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Story of Begum Samru From a nautch girl to a Princess

By Kuldeep Raina

Sardhana is a village within Meerut district in UP. The basilica here is an important pilgrim Centre as a shrine of Mother Mary. The splendid cathedral keeps alive the memory of an extraordinary Christian princess, who built it and ruled Sardhana for 55 years.

Her sculptured tomb, surmounted by Adamo Tadolini's (Italian Sculptor) statuary and the basilica beside it, became an Urs, drawing thousands of pilgrims from all over the country throughout the year every second Sunday of November, and a constant stream throughout the year.

The extraordinary princess was a nautch girl Farzana, whose meteoric rise as Begum Samru astounds even today.

Origins :

The dazzling beauty, Farzana, whose charm even seduced Governor-General, Lord Hastings, was born in 1750. Her origins are obscure. She has been called an Arab, an Iranian or anything else but a Kashmiri. An accidental discovery of a letter in 1925 in Pondicherry archives has established beyond doubt that Farzana hailed from Kashmir.

The letter was written by Frenchman Commander Bussy to Marshal de Castries, Royal Minister of France. This letter was dug out by MA Singervelu, curator of the old records at Pondicherry.

Dancing has remained a popular profession in Kashmir from old times. These dancers have been known as Hafizas.

These dancers - particularly those who were fair or had great charm often landed in Delhi. It was a well-established practice among Mughal notables at the Delhi court to have these Kashmiri damsels as their wives or concubines. One such blonde was taken up by a decadent Mughal noble Asad Khan, who lived at Kutana Qasba, 80 kms north of Delhi. Asad's new mistress had performed for years in a Kotha in Chauri Bazar, before she was taken up by Asad Khan as his concubine.

Farzana was born to Asad Khan and his mistress in 1750.

After Asad Khan's death in 1760, Farzana's mother was not treated well by her step-son. She alongwith her daughter Farzana left for Shajahanabad. After ten days of gruelling journey, the mother and daughter arrived at a bustling sarai near Kashmiri darwaza. Farzana's mother was running high fever and collapsed.

A tawaif from Chauri Bazar, Khanum Jan, attracted by child's cries, brought Farzana to her Kotha.

Khanum Jan:

Khanum's Kotha was among the best in Chauri bazar. Khanum Jan and other troupes of dancing girls were patronised by Englishmen. Syed Hasan Shah, in his autographical novel called Nashtar (first published in 1790, translated into English by Qurrutalain Hyder in 1992, Sterling) refers to charms of Khanum Jan:

 

"She had a magnolia face and narcissus eyes.

She must have ruined the piety of a thousand men..

our eyes met and I was struck by the arrow of love".

Khanum Jan trained Farzana in her art. Soon, she became one of the most sought after girls of the Kotha in Chauri Bazar. Farzana grew up in the seclusion of tawaif's Kotha.

The later part of the 18th Century has been called 'gardi Ka Waqt' (time of troubles). The period witnessed the progressive replacement of indigenous imperial rule by foreign colonial dependency. The Mughal imperial power declined, many Indian states emerged as independent centres of authority and there was gradual rise of foreign dominance, first French and later the British.

Reinhardt's emergence:

The rise of Indian states saw them utilise the services of foreign military adventurers (some of them from different corners of Europe) to beef up their own illtrained and frequently disloyal levies. One of these adventurers was the so-called General Walter Joseph Reinhardt, who whisked Farzana away from the Kotha of Khanum jan. Reinhardt belonged to one of the poorest regions of Western Austria. His father was a stone worker.

Reinhardt came to India in 1750, boarding a French frigate bound for Pondicherry. He deserted ship on arrival and enlisted in the French army. Leaving the French, he joined the East India Company. During this tenure he changed his name to Sommers, apparently to make himself more acceptable to his new employers.

He soon deserted them, raised his own troops and joined Mir Qasim. At the latter's behest, he murdered about 150 British civilians and POWs, for which the British called him the Butcher of Patna. After Mir Qasim lost out to the company, Reinhardt decamped with the treasure of the Nawab and drifted to Delhi with his troops, providing mercenary services to the highest bidder.

According to Col. Dyce, who subsequently married daughter of Farzana's adopted step-son Zafaryab Khan, Farzana's marriage with Reinhardt was never solemnized. She was a concubine who lived with Reinhardt until his death--but never married to him. The Austrian mercenary picked her up in 1765, when she was just 15, and Reinhardt over 45. Reinhardt, now called Sommers or Sombre, had earlier picked up a concubine, Zafarayab's mother during his hectic years of soldiering. He also maintained a Zenana (Harem). In a fulsome panegyric Zebul Tawarikh in her honour in 1822, Munshi Gokul Chand (who served the begum Samru for many years as Khas Munshi) claims that three sons were born to Farzana from Reinhardt. All of these died. This mystery was never cleared.

