In India, centuries of complex belief, myth, and ritual have defined gender roles and somewhat surprisingly, even royalty wasn’t spared. Traditional ideas and social rituals dictated by patriarchy kept women away from administrative roles. Sons succeeded their fathers—and the court was made up of men.
Daughters were used merely as instruments—to forge alliances between kingdoms through marriage or sit pretty on a pedestal besides the men who provided them with their identity, whether it was their fathers or their husbands. In fact, the only way a woman would sit on the throne was if she acted as regent upon her husband’s death, until her eldest son came of age.
While that was the norm, there have been, as expected, some exceptions. And thought there are a few such as Jhansi Ki Rani, Maharani Gayatri Devi, and Rani Lakshmibhai who managed to earn the respect of millions through their heroic acts, and even carve a space for themselves in history books, there are plenty of royal women who have slipped through history’s cracks without due acknowledgment.
Luckily, however, if you’re prone to digging deeper as we are, you’re likely to come across a handful of princesses and female warriors who have not only contributed to India’s history, but have helped shape it, too. This story is a dedication to these very women, the unfortunate few who did not make it to the timeline of Indian history.
From a woman of royal lineage who worked as a British spy in France, to one who broke the last leg of the Mughal Empire, we’ve dug out the amazing stories of a few of these Indian princesses. Scroll on to enjoy their stories in their entirety.
...an advocate for women, the needy and the poor.
Princess Durru Shehwar was the daughter of His Imperial Majesty Sultan Abdul Mejid Efendi of the Ottoman Empire, who was the last heir-apparent to the Ottoman Empire and the last Caliph of the Muslim world. She was born in Istanbul at a time when the Empire was on its last leg.
Early Years: Ten years after her birth, she was forced to leave her motherland along with her family. Living in exile in France, she received proposals from several royal families, finally choosing to marry Prince Azam Jah, the eldest son and heir of the last Nizam of Hyderabad. It is believed that this alliance was a political move, because an alliance between the Nizam, the richest ruler in the world at the time, and the deposed Caliph, would mean the emergence of a Muslim ruler who could be acceptable to the world powers in place of the Ottoman sultans.
The Royal Life: The tall, beautiful woman never forgot the modernising reforms that her family stood for. An educated woman, she believed that women needed to be educated and that they should be equipped with the skills to earn their own living. She vehemently opposed the purdah system and also established a junior college for girls in her name.
She advocated for the poor and the needy, and even set up the Durru Shehvar Children’s Hospital at Purani Haveli in Hyderabad for their benefit. She used to make it a point to visit the hospital regularly to ensure everything was functioning smoothly. Even today, this hospital runs as a non-profit establishment that provides affordable treatment to the general public.
She did not shy away from expressing her displeasure at the Turkish government’s attitude towards her family, either. After the government refused to allow her father to be buried in Turkey, she declared her refusal to be buried in her homeland after her death. She passed away in 2006, following a long period of illness.
...the Kohinoor of Hyderabad
Niloufer Farhat Begum Sahiba was one of the last princesses of the Ottoman Empire. A remarkably beautiful woman, she was fondly referred to as the “Kohinoor of Hyderabad” after her marriage to Muazzam Jah, the second son of the seventh and last Nizam of Hyderabad.
Early Years: She was born at the Goztepe Palace in Istanbul at a time when her mother’s family was ruling the Ottoman Empire and her father was a prominent member of the Ottoman court. At the end of World War I, when Turkey lost all its bearings and declared a republic after the Ottomans were exiled, Niloufer was only eight. She, along with her family, moved to Nice in France.
The Royal Life: In 1931, after her marriage, she moved to Hyderabad and lived at the Falaknuma Palace. When she was to be introduced for the first time in court, it is been said that, Mir Osman Ali Khan Mahboob Pasha, her father-in-law,, turned to his guests and announced, “Permit me to introduce one of my naginas (jewels).”
Her beauty, combined with her style of dressing caught the attention of people worldwide at a time when televisions did not even exist. She even received numerous offers from filmmakers, all of which she turned down.
Several years into her marriage, she remained unable to conceive. She began consulting doctors in Europe when she realised that there were no specialists in Hyderabad. Around the same time, one of her maids died during childbirth as a result of the lack of these medical facilities. This instance in particular broke her heart and persuaded her father-in-law to start a speciality hospital for women and children. The establishment was named Niloufer Hospital after her.
