An ordinary girl from Chawri Bazar, Delhi, grew up to be a courageous female commander who fought against the Europeans for the Mughals and ruled over immense wealth
On the battlefield of Gokalgarh in 1788, the Mughals are almost on their heels, and Najaf Quli Khan was advancing towards the royal tents of Emperor Shah Alam II to capture him. But just then, a palanquin advanced swiftly towards him. Najaf Quli Khan was unnerved.
The curtain of the palanquin widens and a couple of eyes stares at Najaf Quli Khan. Out comes a woman, upon whose call troops come marching towards them from behind.
Riding horses and guns in their hands, they start firing towards the enemy. Najaf Quli Khan had no other option but to retreat. The battle field was still raging and the emperor was not in safe hands. The woman from before came to the emperor and advised him to return to Delhi in the palanquin as soon as possible for his safety.
The emperor gets on the palanquin and tells the lady, "You have saved my life twice Zeb un-Nissa!" and leaves for Delhi.
The woman, the commander of that army, Farzana Zeb un-Nissa, best known as Begum Samru, is the protagonist of our story. Well known for her extraordinary leadership, Begum Samru was the Queen of Sardhana near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh of India.
An ordinary girl from Chawri Bazar, Delhi, she grew up to be the one of the most courageous female commanders who fought against the Europeans for the Mughals and ruled over immense wealth, as described in the Central Methodist Church website.
According to Scroll and "The Truth About Begum Samru", Begum Samru, though not born of high class, was a very influential person in Mughal history. She was born as Farzana in Chawri Bazar in Delhi, and was of Kashmiri descent.
According to National Geographic she was born in about 1750, while others such as Scroll suggests that she might have been born in 1753.
There are controversies about whether she was the offspring of a noble Muslim family, or an orphaned street child. High born or not, according to Syed Hasan Shah's book "Nashtar" (first published in 1790 and translated into English by Qurrutalain Hyder in 1992, Sterling) Farzana started her career as a Nautch (dancing girl) at Khanum Jan's kotha (brothel) in Delhi's Chawri Bazar at about the age of 15.
She came into accord in history when she got married to a mercenary soldier of Luxembourg named Walter Reinhardt Sombre in 1767. At the time, Walter Reinhardt Sombre was operating in India and fought for Mir Qasim of Bengal against the dominating British troop, killing 150 Englishmen to reoccupy Patna, which earned him his title the "Butcher of Patna'' - as stated in the "Nashtar".
It is also mentioned in "Nashtar" that after his service for Mir Qasim, the then-45-year-old mercenary Walter once visited the redlight area of Chawri Bazar, where he witnessed Farzana for the first time.
Farzana was a fair complexioned girl who radiated a mysterious charm. They met each other, fell in love and got married, earning Farzana the name of "Begum Farzana".
According to the Central Methodist Church website, Walter and Farzana, after marriage, worked together as mercenary soldiers in different troops. Farzana fought fiercely beside Walter by dressing up just like him, where she came to be known as Begum Sombre - mispronounced by the Indians soldiers as Begum Samru.
India was going through many political transitions after the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707. With no powerful leader, "Nashtar" states that India became a pie which everyone wanted to have a slice of.
War kept on sweeping over India between the Mughals, Rajputs, Marathas and the Sikhs, which even attracted the European traders who realized they could be richer if they could play the role of rulers, inspired by the singular success of Robert Clive in Bengal.
Serving for various noble troops over the course of time, Walter and Samru now offered their service to the Mughal emperors Shah Alam II and Najaf Khan. Walter and Samru became so influential that not only did they manage to escape being handed over to the vengeful British, but were also granted the rights to the rich jagir (territory) of Sardhana, which, according to Scroll, yielded around 6 lakh rupees in revenue per annum in 1776 - with a royal sanad, or deed, from Shah Alam II.
Walter Reinhardt Sombre did not live long after earning the jagirs of Sardhana. After his death in 1778, 82 European Officers and 4,000 troops of Shah Alam II signed a petition demanding Begum Samru take Walter's place as commander-in-chief.
Begum Samru ruled the jagirs of Sardhana and displayed rare valour, intelligence and diplomatic skills for 58 years as documented in "The Truth About Begum Samru", published by Samwad Publications, Meerut.
The book "The Truth About Begum Samru" also mentions that in 1787, Samru earned the title of Zeb un-Nissa, meaning "Jewel Among Women" from Shah Alam II, after she rescued the Mughal emperor - who was being besieged by the Rohilla chief, Abdul Qadir, in the Red Fort, for the first time.
A soldier of fortune, Begum Samru started to command the army and rule over the jagir of Sardhana for almost five decades. The Mughal kings were backed up by the ever-ready army of Zeb un-Nissa, who would take over the enemy easily.
After serving for three years as the commander, Zeb un-Nissa converted to Catholicism and took the name of Joanna Nobilis Sombre in 1781, according to "The Truth About Begum Samru".
Baptized as Joanna, she built a Catholic Church, the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces, in remembrance of her late husband in 1822.
Antonio Reghellini from the city of Vicenza, Italy, was the architect of the church. It was built using marbles and precious stones like Carnelian, Jasper and Melkite, and housed beautiful statues carved by the Italian sculptor Adamo Tadolini.
The author of "The Truth About Begum Samru" believed that Zeb un-Nissa converted to Catholicism despite being a Muslim and serving Muslim leaders because she dearly loved her husband, or for honouring his legacy.
She owned many palaces and churches such as the Sardhana Palace, Jharsa Palace in Gurugram and Chandani Chowk Palace, otherwise known as the Bhagirath Palace.
"The Truth About Begum Samru" also mentions the death of Begum Sumru on 27 January 1836 at the age of 82 or 83, leaving behind immense riches. She was buried under the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces in Sardhana.
Her inheritance was valued at approximately 55.5 million gold marks in 1923 and 18 billion deutsche marks in 1953.
According to records from the East India Company, Begum owned a piece of 1,300 bigha land in the Deeg area of Bharatpur that belonged to Begum's step-son, Jafar Yab, which has been stated in detail in "Proceedings of the Indian History Congress" by Farha Khan.
She died without any heir, for which the British government usurped all her wealth, though her inheritance is still debated even after 150 years.
According to The Hindu, Begum Samru had a step son and other relatives, who claim she donated her lands to them. There is still dispute whether Begum Samru's offspring should have these jagirs or the government, as the trial over the property did not end during British rule.
Begum Samru was a woman whose career was shaped by events tied to the decline of the Mughals and the ascendancy of the British power in India. In the troubled times after her husband's demise, she realized that the survival of her small jagir of Sardhana depended on her ability to cross boundaries as a traditional Indian woman and come in contact with all kinds of individuals within the political game.