40 Greatest Women From Indian History
Do you know who was the first female pilot from India? Or the first female freedom fighter? Have you heard about brave women like Chand Bibi and Obavva?
Find out about them and many more of the greatest women in Indian history. I have arranged the list alphabetically.
1. Ahilyabai Holkar - Queen of Malwa (1725 - 1795)
- Major Achievements: Philosopher Queen, Ideal Ruler.
- Description: After the death of her husband Khanderao Holkar, she became the queen of Malwa. Present day Malwa falls into western Madhya Pradesh and south-eastern Rajasthan. Under her, the capital of the kingdom was Maheshwar which is now a small town in Madhya Pradesh. Her reign lasted for 30 years and she ruled with utmost compassion and pride. During her time, the region prospered scaling many new heights. She is often cited as the "Philosopher Queen" and an "Absolute Ideal Ruler". As a tribute, Indore's domestic airport and university are named after her.
2. Amrita Sher-Gil - Painter (1913 - 1941)
- Major Achievements: Pioneer of modern Indian art.
- Description: Amrita Sher-Gil is one of the pioneers of modern Indian art. She died at an early age of 28 but her artworks are till today praised and sold for top dollar. Amrita started painting at the age of eight. She received recognition with her oil painting named Young Girls in 1932.
3. Anasuya Sarabhai - Social Worker and Trade Union Leader (1885 – 1972)
- Major Achievements: Trailblazer in women's labour rights.
- Description: Anasuya Sarabhai did her higher education at the London School of Economics. She could have settled in any foreign country and lead a life of comfort. But she chose India and helped women's by advocating labour rights. She is the first woman leader of a trade union in India. On her 132nd birthday, Google India celebrated with a doodle remembering her achievements.
4. Arati Saha - Long Distance Swimmer (1940 - 1994)
- Major Achievements: First Indian and Asian to complete the English Channel.
- Description: Arati Saha is the first Asian woman to swim across the English Channel. She completed the feat in 14 hours and 20 minutes in 1959. The distance which one has to swim is approximately 33 kilometres. Let that sink in!
5. Aruna Asaf Ali - Freedom Fighter (1909 – 1996)
- Major Achievements: Foremost women leader of the Quit India Movement and Bharat Ratna.
- Description: Now Aruna Asaf Ali has to be on the list of greats. She was an active freedom fighter who came into prominence during the Quit India movement, in 1942. Her flag hoisting during the movement at the August Kranti Maidan brought her to the forefront. Later, she became the third woman recipient of Bharat Ratna.
6. Asima Chatterjee - Scientist (1917 – 2006)
- Major Achievements: First woman scientist of India. Research in organic chemistry and medicinal plants.
- Description: Asima Chatterjee became the first woman scientist in India when she received a PhD in Organic Chemistry. She devoted her time extensively to develop anti-epileptic and anti-malarial drugs. Also, she wrote many research papers illustrating medicinal properties of plants. Google showed a doodle featuring her marking the 100th birth anniversary.
7. Begum Akhtar - Classical Singer (1914 – 1974)
- Major Achievements: Mallika-e-Ghazal, Padma Bhushan.
- Description: Begum Akhtar is known as "Queen of Ghazals" in the Indian classical singing circles. Most famous for ghazals, she also composed it. She is a Padma Bhushan awardee. Her death was rather tragic. During one of the performance in Kerala she felt her voice was low and raised it with considerable stress. That resulted in her being unwell and had to be shifted to a hospital. After some days, she breathed her last on 30th October 1974.
8. Captain Prem Mathur - Commercial Pilot (1910 - 1992)
- Major Achievements: First woman commercial pilot of India.
- Description: In the 1940s, most women were not even allowed to venture out of their home. The patriarchal system of our society as well didn't help. And then there were women like Prem Mathur committed for a positive change.
9. Chand Bibi - Warrior Monarch of Bijapur (1550–1599)
- Major Achievements: Defended Ahmednagar against Mughal emperor Akbar.
- Description: One of the bravest women of her times, she successfully defended her throne when Akbar's forces came invading. She defended her reign twice. Only to be killed in the third battle by her own companions as a rumour was spread that Chand Bibi was now joining hands with the Mughals.
10. Chandramukhi Basu - India's First Female Graduate (1860–1944)
- Major Achievements: First to clear Bachelor's degree in 1882 along with Kadambini Ganguly.
- Description: Now after so many years this will feel like a not so significant thing. But mind you they did at a time when English ruled. Though, the English were never against women's education.
11. Cornelia Sorabji - Lawyer (1866 – 1954)
- Major Achievements: First female advocate in India.
- Description: One fact for all the students reading this. She was also the first Indian to get admission to any British university. Upon returning India, she helped many women with legal matters.
12. Durga Bhabhi - Revolutionary Freedom Fighter (1907 – 1999)
- Major Achievements: Participated in armed revolution against British. Famous for the escaping act with Bhagat Singh after Saunders killing.
