Lost in the pages of history is the story of a legendary Dalit woman warrior who fought bravely during the First War of Independence in 1857. Belonging to a humble background, Jhalkari Bai was driven by sheer fortitude and courage and became a warrior to be revered.
Jhalkari Bai was born on November 22, 1830, in Bhojla village near Jhansi. She grew up to become a soldier and one of Rani Lakshmibai’s trusted advisors. It is believed that she learnt horse riding, the art of weaponry and to fight like a warrior at a very young age. She also learnt archery, wrestling and shooting from her husband, Puran Kori. Puran Kori was a soldier in the army of Raja Gangadhar Rao the husband of Rani Lakshmibai.
According to legends, Jhalkari Bai often accompanied her husband to the Royal Palace and initially began working as a maid there. After Rani Lakshmibai got to know about her bravery, they became great companions.
Many also believe that Jhalkari Bai’s body structure and her face resembled that of Rani Lakshmibai.
Soon, Jhalkari Bai earned herself a position in Rani Lakshmibai’s women’s army called the Durga Dal and often made important decisions on behalf of the queen.
After Raja Gangadhar Rao’s passing, Jhansi was left without an heir acceptable to the British, and Rani Lakshmibai decided to take over as the ruler in spite of opposition by the British. Lakshmibai began preparations for the impending confrontation. In 1857, the mutiny of the sepoys escalated and spread across large parts of Northern and Central India. They gathered to support Rani Lakshmi Bai. Jhalkari Bai was entrusted with the responsibility of leading the women’s wing of the army.
In 1858 when the British forces commanded by General Sir Hugh Rose attacked and besieged the fort of Jhansi, both Jhalkari Bai and Puran Kori put up stiff resistance. Jhalkari Bai fought fiercely and suggested that Rani leave the palace with her child.
Jhalkari Bai disguised herself as Rani Lakshmibai, commanded the army and fought the British. Given their resemblance it confused the British and this ruse worked for long. The British were uncertain about the true identity of Jhalkari Bai and it was because of her that Rani Lakshmibai could escape from her palace along with her son.
However in the same battle, Puran Kori died fighting the British and when Jhalkari Bai heard of this, it is said that she became a “wounded tigress”. She was enraged and killed many British men and fought fiercely.
According to some legends, she was killed and her true identity was never revealed. However, other versions of the legend say that she was set free and lived till 1890 and became an icon of her time.
This story of Jhalkari Bai forms a part of the popular memory of the people of Bundelkhand. To date, her memory is alive in people’s minds and her brave feats resurface in folklore. Many Dalit communities of the region look up to her as an incarnation of God and also celebrate Jhalkaribai Jayanti every year in her honour. Jhalkari Bai thus has become an “amar shaheed” (immortal martyr) in the popular memory of Bundelkhand.