Tuesday 22 January 2013

The only Catholic Queen of India

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  India. 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.
This Queen could lay claim to being the only Catholic ruler of India. She is also the only Queen to have written a letter to the then Pope.
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 Meerut in Uttar Pradesh.     
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 Bareilly 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.
Walter was a mercenary and he had come to India to make a fortune. He called himself a soldier of fortune and he travelled from Lucknow to Rohilkhand, then to Agra, Deeg and Bharatpur and back to the Lucknow.
Walter became the Governor of  Agra. He had built a powerful mercenary Army. Subsequently, the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam, the second, allowed him to rule from the principality of Sardhana.
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 Agra. She took over his mercenary army and succeeded as the ruler of Sardhana
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 Independence even as other Kingdoms around her fell to the British.
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 Meerut soon became the centre of political activity. Shah Alam regarded Farzana as his daughter. He did so because the Begum had saved Delhi from the Sikh invasion in 1783.
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 India to have written such a letter.
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.
When Lord Gerard Lake, Commander-in-Chief of the British troops in India, 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”.
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 Meerut, Farzana still found time to visit her.
Since she was a Muslim before conversion, she was denied to be buried at the Sardhana Church 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 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, Delhi 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 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 Meerut. Even today, Sardhana is known for the church that Farzana built.   


  1. Hi Samyuktha,

    Wow! a really intresting read...i'am sure not many people know about Farzana..by the way..have u writen anything about the Begum Mahal that once supposed to have stood near Ulsoor lake...

    i must say.. your blogs are awesome..u write about all the precise things that i'am intrested in..the mystery and intrigue of actual events..simple awesome

  2. Thank you for your compliment. We really appreciate it. We hope to match up to your expectations.

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  4. das ist nicht so richtig fürst war johann walter reinhardt der für indien gekäpft hat
    sein vermögen hat franza nur verwaltet-somit sind die nachfahren von somru die erben
    das vermögen liegt in england bis auf das land die besitzurkunde ist in indien