- Description: As I write this I am getting shivers thinking of her bravado. Reminds me of the movie Rang De Basanti in which Soha Ali Khan did all justice to her character.
13. Indira Gandhi - Iron Lady of India (1917 – 1984)
- Major Achievements: First and only female Prime Minister of India.
- Description: Strong-willed, disciplined, ruthless leader when it came to defending Indian interest. My father used to be a big fan of hers and collected various articles from newspapers and magazines. I too admire her. For me, she is the most successful prime minister of India.
14. Janaki Ammal - Scientist (1897 – 1984)
- Major Achievements: Research on sugarcane and brinjal.
- Description: The sugarcane juice that you had the other day might have been cultivated from the research findings of this lady. So, next time you quench your thirst with a glass of sugarcane juice think of her.
15. Jijabai Shahaji Bhosale - Shivaji's Mother (1598 – 1674)
- Major Achievements: Ideal mother, Rajmata.
- Description: There are many stories of Jijabai and her upbringing of Shivaji. It is her teachings that made Shivaji a warrior. Jijamata fostered Shivaji with faith, courage, and valour.
16. Justice Anna Chandy - High Court Judge (1905-1996)
- Major Achievements: First female judge of India.
- Description: She achieved this feat in the pre-independence era in 1937. After independence, in 1948, she became a district court judge. After serving 11 years at that position, in 1959, she was promoted to the high court in Kerala.
17. Mahaswetah Devi - Fiction Writer & Tribal Activist (1926 – 2016)
- Major Achievements: Sahitya Akademi Award (Bengali), Padma Vibhushan.
- Description: Apart from making her name with her short stories, poetry, and novels etc. She was a vocal advocate for rights of tribal people. Her major works include Hazar Churashir Maa and Aranyer Adhikar.
18. Kalpana Chawla - Astronaut (1962 – 2003)
- Major Achievements: First Indian woman in space.
- Description: I remember when Kalpana made her way into the space shuttle it was a big moment in India's history. Everywhere the heroics of her life was repeated. We were made to collect newspaper cutouts and write an essay on her in school. Her death was a big disaster.
19. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay - Social Activist (1903 – 1988)
- Major Achievements: Padma Vibhushan, Ramon Magsaysay award.
- Description: Kamaladevi was a frontrunner when it came to the upliftment of women. She did extensive work for women's rights and participated in the independence movement.
20. Kamala Das - Poetess & Columnist (1934 - 2009)
- Major Achievements : Sahitya Akademi Award, widely read columnist
- Description: She came to the limelight when she got her autobiography published. The controversial nature of the book worked to her advantage. Many of her columns in major newspapers were widely circulated. She again courted controversy when she converted herself to Islam at the age of sixty-five after criticising Hinduism.
21. Chennamma - Queen of Kittur (1778 – 1829)
- Major Achievements: Women warrior and patriot.
- Description: When the British started annexing the many princely states of India. She was amongst the first one who resisted it. Rani Chennamma defended her state for quite some time but then her troops could not sustain the continued assault. Eventually getting captured and imprisoned where she breathed her last.
22. Laxmibai - Rani of Jhansi (1828 – 1858)
- Major Achievements: Prominent personality in India's first war of Independence (1857).
- Description: Now that you all know about Jhansi's Rani and I won't regurgitate. Read the below poem which captures the essence of her courage. The below is just an excerpt.
No one knew if she was Laxmi or Goddess Durga,
She was an epitome of bravery,
Her sword skills even awed the great Marathas.— My translation from a poem written on her by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan
23. Lakshmi Sahgal - Freedom Fighter (1914 – 2012)
- Major Achievements: Senior leader in Indian National Army, Padma Vibhushan.
- Description: You must have seen photos of Subhash Chandra Bose and his army. In most photos you'll find this young lady, she is Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan.
24. M. S. Subbulakshmi - Carnatic Singer (1916 – 2004)
- Major Achievements: Queen of music, the second woman to receive Bharat Ratna.
- Description: A life dedicated to classical singing showcasing world the tradition of India. Jawaharlal Nehru regarded her as the "Queen of music" after seeing her perform live.
25. Madam Bhikaiji Cama - Freedom Fighter (1861 – 1936)
- Major Achievements: Prominent leader in the independence struggle.
- Description: Madam Cama was fierce in her approach and never batted an eyelid for going the extra mile. So much so that she got contracted with plague while helping other patients. Fortunately, she survived and continued her nationalistic activities.
26. Matangini Hazra - Revolutionary Leader (1870 – 1942)
- Major Achievements: Indian freedom fighter.
- Description: The history books that you studied in school does not mention her. No new-age political leader has mentioned in the many speeches that they give. Till her last breath, she participated in various movements organized for attaining complete freedom.
27. Mother Teresa - Founder: Missionaries of Charity (1910 – 1997)
- Major Achievements: Extensive work for the poor. Bharat Ratna.
- Description: A life working for the poor people of India. She received many awards in India and elsewhere in the world. Mother Teresa worked 24 x 7 selflessly for eradicating poverty and making lives better.
