Her entrance on to the stage of history was something of an accident: Malhar Rao Holkar, a commander in the service of the Peshwa Bajirao and lord of the Malwa territory, stopped in Chaundi on his way to Pune and, according to legend, saw the eight-year-old Ahilyabai at the temple service in the village. Recognising her piety and her character, he brought the girl to the Holkar territory as a bride for his son, Khanderao (1723–1754). She was married to Khanderao in 1733.
Already trained to be a ruler, Ahilyadevi petitioned the Peshwa after Malhar’s death, and the death of her son, to take over the administration herself. Some in Malwa objected to her assumption of rule, but the army of Holkar was enthusiastic about her leadership. She had led them in person, with four bows and quivers of arrows fitted to the corners of the howdah of her favourite elephant. The Peshwa granted permission, and, with Tukoji Holkar (Malhar Rao's adopted son) as the head of military matters, she proceeded to rule Malwa in a most enlightened manner. Ahilyadevi never observed purdah but held daily public audience and was always accessible to anyone who needed her ear.
Among Ahilyadevi's accomplishments was the development of Indore from a small village to a prosperous and beautiful city; her own capital, however, was in nearby Maheshwar, a town on the banks of the Narmada river. She also built forts and roads in Malwa, sponsored festivals and gave donations for regular worship in many Hindu temples. Outside Malwa, she built dozens of temples, ghats, wells, tanks and rest-houses across an area stretching from the Himalayas to pilgrimage centres in South India. The Bharatiya Sanskritikosh lists as sites she embellished, Kashi, Gaya, Somnath, Ayodhya, Mathura, Hardwar, Kanchi, Avanti, Dwarka, Badrinarayan, Rameshwar and Jaganathpuri. Ahilyadevi also rejoiced when she saw bankers, merchants, farmers and cultivators rise to levels of affluence, but did not consider that she had any legitimate claim to any of that wealth, be it through taxes or feudal right. She must, in fact, have financed all her activities with the lawful gains obtained from a happy and prosperous land.
Ahilyadevi’s capital at Maheshwar was the scene of literary, musical, artistic and industrial enterprise. She entertained the famous Marathi poet, Moropant and the shahir, Anantaphandi from Maharashtra, and also patronised the Sanskrit scholar, Khushali Ram. Craftsmen, sculptors and artists received salaries and honours at her capital, and she even established a textile industry in the city of Maheshwar.
An English poem written by Joanna Baillie in 1849 reads:"For thirty years her reign of peace,
The land in blessing did increase;
And she was blessed by every tongue,
By stern and gentle, old and young.
Yea, even the children at their mothers feet
Are taught such homely rhyming to repeat
"In latter days from Brahma came,
To rule our land, a noble Dame,
Kind was her heart, and tright her frame,
And Ahlya was her honoured name."
This great ruler in Indore encouraged all within her realm to do their best, Merchants produced their finest cloths, trade flourished, the farmers were at peace and oppression ceased, for each case that came to the queens notice was dealt with severely. She loved to see her people prosper, and to watch the fine cities grow, and to watch that her subjects were not afraid to display their wealth, lest the ruler should snatch it from them. Far and wide the roads were planted with shady trees, and wells were made, and rest-houses for travellers. The poor, the homeless, the orphaned were all helped according to their needs. The Bhils who had long been the torment of all caravans, were routed from their mountain fastnesses and persuaded to settle down as honest farmers.
The stamp issued on Rajmata Ahilyadevi Holkar
Ahilyabai Holkar's magnificent and glorious rule ended when she passed away in 1795. In memory and honour of her greatness, the Republic of India issued a commemorative stamp on 25 August 1996. The citizens of Indore also instituted an award in her name in 1996, to be bestowed annually on an outstanding public figure, the first recipient of it being Nanaji Deshmukh.