In 1835, Fanny Parkes, the travel writer from Wales, encountered in the north Indian town of Fatehgarh a middle-aged Maratha princess. The latter didn’t speak English but shared with Parkes a love of well-bred horses. At their very first meeting, she expressed a desire to see an English lady ride, for the simple reason that “she could not comprehend how they could sit all crooked"—Maratha women, after all, sat astride like their men, never side-saddle. Parkes agreed to a demonstration, and some days later, appeared at the old indigo-factory-turned-royal camp with her steed. When one of her hostess’ attendants playfully asked if she would try the Indian style, Parkes accepted the challenge—changing into “Mahratta costume", she acquitted herself creditably, noting in her diary: “I thought of Queen Elizabeth and her stupidity in changing the style of riding for women (in Britain)." For the Maratha fashion “appeared so safe…I could have jumped over the moon".
Parkes was an adventurous woman, but her new Maratha friend’s credentials were no less formidable. Born in 1784 into the aristocratic Ghatge family of Kagal, Baiza Bai was 14 when she married Daulat Rao Scindia, the young maharaja of Gwalior. It was a union of mutual interest: He delivered power to the marriage, while her pristine Maratha bloodline compensated for the modest origins of her husband’s lineage. Her father, Sakharam Ghatge, became a courtier to the maharaja, tending, however, to fall in and out of favour; owing to his staunch anti-British sentiment, an 1805 treaty Scindia signed with the East India Company explicitly required him to expel his father-in-law from positions of influence. Ghatge, however, remained a hot-tempered force to reckon with. In 1809, an act of lèse-majesté saw the maharaja order his detention, and when the old man resisted, he was cut down.
Baiza Bai was pregnant at the time. But while the shock was enormous, the event also gave her nerves of steel. Her husband was a hopeless ruler, as early as 1803 losing much of his territory to the British. She, however, was her father’s daughter: suspicious of the Company and capable of reckless bravery. As Parkes recorded, one dramatic story presents Baiza Bai leading her troops in battle, “with a lance in her hand, and her infant in her arms". By the 1810s, as scholar Amar Farooqui notes, she was also extraordinarily wealthy: a banker in her own right, capable of extending (and demanding back) enormous loans to the British, her personal fortune was estimated at ₹3 crore. All this meant that when in 1827 her husband died without a male heir, the queen made transparent her own ambitions to reign. She did, of course, announce that she would burn herself on Daulat Rao’s funeral pyre. But as one commentator dryly remarked, “Nobody believes this as regards Baiza Bai."
For about six years, Baiza Bai was at the helm of affairs in Gwalior, acknowledged even by the British as a ruler of “great ability". She adopted a boy distantly related to her husband, but “kept the young chief uneducated" in order to ensure he would never become a challenge. “Her policy was to dwarf the growth of his mind," we learn, and develop in him a “vague and indefinite fear of her, (so) that in future he might not shake off her thraldom". Coins were issued in her name and orders were passed under her own seal, till, in 1829, the British objected. She cordially ignored them for as long as she could, adding quite bluntly that “during my lifetime, I should be allowed to retain supreme control of affairs". It might have worked, for the adopted heir wasn’t particularly strong, but British objections put wind in the sails of an anti-Baiza Bai faction. In 1832, there was a falling out with the restive maharaja and the next year, troops mutinied in his name. Baiza Bai had no option but to flee into British territory.
It was two years into her exile that Parkes met her, noting how “she who once reigned…has now no roof to shelter her…(and) is forced to live in tents…(as) a state prisoner, in fact". Using her enormous financial resources, Baiza Bai funded schemes against her adopted son; of course, with the result that chunks of her fortune were confiscated by the British. But it wasn’t easy to bully her: In Fatehgarh, though she had to deal with mutinies again, she still commanded 2,360 soldiers, the rest of her camp housing 5,000 followers. Moving to Allahabad, she defied British orders to settle in Benares, finally moving to Nashik on a substantial pension. Here too she was suspected of anti-British plotting. “How desirable it will be for your Highness to…remove from your presence all persons on whom suspicion may rest," wrote the sceptical governor general to the ex-queen. “Is it possible," replied Baiza Bai sweetly, “that I who have no other engagements than the worship of God, shall now in my old age engage myself in intrigues?"
With the death of her nemesis in Gwalior and the advent of a fresh adoptee, however, things took a turn for the better—in 1845, Baiza Bai proposed marrying her great-granddaughter to this new ruler, promising to leave him her fortune if he agreed. It was a tempting offer and the maharaja was seduced. Soon afterwards, she returned to Gwalior territory, and on the eve of the Great Rebellion of 1857, took up residence in the capital. The rebels did try to win her over to their cause but she did not want more quarrels with the British, living in peace till her death in 1863.
Perhaps Fanny Parkes’ advice from years earlier had stayed with the queen. Lamenting colonial hostility to her, Baiza Bai had asked her friend for advice. “Jiska lathi ooska bhains (He who has the stick also has the buffalo)," Parkes had replied in Hindi. Both women burst out laughing and, as the traveller wrote, perhaps this “odd and absurd" proverb reconciled Baiza Bai to her fate.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015)and Rebel Sultans (2018).
He tweets at @unampillai