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Queen Devi Ahilyabhai Holkar

India has had many female rulers, warrior women and poet queens, but Ahilyabai Holkar commands more affection and respect for her accomplishments during her 30-year-long reign than any other does. She was noted for her piety, for her administrative ability, for her keen interest in all her people and for an extraordinary amount of building at holy sites all over the country. Her rule of Malwa in the 18th century is still cited as a model of benevolent and effective government.

Devi Ahilyabhai Holkar  

Ahilyabai was born in 1725 in the village of Chondi, in Bhid district, Maharashtra. Her father, Mankoji Shinde, was the patil of the village, a member of the proud Dhangar community. Women then did not go to school, but Ahilyabai’s father taught her to read and write. Her mother also seems to have been a well-read and pious woman.

Her entrance on to the stage of history was something of an accident: Malhar Rao Holkar, a commander in the service of the Peshwa Bajirao and lord of the Malwa territory, stopped in Chondi on his way to Pune and, according to legend, saw the eight-year-old Ahilyabai at the temple service in the village. Recognising her piety and her character, he brought the girl to the Holkar territory as a bride for his weak son, Khande Rao.

Ahilyabai’s husband was killed in battle in 1754. Twelve years later, her father-in-law, Malhar Rao died. From 1766 until her death in 1795, she ruled Malwa, trained in both administrative and military matters by Malhar Rao. A letter to her from Malhar Rao in 1765 illustrates the trust he had in her ability during the tempestuous battle for power in the 18th century:


        "Proceed to Gwalior after crossing the

        Chambal. You may halt there for four

        or five days. You should keep your big

        artillery and arrangeforits ammunition as

        much as possible... On the march you

        should arrange for military posts being

        located for protection of the road."

Already trained to be a ruler, Ahilyabai petitioned the Peshwa after Malhar’s death, and the death of her son, to take over the administration herself. Some in Malwa objected to her assumption of rule, but the army of Holkar was enthusiastic about her leadership. She had led them in person, with four bows and quivers of arrows fitted to the corners of the howdah of her favourite elephant. The Peshwa granted permission, and, with Tukoji Holkar (not a relative) as the head of military matters, she proceeded to rule Malwa in a most enlightened manner, even reinstating a Brahmin who had opposed her.

Ahilyabai never observed purdah but held daily public audience and was always accessible to anyone who needed her ear. The administrator and historian, Sir John Malcolm wrote most enthusiastically about her abilities some 40 years after her death:

        "Her first principle of government appears to have been moderate assessment,

        and an almost sacred respect for the native rights of village officers and proprietors of land.

        She heard every complaint in person; and although she continually referred cases to

        courts of equity and arbitration, and to her ministers for settlement, she was always accessible.

        So strong was her sense of duty on all points connected with the distribution of justice, that

        she is represented as not only patient but unwearied in the investigation of the most insignificant cases,

        when appeals were made to her decision."

A contemporary American historian, Stewart Gordon, adds that a definite proof of her ability as a ruler was that her territories in Malwa were not attacked or disrupted by local battles during her reign, in spite of wars all around. According to Gordon, "Ahilyabai had one of the most stable reigns of the 18th century." And Malcolm adds that she kept, almost to the man, the same set of ministers and administrators throughout her reign. Among Ahilyabai’s accomplishments was the development of Indore from a small village to a prosperous and beautiful city; her own capital, however, was in nearby Maheshwar, a town on the banks of the Narmada river. She also built forts and roads in Malwa, sponsored festivals and gave donations for regular worship in many Hindu temples. Outside Malwa, she built dozens of temples, ghats, wells, tanks and rest-houses across an area stretching from the Himalayas to pilgrimage centres in South India. The Bharatiya Sanskritikosh lists as sites she embellished, Kashi, Gaya, Somnath, Ayodhya, Mathura, Hardwar, Kanchi, Avanti, Dwarka, Badrinarayan, Rameshwar and Jaganathpuri. Ahilyabai also rejoiced when she saw bankers, merchants, farmers and cultivators rise to levels of affluence, but did not consider that she had any legitimate claim to any of that wealth, be it through taxes or feudal right. She must, in fact, have financed all her activities with the lawful gains obtained from a happy and prosperous land.

