Where stones speak Columns

Begum Samru and her church in Sardhana

Tucked away in the dusty town of Sardhana, an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Delhi, is the largest church in north India. Now declared a minor Basilica, the church of Our Lady of Graces is a beautiful monument and a tribute to an amazing woman. No one knows the birth name of the petite Kashmiri dancing girl with sparkling eyes and mesmerising smile, but she is remembered as Begum Samru, the only Roman Catholic ruler in India.

Begum Samru and her church in Sardhana

Begum Samru was born in the estate of her Mughal nobleman father, Latif Ali Khan, some 80 miles off Delhi. Following Latif Ali Khan’s death, his elder wife and son threw the begum and her mother out of the estate. The two found themselves on the lanes of Delhi’s Bazaar-e-Husn, or Chawri Bazaar, from where Latif Ali Khan had brought her mother. Broken in spirit, the mother too died soon after.

From orphan to estate ruler

From a 10-year-old penniless orphan, the begum traversed a long journey: she was trained as a dancer by the famous courtesan, Khanum Bai, she was adopted by the Mughal emperor, owned her own private army, and ruled an estate in Sardhana.

The teenager who had wooed the gathering in Khanum’s kotha soon caught the fancy of an Austrian mercenary, Walter Joseph Reinhardt, and went to live with him. Reinhardt was nicknamed Le Sombre because of his solemn looks. That name eventually morphed into the Indianised Samru.

Samru had his own private army and he pledged it to the highest bidder. In return for help to the Mughal emperor against the Jats, Samru was given the rich principality of Sardhana near Meerut. After Samru’s death, Begum Samru was given the sanad to rule Sardhana and the diminutive begum became one of the most formidable fighters of her age. She converted to Catholicism in 1781, three years after her husband’s death, and took the name Joanna after Joan of Arc.

In 1787, she rushed at the head of her army to rescue the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II, who was besieged by the Rohilla chief, Abdul Qadir, in the Red Fort. She outwitted Ghulam Qadir and forced her way into the fort. The Rohilla chief had to concede defeat in front of her superior intelligence and firepower. She was conferred the title of Zeb-un-Nisa, or jewel among women, by the emperor. The intrepid begum saved the emperor’s life on another occasion and was given the title of Farzand-e-Azizi, or beloved daughter, which was later converted to a more personalised name: Farzana.

She administered her estate in Sardhana with brilliance and it soon yielded a huge income.

She started the construction of the beautiful church of Our Lady of Graces in Sardhana. It was completed in 1820. She sent a request to the Pope to send a Bishop. In a letter dated 21/1/1834, she wrote to him: “I am proud to say, it (the church) is acknowledged to be the finest, without exception, in India.”

The church was built at the princely cost of four lakhs. Anthony Reghelini, an officer in the Begum’s army, from Vicenza, Italy, was its architect. In 1822, it was opened to the public and consecrated by the Prefects Apostolic of Agra, Rev. Fr. Antoninus Pezzoni.

Where silence takes over

It bears a great resemblance to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with its 18 beautiful Doric columns and triple domes. Two soaring spires rise on the back of the building giving it a unique look. Entry is from a side door before which is Reghelini’s signature double staircase built in a way to resemble a flowing stream.

Once inside, the calm takes over. It is in silence that you reach the altar.

I don’t know what brief was given to the architect, but he must have understood her well as he mixed Italian and Islamic architecture. The marble altar reminded me immediately of the Taj Mahal. The pietra dura, with its semi-precious stones inlay work, seems inspired from it.

Behind the altar is a huge tabernacle in which is installed the statue of Our Lady of the Graces in a niche. This statue was a later addition.

Light pours onto the statue through the octagonal dome with eight windows adding to the mystical moment. It is a major centre of Marian devotion and every second Sunday of November sees a huge influx of pilgrims praying and paying homage to Mother Mary.

On the left of the altar is an 18-ft marble sculpture over the remains of Begum Samru. The Carrara marble monument was commissioned by her heir, David Dyce Samru, and carved by the Italian sculptor from Bologna, Adamo Tadolini. It shows the begum dressed in her trademark Kashmiri shawl, seated on a chair, holding the sanad to her estate. Below it are 11 life-size figures. Five are connected to her life and the rest, along with the three panels of bas-relief, symbolise the events in her life. One, which shows her leading her troops into battle, is particularly impressive. It immortalises her fighting spirit.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 6:14:03 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/begum-samru-and-her-church-in-sardhana/article17409000.ece

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