwanath temple was a dream for many Maratha rulers. But only Rani Ahilyabai Holkar made it a reality. Now, two and a half centuries later, her structure is in the eye of a storm.
The Gyanvapi Mosque complex and the adjoining Vishweshwar temple are currently being surveyed after several petitions were filed in the Supreme Court. But the temple only exists today because the 18th-century queen took on the task of reconstructing it.
The call to do so came to Ahilyabai in a dream, according to Rajendra Tiwari, whose family comes from a long line of mahants at the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Local legends also say that Ahilyabai’s eyes turned white with shock when she saw the Somnath Temple’s dilapidated condition — driving her to install an idol underground in a secret shrine, where it could stay untouched.
In fact, all major places of Hindu pilgrimage owe something to Ahilyabai: from Jagannath temple in Puri to Dwarka in Gujarat, from Kedarnath in the north to Rameshwaram in the south, Ahilyabai built edifices and contributed to their maintenance. She even used her personal fortune to send ganga jal to temples all over India, ingeniously transported in bamboo lathes.
The story of how the unassuming Maratha daughter-in-law — who went from nearly committing sati to becoming undisputed ruler of the region — succeeded where men before her failed is tied to the power of piety. Ahilyabai didn’t have to separate her church from her State – according to local legends, underground tunnels connected her palace to a temple she built in Nasik.
As the courts reopen old wounds at Gyanvapi Mosque site, Mahmud of Ghazni and Aurangzeb’s roles are under scrutiny. It is not just the BJP, RSS, and VHP who are incensed, many Hindu rulers viewed these temple sites as a civilisational loss. The Maratha queen, one of them.
Builder and re-builder of temples
Ahilyabai was known not only for her governance but also for her religiosity, presiding over temple rebuilding and restoration works. Born in 1725, she ruled for 28 years until her death in 1795. Ahilyabai wielded her piety to her advantage – she was simultaneously the demure widow and the powerful ruler.
She was primarily concerned with reviving places of Shaivite pilgrimage. Her two most famous projects being the Somnath temple and the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
Raided by Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century and demolished by Aurangzeb in the 17th century, Prabhas Patan’s Somnath temple and Varanasi’s Kashi Vishwanath temple owe their current prominence among Shiva pilgrims, devotees and tourists to Ahilyabai.
Somnath was in a dilapidated and unused state when Ahilyabai ordered it to be rebuilt with a consecrated idol in 1783, according to freedom fighter and VHP co-founder K.M. Munshi’s book. Her small temple was eventually overshadowed by the rebuilt structure sponsored by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and overseen by Munshi, in 1950. Ahilyabai’s re-construction is credited for keeping the site alive as a place of pilgrimage.
“The Ahilyabai-built temple is now known as ‘Old Somnath’ or ‘Ahilyabai Mandir’ and located around 200 metres away from the main Somnath mandir,” said Sanjay Vyas, a driver based in Gujarat’s Veraval who has conducted tours of the Somnath temple complex. In Somnath, Ahilyabai was apparently so appalled at the temple’s state that she chose to install an idol at a site under the ground, in a secret shrine. The Shivling used to “swing in the air” at Somnath but was thrown to the ground during Ghazni’s raids, Vyas tells the tourists he drives.
“Back then, a lot of valuable structures were built underground to evade invaders and looters,” Vyas added. “And so, Ahilyabai’s consecration brought in a more peaceful era in which her mandir remained untroubled, barring small renovations over the years.”
The story of Ahilyabai’s impact on Kashi is similar. She renovated the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in 1780, 111 years after it was razed by Aurangzeb. She chose a site to the immediate south of the Gyanvapi Mosque, and her temple was ritually consistent with what was described in the Kashikhand, a part of the Skanda Puranas.
According to Rajendra Tiwari, mahant of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, Ahilyabai dreamed that it was her responsibility to restore the temple to its former glory. “She came to Kashi to see Vishwanath and sought permission from our ancestors to construct the mandir on their land, which they were more than happy to grant,” Tiwari told ThePrint, sharing his family’s ancestral connections to the site.
