Tucked away in the dusty town of Sardhana in Meerut district – an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Delhi – is the largest church in north India. Now declared a minor Basilica, the church of Our Lady of Graces, is a beautiful monument and a tribute to an amazing woman- Begum Samru, the only Roman Catholic ruler in India.
The story goes that Begum Samru (originally known by the name of Farzana) was born in the estate of her Mughal nobleman father, Latif Ali Khan of Arab descent. Following Latif Ali Khan’s death, his elder wife and son threw Farzana and her mother out of the estate. The two found themselves on the lanes of Delhi’s Chawri Bazaar, from where Latif Ali Khan had brought her mother. Broken in spirit, the mother too died soon after.
From a child orphan, Farzana traversed a long journey: she was trained as a dancer by the famous courtesan, KhanumBai, caught the attention of Walter Reinhardt, a gentleman of fortune who was high in the service of the Emperor Shah Alam, owned her own private army and,after the death of Reinhardt,ruled Sardhana for over 50 years.
It was the gardikawaqt, the worst of times. After Nadir Shah’s invasion of India in 1739, the Mughal Empire started crumbling. By the end of the 18th century, it was said about the Mughal ruler Shah Alam that his writ ran only up to the Delhi suburb of Palam. He barely had 5,000 troops. With no strong central power, all were scrambling for a piece of the pie.
This was also the heyday for European mercenaries, trained in European technology and organization who offered their services to the highest bidder.
Walter Reinhardt Sombrewas one such mercenary who came to India in 1750 as part of the French army.He had a very swarthy complexion and most of his European Comrades had used the sobriquet of “Le Sombre” the name, Sombre, was adopted by his family.
Walter Reinhardt owed allegiance only to those who paid him at the moment. He served under Lord Dupleix, but he left them for a corps of Swiss mercenaries in the employ of the East India Company.
However, he seems to have done a great deal of wondering one wayand another ultimately he went over to Mir Qasim, the Nawab of Bengal.
With the help of Walter ReinhardtSombre, Mir Qasim, chafing under British dominance, reoccupied Patna, after carrying out the massacre of about 150 Englishmen. Now called the Butcher of Patna, Reinhardt fled British retribution to Oudh.
According to some historians, it was sometime in 1765, at the age of 45, Sombre dropped into KhanumBai’skotha for an evening of entertainment and met the charming 15-year-old Kashmiri dancer Farzana, who he soon moved to his zenana. Many Europeans maintained large harems.Farzana became Sombre’scompanion and comrade in arms.
(According to some historians it was her mother and notFarzana who was dancing girl. Similarly, it not clear whether she actually married Sombre).
But that they were of Kashmiri descent and ruled the Principality of Sardhan is not in doubt.
Meanwhile,Walter ReinhardtSombreoffered his services to various nobles including the Jat rulers of Deeg who were fighting the Mughal forces under Najaf Khan.
Najaf Khan was so impressed by the fighting prowess of Sombre’s troops that he invited him to join the Mughals.
In the next three years of living in Delhi, Sombre and Farzana entrenched themselves in the Mughal court. No wonder they were rewarded with the rich jagir of SardhanaTehsil near Meerut.
However, Walter Reinhardt Sombredid not live long to enjoy his good fortune, and died in 1778. As per the norm, his son Zafaryab Khan from his first marriageshould have inherited the jagir. But Farzana who was now known Begum Samru (from Sombre) was not about to give up her powers without a fight: she managed to get her troops to support her, and used her influence with Najaf Khan to get Sardhanasecured for her.
She converted to Christianity and took the name of JoannaNobilisSamrubut she remained popular as Begum Samru in the region.
So the Begum began her career as the supreme commander of about 4,000 troops with about a 100-odd Europeans, and held court in Sardhana.
She would lead her troops into battle, and won many. She came to the help of hapless Shah Alam’s rescue many a time.
One instance was in 1783, when Baghel Singh occupied Delhi, and camped with 30,000 Sikh soldiers in the area which was thus named Tis Hazari. A petrified Shah Alam asked the Begum to negotiate: she managed to get rid of them for the right to build eight gurdwaras in Delhi and promise of octroi.
Shah Alam admired her military acumen and he started calling her his “beloved daughter” and gave her the title Zeb-un-nisa (ornament among women).
Meanwhile, George Thomas, an Irish dockworker turned Indian mercenary joined her in 1787. A bold fighter, he was the head of her troops and by many accounts her lover. He was known as Jahazi Sahib, the desi version of “George”.
Their partnership flourished and they won many a battle, but things changed, as they always do.
A French adventurer, Armand Levassoult joined her army and the Begum fell madly in love at the age of 40. She secretly married the Frenchman. However,Levassoult was very high-handed.And alienated everybody and her loyal troops.
Her stepson Zafaryab Khan decided to lead a revolt against her.
In true romantic style, the lovers fled, chased by the soldiers. They had a suicide pact, and just when they were about to be captured, the Begum in her palanquin stabbed herself. Seeing her blood-soaked clothes, Levassoult shot himself. The Begum however had not died, and her soldiers dragged her and tied her to cannon for days. When George Thomas heard about it, he came to her rescue post haste and restored her power.
In memory of Walter Reinhardt Sambru, She had an Italian-style basilica based on St Peter’s in Rome and also a palace built in Sardhana. The architect of the church was Antonio Reghellini, an. The highlight is an 18-foot sculptural monument showing the Begum holding her sanad surrounded by European and Indian courtiers.
It was completed in 1820. She sent a request to the Pope to send a Bishop. In a letter dated 21/1/1834, she wrote to him: “I am proud to say, it (the church) is acknowledged to be the finest, without exception, in India.”
The church was built at the princely cost of four lakhs and it was opened to the public.The church bears a great resemblance to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Begum Samru also patronized artists and poets and was also well-known in the European social circle for organizing opulent social gatherings. She died in 1836.She died childless, and the estate reverted to the Britishgovernment, which undertook to turn it over to its proper heirs.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Graces is a tribute to a formidable woman from orphan to estate ruler.
(The author is a noted management & media educator. He was earlier Regional Director, Discovery Channel ( South Asia)