From dancing girl to mighty ruler

Parvez Mahmood tells the fascinating tale of Begum Samru, whose military skills, diplomatic acumen and personal charms kept an Empire alive

From dancing girl to mighty ruler
The history of South Asia is filled with cases of men and women rising from humble backgrounds on the basis of their strength, cunning and ambition. These figures seem to emerge from the mists of obscurity to suddenly leave their mark on the history of this region. I intend to explore the history of the Subcontinent since the beginning of the second millennium AD and present the stories of some of those who belong to this category. The current article is about Begum Samru, who rose to power from fairly humble origins.

In the extremely conservative society of late eighteenth century India, it would take an exceptionally bold woman to take part in public affairs. Moreover, she would have to be an extremely courageous one to take to the battlefield at head of her troops. And she would have to be a remarkably imaginative person to conduct diplomacy between hard-headed medieval-minded warlords. Those were difficult treacherous times and for a lowborn girl to rise to being the ruler of a state at that time of chaos was rare. Farzana, known as Lady Samru, the protagonist of this tale, was such a girl. Several biographies on her have been written and this one article cannot do justice to her personality, character and career.

Begum Farzana Zeb-un-Nissa Samru, on becoming Catholic, took the name Joanna Nobilis Sombre

Farzana didn't remain confined to the house. She learnt the ropes of military life and commanding troops - and rode out with her partner in his campaigns

In the late Mughal era, fair and pretty girls from Kashmir were favoured as dancers in Delhi. Those who had natural charm remained in high demand. It was a practice among Mughal notables at the Delhi court to have at least one or two courtesans as their wives or concubines. One such Kashmiri blonde damsel, Jaddan Bai, was taken up by a decadent Mughal noble Asad Khan, who lived at Kutana Qasba, 80 kilometres north of Delhi. Before she became mistress of this nobleman, she had performed for years in a kotha in Delhi’s Chauri Bazaar, the abode of dancing girls and courtesans until the early nineteenth century.

Farzana, later to become Begum Samru, was born to Asad Khan and Jaddan Bai in 1750.

After Asad Khan’s death in 1760, Farzana’s mother was maltreated and expelled from her home by her stepson. She along with her daughter left for Delhi, a place that she knew. Here they were sheltered by Khanum Jan, owner of one of the best kothas in Chauri Bazaar. Khanum Jan and other troupes of dancing girls were often patronised by Englishmen, whose number was growing in Delhi.

Church built by the Begum – the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces, Sardhana, UP

Writer Syed Hasan Shah, in his autobiographical Persian novel Nashtar (first published in 1790 and translated into English by Qurratulain Hyder in 1992) refers to the charms of Khanum Jan, who trained Farzana in her art – making her one of the most sought-after girls of Chauri Bazaar by the age of 15.

At this stage enters an Austrian soldier of fortune named Walter Joseph Reinhardt, nicknamed Sombre – because of his dark colour – but corrupted into Somroo or Samru, who arrived in India around 1750 with the French Navy and served, in quick succession, with the French, the East India Company and Nawab of Bengal. Due to his role in the massacre of the British soldiers and civilians at Patna prior to Battle of Buxar, he was a hunted man. He then moved to Awadh, where after serving various masters, he formed his own mercenary army of Jat peasants in 1767.

Like many Europeans of the time in India, Samru too had gathered a harem of Indian women. One of these was a courtesan called ‘Badi Bibi’ (senior wife) who had borne her children including a son named Louis Balthazar alias Nawab Zafaryab Khan. In 1764/5, while visiting Chauri Bazaar for entertainment, he was smitten by the 15-year-old Farzana and quickly moved her to his harem – certainly after paying her price to Khanum Jan.

Her palace in Delhi

Unlike other women of Samru’s harem, Farzana didn’t remain confined to the house. She learnt the ropes of military life and commanding troops – and rode out with her partner in his campaigns. One of these campaigns was to fight against the Jats on behalf of the Mughal court. For this service, Samru demanded the prized tract of Sardhana, 18 kilometres northwest of Meerut, with an annual revenue of 600,000 rupees – 30 crore or 300,000,000 in today’s value. At the instance of Najaf Khan, an important Mughal court minister, the Emperor conceded in 1776 and awarded Samru a certificate (sanad) to this effect. A mercenary thus became a landed magnate. Samru was also appointed civil and military governor of Agra. He died in 1778.

