Begum Samru - The Christian Queen of India
Incredible Story of Begum Samru
Before India became independent, it had quite a number of native Hindu, Sikh and Muslim princes ruling big and small parts of the land along with the colonial British power. But few know that India had a native Christian queen too.
Being a sole Catholic ruler of India would be enough to earn Begum Samru of Sardhana a special place in the Indian history but this queen had more to her than her faith to distinguish herself among the ruling classes of Indian colonial era.
Rising from very humble beginnings, this remarkable woman rose to a high station of power. Then she went on to affect the course of India's history in a significant way which makes for a fascinating story.
Begum Samru's life reads like a fairy tale. She was born in 1757 to Muslim parents of Kashmiri descent who named her Farzana. The young Farzana started her career as a dancer in her early teens at the court of Raja of Bharatpur at Delhi. Here she caught the eye of an adventurer soldier Walter Reinhardt Sombre who married her when Farzana was barely 15.
Opportune Time for Adventure
It was a time when the British East India Company was trying to spread its hold in India while the native rulers vied and fought with one another to retain and possibly increase their own spheres of influence and power.
Such a political scenario provided a rich playing field for a man of adventurous spirit like Walter Reinhardt. He gathered a mercenary army of Europeans and Indians around himself and headed a number of adventures in which his wife aided him by active participation.
Begum Samru rode and fought along with her husband in his numerous campaigns that ended in the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II rewarding him with a jagir (estate) of Sardhana in the present-day Uttar Pradesh State of India.
From A Soldier to A Rajah
Now Walter Reinhardt had come a long way. Starting as a soldier of the French East India Company who did not surrender to Lord Clive at Chanderpore, Reinhardt was now an independent wealthy ruler at par with the native Indian rajahs and nawabs.
He had acquired the nickname of sombre during his soldiering days because of his complexion. This appellation stuck to him and his wife who was now a Begum or rani was called Begum Farzana Sombre or more popularly Begum Samru or Samroo.
When her husband died in 1778, the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, confirmed Begum Samru as the direct successor of her husband as the ruler of Sardhana. Now she was a queen in her own right.
As a ruler, she earned the gratitude of her subjects by her benign rule.
She also did not forget the favor done to her by the Mughal Emperor. She repaid her debt of gratitude to Shah Alam II by going to his aid and saving his life on two occasions.
Moved by her loyalty, the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II conferred upon Begum Samru the title Zeb-un-Nissa (glory of womankind). He also regarded her as his "most beloved daughter".
After the death of Shah Alam II in 1806, his successor Shah Akbar granted the Begum a piece of land in Delhi on which she built a grand palace.
This palace was attacked during the 1857 uprising against the British Raj in India but survived.
The building still exists in the Chandani Chowk area of Delhi and now is said to house a government bank.
Conversion to Christianity
Three years after her her husband's death, Begum Samru became a Christian. A Roman Catholic Priest baptized her as Joanna Nobilis.
The change of religion by Begum did not affect her relations with her subjects or the Mughals. She remained a steadfast supporter of the Mughals. In fact it was after she converted to Christianity that she saved the aging Mughal Emperor from depredations of his enemies in 1783 and 1788.
Though never a bigot, Begum Samru did become a devout Christian after her conversion. She espoused the cause of her religion by getting new converts. She also built a magnificent Basilica of Our Lady of Graces at Sardhana.
Curious Turn of Fate
Begum Samru wished that the church she had built should be her final resting place. Here her wishes were thwarted by fate. It is said that because she was Muslim by birth her body was not allowed to bury inside the Catholic Church though a monument in her honor was built inside the Basilica. Her last rites were performed on a plot donated by a Jagirdar (estate owner) of Meerut.
Begum Samru's Church Today
The church built by Begum Samru by an Italian architect and nearly two hundred years continues to attract regular devotees as well as droves of faithful to its two annual pilgrimages from far and wide. As much a place of worship, this church keeps the memory of a remarkable woman alive for all time to come.