A white building in the central market district of Old Delhi might not seem to be any different from all the other neglected establishments lining a street. However, there’s a small palace amidst these lined structures called Bhagirath Palace, which was once the palatial residence of India’s one of the most powerful women: Begum Samru, a courtesan turned mercenary turned diplomat turned queen of Sardhana.
Begum Samru was the ruler of Sardhana, (Present day Chandni Chowk, Delhi) during the 18th century. She was a woman who acquired power and fortune from military prowess and rulership, which was then a male-dominated area and barred entry of women in any form. This is the story of a woman who even though came from the lowest rungs of society, refused to be written off as a victim of social class, gender and illegitimate birth.
The Rags-to-Riches Ascendancy Of A “Nautch” Girl
Begum Samru was earlier known by the name of Farzana Zebunissa, the illegitimate daughter of Kashmiri aristocrat, Latif Ali Khan.
Farzana was sold off to the “nautch” trade by her mother who was pushed out by her father’s legal wife, who inherited his wealth. It was here that she caught the eye of Walter Reinhardt, a 45-year-old European mercenary, also known as General Sombre.
Walter Reinhardt was a married man who was smitten by 14-year-old Farzana’s beauty. It was her marriage to General Sombre which earned her the surname of Samru, a morphed version of Reinhardt’s nickname, Le Sombre.
Farzana was so sublime that even Mughal rulers were charmed by her beauty, which then bestowed her with the title of ‘Begum’. That’s how she came to be known as Begum Samru.
After the death of Reinhardt, Farzana proved herself to be a supreme strategist and became his successor. She then became a close ally of the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam.
Later she formed allegiances with the East India Company and lived under their protection in her last years. Her religious conversion to Catholicism was a mystery to many. She knew that the British were going to rule India in the coming future and thus many saw her religious conversion as a move to appease the British.
She also dubbed herself as Begum Joanna after Joan of Arc following her conversion to Catholicism. It’s said that she was greatly impacted by the story of Jeanne d’Arc, which made her convert to a catholic and change her name to Joanna.
Begum Samru’s Litany Of Lovers
Begum Samru’s adventures weren’t just limited to the battlefield or court. She was hopeless in her love pursuits. She used to choose one European lover after another, had a failed marriage to Frenchman, missed a once in a lifetime of love with an Irishman and even made a suicide pact with a secret French lover.
When the two of them were fleeing an attack, Begum Samru was injured, and seeing her blood-soaked clothes the Frenchman shot himself. He died, but luckily she survived. An Irish dock worker-turned-mercenary (her spurned Irish lover) rescued her, and after his death, Begum Samru took care of his wife and children.
Even though Begum Samru’s interaction with Europeans grew overtime, she remained firmly rooted in her culture. She never ate in the presence of her guests or ever touched the wine. And only when the women withdrew, she would settle down to a companionable smoke amid the men and their cheroots.
Begum Samru refused to be chained down by the societal norms, where social hierarchies were already established and inescapable. She rejected the traditional perception of women as self-sacrificing; instead, did whatever was necessary to survive as a ruler.
And as a result, she not only became the leader of a formidable army but also a revered adventurer who sat on an immense fortune in one the most illustrious estates of 18th-century India.
Image credits: Google images
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This post is tagged under: Begum Samru, Le Sombre, Walter Reinhardt, Chandni Chowk, Begum Joanna, Joan of Arc, Mughal India, Shah Alam