Devi Ahilyabhai HolkarThere are many stories of her care for her people. She helped widows retain their husbands’ wealth. She made sure that a widow was allowed to adopt a son; in fact, in one instance, when her minister refused to allow the adoption unless he was suitably bribed, she is said to have sponsored the child herself, and given him clothes and jewels as part of the ritual. To honour the memory of Ahilyabai Holkar, in 1996 leading citizens of Indore instituted an award in her name to be bestowed annually on an outstanding public figure. The then prime minister of India gave away the first award to Nanaji Deshmukh. The only time Ahilyabai seems not to have been able to settle a conflict peacefully and easily was in the case of the Bhils and Gonds, "plunderers" on her borders; but she granted them waste hilly lands and the right to a small duty on goods passing through their territories. Even in this case, according to Malcolm, she did give "considerate attention to their habits".

Ahilyabai’s capital at Maheshwar was the scene of literary, musical, artistic and industrial enterprise. She entertained the famous Marathi poet, Moropant and the shahir, Anantaphandi from Maharashtra, and also patronised the Sanskrit scholar, Khushali Ram. Craftsmen, sculptors and artists received salaries and honours at her capital, and she even established a textile industry in the city of Maheshwar.

One of her old retainers told Malcolm the facts of her daily life: She rose an hour before daybreak to say prayers. Then she had scriptures read to her, distributed alms and gave food to a number of Brahmins. Her breakfast, as indeed all her meals, was vegetarian. After breakfast, she prayed again, and then took a short rest. From two to six she was in her durbar; after religious exercises and a light meal, she again attended to business from nine to eleven. Her life was marked by prayer, abstinence and work, with religious fasts, festivals and public emergencies affording the only change in this routine. Her devotion was to Shiva, although she respected all religions. "Shri Shankara" appeared on all royal proclamations along with her signature.

In spite of all that is known about the warrior queen and all that she has left behind—timeless testimonies of her imagination and beneficence—she has not, in my opinion, been given the recognition that she rightfully deserves. Visitors to Varanasi know of the golden domed temple of Vishvanath, Lord of the World, in the heart of the city. Pilgrims headed for Pandharpur, a major sacred site in Maharashtra, go a little further along the same route to Mangalvadhe, to a place called Gopalpur, a large endowment for religious travellers. Both are part of Ahilyabai’s building and charitable legacy. It is said that she even repaired the road from Varanasi to Calcutta, as well as other routes to sites of pilgrimage.

Historians of the 19th and 20th centuries—Indian, English and American—agree that the reputation of Ahilyabai Holkar in Malwa and Maharashtra was then, and is, even now, that of a saint. Nothing has ever been discovered by any researcher to discredit that. She was truly a magnificent woman, an able ruler and a great queen.

It was the speciality of Holkar family that they did not use public funds to meet their personal and family expenses. They had their personal fund from their private property. Devi Ahilya inherited personal fund which at that time was estimated to be sixteen crores rupees. Ahilyabai used personal fund in charitable works.

List of Shiva temples built by Queen :

