Youth and Romance
BEGUM Sumru was the daughter of Latif Ali Khan, a nobleman of Arabian origin, who
had settled in the town of Kotana, 30 miles north-west of Meerut. Her year of birth
is about 1753. When she was six years old she lost her father. In consequence of
ill treatment by the elder son of her father by another wife, her mother moved with
her to Delhi. Here she seems to have taken up dancing as a profession, having all
the qualities that go to make up a successful dancer. She had a graceful way; and
she must have been uncommonly beautiful at the age of 15, to have caught the eye
of Walter Reinhardt - a man with such power and position that he could have had
the pick of land, and who, considering the amount he had travelled, must have been
a good judge of the fairer sex. Contemporaries, even though they describe her when
she was past her prime, say that she was a small dainty woman of delicate features,
with a fair complexion and large eyes, and that she carried herself well and was
polite and enjoyable company. Nor was she mere beauty and no brains. Her keen intelligence
made every use of the education she received. She was able to write and speak Hindustani
and Persian fluently.
It was in 1765, when Sumru was in the service of Jawahar Singh, the Rajah of Bharatpur,
and engaged in the siege of Delhi, that this beautiful girl, whose name was Farzana,
caught Sumru’s eye. From then on she never left his side, but accompanied him in
all his campaigns. She is said to have married him according to all the forms considered
necessary by Muslims. Sumru actually already had a wife; but she became insane,
and remained so till her death at Sardhana in 1838. His marriage with the Begum
was not blessed with any children. But Sumru had a son, Zafar Yab Khan, from his
first wife. He was a minor, when his father died, and already given to riotous living.
Therefore at the death of Sumru, his 82 European officers and 4000 troops petitioned
Emperor Shah Alam II to install the Begum as Sumru’s successor. The Emperor having
personal knowledge of her abilities and talents, readily complied with their request
. And thus from 1778 began the long and colourful reign of Begum Sumru. Here was
a woman in a man’s role, yet gifted with the qualities of both. Fearless in battle,
upright in her dealings, she was gorgeous to those who befriended her and feared
by those who offended her.
On 7th May 1781, three years after her husband’s death, she was received into the
Catholic Church, at Agra, by Rev. Fr. Gregory, a Carmelite priest. This Carmelite
priest had been sent from Bombay to look after the Christians of Agra, When the
Jesuit Father had to leave because of the Suppression of their Order. The Begum
took the name of Joanna, a name another woman had taken many years before, another
woman warrior who guided the destiny of her People – Joan of Arc.
It is obvious that she became a Catholic out of conviction. This is clear from the
fact that she embraced the Catholic faith when she was at the height of her power,
and therefore, could not be accused of becoming a Catholic for any material purpose.
Besides, the Emperor at Delhi, to whom she was subject, was a Muslim and could hardly
be expected to approve of a fellow Muslim, becoming a Christian. Nor did she do
it to please her husband, otherwise she would have done it during his life-time
and three years after his death. Nor did she do it to please the British who were
not at Delhi at that time. During the next 58 years she never faltered in her new
found faith, but as the churches she built many years afterward prove, she loved
it with a love that grew stronger everyday. On this same occasion her step-son,
Zarar Yab Khan, was also baptized, taking the name of his father, Walter Balthazzar
It was not long before Shah Alam had reason to be more than pleased with himself
for having recognised the Begum as her husband's successor. Towards the end of the
rainy season of 1787, Ghulam Qadir, son of the old rebel, the Rohilla chief Zabta
Khan of Saharanpur, whom Sumru had defeated, taking advantage of the confusion prevailing
in Delhi and that Mahadji Sindhia, the `pricipal nobleman', was away in the South,
marched on the Mogul capital. He unceremoniously entered the imperial presence and
held the Emperor a virtual prisoner. His intention was to force the Emperor to proclaim
him Amir-ul-Umara, a position of which his father had been deprived and which was
now occupied by Sindhia.