“After construction was completed, Ahilyabai raised the stone [idol] to get a note written in Sanskrit, which mentioned how Ahilyabai restored the mandir with the permission and support of my family,” Tiwari said.
It was designed with a twin garbha-griha dedicated to Vishweshwar and Dandapani, and did not include shrines of Nandikesh and Mahakaleshwar. According to historian Madhuri Desai’s Banaras Reconstructed: Architecture and Sacred Space in a Hindu Holy City, Ahilyabai’s temple was seen as competition to the Gyanvapi precinct and took some time to be included in the pilgrimage routes. An account from James Prinsep, an English scholar and antiquarian, describes her temple as becoming increasingly popular in the 1820s.
Ahilyabai also inspired others to donate to the upkeep of sites along important pilgrimage routes.
For example, Ahilyabai’s new temple in Kashi continued to attract important donors in the 19th century. Madhuri Desai writes that the Bhonslas of Nagpur donated silver for the temple in 1841, and Maharaja Runjeet Singh of Lahore paid for the “dome” and “tower” to be gilded with gold leaf. The adjoining Gyanvapi precinct also received patronage from Gwalior’s Scindhias, who sponsored a new colonnade of stone pillars.
The power of piety
It’s tempting to situate Ahilyabai Holkar’s contribution to these temple sites as avenging historical wrongs. But Ahilyabai’s religiosity was not just a product of her times; it was also a means of establishing her agency.
In fact, her rise within her husband’s family was attributed to her pious nature — Malharrao Holkar, her father-in-law, spotted a young Ahilyabai in deep prayer at the age of eight. From there on, while power vacuums continued to shift and hollow up Indore’s administrative seat, faith and hope in Ahilyabai set in.
The Holkars themselves weren’t at the top of the ladder. Ahilyabai belonged to the Dhangar caste. Similar to Sardars (administrative heads), the Holkars were custodians of the State and ranked below the Peshwas. Malharrao Holkar was a Peshwa Bajirao I loyalist and part of several of the Peshwa’s military campaigns. His son and Ahilyabai’s husband, Khanderao Holkar, died in 1754 during a military campaign.
Ahilyabai’s husband was an alcoholic womaniser, something that she was said to have had problems with. Hearing the popular legend of Peshwa Bajirao’s romance with Mastani only added insult to injury. But she was devoted to him anyway: When he died, Ahilyabai, his ‘sardar-stree’, was willing to commit sati along with his nine secondary wives.
The story goes, Malharrao stopped Ahilyabai from sacrificing herself because he saw the potential she had as a ruler. Khanderao’s nine other wives — he had 10 in all, including Ahilyabai and a Muslim wife named Shabnam — didn’t have the same luck. After Malharrao’s death in 1766, Ahilyabai ruled as her infant son’s regent. Eventually, she petitioned Peshwa Madhav Rao I for ascendancy, which was granted to her in 1767, thereby cementing her as the ruler of the region.
“There is no doubt that she was a deeply pious woman. At the same time, such public works were a way to demonstrate her power and patronage as a ruler,” said historian Rosalind O’Hanlon, a retired professor of Indian history and culture at Oxford University.
Professor O’Hanlon told ThePrint that this was a particularly astute choice — because pious public works would have been seen as very fitting for a woman, and hence would have strengthened her legitimacy as a ruler. The story of her invoking Shiva’s protection against the Peshwa is one such example of this.
“It’s also worth remembering that many of her works – the building of tanks and roads, shelters for travellers and pilgrims, would have benefitted all travellers as well as the Hindu pious,” said Professor O’Hanlon.
And according to historical records, Ahilyabai was celebrated and beloved by rulers across India, both Hindu and Muslim. An English writer, John Malcolm wrote in his 1823 book A Memoir of Central India that Ahilyabai was “considered by all in the same light.”
