Church that Begum Samru built
Tanushree Podder

The church at Sardhana, near Meerut.
The church at Sardhana, near Meerut

Sardhana, a small and dusty town, just 22 km from Meerut, does not figure on the itinerary of most tourists except the pilgrims bound for its famous church. The historical town has a romantic past in which Begum Samru played a key role.

The story began with a girl called Zebunnissa, who adopted the profession of dancing in the disreputable sector of Delhi. Along with her transformation into a nautch girl came the name Farzana. According to some historians, she had noble blood and her father died when she was a child, forcing her mother to move to Delhi. At the age of 14, she happened to meet a European mercenary Walter Reinhardt Sombre.

Reinhardt had come to India in 1754 as a private soldier in the French East India Company and soon began to freelance as a mercenary for various rulers across the country. Johan Lall, in his well-researched work: Begum Samru — Faded Portrait in a Gilded Frame, writes that Reinhardt, then 45-year-old, came to the red light area and fell for the charms of Farzana, the nautch girl. By a twist of fate, the girl managed to captivate the heart of the mercenary and he married her. The rest, as they say, is history.

A soldier of fortune, Sombre moved from Lucknow to Rohikhand, then to Agra, Deeg and Bharatpur and back to the Doab enlisting his services to the various nawabs and maharajas. Farzana was always at hand to help him with his plans. Reinhardt played an important role in defeating Rohilla chief, Zabta Khan of Saharanpur, when he was in the payroll of Nawab Najab Khan of Bengal. For this feat, he was rewarded with the jagir of Sardhana. It was here that Sombre began to be called Samru by the local people, who found his name quite a mouthful.

Fact file

Reaching there – Sardhana is accessible by road from Meerut, which is 22 km away. The nearest railway station is Meerut, while the nearest airport is at Delhi (104 km).

Best time – The right time to visit would be between November and March. On the second Sunday of November every year pilgrims line up there with their wishlist.

Farzana was baptised, at the age of about 40, by a Roman Catholic priest, and given the name of Joanna, on May 7, 1781. She inherited the jagir of Sardhana after her husband’s death in 1778, and came to be known as Begum Samru. The lady played a crucial role in the politics and power struggle in 18th century and 19th century India.

Ruling as the head of a professionally trained mercenary army of European and Indian soldiers, inherited from her adventurer husband, she ruled her estate with an iron hand. Though, a diminutive woman standing barely four feet six, she wielded a remarkable influence in the region. Not just that, Begum Samru commanded respect and her word was law in the land she ruled.

Sometime in the early 19th century, Begum Samru decided to construct a church at Sardhana and enlisted the services of an Italian architect called Anthony Reghelini. Dedicated to Virgin Mary, the church, which cost Rs 4 lakh, came up in 1822.

Driving through the fertile fields of mustard and sugarcane, interspersed with mango orchards, on a bumpy road, it takes just about 45 minutes from Meerut to reach the town of Sardhana. It is more of a village than a town, located far away from the maddening traffic of Meerut. Except on the special days of the year, the church sees little traffic.

The long entry path lined by beautiful sculptures of Christ’s Crucifixion strikes the heart with serenity and beauty. The church with its tall steeples and gothic architecture is visible from a distance and the benign statue of Jesus Christ, his arms spread out in a welcoming gesture, beckons visitors towards the mud-red steps that lead inside. The verandah of the church with its 18 Doric pillars gives it the look of a typical British construction.

A statue of Begum Samru.
A statue of Begum Samru. — Photos by the writer

In the left wing of the church lies the tomb of Begum Samru with her life-size image standing over it. The statue of the Begum is raised on a three-tiered pedestal. At one time it stood outside the church, open to the elements. There are interesting tableaux carved superbly in marble, at the base of the column. In one, the Begum is shown riding on an elephant, with her entourage around, and in the other, the Begum is depicted offering a chalice to the Pope. On the third side stands the tableau of the Begum receiving petitions from her courtiers. While she is surrounded by Indian soldiers in the first one, the second depiction has her surrounded by Europeans.

Below the begum’s statue stand those of her son, her Hindu vizier and pastor. The tombstone of her husband and son lie at the foot of the central tableau.

The main alter of white marble is inlaid with a floral design. The icon of Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus, clad in red and blue clothes, at the altar is surrounded by brightly-coloured artificial flowers. On the other side of the main hall stands a statue of Virgin Mary with her cherubic child. It is here that thousands of pilgrims line up, on the second Sunday of November every year, to pray. It is said that the wishes made here during that day come true. Last year more than three lakh pilgrims from the country and abroad made their visit to this church.

On December 13, 1961, Pope John XXIII decided to upgrade the Sardhana Church to the status of a Minor Basilica. It is said that the Pope grants the status of Basilica only to churches that are historically significant and beautiful. To commemorate the occasion of the Golden Jubilee last year, a delegation from the Vatican, including the Ambassador, visited the place.

Sardhana is worth a visit even if it is to relive its historical importance and rejoice in the might of an ordinary woman who rose from an insignificant being to a powerful one.