Long before the world was introduced to feminism, Maharani Tarabai was leading the Maratha empire. The Maratha empire under her reign was at its peak. They faced opposition from one of the largest kingdoms of Indian history, the Mughals, and yet thrived.
Tarabai was the daughter-in-law of Shivaji Maharaj, the founder of the Maratha empire. Born to a famed army general, Tarabai got married to Chatrapati Rajaram Bhonsale. After the death of Shivaji, his son Sambhaji took to the throne. His reign remained short-lived as he died at the young age of 31. Rajaram was the second son of Shivaji. He descended the throne after Sambhaji.
He too died shortly after due to a lung infection. His first child with Tarabai was still an infant.
Tarabai announced her son, Shivaji Ⅱ as the successor of her husband and ruled on his behalf.
The Maratha Empire was on its knees after the deaths of its prominent leaders. Tarabai sensed the collapse and hence kept the war with the Mughals on. She understood the importance of this resistance.
The Mughals were led by the cruel Aurangzeb. They had larger armies and were not expecting an attack from Marathas, who were without their leader.
Tarabai knew the element of surprise was their only option. She took the charge of the army. Born in a military home, she was an expert tactician as well as a brilliant warrior. She had also worked closely with Shivaji and knew the weaknesses of Mughal armies.
She led a small unit of the army across the river Narmada and raided the Mughal camp at Malwa. The plan was to use the secrecy of the night to their advantage. But she had an informer inside her court. The Mughals were ready for the attack and Tarabai was captured. She escaped after four days by selling her golden bangles to one of the guards.
A year later, Aurangzeb, the leader of the Mughals, died. The death of such a prominent ruler created a power vacuum. Everyone knew the successors of Aurangzeb were ineffective and hence the race to become the new ruler of India was on.
In a time like this, the leadership of Tarabai stabilized the Maratha kingdom.
Down and out, the Mughals played their last move. They released Sahuji, son of Sambhaji and nephew to Tarabai, to increase the political tension.
Though Sahuji was the legal heir to the throne, his sudden release made Tarabai question his intentions. Tarabai refused to accept Sahuji as the new king. The disapproval took the form of a battle. With the support of the Mughals and Peshwa, Sahuji’s army won. Once in power, he exiled Tarabai. Tarabai lived the remainder of her life in the palace of Satara under house arrest. Even there she ran her court, looked into internal affairs, and met with prominent leaders.
At the age of 86, she closed her eyes forever. Had she not, she would have seen the great Maratha empire fall after the third battle of Panipat. This time there was no Tarabai to revive the empire.
As a Maratha woman, she had to fight both the patriarchy of the society and the brutality of enemies. Against the expectation, she won over both of them. Unfortunately, a name that should have become the source of inspiration for modern-day women empowerment, seems lost in the pages of history.