“The Nizam of the Deckan and Tippoo Sultan granted her the same respect as the Paishwah; and Mahomedans joined with Hindus in prayers for her long life and prosperity,” writes Malcolm.
One story, as told to ThePrint by her direct descendant Richard Holkar, tells us how the queen ruled. When the Peshwa tried to stake his claim on her territory from across the River Narmada, Ahilyabai only had to send him one missive.
“I understand what you have come for, but please understand that I am a woman with a hundred soldiers and their wives, and Maratha women are very strong,” said Ahilyabai according to Holkar. “You could conquer us but if Lord Shiva was on our side and we defeated you, what would your fame be?” The Peshwa returned to Pune — presumably because he did not doubt Ahilyabai’s faith in Shiva to protect her. Such was her reputation.
No ordinary queen
While Ahilyabai had military wins to her credit, historians, family members, temple guardians, tourist guides — and she herself — saw her as a primarily pious figure, working for ‘jan kalyan’.
But Ahilyabai wasn’t rigid — six months after her husband Khanderao died, Ahilyabai attracted the anger of priests at a funeral rite when she fought to honour his Muslim wife who committed sati. When priests expressed reluctance to offer prayers, Ahilyabai swore she would go to the local maulvi to seek blessings, and the Indore community cut no corners in throwing religious, anti-Muslim insults at her.
Ahilyabai never diverted her eye from State affairs. On an occasion that warranted her supervision of the treasury, Ahilyabai managed to do what no other queen in Maratha, or Indian history, for that matter, did before — levy a heavy fine on her husband for exhausting his yearly allowance in two months on alcohol and asking for more from the State accountant, Gangoba Tatya.
This was an important administerial move — the funds allowed for large-scale rebuilding and renovation of temples, ghats, river canals and tunnels from the Himalayas to South India, thereby generating employment opportunities. According to Gunjan Lalesh Garud, PhD fellow at Savitribai Phule Pune University, it contributed to her stronghold in the Maratha empire.
The queen’s administrative capabilities are often overlooked. “We look up to Ahilyabai not just with a lot of reverence for her widely known involvement in restoring a lot of Shiva shrines around the country, but also in admiration for her as a very skilled administrator, whose court was open to all,” Holkar said.
Ahilyabai’s patronage is not only responsible for the resurrection of the Hindu pilgrimage route, but also for the development of Maheshwar.
“The 18th century saw the beginning of modernity. Rulers like Ahilya devi faced opposition from the innovations they were bringing in — her gender was not the best of her assets as a ruler. Thankfully, her father-in-law was a supportive figure,” said Professor Shraddha Kumbhojkar, history professor at Savitribai Phule Pune University.
Beyond her work building and rebuilding temples, Ahilyabai’s legacy continues to be spun alive among the weavers of Maheshwari. According to Richard Holkar, Ahilyabai put the town of Maheshwar on the map, having moved her kingdom’s capital there following the death of her son. She was invested in the local handicraft and handloom industry that had previously “fallen into disrepair” and encouraged numerous other pious and cultural activities, like the Narmada Parikirama pilgrimage and puja blessings for the locals.
“Ahilya devi gave lots of encouragement to the weavers of Maheshwari, which is why the sari-weaving industry there is still well-known today,” said Kumbhojkar.
As the son of the last Maharaja, Yeshwant Rao Holkar II, much of Richard’s and his ex-wife Sally’s work since the 1970s has involved the revival of her Maheshwar palace, the Ahilya Fort, as a heritage hotel, and finding new markets for the handloom industry, which had slowly declined in the centuries following Ahilyabai’s death before coming to a standstill after the Indore princely state acceded to the dominion of India in 1950.
“Even after her death, she was responsible for the development of the region in so many ways,” said Kumbhojkar. “Ahilyabai accepted her situation and continued with her progressive policies — she was pious, but she was also a fiesty warrior who could strategise.”