This story is about Begum Samru of Sardhana near Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. Read on to know small town Sardhana’s connection with Europe!
As our van stopped at Raja Shikanji near Modinagar for breakfast, I had a sense of déjà vu recalled, that a few years ago I was sitting at the same place having dinner on the occasion of a special reception where my Indian friend Chandni introduced her Austrian husband to her relatives in a reception hosted by her parents in Modinagar. On the way to Sardhana, we stopped here to have breakfast, where I devoured the famous gigantic Shikanji glass and pensively recollected that on the previous occasion Punam aunty (Chandni’s mother and a school principal) had shared that the shop owner was one of her student and the pioneer of the famous shikanji in the area. This was my only acquaintance with Modinagar or Meerut, few minutes away. As we drove on, I realized that I had no idea the passing nondescript mofussil towns were replete with hidden history. To me Meerut was wild, chaotic, a disordered mess of an urban space.
Little did I know that a part of this district was imprinted with the legacy of an indomitable woman who went by three personal names –Farzana,Zebunissa (the immeasurable diamond), Joanna Nobilis Sombre (after her baptism) and finally a fourth more known and public title of BEGUM SAMRU, one that connotes a larger than life name and identity .
Her life was like the variety of names she had, marked by multiple colors that defined the trajectory of her growth from a salon of a courtesan in Chowri Bazaar in Delhi to that of occupying a remarkable power position, of leaving an indelible mark on the histories of Delhi, Sardhana , Agra colored with interface with Mughals, Marathas, the British. Her persona was layered with the ethos of Islam and Christianity, feminist empowerment and fierce patriarch and metaphorically she represented the ideal of Nari Shakti or Empowered Woman in the 19thc India.
The journey of joining the dots and comprehending Begum Samru, her energies and manifestation in tangible and intangible heritage unfolded before me when I embarked upon a day trip ‘an Academic Tour’ from New Delhi curated and executed by renowned Historian, Heritage Interpreter and trained classical dancer Dr. Navina Jafa. While Navina ma’am narrated the intriguing story of Farzana, I found myself engulfed by a riveting saga of an ordinary woman from the 18th century India breaking frames to grow into a larger than life figure.
Farzana grew up in the lanes of Badi Chowri in Delhi which was traditionally the neighborhood or mohalla for large number of creative communities and an area whose fame was the existing presence of tawaifs ( courtesans) who later unfortunately were perceived as the disgraced artist women in public domain equivalent to prostitutes. Who would have ever thought that the Chowri Bazaar was the take off point for an amazing life journey for Farzana the tawaif from Delhi?
She was auctioned to a middle aged mercenary Walter Joseph Reinhardt Somre (distorted to Sumru). Samru hailed from Europe and whose place of origin is debatable (Austria/German). Reinhardt, like a true mercenary served number of European and Indian rulers and changed sides when it suited him. Farzana became his mistress, and few know that it is only after the death of Reinhardt that Young Farzana claimed to be his wife as Begum Samru.
Driven by ambition, the couple found themselves in the era of the chaotic days of the declining Mughal Empire in 18th -19thc. They raised a private army which was on several occasions commanded by Begum Samru, and the pair rendered their services to various warring parties and offered advice to those who sought it. Gradually they navigated a power position for themselves; Farzana was given the title Zebunissa by Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II when she provided troupes to counter a peasant rebellion in Delhi and they received gifts of land which included the estate of Sardhana.
Begum Samru wrote to Pope Gregory XVI in a letter dated 21-1-1834. “I am proud to say it (the Church) is acknowledged to be the finest, without exception, in India”. It was designed by Anthony Reghelini, an Italian architect from Vicenza, Italy in 1822 and is Roman Catholic presently under the Meerut diocese. On entering the premises of the Church- Basilica of Our Lady of Graces my senses were entranced by the stunning architecture where imposing Doric pillars lined the verandah and the manicured drive way garden were embellished with huge statues depicting the life and times of Jesus.
The inside of the Church seized my mind and senses all manifested in a variety of artefacts, rhythms of iconograhical accounts of friezes, details entrapped in stucco work of ceilings, stained glasses and the petra dura (similar to that in the Taj Mahal) of altar, one canvas to another vied for my attention.
The Central frieze is on the left side of the alter comprising of 11 figures and the grave of the Begum. It was commissioned by David Dyee Sumruthe, adopted son of the Begum and designed and made by the Italian sculptor, Adamo Tadolini of Bologna (A small fading portrait of the Italian sculptor of the frieze decorated a pillar in the Church. ) David’s grave is just ahead of the frieze and we were told that he was an Indian who took a fancy to the western lifestyle and moved to London. He passed away in London and was buried in the church at Sirdhana as per his wish. His statue makes him look more English than Indian, I noticed.
Each part of the frieze was brought in separate boxes from Italy to Calcutta, was shipped thereon to Sardhana on the vibrant river way of the Ganges and transported to the Church in bullock carts where the frieze was assembled. Atop sat the statue of the unyielding imposing Begum Samru, wearing a hijab holding a scroll denoting the decree given to her by Mogul Emperor, Shah Alam II granting her the jagir (Estate) of Sardhana on the death of her husband. Below her are four figures of whom one is her adopted son David dressed as a knight and also on one side is Diwan Rae Singh, her Minister who happened to be the great grandfather of Nehru. Interestingly Uma Vasudeva in her book “Indira Gandhi” (Vikas, Delhi, 1976), writes of Moti Lal Nehru, Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s grandfather, “On his mother’s side Motilal’s great grandfather was the Diwan of Shamru the Begum”.