Unhappy with her marriage and her inability to bear children, she busied herself with public life. Her constant presence at various gathering and events, garnered her the reputation of being a torch bearer for the advancement of women in India.
During World War II, she received training as a nurse and carried out relief duties to help soldiers who were suffering. Her marriage with Muazzam Jah came to an end in 1952, after 21 years of marriage. Post divorce, she moved back to Paris, where she lived with her mother and continued to have an active social life until she died in 1989.
...one of the earliest freedom fighters
Rani Abbakka Devi belonged to the Chowta dynasty that ruled over parts of coastal Karnataka, India. One of the earliest freedom fighters, she is remembered for having successfully resisted the Portuguese. It is disheartening that despite being the only woman in history to have foiled the Portuguese’s plans for supremacy on Indian soil, close to nothing is said about her in the history texts.
Early Years: Very little has been said about her childhood, apart from the fact that she was an intelligent child and that her uncle trained in the art of diplomacy and martial arts so that she was completely prepared for to take up the role of a Queen, when the time would arise.
When she reached marriageable age, an alliance was forged between her and Lakshmappa Arasa, the king of the Bangher. The marriage did not last long and it is believed that he harboured a strong hatred towards her. So when the Portuguese moved to attack her, he offered them his support.
The Royal Life: She had become the Queen of Ullal, following the norm of matrilineal accession that was practiced. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the English had been fighting for supremacy over the high seas, and until the 16th century, the Portuguese enjoyed the upper hand in this battle. However, even though they had managed to gain complete control over the Arabian Sea, smaller settlements like Ullah refused to obey imperialist rules. Abbakka was a smart ruler.
Even though she was a Jain, she made it a point to have people of all sects and castes represented in her administration and army. She even forged alliances with the Zamorin of Calicut and Muslim rulers south of Tulunadu to ensure that she would get all the necessary support in her fight against the Portuguese.
Abbakka was able to push them back for over four decades. They tried several tactics and each failed. In 1581, a surprise attack with the help of the Viceroy of Goa, Anthony D’Noronha, caught Abbakka Devi off-guard. She called out to her army to fight fearlessly.
“Let us fight them on land and the sea, on the streets and the beaches,” was her battle cry as she faced the enemy. The legend begins to vary at this point. Many believe she was captured and put in jail, where she continued to revolt till the day she died. Others believe that she was wounded during the battle and was hidden in a secluded place by her loyal soldiers.
...who humiliated the British Empire
Rani Veli Nachiyar was born in 1730 AD to King Chellamuthu Sethupathy and Rani Sakandhimuthal of Ramanathapuram. Referred to by many as ‘India’s Joan of Arc’, she is believed to be the woman from a royal family who challenged the mighty British Empire.
Early Years: She was trained in weaponry and martial arts like kalari, sticks fighting, horse riding and archery. She had all the makings of a great warrior, including the thorough knowledge of the various war tactics. She was married off to Muthu Vaduganathan Periya Udaya Thevar of Sivagangai Royal family when she was 16 years old.
The Royal Life: The English forces invaded her kingdom in 1772 and her husband was killed in battle. She took a vow to avenge his death, but before she could do that, she knew she needed to forge strong alliances. She escaped with her daughter and sought the refuge of Hyder Ali at Virupachi, a sworn enemy of the British.
For almost eight years, burning with the need for revenge, she formed an army and sought the support of the sultan. In 1780, she went to battle against the British and won, thereby regaining her kingdom.
During her hiatus, she had trained a women’s army who fought by her side, taking her to victory. During the course of the battle, this army happened to stumble upon the ammunition depot of the British. Quickly, she created a human bomb, where one of the warriors, doused herself in oil, walked into the arsenal and lit herself, setting the entire place on fire.
This cumulated in the humiliating defeat of the British who left for good and this struggle took place years before the Mutiny of 1857, but you will find no information about this warrior or her victory in any of the history textbooks. She granted the administration of the area to the Marudu brothers, and a few years later, she passed away. On 31 December 2008, a commemorative postage stamp of her was released, paying tribute to this unsung heroine.
...the princess warrior who was named as a son
Rani Rudrama Devi was born to Ganapatideva, the emperor of the Kakatiya dynasty, who ruled a small region in present day Telangana. The king did not have any sons, and so through a Putrika ceremony, she was designated as a son and took up the name, Rudradeva.
She went on to become one of the greatest rulers the region had ever seen, and to date, she remains the only woman to have ruled that region
Early Years: After being nominated the heir, she began ruling as a co-regent, alongside her father. Eventually, The Pandyas, under the leadership of Jatavarma Sundara Pandya, invaded the kingdom.