As per the norm, his stepson son Zafaryab Khan, though considered feeble-minded, should have inherited the state. But Begum Samru was not about to give up her powers without a fight. She managed to get her troops to support her, used her influence with Najaf Khan to get Sardhana transferred to her and came to be called Begum Samru. The Emperor issued a proclamation investing her succession with legitimacy. Zafaryab continued to be funded by his stepmother to live in luxury in Delhi. The Begum herself converted to Christianity in May 1781 and adopted the name of Joanna.

Her image in the altar of her church

As a ruler, she gave her troops security and honourable service conditions. Competence as a ruler and loyalty to her benefactors turned Begum into a legend in her lifetime. Her ability to command respect and her remarkable gifts as a politician helped her establish and maintain excellent relations with neighbouring powers. According to W. Francklin in his History of The Reign of Shah Aulum (London, 1798), she maintained five battalions of troops commanded by Europeans of different countries – including 200 European soldiers, forty cannon and a foundry for cannon. This was a respectable force in the area.

A woman ruler was vulnerable and the Begum had to establish a commanding personal presence to survive. Only four-and-a-half feet in height, she wore a turban and personally led her army. She dealt with an incipient mutiny by inflicting gruesome punishment on two slave girls. This made a strong impression on the turbulent spirit of her troops.

In the course of time, she not only established her writ as a firm ruler, but also proved herself to be just. Through equitable revenue settlements, she relieved the peasantry from rural indebtedness. This led to improvements in agriculture that won her the support of the peasantry and added financial stability to her rule.

Two of her European contemporaries have praised her wisdom in administrative matters. W. Francklin writes:

“An unremitting attention to the cultivation of the lands, a mild and upright administration, and care for the welfare of the inhabitants, has enabled this small tract (Sardhana) to yield a revenue of ten lakhs of rupees per annum (up from six...)”.
Ghulam Qadir was aware of her strength and tried to trick her, calling her a sister. She hoodwinked him instead - by promising to help him, then immediately taking control of the palace and pledging her life for the protection of the Emperor!

Major Archer, ADC to Lord Combermere, Commander-in-Chief of the Company’s forces, who actually visited Sardhana during the Begum’s lifetime, unhesitatingly praised her achievements. He said,

“The Begum has turned her attention to the agricultural improvement of the country, though she knows she is planting what others will reap”.

Najaf Khan died just four years after the grant of the state to her. Delhi was plunged into uncertainty and she faced severe difficulties. In 1783 some of Begum Samru’s troops were involved in a factional quarrel in Delhi, in which her able and trusted commander Pauli was killed. Rohilla chief Ghulam Qadir too seized the crown lands in Doab, including a part of her jagir (fiefdom).

When the Sikhs raided the Doab as far as Meerut, the Begum along with her troops went to Panipat to protect the frontiers of the diminished Mughal realm of Delhi. In 1788, the Rohilla chief attacked Delhi. Emperor Shah Alam appealed to the Marathas and the Begum for help. Ghulam Qadir, on the other hand, offered to marry the Begum along with a share of the spoils if she joined him in taking the Emperor captive. His offer offended her strong sense of loyalty to her benefactor. She spurned the Rohilla chief’s suggestion without hesitation. Before the Begum could come to her liege’s help, however, the Rohilla chief had already entered the imperial palace and blinded the Emperor.

Begum Samru promptly marched to Delhi and stationed herself across the river Yamuna. Ghulam Qadir was aware of her strength and tried to trick her, calling her a sister. She hoodwinked him instead – by promising to help him, then immediately taking control of the palace and pledging her life for the protection and safety of the Emperor! Faced with the superior forces of the Begum, the Rohilla chief withdrew. It was later left to Mahadaji Scindia to mete out retribution to the Rohilla chief for his atrocities. He was captured and creatively tortured to death – but not before his eyeballs had been sent to an eagerly waiting Shah Alam in a box to feel with his fingers!

When the Emperor was restored to the throne, he bestowed on the Begum the title of Zeb-un-Nissa, ‘Ornament of Women’. The crown lands in the Doab were restored to her. Subsequently when the Emperor took to the field himself to bring a rebellious Najaf Quli Khan to heel, Begum Samru joined him with three companies and a squadron of artillery. Emperor Shah Alam honoured her again for gallantry and loyalty, giving her the title of “his most beloved daughter”. She was also bestowed a grant of land near Delhi.

