Jhansi – Dec 14, 1835 : A Testimony

It’s a window into those times about 200 years ago, generations before Rani Laxmibai entered the royal house of Jansi. Captain Sleeman, discharging magisterial duties, traveled to Jhansi and met the “Chiefs of Jhānsī” in the matter regarding succession dispute that then prevailed. As it obtains from his testimony, the State was blighted since the times of Raghunath Rao I at the turn of century before. The British Indian official records in his memoirs :

RAMBLES AND RECOLLECTIONS OF AN INDIAN OFFICIAL
On the 14th Dec 1835, we came on fourteen miles to Jhānsī. About five miles from our last ground, we crossed the Baitantī river over a bed of syenite. At this river we mounted our elephant to cross, as the water was waist-deep at the ford. My wife returned to her palankeen as soon as we had crossed, but our little boy came on with me on the elephant, to meet the grand procession which I knew was approaching to greet us from the city. The Rājā of Jhānsī, Rām Chandar Rāo, died a few months ago, leaving a young widow and a mother, but no child.

He was a young man of about twenty-eight years of age, timid, but of good capacity, and most amiable disposition. My duties brought us much into communication; and, though we never met, we had conceived a mutual esteem for each other. He had been long suffering from an affection of the liver, and had latterly persuaded himself that his mother was practising upon his life, with a view to secure the government to the eldest son of her daughter, which would, she thought, ensure the real power to her for life. That she wished him dead with this view, I had no doubt; for she had ruled the state for several years up to 1831, during what she was pleased to consider his minority; and she surrendered the power into his hands with great reluctance, since it enabled her to employ her paramour as minister, and enjoy his society as much as she pleased, under the pretence of holding privy councils upon affairs of great public interest.

He – the dead Raja – used to communicate his fears to me; and I was not without apprehension that his mother might some day attempt to hasten his death by poison. About a month before his death he wrote to me to say that spears had been found stuck in the ground, under the water where he was accustomed to swim, with their sharp points upwards; and, had he not, contrary to his usual practice, walked into the water, and struck his foot against one of them, he must have been killed. This was, no doubt, a thing got up by some designing person who wanted to ingratiate himself with the young man; for the mother was too shrewd a woman ever to attempt her son’s life by such awkward means. About four months before I reached the capital, this amiable young prince died, leaving two paternal uncles, a mother, a widow, and one sister, the wife of one of our Sāgar pensioners, Morīsar Rāo.

The mother claimed the inheritance for her grandson by this daughter, a very handsome young lad, then at Jhānsī, on the pretence that her son had adopted him on his death-bed. She had his head shaved, and made him go through all the other ceremonies of mourning, as for the death of his real father. The eldest of his uncles, Raghunāth Rāo (II), claimed the inheritance as the next heir; and all his party turned the young lad out of caste as a Brahman, for daring to go into mourning for a father who was yet alive; one of the greatest of crimes, according to Hindoo law, for they would not admit that he had been adopted by the deceased prince.

The question of inheritance had been referred for decision to the Supreme Government through the prescribed channel when I arrived, and the decision was every day expected. The mother, with her daughter and grandson, and the widow, occupied the castle, situated on a high hill overlooking the city; while the two uncles of the deceased occupied their private dwellings in the city below. Raghunāth Rāo, the eldest, headed the procession that came out to meet me about three miles, mounted upon a fine female elephant, with his younger brother by his side. The minister, Nārū Gopāl, followed, mounted upon another, on the part of the mother and widow. Some of the Rājā’s relations were upon two of the finest male elephants I have ever seen; and some of their friends, with the ‘Bakshī’, or paymaster (always an important personage), upon two others.