Reinhardt alias Samru, was a hunted man, trying his best to keep out of clutches of the British. As his mistress, Farzana alias Begum Samru, learnt the ropes of military command and rode out with him in his campaigns.

The death of Najib-ud-Daula in 1770 paved way for return of Mughal emperor Shah Alam (d.1782) to Delhi in January, 1772. This was a turning point in fortunes of Begum Samru. Mirza Najaf Khan was appointed Amir-ul-Umra. This brought Sombre and his begum out of seven years of relative obscurity into the limelight once again.

Mirza Najaf wanted to push Jats out of Agra. Sombre had a force of 1900 Sepoys, 5 pieces of cannon, 6 elephants besides a few Europeans--a respectable force.

Sombre was bribed heavily and promised much more if he switched his loyalties to Mughals. By the time Sombre joined Najaf Khan, he had already served 14 employers-a fair commentary on his shifting loyalties.

In the battle of 17th November, 1773, Mughals defeated (with Sombre on their side) Jats.

Reinhardt has been described as hardworking, unscrupulous, reckless and a bold military adventurer. He was not known for his fidelity or loyalty to his employers.

The Britishers put further pressures on Mughals to get rid of Sombre. John Lall, who has authored a well-researched book on Begum Samru, observes,

"Reinhardt would have been completely lost in the snake pit of intrigue without his begum's active intervention, directly and behind the scenes".

Sardhana Jaidad:

For their help to Mughals to push out Jats, Sombres demanded the prized tract of Sardhana (with an annual revenue of 6 lakh rupees). In 1776, Emperor gave Sombre a Sanad, at the instance of Najaf Khan. A rover became a landed magnate.

After the grant, Sombre was appointed Civil and Military Governor of Agra. Sombre died in 1778. The French tried to put Zafaryab Khan in succession to him.

Farzana's patron Najaf Khan was at the height of his power, with his title of Zulfiqar-ud- Daula. As long as he enjoyed Shah Alam's favour, her own position was not seriously imperilled.

Farzana's succession was finally tilted by two more factors: She had enormous assets to pay the Sardhana battalions from the huge wealth accumulated by her mercenary husband.

Secondly, by the time Sombre died, Farzana had already established a 'commanding personal performance' with the Sadhana brigade during operations in which it had been involved.

She commanded the loyalty of officers and men of brigade. In the end, it was the united demand of Sardhana brigade that tilted the balance in Farzana's favour. Shah Alam, having personal knowledge of her singular talents and aptitude for business acceded to their request. She took possession of the Jagir of Sardhana and came to be called Begum Sumroo. The emperor's sanad invested her succession with legitimacy.

In the memorial at Sardhana cathedral she is depicted holding the sanad in her hand. Sanad and the unanimous support of her army gave the Begum total authority -  legally and politically.

She in turn gave them security, regular and honourable service conditions. Competence as a ruler and loyalty to her benefactors turned Begum of Sardhana into a legend in her life-time. Her ability to command respect and her remarkable gifts as a politician helped her establish and maintain excellent relations with each power.

A woman ruler was vulnerable. Therefore she had to establish a 'Commanding personal presence'. Begum Samru dealt with an incipient mutiny by inflicting gruesome punishment on two slave girls. This made strong impression on turbulent spirit of her troops. She not only established her writ as a firm ruler, but also proved herself to be a just ruler. Through just revenue settlements, she relieved the peasantry from rural indebtedness.

This led to improvement in agriculture and won her the support of peasantry. This gave stability to her rule. Two of her European contemporaries have praised her wisdom in administrative matters. W. Francklin in his History of the Reign of Shah Aulum (London, 1798) writes:

"An unremitting attention to the cultivation of the lands, a mild and upright administration, and for the welfare of the inhabitants, has enabled this small tract to yield a revenue of ten lakhs of rupees per annum (up from six...)".

Major Archer, ADC to Lord Combermere, C in C of the company’s forces, who actually visited Sardhana during the Begum's lifetime unhesitatingly praised her achievements. He said,

"The Begum has turned her attention to the agricultural improvement of the country, though she knows she is planting what others will reap”.

'Zebun Nissa':

Najaf Khan, her protector died just four years after the grant of the Sanad. Delhi was plunged into uncertainty. In 1783 some of Begum Samru's troops were involved in a factional quarrel in Delhi, in which her able and trusted commander Pauli was killed. Some powerful elements, jealous of her, tried to poison the emperor against her.

