Ramabai Ambedkar

(Ashok Gopal’s A Part Apart: The Life and Thought of B.R. Ambedkar, the comprehensive biography of Babasaheb Ambedkar published by Navayana on the eve of the 132nd birth anniversary, sheds new light on a range of issues. In this exclusive excerpt for The Satyashodak, we come to terms with the story of Ramabai, Ambedkar’s first wife whom he married in the year 1907 in Mumbai. Gopal tracks original Marathi sources and documents to piece together this story. All the footnotes in the book are included here in superscript with numbering. The photos are from the archivist Vijay Surwade’s collection featured in the Navayana edition.)

In a lavishly produced 400-page photo-biography of B.R. Ambedkar published under the BAWS project, there are only three photographs of his first wife, Ramabai, and one of them, a formal family photo taken in 1934, is laden with meaning (BAWS 22: 96).1 The original glass negative of this photo was found, along with negatives of several photographs of Ambedkar and his associates, by Vijay Surwade and a fellow researcher, Naresh Shambarkar, in the tiny, dusty attic of Veer Photo Studio at Parel Naka, Mumbai, close to Ambedkar’s first office. Against a background of potted plants, seated at the extreme left is an unsmiling, twenty-two-year-old man, Yeshwant Ambedkar, in a full-sleeve shirt and full-length trousers that don’t cover all of his slim frame. His shoulders slumped, his head tilted forward, he is peering at the photographer with something like suspicion. Next to him, in a finely tailored black suit and matching black trousers, is his stern, heavily built father wearing round spectacles. One cannot help but notice his high forehead—and the shine on his polished, black shoes. Seated close to Ambedkar’s feet is a fox terrier called Toby. Panting, he is looking away from the photographer. But neither Toby, nor Ambedkar, nor the other people in the photo—Ambedkar’s sister-in-law and her children—draw the eye as much as the frail woman in the centre of the frame. Wearing a traditional Marathi sari and a three-fourth-sleeve blouse that reveal her bony arms, she is looking at the photographer with an expression of utter weariness. Her deep, sad eyes speak of a saga of sorrow endured till her death, one year after the photo was taken.

Her sorrow is at the centre of a Ramabai legend that has emerged in recent times in some Dalit Marathi circles (Rege 2013: 33–40). Over the years, many booklets have been published about her, and a large number of songs have been composed, attributing her with saintly qualities. The story of her life is told dramatically at Dalit melas held on days such as Ambedkar Jayanti, and many listeners are moved to tears. The making of the Ramabai myth and its implications are subjects to be studied, but here we can only take note of the scant information available about her and her relations with Ambedkar.2 The myth-making took a ridiculous turn in 2020 when Hindi and English translations of a letter purportedly written by Ambedkar to Ramabai, which was actually written by the Ambedkarite Marathi litterateur, Yashwant Manohar, in his novella, Ramai (1991), was widely circulated through social media as a ‘historic love letter’ around Valentine’s Day.

Ramabai (centre), with Ambedkar, their fox terrier Toby, their son Yeshwant (far left), Ambedkar’s sister-in-law Laxmibai, and her children, Gangadhar (lap) and Mukund (far right) at Rajgraha, the bungalow in Hindu Colony, Dadar, where they came to live in 1933–34.

We cannot even be sure about bare facts. Khairmode and Keer reported that at the time of her marriage, Ramabai’s name was Rami and she was nine or ten years old. But in an interview he gave in 1974, Yeshwant, Ramabai’s only surviving child, said that his mother’s natal name was Parvati, and she was twelve to fifteen years old when she got married (Y. Ambedkar 1974/2010: 14). Both Khairmode and Keer reported that her father’s name was Bhiku Walangkar, but Yeshwant said his grandfather was called Bhikaji Wanandkar, as he hailed from Wanand, a village near Dapoli (1974/2010: 14–15). His original surname is said to have been Dhutre (also written ‘Dhotre’). Some writers have claimed that the Dhutres were related to Gopalbaba Walangkar, the social reformer mentioned earlier (K.N. Kadam 1991: 9–10; Hanwate 2021: 51). About Ramabai’s mother, all that is known is that she bore four children—three girls and a boy. She was sickly and passed away early (K 1: 60–61). The children were brought up by their father, who earned a living by carrying baskets of fish at Harne Port, near Dapoli. One day, while at work, he vomited blood and passed away. The children were brought to Mumbai by an uncle, who lived near the old Byculla market. Ramji had by then arranged Anandrao’s marriage, and spoken with the parents of some girls for Ambedkar’s marriage. But after he saw Parvati/Rami, he chose her as the bride. When the wedding was announced, the parents of the other girls objected, and Ramji had to settle the issue by paying a fine to the Mahar jati panchayat (caste council). The wedding was held sometime around 1907, when Ambedkar had barely finished schooling. (Enforced child marriage was the norm across social groups. Well-known cases included Tilak, Gandhi and Nehru.) Recounting the event to his aide B.H. Varale in 1953, Ambedkar said the lagnasohala (wedding feast) was held in front of a small Hanuman temple near the Byculla railway station, and as there were not enough plates, some guests had to eat out of the tavas (griddles) used for cooking (B.H. Varale 1988: 272).3 The wedding itself was held in a ‘strange’ place, an open shed of the Byculla fish market, after it had closed for the day (Keer 1954/2002: 20).

