Begum Samru’s Palace
The Palace of Begum Samru is situated in Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. You need to follow the road just before Kumar Cinema Hall to arrive at this place. It is also popularly known today as Bhagirath Palace which has been converted into an electrical goods wholesale shopping complex and in fact is the largest complex in North India. It is easily accessible by local vehicles and Metro Rail with Chandni Chowk as the nearest Metro Station. You can also get here from Chawri Bazaar Metro Station.
Old Delhi is seen sprawling with Palaces and Havelis but this one always intrigued tourist as it was known to be the grandest Palace ever seen in Chandni Chowk that once belonged to a lady named Begum Samru. Though her real identity is still being argued, what is known about her is that she was born in the year 1753. Some say she was the daughter of a courtesan lady and Asad Khan who was of a Muslim Arab descent settled in Meerut and later shifted to Delhi in 1760 after his death. Another version states that she was the daughter of Latif Ali Khan who was a nobleman of Arab descent and another version states that she was born to a decent Mughal Kashmiri Family but was later sold to Sombre. While a few argue that she was the daughter of a nautch girl from Chawri Bazaar who became the second wife of Asad Khan or Latif Ali Khan and after her husband’s death was forced to leave Meerut by her stepson and moved to Delhi where she died and left Begum Samru, her daughter with a tawaif named Khanum Jaan in Chawri Bazaar.
Begum Samru’s original name was Zeb-un-nissa and she was also known as Farzana by the locals in the streets of Chawri Bazaar. She also began as a Nautch girl in the brothel area of Old Delhi admired by men due to her flawless fair complexion and petite stature of 4.5 feet in height which was a definite contrast to her daring nature and exceptional leadership and administrative skills seen by all in the later years of her life when she became the ruler of Sardhana in UP.
In 1767, a 45-year old European mercenary soldier named Walter Reinhardt Sombre from Luxemburg was stationed in Delhi and visited the Brothel area of Old Delhi where he met Farzana who was then just 14 years old. Charmed by her beauty, he took her away with him. She started living with him as his lover and some say that he later married her which is not a known fact. He was stationed to many places within India and Begum Sombre aka Farzana always assisted him to the best of her abilities.
Begum Sombre or Begum Samru pronounced by most of the Indian locals had many lovers and amongst them were a Frenchman named Le Vassoult and an Irishman named George Thomas. She however preferred the Frenchman and later in 1793, they eloped secretly at night with Vassoult on his Horse and the Begum in her palanquin. During this escape, she was misinformed by her troops that Le Vassoult was shot and died and she stabbed herself as she could not bear the pain of losing him. As life favoured her, she survived the suicide attempt while Le Vassoult died out of a self inflicted wound on the head. She then returned to her former husband Walter Sombre who was stationed in Meerut.
Later in 1802, Lord Gerard Lake met Begum Sombre and kissed her out of sheer enthusiasm which angered her troops but she pacified them. This clearly depicted her tactful nature and skill rarely possessed by any woman in those times. During various battles, she would dress like a man and ride out with her troops to fight the enemies and became well known for her invincible qualities. On Walter Sombre’s death, she took over his seat in Meerut and led the trained mercenary troops consisting mainly of Europeans and Indians and commissioned a salary of £90,000 per annum. In 1803, after the British rule settled in North India, she retained the position of an Independent Ruler of Sardhana in Uttar Pradesh and her management and conduct was highly praised by all.
In 1806, when Emperor Akbar Shah ascended the Mughal Throne, he gifted Begum Sombre a beautiful and grand Palace in Chandni Chowk. This White Palatial Mansion was extravagantly and exquisitely decorated with high ceilings, large spacious rooms supported by strong columns and a huge garden surrounding the Palace spreading over half of Chandni Chowk. Owing to the past of Begum Sombre, the palace was also known as the ‘Chudiwali Haveli’ and described by many as a virtual paradise adorned with fully blossomed fragrant flowers and fringed with Cypress trees. The Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah would receive a royal welcome by her accompanied with dance and music and a gala dinner whenever he visited this Palace.
Begum Sombre became very powerful in North India and ruled diligently over Sardhana. This was seen as a threat by the East India Company who felt her power was growing unimaginably and immensely amongst the people of North India but on the contrary she was highly appreciated by the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II. On 7th May 1793, at the age of 40 years, she had herself baptized into the Roman Catholic Religion by a priest and was christened as Joanna due to personal and professional reasons. She was also an excellent administrator and would sometimes throw lavish parties for her European social circle. She was also known as the only Catholic female who ruled between the late 18th and early 19th Century in India and well respected by all her people.
Begum Sombre constructed another Palace in Sardhana now converted into a College. She also constructed an imposing and magnificent Catholic Church named as the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces in Sardhana visited by thousands of devotees interceding to Our Lady Virgin Mary to pray to God to fulfil their wishes and today known as a very famous pilgrim centre.
The Palace of Begum Samru was sold to Lala Chunnamal in 1847 by her stepson named David Dyce Sombre who was the son from her husband’s first English wife and it was here that the Manager of Delhi Bank named Beresford and his family were massacred during the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. Today, this building is occupied by the State Bank of India but unfortunately the garden is untraceable.
After Begum Samru’s Palace was sold, she settled and ruled over Sardhana till her demise on January 1836. She was buried in the cemetery grounds of the Sardhana Church built by her and her stepson, Dyce Sombre, who died in 1851 in London was also buried next to her. She left a property and inheritance worth 18 billion Deutsch Marks and 55.5 million Gold Marks, which is still being disputed even today.