The year 1550 began in the worst possible way for Rani Durgawati. For the 26-year-old grieving widow, life would have looked like an insurmountable hurdle at this point. Durgawati was still very young and had had no experience of governing the kingdom. Indeed she had had very little political exposure when her father-in-law and then husband were on the throne. But now she knew she needed to act swiftly and decisively.

Garha was surrounded by neighbours who were envious of its prosperity. Till Dalpati’s demise, these hawks had been kept in check by the kingdom’s military reputation, mostly forged during Sangram Shah’s rule. Durgawati knew these neighbours were now watching the power play in Singorgarh with hawk-eyed interest.

Durgawati’s rule began in right earnest the day her trusted official Man Brahman anointed Bir Narayan, her five-year-old son, the new raja of Garha/Gadha Katanga. Contemporary sources do not give us a description of the coronation, but going by the guidelines laid out in the Prastab Ratnakar, the ceremony would have been held on a Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday under the planetary influence or Vedic nakshatra of Rohini, Pushya, Anuradha, and Dhanishtha.

According to the Fakirchand Akhara inscription, Dalpati Shah died on a full moon night in the month of Paush or January, Samvat 1605 (year 1550). Since the auspicious months for coronation, according to the Prastab Ratnakar, are Paush (January–February), Jayestha (May–June), Shravan (July–August) or Ashwin (September–October), it is not unreasonable to assume that by mid-October 1550, the boy-king was already on the throne of Garha. And Gond Rani Durgawati was firmly in charge of the realm as regent.

Contemporary descriptions paint an Arcadian portrait of Durgawati’s kingdom at the heart of India. Poet Keshav Dixit, for instance, offers this lyrical description of the queen and her kingdom in the Gadhesh Nrpa Varnan Sangraha Slokah: “Urbara sarvato bhumih madhyato Narmada nadi/ Vigya Durgawati ragyi Garha rajye trayogunah” (The kingdom of Garha has fertile farm lands everywhere with the Narmada river flowing through it and it is ruled by the learned queen Durgawati whose realm is full of accomplishments).

Abul Fazl gives a more detailed account of the kingdom of Garha. “The east part of the country adjoins Ratanpur which belongs to Jharkhand, and the west is contiguous to Raisen which belongs to the province of Malwa,” he writes in the Akbarnama. “Its length may be 150 kos (480 km east west). On the north is the country of Panna and on the south the Deccan. Its width may be 80 kos (256 km north
south).” The country, he says, is called Gadha Katanga. “It is an extensive tract and is full of forts and contains populous cities and towns.”

According to the Akbarnama, Garha contained 70,000 inhabited villages. The kingdom acquired its medieval name from the city of Gadha and the village of Katanga. Durgawati was backed by some of the ablest and senior-most ministers in her court – a support that allowed her to clash with her brother-in-law Chandra Shah, rebuff his claim to the throne and force him into exile in Chanda, a Gond kingdom to the south of Garha ruled by Karn/Karna Shah.

The Gadhesh Nrpa Varnam mentions this support, saying that Bir Narayan’s rule was “guided by his mother and the best of his ministers of exceptional intelligence (jananya subuddhina mantrireno saddhyam).”

The presence of Chandra Shah so close to her borders must have made Durgawati uneasy, and this was possibly one of the reasons why she sought recognition of Bir Narayan’s claim from the Mughal emperor who sent Gop Mahapatra and Narhari Mahapatra as imperial officials to her court. There is no doubt that an official named Narhari Mahapatra was part of Akbar’s court. Akbar apparently banned cow slaughter after reading one of Narhari’s poems.

This early interest in her realm and rule by the distant Mughal monarch should have sent a warning signal to Durgawati. After all, the kingdom that she inherited on her son’s behalf was considerable, covering 43 garh or fortress districts, each comprising 350–700 villages. These fortress districts were administrative units controlled either directly by the queen or through subordinate feudal lords (jagirdars) and junior rajas. The Gond administrative structure was considerably more federal than non-tribal kingdoms. Durgawati, for instance, had 23,000 cultivated villages in her possession, of which 11,000 were directly under her control. The remaining 12,000 were administered by local sardars, who often called themselves “raja” or “rai” and who owed alliance to the throne of Garha.

The raja of Lanji mentioned in earlier chapters was one such junior raja under Dalpati and later Durgawati’s rule. These subordinate rajas were in charge of general law and order in the land under their control and governed through village headmen or gram mukhiyas. The gram mukhiya was also called “patel,” and this official was responsible for tax collection in what was mostly a hereditary role. The common cultivator shared a part of his produce with either the jagirdar or directly with the queen. Apart from being the village taxman, the patel also doubled as policeman and judge for local disputes and received a regular salary or a parcel of land as compensation.

The sardars or subordinate Rajas also contributed arms and men to the king or queen of Garha in times of war. The recruitment, training and arming of these men was largely done by the sardar, and it was the feudal lords of the Garh that also paid their salaries. This decentralised structure was actually a huge disadvantage. It meant that Durgawati’s troops were not of uniform quality in terms of training and battle-readiness, a factor that became critical in the final battle of Narai Nala. It also meant that the feudal lords retained an unusual amount of hold over individual sections of the royal army, another factor that affected the outcome of the final battle.

Excerpted with permission from Rani Durgawati: The Forgotten Life of a Warrior Queen, Nandini Sengupta, Penguin.