How did an impoverished fourteen-year-old girl in a brothel go on to reign over a wealthy Indian kingdom for more than five decades, during a phase when the mightiest of empires crumbled? It is a story that needs to be heard.
I’m on a quest to discover the hidden historical heritage havelis in the alleys of Chandni Chowk in Delhi. I walk from the Red Fort towards the main street of Chandni Chowk, where a completely out-of-place Mc Donald’s restaurant announces itself on the right. I turn into the galli just before the restaurant, where an array of electrical gadgets are being sold at wholesale prices. It is jampacked with vendors and buyers. I’m looking for Begum Samru’s haveli. But I know that if I asked anyone where it is, I will draw a blank. So I ask instead for the route to the surgical market, and then I’m directed to ‘Bhagirath Palace’. Above brightly coloured boards announcing surgical and X-ray equipment, I find a blue Central Bank of India board. I have finally found my destination.
The decrepit haveli with colonial bearings, chik-like shades and Greek pillars is completely obscured by rickety air-conditioners and the grilled gate of the bank. People turn and stare when they find this woman clicking pictures of this ugly facade. They have no idea that these shop encroachments are in the midst of glorious history. But if you look closely enough, there is still lettering which announces “Lloyds Bank Limited” on top of the haveli.
So who was Begum Samru and why is this haveli of such historical import?
Who was Begum Samru?
Begum Samru was born Farzana in 1753. The story of how she ended up in Khanum Jan’s brothel is a little fuzzy. There are conflicting versions. Some say she was a Kashmiri girl abandoned on the street, who ended up in a kotha in Chawri Bazaar in Delhi. Others suspect that she was the daughter of a Mughal nobleman, Asad Khan (sometimes called Lutf Ali Khan), through a concubine, and had to shift to Delhi after her father’s death. She is described as one with lively wit, of pearly complexion, with flashing eyes, and slight stature of around four-and-a-half feet in height. She quickly became one of the most sought-after nautch girls in the area.
Farzana transforms into Begum Samru
At the end of the 18th century, after the death of Aurangzeb, the Mughal empire had considerably disintegrated. Shah Alam II’s troops had shrunk, and it was said that his empire extended only from Delhi to Palam. The empire was looted by marauders. It was a time when every local warlord or chieftain was trying to carve out their own kingdoms. In addition, the British, French and other European forces were slowly creeping in as rulers. It was a time when alliances changed overnight, and wars sprung out very often. The Battle of Plassey happened in 1757, the British gained control of Bengal. They captured Shah Alam after the Battle of Buxar in 1764, after which they were granted the right to collect taxes from Bengal.
During this period of turmoil, the European mercenaries made hay. Those who led troops of a few thousand men, offered their services to the highest bidder. Walter Reinhardt Sombre was a mercenary from Luxembourg (or maybe Salzburg in other versions), who first came to India in 1750 as part of the French army. His nom de guerre Sombre probably comes from his severe expression or dark complexion. Mir Qasim, the Nawab of Bengal was facing difficult times with the British army. Sombre soon shifted sides, and offered to aid Mir Qasim in his efforts to reclaim Patna. It is said that Sombre’s troops massacred around 150 Englishmen in that encounter. This earned him the sobriquet “The Butcher of Patna”.
One evening in 1765, the 45-year-old Sombre dropped in to the Chawri Bazaar brothel, where he was enamoured by the 15-year-old courtesan Farzana. It was a time when several Europeans maintained large harems. Sombre too had children from another mistress called Badi Bibi. Sombre soon moved the dancing girl Farzana to his zenana.
Fidelity was not one of Walter Reinhardt Sombre’s strengths. He continued to switch allegiances. He offered his military services to as many as fourteen rulers. He fought for the Jats of Deeg who occupied Agra. Although the Jats lost their battle with the Mughal forces in 1773, Sombre’s fierce troops caught the eye of Najaf Khan, a vizier in Shah Alam II’s court. Sombre and his troops switched sides again, and accepted the offer to join the Mughals.
Farzana was not one to be confined to the purdah or the zenana. Thanks to her quick wit and fearless demeanour, she quickly became Sombre’s confidante and comrade in arms. She led troops to battle, mounted on her horse, wearing a turban, all of four-and-a half-feet. Such was her winning streak, that it was rumoured that she was a witch!