In 1783, a Sikh army of 30,000 under Baghel Singh occupied Delhi. The Sikhs had been hostile to the Mughal court ever since the murder of Guru Arjan Dev at hands of Emperor Jahangir, and especially since the bigoted policies of Aurangzeb. Hearing the plight of Shah Alam, the Begum came to Delhi, negotiated with the Sikh leaders and arranged their peaceful return to Punjab. In return, the Sikhs were allowed to construct eight gurudwaras in Delhi and paid a part of octroi for that year.

In 1805, the British Collector of Saharanpur, G.D. Guthrie, was taken prisoner by the Sikhs. The Begum was able to negotiate Guthrie’s release by paying a ransom of Rs 15,000, which the Company later reimbursed. Subsequently, she was also able to secure the release of Lt. Col. Stuart, who had also been taken prisoner by Sikhs.

Begum Samru had everything that one could aspire for – power, wealth and fame. She possessed the most enchanting charms and had lost her husband when she was hardly 28. She yearned for love and had a number of romantic dalliances, but was wily enough to keep her paramours at arm’s length from her power base and her fortune.

In 1787 the Begum’s forces were joined by an Irish mercenary George Thomas alias Jahazi Sahib. A dashing sailor, he inspired confidence by his imposing demeanour and became the Begum’s lover.

In 1790, she became romantically involved with a flamboyant but intriguing Frenchman, Le Vassoult. The Emperor and her other friends tried to warn the Begum about the consequences of this dalliance – without any effect on her. In the midst of these intrigues in 1793, she secretly solemnised her marriage to Vassoult. Her new love affair was resented by her army and she was forced to leave Sardhana. Vassoult finally committed suicide in mysterious circumstances and she came back to rule her state.

After the Maratha defeat in Second Anglo-Maratha war and their friendship treaty with Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Company convinced the Begum to opt for the British openly. The new Governor-General, Lord Cornwallis, decided to leave her in “unmolested possession of her Jagir”, but asked her to remain careful about people who helped anti-British elements. The British had their own reasons to make peace with the Begum. They wanted to utilise her influence over the principal Zamindars in Awadh and the Sikhs in Punjab to ensure tranquillity.

Though she had converted to Christianity, except for observing some of the essential rituals of the religion, she preserved the manners and customs of her social environment and dressed herself in conventional Mughal style with her faithful hookah constantly at hand. In lifestyle, personal appearance and activities, the Begum reflected both her Muslim as well as Christian identities. She regularly maintained Mughal etiquette in her court and, in deference to Muslim conventions, conducted public business from behind a screen.

Considering her education and background, the Begum’s abilities were enormous in matters of war and peace. She had earned the complete confidence of the Mughal Emperor. On the other hand, she was also trusted by Sikhs and Marathas, who would listen to her opinion and often adhered to her council. The British, too, respected her position and gave way to her charming personality.

The Begum ruled her state for 55 years till her death in 1836 and died peacefully at the ripe age of 86 years.

Her living legacy is the church built by her in Sardhana, which is now an important pilgrimage centre. Her sculptured tomb draws a constant stream of visitors from all over the country, with an annual urs the on second Sunday of November. In her sculpture at Sardhana cathedral, she is depicted holding the royal Mughal sanad in her hand.

She built a palace in the heart of Chandni Chowk in Delhi. About 20 years after her death, during the revolt of 1857, her palace was ransacked and damaged. The building is now partially owned by the State Bank of India, behind which is a large electronics flea market. The palace, originally built inside a garden granted by Akbar Shah, is hard to identify from the days of its past splendour. A number of hawkers and narrow lanes is all that remains. She built another palace at Gurgaon that survived till 2008 but is now lost to encroachments.

Begum Samru died immensely rich. Her inheritance continues to be disputed to this day and was assessed, in German currency, at approximately 55.5 million Gold Marks in 1923 and 18 billion Deutsch Marks in 1953. Even today, an organisation by the name of Reinhards’ Erbengemeinschaft is making efforts towards finding a solution to the question of that inheritance.

The Begum has found plenty of mention in literature with numerous biographies written on her life. Her first biography was written during her own lifetime and full-length books were published in English in 1879, 1885, 1925, 1996 and 1997. A novel by Jaipal Singh was published in 2004 titled Samru: The Fearless Warrior. Her life continues to evoke interest with a latest biography by Julia Keay titled Farzana: The Woman Who Saved an Empire, published in 2014. It will certainly take a long time before she is forgotten.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: