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Published in the 1-15 May 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

The Begum who commanded her own army
Dying abode of the unsung Begum Sumru

More weightage is given to politics than poetry, history or writing, it would seem," rues Firoz Bakht Ahmed, a community worker who chose to preserve Delhi’s monuments through his writings than dabbling in hateful and cancerous politics! He has a special place for Begum Sumru's haveli in Old Delhi. "In her days Begum Sumru [Sombre] was Delhi’s most colourful and talked of damsel," he says.

Haveli Begum Somru in Old Delhi

Haveli Begum Somru in Old Delhi

An avid reader, quoting from R.V. Verned’s British Life in India, Firoz says, "She lived in a fine building agreeably situated in a garden opening into the ‘Great Street’ and as quiet as if it had been in wilderness." The very quiet ‘Great Street’ is now in the thickest hub of old Delhi’s upmarket Chandni Chawk and better known to be Asia’s biggest electrical goods market — the Bhagirath Palace.

Today barely noticeable amidst the welter of ugly shop fronts, indolent cows cuddling on the road and the squalor of chaotic business activity, the facade of Begum Sumru’s haveli in the still vintage selling street looks on benignly as a mute spectator of history since the time of the Mughals. From morning till evening with its maze of narrow alleys occupied by carts, handcarts and tempos blocking even the footpath for the pedestrians and with the uncontrolled loading and unloading of every conceivable kind of electrical appliances and goods, it has become a hellish place. 

Begum Somru and her first 
Begum Somru and her first 
husband Walter reinhardt (inset)

Firoz got the old Delhi haveli of Mirza Ghalib restored besides being instrumental in the reconstruction of the mazar of Zauq, the poet laureate of Bahadurshah Zafar’s court and his tutor and also got freed the renowned Sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia from the clutches of encroachers and vandals in the area. This remark shows his concern for the city’s dying heritage, "Instead of its once sylvan façade of gardens flourishing with plants having glossy leaves and silken grass inundated by the supply with the Nehr-e-Bahisht, it has now been reduced to chaotic commercial buzz. The garden of the Kothi of Begum Sumru had beautiful cascades and fountains all around where Begum’s guests from many nationalities i.e., Indian, English, Persian, French and Dutch, sat there during the hot summer evenings. Only the ghost of it survives today."

But even today one can see in the ruthlessly ruined remains the house built in baroque and Corinthian style with its tremendously high roofed verandah, and supported by massive pillars carved on the upper side, still gives the mutilated Sumru Kothi, a grand and graceful appearance.

Bakht’s penchant for Delhi materialized into black and white when Pankaj Vohra asked him to do a series of articles in Hindustan Times for almost three years starting from 1995 — and it began with Begum Sumru! Only in the past few years, the view of the gorgeous steps of this palace has been obscured by all the structures and shops that have come up against its massive walls. While mounting up the steps past the paan walas, chai walas and the chholey walas, you enter the verandah with its elegantly moulded neo-classical doorways through which you go into a large room, now Central Bank. Earlier it was Lloyd’s Bank. Even today, this name can be discerned written atop the front façade of the Sumru Kothi. "If one sees the old pictures of this Chandni Chawk palace of Sumru, one can imagine the great royal beauty and dignity it possessed on the south view," tells Firoz. The other north end is not visible at all owing to the umpteen massive structures that have come up.

Delving deep into the colourful character of the Begum, Firoz says, "The dimunitive begum was only 4’ 11" tall with a pink complexion and gossamer skin, large black eyes and long beautiful hair. She wore Indian dresses and spoke Urdu and Persian with fluency and French and English with a poor flow. Right from her childhood, Sumru was a domineering girl." But who actually this Begum Sumru was, is still shrouded in mystery as no one was aware of her antecedents, not even her contemporaries. But some people say that she was the daughter of Asad Khan, a decayed nobleman of Katna in Meerut. Others believe that she was a Saiyedani (from a Syed family). In Haft Qulzum, Gauri Shankar writes that she was the daughter of an Arabian nobleman, Latif Khan who died when she was only six and her step-mother brought her up. 

When bad times came, she was taken up and sold in the slave market where Walter picked her up. So, as a teenager, she entered the harem of Walter Reinhardt, a German soldier in the French service in India who subsequently deserted, became a hedonist and an adventurer and offered services to all and sundry including the Nawab of Carnatic, Nawab of Bengal, Jats, Mahrattas, Nawab of Awadh etc. 

In fact he came to India sometime in 1766 and joined the French Frigate only to change his loyalties to the British in Pondichery when he saw the French losing! Despite his fickle-minded loyalties, he was a devil of a fighter. He even quelled the rebellion of Zabta Khan against Shah Alam II. A good friend of Shah Alam II, he was even offered by the king jagir (fief) stretching from Muzaffar Nagar and Sardhana to Aligarh for being a remarkable soldier. 
Of all his landed property, he made Sardana his principality as it suited him most since the area had the two rivers in the vicinity and it was close to Delhi. When Begum Sumru entered his life, he was already married to another Muslim woman. How she got the name Sumru? In fact Reinhardt was a very sober fellow despite being a terrible soldier. People called him Mr Sombre. This somber got crumpled into Sumru!

After Reinhardt died on May 4, 1778 by the Britishers, she baptized herself as Joanna and like her husband, became a Catholic. After his death, she started commanding his troops. She even remarried Le Vessoult. She adopted a son, David Ocherlony Dyce Somber (December 18, 1808 — July1, 1851) who had a very tense and dissipated existence as Anne Jervis, his English wife accused him of lunacy and left him. He wrote a book in his defence accusing her of infidelity and cruelty. Emperor Shah Alam who was quite often in trouble, was rescued by the Begum Sumru as she possessed a very well disciplined army of her own whose supreme command was in her hand only. Many a time, she herself went to the battlefield. She even repulsed the Ruhela leader Ghulam Qadir’s attack for which Shah Alam conferred upon her the title of "Zeb-un-Nisa" and called her as his most beloved daughter.

At the fag end of her life, she busied her self in charitable work and wished to build a church in Sardana as the replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Nevertheless, she built a remarkable church before she died at 90 in 1836. She lies buried in the Catholic Cemetery at Sardana on the opposite side of the church she built. But what’s more lamentable is that the Delhites have forgotten her!
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