On hearing of this outrage, the Begum hastened from Panipat, where she was engaged
in fighting the Sikhs and encamped before Lahori Gate. The rebel on seeing her forces,
tried to entice her to his side, promising her a share of the Mogul power. He called
her `sister', and this `sister' played along with him and promised to join her `brother'
the next day. Ghulam Qadir returned for the night to his camp on the other side
of the Jumna. As soon as he did so the Begum quickly forced her way into the palace
and swore her loyalty to the Emperor. The next morning Ghulam was shocked to find
that his `sister' had outwitted him. When he tried to resort to force, the Begum's
battery, erected overnight answered in no uncertain terms. Ghulam was quick to recognise
defeat, and appealed to the Begum to help him to make peace with the Emperor. Then
he quietly withdrew to where he had come from.
For this great service, the Emperor conferred on the Begum the tittle of `Zeb-ul-Nisa'.
`the Jewel of her Sex'.
The next year again the Emperor had occasion to be grateful to the Begum for saving
his life. In 1788 Najaf Quli Khan, the chief of Gokulgarh, a place near Rewari,
49 miles south west of Delhi rose n revolt, because he had been deprived of a part
of his jagir. The Emperor, determined to crush the rebel, marched in person to Gokulagarh
accompanied by the Begum. The Begum took with her three of her regiments and a battery
of artillery. But early in the morning of 5th April, Najaf Quli Khan made such a
surprise and forceful attack that he threw the imperial forces into confusion. The
very person of the Emperor was in danger. The Begum immediately took charge of the
situation. She requested the Emperor to retire to her tents, while George Thomas,
her best officer, rushed her troops to the troubled spot where the imperial line
had given way. Then, after seeing to the Emperor's safety, she herself hurried to
the scene of battle. She got down from her palanquin and, supervising the counter
attack, ordered her artillery to open fire. In the face of such determined opposition
the onslaught was checked. The imperial forces had now sufficiently recovered and
it was not before the enemy was completely routed. The Emperor was the first to
realise that he owed his life to the Begum. If it had not been for her presence
of mind when everyone else was in a state of panic, there is no telling what the
rebel would have done. In gratitude the Emperor ordered a Darbar to be held. He
thanked his deliverer in glowing terms, clothed her with a special robe of honour,
and bestowed on her the title of ``Most Beloved daughter''. She was also given the
valuable state called the pargana of Badshapur, South of Delhi.
Generous in victory and no doubt prompted by her Catholic faith that preached forgiveness
even of enemies, she interceded for Najaf Quali Khan. The Emperor could refuse her
nothing. ``The most Beloved Daughter'' was also one of the most powerful persons
in his court. The rebel was fully pardoned and received once again into the Emperor's
The Emperor's eldest son, Mirza, seeing his father an easy prey to petty chiefs
and his kingdom slowly disintegrating, decided to do something to consolidate his
father's position and win back some of the fast vanishing Mogul glory. He sent a
messenger to the Begum to secure her assistance. An interesting dialogue has been
recorded. The Begum, wanting to know what kind of a leader Mirza would make, asked
the messenger, ``Does your master possess any manly or heroic qualities ?'' The
messenger misunderstanding the meaning of his beautiful enquirer, answered with
a sly smile, ``He is fine to look at, fine as could be !'' The poor man's smile
froze when the Begum's dark eyes flashed in anger, ``What joke is this ? I ask you,
does he know how to use a sword and win kingdoms, or has he only a passion for playing
the drum and the tabor ?'' However all Mirza's ambitious intentions were in vain.
Intrigue forced him to retire from court life.
The Begum's reputations as a military leader spread far and wide. It was rumoured
that she was a witch, who in battle had only to spread out her chaddar to destroy
her enemies. In his ``Military Memoirs of Lt. Col. J. Skinner, C.B.', J. Baille
Fraser records, ``Col. Skinner had often during his service with the Marathas, seen
her, then a beautiful young woman, leading on her troops to the attack in person
and displaying in the midst of the most frightful carnage, the greatest intrepidity
and presence of mind.''
Love and intrigue
About 1790 a young Frenchman, Le Vaisseau, entered her service. Till then the Begum
had been alone; no one to share her life; no one to share the burdens of her administration.
There were rivalries in her court and occasional cases of insubordination among
her troops. She was still young and beautiful, and many sought her affection, chief
among them was George Thomas, her principal lieutenant. But now came this dashing
young Frenchman, so different from the illiterate ruffians that surrounded her.
He was accomplished, handsome and well educated. The Begum was infatuated by his
charm, and he by her beauty. They were married in 1793. The marriage was solemnised
by Rev. Fr. Gregory, the same Carmelite priest who had baptised the Begum.
