The period is the 18th century, the era of the ‘Warriors’ as is described in today’s India and erstwhile Bharat. Warrior communities across India were fighting the Mughals for sovereignty. One such clan of warriors, advancing ahead like a desert storm, are the Marathas. They are sweeping across a divided country in an attempt to unify the kingdoms under one rule, a dream that many defined as insurmountable.
The Marathas, a fiercely brave warrior clan stand guard the Deccan like the parapets of a fort. They are drenched in valour, courage and immense love for the homeland from the time they take the first breath. The Marathas pose a major hindrance to the Mughal dream of expanding their empire. They stand on vigil of the Deccan.
My story takes form in Satara, a beautiful and strategic town of the magnanimous Maratha Empire. Nestled in a valley, Satara derives its name from the seven forts that surround the town on different hilltops. These forts signify the dominance of the Maratha Empire. No wonder, this town is the seat of the “Chhatrapati” of the empire.
Sampadda, translates as wealth in English. True to her name, she is the wealth and treasure of her parents, Shrimant Amrakar Bhau and Meera Bai, having ended the long wait for a child. Shrimant Amrakar is the treasurer in the Chhatrapati’s court. The luxuries bestowed on him by life and destiny were incomplete without the innocent laughter of a child reverberating through their lives. However true to her name she brought wealth in varied forms to the household. Happiness that was bountiful, similar to the happiness that engulfs the dark and fatigued world when the sun rises to spread its warmth, brightness and hope. Yes! hope once again came alive in the household and Shrimant and Meera Bai were ever grateful to God.
Meera Bai is not just the wife of an aristocrat, she contributes to enrichment of the society in many ways. To the chagrin of many feudal elders and members of the society, she is committed to educating girls. A cause which she feels is essential to form the backbone of the warrior clan. Her mission is ‘Women Empowerment’ in an era when the male members are mostly fighting wars and women are left behind to manage. There are umpteen incidents of dacoit raids, enemy troops barging into residential areas when a war is on. Empowered women with education and physical strength, thus, pose a threat to antisocial elements as well as the enemy.
In a strongly patriarchal household, she is lucky to have the support of her husband and that keeps edging her forward.
The arrival of Sampadda into their life, further strengthened this resolve in her. Her barren life now being blessed with the gurgling laughter of a fairy faced girl, she knows she has the concurrence of God. Walking the length and breadth of the village, Meera Bai and Sampadda are perfect companions. They visit homes to lecture on health, hygiene and the need for education. It is Meera Bai’s dream to start a school the moment she can gather ten girls eager to learn. Sadly, such are the shackles and hindrances of the patriarchs that a measly number ten seems like hundred!
Months melt into years and soon Sampadda changes from a troublesome, curious toddler to a brave and earnest teenager. Understanding her mother’s mission she questions her often. Luckily the home school has taken shape with eight girls in the compound of their house. Life is purposeful and benevolent as she smiles resting her head on her husband’s shoulder. Shrimant’s support is unquestionable as he set up state funding for the project by the Chhatrapati’s approval.
Every morning Meera Bai and Sampadda bow their head in reverence thanking God for the abundance in their life. Everything seems perfect till life throws situations which are difficult to fathom.
Change of Plans
It is one of the last Mughal-Maratha wars in 1707, the Shrimant renders the supreme sacrifice towards the motherland and attains martyrdom. A pall of gloom descends on the Amrakar household. Meera Bai is devastated as she loses not just her husband but a true friend and guiding light. It is tragic to see the brave woman now seated on a low wooden stool, her physical self being wrested of the symbols of a married woman. The glistening green bangles broken, the vermillion dot mercilessly wiped away from the forehead and the bright green saree changed to white. Sampadda, all of fourteen witnesses this transformation, totally puzzled and in a state of trepidation. The spread of white on her mother scares her since colours have always been her Mother’s identity.
After the completion of the social rituals related to the death of Shrimant Amrakar, the home is devoid of the earlier hustle bustle. Sampadda’s sudden retreat into a shell is not hidden from anyone. Meera Bai is sure that she will not push her bright and capable daughter into the dungeons of anonymity. That would be nothing less than a tight slap on the brave Maratha blood that flows through her veins. She remembers her pledge on Shrimant’s burning pyre that his legacy and name would be kept alive. So what if it is a daughter!
As a couple, both of them never paid heed to social pressures like “Poor thing. After all, they only have a girl. If it had been a boy, he would have inherited his father’s position in the royal court.”
As parents Meera Bai and Shrimant never shielded Sampadda from these harsh conversations. This was the reality of the society that they lived in and she would learn to fight it in her own way. From a young age, Sampadda was exposed to martial arts and basic use of dagger and sword by a private tutor. That training turned her into a mentally strong individual. Today, she is agile and capable of self defence with ease.
