Malhar Rao Holkar, Army Chief of Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao I, saw her serving the poor at a temple service and was so moved by her devotion that he decided to marry her off to his son Khanderao.
Ahilyabai was born in Chaundi village, now part of Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, although women were not educated during those times. Her father home-schooled her, teaching her both reading and writing skills. Ahilyabai quickly won over her people with her compassion & charity – never observing purdah, always available when needed, helping widows keep their wealth after they became widows, encouraging merchants, craftsmen & artists to produce quality works while paying them regularly – Maheshwar became renowned hub of literary, musical & artistic achievement during her reign as queen.
She married Khande Rao Holkar at eight, but his death during the 1754 battle of Kumbher left her widowed at 29. After petitioning the Peshwa, she petitioned them again and was allowed to take control of administration of state with Tukoji Rao Holkar as subedar – she led armies personally into battle and personally led armies against invaders and personally led armies into battle herself! Moreover, she built hundreds of temples & Dharmashalas throughout India while refurbishing and rededicating sites that had been desecrated or desecrated or destroyed by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb more than 100 years earlier!
Ahilyabai Holkar was widely respected during her 30-year reign for her generosity and development work, including building temples, dharmashalas, wells, and ghats across India. Additionally, she fostered literary, musical and artistic activities in Maheshwar in her capital; entertaining famous Marathi poet Moropant and Shahir Anantaphandi from Maharashtra while offering support to artisans and craftspeople from Maheshwar.
Ahilyabai used military might to defend her kingdom from invaders. She personally led armies into battle on her territory, taking great pride in Hindu architecture – particularly rebuilding many temples which the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb had destroyed.
Ahilyabai amassed immense wealth and refused to use public funds to meet her personal expenses. Furthermore, she denied feudal landowners any claims to her property even though women did not have legal access rights back then. As an extraordinary leader, Ahilyabai remains a source of inspiration for Indian women today.
Ahilya Bai Holkar’s entry into history was entirely accidental. Malhar Rao Holkar, commander in the army of Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao I and Lord of Malwa Territory stopped at Chaundi while traveling towards Pune and noticed eight-year-old Ahilya Bai attending temple service there – taken with her devotion and character traits, he arranged for her to marry his son Khande Rao Holkar instead.
Ahilyabai founded and developed Indore city, while protecting her kingdom against invaders with her personal armies in battles she led herself. Additionally, Ahilyabai built hundreds of Hindu temples and Dharmashalas in her region; especially known for refurbishing and reconsecrating some of India’s sacred pilgrimage sites like Kashi Gaya Somnath.
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Ahilyabai Holkar’s contributions in infrastructure, social welfare and justice continue to inspire us today. She transformed Indore into an economically vibrant city during her 30 years of rule while giving away numerous temples across India as gifts.
She was also well known for her efforts to defend her kingdom against Muslim invaders and personally led an army in battle alongside her commander Tukojirao Holkar.
Malhar Rao Holkar was impressed by her religious character when he saw her doing service work in Chondi village and witnessed Mankoji Rao Shinde insistent on providing education for her. Malhar Rao Holkar observed her doing good deeds in Chondi and became very impressed.
Ahilyabai Holkar was devastated after her husband Khande Rao Holkar was killed in battle, and planned to commit sati (the practice of burning oneself on one’s deceased husband’s funeral pyre). Malhar Rao Holkar intervened and offered his expertise in administrative services and military operations as a form of support. He became her greatest defender during this difficult time.