Ramabai had not gone to school. She was obsessively religious, and like her mother, she fell ill often. In her first fifteen years of marriage, Ambedkar was out of the country for seven years, studying in New York and London, in 1913–17 and 1920–23. When he left for New York in June 1913, she was in her teens, her father-in-law Ramji had just passed away, she had delivered one child, Yeshwant, and she was carrying the second time. The second child did not live for long, and Yeshwant (born on 12 December 1912) was weakly since birth. In November 1914, Ambedkar’s elder brother, Anandrao, the breadwinner of the family, passed away after suffering from piles. Ambedkar’s eldest brother, Balaram, and his wife lived with the family intermittently from December 1915, but contributed little to the monthly expenses (K 2: 76). There were several mouths to feed in the house—Ramabai and Yeshwant, Ramabai’s siblings Shankar and Gaurabai, and Anandrao’s wife Laxmibai and her son Mukund—and they had to make do with the money Ambedkar sent from the scholarship he received for his studies. Only two bhakris could be made per meal, and Ramabai and Laxmibai ate small portions after feeding the children (R.B. Varale 1991/2011: 44). After Ambedkar left for London in July 1920, Shankar and Gaurabai took up manual labour to earn some money. When Shankar was unable to get work, all the women of the house walked to Worli and toiled the whole day making cowdung cakes for a few coins. Ramabai and Yeshwant walked long distances to procure firewood at a low cost—this activity was done after dark, so that the neighbours did not learn about the plight of the family (K 2: 67–68).

Over and above poverty and hunger, Ramabai suffered the early death of all four children born after Yeshwant. On how she endured all this, we have only some glimpses, as told by Radhabai Varale (1991/2011), B.H. Varale’s wife. Ambedkar himself spoke about Ramabai publicly only once, in a literary manner. Thoughts on Pakistan, his first published book—other than his dissertations—which came out six years after she had passed away, carried this dedication:

Inscribed to the memory of Ramu
As a token of my appreciation of her goodness of heart, her nobility of mind and her purity of character and also for the cool fortitude and readiness to suffer along with me which she showed in those friendless days of want and worries which fell to our lot.

That description of Ramabai is not complete. From Khairmode’s account, we can gather that, unlike other people who were close to Ambedkar, she was not overpowered by his personality and argued with him often about the scant time he gave to the family (K 2: 108). She told Radhabai Varale that when Ambedkar pushed her to learn to read and write, she snapped at him: ‘I am illiterate. If that bothers you, get an educated woman as your second wife. But I am not going to study at this age.’ He flew into a rage and shut himself in a room, but that didn’t perturb her. She told Radhabai that she was used to seeing him behave like ‘a small child’ (R.B. Varale 1991/2011: 49).

From one of Ambedkar’s letters to Ramabai, which is reproduced by Khairmode, we can gather that she did make an attempt to become literate. Written in Marathi, from London in November 1921, the letter is in the telegraphic prose of a man who cares for his family but has no time for them.

Dear Ramu, Namaste
Received the letter. Sad to hear that Gangadhar is ill. That is fate. No point worrying about him. That you are continuing with your studies is heartening news. Am making arrangements about money matters. I get meagre food. So have no money to send. Even so, I am making arrangements for you people. If this takes time and the money gets over, then sell the ornaments and feed yourselves. On my return, I will make up for the loss of jewellery. How are Yeshwant and Mukund’s studies? Not heard anything about that. My health is okay. Have no worries. Have not finished studies. Does not look like I will return in June. Will inform later.
Haven’t heard anything about Sakhu and Manjula. When you receive the money, buy saris (one each) for Manjula and Laxmi’s mother.

What news of Shankar? How is Gajra? (K 2: 68)4 Ramabai had a son named Gangadhar, who died early. Her sister-in-law Laxmibai also had a son named Gangadhar who also died in infancy. The ‘Gangadhar’ mentioned in the letter is probably Laxmibai’s son (Vijay Surwade, personal communication, 27 September 2022). Manjula was one of Ambedkar’s sisters. ‘Gajra’ may have been the nickname of Ramabai’s sister, Gaurabai, or Shankar’s wife, Gowri. The identity of ‘Sakhu’ is not known.

A letter from Ambedkar to Ramabai on 17 July 1920, when he was on his way to London to resume his studies.