In Delhi, she began to be called Begum Samru (Samru was the Indianized form of Sombre). Her ability to influence people was unparalleled and she was soon a favourite in the Mughal court. Sombre was made the governor of Agra.The Sombre couple’s influence was such that they were granted the rights to the wealthy jagir in the north of Delhi. The capital of this estate was Sardhana (near present day Meerut). In 1776, armed with a deed from Shah Alam II, the fiefdom yielded the couple about six lakh rupees in revenue per year. So from being reckless risk-takers they turned into rulers of a kingdom.
Sombre, however died within the next two years. According to tradition, Badi Bibi’s son Zafaryab Khan (alias Louis Balthazar) should have inherited the jagir. But Begum Samru knew how to play her cards well. She used her influence over the troops and Najaf Khan to be nominated the heir to Sombre’s Sardhana. She kept Zafaryab Khan in check by funding his luxurious life in Delhi, where he stayed immersed in poetry and the arts.
The Sovereign of Sardhana
Sardhana’s territory was as large as two English counties. Begum Samru was the supreme commander of around 4000 troops which were part of Sombre’s mercenary army. She commanded the loyalty of these men who included Indians, Frenchmen and Central Europeans. She was an intriguing presence, mercurial in temperament, and ruthless when required. She conformed to Mughal etiquette and purdah when the occasion demanded it. And then did not shy away from smoking a hookah and wearing a masculine turban when she held court. The purdah was shed when she dined with the European crowd. She created her own rules and broke them when suited.
She had the favour of the Mughals and negotiated with them with flair. She came to the rescue of Shah Alam II on several occasions, which led to her being conferred several honorific titles. One was Farzand-i-Azizi (beloved daughter of the state). Another was Zeib-un-nisa (“ornament among women”).
Somewhere in 1781, she inexplicably converted to Christianity. Was it to avoid the seclusion to the zenana? Or to find favour with the British? Or was it actually her conviction with a new faith? One will never be able decipher her mind. She took on a new name inspired by Joan of Arc. Farzana was now baptized as Begum Joanna Nobilis Samru. She is regarded as the only Catholic ruler in India.
Strangely she still retained the favour of the Mughals despite the change in religion. Even more confusing was the refusal to abandon Muslim customs. The Hindustani etiquette, the veil over her head, poetry, and celebrations of Indian festivals continued. In the world of Begum Sumru, religion, traditions and cultures existed in a fluid fusion. Inter-faith and international alliances were commonplace. There were several children with strange names who emerged from Anglo-Mughal marriages. Such plurality of beliefs would not be acceptable even in present times.
On one occasion in 1783, Baghel Singh camped in Delhi with 30,000 Sikh soldiers (which gives rise to the present day name “Tees Hazari”). Shah Alam was shaken and sent Begum Samru to mediate a deal. She skillfully avoided a clash, in exchange for the right to build eight gurudwaras in Delhi. And agreed to give away fraction of the revenue collected from just that year. It was a small price to pay for defeat. In 1788, a crazy Rohilla chieftain Ghulam Qadir invaded Delhi, and personally gouged out Shah Alam II’s eyes. He was vengeful as he had been captured and abused by the Mughals as a child. He offered Begum Samru marriage and ‘equality of power’. She rejected his proposal with contempt and sent her well-armed mercenary troops after him, chasing him out of Delhi.
When the heart rules the head
History records that despite her astute judgement and wisdom, the Begum did falter with matters of the heart, which led to tragic consequences. She had a torrid romance with an Irishman George Thomas in 1787, when he joined her troops in 1787. The locals called him Jahazi Sahib, a corruption of ‘George’. Together, the couple won many battles together and the amour continued.
But in 1790, a dashing Frenchman named Armand Le Vassoult joined the Begum’s troops. The forty-year-old Begum fell head over heels in love with the Frenchman and secretly married him. A miffed George Thomas left the Begum with some of his soldiers. Le Vassoult, however, was an arrogant snob who rubbed locals the wrong way with his high-handedness. The Begum’s erstwhile loyal troops now led a revolt against her, egged on by her stepson Zafaryab Khan.
When chased by the soldiers, the lovers fled. Fearing their capture they made a suicide pact. The Begum in her palanquin stabbed herself, and seeing her bleed, Le Vassoult shot himself. While Le Vassoult died, the Begum survived and was captured by her soldiers and tied to a cannon. It was her earlier lover, George Thomas, who came to her rescue, and restored her to power. Zafaryab Khan was placed under house arrest in Delhi.