But the marriage was unpopular. The Frenchman, obviously conscious of his superior
upbringing, was arrogant and lacking in tact. His open familiarity with the Begum
was a source of endless scandal. Besides George Thomas, her rejected lover, was
so disappointed that he resigned her service and left Sardhana to join the army
of Sindhia. All this led to a lot of unrest.
It was further fermented by certain interested parties, who hoped to gain something
from the confusion that would follow. Soon there was mutiny in the air. George Thomas
was intriguing with the Begum's battalion, that was in Delhi on duty with the Emperor
under the command of Sumru's son, Zafar Khan.
The Begum, quick to sense the danger, decided to prefer personal happiness to everything
else. She resolved to surrender all to Sindhia, the acknowledged ruler of India,
on condition that she would be allowed to take away her private property. Meanwhile
Le Vaisseau wrote to the England Governor-General, Sir John Shore, for a free passage
through British territory upto Chandernagore. But the soldiers got wind of these
preparatons and rose in revolt before replies could come. Liegois, a friend of George
Thomas, with whom he was in contact, led the revolt, and invited Sumru's son to
come over from Delhi.
The Begum and her husband tried to escape by night, but hardly had they gone three
miles, to a place called Kirwa, when they realised that they were being pursued.
The Begum and her husband then made a sort of suicide pact at the initiation of
the romantic Frenchman. He could easily have escaped since he was on horse back,
but he loved the Begum. As he went ahead to hurry on the party, he heard shots from
the rear and then a lot of screaming. He galloped back to find that the Begum had
stabbed herself in the chest with her dagger. True to his promise not to be separated
from her by death, he put his pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.
What had actually happened was this. The Begum had heard shots being fired and the
sound of people being killed. She was under the impression that her husband was
among the slain; and so true to her promise, and afraid of what would happen to
her once a mob of frenzied soldiers got hold of her, she stabbed herself. But the
wound was not fatal. The dagger had struck a rib and glanced off.
The soldiers gave vent to their uncontrolled passions and heaped all sorts of insults
on the dead body of Le Vaisseau. The Begum was taken back to Sardhana and tied to
a gun carriage, exposed to the scorching sun for seven days without food or drink.
But for a faithful maid servant, that secretly ministered to her, she would have
died. But there was one officer, who had been against this uprising. He was a Frenchman,
named Saleur, who had been a witness of the Begum's marriage with Le Vaisseau. He
kept trying to show his fellow officers the folly of their actions. Through him
the Begum wrote to Sindhia and also to her old admirer and officer, George Thomas,
imploring them to rescue her. The Irishman, who still had great affection for the
Begum, was shocked at the treatment of the Begum, for which, to a great extent,
he had been responsible. He rushed to her rescue and threatened her captors that
they would answer to him with their lives, if anything should happen to the Begum.
Sindhia answered in the same strain.
But the soldiers were already disappointed with Zafar Yab Khan, who was weak and
dissolute, with no qualities of leadership. A counter revolution occured and George
Thomas coming up seized Sumru's son and sent him a prisoner to Delhi, where he was
kept under a sort of house arrest till his death in 1803.
A solemn oath of allegiance to the Begum was then taken by all her European officers.
M. Saleur, the French officer, that had proved his faithfulness when she needed
it most, was appointed Commanders of her troops. To George Thomas she gave in marriage
one of her chief maids of honour, a lady of French extraction, and a considerable
From then on, much sobered by the turn of events, she resumed the name of her first
husband and seemed to forget all about Le Vaisseau. No more would she allow a man
to steal her affections. She decided to consolidate her political position and be
a ruler first and last. She threw all her talents and energy into the administration
of her territory.