Raghunāth Rāo’s elephant drew up on the right of mine, and that of the minister on the left; and, after the usual compliments had passed between us, all the others fell back, and formed a line in our rear. They had about fifty troopers mounted upon very fine horses in excellent condition, which curvetted before and on both sides of us; together with a good many men on camels, and some four or five hundred foot attendants, all well dressed, but in various costumes. The elephants were so close to each other that the conversation, which we managed to keep up tolerably well, was general almost all the way to our tents; every man taking a part as he found the opportunity of a pause to introduce his little compliment to the Honourable Company or to myself, which I did my best to answer or divert. I was glad to see the affectionate respect with which the old man (Raghunath Rao) was everywhere received, for I had in my own mind no doubt whatever that the decision of the Supreme Government would be in his favour. The whole cortège escorted me through the town to my tent, which was pitched on the other side; and then they took their leave, still seated on their elephants, while I sat on mine, with my boy on my knee, till all had made their bow and departed.

*

In the afternoon, when my second large tent had been pitched, the minister came to pay me a visit with a large train of followers, but with little display; and I found him a very sensible, mild, and gentlemanly man, just as I expected from the high character he bears with both parties, and with the people of the country generally. Any unreserved conversation here in such a crowd was, of course, out of the question, and I told the minister that it was my intention early next morning to visit the tomb of his late master; where I should be very glad to meet him, if he could make it convenient to come without any ceremony. He seemed much pleased with the proposal, and next morning we met a little before sunrise within the railing that encloses the tomb or cenotaph; and there had a good deal of quiet and, I believe, unreserved talk about the affairs of the Jhānsī state, and the family of the late prince. He told me that, a few hours before the Rājā’s death, his mother had placed in his arms for adoption the son of his sister, a very handsome lad of ten years of age—but whether the Rājā was or was not sensible at the time he could not say, for he never after heard him speak; that the mother of the deceased considered the adoption as complete, and made her grandson go through the funeral ceremonies as at the death of his father, which for nine days were performed unmolested; but, when it came to the tenth and last—which, had it passed quietly, would have been considered as completing the title of adoption—Raghunāth Rāo and his friends interposed, and prevented further proceedings, declaring that, while there were so many male heirs, no son could be adopted for the deceased prince according to the usages of the family.

The widow of the Rājā, a timid, amiable young woman, of twenty-five years of age, was by no means anxious for this adoption, having shared the suspicions of her husband regarding the practices of his mother; and found his sister, who now resided with them in the castle, a most violent and overbearing woman, who would be likely to exclude her from all share in the administration, and make her life very miserable, were her son to be declared the Rājā. Her wish was to be allowed to adopt, in the name of her deceased husband, a young cousin of his, Sadāsheo, the son of Nānā Bhāo. Gangādhar, the younger brother of Raghunāth Rāo, was exceedingly anxious to have his elder brother declared Rājā, because he had no sons, and from the debilitated state of his frame, must soon die, and leave the principality to him. Every one of the three parties had sent agents to the Governor-General’s representative in Bundēlkhand to urge their claim; and, till the final decision, the widow of the late chief was to be considered the sovereign.

The minister told me that there was one unanswerable argument against Raghunāth Rāo’s succeeding, which, out of regard to his feelings, he had not yet urged, and about which he wished to consult me as a friend of the late prince and his widow; this was, that he was a leper, and that the signs of the disease were becoming every day more and more manifest. I told him that I had observed them in his face, but was not aware that any one else had noticed them. I urged him, however, not to advance this as a ground of exclusion, since they all knew him to be a very worthy man, while his younger brother was said to be the reverse; and more especially I thought it would be very cruel and unwise to distress and exasperate him by so doing, as I had no doubt that, before this ground could be brought to their notice, Government would declare in his favour, right being so clearly on his side.

After an agreeable conversation with this sensible and excellent man, I returned to my tents to prepare for the reception of Raghunāth Rāo and his party. They came about nine o’clock with a much greater display of elephants and followers than the minister had brought with him. He and his friends kept me in close conversation till eleven o’clock, in spite of my wife’s many considerate messages to say breakfast was waiting. He told me that the mother of the late Rājā, his nephew, was a very violent woman, who had involved the state in much trouble during the period of her regency, which she managed to prolong till her son was twenty-five years of age, and resigned with infinite reluctance only three years ago; that her minister during her regency, Gangadhar Mūlī, was at the same time her paramour, and would be surely restored to power and to her embraces, were her grandson’s claim to the succession recognized; that it was with great difficulty he had been able to keep this atrocious character under surveillance pending the consideration of their claims by the Supreme Government; that, by having the head of her grandson shaved, and making him go through all the other funeral ceremonies with the other members of the family, she had involved him and his young innocent wife (who had unhappily continued to drink out of the same cup with her husband) in the dreadful crime of mourning for a father whom they knew to be yet alive, a crime that must be expiated by the ‘prāyaschit,’ which would be exacted from the young couple on their return to Sāgar before they could be restored to caste, from which they were now considered as excommunicated. As for the young widow, she was everything they could wish; but she was so timid that she would be governed by the old lady, if she should have any ostensible part assigned her in the administration.

