Maha Shivratri and the Legacy of Ahilyabai Holkar

Hindus all around the world observe the night of Maha Shivratri today on the 1st of March 2022. Maha Shivratri (“The Great Night of Shiva”) is celebrated every year on Chaturdashi Tithi during Krishna Paksha in the month of Magha according to the South Indian calendar, or on 13/14 night of Krishna Paksha in Phalguna of the North Indian Hindu calendar. It is said to be the day Lord Shiva performs his heavenly dance (“Tandav“) of creation, preservation, and destruction. According to other legends, it is also the night Lord Shiva married Mata Parvati. So it is considered to be the night of union of Shiva and Shakti – the embodiment of love, power, and oneness. Devotees worship and pray to Lord Shiva, perform all-day fasting, and maintain an all-night vigil on this day. Some visit Shiva temples or go on pilgrimage to Jyotirlingams, the holiest of Shiva temples.

The Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh is one of the sites of the 12 Jyotirlingams across India. This holy temple is one of the most important places of worship in the Hindu religion, with Vishveshvara or Vishvanath, the Jyotirlinga of Shiva residing inside the temple. The history of this sacred place of worship, however, is one of a cycle of destruction and plunder and re-construction. The original temple was destructed at the hands of Qutb al-Din Aibak in 1194 CE, re-constructed in 1230, and then again destroyed by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1669 CE, building the Gyanvapi mosque in its place. It was a great and virtuous queen by the name of Ahilyabai Holkar who re-built the present-day Kashi Vishwanath temple beside the mosque. The story of this little-known noble queen is truly magnificent.

Ahilyabai was born on 31 May 1725 to Mankoji Rao Shinde, the Patil or Chief of Chondi village, Ahmednagar in present-day Maharashtra. Ahilyabai was not born into royal lineage but was married to Khanderao Holkar, after the Lord of the Malwa territory, Malhar Rao Holkar, became impressed by the young girl’s reverence and strong character. She became a widow at 29 when her husband died in the battle of Kumbher in 1754. It was her father-in-law, Malhar Rao Holkar, who prevented Ahilyabai from committing Sati after her husband’s death. Tragedy struck Ahilyabai again when her father-in-law, who was her greatest pillar of support passed away in 1766. This led to Ahilyabai’s only son Male Rao Holkar ascending the throne under her regency. He also died a few months later in 1767 which resulted in Ahilyabai becoming the ruler of Indore on 11 December 1767, despite some objections from the kingdom. She proved all those who opposed her wrong when she protected her kingdom from invaders who wanted to plunder Malwa, barely a year into her rule. She was a learned politician, cautioning the Maratha Peshawa against the British in a letter in 1772, comparing the British embrace to a bear-hug.

Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar Source: thebetterindia.com

During her 30-year rule, she transformed Indore from a tiny village to a prosperous city. She constructed numerous forts and roads in Malwa, sponsored festivals, and donated to many Hindu temples. She built dozens of temples, ghats, wells, tanks, and rest-houses stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the pilgrimage centers in the south. It was in 1780 that Ahilyabai re-constructed the present-day Kashi Vishwanath Temple adjacent to the mosque. The noble queen also beautified various holy sites including Gaya, Somnath, Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Kanchi, Avanti, Dwarka, Badrinarayan, Rameshwar, and Jaganathpuri as recorded by the Bharatiya Sanskritikosh.

Maheshwar, her capital was a center of literary, artistic, musical, and industrial achievement. She established a textile industry in the city and gained supporters like the Marathi poet Moropant, Shahir Anantaphandi, and Sanskrit scholar, Khushali Ram. Historians write of her kind rule, encouraging all within her realm and her kingdom to do their best.

She was 70 when she died in 1795 and was succeeded by her commander-in-chief and nephew, Tukoji Rao Holkar. As a tribute to her, Indore international airport has been named Devi Ahilyabai Holkar Airport. Similarly, Indore university has been renamed Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya. A commemorative stamp was also issued in her honor in 1996. On 13 December 2021, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project in Varanasi, restoring an array of temples to their past glory. On this day, let us remember the great queen of Malwa and her invaluable contribution to our nation. The legacy of the great queen of Malwa lives on.