Administration and politics
In 1800 the Begum went to Agra to pay her respects to Sindhia for the assistance
he had rendered her when she had been held captive by her own troops. Mahadaji Sindhia,
the now acknowledged ruler of India, received her with honour. But on 23rd September
1803 Sindhia met his Waterloo. He was defeated decisively, in the Battle of Assaye,
in the Deccan, by Wellesley, more famous as the Duke of Wellington. The Begum had
sent five of her six battalions and fifteen guns under the command of Saleur. It
was this Indian force alone that came off the field unbroken, though charged repeatedly
by the British cavalry. As soon as her troops returned, the Begum realised it was
no use to kick against the goad. She entered into a treaty with the English who
guaranteed her territory for life. Born diplomat that she was, unlike her husband
who fought the British all his life, she had foreseen the fall of the Marathas and
the rise of the English. She rendered the English occasional service that would
secure their favour. Such a service occured as early as 1791. When Colonel Stuart,
officer commanding at Anupshar was captured by the Sikhs, a sum of one lakh was
demanded as ransom. At the request of Major Palmer, the Begum succeeded in securing
the release of the officer by paying only Rs. 15,000. On his release the Begum escorted
him to Sardhana with a company of her soldiers, and from there on to Delhi. The
Governor General himself thanked the Begum in Council and restored the money she
had paid. But Lord Wellesley, when he became Governor General at Calcutta undoubtedly
smarting under the resistance her troops displayed at the battle of Assaye, suspected
her loyalty and demanded that she surrender her possessions. In exchange she would
be given later some territory in Agra. The situation called for the best in the
Begum. It was her wits against the power of the English. She had to distract their
attention by keeping them busy with other matters and by making efforts to secure
their favour. She secretly informed Holkar, the Maratha chief, who had defeated
the English in Rajputana, that she was on his side. It would be worth recording
here that when Holkar besieged Delhi successfully in October 1804, the British troops
that withstood him were under the command of the famous general, Sir David Ochterlony
the god-father of David Ochterlony Dyce Sumru, the Begum's adopted son. The Begum
also encouraged the Sikhs to raid British territory, while at the same time she
rescued another British official from them. She flattered the British sense of vanity
with lavish hospitality and piteous appeals. With these tactice she managed to forestall
the execution of Wellesley's decision. In 1805 Lord Cornwallis, coming out for the
second time as Governor General, replaced Wellesley. He reinstated the Begum and
restored her property. In a letter to her he refers with gratitude to her friendliness
towards the British, and especially to her rescue of another English officer, Mr.
Guthrie, who was the Collector of Saharanpur, when the Sikhs captured the city in
October, 1804. In August of 1805 she signed a final treaty with the British, when
Mr. Guthrie, sent by Lord Cornwallis for the purpose, came to Sardhana.
From then on, the services of her troops were employed to keep peace within her
own borders. Only once were they called upon to fight out of the jagir of Sardhana.
That was in 1826, in the war waged by the British against the Rajah of Bharatpur.
The British Commander, Lord Combermere, did not want any native chief to accompany
the troops that would serve under him. This order annoyed the Begum. To pacify her,
she was told that the large place of Muttura was confided to her care. But she would
have none of it. ``Nonsense'', she is reported to have said, ``if I don't go to
Bharatpur, all Hindustan will say that I have grown a coward in my old age.'' She
got what she wanted, as she always did. She was with her troops throughout the fierce
long struggle, and was present even at the storming of the fortress. She was thanked
by the British government for her examplary courage and invaluable assistance. It
was indeed a remarkable feat for a woman of 73.
The Begum and her Jagir
Since after 1805 the services of her troops were not called upon outside her territory,
she began to devote her attention fully to the administration of her lands and the
development of her people. She preserved peace and order throughout her dominion.
Security of life and property existed everywhere. Trade was fostered and agriculture
encouraged. Referring to her lands under cultivation, Capt. W. Franklin wrote in
his book `Shah Alam', ``An unremitting attention to the cultivation of the land,
a mild and upright administration, and care for the welfare of the inhabitants,
has enabled this small tract to vie with the most cultivated parts of Hindustan,
and to yield a revenue of ten lakhs of Rupees per annum''. The sum should be multiplied
by fifty to get the real value of her income today. Nor is this a lone voice. Major
Archer who visited Sardhana in 1828, in his book ``Tours in Upper India'', had this
to say, ``Here fields look greener and more flourishing, and the population of her
villages appear happier and more prosperous than those of the (East India) Company's
province. Her care is unremitting and her protection sure''.
