In 1853, a girl who loved wood apples was born in a village near Rahimatpur, in present-day Maharashtra. She helped her mother in the kitchens but also lorded over all the other children. She was not, her biographer would write, a typical beauty but had deer-like eyes and a phenomenally regal face. During games, she instinctively assumed the role of the princess, and at times behaved like one too, dispensing grain and money to every passing mendicant. Of course, some of these tales are exaggerations but they all seek to convey an important message: that from the start, young Tanhibai Mane, daughter of Vishwasrao and Bajubai, was destined for greatness.
In India of the 19th century, however, success for a girl was generally limited to making a sensible marriage. At 13, Tanhibai’s mother took her to her natal home in Baroda state, in present-day Gujarat. On the face of it, this was an innocent visit, but it likely had a strategic purpose. For the then maharajah of Baroda, a man approaching 40, and twice married but childless, was looking for a new bride and a fresh shot at fathering an heir. Our protagonist from the village was presented as a potential candidate—she did not come from money but the Mane bloodline was older than the ruler’s. It took a year but worked out in the end: Tanhibai became royal.
Reincarnated now as Maharani Jamnabai of Baroda, our teenager is supposed to have wholly impressed her husband. If her biographer is to be believed, she cooked him meals, did all sorts of pious things, and even helped the maharajah with work. More personally, the girl who used to admire a local grandee’s elephant from the street in Rahimatpur now owned many of her own. Purdah never got in her way: She loved horses and used to ride around the capital, and in time would even sit face to face with the future Edward VII of Britain; his entourage was fascinated as much by her “well-shaped” hands as her giant toe-ring.
But Jamnabai’s was no fairy tale. In 1870, four years into marriage, the maharajah died. Next in line to the throne was his brother—a man locked up for having plotted the ruler’s murder once—and the maharani would probably have been consigned to oblivion for the rest of her days. That did not happen, though, for a simple reason: Jamnabai declared herself pregnant. It was, understandably, suspicious, and a British official would in time complain of how “ambitious” widows in India could influence political outcomes through such unexpected spikes in fertility. Through this they could delay successions and open room for political prominence.
In any case, even as her husband’s brother accused her of adultery, Jamnabai, all of 17, held firm. Her favourite wood apples came injected with poison, and she slept with a dagger by her side and the late maharajah’s dog, Motya, standing guard. In the end, she moved into the house of the British representative in Baroda, though when she delivered, her brother-in-law waited outside, making sure a female child would not be replaced with a boy. He was thrilled to learn that Jamnabai had produced a girl—he could now finally be a maharajah.
The maharani, however, did not give up. She knew the Raj disapproved of the new ruler, given his antecedents, and opted to leave Baroda for Pune in British India. Home to important men, lawyers, journalists and others, here she began to spend her vast financial resources—including jewels received from her husband—to incentivise powerful factions in Baroda to complain to the British against the new maharajah. Why, Jamnabai even bribed employees of the colonial representative himself, so they would fan his animosity towards the ruler.
But if the maharani manipulated white and brown men, her brother-in-law’s misgovernment only made the process easier. Complaints—real as well as sponsored from Pune—and general bad press, in addition to a sketchy (possibly also externally orchestrated) attempt to poison the British agent, meant that in 1875 the ruler was deposed. And, allying with the Raj, Jamnabai triumphantly returned to Baroda. It was with her that the colonial authorities would now settle the future of the principality. The headman’s daughter from Rahimatpur became, if not the sole kingmaker, one of two key power brokers in the state.
Both the British and Jamnabai had a common interest: They wanted a “malleable” ruler. The nearest candidate for the throne was a man in his 20s, who was a bit too headstrong. So he was exiled and a distant relative of 12—the future Sayajirao III—was quite literally picked off a farm and planted as maharajah. Even as the Raj appointed tutors to “shape” him into a submissive prince, the maharani deployed strategies to maintain her own hold. When the boy went to Mumbai and Delhi on state visits, she accompanied him; and in Baroda too she made sure to keep him within sight.
Unfortunately for both the Raj and Jamnabai, when the maharajah grew up, he quickly proved he had a mind of his own: He refused to give in to British pressures to dilute his power and also declined the maharani’s demands for money. Within two years of his succession, then, she tried to rein him in. “I am certain,” Jamnabai wrote to the British in 1883, “that the Maharaja has not up to this time acted up to your advice, nor is there any possibility of his doing so.” Therefore, “to put a stop to his self-sufficiency”, she wanted the Raj to place her as the supreme authority in Baroda.
This time, however, Jamnabai did not succeed. Once, the British and the maharani had pulled off a dramatic political coup against a common enemy; repeating it on their own replacement would make it all too obvious. Of course, the Raj would not admit its own guilt, instead framing the maharani as “dangerous”. To this was added a Victorian disapproval of the widow’s alleged “criminal intercourse” with men, and so, finally, she was defeated. While given a handsome allowance and allowed to keep her own court, she was no longer permitted a say in official matters. This way she lived, till grief from the death of her only child in 1897 killed her.
Jamnabai, however, was no pushover and—like many royal women—boldly called a spade a spade. When in 1883 the British told the maharani that she was wrong in thinking she was the head of the state, not the maharajah, and that the people were her subjects, not his, Jamnabai responded that this was “theoretical” rubbish. “I am loved and respected by all,” she declared, and that was all that mattered. The British disagreed, hesitant to legitimise female influence, even if they too relied on it when needed. But to Jamnabai herself, there was no doubt: She was a political figure, and whatever they said, her ambitions too were unapologetically political.
Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018). His new book, False Allies: India’s Maharajahs In The Age Of Ravi Varma, is out this week.