I told the old gentleman that I believed it would be my duty to pay the first visit to the widow and mother of the late prince, as one of pure condolence, and that I hoped my doing so would not be considered any mark of disrespect towards him, who must now be looked up to as the head of the family. He remonstrated against this most earnestly; and, at last, tears came into his eyes as he told me that, if I paid the first visit to the castle, he should never again be able to show his face outside his door, so great would be the indignity he would be considered to have suffered; but, rather than I should do this, he would come to my tents, and escort me himself to the castle. Much was to be said on both sides of the weighty question; but, at last, I thought that the arguments were in his favour—that, if I went to the castle first, he might possibly resent it upon the poor woman and the prime minister when he came into power, as I had no doubt he soon would—and that I might be consulting their interest as much as his feelings by going to his house first.

In the evening I received a message from the old lady, urging the necessity of my paying the first visit of condolence for the death of my young friend to the widow and mother. ‘The rights of mothers’, said she, ‘are respected in all countries; and, in India, the first visit of condolence for the death of a man is always due to the mother, if alive.’ I told the messenger that my resolution was unaltered, and would, I trusted, be found the best for all parties under present circumstances. I told him that I dreaded the resentment towards them of Raghunāth Rāo, if he came into power. ‘Never mind that,’ said he: ‘my mistress is of too proud a spirit to dread resentment from any one—pay her the compliment of the first visit, and let her enemies do their worst.’ I told him that I could leave Jhānsī without visiting either of them, but could not go first to the castle; and he said that my departing thus would please the old lady better than the second visit.

With the best cortège I could muster, I went to Raghunāth Rāo’s, where I was received with a salute from some large guns in his courtyard, and entertained with a party of dancing girls and musicians in the usual manner. Attar of roses and ‘pān’ were given, and valuable shawls put before me, and refused in the politest terms I could think of; such as, ‘Pray do me the favour to keep these things for me till I have the happiness of visiting Jhānsī again, as I am going through Gwālior, where nothing valuable is a moment safe from thieves’. After sitting an hour, I mounted my elephant, and proceeded up to the castle, where I was received with another salute from the bastions. I sat for half an hour in the hall of audience with the minister and all the principal men of the court, as Raghunāth Rāo was to be considered as a private gentleman till the decision of the Supreme Government should be made known; and the handsome lad, Krishan Rāo, whom the old woman wished to adopt, and whom I had often seen at Sāgar, was at my request brought in and seated by my side. By him I sent my message of condolence to the widow and mother of his deceased uncle, couched in the usual terms—that the happy effects of good government in the prosperity of this city, and the comfort and happiness of the people, had extended the fame of the family all over India; and that I trusted the reigning member of that family, whoever he might be, would be sensible that it was his duty to sustain that reputation by imitating the example of those who had gone before him. After attar of roses and pān had been handed round in the usual manner, I went to the summit of the highest tower in the castle, which commands an extensive view of the country around.

*

The castle stands upon the summit of a small hill of syenitic rock. The elevation of the outer wall is about one hundred feet above the level of the plain, and the top of the tower on which I stood about one hundred feet more, as the buildings rise gradually from the sides to the summit of the hill. The city extends out into the plain to the east from the foot of the hill on which the castle stands. Around the city there is a good deal of land, irrigated from four or five tanks in the neighbourhood, and now under rich wheat crops; and the gardens are very numerous, and abound in all the fruit and vegetables that the people most like. Oranges are very abundant and very fine, and our tents have been actually buried in them and all the other fruits and vegetables which the kind people of Jhānsī have poured in upon us. The city of Jhānsī contains about sixty thousand inhabitants, and is celebrated for its manufacture of carpets. There are some very beautiful temples in the city, all built by Gosāins, one of the priests of Siva who here engage in trade, and accumulate much wealth. The family of the chief do not build tombs; and that now raised over the place where the late prince was buried is dedicated as a temple to Siva, and was made merely with a view to secure the place from all danger of profanation.