Her generosity was proverbial and she carried through a programme of building churches,
palaces, bridges and works of public utility unfamiliar to that age. Since the time
she had become a Catholic in 1781, she had one ardent desire that took precedence
over all others-to raise a church worthy of Divine service. Her intention was the
glroy of God. She put all her energy and resources into this project; and God in
reward immortalised her name through this edifice she erected to Him. After the
church had been completed she began to build a palace of her own. Till then she
had lived in what is now St. John's Seminary, a building she had not built and which
was considered small for a person of her standing. She built other palaces too,
in Delhi and Meeruyt. One of her palaces in Delhi stands at the beginning of Chandni
Chowk known as Bhagirath Palace and is now occupied by the Central Bank of India.
This palace faced the Red Fort with a beautiful garden in between, a gift of the
Emperor to the Begum in 1806.
The Begum's Palace at Meerut was not so fortunate. South of Begum Bridge (named
after Begum Sumru) there was a huge area known as Begum Bagh. In the midst of this
ground full of flowers and fruit trees was the Begum's Palace at Meerut. But after
the death of the Begum the palace was neglected and the garden was encroached upon.
After Independence in 1947 the chakbandi (land consolidation) office operated from
there. But it was in a sad state of disrepair. In 1985—inspite of city Magistrate's
directives to protect the palace, it was torn down by another local government department
and multistoried housing complex has come up for the Meerut Development Authority.
Ironically the area is still known as Begum Bagh—though there is no sign of the
Begum's garden or her palace.
She also built a church closeby which is today the Baptist Mission Church. She built
a presbytery and a Catholic church for the British soldiers and officials in Meerut
in 1834. In 1862, this church was enlarged and solemnly blessed and is the present
Cathedral. She also built a church for the Indian Christians, which is now a part
of St. John's school. On the verandah there is a marble slab with the following
inscription, `This chapel was built by H.H. the Begum Sumru for the use of Native
Christians. A.D. 1830-31''. Inside are two large marble slabs in Urdu, one with
the Our Father, and the other with the Ten Commandments, dating it is said from
the time of the Begum.
Her subjects belonged to all creeds and they were free to practise the religion
of their choice. Besides her European officers, Sardhana had a Christian population
of about two thousand.
She entertained the most influential people of her time, at Delhi, Meerut and Sardhana.
Here it may be worth recording a little incident. Once she went to pay her respects
to Lord Lake, the English general in command of North India. Even though she was
about 54 at the time, she was still beautiful. Lake seemed to have had a little
more to drink than he should have. Carried away by the beauty and charm of the lovely
woman in front of him, he rushed up, enveloped her in his arms, and kissed her.
The English officers and the Begum's attendants were stunned into silence. It was
an embarrassing and tense moment, but the Begum was equal to it. Turning to the
onlookers she smiled, ``See my friends, how the padre receives his penitent daughter''.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, though I wonder how many were taken in by the
She even had a band of European musicians. She possessed a fine stable of horses
and a beautiful English coach, worked with silver, velvet and lace. She never spared
efforts to make her guests comfortable. She never permitted any of them, especially
of her own sex, to leave without giving them some present, like a piece of jewelry
or a delicately woven Kashmiri shawl. Many letters exist that are a grateful testimony
of her generosity and charity.
Here is but one letter that bears testimony to the Begum's generous character. It
is a letter from Lord Bentinck, the Governor General, on the eve of his departure
Her Highness, The Begum Sumru
My esteemed Friend,
I cannot leave India without expressing the sincere esteem I entertain for Your
Highness's character. The benevolence of disposition and the extensive charity which
have endeared you to thousands, have excited in my mind sentiments of the warmest
admiration; and I trust that you may yet be preserved for many years, the solace
of the orphan and widow, and the sure resource of your numerous dependants. Tomorrow
I embark for England, and my prayers and best wishes attend you, and all others
who like you, exert themselves for the benefit of India.
With much consideration,
Your sincere friend,
M. W. Bentinck
March 17th 1835.
And yet considering all her contacts with foreigners, she remained thoroughly Indian.
She was never ashamed of her nationality; she never changed her manner of food or
dress. When she gave audience to those below her in rank, or when she contracted
business, she did it, according to the custom of women of that time, from behind
a purdah or screen. Nor did she neglect the Indian custom of women being veiled
in public. It was only among Europeans that she appeared unveiled, since such was
the custom of women among them.
