Ahalyabai (1735-1795) was the ruler of the Indore State. “She was one of the purest and most exemplary rulers that ever existed” according to Sir John Malcolm, a great Maratha historian.
She was the daughter of Manakoji Shinde of Aurangabad. She was married to Khanduji, only son of Malhararao Holkar. Malhararao was an assistant chieftain in the army of Peshwa . Tragedy struck Ahalyabai when her husband was killed in a cannon attack. She was hardly 20 years old at the time. As was the custom, she wanted to commit sati by getting into the funeral pyre of her husband. Her father-in-law Malhararao persuaded her not to do so, since she was his sole hope and solace in this life, in as much as, his son had been an indolent, irresponsible and pleasure-seeking person. Ahalyabai had two children, a son named Malerao and a daughter Muktabai.
Ahalyabai grew up into and intelligent and courageous woman. Her father-in-law trained her in the administration of the affair of the state, and coached her in the collection of revenue and in the management of the army. She combined herself qualities of a good administrator for the welfare of the state and those of an extremely religious person. She devoted many hours every day to reflection, prayer, and scriptural study.
After the death of Malhararao, Malerao, Ahalya’s son, was made the ruler of the Holkar kingdom. However, she was the ruler de facto, since Malerao was not competent. Concilation and kindness were her watchword, but she could be stern when the occasion required it. After the death of her father -in-law, when the Chandravats, a Rajput clan, rose in revolt, she collected whatever forces she could, led them personally in the absence of the Army-General, and put down the revolt. Similarily, when certain Bhil tribes in Saputra under her rule grew troublesome, she arrested their leader and put him to death. Such strong actions quelled the restless elements in her state once and for all.
Ahalyabai was not fortunate in her son who proved to be a weak minded boy. Later, he developed madness and succumbed to it. When Raghoba, the uncle of the ruling Peshwa, saw the state without an heir, he thought of invading it. Ahalyabai, though in grief, did not lose her self-respect. She sent word to Raghoba that she was prepared to meet him on the battlefield. She added that she being a woman, it would not add to his glory in case she died in battle or in case the reverse happened, the consequence would be worse for him. The message was eloquent, and Raghoba changed his mind. Later the Peshwa, accorded formal recognition to Ahalyabai’s rule, and consequently she took the entire responsibility of ruling the state.
Her personal tragedies were unending. Following the death of her son, she had to witness the deaths of her grandson and son-in-law. She had the further mortification of seeing her daughter burn herself on the funeral pyre of her husband sati.
However, Ahalyabai did many things as monuments of her piety and interest she had for the welfare of her people. She constructed many highways, wells, ghats, rest-houses and temples. The most noteworthy among them are road from Calcutta to Varanasi and the temples of Somanatha in Saurashtra, of Vishnu and Gaya and of Vishweswara and Varanarsi.
— Courtesy ” Great Women of India ” published by Shri Ramakrishna Math.