  • Alampur (MP) - Harihareshwar, Batuk, Malharimarthand, Surya, Renuka, Ram Hanuman Temples, Shriram Temple, Laxmi Narayan Temple, Maruti Temple, Narsinh Temple, Khanderao Martand Temple, Memorial of Malharrao (I).
  • Amarkanthak- Shri Vishweshwar Temple, Kotithirth Temple, Gomukhi Temple, Dharamshala, Vansh Kund.
  • Amba Gaon - Lamps for temple.
  • Anand Kanan - Vishweshwar Temple.
  • Ayodhya (U.P) - Built Shri Ram Temple, Shri Treta Ram Temple, Shri Bhairav Temple, Nageshwar/Siddhnath Temple, Sharayu Ghat, well, Swargadwari Mohatajkhana, Dharamshalas.
  • Badrinath Temple (UP) - Shri Kedareshwar and Hari Temples, Dharamshalas (Rangdachati, Bidarchati, Vyasganga, Tanganath, Pawali), Manu kunds (Gaurkund, Kundachatri), Garden and Warm Water Kund at Dev Prayag, Pastoral land for cows.
  • Beed - Jirnnodhar of a Ghat.
  • Belur (Karnataka) - Ganpati, Pandurang, Jaleshwar, Khandoba, Tirthraj and Fire temples, Kund.
  • Bhanpura - Nine Temples and Dharmashala.
  • Bharatpur - Temple, Dharmashala, Kund.
  • Bhimashankar - Garibkhana.
  • Bhusawal - Changadev Temple.
  • Bitthur - Bhramaghat.
  • Burhanpur (MP) - Raj Ghat, Ram Ghat, Kund.
  • Chandwad Waphegaon - Vishnu Temple and Renuka Temple.
  • Chaundi - Chaudeshwaridevi Temple, Sineshwar Mahadev temple,.
  • Ahilyeshwar Temple, Dharamshala, Ghat,.
  • Chitrakoot - Pranpratishta of Shri Ramchandra.
  • Cikhalda - Annakshetra.
  • Dwarka(Gujrath) - Mohatajkhana, Pooja House and gave some villages to priest.
  • Ellora -Grishneshwar Temple of Red Stone.
  • Gangotri - Vishwanath, Kedarnath, Annapurna, Bhairav Temples, many Dharmashalas.
  • Gaya (Bihar) - Vishnupad Temple.
  • Gokarn - Rewaleshwar Mahadev temple, Holkar wada, Garden and Garibkhana.
  • Gruneshwar (Verul) - Shivalaya Tirth.
  • Handiya - Siddhanath Temple, ghat and dharmashala.
  • Haridwar (Uttarakhand) - Kushawarth Ghat and a Huge Dharmashala.
  • Hrishikesh - Many temples, Shrinathji and Govardhan ram temples.
  • Indore - Many Temples and ghats.
  • Jagannath Puri (Orrisa) - Shri Ramchandra Temple, Dharmashala and Garden.
  • Jalgaon - Ram Mandir.
  • Jamghat - Bhumi dwar.
  • Jamvgaon - Donated for Ramdas swami Math.
  • Jejuri - Malhargautameshwar, Vitthal, Martand Temple, Janai Mahadev and Malhar lakes.
  • Karmanasini River - Bridge.
  • Kashi (Benaras) - Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Shri Tarakeshwar, Shri Gangaji, Ahilya Dwarkeshwar, Gautameshwar, Many Mahadev Temples, Temple Ghats, Manikarnika Ghat, Dashaaswamegh Ghat, Janana Ghat, Ahilya Ghat, UttarKashi Dharmashala, Rameshwar Panchkoshi Dharmashala, Kapila Dhara Dharmashala, Shitala Ghat.
  • Kedarnath - Dharmashala and Kund.
  • Kolhapur - Facilities for temple pooja.
  • Kumher - Well and Memorial of Prince Khanderao.
  • Kurukshetra (Haryana) - Shiv Shantanu Mahadev Temple, Panchkund Ghat, Laxmikund Ghat.
  • Maheshwar - Hundreds of temples, ghats, dharmashalas and houses.
  • Mamaleshwar Mahadev Himachal Pradesh - Lamps.
  • Manasa Devi - Seven temples.
  • Mandaleshwar - Shiv Temple Ghat.