Rohilla Chief Ghulam Qadir had seized the crown lands in Doab, including a part of her Jaidad. The emperor's promises of financial compensation for the loss had not been honoured.

When Sikhs raided Doab as far as Meerut, Begum alongwith her troops went to Panipat to protect the frontiers of the diminished Kingdom of Delhi. In 1788, the Rohilla Chief attacked Delhi. Emperor Shah Alam appealed to Marathas and Begum for help. Ghulam Qadir, had offered marriage to her, alongwith a share of the spoils if she joined him in taking the Emperor Captive. His offer offended her strong sense of loyalty to her benefactor. She spurned Rohilla Chief's suggestion without hesitation. Before Begum could come to emperor's help, Rohilla Chief had entered the royal palace and blinded the emperor.

Begum Samru promptly hastened to Delhi and stationed herself across the river. Ghulam Qadir was not unaware of her strength. He tried to play a trick and called her sister. She hoodwinked him by promising to help. When the Rohilla Chief had retired to his camp the Begum immediately took control of the palace and pledged her life for the protection and safety of the emperor. Faced with battery of the Begum, the Rohilla chief withdrew. It was left to Mahadaji Scindia to mete out retribution to the Rohilla Chief for his atrocities.

The emperor was restored to the Throne. He bestowed on the Begum the title of Zebun Nissa, Ornament of Women. The crown lands in Doab were restored to her. Subsequently when emperor took to field himself to bring rebellious Najaf Quli Khan to heel, Begum Samru insisted on joining him with three companies and a squadron of artillery.

She also helped the emperor to stamp out indiscipline in his forces at Gokalgarh. Najaf Quli Khan begged Begum to secure emperor's forgiveness. Emperor Shah Alam honoured her again for gallantry and loyalty. This time with the appellation of "his most beloved daughter". She was also bestowed a grant of pargana of Badshahpur Jharsa, near Delhi.

It was in 1787 that Begum's forces were joined by an Irish mercenary George Thomas alias Jahazi Sahib. A dashing sailor, he inspired confidence by his imposing demeanor. After Gokalgarh, he became even Begum's lover. Due to his low social origin, Begum spurned the offers of marriage. He had enormous administrative and military talent. Finally, he was sent to pargana of Tappal.

The Begum came to be credited with virtually legendary powers. Bishop Heber, an Oxford scholar in his Narrative of a Journey through the upper Provinces of India (1828) observed: "Her soldiers and people and the generality of inhabitants of this neighbourhood pay her much respect, on account both of her supposed wisdom and her courage; she having, during the Maratha powers, led, after her husband death, his regiment very gallantly into action, herself riding at their head into a heavy fire of the enemy". Col. Skinner, a European officer wrote of her, “Her best qualities were those of the head. Her sound judgement, her shrewdness of observation, her prudence and occasional fidelity to her trust-chiefly exemplified in her conduct to the unfortunate Shah Alam".

Samra Rehman, in her review of Jaipal Singh's Samru: The Fearless Warrior, strikes a discordant note. She argues that to describe the Begum as The Fearless warrior is somewhat contrary to historical evidence.

Rehman writes : "While she, no doubt, had ample physical courage and was present on many a battle field, she was the de jure commander, whereas the actual fighting was done under one or the other of her officers. For instance, the battle in which the Mughal emperor was saved from a precarious position, it was George Thomas who led the charge. But the Begum who was present in her palanquin got all the credit".

Conversion:

Begum Samru's conversion three years after Reinbhardt's death has baffled scholars. She was baptised to Catholic Church under the name of Joanna at Agra on 7th May, 1781 by a Carmelite monk. This Baptism elevated her from her undefined status to that of an accepted widow. According to John Lall, "The conversion may have appeared to her as a delayed solemnization of marriage and removal of the stigma of concubinage at a time when legal status had assumed greater importance." She used her changed faith to demand reprieve.

When in 1803 Lord Wellesley asked her to surrender her Jaidad she appealed for compassion on the basis of a common faith. However, except for observing some of the essential rituals of Christianity, she preserved the manners and customs of her social milieu and dressed herself in conventional Mughal style, her faithful huqqa constantly at hand. In life-style, personal appearance and activities Begum flaunted both-her Muslim as well as Christian identities. She regularly maintained the Mughal durbari etiquette in her court, conducted public business from behind a screen, apparently in defence to Muslim conventions.

Romantic Phase :

Begum Samru had everything that one could aspire for -  power, wealth and fame. She had enchanting charm and had lost husband when she was heardly 28. She yearned for love.

