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History is bunk at this palace

Madhur Tankha
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Begum Samru’s haveli in Chandni Chowk is being used as a shopping complex and godown

Begum Samru’s palace in Chandni Chowk.— Photo: S. Subramanium
Begum Samru’s palace in Chandni Chowk.— Photo: S. Subramanium

The Old Delhi palace of an 18th century nautch girl, who later became the ruler of Sardhana in Meerut, is now lying in a dilapidated state as businesses are using it as a shopping complex and godown.

Labyrinthine lanes lead to Begum Samru’s haveli in Chandni Chowk’s Bhagirath Palace area. Hawkers and tempos block the footpath for pedestrians; and the loading and unloading of electrical appliances and heavy goods make the area a mess. 

Amazingly, the building’s facade still has “Lloyd’s Bank Ltd.” inscribed in faint letters and one of the rooms still has its original interior. That it is a heritage building is known only to old shopkeepers and bank employees.

Begum Samru’s palace is one of the earliest colonial buildings with Greek pillars, which grace its front porch.

Begum Samru’s name will always be inscribed in the history books as she played a significant role in saving Delhiites from being attacked by a 30,000-strong Sikh force.

These days, the Central Bank of India occupies a portion of the palace, while parts of the yellowish white edifice have been completely altered by numerous shops of fancy lights and surgical equipment.

According to a bank employee, the palace is in such a bad state that a portion of the building can come crumbling down any day.

“Pieces from Begum Samru ki haveli can fall down any day and can be fatal if they fall on someone’s head. Therefore, we have erected poles in one of the rooms. Nobody enters this room and it is used only for keeping files.”

The bank is a tenant as the haveli was purchased by Seth Bhagirath in 1940. This has been corroborated by an old plaque.

“Some tourists from India and abroad visit, though no official from the Archaeological Survey of India comes here. We get curious students of archaeology and they take a look around. Some take pictures of the building. The locals believe that there is a tunnel which leads up to the Red Fort.”

According to historian and journalist R. V. Smith, Begum Samru was an influential person in the court of Mughal emperor Shah Alam.

“In fact, he considered Begum Samru as his daughter. She belonged to a good family. Her father was Nawab Latif Ali Khan, who had a relationship with a courtesan. Begam Samru was a dancing girl till the age of 14. Later, she became a powerful chieftain and had a fiefdom in Sardhana. A great leader on the battlefield, her enemies thought that she was a witch who would cast a spell on them.”

The garden of the palace had beautiful fountains where the begum entertained her guests. But it will require a lot of work to recreate that splendour.

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