  • Datta Mandir (Mangaon) - Datta Mandir, Near Sawantwadi, Konkan, Maharashtra, India.
  • Miri (Ahmednagar) - Bhairav Temple in 1780.
  • Naimabar(MP) - Temple.
  • Nandurbar - Temple, Well.
  • Nathdwara - Ahilya Kund, Temple, Well.
  • Neelkantha Mahadev - Shivalaya and Gomukh.
  • Nemisharanya(UP) - Mahadev Madi, Nimsar Dharmashala, Go-ghat, Cakrithirth kund.
  • Nimgaon (Nashik) - Well.
  • Omkareshwar (MP) - Mamaleshwar Mahadev, Amaleshwar, Trambakeshwar Temples (Jirnnodhar), Gauri Somnath Temple, Dharmashalas, Wells.
  • Ozar (Ahmednagar) - 2 wells and kund.
  • Panchawati, Nasik - Shri Ram Temple, Gora Mahadev temple, Dharmashala, Vishweshwar Temple, Ramghat, Dharmashala.
  • Parli Vaijnath, Parli Vaijnath - Shri Vaidyanath Mandir.
  • Pandharpur (Maharashtra) - Shri Ram Temple, Tulsibag, Holkar wada, Sabha Mandap, Dharmashala and gave silver utensil for the temple,Well-Which known by Bagirao well.
  • Pimplas(Nashik) - well.
  • Prayag (Allahabad UP) - Vishnu Temple, Dharmashala, Garden, Ghat, Palace.
  • Pune - Ghat.
  • Puntambe (Maharashtra) - Ghat on Godavari river.
  • Pushkar - Ganpati Temple, Dharmashala, Garden.
  • Rameshwar (TN) - Hanuman Temple, Shri Radha Krishna Temple, Dharmashala, Well, Garden etc.
  • Rampura - Four Temples, Dharmashala and houses.
  • Raver - Keshav Kund.
  • Sakargaon - well.
  • Sambhal - Laxmi Narayan Temple and two wells.
  • Sangamner - Ram Temple.
  • Saptashrungi - Dharmashala.
  • Sardhana Meerut - Chandi Devi Temple.
  • Saurashtra (Guj) - Somnath Temple in 1785. (Jirnnodhdhar and Pran Prathistha).
  • Siddhivinayak temple's inner sanctum at Siddhatek in Ahmednagar District.
  • Shri Nagnath (Darukhvan) - Started pooja in 1784.
  • Srisailam Mallikarjun (Kurnool, AP) - Temple of Lord Shiva.
  • Shri Shambhu Mahadev Mountain Shingnapur (Maharashtra) - Well.
  • Shri Vaijenath (Parali, Maha) - Jirnnodhar of Baijenath Temple in 1784.
  • Shri Vhigneshwar - Lamps.
  • Sinhpur - Shiv Temple and ghat.
  • Sulpeshwar - Mahadev Temple, annakshetra.
  • Sultanpur (Khandesh) - Temple.
  • Tarana - Tilabhandeshwar Shiv temple, Khedapati, Shriram Temple, Mahakali Temple.
  • Tehari (Bundelkhand) - Dharmashala.
  • Trimbakeshwar (Nashik) - Bridge on Kushawarth Ghat.
  • Ujjain (MP) - Chintaman Ganapati, Janardhan, Shrilila urushottam, Balaji Tilakeshwar, Ramjanaki Ras Mandal, Gopal, Chitnis, Balaji, Ankpal, Shiv and many other temples, 13 ghats, well and many Dharmashalas etc.
  • Varanasi, Kashi Vishwanath Temple 1780.
  • Vrindavan (Mathura) - Chain Bihari Temple, Kaliyadeha Ghat, Chirghat and many other ghats, Dharmashala, Annakstra.
  • Waphegaon (Nashik) - Holkar wada and one well.

See Also:
1. chembiyan mAdEviyAr
2. kaNTarAdhiththa chozar
3. piRkAlac cOzar varalARu - sadAshivap paNDAraththar 
4. karuvUrth thEvar 
5. nambiyANDAr nambi 
6. thirumuRai kaNDa purANam 
7. sambandhar 
8. appar 
9. sundharar 
10. mANikka vAcakar 
11. periyapurANam 
12. thirunIlakaNTa yAzppANar 


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