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BEGUM SAMRU (1753-1836)

Begum Samru was ruler of Sardhana. She was born Zeb-un-nissa to a noble of Kutana in Meerut named Lutf Ali Khan. She lost her father when she was six, and her mother moved to Delhi, where she grew up to be a remarkable beauty. Like many independent, beautiful and spirited women without protectors at the time, she was forced to become a tawaif. She attracted the eye of General Walter Reinhardt, and in 1765 she was sold into his harem.

Reinhardt was an adventurer who had been nicknamed ‘Samru’ from his ‘sombre’ face. He had obtained the jagir of Sardhana from the Mughal emperor, from which he derived an annual income of six lakhs of rupees. Begum Samru was an exceedingly clever woman and soon took control of the estate, so that when ‘Sombre Sahib’ died in 1778, she was able to prevail upon Shah Alam to recognize her as his successor with control of his revenues and forces. In 1781 she and her stepson Zafar-Yab converted to Christianity, and she took the name Joanna. George Thomas, another adventurer joined her service. She is said to have saved Shah Alam from an assassination attempt by the Rohilla, Ghulam Qadir. Her weakness for men, however, was her undoing. In 1790 a Frenchman, J. Levassoult, joined her army and quickly rose in her favour. This fomented jealousy amongst her other followers, and Thomas, among others, left her service. Resentment grew until she was forced to flee with Levassoult, but they were overtaken. The Frenchman killed himself to avoid falling into their hands, but the Begum was captured and kept tied to a gun carriage for seven days. An old officer then had her released, and it took her little time to regain her jagir and her old status. She transferred her allegiance to the British in return for their non-interference, and occupied the last years of her life building grand churches in Sardhana and Meerut.

In old Delhi at Chandni Chowk is situated famous Begum Samru’s Palace. Formerly known as Dilkhush Kothi, the Palace was built in 1822 by the Begum. A splendid flight of steps marks the palace, forming the entrance and opening on to extensive grounds. Covering an area of 75 acres, the palace now houses the St. Charles’ College.
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