In the month of Magha, Saka year 1778, (January-February 1856), Vishnu Bhatt Godse, of Versai, near Alibagh, made a momentous decision. He decided he would travel to 'Hindustan'. Hailing from an impoverished family of priests and Vedic scholars and with debts to repay, Godse wished to make the most of an opportunity that he had heard about: The widow of the Scindia ruler of Gwalior was performing a yagna and had earmarked a huge sum of money, a good portion of which would be given as 'dakshina' to Brahmins participating in the ritual. This was too good an opportunity to miss, opined Godse and decided to brave the rigours of a journey to Mathura i.e, in 'Hindustan' or northern India, in Godse's telling. He was under no illusions about himself " he wasn't exactly a brilliant scholar, but he reckoned that he could get himself invited to the yagna through some connections that he had ascertained could help.
Convincing his family took some doing, but sometime in late February-early March, Godse was on his way, along with his uncle, who had worked in Bithor, near Kanpur, and knew something about those regions and had acquaintances there.
Some weeks later, upon reaching Mhow, near Indore, the duo heard some alarming news. An old soldier from their part of the country, whom they met at a rest-house, whispered that an uprising was in the offing. Rumours about the new cartridges being greased with cow fat and pig lard had incensed many and British reluctance to come clean on the matter had brought things to breaking point.
Things didn't look good, but to turn back at this stage, didn't seem like an option. The duo decided to press on.
And in doing so, they were witness to the uprising as it unfolded.
A quarter of a century after these momentous events, at the urging of one of his clients, Godse penned down his memoirs. By then, the British were in firm control of the subcontinent. Fearing retribution, the manuscript lay unpublished for a further 25 years, going into print only in 1907, the 50th anniversary of 1857, four years after Godse's death in 1903. Titled Mazha Pravas (My Journey), the work was later translated into Hindi and English and is a fascinating up, close and personal narrative of historic events.
The Maratha Imprint on 'Hindustan'
That Godse hailed from Maharashtra was a lucky break. Across a swathe of 'Hindustan', Marathas still ruled the roost, though their pomp had been much reduced owing to British control and overlordship over the subcontinent. But still, Gwalior, Indore, Jhansi, Bithur and many other places were under the rule of Maratha rulers and harboured a Marathi-speaking population among whom Godse and his uncle found food and shelter and the comfort of speaking in their native tongue.
A scene from the 1857 Indian Rebellion (Bengal Army). Image via Wikimedia Commons
The string of acquaintances from modern-day Maharashtra the duo intended to call on included one Moro Pant Tambe, a widower, whose daughter Chhabili was someone Godse's uncle recalled seeing as a young girl in his time a few years earlier in the region.
By 1857, when Godse and his uncle arrived in those parts, Chhabili had become Rani Lakshmibai ¦ of Jhansi!
And it was there that the duo eventually made their way to.
Godse provides a good deal of background information about Rani Lakshmibai and her life at Jhansi. The king, Gangadhar Rao, was rather advanced in age when he married Lakshmibai. While one would have thought that in spite of his age, it would have been easy for a king to find a wife, that doesn't seem to have been the case. His astrological charts seemed to be 'unusually aligned', says Godse and then there was another peculiar matter"the king's penchant for cross-dressing! And it went beyond just matters of dress and jewellery.
Every now and then, the king would 'start behaving like a woman', says Godse, to the extent of observing 'four days of untouchability' during an imaginary menstrual cycle. When questioned, Gangadhar Rao attributed this behaviour to his feeling emasculated under British overlordship. This is an interesting aside that hasn't find much mention or discussion in history.
Lakshmibai's marriage was not a happy one, reckons Godse. The king kept her under strict watch all the time, allowing her very limited company. This was an unusual situation for her, used as she was to more freedom.
Eventually, the king passed away without a male heir and the boy, whom he had adopted, was not allowed to ascend the throne and control passed to British hands. Lakshmibai was then confined to a section of the fort. When the events of 1857 began to spread, the British, sensing the mood, brought Lakshmibai at the helm of the administration on 9 June, a day before the Mutiny. They thus hoped to stave off their own massacre. This was a desperate and opportunistic attempt to save their own skin. Angered at the opportunism, she at first refused, but later relented owing to the British Resident's fervent request. Among other things, the Resident's wife was pregnant and the Resident begged Lakshmibai to save his unborn child. Godse was at hand to witness almost all of this.
Lakshmibai calmed a restive population with her words, but ominously asked them to prepare for a greater battle. Till then, the populace attempted to return to their normal routines. Meanwhile, during this brief period of tranquility, Godse got lucky.
Owing to his intervention on a point of detail during a yagna, he found employment in the Rani's inner circle of priests. Fortune had finally smiled upon him and over the next few months, he regularly interacted with Lakshmibai and was able to observe her from close quarters.
His details of her exercise routine in the mornings, her skill at being able to ferret out a good horse from a bad one, her religious observances and her attention to various administrative matters gives the reader the impression that Lakshmibai was very much a woman of action, intent on making her mark on the world. It was a time of hope.
For 11 months, this state of affairs held. But it was not to last.
The British were now regrouping and striking back at all who had rebelled. Jhansi's turn would come!
The last days
When it came, the British onslaught was fierce and while Jhansi had prepared hard for the battle, its forces were soon overwhelmed. Almost every ploy that Lakshmibai and her advisors tried did not dent British resolve to win back the territory that had been under their control. Their superior firepower and soldier strength eventually carried the day. Eventually, on the 11th day, with defeat imminent, Lakshmibai was forced to leave the fort with her retinue.
Some months later, after dodging the British on several occasions and drumming up a fighting force in conjunction with other rebellious kings and chieftains, the Rani was killed fighting on 17 June 1858. The rebellion was at an end. The British stayed for close to another century.
As for Godse, he returned to Versai in 1859, having earned nothing in terms of material wealth. Much of what he had earned was spent travelling, some of it on worldly pleasures in the colourful parts of Lucknow, as Godse candidly confesses in the work. But his experience of having witnessed history from close quarters would lead to the writing of Mazha Pravas and keep him alive in public memory long after his death.