The Begum of Sardhana

A recent show in Delhi brought the spotlight to Begum Samru, the nautch girl who became a crucial figure in the power game of 18th-century Delhi

The Begum of Sardhana

The court of Begum Samru.By Muhammad Azam. Chester Beatty collection.

BN Goswamy

Among all who had opportunities of knowing her she bore the character of a kind-hearted, benevolent, and good woman; and I have conversed with men capable of judging, who had known her (Begum Samru) for more than fifty years. She had uncommon sagacity and a masculine resolution; and the Europeans and natives who were most intimate with her have told me that though a woman and of small stature, her ru’b (dignity, or power of commanding personal respect) was greater than that of almost any person they had ever seen. — Sir William Sleeman, Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official. 1841

“The people in the Dekhan (Deccan), who knew the Begum by reputation, believed her to be a witch, who destroyed her enemies by throwing her chadir (women’s veil) at them.” — Col. James Skinner

A view of a relief in marble of Begum Samru The Church at Sardhana.

One thinks of Begum Samru— that greatly gifted but mercurial woman who figured so largely in the power game that was played around Delhi and its environments when the Mughal Empire was tottering at the end of the 18th century — for she appears again in the just-opened show, Rajas, Nawabs & Firangees which the Alliance Francaise has mounted at the National Museum in the Capital. The show covers the period 1750-1850, drawing upon ‘Treasures from French and Indian Archives’, and, considering the range of activities and liaisons in which she was involved during this period, she was bound to be there. The briefest mention of her career fills one with astonishment.

Book after book has been written on her, but consider the barest details. She was the daughter, it is said, of a nobleman of Arabian descent who had settled in those uncertain times at a place close to Meerut, now in Uttar Pradesh. Named Farzana at her birth somewhere close to 1751, she became homeless when her father died and took to earning her living by turning into a ‘nautch girl’ in the ‘kothas’of Delhi and Agra. There, during a performance, she caught the eye of German mercenary Walter Reinhardt, nicknamed ‘Le Sombre’. Even though short of stature, she had striking features and a lively demeanour which attracted the German who took her as his wife even though he was already married and had a son. Sombre — the name turned into ‘Samru’ among his Indian troopers — commanded a sizeable following, consisting of some 82 European officers and 4,000 soldiers. He fought battles for those who were willing to hire him, and won many of them, with his diminutive wife, whom he taught warfare, always by his side. He died, however, in 1778, following which his troops approached Mughal Emperor Shah Alam, who had gratefully used the services of the General from time to time, to recognise his Begum as his successor. She was barely 30 years of age at the time. But the emperor recognised her qualities of leadership, and kept her close to himself which paid off, for she warded off many a threat to his life and throne, including during the siege of the Red Fort by Sikh chief Baghel Singh, with whom she negotiated a peace. She earned for herself the title of ‘Zeb-un Nissa’ — “Adornment of Womanhood”, so to speak — from the Emperor, receiving a large piece of land in Sardhana, not far from Meerut.

Begum Samru as she is remembered. Portrait, painted long after her death.

The Begum moved deftly both in politics and warfare, and that of personal relationships. Suddenly, three years after the death of her husband, she converted to Christianity, taking the name Johanna Nobilis Sombre, but kept her Muslim style — a turban and a huqqa being the hallmark of her appearance — which, as has been said, “allowed her to walk across the world of customs without posing any hindrance or consternation to the larger nobility of India”. At the same time, with so many European mercenaries around, it became easier for her to develop intimacies with some of them, including the intrepid George Thomas, the Irishman who fought his way throughout his life, and ended up becoming the ‘Raja of Hansi’. The relationship with George Thomas, who served under her for some time, yielded place to a liaison, ending in marriage, with a handsome French adventurer, Armand Levassoult, who eventually killed himself on being wrongly informed that she had been killed, while riding and fighting in the same skirmish. But the Begum had been injured, not killed: she survived not only her wounds but all the other vicissitudes of life, eventually settling down — after she had worked out an arrangement with the British who were steadily taking the land over but decided not to mess with her — and establishing a regular court, with a great sense of style, at Sardhana. There she ruled for long.

It is this court that we see in one of the most celebrated, and frequently copied, paintings by Muhammad Azam. There she is at the centre of it all — seated in a chair, the stem of an endlessly long pipe of a huqqa in hand, turban on head, a shawl thrown around her shoulders, feet resting on a low stool — entirely at ease with an enormously large group of people flanking or facing her, a few seated but most of them standing: Europeans and Indians, Hindus and Muslims and Christians, soldiers and civilians, ministers and musahibs, poets and scribes, peons and harkaras. There is great order in the crowd, and great colour in the painting, reflecting somehow the order that she was able to impose upon her sometimes unruly subjects at Sardhana, and the colour that marked her entire, tumult-filled life.

The Begum died in 1836. She is buried in a grand-looking church built for her by Italian architects. Underneath her marble statue is a plaque which reads:

Her Highness Joanna Zibalnessa,

The Begum Sombre

Styled the distinguished of nobles

And beloved daughter of the state

Who quitted a transitory court

For an eternal world

Revered and lamented by thousands

Of her devoted subjects

At her palace of Sirdhanah

On the 27th of January 1836, aged nearly 90 years.

Her remains are deposited underneath in this cathedral built by herself.

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