India to 1857, Women Warriors in (Combatants/Military Personnel)

Dramatic role of women warriors in Indian history. When Alexander the Great moved on India in 326 B.C., he was challenged at the Battle of Hydaspes by King Porus. One of Porus’s commanders was reputedly a woman, Masaga. Masaga was not the first woman warrior from the subcontinent celebrated in Indian tradition and legend. Two centuries earlier, Nayanika was the queen and military leader of the Sa-tavahana Empire located in the south central portion of today’s India. The practice of women serving as warriors was strong and persistent in the south. The Nayars of Malabar consistently maintained a small force of women fighters. Sugala of Sri Lanka is remembered as "Sugala the rebel queen fearless" Jones 1997, 42). In 1240, Raziyya, the female ruler of Delhi, was killed in battle. Queen Karnavatti of Chitor, at the end of a long defensive effort, is said to have had a great fire set. She "exhorted her maidens and the wives and daughters of the citizens to be of good cheer, for it was better to die by the hands of their brethren than to become the slaves and mistresses of their enemies" (Pool 1954, 73—74). Attired in her armor, she walked into the fire to avoid capitulation and capture. Her example was then voluntarily followed by her female officers and 13,000 females from the besieged city (Pool 1954, 73). Karnavatti thus imitated Princess Korumdevi of Aureent, who, upon the death of her beloved husband in single combat, severed her right arm bearing her marriage jewels and sent it to her father-in-law, before immolating herself on a funeral pyre.


Queen Durgautti (Durgawati) of Gurrah (Gondwana) in Hindustan was a remarkable military figure. She successfully led 1,500 war elephants and 6,000 horsemen against Asaf Khan, a Mogul. In a 1564 rematch, Asaf Khan added artillery to his retinue. When Durgautti’s son was killed, her forces wavered. Durgautti, enraged, charged forward on her war elephant. Her valor rallied her forces against the Muslims, but she was reputedly struck in the eye by an arrow. She broke off the staff and continued her attack until she was struck by another arrow. Unwilling to be taken alive by the enemy, Dur-gautti ordered her driver to kill her. He was unwilling to kill his commander, so she took a dagger and killed herself. In the early seventeenth century, Durgautti’s valor was replicated in Queen Nur Jehan, who went into battle against Mohabat Khan. Recklessly charging the enemy on the back of her war elephant, she poured down arrows with deadly effect. The battle, however, was lost when her driver was killed and her wounded elephant bolted.

Postindependence India celebrated a number of Indian women warriors who fought against the British in the nineteenth century. Kittur Rani Chennamma (1778—1829) fought the British, who had rejected her choice of an adopted son as successor in Belgaum in Kar-nataka. She fought but was defeated and died a prisoner in Bailhongal Fort. Lakshmi Bai, rani of Jhansi (1834-1858), after the death of her only son, also wished to have an adopted son succeed to the throne. The British, who wished to annex Jhansi to the British-controlled Raj, objected. Lakshmi Bai fought courageously but was killed in battle on June 18, 1858. Rani Avantibai fought the British when they refused to allow her to succeed her husband as the ruler of Ram-garh. In the midst of a battle on March 20, 1858, when the defeat of her forces seemed inevitable, she killed herself with her sword.


Hazrat Mahal, the Muslim regent of Oudh, was a formidable opponent of the British. For a year in 1857, the army she led prevented the British from taking the city of Lucknow. A contemporary British reporter, W. H. Russell, offered his assessment of her, which can be generalized into a broader view of Asian women who resisted the European imperialists. He wrote that Hazrat Mahal was "one of those tigress women, more virile than their husbands, who when finding themselves in a position to gratify their lust for power, have played a considerable part in Oriental history" (Salmonson 1991, 5).

Rani of Jhansi, Lakshimi Bai, who opposed the British and was killed in battle in 1858. Watercolor from Kalighat, India.

Rani of Jhansi, Lakshimi Bai, who opposed the British and was killed in battle in 1858. Watercolor from Kalighat, India.

During the early eighteenth century, women of the Maratha caste fought enthusiastically against the Mogul Aurangzeb and then the British. Tarabai confounded the efforts of both Aurangzeb and a usurper who was sent by Au-rangzeb’s successor Azim Shag to undermine her rule. A contemporary who observed Tarabai in battle recounted, "Tara Bae did wonders that day, and was admired by all beholders, and men found it difficult to believe that the strong arm which sent them reeling from the saddle was that of a lady" (Pool 1954, 147).

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