A source of great concern, but to whom she owed much of her fame and power, was
her army. The maintenance of her troops was a very army. The maintenance of her
troops was a very great drain on her income. Nor did the British allow her to reduce
their number after her treaty with them in 1805. The strength of her forces varied
from four battalions and eighty five guns in 1789, to six battalions, totalling
four thousand men, forty pieces of artillery and two hundred cavalry in 1803. At
the time of her death, she had six battalions of infantry totalling two thousand,
nine hundred and fortynine sepoys, one thousand and seven artillery men, a cavalry
of two hundred and forty-five men, and a body guard two hundred strong. This force
was disciplined and officered by Europeans. Mrs. Dean, in her ``Tour through the
Upper Provinces of Hindustan', has left us a vivid description of the Begum's Cantonment:
``We were escorted over the estate by her Colonel Commadant, a respectable old gentleman
of the name of Peton, a Frenchman by birth, but resident at her court for many years.
She has a regular Cantonment here for her troops, and a strong fort containing some
good houses, which are inhabited by the officers and their families. Her soldiers
are tall, stout men, with light complexions, hooked noses and strongly marked features,
being principally Raputs, who are the best soldiers, but much addicted to chewing
opium, generally proud, and often insolent. Their uniform to the feet, with scarlet
turbans and waistbands. Her park of artillery seemed also in excellent order; most
of the large guns stood in a line in front of the palace gates''.
The long reign of the Begum finally came to an end. After a brief illness, during
which she was conscious till the last, she died, fortified by the Last Rites of
the Church, in her palace at Sardhana. It was half past six, the morning of Wednesday,
27th January, 1836. She was 83 years of age and had reigned as Begum of Sardhana
for 55 years. The Bishop of Sardhana, Julius Caesar Scotti, was with her when she
died. He had stayed the whole night in the palace keeping watch, and it was he that
administered the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. He has left us a very interesting
letter that he wrote a few days later to the Prefect Apostolic of Agra, describing
the last hours of the Begum and events connected with her death.
From nine o' clock of the night of the twenty seventh, till eight the following
morning, her body lay in state in the spacious Darbar hall of her palace. The scenes
that followed have been vividly recorded for us by the `Meerut Observer' of the
time, as quoted by Brajendranath Banerji in his book on the Begum.
`The crowds, assembled outside the palace walls, and on the roads, were immense,
and one scene of lamentation and sorrow was apparent; the grief was deep and silent;
the clustered groups talked of nothing else but the heavy loss they had sustained,
and the intensity of their sorrow was pictured in their countenances, nor did they
separating during the night. According to the custom of the country, the whole of
the dependants observed a strict fast; there was no preparing of meals, no retiring
to rest; all were watchful, and every house was a scene of mourning.
``Thus terminated the career of one, who for upwards of half a century, had held
a consicuous place in the political, proceedings of India''. Of her last journey,
the `Meerut Observer' records the following : ``At nine, the whole of the arrangements
being completed, the body was carried out, borne by the native christians of the
artillery battalion, under a canopy, supported by the principal officers of Her
late Highness's troops, and the pall by Messrs. Dyce Sombre, Saloroli, Drever and
Troup, preceded by the whole of her Highness's body-guards, followed by the Bishop,
chanting portions of the service, aided by the choristers of the Cathedral. After
them, the Magistrate, Mr. Hamilton, and then the chief officers of the household;
the whole brought up by a battalion of Her late Highness's infantry and a troop
of horse. The procession, by four elephants from which aims and cakes were distributed
among the crowd, passed through a street formed of the troops at Sardhana, to the
door of the Cathedral, the entrance to which was kept by the guard of honour from
the 30th N.I., under the command of Capt. Campbell. The procession passed into the
body of the Cathedral, in the centre of which the coffin was deposited on tressels.
High Mass then performed in excellent style, and with great feeling, by the Bishop.
The body was lowered into the vault.''
She was buried in the side chapel, which now enshrines the Sacred Image of Our Lady
of Graces. But on 14th May 1870, her remains were transferred to its present place,
because the monument brought out from Italy to be erected over her tomb, was too
big for the side chapel.
Here now she lies and every Saturday is remembered when her tomb is blessed according
to the rites of the Church. Every year on 27th January, the anniversary of her death,
the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered for the repose of her soul. She is prayerfully
remembered too, by the thousands who come to visit the church she has erected to
the glory of the God she served so generously.
She has long been dead; but she will never be forgotten.