The tale of Begum Samru and the church she built

Basilica of Our Lady of Graces

Basilica of Our Lady of Graces   | Photo Credit: ASHOK AHLAWAT

With the release of the period drama, Beecham House, the magnificent church Begum Samru built in the Uttar Pradesh hinterland, returns to public memory

This summer was a hot one and the rain was late in coming. I was impelled to revisit Sardhana after acquiring more knowledge about the place situated in the boondocks of western Uttar Pradesh, 22 kilometres North of Meerut. If one starts at first light from Delhi, taking the Upper Ganga Canal road, Sardhana lies only two hours from India Gate.

The road to Sardhana cuts through lush green, humid farmland. Even the bees fly around torpidly. The alluvial tracts here are thrice as fertile than anywhere else in the Ganga-Yamuna doab. The earth, mantled green by endless acres of sugarcane over which rise the large green puffs of mango groves, is interspersed with jowar and paddy.

The principality was awarded to Walter Reinhardt Sumru, a Franco-German buccaneering soldier of fortune for saving the bacon of the Mughal Shah Alam II in the battle of Barsana in 1774. Sumru maintained a standing army constituted and trained on the lines of disciplined European armies. He made the village the geographical centre of his new fiefdom and enjoyed the trappings of a raja. In keeping with his status, he acquired a beautiful dancing girl from Chandni Chowk. Thus, a 15-year-old Farzana became part of the harem. After Sumru’s death, his favourite begum Farzana aka Joanna Sumru, who had embraced Christianity, was chosen by the mostly European Christian officers to be their regent in 1778.

In modern times

Today, Sardhana is a vibrant tehsil; the streets are encroached but not broken or potholed. After crawling patiently behind the inadvertent Massey tractor pulling a load of hessian-enclosed wheat chaff, the wall of the church estate of the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces, built by Begum Samru in 1822 looms 10 feet high on the near side. Its lime plaster is a peppery black and the top is gently rounded off. One can sense the presence of an exotic world beyond it.

A beautiful pillared set of gateways stands barred, but not locked, to keep out stray cattle, feral dogs and pigs. The cemented driveway runs for a furlong or so to the side entrance of the church. All along, are tableaus depicting the various agonies meted out to the frail skeletal Christ of the Roman times.

The tiny ticket window is tucked into a corner next to the curio shop. A nun in a grey habit dozes in the mid-day heat. The vitrines are well-stocked with biblical curiosities, rosaries, medals, crucifixes, poster prints, candelabras and exotic oil lamps. I select a small alabaster figure of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, carrying the child Christ upon his shoulders across a raging torrent.

Next to the shop is the quarters of the last Italian friar, Adeodatus, now lying forlorn. The black tin gate of Saint Joseph Girls Inter College, founded in 1848, lies partially hidden by the swell of gulmohars and Rangoon creepers. A school for European-Indian girls founded by a French nun, it is possibly one of the oldest extant convents in northern India.

Mausoleums in Sardhana

Mausoleums in Sardhana   | Photo Credit: ASHOK AHLAWAT

Samuel, the sacristan, welcomes me through the green painted timber door of the church. The stairway is designed like a flowing stream. He leads me to a pew and flicks on the old pedestal fan. The interiors of the church seem untouched. The floor is a rough black-and-white chequered one. The tall jaali doors and the wire mesh will keep out the flies for another 300 years. The inner door has slats that open and close with time-defying dexterity. I pull the lever up and down, wondering if Begum Samru must have done the same to adjust the light from the mid-day sun.

I thump up the stairs to the bell tower. A pair of gigantic brass bells hang as if hewn in stone; thick hemp ropes from it fall into the black well of the tower. The basilica is about 200-feet long with a high central dome over the main altar. It has an exquisitely crafted pedestal with carved marble friezes. The pietra dura work reminds one of the inlay work in the Taj Mahal.

Standing strong

Major Anthony Reghelini, who designed it, has made sure that there is no crack, no sign of seepage or decay; the plaster has defied 200 years of harsh North Indian weather.

In the North transept of the church is the piece de resistance — an 18-foot-tall Carrara marble relief sculpted by Adamo Tadolini of Bologna. The begum sits holding a scroll surrounded by allegoric figures. Carved panels on the side depict various episodes from her reign, riding in her palanquin and atop elephants, followed by phalanxes of her infantry, cavalry and artillery. In front of it lies the vault where the begum is interred. The pews have been freshly lacquered and gleam as if smeared in oil. The lectern is draped with purple canonical cloth and a king-sized chair awaits, empty.

In another transept, there’s a beautiful painting of Mother Mary holding the child Christ. The current name of the church — Basilica of Our Lady of Graces — derives from this picture.

The western façade has a spacious verandah with Doric pillars. Here are affixed marble tablets, giving the dates of construction in inscrutable Persian and Latin. In another side alcove, is a crucifix. Young couples, wide-eyed with hope, pray here.

A tombstone

A tombstone   | Photo Credit: ASHOK AHLAWAT

The comprehensive traveller should not miss the other extant landmarks of Sardhana. The ASI-adopted, old Christian cemetery off Shamli Road is a must-see. The two permanent caretakers are never present. The choice is to hobble over the barred chain-locked gates or jump down from the eight-foot wall into the once-royal burial ground.

The necropolis is pockmarked with tombs in the later Mughal style. Domes rise in graceful spherical profusion. The arches are nobly weathered by Father Time and the peepal tree waves from many a roof here.

The ground is thickly littered with beedi stubs, matchsticks, broken bottles and scattered playing cards. At places, in the wall crevices, empty beer bottles stick out like pegs. The maze of tombs seems to be a den of vice. There are eyes watching as you step around this abandoned resting place of the dead. The strains of a modern techno Haryanvi song, ‘tau hatt jaa...’ pierce through the brooding mausoleums.

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Printable version | Aug 5, 2020 1:56:51 AM |

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