The first week of October is said to mark the 200th anniversary of the completion of the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces, one of India’s minor basilicas situated in Sardhana in Uttar Pradesh.
It was constructed in 1822 by Begum Samru, a woman of humble origins that came to be popularly known as the only Catholic queen of India.
Who was Begum Samru?
- Begum Samru (1750’s – 1836) was a figure that defied any fixed identity. She was a Muslim who converted to Catholicism, a nautch-girl (dancing girl) who became a warrior and an aristocrat, and was described by her contemporaries as dressing more like a man than a woman, sporting a dark turban and ever-puffing away at a hookah.
- She was a shrewd leader who was able to find a favourable position in the ever-dynamic political terrain of 18th century northern India. While she had first supported the waning Mughal empire, from the 1790’s the Begum began to provide service to the rising Marathas, before joining the British to ensure that she could maintain her landholding rights if they emerged victorious.
- It was here she met Walter Reinhardt, an Austrian mercenary of uncertain origins and even more uncertain allegiances, who after reaching India in 1750 had served the British, French and Jats, i.e any force willing to employ him. In 1767, the teenage-Farzana became the much older Reinhardt’s close companion, and remained so until his death, assuming the role of his wife and became known as Begum Samru.
- Three years after Reinhardt’s death, Begum Samru, the established ruler of Sardhana converted to Catholicism in 1781 and was christened Joanna.