Irresistible Begum Sambru of Sardhana, India - wife of Reinhardt Sombre, mercenary army leader

Begum Samru of

Once in  a while we have heard about rags-to-riches stories  of  men   who succeed  in their lives from hard-boiled days to those  of comfortable ones through sheer hard work, perseverance, guts  and ability to absorb failures in the early stages besides having a bit of luck.  Such people always stand apart  in our society and get recognition for their hard-earned wealth. Have you ever heard of a nautch girl (dancing girl) with a bleak future who  had  become not only rich but also an effective ruler of a small land in north India in the 1700s?   Born Zebunnissa (also Farzana)  in a Muslim community,  she began her  career  as a dancing girl and earned title of a queen, known  for her charity and efficient rule. She was one of the colorful characters in Indian history that saw the chaotic Mogul period and their gradual collapse and the imminent growth of the British empire on the horizon. 

Walter Reinhardt Sombre, a native of Luxembourg (his nativity is uncertain and is controversial)  worked as a military commander for many rulers in the 18th century  - the French Army and later  for the Nawab of Bengal  Mir Qasim and others. While in the Nawab's service, he was blamed for a gruesome massacre of  more than 30 English captives of the English company and others in Patna. Later on, Walter Reinhardt was on his own  maintaining  his own mercenary army, in which Jats also served. 

 In 1765, 45 year old Walter  went into Khanum Jan’s kotha in Delhi’s Chawri Bazaar for an evening of  fun and entertainment, and ran into  a charming and good looking  Kashmiri dancer, Zebunnissa and developed intimacy with her. The girl soon moved into his zenana and in those days many Europeans maintained large harems, and  Walter Reinhardt already had children from a previous concubine, Barri Bibi. He soon  married  Zebunnissa and  the girl  came to be  known as Begum Samru. The couple moved from Lucknow  and finally to Agra.  In May 1781 Zebunnissa was baptized and became a Catholic and her name got   changed to  Christian  name -''Joanna''.  Begum Joanna Nobilis “Samru” is an unlikely feminist icon from the 18th century.

The quick-witted and smart woman became Walter's  companion, confidante and advisor in  his services to various nobles. Sombre soon started working for the Jat rulers of Deeg, who were then occupying Agra. In 1773, the Mogul ruler  Najaf Khan expelled the Jats from Agra and invited   Sombre’s troops to join his army. Walter and his wife lived in Delhi for three long years and during that period had developed contacts at higher level with help from Begum Samru who was a woman of affable nature. With a royal ''sanad'' from ruler  Shah Alam, Walter  received the rich jagir of Sardhana, yielding Rs 6 lakh yearly (more than  Rs 30 crore in today's value). The penniless couple became wealthy overnight and Begam  Samru  became civil and military governor of Agra. Their association  with ruler Shah Alam was a turning point in  their lives not only in terms of power but also in terms of monetary benefits. It tuned Walter into a  mini ruler of the area with  his own paraphernalia, army and other trappings associated with it with royal patronage.

Samru's Palace, Chandni Chowk, Delhi,1857, after Indian Rebellion of 185wikipedia

Above image: Ruined Bhagirath Palace, Delhi. Begum Samru's palace in Chandni Chowk  was built in a garden gifted by ruler Akbar Shah of Mogul dynasty to the Begum when he ascended the throne after the death of Shah Alam .............................................

Catholic church in Sardana,

 Above image: Inscription on the Statue of Begum Samru at the Basilica of Our Lady Of Graces in Sardhana, near Meerut city.

Begam Sambru estate, Delhi - occupied by a bank (SBI)

After Sombre's death, his Begum  became the legal heir to the small kingdom. Having been associated with her husband for a long time, she had some exposure to administration and command of her husband's army.  She had  80-plus European officers and 4,000-odd soldiers to defend her small kingdom. Apart from being a benevolent ruler, she was a capable leader on the battlefield and was familiar with nuances of military strategies.  She was humane and considerate to her subjects and the people held her in great esteem.  Obviously,  she wielded significant political and social influence in the late 18th and early 19th centuries during  last phases of Mogul rule in India. Being a Christian convert,  she was a true devotee of Virgin Mary and  had a church built in Sardhana, near Meerut, UP. The church is known for its impressive Greek colonnaded veranda and an elevated altar with a stained glass dome  The shrine, the Basilica of our Lady of Graces built in 1822, is one of the oldest Catholic churches in north India and the only one mini Basilica in north India.
  Begum Samru had a flair for nice  buildings and had built many, but many of them  have disappeared and gone for ever because of neglect and  poor maintenance. If you walk through  Sardhana, once her fiefdom, the Begum's skill and aura can be felt in almost  all the buildings that were built strong and sturdy by her. Many of her remaining buildings need repair and restoration as  no due attention has not been  paid to them.  Begum's house in Chandni Chowk, Delhi is occupied by a bank and in the its adjoining area  there is the electrical goods market, Bhagirath Palace, her palace in Gurgaon, built in Islamic style could not survive after 2008. because of unauthorized encroachments by the greedy private business people.

Tomb of Begum Samru, Church of Sardhana, near Meerut.

Begum Samru died on 27 January 1836 at the age of 90 and was buried under the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces which she had built. Walter Sombre died in Agra on 4 May 1778. He was buried in the Agra churchyard. Regarded as the only Roman Catholic ruler in Indian history, it is a sad story, Begum Samru is almost forgotten in Delhi where she had political and social influence  during the last phases  of Mogul rule in India.  Incidentally,  her adopted son  was David Dyce Sombre and her Diwan, Rae Singh who was the great-grandfather of Motilal Nehru.