What Lies Ahead
As Meera Bai sits in the courtyard watching Sampadda complete her religious lessons, her mind is a flurry of thoughts. She has been summoned to the royal court the following day and maybe that is making her nervous.
“Chatrapatti in the presence of Rajmata will express condolence and then offer me some insignificant position in the court.” “How will that help me?” She is talking out aloud. Such a dilemma is natural when there are no financial insecurities. Thanks to her late husband who put to use all his knowledge of finance and savings. The school which is her passion also is a distraction in the this period of grief.
She lies awake most of the night, planning the conversation she will have with the Chhatrapatti. Maybe there is a golden opportunity lurking amidst the angst.
The royal charioteer from the palace arrives early, but Meera Bai is already ready and waiting. She is calm after finding many answers.
Bowing down low while entering private chambers in the palace, she greets the royals. It is tradition to be seated near the feet of the Rajmata, the seniormost lady of the kingdom in complete respect. The Rajmata showers her blessings and gestures to her to take one of the chairs instead of being seated on the ground.
With her head still bowed, Meera Bai sits down on the cushioned chair, her heart sinking as do her feet into the soft lustrous carpet beneath. After the regular chit chat and condolences, she waits for she knows what is coming. It is customary that she be offered compensation either in the form of land, gold or a court appointment. However, she is sure what she wants. Without much ado, she places her demand with complete court mannerism.
“I will like a place to run my school, expand it and have girls come to me for education from not just Satara but all neighbouring villages and towns. The school will also serve as a training ground to prepare fearless women fighters to be indicted into the Maratha Army”.
A New Dawn
The idea is way out of the league, criticism and scrutiny were expected. Not for long though. She receives the royal approval within a few weeks after the initial hiccups are smoothened out. Sampadda stands like a rock pillar with her mother throughout this journey. She witnesses Meera Bai reason, argue and overcome debates and debacles. Meera Bai knows it isn’t her victory alone, it was ‘their’ victory.
Sampadda being the eldest of the girls in the school, is the first to reach the stage of weapon training. Her father, the late Shrimant being a visionary made sure she was exposed to weapons and arms. As a result, she stuns the trainer with her knowledge of weapons. She answers questions ranging from the type of metal used to who manufactured it and when it could be put to use with great ease. She rises to be the perfect example to lead the younger girls.
Passing the preparatory tests in the school, now it is time to ready the squad. Meera Bai plays the key role here and begins inspirational talks, stories of courage and valour from the very day the girls join the academy. She carefully picked up stories of Rajmata Jijabai, the mother of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, whose farsightedness was unquestionable. An influential and determined woman who played an important role in shaping of the empire. Tarabai, the daughter-in-law of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Another woman whose courage and valour was limitless. She played a pivotal role in saving the kingdom from collapse during the most trying time thanks to her indomitable spirit.
The moment one steps into the school compound, there are positive vibes, a formless energy that ignites a spirit of patriotism. The Maratha war cry, “Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj kee jai”, rings out echoing through the surrounding hills. Beautiful handmade portraits of the inspirational men and women of the Maratha Empire adorn the walls. Devotion emanates from the expanse. Colour and fragrances spread out like the varying hues of nature as young girls shed their cocoons to metamorphose into warriors.
For an all women contingent to take form, it is important that the girls are roused from their insignificant lives. Sampadda’s training stood all tests with grit and soon she is close to being certified as ‘fit for fighting’. It has been specifically mandated by the Chhatrapati that none of the selection standards will be diluted. After all, the enemy does not spare anyone.
Meera Bai is filled with pride looking at her. Finally the day draws near when her and Shrimant’s shared dream will be a reality. The very first women soldiers’ trained for war.
The year 1720, the town is ripe with news of Bajiro I being appointed as the new Peshwa. A gallant fighter whose heroic tales are the talk of the Empire. He is the right choice to lead the invincible Maratha army against the Mughals. Hushed gossip suggests that with the Mughal rule weakened after the death of Aurangzeb, it is the opportune time for expansion of the Maratha Empire. Wars of accession are expected to be the new norm. The citizens usher in the good news of the designation of Bajirao I as the new Peshwa with fervour and rejoicing. Meera Bai and Sampadda are no exception.
That evening after the community prayers and dinner, as Meera Bai returned home, her mind is unsettled. As she steps into the courtyard, Sampadda caught that emotion on her face, “Aaai….what is weighing on your mind? Don’t worry. The commander-in-chief of the army now reports directly to Peshwa Rao Sahib.”
Without waiting for an answer, Sampadda continues “Rao Sahib himself has four sisters. The grapevine hints that he has a soft corner towards women.”
