She started her career as a nautch girl and by the time she died she was not only counted among the richest Indian but was also the Empress of an Indian principality. Even though her rags to riches story is the stuff of legends, she has a special place in Indian history.
Her inheritance was so huge and so enormous that it is still being disputed today, almost a century after her death. An astute Queen, her services were even fondly remembered by a Mughal Emperor who called her his daughter.
She ruled over her province in such a manner that even the British East India Company considered her a threat to its territorial ambitions. The British apprehensions were not misplaced as she played a key role in the political and military developments of the 18th and 19th century.
But what sets her aside from all rulers, male or female, is that she is perhaps the one and only Catholic ruler of
. This is a rare distinction as India has been ruled by a plethora of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain and even Sikh rulers but no Christian ruler. India
This Queen could lay claim to being the only Catholic ruler of
. She is also the only Queen to have written a letter to the then Pope. India
Born a Muslim as Samru Farzana Zeb-un-nisa in 1753, she started her career as a dancing girl. She was of Kashmiri descent. Her guile and charm made her the ruler of Sardhana, a principality near
in Uttar Pradesh. Meerut
But when she became the ruler, her name was Begum Joanna Nobilis Sombre (1753–1836), a converted Catholic Christian.
This is how her story unfolds.
Samru Farzana was staying in Rohilkhand near
and Walter Reinhardt Sombre, a 45-year-old European mercenary, came to the red light area. Fate brought him in touch with Farzana, then a small and beautiful girl of 14, and he took her away with him. This was sometime in 1767. Bareilly
Walter was a mercenary and he had come to
to make a fortune. He called himself a soldier of fortune and he travelled from India Lucknow to Rohilkhand, then to Agra, Deeg and Bharatpur and back to the . Lucknow
Walter became the Governor of
. He had built a powerful mercenary Army. Subsequently, the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam, the second, allowed him to rule from the principality of Sardhana. Agra
Unfortunately, Walter did not live long and he died on May 4, 1778.
His wife, Samru, then buried her husband in his favourite city of
. She took over his mercenary army and succeeded as the ruler of Sardhana Agra
Samru Farzana’s career then took an upward turn. She became the head of a professionally trained mercenary army, consisting of both Europeans and Indians. She was not even five feet in height but she was an excellent horse rider and a battle-scared veteran. Word soon spread that she was a witch who could kill enemies just by just throwing her cloak at them.
Her principality yielded £90,000 per annum. She managed to retain her
even as other Kingdoms around her fell to the British. Independence
She ruled her principality well and she emerged as a powerful figure in the period. Her support was even acknowledged by Shah Alam, the second, the Mughal emperor.
The palace built by her in Sardhana near
soon became the centre of political activity. Shah Alam regarded Farzana as his daughter. He did so because the Begum had saved Meerut from the Sikh invasion in 1783. Delhi
The Sikhs, with an army of 30,000 under Bagel Singh, had camped near Tiz Hazari. Farzana negotiated with the Sikhs and they went back to the
Punjab after receiving gifts from the Mughal Emperor.
In 1787, she again came to the help of Shah Alam when he was trying to put down a rebellion by Najaf Quli Khan. Farzana fell on Khan with just 100 soldiers and the rebel sought her good offices to make peace with the Mughal Emperor.
A grateful Shah Alam bestowed special honors on Farzana at the royal court and declared her “his most beloved daughter”. He also confirmed the estate at Sardhana, which was the subject of a dispute with Louis Balthazar also known as Nawab Zafaryab Khan, another son of her husband, by his first wife, Badi Bibi.
It was on May 7, 1781, that Begum Samru Farzana was baptized Joanna Nobilis, by a Roman Catholic priest.
She built at church at Sardhana which still exists. It is now known as the Bascilica of Our Lady of Graces. During March and November thousands of people turn up to bless the Begum and pray to the Virgin Mary.
In the church is a letter that she wrote to Pope Gregory XVI, She is the only Queen from
to have written such a letter. India
Soon, Farzana became a devout Christian. However, she did not impose any religion on her subjects. Soon she became the cynosure of all eyes, particularly after her conversion to Christianity.
Her husband’s European officers and associates like Le Vassoult, a Frenchman, and George Thomas, an Irishman courted her.
When rumours spread that Farzana had married Le Vassoult in 1793, her mercenary troops mutinied and Le Vassoult died of self-inflicted wounds.
Lord Gerard Lake, Commander-in-Chief of the British troops in , met the Begum in 1802, he took Farzana in his arms and kissed her. This act enraged her soldiers but the quick witted Samru defused a potentially dangerous situation by saying that it was only “the kiss of the Padre to a repentant child”. India
Though a ruler, she did not have anyone who she could call her friends except Begum Umdaa of Sardhana. This was because society then did not take kindly to nautch girls. Yet, Umdaa became friends with Farzana. After the Begum married and settled down at
, Farzana still found time to visit her. Meerut
Since she was a Muslim before conversion, she was denied to be buried at the
but a monument for her tomb was allowed in her honour. It was then that Begum Umdaa gave land for her cremation from her property which is now situated near the Sardhana Church NAS College, Meerut
The Catholic Queen died in January 1837, at the age of 85. Her inheritance was assessed at 55.5 million gold Mark in 1923 and 18 billion deutsch mark in 1953
Farzana built a palace in Chandni Chowk,
on land gifted to her by Akbar Shah, son of Shah Alam. The building still stands and it is now owned by the State Bank of Delhi . India
Another palace in Gurgoan fell prey to encroachment and disappeared sometime around 2008.
Today, Sardhana has many buildings constructed during her tenure. It is 85 miles from
Delhi and 13 miles from . Even today, Sardhana is known for the church that Farzana built. Meerut