Western UP is known for its farmlands, sugarcane and little else. Quite naturally one may expect dusty towns and villages all along. The landscape is dotted with temple shikharas and minarets but looking for a steeple is akin to the proverbial needle and haystack. So Sardhana, a small town off the upper Ganga canal not far from Meerut city in western Uttar Pradesh stand out where you’ll find not just a church but a minor basilica. Named Basilica of Our Lady of Graces this Catholic Church adorns the landscape with grandeur attracting both pilgrims and history buffs. Interesting turn of events led to the erection of this place of worship in the early 19th century. Built by Begum Samru in 1822 as a replica of St. Peter’s basilica of Vatican this church and its builder has rich and colourful history.
The once powerful Mughal empire is on its downward spiral. Gone are the glorious days of Akbar and Shah Jahan. Marathas from the west is in virtual control of the throne of Delhi. Englishmen from the east are eating into its vast territory after the battle of Buxar. Rebellious Rohillas, Jats and Sikhs were annexing territories. In came Walter Reinhardt Somber – a European mercenary – who was looking for some action and what better place than India where action never ends. He served the Swiss and French, then raised his private army comprising people of various nationalities and started assisting whoever paid him. He fought along with Nawab of Bengal against the Englishmen, assisted Jat Chief of Bharatpur Suraj Mal and Mughal king Shah Alam ll. While in the service of the Mughal Emperor he came across Farzana, a dancer (nautch girl) still in her early teens, at Chandni chowk, Delhi. The mercenary fell for the petit girl instantly who started following him everywhere on his escapades.
While Shah Alam was away in Bengal Zabta Khan and his father governed Delhi. When the Emperor returned power was given to Najub Khan, a Persian Nobleman. Zabta rebelled and Samru (local version of Somber) was subsequently entrusted to subdue him. Zabta was forced to flee after a fierce struggle and Samru was rewarded with the principality of Sardhana. Samru passed away soon and Begum became his successor to the throne. She embraced Catholicism and took the name Joanna after another woman-warrior – Joan of Arc. She then ruled the principality for 58 years.
Ghulam Khan, the Rohilla chief of Saharanpur, then entered the Mughal palace and made the Emperor his prisoner. Upon getting the news Begum, who was then at Panipat engaged with the Sikhs, rushed her troops to Delhi, defeated the intruders and restored the Emperor to his throne. Begum was conferred the title ‘Zeb-ul-Nisa’ or ‘Jewel of her sex’. She once again saved the Mughal ruler from certain defeat when Najaf Khan of Rewari rebelled and made a forceful attack on the imperial forces for which she was bestowed the title ‘Most beloved daughter’. Thus proving her loyalty and valour she went on to tend her principality for many more years concentrating mostly on agriculture. It flourished under her patronage. She built palaces for herself in Sardhana and Meerut. Her sprawling palace and garden south of Begum Bridge – known as Begum Bag – in Meerut was neglected after her death and was encroached upon. In Delhi Bhagirath palace across Red Fort was gifted to her by the Emperor in 1806.
It is during these peaceful times that the construction of the church had begun. Anthony Reghelini, an Italian architect, was entrusted with it. One may see different architectural styles nicely amalgamated into this structure. The church was dedicated to the Glory of God in 1822 though the completion took many more years.
The drive from the entry gate is lined with hedges and the Stations of the Cross. This avenue take you to the side of the church where a statue of Jesus with outstretched arms welcome you. Move to the right where the front of the building is and you get the imposing view of the church. Magnificent Doric columns adorn the verandah; the Roman domes – large one in the middle over the main altar and the smaller ones over the wings – are similar to the domes of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. The massive steeples on both sides pierces the sky; the one on the left holds two bells whereas the other used to have a clock. The central dome is adorned by an octagonal lantern with perforated slates capped with a small onion-like dome declaring its Persian touch.
The church look rectangular from the outside owing to the verandah in front but inside it’s a perfect cross. The main altar is impressive with sunlight falling in through the octagonal window of the dome. The left wing houses the tomb of Begum ornate with statues depicting important people and aspects of her life. Standing to her left is Rae Singh, Diwan of Begum, who is the great-grandfather of Motilal Nehru.
Begum Samru’s old and new palaces are close by currently hosting a seminary and a college respectively. You may find a cemetery on the other side of the town where people connected to Begum lie buried including her second husband – a Frenchman – and many other Europeans who served her.
We left the place in awe of this brave woman who left her imprint in an otherwise nondescript part of the country.