Her excitement seems uncontrollable as she adds “Aaai, I have also heard that he has home schooled his sisters. Just like you. Somehow, I have a feeling you and he are thinking alike.”
“My dear daughter. Whether we think alike or not, only time will tell.”
“The truth is that a valiant soldier like him is already preparing for war as we talk. Let’s wait till dawn, the news will be here.”
After exchanging a warm hug, the mother daughter retreat to their rooms.
The Warrior Rises
The dawn definitely brings in news of war as the prime minister’s messenger stands pounding on their door. Meera Bai’s hunch proves correct. Indeed the army has left for war under the command of Peshwa Bajirao I, who in addition to being a learned Pandit is also a skilled warrior. The message from the Prime Minister presents Meera Bai with the responsibility of the safety of Satara with a small battery of soldiers. Knowing that she has under her care young girls almost ready to be commissioned in the army, she knows this to be the apt opportunity to display their skilfulness and allegiance to the values of the Maratha Empire.
Duly accepting the responsibility, she immediately set out to planning. The biggest threat is the Mughal forces raiding the town to loot and plunder. Knowing that most of the men folk are out at war supporting the Nizam against the Mughal emperor, they pose a serious threat to the safety of women and children behind.
Meera Bai called Sampadda and said, “The time has come to display what you have been trained for. You may not be standing in the battle field amidst raining arrows and blasting cannons. But you are to stand guard for preserving the integrity and dignity of the city which signifies the Empire.”
Based on the information of the spies, a raid was expected that very evening. The prime minister was handling the safety and patrolling of the palace and its periphery. Meerab Bai and Sampadda take charge of the area where most merchants and traders live. Being the wealth centre this could be the target. A small battery of male soldiers also on guard.
Sampadda appeared surrounded by an aura as the metal armour on her body glistens in the dark. It is difficult to make out if the shine is from the metal or it is the scintillating sparkle of confidence on her face. Seated sharply on the handsome mare, the naked sword held tautly and the crisp white turban partly covering her face, she definitely is the picture perfect warrior woman leading her pack with the alertness of a seasoned leader.
Sampadda, the warrior, defies her sixteen years with able and unequalled leadership. She slightly tips her head acknowledging Meera Bai’s blessings to return victorious or not return at all. It sure is a heart melting command for a daughter but not so for a fearless warrior.
So onwards the battalion marches regardless of what lies ahead but definitely prepared to do and die. An unusually dark and silent night, it seems impenetrable. Yet as a front runner, Sampadda knows that the twenty girls who follow, look up to her. Their aim is to patrol the area and be wary of any unusual activity. Sampadda chose not to divide the group, primarily since it is the first such exposure for all of them, there can be no way that the confidence should dip. She kept on the irrelevant chit chat to lighten up the mood. Most of the girls were participating with their versions of how the enemy could be effectively tackled.
The light laughter made the darkness bearable and onwards they marched. Meera Bai had also managed to create a small network of local boys to do the ground work of ‘to’ and ‘fro’ communication. It helped as it kept the confidence on both ends high. As Sampadda’s horse trotted towards the market area, an arrow whizzed past scraping her right shoulder. Luckily she bent down, in time and it hardy touched her but she bounced back.
“Girls! Tighten up your defences. It is time.”
“Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj ki Jai”, “Jai Maratha”
The shrill war cries wake up the night along with the enemy who did not expect armed horse riders on the prowl. Sampadda tears towards the armed mob. Making a quick assessment of the strength, she is relived. Though the number is meagre, time can’t be wasted.
“A sudden assault will always have the maximum impact”, she recollected being told by her martial arts instructor. Signalling to the girls in a coded sing song whistle tone, she rode on.
Thereafter, there was no looking back as the swords unleashed horror on to the mob, which unfortunately is on foot. Height gave the girls the advantage and the distance between them and the mob did not leave any opportunity for the enemy to resort to arrow attacks. By now, the cacophony has roused not just the residents in the vicinity but the communication boys have also conveyed the message to the palace and the reinforcement troops arrive.
As the girls draw back their face covers, the cries of “Jai Maratha” became louder. The girls stood in a line, regal and resplendent in the glory of victory. Their faces shine like that of the ‘Goddess’. No it isn’t the colour of blush but it is bloodshed lighting up the faces. For truly it is victory. Finally, the first women battalion of the Maratha army is ready to unleash hell onto the enemy.
Chhatrapati – the title bestowed on the ruler of the Maratha Empire
Rajmata – The mother of Chhatrapati
Shreemant – a title conveying respect
Aai – mother in Marathi
Peshwa – Ministerial title in the Maratha Empire
Disclaimer: This story is purely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and events are purely the imagination of the writer. They bear no resemblance whatsoever to anyone and anyplace living or dead. The story draws no similarity from any points in history.
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