George Thomas was amply rewarded for his gesture. The Begum married him off to a lady-in-waiting. He ruled a small kingdom in Hansi in Haryana between 1798 and 1801. He was the rare example of a ‘white raja’. He built the Jahaz Kothi in Hisar, which still stands.
While her troops revered her leadership skills, they expected her to behave in a certain manner. An amusing incident is recorded in 1802. Lord Gerard Lake met the Begum and landed her a kiss which left her troops appalled. But the tactful Begum diverted all gossip by calling it “the kiss of the padre to a repentant child”.
The legacy of Begum Samru
Begum Samru ruled from her capital of Sardhana for around 55 years. She was not just a competent ruler and an efficient commander-in-chief of her troops, but also a patron of arts and architecture. She built several grand palaces and gardens. She built palaces at Sardhana, Chandni Chowk in Delhi and Jharsa. The Sardhana Palace near Meerut was the hub of activity during the Mughal reign. The palace at Jharsa which was one of her principal cantonments is in present day Gurugram. She constructed a grand Roman Catholic church at Sardhana dedicated to Virgin Mary. This Basilica of the Lady of Graces is the largest church in north India. The vast basilica consists of a curious mix of baroque and Mughal motifs.
Begum Samru was looked upon with affection by her people for her uncommon sagacity. She could be kind-hearted and benevolent with friends, and ruthless with enemies. Her rubaab was greater than most rulers and she left an impact on whoever she met. She entertained officers of the British government and the Mughal empire with ease, at no time losing her dignity.
Despite her age, she continued to make a lasting impression on those she met. She entertained her guests with style: with the grandest of delicacies and mellifluous music. Despite being ‘wrinkled like a raisin’, she was not someone you forgot. A British commander-in-chief, Viscount Combermere, mentions her as ‘a kind of Taj Mahal whom no foreign visitor could afford to miss’.
Begum Samru died on 27 January 1836 at the age of 83. She was buried under the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces which she had built. Begum Sumru died immensely rich. Her inheritance was assessed as approximately 55.5 million gold marks in 1923 and 18 billion deutsch marks in 1953. Her inheritance continues to be disputed to this day.
The history of the haveli in Chandni Chowk
The haveli in Chandni Chowk was called Churiwalon ki Haveli. It was built in a garden gifted by Akbar Shah one of the Mughal descendents. The large mansion eventually came to be called Begum Samru’s palace. A British writer, William Franklin, said that the palace was called Khas Mahal. It was connected with Chandni Chowk by an avenue of cypress trees. Many a gala evening with dance, music and food, was celebrated in the gardens surrounding the palace.
After her death, the property was inherited by her adopted son, who was given the strange name of David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre. Dyce sold the palace to the newly formed Delhi Bank in 1847 and left for England. The bank’s manager Mr Beresford also used it as his residence. During the mutiny of 1857, the building suffered damage, and Mr Beresford and his family were killed. This haveli has seen a lot of history. It is said that Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, was kept under house arrest for his involvement in mutiny of 1857. Next, the bank was taken over by the British government, and the property was leased to the Imperial Bank and then to the Lloyd’s Bank.
I found a picture of the original haveli on Wikimedia Commons for comparison. I am aghast at the hideousness of what the neglected haveli has become. This sepia photograph entitled, The Bank of Delhi, was taken in 1858 by Major Robert Christopher Tytler and his wife, Harriet. The bank had been damaged by mortar and gunfire during the rebellion of 1857.
In 1922, the building was purchased by Munshi Shiv Narain. He sold it to Lala Bhagirathmal in 1940, following which it was renamed Bhagirath Palace. The Lala however chose not to live in the building, renting it out to marriages and parties. He occupied the 25-room outhouse in Bagh Begum Samru, or the sprawling gardens surrounding the mansion. There were an abundance of fruit laden trees in the gardens. In those days, there were no buildings between the haveli and the Red Fort and the view was impressive.
Begum Samru’s dilapidated haveli reminded me of the power of time. What was once the pinnacle of power now is reduced to a crumbling ruin. Magnificence is but a fleeting blip in the turning wheels of time.
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Sharma MN. The Life and Times of Begam Samru of Sardhana (AD 1750-1836). A thesis approved for the PhD degree of Agra University.1985. Vibhu Prakashan. Sahibabad.
Gupta AG. The Women Who Ruled India: Leaders. Warriors. Icons. 2019 Hachette India.
Keay J. Farzana: The woman who saved an empire. 2014. IB Tauris & Co. New York.