Though she loved George Thomas, but was repelled by his brutish manners and low origins.

In 1790 she was swept off her feet by flamboyance of Frenchman, Le Vassoult. This romance proved to be her waterloo. Vassoult harboured animosity against George Thomas. This created factionalism in her army. The scandal rocked the Jaidad. The Emperor and her friends tried to warn the Begum about the consequences of this dalliance. It had no effect on her.

Vassoult indulged in the most uncavalier like intrigue. He was out to finish G. Thomas and poisoned ears of the Begum against him. In the midst of these intrigues in 1793, Father Gregorio solemnized in secret the marriage of the Begum to Vassoult.

12 years back the same monk had baptised her. Begum added 'Nobilis' to her Christian appellation and became 'Joanna Nobilis Somer'.

At the instigation of her new lover, the Begum set out to destroy G. Thomas and reached his headquarters at Tappal. This led to mutiny in her forces. She retreated and Sardhana was as good as lost. Two battalions marched to Delhi to offer allegiance to Zafaryab Khan, her half-witted step-son. Begum appealed to British for help (in 1795, March/April). Its terms and conditions were worked out.

She had agreed to retire to Patna.

Le Vassoult had alienated everyone including the peasantry in Sardhana through his arrogance. As mutinous soldiers were about to take Begum and her lover as captives, the two lovers decided to flee at midnight.

They signed a death pact in case of imminent danger of capture. In confusion, Vassoult shot himself dead.

The Begum was captured, humiliated and dragged to Sardhana by her own once loyal soldiers. Some say it was a trick played by G.

Thomas as the Begum wanted to get rid of Vassoult. The British had refused to accord legitimacy to Zafaryab Khan for different reasons. Desperate Begum Samru appealed to Thomas in desperation.

The man she had sought to destroy was now her only hope. Thomas gallantly put aside his past resentment.

He sought the help of Maratha chiefs and involved them in a complicated maneuver to extricate the Begum from her difficulties. Sardhana was restored back to her.

Anticipatory Diplomacy:

Maratha Chief Ambaji Ingle had designs on her Jaidad. The Begum moved briskly to demonstrate her capacity in the field, sounded out the Sikh Sardars as possible allies and once again enlisted Thomas's support. The British had their own problems with Marathas and the French.

By 1803 British plans were ready to take on Marathas and the French. Before launching the two-pronged attack in Deccan, they decided to get in touch with the Begum through Mir Muhd.

Jaffar of Bareilly, her most important confidante. Her dilemma was that she was deeply obliged to Mahadaji Scindia (d. 1794) for help from time to time.

Daulat Rao Scindia, Mahadji's successor was still the Peshwa's Regent and Bakshi of Moghul empire. But at the same time she could hardly resist the overtures of the British, the rising power.

The Begum tried to disarm British suspicions by peshbandi (anticipatory diplomacy). Initially, she sent troops to deccan to help Marathas. In the best Walter Reinhardt tradition-as British victory seemed imminent she shifted her troops to join the British.

It took her two years to rebuild relationship of trust with the British for this act. Lord Wellesley was all set to take over her Jaidad and accused her of hobnobbing with Holkar against them. Holkar, the Jat Raja of Bharatpur and the Sikhs played upon her fears, hoping she would join them to stall extension of British power. Begum had been on best of terms with the Sikhs. During emperor Shah Alam's time, she had prevailed upon the emperor to allow Sikhs to build nine Gurudwaras in Delhi, including Majnum Ka Tila. Though she facilitated the release of British Collector of Saharanpur, GD Guthrie from Sikhs, it only deepened British suspicions. Begum Samru was watching developments carefully.

The capture of Jat Deeg Fortress by the British in 1805, Maratha defeat and the friendship treaty between Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the British convinced her to opt for the British openly.

Recall of Lord Wellesley helped the Begum. The new Governor - General, Lord Cornwallis decided to leave her in "unmolested possession of her Jagir", but asked her to remain careful about people who helped anti-British elements.

The British had their own reasons to make peace with the Begum. They wanted to utilise her influence over principal Zamindars in North-West part of Doab and over the Chieftains and incursions of Sikhs to ensure tranquility. This paid them rich dividends. Begum Samru died in 1836.

Some scholars have compared the Begum to Ahilya Bai of Indore and Mamola Begum of Bhopal. The British Circles called her notorious but admired her. The natives said that she was born a politician, has allies everywhere, and friends nowhere.

Begum Samru has been the most outstanding among rulers of 18th/19th Century India.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel

 
 

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