Revamping of Kashi Vishwanath corridor or construction of Sri Rama’s temple at Ayodhya are in the focus today. However, a few centuries ago, not just these two temples but hundreds of other temples were renovated due to the single-handed devotion of one woman, Queen Rani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore, while the regions in which these temples are situated were under the rule of Muslim kings. It also raises the question, why were temples destroyed in the first place?
In 1293CE, Allauddin Khalji/Khilji raided Bhilsa and looted temples and public wealth. Bhilsa had numerous rich temples with idols of gold, silver, diamonds and other precious stones. The residents of Bhilsa concealed idols in the riverbed of Betwa to prevent the loot but he hauled the idols from river. Khilji moved to South when he heard about the riches of Devgiri under the rule of Ramadeva. After a few battles Ramadeva had to surrender and Khilji took away:
2400 kilos of gold
4000 kilos of silver
28 kilos of pearls
8 kilos of precious stones
With the looted wealth, Allauddin Khilji built an army to conquer Malwa region in 1305CE. Until Marathas strengthened themselves and defeated them, the invaders continued looting temples and public wealth.
Rise of Holkars:
After Marathas conquered Malwa region, Malhar Rao Holkar was appointed as an officer under the ruler Shahu I. He helped Marathas spread their kingdom to Northern states and was granted the estate of Indore in 1733 by Peshwas. Peshwas (Brahmins) gifted the kingdom to Holkars who were Dhangars (occupation of raising cattle), contrary to the narrative that upper castes suppressed so-called lower castes.
Malhar Rao’s son, Khanderao died at a young age in 1754 during the war of Kumher. Malhar Rao ruled Malwa region with the support of strong cabinet of ministers till 1766, and during this period, Malhar Rao trained his daughter-in-law Ahilyabai in military affairs and state administration. After his death, his daughter-in-law Ahilyabai Holkar became the queen in 1767. Ahilyabai was born on 31st May1725CE in the village of Chaundi, Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. Her father, Mankoji Sindhia (Shinde) was the Patil of that Village. She was married to Khanderao Holkar in 1733.
Sir John Malcolm, the Scottish historian who seized the province from Ahilyabai’s successors in 1818, devoted 21 pages praising Ahilyabai’s reign in his book “Memoir of Central India”. While doing research he said that “The more enquiry is pursued, the more admiration is excited.” He also mentioned “In the most sober view that can be taken, she was one of the purest and most exemplary rulers that ever existed”.
Ahilyabai Holkar is always known and admired for her contribution in restoring the temples and monuments which were destroyed by invaders. Ahilyabai not only developed big cities, but also smaller villages and constructed wells, tanks, canals to support irrigation. Her efforts and grants to renovate the temples and dharmic places were not just restricted to her kingdom, but are visible Pan-India. It was in her reign that 4 Jyothirlingas were restored – Kashi Vishwanath of Varanasi, Vaidyanath of Parli, Somanath of Gujarat, Grishneshwar of Ellora, Maharashtra. She renovated dozens of old temples including Gaya, Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Kanchi, Avanti, Dwaraka, Badrinarayan, Rameshwar and Jagannath Puri. The Ramachandra temple in Puri, Hanuman temple in Rameshwaram, Vishnupad Temple in Gaya, Bihar and the Sarayu Ghat in Ayodhya were all built with her contribution. Most of the ghats on the banks of Ganga in Varanasi were constructed during her reign. She facilitated the water delivery to more than 30 temples in the south from river Ganga. Ahilyabai wrote letters to Kings of different regions, seeking permission for reconstructing the demolished temples.
Ahilyabai Holkar personally handled the state affairs and administration. She sat in durbar daily to pay attention to complains and issues of her subjects, she was always accessible to her people. During her reign, the crime rate greatly dropped as she vigorously encouraged trade and farming, supporting business and agriculture.
Ahilyabai moved her administrative capital to Maheshwar, while Indore was the business capital. During her reign, Maheshwar became a center for music, arts and literature. She focused on developing industries especially textile industries, Maheshwar is the home for the world-famous Maheshwari sarees. Ahilyabai was also successful in managing the local tribes in her kingdom, and employed tribes to protect the travelling merchants. She had got her daughter married to Yashwantrao, a poor but brave man, who defeated a dacoit.
Ahilyabai was known as the `Philosopher queen’. She was reluctant to impose the death penalty. She held that all mortals are works of the almighty and it was not in human authority to commit violence upon his creation. However at the same time she was firm and exercised a strong control over her kingdom. She had a reliable and trustworthy team of ministers and administrators throughout her reign. Ahilyabai Holkar died in the year 1795 at the age of 70.
American historian Stewart Gordon writes that a definite proof of her ability as a ruler was that her territories in Malwa were not engaged in local battles during her reign, though there were wars all around in the country. According to Gordon, “Ahilyabai had one of the most stable reigns of the 18th century.”
Joanna Baillie writes about the queen in 1849 as:
“For thirty years her reign of peace,
The land in blessing did increase;
And she was blessed by every tongue,
By stern and gentle, old and young.
Yea, even the children at their mothers feet
Are taught such homely rhyming to repeat
“In latter days from Brahma came,
To rule our land, a noble Dame,
Kind was her heart,
and tright her frame,
And Ahlya was her honoured name.”