Ramabai was not part of Ambedkar’s public life, but in her own way, she tried to follow his ideals and support him. In 1929, when she, Yeshwant, Laxmibai and Mukund were staying with the Varales in Dharwad for some days, she attended an inter-caste tea party organised by Varale and some other local followers of Ambedkar (R.B. Varale 1991/2011: 39–40).5Delighted to hear about Ramabai’s participation, Ambedkar asked Varale, ‘How did his Maharbhatin (Brahmanical Mahar woman) change?’ (R.B. Varale 1991/2011: 40).

Later, when there was no money to buy provisions to feed Untouchable students in a hostel run by Varale, she offered to pawn her jewellery. In early 1930s, when Ambedkar was struggling to raise funds for the construction of a bungalow in Mumbai, she agreed to sell her jewellery (54).

Ramabai worried constantly about the virulent opposition he faced. In December 1927, when there was a rumour that he had been attacked by some Savarnas at Raigad fort, near Mahad, she broke down. Ambedkar could not assuage her worries. When some of his colleagues brought the matter up, he said he didn’t relate to his family as well as he did to his books. But, he added, ‘I don’t express love the way you people do, therefore you think I am heartless. But that is absolutely false.’ In his family, there had been a pattern in the behaviour of men towards their wives, he said. ‘That is the baal kadu (an ayurvedic formulation given to children) of our family. It has had some effects on the males. That must be the cause of my behaviour’ (K 3: 224).

On 27 May 1935, Ramabai who was bedridden since January breathed her last. Breaking down, Ambedkar wept like a child.


In 1923, Govindrao Tipnis’s twenty-five-year-old son, Surendranath (‘Suraba’, ‘Nana’), was elected as the president of the Mahad municipality due to a plot hatched by members opposed to the candidate who was expected to bag the post, a Brahmin lawyer, Bandopant Joshi (Z. Kamble 2004: 73–74). Brought up in ‘Govind Niwas’, a house known in Mahad as the centre of reformist ideas, Suraba Tipnis became part of Ambedkar’s circle through his brother-in-law, Anantrao Chitre. On 5 January 1924, Tipnis got a resolution passed in the Mahad municipality for the implementation of the Bole Resolution (72–73). No further steps were taken in this regard, but the idea of holding a conference of Untouchables in Mahad gained ground. Ambedkar asked Anantrao to visit Mahad, but eventually it was Anantrao’s CKP neighbour and friend, Kamalakant Chitre, who went.6Both the Chitres—not related to each other—lived in Bachubai building near Ambedkar’s office. Kamalakant Chitre was to become one of Ambedkar’s trusted associates, managing Ambedkar’s personal matters such as his financial dealings and the construction of his bungalwo, Rajgraha, in Dadar (Y. Bagul 2021: 4, 11).

Both the Chitres were employed—Kamalakant was a typist in the Bombay Municipal Corporation and Anantrao managed a cooperative printing press (Surwade 2003/2014: 29)—but they gave all their spare time to Ambedkar. Towards the end of 1925, Kamalakant visited Mahad, and held a meeting with Mahar activists from several neighbouring villages. One of the important participants was an army man, Subhedar Vishram Sawadkar, who assured Kamalakant that sufficient funds would be raised for the event.7 Sawadkar had started a hostel for Untouchable students in Mahad, which was named after him after his death (Surwade 2003/2014: 258–59). His son, Kashinath, was also associated with the Ambedkar movement.

On his return to Mumbai, Kamalakant gave Ambedkar a report of all the favourable conditions: a resolution in the municipality, and organisational and financial arrangements assured by the Mahars (S. More 2019: 140).

In 1926, some events gave momentum to the plan for holding the conference. Acting on the Bole Resolution, Ramchandra Chandorkar, a Chambhar leader of Goregaon village, 20 kilometres from Mahad, jumped into a public reservoir that was barred to Untouchables. Caste Hindus reacted by attacking the Mahars and Chambhars of the village. In Mumbai, the Mahar Seva Sangh (Mahar service association), a voluntary body started by Sambhaji Gaikwad held protest meetings, and raised funds for the victims of the violence. R.B. More, the secretary of the Sangh, called a public meeting in Dasgaon on 4 December 1926, and led a march of around two hundred Untouchables to a public reservoir and well in the village. Watched by policemen, they drank water from both these sources. The Caste Hindus of the village were too stunned to react (S. More 2019: 143).

