A queen’s magnificent church

The rags-to-riches story of Begum Samru—from a nautch girl in Delhi to Sardhana's warrior queen—may soon be the subject of a film by Tigmanshu Dhulia of Paan Singh Tomar fame. Regarded as the only Roman Catholic ruler in Indian history, Begum Samru is almost forgotten in Delhi where she wielded significant political and social influence in the late 18th and early 19th centuries during the twilight years of Mughal rule.

The Begum's house in Chandni Chowk has turned into a bank and its adjoining area is the electrical goods market, Bhagirath Palace. Her palace in Gurgaon, built in Islamic style—she was born a Muslim—had survived in a ruined state till about 2008. It has since disappeared, swallowed up by gradual encroachment.

But in Sardhana, once her fiefdom, the Begum's presence can be felt with almost all the buildings she built not just intact but also reasonably well-maintained. As one takes the bypass from Meerut to cross the Ganga canal, the steeples of her church come into view. A tarred road lined with mango groves and sugarcane fields leads to the shrine, the Basilica of our Lady of Graces.

Father George of Sardhana says the Begum's palaces here have been converted into schools, college and hostels. The church is at the centre of a fair that takes place every November.

Built in the 19th century, the church had cost her Rs 4 lakh. It was a small amount for Begum Farzana Joana, who became the head of the prosperous Sardhana principality and that of a mercenary army after the death of her husband, Walter Reinhardt Sombre, a native of Luxemburg. Samru, as Sombre's name came to be pronounced, came to India to join the French frigate only to change his loyalties to the British when he saw the French losing. After Sombre's death, his Begum commanded his troop of 80-plus European officers and 4,000-odd soldiers. She was regarded as a benevolent ruler and a capable leader on the battlefield. An 1815 water colour painting by one Sita Ram, who accompanied Lord Hastings, the Governor General of Bengal, to a battlefield, depicts her army camp at Narela in Delhi.

In the church is a letter the Begum is known to have written to Pope Gregory XVI: "I am proud to say it (the church) is acknowledged to be the finest, without exception, in India."

The exquisite semi-precious stone work, life-like statues, verandah of 18 Greek columns, elevated altar with stained glass inner dome, two spires and three Roman domes, all add to its grandeur. She wanted it to be similar to the grand churches of Rome and employed an Italian architect, Anthony Reghelini, who took 11 years to complete it. An 18-ft high edifice on the left of the sanctuary was carved by Italian sculptor Adamo Tadolini and sent by ship from Italy to Kolkata, transported on boats up the Ganga and to the church on bullock carts. Built on the tomb of the Begum who died in 1836 at the age of 85, it depicts the queen sitting on the throne, smoking hookah, with Europeans and Indians in audience. In her right hand she holds the scroll from Emperor Shah Alam II bestowing upon her the fiefdom of Sardhana after the death of her husband. Standing below, to her right, is her adopted son David Dyce Sombre. To her left is minister Diwan Rae Singh, Motilal Nehru's greatgrandfather. The inscription is in Arabic, Latin and English.

Father George says the church was built to ensure Begum's name remains permanently etched in history. However, she may not have imagined that the shrine she dedicated to Mother Mary would one day become one of the 19 minor basilicas of India. Her church was bestowed the status in 1961 by Pope John XXIII and is the only minor basilica in North India.

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