Organizing lesser known trails in Uttar Pradesh includes a visit to Sardhana the seat of Begum Samru a woman who traveled from a life of a courtesan to the position of powerful independent ruler amidst fascinating group of wandering Europeans. Gratitude to UP. Tourism- Meerut Unit,and the Diocese of Agra. Contact: http://www.navinajafa.com
ADVOCACY: It remains important that the Diocese of Agra is provided both resources and experts to restore and maintain this grand heritage. Between a mango tour and the Begum’s heritage, the entire stretch of surroundings around Meerut has untapped potential of sustainable, responsible tourism.
Begum Samru of the 18thc, is the quintessence of the tenacity and grit which a woman is empowered with. She evolved against and within the ‘turbulent phase’ – ‘Gardi ka Waqt’ a period marked by waning of the Great Mughal Empire following the death of Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal Emperor in 1707 until 1857 when the Empire formally ended and Queen Victoria took over as Mallika-e-Hindustan or Empress of India.
Born as Farzana, the Begum after her mother’s demise was brought up by a reputed tawa’if * Khanum Jaan in the aureate space of glittering Chowri Bazaar in Delhi. And it is from here she starts her adventure with several Europeans with her taken as a concubine by a middle aged mercenary Walter Joseph Reinhardt. The uncertain times in India provided young ambitious soldiers who sought fortunes by lending their services. No ethics defined their greed and they changed loyalties often as their clothes and convenience. Mr. Reinhardt nicknamed Somre (samru) was no different.
On arriving on the shores of India, he left the ship and joined the French army, and from there he traversed to serve the Swiss Corp and various Indian rulers. While in the service of the Bengal Nawab, he was accused of mass killings of British in Patna. As the British gained their central position in India, Reinhardt had to work his way diligently to get back on track. Amidst his ventures, he bought the teenage courtesan – the young and beautiful Farzana, and made her his mistress.
In the entire trajectory of his revival, Farzana played an important role. The couple located themselves in Delhi, and weaved their way amidst the torrid power dynamics of the crumbling Mughal Empire where local communities, and provincial powers like the Jats, Rohillas, Sikhs and Marathas along with rising Europeans powers vied to chart their empires. The couple through their influence on weak Mughal kings acquired the rich province of Sardhana located in present day Meerut District of Uttar Pradesh. It may be noted that Farzana. although a constant companion to Reinhardt Somre, remained as a mistress in the harem and thus was not formally married to Reinhardt.
Her evolution as a powerful landholding aristocratic ruler came only after the death of Reinhardt Somre, and this evolution combined contradictory nuances. First she got herself converted to Christianity by a Carmelite monk and adopted the name Johanna ; but, she retained her moniker title ‘Begum’. While holding court she wore a Hijab but even in court which was dominated by men smoked a hookah. She was both compassionate as well as strictly just. If a person was found guilty she had no qualms and issued a death warrant.
A petite four and half feet tall she lost Reinhardt at 25 and yearned for love. Her first lover was George Thomas, an Irish dockworker turned mercenary, who she ditched and secretly married the flashy handsome French lover Armand Levassoult, and then after his death returned to Jahazi Sahab – Mr. Thomas!
The Begum exerted her multiple cultural identities and left behind the image of the tawa’if. On carrying out her duties she successfully executed agricultural reforms and enormous amount of development work. not only that, she supported the weak Mughals with her private army in a manner that Mughal Emperor Shah Alam gave her the title Zebunnissa . The British did not touch her or her province for, as an aristocratic landowner, her exotica attracted loads of wandering Europeans who she hosted and among who were Heber, William Fraser, and journalists from Asiatic Annual Register. In this period of increasing Christian Missionary activities, our Lady built the basilica with an independent Bishop in Sardhana, she conserved a church in Agra which is where Reinheardt is buried. So rose as a Christian soul, and the British did not dare touch her. Between the British, Marathas, Jats, and Mughals, Begum Samru expertly practiced the art of acrobatic diplomacy and survival. Sadly, after her death, the British promptly took over the state, and the Agra diocese had to buy back most buildings at an auction from the British!
The Heritage of Sardhana is Manifold:Basilica of Our Lady of Graces: The Internet has many articles on this unique church designed by the Italian Anthony Reghelini,but there are a few nuances that remain unique:
THE CHURCH- The Sculptural Relief Begum with the Decree: The large relief has on top the Begum holding the Sanad or Decree which formally granted her Sardhana. The entire relief is Italian in nature. The Old man on the right has details of evident nerves – symbolizing the Begum’s compassion. On the left is a lady wearing a veil carrying but holds a snake which symbolizes her strict rule. On the side is a tall Greek Lady holding a mace and standing on a lion. This symbolizes that though the Begun was just 4 and half feet, she was in control of her state and as fearless like a lion. Last in the relief is the Begum holding her durbar smoking a hookah amidst men.
The Statue of Jesus: Is made of paper-mache and therefore extremely lightweight, the mold from which the statue was created is made of Rubber and was imported from Germany.
THE OLD PALACE
The Begum’s Old Palace : Bought from Marathas, the palace is now the St. John’s Seminary and has an amazing underground structure in which Begum Samru lived in Summers. Of course, it was wonderful it have priests on motorcycles.
THE NEW PALACE:
The Begum lived only for One year in this beautiful palace. It has a wonderful Hamam with gold work, Now converted into an inter college, it was bought by the Agra diocese at Rs.25000 from the British.
The Catholic Cemetery is under the Archaeological Survey of India. It has amazing structures. One of them is an unknown grave, which Hindu worship as a ground an evolved Hindu ascetic and the Muslims worship it as a Sufi grave. The other is the elaborate tomb of Juliana, the senior wife of Reinhardt. The tomb has elaborate etching of Greek figures along with muqarnas. There are 4 graves Juliana and 3 children. Finally is the grave of Italian designer and architect Anthony Reghelini
Tawaif : A courtesan in North India, the system prevailed until about 1950s. She as a public lady was similar to a geisha in Japan.