The face of the country beyond the influence of the tanks is neither rich nor interesting. The cultivation seemed scanty and the population thin, owing to the irremediable sterility of soil, from the poverty of the primitive rock from whose detritus it is chiefly formed. Raghunāth Rāo told me that the wish of the people in the castle to adopt a child as the successor to his nephew arose from the desire to escape the scrutiny into the past accounts of disbursements which he might be likely to order. I told him that I had myself no doubt that he would be declared the Rājā, and urged him to turn all his thoughts to the future, and to allow no inquiries to be made into the past, with a view to gratify either his own resentment, or that of others; that the Rajas of Jhānsī had hitherto been served by the most respectable, able, and honourable men in the country, while the other chiefs of Bundēlkhand could get no man of this class to do their work for them.

Jhansi’s was the only court in Bundēlkhand in which such (competent) men could be seen, simply because it was the only one in which they could feel themselves secure—while other chiefs confiscated the property of ministers who had served them with fidelity, on the pretence of embezzlement; the wealth thus acquired, however, soon disappearing, and its possessors being obliged either to conceal it or go out of the country to enjoy it. Such rulers thus found their courts and capitals deprived of all those men of wealth and respectability who adorned the courts of princes in other countries, and embellished, not merely their capitals, but the face of their dominions in general with their chateaus and other works of ornament and utility. Much more of this sort passed between us, and seemed to make an impression upon him; for he promised to do all that I had recommended to him. Poor man! he can have but a short and miserable existence, for that dreadful disease, the leprosy, is making sad inroads in his System already. His uncle, Raghunāth Rāo (I), was afflicted with it; and, having understood from the priests that by drowning himself in the Ganges (taking the ‘samādh’), he should remove all traces of it from his family, he went to Benares, and there drowned himself, some twenty years ago. He had no children, and is said to have been the first of his family in whom the disease showed itself.

Notes

Since the opening of this railway and the restoration of the Gwālior fort to Sindhia in 1886, the importance of Jhānsī, both civil and military, has much increased. The native town was given up by Sindhia in exchange for the Gwālior stronghold.

The departed chief was Rājā Rāo Rāmchand. He died on August 20, 1835. His administration had been weak, and his finances were left in great disorder. Under his successor the disorder of the administration became still greater.

An adopted son passes completely out of the family of his natural, into that of his adoptive, father, all his rights and duties as a son being at the same time transferred. In this case, the adoption had not really taken place, and the lad’s duty to his living natural father remained unaffected.

The ‘prāyaschit’ is an expiating atonement by which the person humbles himself in public. It is often imposed for crimes committed in a former birth, as indicated by inflictions suffered in this. Leprosy and childlessness are among the afflictions supposed to prove the sinfulness of the sufferer in some former birth, perhaps thousands of years ago.

The poor young widow died of grief some months after my visit; her spirits never rallied after the death of her husband, and she never ceased to regret that she had not burned herself with his remains. The people of Jhānsī generally believe that the prince’s mother brought about his death by (dīnāī) slow poison, and I am afraid that that was the impression on the mind of the poor widow.

Considering the fact that, ’till the final decision, the widow of the late chief was to be considered the sovereign’, it would be difficult to justify the author’s decision to call upon the ‘uncle’ first. The reigning sovereign was clearly entitled to the first visit. Questions of precedence, salutes, and etiquette are as the very breath of their nostrils to the Indian nobility.

The estimate of the population was probably excessive. The population in 1891, including the cantonments, was 53,779, and 70,208 in 1911. The fort of Gwālior and the cantonment of Morār were surrendered by the Government of India to Sindhia in exchange for the fort and town of Jhānsī on March 10, 1886. Sindhia also relinquished fifty-eight villages in exchange for thirty given up by the Government of India, the difference in value being adjusted by cash payments. The arrangements were finally sanctioned by Lord Dufferin on June 13, 1888.