The other figures in the frieze function to enhance to the spectator the very essence of the Begum. For example there is the figure of an old and frail man with detailed veins on his arms and who is juxtaposed by a veiled, handcuffed lady with a snake running around her symbolizing the Begum’s compassion for her subjects went together with her strict focused fierce character disbursing iron justice. She was known to issue death sentences if a person was found guilty of a crime. The plaque beneath the statue mentioned her as:
“Her Highness Joanna Zibalnessa,
The Begum Sombre (Samru is its misconstrued version)
Styled and distinguished of nobles
Aand beloved daughter of the state
Who quitted a transitory court
For an eternal world
Rrevered and lamented by thousands
Of her devoted subjects
Aat her palace of Sirdhanah (Sardhana)
Oon the 27th of January 1836, aged nearly 90 years.
Her remains are deposited underneath in this cathedral built by herself.”
The base of the statue showed the Begum’s status in a patriarchal society. Her 4 and a half feet frame belied her stature. In a scene she is seen smoking a hookah in style as men surround her in reverence. In another elaborate scene at the base, there is a scene of the Begum presenting a gold chalice to the Bishop Pezzoni of Agra, during the Blessing of the church.
A large original painting of this scene is in the Billiard Room of the Governor’s House, Lucknow. Interestingly, she is shown wearing the traditional Muslim attire during the ceremony. Even after the conversion, she used to wear hijab, an Islamic tradition, while holding court. The aura of the Begum has been authoritative without a fault in other old paintings which fill one of the walls.
She remained a concubine to Walter Joseph Reinhardt throughout. However, that didn’t stop her upward mobility. In fact, she rose as a ruler of the region only after the demise of Reinhardt. Her portrait in the church is often accompanied by her other lovers. She lost Reinheardt at a tender age of 25. Reinheardt was buried in a Church in Agra. What followed was a slew of scandalous romance with Europeans. She fell in love with George Thomas, an Irish dockworker turned mercenary (who loved her more than she loved him) followed by French lover and Cassonova Armand Levassoult. She enjoyed an unthreatened aristocratic lifestyle.
Her ardent service to Christianity, close relations with the Pope acted as a dexterous diplomatic tool to deal and ward away the aggression of the British East India Company, who then came in and took over the entire state as soon as she died.
I moved to the impressive alter. The pietre dura was studded with cornelians, jaspers and malachites which sparkled if I changed my viewing angle. The white and yellow interiors helped accentuate the main statues in the centre stage. A pull down lamp hung from a high ceiling as fake gaudy flowers filled any horizontal surface. In a tiny chamber nearby was a paper mache statue of Jesus Christ and one which had a short interesting history of its own. Firstly, it was extremely lightweight, made of paper mache and multani mitti (Fuller’s Earth). The statue was made in mould that was made in Germany of rubber. Another was the statue of St. Roque which attracted my attention. He was known to attend to leprosy patients. Unfortunately, he became a leprosy victim himself. He went into a self imposed exile into the forest so that he doesn’t transmit the disease to others. A caring dog sits next to him, offering food. It is perhaps no co incidence that that leprosy care centre exists nearby.
The New Palace of Begum Samru:
Next we head to the second palace of Begum Samru, built in 1833 A.D. by architect Anthony Reghilini and which presently is called the St. Charles’ Inter College. I knew Punam aunty would recognize the place when I sent her the pictures of the school. Being a principal, she has good connections with schools in not just this region but across India. A grand yellow and white building stood in front of me, the manicured garden making a complementing foreground. As we entered the building a large verandah with Greek style colonnades sheltered us. The pictures of all the Indian Prime Ministers since 1947 decorated the walls, reminding me that I am standing in a school. We moved to the hamam (bath) area. The Turkish bath amazed us with its brilliant engineering. There was facility for hot and steam bath. Slabs for massage faced the stained glass windows. Not far away there were two large halls. Diwan-e-khas was huge and was now used as the staff rooms for the teachers. Diwan-e-aam was slightly smaller and currently housed extra desks and almirahs.
The Old Palace of Begum Samru:
Next we headed to the older palace of Begum Samru now known as St. John’s seminary. Simpler and smaller than the new palace, Begum Samru spent 48 years of her life here. The building now houses classes to study languages. The students move on to study Theology and Philosophy in Minor seminary in their path to become a priest. I minutely observe the rooms strewn with Mother Teresa calendars and notebooks with picture of Mother Mary on cover.
The Islamic architecture of the palace incongruously attempted to establish a relationship with the Christian identity of the place. We were led to the basement of the palace. Navina ma’am told us that the caretaker had kept the lights switched on since the previous night to shoo away the bats in anticipation of our arrival. It was dark, humid maze of rooms which served as the summer retreat for the Begum. The ventilation ducts have now been sealed barring one. We emerge from the basement and huddled around a lotus pond to check if the lotus were real. They turned out to be real. Just like some hard to believe stories which validate their authenticity only when studied minutely.
This trip was followed by a delicious Mango trail in Rajdhani Nursery in Shahjahnapur near Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. More about that in my next blog.
This trip was an ‘Academic Tour’ a term patented and concept pioneered by Dr. Navina Jafa. #TCBG_Trips facilitated the same for me. Dr. Navina’s academic tours come as multilayered journeys across India and as Exhibit Heritage Walks in Delhi. Dr. Jafa a Fulbright Scholar at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, has been called Gatekeeper of the Spectacular by Financial Times- London, and the best in Delhi for Heritage Walks. She can be commissioned or you can join her already running programs.
You are requested to contact Dr. Navina on her website, if you are seeking to understand a place beyond the usual.
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