28. Onake Obavva - Warrior Women (18th Century)
- Major Achievements: Fought troops of Hyder Ali (Sultan of Mysore) all alone.
- Description: The story of her single-handedly killing forces of Hyder Ali is now a part of the folklore. She killed Hyder Ali's army with a pestle when she saw them. Effectively saving Chitradurga fort from getting captured.
29. Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati - Social Reformer (1858 – 1922)
- Major Achievements: Titled Pandita for her knowledge of Sanskrit at an early age. Saravasti for her scholarly work by Calcutta University.
- Description: She also participated in the freedom movement but was largely known for her advocacy of women's rights.
30. Rani Abbakka Chowta - Tuluva Queen (1525 – 1570s)
- Major Achievements: Regarded as the first woman freedom fighter of India, Fearless Queen.
- Description: Before the British came to set East India company, it was the Portuguese who as well came to capture several parts of India. Queen Abakka defended her kingdom for more than 40 years.
31. Rani Avantibai - Queen of Lodhi and Freedom Fighter (1800 - 1858)
- Major Achievements: Participation in 1857 revolt.
- Description: Avantibai became the queen when her husband fell ill. But she was more than capable of handling the affairs. She is often compared to Rani of Jhansi and Kittur Chenamma.
32. Rani Padmavati - Queen of Chittor (13th-14th century)
- Major Achievements: Defended Rajput pride by self-immolation when Alauddin Khalji wanted to capture her.
- Description: Though technically she is not an Indian as she was born in Sri Lanka. In her time, it was all Hindustan so she was a Hindustani of course. There are so many stories of her beauty and courage that one can even write a book about.
33. Rudrama Devi - Monarch Ruler of Kakatiya Dynasty (12th Century)
- Major Achievements: Historically known as Maharaja though she was a queen.
- Description: One of the most powerful woman ruler of the Kakatiya dynasty. She saved her kingdom from many invasion attempts. History remembers her with exceptional qualities with no one coming close to her personality.
34. Razia Sultan - Queen of Delhi Sultanate (1205 – 1240)
- Major Achievements: First and only female ruler of India
- Description: Some may disagree that she was the only female ruler of India. Undoubtedly, she was the first. She ruled the Delhi Sultanate for a short period of four years. Her rule of law was overturned when she fell in love with Yakut (a slave in her kingdom). Till date, her death remains shrouded in mystery. There are claims of at least 3 places of her burial in Kaithal, Tonk, and Delhi.
35. Rukmini Devi Arundale - Indian Classical Dancer (1904 – 1986)
- Major Achievements: Revived Bharatnatyam, Padma Bhushan, and the first woman to be nominated in Rajya Sabha.
- Description: She also features in the list of top 100 people who shaped India. Rukmini Devi also devoted time towards animal welfare and rights. Once she was offered the post of President of India by Morarji Desai. But she chose dance over the highest office in India.
36. Sarla Thakral - First Indian Woman to Fly Aircraft (1914 – 2008)
- Major Achievements: The first woman to clock more than 1000 hours of flying.
- Description: Despite her being the first one to do so, she couldn't become a commercial pilot. Though she was working towards getting one when her husband died in a plane crash. In her later life, she became a painter and also designed clothes, jewellery etc.
37. Savitribai Phule - Foremost Women's Right Activist (1831 – 1897)
- Major Achievements: Started the first girl's school with her husband.
- Description: She was as well the first teacher in the school which they started. She brought about many social reforms and changed mindsets of many. The University of Pune is renamed after her as Savitribai Phule Pune University.
38. Sitara Devi - Classical Dancer (1920 – 2014)
- Major Achievements: Empress of Dance (Nritya Samragni), Kathak queen.
- Description: She propagated Kathak style of dancing and did shows all around the world. On her 97th birthday, Google India dedicated its homepage showing a doodle on her.
39. Sarojini Naidu - Freedom Fighter and Poet (1879 - 1949 )
- Major Achievements: Known as the "The Nightingale of India".
- Description: Sarojini Naidu was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi. Having been the President of Indian National Congress in 1925 she participated in the freedom struggle.
40. Tarabai - Regent of Maratha Empire (1675 - 1761 )
- Major Achievements: Defended Maratha empire against the Mughals.
- Description: Tarabai led her army and successfully defended it against foreign powers. The widowed queen was brought to the forefront when her husband Rajaram Bhosle died. She was a genius strategist with immense political acumen.
41. Usha Mehta - Gandhian Freedom Fighter (1920 – 2000)
- Major Achievements: Padma Vibhushan, host of the secret Congress Radio during Quit India movement.
- Description: She participated in the independence struggle and was jailed for six months for hosting the secret radio show. The show provided information to various leaders who fought against the British. After independence, she became a lecturer at the University of Bombay. Usha Mehta advocated Gandhi's philosophy and teachings throughout her life.
I did extensive research to write this article. Hope you like and have discovered many new great personalities and are inspired by them.
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© 2017 Kannan Reddy