The custom of burial is not peculiar to the Saiva Gosāins of Jhānsī. It is the ordinary practice of Gosāins throughout India. Many of the Gosāins are devoted to the worship of Vishnu. Burial of the dead is practised by a considerable number of the Hindoo castes of the artisan grade, and by some divisions of the sweeper caste. See Crooke, ‘Primitive Rites of Disposal of the Dead’ (J. Anthrop. Institute, vol. xxix, N.S., vol. ii (1900), pp. 271-92).

This chief, Raghunath Rao II, died of leprosy in May, 1838.

Raghunāth Rāo I was the first of his family invested by the Peshwā with the government of the Jhānsī territory, which he had acquired from the Bundēlkhand chiefs. He went to Benares in 1795 to drown himself, leaving his government to his third brother, Sheorām Bhāo, as his next brother, Lachchhman Rāo, was dead, and his sons were considered incapable. Sheorām Bhāo died in 1815, and his eldest son, Krishan Rāo, had died four years before him, in 1811, leaving one son, the late Rājā, and two daughters. This was a noble sacrifice to what he had been taught by his spiritual teachers to consider as a duty towards his family; and we must admire the man while we condemn the religion and the priests.

There is no country in the world where parents are more reverenced than in India, or where they more readily make sacrifices of all sorts for their children, or for those they consider as such. We succeeded in [June] 1817 to all the rights of the Peshwā in Bundēlkhand, and, with great generosity, converted the viceroys of Jhānsī and Jālaun into independent sovereigns of hereditary principalities, yielding each ten lakhs of rupees. The statement in the note that Raghunāth Rāo I ‘went to Benares in 1795 to drown himself’ is inconsistent with the statement in the text that this event happened ‘some twenty years ago’. The word ‘twenty’ is evidently a mistake for ‘forty’.

The N. W. P. Gazetteer, 1st ed., names several persons who governed Jhānsī on behalf of the Peshwā between 1742 and 1770, in which latter year Raghunāth Rāo I received charge. According to the same authority, Sheo (Shio) Rām Bhāo is called ‘Sheo Bhāo Hari, better known as Sheo Rāo Bhāo’, and is said to have succeeded Raghunāth Rāo I in 1794, and to have died in 1814, not 1816.

A few words may here be added to complete the history. The leper Raghunāth Rāo II, whose claim the author strangely favoured, was declared Rājā, and died, as already noted, in May, 1838, ‘his brief period of rule being rendered unquiet by the opposition made to him, professedly on the ground of his being a leper’. His revenues fell from twelve lākhs (£120,000) to three lākhs of rupees (£30,000) a year.

On his death in 1838, the succession was again contested by four claimants. Pending inquiry into the merits of their claims, the Governor-General’s Agent assumed the administration. Ultimately, Gangādhar Rāo, younger brother of the leper, was appointed Rājā. The disorder in the state rendered administration by British officers necessary as a temporary measure, and Gangādhar Rāo did not obtain power until 1842.

His rule was, on the whole, good. He died childless in November, 1853, and Lord Dalhousie, applying the doctrine of lapse, annexed the estate in 1854, granting a pension of five thousand rupees, or about five hundred pounds, monthly to Lacchhmī Bāī, Gangādhar Rāo’s widow, who also succeeded to personal property worth about one hundred thousand pounds. She resented the refusal of permission to adopt a son, and the consequent annexation of the state, and was further deeply offended by several acts of the English Administration, above all by the permission of cow-slaughter. Accordingly, when the Mutiny broke out, she quickly joined the rebels.

On the 7th and 8th June, 1857, all the Europeans in Jhānsī, men, women, and children, to the number of about seventy persons, were cruelly murdered by her orders, or with her sanction. On the 9th June her authority was proclaimed. In the prolonged fighting which ensued, she placed herself at the head of her troops, whom she led with great gallantry. In June, 1858, after a year’s bloodstained reign, she was killed in battle.

By November, 1858, the country was pacified.

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