A 200-year-old memorial in Gurugram dedicated to the Begum who commanded an army | gurgaon

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Tucked away in a corner of the Mohyal Colony in Sector 40 is a memorial that dates back to the 19th century. Spread over a sizeable portion of a park in the colony, the towering white structure throws light on an important ruler of pre-independence Gurugram. Most residents in the colony are unaware of the historical roots of the structure. They pass by it without a second glance.

It is a tangible remnant that mentions the name of Begum Samru alias Sombre, who once presided over the Jharsa-Badshahpur area.

The 200-hundred-year old memorial is dedicated to Jean Etienne, a French soldier who served in Begum Samru’s army. Damaged by human meddling and natural wear and tear over the years, one has to strain the eyes to decipher the almost faded writing inscribed on the memorial. The epitaph mentions the date of Etienne’s death as Sunday, June 5, 1821. Etienne served Begum Samru for 35 years until his death at the age of 75.

“He served HH BEGUM SOMBRE for Thirty Five Years was a Common Soldier and an honest Man (sic),” reads the epitaph on the memorial.

According to the Gurgaon District Gazetteer, 1983, “Begum Samru owned the pargana of Jharsa or Badshahpur.” In another mention, she is described as the “well known Begum” and her husband was Sombre.

The entrance of the park where the memorial dedicated to Major Jean Etienne is located.
(Parveen Kumar/ HT Photo )

Begum Samru or Sombre, as the British called her, played a defining role in the history of Gurugram. Historian KC Yadav said that Jharsa assumed importance because of the placement of her cantonment in the area.

“In those days, Jharsa was a crucial place since it was the jagir of Begum Samru. She saved Mughal ruler Shah Alam after which she was rewarded with the jagir of Sardhana. Samru was a bold adventurer with a strong command over her army. She converted to Christianity after marriage,” said Yadav.

According to author-historian Rana Safvi, the birth name of Samru is not known. In all likelihood, the name is a corruption of Sombre, the nickname of her husband.

“She was the daughter of a Mughal nobleman named Latif Ali Khan who got married to a European mercenary, Walter Reinhardt. She had a large private army and employed many European officers on top posts of her army,” said Safvi.

The haveli of Begum Samru in Old Delhi’s Bhagirath Place.
(Viremdra Singh Gosain / HT File )

Heritage experts said that Gurugram’s prominence as a town was largely recognised in the 19th century when it was occupied by the British cavalry unit. “Begum Samru was a gutsy woman. She put together an army of men in Gurugram. Apprehensive of Samru’s army, the British put up a battalion and cantonment in the city. Unfortunately, she is not remembered by the people of Gurugram,” said Atul Dev, convener of the Gurugram chapter of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage).

Dev added that the French memorial was an invaluable evidence of Begum Samru’s exploits in Gurugram.

“We have received the sanction of the deputy commissioner to carry out the restoration. We have now started collecting archival information and documentation. INTACH Gurugram chapter will be financing the entire restoration,” informed Dev.

Apart from the French memorial, there are different theories that connect the residence of the deputy commissioner in Civil Lines to Samru.

The official website of Haryana tourism, in fact, identifies the DC’s residence as Samru’s palace. It features Begum Samru Palace among the places of interest in Gurugram. It describes Samru as someone who was the jagir holder of Jharsa-Badshahpur pargana till her death in 1836.

“She built a beautiful palace between Jharsa and Gurgaon village. Even after the annexation of Begum’s estate, her palace was continuously used as DC’s residence or known as camp office. The palace is about 200-year-old and still is in a good state,” reads the description.

Deputy Commissioner Vinay Pratap Singh, the current occupant of the DC’s residence, said that there was no evidence of the connection. “There is no documented record available with us which connects Begum Samru to the residence. However, it has been a traditional knowledge,” said Singh.

First Published: Aug 10, 2018 15:23 IST

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