Rising above the challenges, knowing the accepting nature of her husband the Maratha Senapati in Gujarat and ruling the jagirs (feudal land) when her elder son was killed in battle, Umabai Dabhade carved her name and became the first woman commander-in-chief of the Maratha army.
Today, Umabai story of bravery has been washed out from public memory, and her portraits are almost unknown to the people of India
However, her courage in standing up against the Peshwa’s taxes on her subjects and the “women’s war” that she fights along with Shivaji’s daughter-in-law is a chapter of history that deserves a special mention.
She was the daughter of Devrao Thoke also known as a “ Deshmukh of Abhonkar.”(Head of the state)
At a very young age, she got married to Khanderao Dabhade, the eldest son of Shivaji’s bodyguard, Yesaji.
Even as she was the third and youngest wife of Khanderao, Umaji did not lose the headstrong spirit and determination that she was known for as a child. She never bowed down to societal norms without questioning them, not when her father-in-law asked for it, neither when the Peshwa did.
She was once roaming around the palace of Tarabai, the queen of Chhatrapati Rajaram Bhosale here and there. In the Playfully mood, she picked up a pair of gold anklets (Toda, specifically) from her jewelry box and wore them. Yesaji, her father-in-law saw this and told her to take them off immediately. Not because they belonged to the queen Tarabai, but because gold anklets are worn only by royal women and not by the Dabhade clan.
Umabai decided to work hard so that she could confidently wear the “royal” jewelry.
After her husband, Khanderao’s death on (27 September 1729), Trimbakrao, the eldest son of Umabai, took charge as the Senapati. At this time, Bajirao I was the Peshwa of the Maratha kingdom. The two were on loggerheads about the Chauth tax.
This annual tax levied on 25 % of the revenue was the main source of income for the Dabhades. After Khanderao’s death, Bajirao was planning to take over the tax collections from the Gujarat province, which led the commander-in-chief to a battle.
Trimbakrao the eldest son of Umabai was killed in this battle in 1731, and all his position were offered to Yashwantrao, his younger brother and so, Umabai became the Dabhade matriarch.
Under the leadership of Chhatrapati Shahu, the Peshwa allowed the Dabhades to continue collecting the Chauth tax as long as they gave half of their collections to the Commander in chief. Umabai pretended to reconcile with the Peshwa.
He was still sympathetic and did not take any harsh steps. This continued until Peshwa Bajirao’s death in 1740 and Chhatrapati’s death nine years later.
When Rajaram II, the new Chhatrapati, took over along with his Peshwa, Balaji, Dabhades faced severe financial trouble. As a result, they decided to force the Dabhades into paying their dues.
Umabai unsuccessful petitions against Peshwa led by Tarabai, the Maratha queen, to propose an alliance of the two women rulers. Tarabai wanted a direct war, but Umabai was leaning towards a more understanding.
During one meeting, while the Maratha chief was trying to convince the Peshwa to let her have the Chauth tax without paying her dues, Tarabai imprisoned the Chhatrapati Rajaram 2.
After that, the women leaders came together against the Peshwa in the most real sense. Sensing that a battle between Tarabai and the Peshwa was imminent, Umabai formed a force of soldiers under her command to aid Tarabai. Damaji Gaikwad was leading the army.
However, the Peshwa defeated this army and imprisoned Gaikwad. He demanded that Umabai pay an equivalent of Rs 25,00,000 and surrender half of the Gujarat territories as war indemnity. Gaikwad pleaded that he was just a subordinate and be let go so the Peshwa can have a dialogue with Umabai.
Even as Balaji let Gaikwad go, he launched a surprise attack on him and his army a month later and held him and the Dabhades captive. Umabai, Yashwantrao, his younger brother Sawai Baburao among others were at the mercy of the Prime Minister.
Perhaps their situation would have been better if the Gaikwad hadn’t betrayed them and collaborated with the Peshwa. Gaikwad was made the Maratha chief of Gujarat, and as a compensation to the Dabhades, he promised to pay an annual maintenance expense.
Even as Umabai lost her fortune to her army commander, the courage she showcased while standing up to the Peshwa is hardly shown by anyone else.
The Senapati’s sword that Umabai used in a battle. Very few people today know about her story, but she holds a unique position in the Maratha history–that of the first woman chief of one of the largest kingdoms that existed in modern India.