Agra, June 21 (IANS) Begum Samru ruled firmly a small jagir of Sadhana, just 70 km from Delhi, for 58 long years, amid turmoil and transition when the mighty Mughal empire was on the decline and the European intruders were annexing newer territories through trade and manipulative politics.
Married to a German military strategist of some repute, Walter Reinhardt Sombre, who later became Samru, lady Farzana, later Christened Begum Samru, played her cards well, keeping the Mughal court of Shah Alam II, the English and the local feudal lords, happy and at a safe distance.
Samru’s rise from a small, nondescript village in Germany to the formidably diverse Indian political terrain has been a subject of curiosity and awe. Walter Sombre marketed himself as a nomadic soldier and manoeuvred his ascendancy to become the ruler of Sardhana.
It was Sombre’s contemporary Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II who promoted him to the coveted post of Civil and Military Governor of Agra to stall the march of the Marathas, who were keen to entrench themselves in Agra province. Samru shifted base to Akbarabad (the old name of Agra) with his wife and managed the affairs of Sardhana from there.
Samru’s jagir stretched from Budhana town in Muzaffarnagar district of western Uttar Pradesh to Tappal town in Aligarh on the fertile and prosperous stretch of ravines of Doaba. Not many people know that Samru and his wife had an unrivalled bond with the city of Agra and its surroundings.
Incidentally, Walter Reinhardt Sombre succumbed to a sudden illness in the year of 1778 during his second stint with the vibrant city.
In the past, Samru had also served here as Chief Security Officer of Agra Fort. He had then built a residence for himself, away from the Red Fort. This palatial mansion was located in the Shahganj area of the city, which leads to the historical town of Fatehpur Sikri. The exterior of his mansion looked like an octagonal structure. Samru’s dynastical emblem with the year 1763 was also engraved on the entrance door. Remnants of only two storeys of this palatial building can still be seen. Most parts of the mansion have been vandalized and encroached upon. Only two pillars that encircle the mansion have survived the vandals.
After his death, his wife Farzana, now named Begum Samru ruled the jagir of Sardhana efficiently for 58 long years, displaying rare valour, intelligence and diplomatic skills. Her journey of more than half a century has been meticulously documented in a 272-page book titled, “The Truth About Begum Samru”, published by Samwad Publications, Meerut.
Says author Raj Gopal Singh Verma, former regional director of Information and PR, Uttar Pradesh government, “My book in Hindi offers an in-depth insight to the readers to vicariously experience the legendary journey of Begum Samru and her husband.”
Verma said as per the rituals followed in Christianity, Samru was buried in the garden surrounding his magnificent mansion. Later, he was given a respectful layoff in the premises of a Roman Cemetery in Agra. His mausoleum was built in an octagonal shape. Few holy words in Portuguese and Persian languages were inscribed there which serve as a reminder of his existence even today.
Three years after her husband’s demise, on May 4, 1781, Begum Samru visited the Roman Catholic Church in Agra and bowed before the priest of the church, when he declared, “I, Gregory, proclaim that Sardhana’s Begum Farzana Samru and her son Jafar Yab now belong to the religion of Roman Catholicism. Henceforth, they will be known as Begum Samru Johanna Nobilis Sombre and Lord Balthazar Reinhardt.”
Farzana, thereafter returned to Sardhana in her new avatar as Johanna Nobilis. Besides performing several charitable deeds to ensure the welfare of the populace, Begum Samru also built an opulent church in Sardhana.
In the ruins of General Samru’s death, she kept visiting his mausoleum in Agra to pray for his soul. On those days, she would distribute gifts among the people and would pray for the well-being of her province.
Verma recounts an interesting anecdote which expresses her bonding with Agra. “It is said that she ordered the burial of two girls alive, who had dared to seduce officers of her army.
“Fuming in the passionate flames of love, they had set fire to Begum’s residential wing of her mansion. She managed to locate the two girls in the marketplace of Shahganj, in Agra. They were brutally flogged till they collapsed. Space was dug to bury them alive.
“Begum was relishing the sensual pleasures of a hookah when the girls were withering in agony. The reason behind such an unconscionable punishment was the girls’ proximity to General Paulie, who was Begum’s confidant officer.”
However, Verma explains this incident has been documented solely in the form of stories and has a little factual basis. The research work exploring her life has claimed that this incident is purely fictional.
In one instance, the Begum was deposed and imprisoned by her stepson. She was rescued by George Thomas, her erstwhile and estranged army officer, on the instruction of Shinde. After taking charge of the administrative affairs of her province again, she expressed her gratitude towards Mahadji Shinde and paid him a courtesy visit in Agra, where he was camping then. She was aware of the fact that Mahadji Shinde was the real ruler of north India and Shah Alam II was purely a ceremonial head.
The Begum regularly funded a church in Agra for its maintenance and upkeep as she also made available funds for several other churches in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. Incidentally, the church which was originally built during the time of Akbar the Great was rebuilt by Reinhardt Sombre when it was vandalised by the Persian invader Ahmad Shah Abdali.
Talking to IANS, the author Raj Gopal Singh Verma said the Bhogipura-Shahganj area of erstwhile Akbarabad or present-day Agra along with a large plantation estate was also a valuable property which fell under the jurisdiction of Sardhana’s Begum. Her estate also included a huge property in the form of a garden that had been gifted to her by the King of an adjoining kingdom Bharatpur where her husband once served.
According to the East India Company records, a piece of 1,300 bigha of land that belonged to Begum’s step-son, Jafar Yab in the Deeg area of Bharatpur, was also handed over to the Begum later. Begum Samru’s son, Jafar Yab was buried in the premises of the Roman Catholic Church in Agra, where Reinhardt Sombre soul was laid to rest in peace.
After Begum Samru’s demise in 1836, Agra’s Governor, Sir Charles Metcalf nullified Begum’s grandson, David Sombre’s claims to the property and usurped her jagir. Since Sardhana jagir used to fall under the jurisdiction of Agra, Sir Charles Metcalf had the necessary paperwork to make decisions related to the inheritance of the princely state and its estate which were spread in various locations.
“Begum Samru ka Sach”–(The truth about Begum Samru)”, Author: Raj Gopal Singh Verma; Publisher: Samvad Publications.