Mercenary for Hire

A white stone building in old Delhi’s central market district may not seem too different from any neglected structures lining a street crammed with electronics shops selling adapters, copper wire, X-ray films, electrocardiogram jellies—except for a small plaque out front. Bhagirath Palace was once the opulent residence of one of India’s most powerful women: a courtesan turned mercenary turned diplomat turned queen.
It was said that “Women are not regarded as entitled to wield power directly,”. We can see that even today, women only occupy 78 of the 543 seats in India’s Parliament. And mind you, this is the highest ever since independence. It was and is a norm that the women in powerful positions must work under the shadow of the men at the helm of political parties. But, there was one woman who was able to use the moment of political transition to insert herself within those corridors of power and negotiate a space for herself.”
Who was this remarkable woman? What if I told you that she was an impoverished fourteen-year-old girl in a brothel who went on to reign over a wealthy Indian kingdom for more than five decades, during a phase when the mightiest of empires crumbled? This four-and-a-half-foot-tall girl picked up from the streets of Delhi by a Kotha owner went on to rule a prosperous kingdom for 55 years when empires were tumbling, and no man was safe. With her diplomatic abilities and commanding presence, Begum Joanna Nobilis “Samru” is an unlikely feminist icon from the 18th century. 
You might wonder why this article is titled “Mercenary for Hire” when talking about such a tiny statured lady? It is a story that needs to be read or heard.
Joanna Nobilis Sombre (c. 1753– 27 January 1836), popularly known as Begum Samru (née Farzana Zeb un-Nissa), who converted to Catholic Christianity, started her career as a nautch (dancing) girl in 18th century India, and eventually became the ruler of Sardhana, a tiny principality near Meerut. She was reported of Kashmiri descent. In her early teens, she married (or started living with) a mercenary soldier Walter Reinhardt Sombre of Luxembourg, operating in India. Walter Reinhardt Sombre, a European mercenary, then 45 years old, came to the red light area and fell for the charms of Farzana, then a girl of 14. 
The married Reinhardt was smitten by 14-year-old Farzana, whom he had noticed in a Kotha. The pair teamed up and formed a power couple – Mercenaries for Hire. A soldier of fortune, Sombre moved from Lucknow to Rohilkhand (near Bareilly), then to Agra, Deeg and Bharatpur and back to the Doab. Farzana helped him in those times of intrigue and counter-intrigue.
Begum Samru was of slight stature, fair complexion and distinguished by exceptional leadership abilities of an uncommon order. More than once, she headed her troops in action. Though only four and a half feet tall, the Begum wore a turban and rode on horseback as she led her troops to battle. So invincible did she seem that the superstitious spread the word that she was a witch who could destroy her enemies just by throwing her cloak toward them. Her army occupied the left of the Maratha line at the battle of Assaye, and hers was the only part of the Maratha force that was not driven in disarray from the battlefield.
She was the head of a professionally trained mercenary army inherited from her European mercenary husband, Walter Reinhardt Sombre. This mercenary army consisted of Europeans and Indians. She is also regarded as the only Catholic ruler in India, as she ruled the principality of Sardhana in 18th and 19th century India.
On the death of her husband, Walter Reinhardt, in 1778, she succeeded to his Principality, yielding about £90,000 per annum. Over time, she became powerful, ruling over a large area from Sardhana, Uttar Pradesh. Her conduct in the internal management of her estate was highly commendable. On 7 May 1781, around thirty, Begum Samru was baptised Joanna Nobilis by a Roman Catholic priest.
Begum Samru was the supreme commander of many troops, including at least a hundred European mercenaries. She held court, wore a turban, smoked a hookah, converted from Islam to Catholicism, and dubbed herself Joanna, after Joan of Arc. Mughal kings summoned her when rivals attacked them. She had an ever-ready army and a knack for forging deals with anyone who attacked the Mughals. One Mughal emperor gave her the title Zeb-un-Nissa. Her adventures extended beyond the court. She chose one European lover after another. 

Begum Samru died in January 1836, at the age of 82 or 83, leaving behind immense wealth but without an heir. Her inheritance was assessed as approximately 55.5 million Gold Marks in 1923 and 18 billion Deutsch Marks in 1953. It was one of the grandest Indian fortunes of the time, equivalent to an unimaginable 40 billion dollars today. The East India Company, Britain’s imperial agent in India, inherited her fortune and her inheritance continues to be disputed to this day. An organisation named “Reinhard Erbengemeinschaft” still strives to resolve the inheritance issue.

She was buried under the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces which she had built in Sardhana. An 18-foot-tall marble sculpture of Begum Samru – her torso draped in a shawl – towers near the altar.


Begum Samru’s palace in Chandni Chowk, now called Bhagirath Palace, was built in a garden gifted by Akbar Shah, a latter-day Mughal, to the Begum when he ascended the throne after the death of Shah Alam in 1806. Her palatial building still stands in Chandni Chowk, New Delhi, and is owned by the State Bank of India, Chandni Chowk Branch.


Yet, she is largely forgotten today, and Bhagirath Palace is one of only two physical markers of her existence in the country’s storied history.

Incidentally, Begum Samru was depicted as a prominent noble lady in the TV drama series ‘Beecham House’ first aired in June 2019. Lara Dutta portrayed the role.

@ Yeshwant Marathe


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Aparna Amarjeet Dharwatkar

4 months ago

Very interesting. Had never heard of her before. Thanks Yashwant.

Prashant Naik

4 months ago

Intersting read. Lot of research has been done at your end. Such forgotten nuggets of history always fascinate the reader. Well done.


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