Meanwhile, Ambedkar’s personal life underwent a transformation (K 2: 116–18). On 15 June 1924, Ramabai had delivered a baby boy. Three children born earlier—named Gangadhar, Ramesh, and Indira (Indu)—had died at an early age. Called Rajratna, the last-born was showered with love and care. But he came down with a bad case of double pneumonia. On 19 July 1926, he passed away. Rushing home from court, Ambedkar broke down. As people around watched in shock, he banged his head against the walls, sobbing loudly. That night, after the funeral, he went to sleep in his office. A month later he wrote to his friend Dattoba Powar:

There is no use pretending that my wife and I have recovered from the shock of my son’s death and I do not think that we ever shall. We have in all buried four precious children, three sons and a daughter, all sprightly, auspicious and handsome …. With the loss of our babies the salt of our life is gone, and as the Bible says, ‘Ye are the salt of the earth, if it leaveth the earth wherewith shall it be salted?’8‘Ye … salted’ is from the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew. The meaning of the sentence is disputed. I feel the truth of this every moment in my almost vacant and empty life. My last boy was a wonderful child the like of whom I had seldom seen. With his passing away, life to me is a garden full of weeds. (K 2: 117–18)

After Ramabai’s death, Ambedkar tonsured his head as part of a treatment he underwent for a persistent headache at the Kaivalyadhama Ayurvedic Centre in Lonavala. On his return to Mumbai, Ambedkar got a kafani stitched, and had this photo taken in Veer Photo Studio, Parel.

The Biblical and metaphorical references do not reveal other changes that were reported by Khairmode (K 2: 118–19). Ramabai became weak and depressed. Ambedkar started living in the office, turning up at home only occasionally. Food was sent to him from home. Some days the lunchbox was returned unopened. On those days, Ramabai would also not eat. When he got to know of this, Ambedkar ensured that the lunchbox was not sent empty—if he didn’t feel like eating, he forced one of his colleagues to finish the food. Around March 1927, he was struck by malarial fever. Even then he did not go home. Ramabai turned up at the office. People around stepped out. Massaging her husband’s feet and forehead, she pleaded, ‘Come home.’ Shouting, he told her to go away. She left sobbing. Khairmode wrote: ‘After turning his back in this manner on his wife, family and personal joy and sorrow, Saheb started a new life focusing all his attention on reading, writing, legal practice and the social movement.’9Ambedkar’s distancing from his family was also reported by his son, Yeshwant (1974/2010: 19–20). One of Ambedkar’s close Mahar aides, Shantaram (‘Guruji’) Upsham, recalled that Ambedkar would go home on Sundays (in Ramteke et al. 2010: 74).

Key to Abbreviatons:

BAWS — Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, multiple volumes
K — Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar by C.B. Khairmode, multiple volumes


Ambedkar, Yeshwant. 1974/2010. “Ek premal pita” (A loving father). Interview conducted by Usha Purohit. In Ramteke et al. 2010.
Bagul, Yogiraj. 2021. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar aani Tyanche Dalitetar Sahakari: Bhaag-2 (Dr Ambedkar and his Non-Dalit Associates: Part 2). Mumbai: Granthali.
Hanwate, Prem. 2021. Gopalbaba Walangkar: Ambedkar Chalvaliche Aadharwad (Gopalbaba Walangkar: The Banyan Tree that Sustained the Ambedkar Movement). Pune: Sandeep Prakashan.
Kadam, K.N. 1991. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Significance of His Movement: A Chronology. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan.
Kamble, Zhumbarlal. 2004. Mahadcha Muktisangram aani Nanasaheb Tipnis (Mahad Freedom Struggle and Nana Tipnis). Pune: Sugava Prakashan.
Keer, Dhananjay. 1954/2002. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Life and Mission. Reprint of third edition. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan.
More, Satyendra. 2019. “The biography of Ramchandra Babaji More.” Translated by Wandana Sonalkar. In Memoirs of a Dalit Communist: The Many Worlds of R. B. More. Edited by Anupama Rao. New Delhi: LeftWord Books. Original work published 2003.
Ramteke, S.N., J. Kamble and S. Tardalkar. 2010. Babasahebanchya Sahvasateel Suvarnashan (Golden Moments with Babasaheb). Pune: Sugava Prakashan.
Rege, Sharmila, ed. 2013. Against the Madness of Manu: B.R. Ambedkar’s Writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy. New Delhi: Navayana.
Surwade, Vijay. 2003/2014. Samkaaleen Sahkaryanchya Aathvanitil Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (Recollections of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Associates). Mumbai: Lokvangmaya Griha.
Varale, Balwant Hanamantrao. 1988. Dr Ambedkarancha Saangaati (Dr Ambedkar’s Companionship). Pune: Shrividya Prakashan
Varale, Radhabai Balwantrao. 1991/2011. Matoshree Ramabai Ambedkar Yaancha Sahavasat (In the Company of Respected Mother Ramabai Ambedkar). Aurangabad: Kaushalya Prakashan.

(Excerpted from pp. 97–101 and pp. 231–233 of A Part Apart: The Life and Thought of B.R. Ambedkar
published by Navayana.)

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