Even though Ganapatideva managed to force the troops to retreat, they suffered heavy losses. The incident also caused him to lose his hold over his feudatories and nobles, all of which prompted him to retire.
The Royal Life: At the age of 14, Rudramadevi assumed full sovereignty, but she only celebrated her coronation after the death of her father in 1269 A.D. Nobles, who were unwilling to submit to a woman’s authority, did not approve of her succession to the throne.
Many even took up arms against her. On the other hand, some, such as the Kayastha chief and his brothers, and the Reddi chiefs, remained firmly loyal to the queen.
The Kalinga King Narasimha I who suffered a defeat previously at the hands of Ganapatideva, took advantage of the turmoil in the Kakatiya dominions and marched with his forces into the Godavari delta to recover his lost possessions. Rudramadevi along with her commanders fought them and inflicted a crushing defeat .
The dangers to her kingdom did not end there, however. The Sauna ruler Mahadeva, invaded the Kakatiya kingdom and the Yadava records credit him with victory against the Kakatiyas.
According to Hemadri’s Vrata-Khanda , he freed Rudramadevi ‘because of his reluctance to kill a woman, while the Pratapachantram mentions that Rudramadevi fought valiantly, causing Mahadeva to flee, but she pursued his forces upto Davagin and forced him to conclude a treaty with her and pay a crore of gold coins as war indemnity. However, all these accounts are one-sided, so their credibility is questionable.
Rudramadevi had trouble from the South, in the form of the Kayastha chief, Ambadeva. Ambadeva was an ambitious man who wanted to carve out an independent kingdom for himself. To pursue this dream, he was in constant wars with his neighbours during his long reign of thirty-two years.
He had stopped paying allegiance to the Kakatiya queen almost from the very beginning of his rule and with time he was able to establish a strong, extensive and independent Kayastha kingdom.
Rudramadevi could not tolerate the headstrong Ambadeva and so, she sent an army under her general Mallikarjuna to deal with the rebel chief. However, as the recently discovered Chandupatla (Nalgonda district) grant dated 1283 A.D. indicates, Ambadeva seems to have killed Rudramadevi along with Mallikarjuna Nayaka in battle in that year.
Rudramadevi was undoubtedly one of the greatest rulers of Andhra for her administrative qualities and gallant demeanour. Since she only had two daughters, she adopted Prataparudra II as her son and heir. Upon her demise, Prataparudra II ascended the throne of Warangal and he was successful in suppressing the Kayastha revolt during his reign.
...who worked as a British spy during World War II
Born on New Year’s Day in 1914 to an Indian father and American mother in Moscow, Noor Inayat Khan was an extremely phenomenal woman. Even though she was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, she never lived in India. She spent a good part of her childhood in London and France and after the fall of France, during the war, she escaped to London. While living in France she was a writer and then, during the World War II, she began spying for the British by working as a radio operator in occupied Paris.
Early Years: Her father was a Muslim Sufi who believed in the values that Mahatma Gandhi preached about. She was a pacifist, to the extent that in her initial interview with the British military, she told the interviewers that after the war, she would devote herself to obtaining India’s independence. Before she decided to enrol herself in the military, she used to write poetry, music, and children’s books.
Life As A Spy: Seeing her beloved France destroyed in front of her eyes was what pushed her to join the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) in 1940. In 1942, she was recruited by the British Special Operations Executive to work as a radio operator, even though most were doubtful of her abilities. In test interrogations, she would freeze up in terror; she was clumsy and scatterbrained, and regularly left codebooks out in the open—clearly, she did not seem to have the makings of a spy.
In 1943, she was flown to France to become the radio operator for the Prosper Resistance Network in Paris. Her character never left her, though. Her radio encryption code was derived from one of her poems, and her codename, Madeleine, was a character from one of her stories.
Less than a week after she joined, the entire spy operation, except her, was caught in a giant sweep. Even though authorities offered to extradite her, she refused to leave. She spent the summer moving from place to place, trying to send messages back to London while avoiding capture.
While the average expected lifespan for a spy was six weeks, she managed to evade the Gestapo for almost five months. All the while, she did the work of six people, relaying all of the spy traffic back to London by herself. Unfortunately, Khan was betrayed by a Frenchwoman and arrested by the Gestapo.
She tried to escape from the prison twice, but fate had other things in store for her. She was caught and classified as extremely dangerous, shackled in chains, and kept in solitary confinement. Her interrogations progressed from friendly to violent. Despite repeated torture, she refused to reveal any information.
In September 1944, Khan and three other female Special Operations Executive agents were transferred to Dachau concentration camp. While her companions were shot almost immediately after arrival, Noor’s execution was prolonged.
They let her live for one more day that was filled with nothing but physical torture. According to the other prisoners, right before the Nazis shot her, she screamed her last word, “Liberté.” She was only 30 years old.
...the first female freedom fighter
On October 23, 1778, one of the first warrior queens of India, Chennamma was born in a small village called Kakati now in the district of Belagavi. This warrior queen of Kanataka was the first female freedom fighter of India.
Early Years: There are no extensive records of her formative years; except those that say that she received training in horse riding, sword fighting and archery at a young age. When she was 15 years old, she was married to the ruler of Kittur, Mallasarja Desai.
The Royal Life: In 1816, her husband died, leaving her with a son and a state full of volatility. In 1824, her son passed away, leaving her with the task to protect the kingdom from the hands of the British. Rani Chennamma adopted Shivalingappa in the year 1824 and made him the heir to the throne, which irked the East India Company.
Using the Doctrine of Lapse, they ordered for the expulsion of Shivalingappa. The state of Kittur came under the administration of Dharwad collectorate in charge of Mr. Thackeray, who did not recognize the new ruler and regent and notified Kittur to accept the British regime. But, as expected, Kittur Rani Chennamma refused to give in to the demands.
The British invaded Kittur, tried to confiscate the treasure and jewels of Kittur and attacked with a force of 200 men and four guns. In the battle that ensued, hundreds of British soldiers were killed along with Thackeray. Unable to swallow their defeat and the humiliation that came with it, they brought in bigger armies from Mysore and Sholapur and surrounded the region. Rani Chennamma tried her best to avoid war, but eventually she was compelled to declare it.
She and her army fought hard, but she was betrayed by traitors, who mixed cow dung with gunpowder while firing from the canons. As a result, she lost to the British.
If not for this, it is possible that she could have won the battle and successfully pushed out the British. She was ultimately captured and imprisoned for life at the Bailhongal Fort. She spent her days in the prison reading holy texts and performing pooja till her death in 1829 AD.
Although her life was cut short, her determination to stand against the British had given the people of Kittur the courage to take on them. She inspired Sangolli Rayanna, a well-known freedom fighters of Karnataka, to continue fighting on her behalf. Unfortunately, he was arrested and subsequently hanged by the British a few years later.
...the one who broke the last leg of the Mughal empire
In the early half of 1700s the mighty Mughal empire would be shamed to defeat, thanks to the brilliance of a young widow named Tarabai Raje Bhonsle, the daughter-in-law of the beloved Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Incidentally, she was also the niece of Shivaji’s wife Soyrabai.
Despite belonging to such a prominent family, no one probably ever thought that she would be the one to protect the Maratha kingdom from the hand of the invaders. Though little is said in history texts regarding her efforts in keeping the Mughal occupation at bay, her role in the resistance after her husband’s death makes her integral to our history
Early Years: Tarabai was the daughter of Hambirao Mohite, the commander-in-chief of the Maratha army. Being a commander-in-chief’s daughter, she was well versed in the art of warfare, a quality that would come to be of great assistance in her later life. She was married of to Chhatrapati Rajaram, the third Maratha, at a very young age.
The Royal Life: After Shivaji’s death, Aurangzeb had initiated a big Deccan expedition, and throughout, he faced resistance from the Marathas. In 1697, Rajaram offered a truce, but this was rejected by the emperor. Rajaram died in 1700 at Sinhagad and Tarabai proclaimed her infant son as the successor and herself as the regent, and against all odds, spearheaded the resistance against a mighty foe.
She planned, strategised and even led various battles. For seven years, she carried out the struggle. By 1705, they had crossed the Narmada River and entered Malwa, then in Mughal possession.
The battle of Malwa was a decisive one. There was no room left for the Mughals to assume that they stood a chance of gaining control over this region. The death of Aurangzeb in 1707 brought the entire expedition to an end. The Mughals lost their eminent position on the Indian subcontinent forever and the subsequent emperors became mere titular kings.
The Mughals might have been losing their stronghold for a while before their defeat at Malwa and the end of the empire was long coming. However, to think that this woman was able to successfully bring this mighty empire to its knees, is simply admirable.