A Breath of French Air for the Blind Emperor of Delhi


Where with right pomp the stately domes arise: In yon dark tower an aged monarch lies,

Forlorn, dejected, blind, replete with woes: In tears his venerable aspect shews;

As through the lonely courts I bent my way: Sounds struck my ear, which said, or seemed to say…,


“Lo, the dire tempest gathering from afar: In dreadful clouds has dimmed the imperial star;

Has to the winds and broad expanse of heaven: My state, my royalty and kingdom given;

Time was, O king, when clothed in power supreme: Thy voice was heard and nations hailed the theme;

Now sad reverse, for sordid lust of gold: By traitorous wiles, thy throne and empire sold.”

(Beginning of a poem written by Shah Alam after the loss of his sight, Ref.3, the first three lines were added by Francklin in 1798)


The town of Najibabad lies some 200 kilometres from Delhi in the district of Bijnor and it is the last town in the plains before the hills of Garhwal start. Known as the Gateway to the Himalayas, the only significance of this small dusty town today is its vicinity to the quiet hill station of Lansdowne and the town of Kotdwara, famous for Sidhbali temple and Kanva-ashram. This was the location of the hermitage of the sage Kanva, who lived there with his adopted daughter Shakuntala and her son Bharata, after whom India is named as Bharat.

(*For the mythological story of Bharata, please see Sidenote#2.)

However, Najibabad’s strong relevance to the Mughal Empire is often forgotten. Najibabad was established by the Rohilla warrior Najib Khan, or Najib-ud-Daulah, in the 1750s. He later became the governor and effective ruler of the Mughal Empire, succeeding the famed Safdarjung of Oudh. At the height of his prosperity, he built Najibabad as his new capital, replete with a Jama Masjid, a mansion known as the Rohilla Palace. He also built a strong fort there, called Pathar-garh, which is now popularly known as Sultana Daku ka Qila (Bandit King’s Fort), so named after a Robin Hood styled dacoit of the early 20th century. Najibabad has three historic monuments that are mostly in a dilapidated condition and off the popular heritage routes. They are the Pathargarh Fort, baradari and the cemetery complex of Najib-ud-Daulah.

(*For the monuments of Najibabad, please see Sidenote#1.)

Najib-ud-Daulah: Governing Delhi with Blessings from Kabul

After his decisive victory at Panipat in 1761, where he heavily slaughtered the Marathas, the Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Abdali visited that city. Dressed in a glittering robe adorned with the Koh-i-Noor diamond itself, he decided to enter Delhi, the heart of Hindustan. In Delhi, unleashing terror and plundering beyond imagination, he and his family lived in the very palace chambers that were once the abode of Shah Jahan. They even began to conduct their affairs from the blessed Diwan-i-khas.


(An Ethiopian architect was employed to design the grand mausoleum. Safdarjung Tomb, Delhi)

Three months later, Abdali imposed an annual entitlement of forty lakh rupees (lakh is the equivalent of 100,000) due to him from the government in Delhi and decided to return to Kabul. His parting instruction was to declare Shah Alam II as the emperor, Najib-ud-Daulah as the Mir Bakshi (Chief of Army) and Imad-ud-Daula as the Wazir (Prime Minister). Soon, Najib-ud-Daulah became the unofficial suzerain of Delhi ‑ a figurehead position that represented a combination of the Army Chief, the Governor (faujdar) and the regent (Mukhtar). His son Zabita Khan was employed in the city administration. Historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar writes, “In the whole city, Najib’s men were installed in the offices of tax collection, control of the grain market, etc. His agent was posted at the gate of the palace-fort as its commandant. He also employed his brother Afzal and his son Zabita Khan in governing the city.” Najib-ud-Daulah was well on his way to controlling the entire city, both directly and indirectly.

From 1761 till 1772, when Shah Alam came back to Delhi, the Mughal Empire was virtually run by Najib-ud-Daulah. In Delhi, he lived in his official residence at Safdarjung’s mansion (which was once Dara Shikoh’s residence), while Imad ruled the city as the Grand Wazir – mightier than the emperor himself. The two would often ride together, sitting on the same elephant to roam around the city streets and presenting a powerful, united front.


(The profusely decorated plastered and painted ceiling of the central chamber, Safdarjung Tomb)

Until 1770, Najib energetically and enthusiastically vanquished all enemies and adversaries – be it liquidating the Jat army and its leader Suraj Mal, or safeguarding the city against the waves of Sikh armies, or flattening the villages that refused to pay tribute to his royalty. Beginning as a poor, illiterate migrant,  who came as a grown man with a son and finding employment as a foot-soldier and then ascending to be the most powerful governor of Delhi, the rise of Najib-ud-Daulah was miraculous. His determination, as well as his military and administrative acumen, had no equal except perhaps that of his Afghan master, Ahmad Shah Abdali.


Shah Alam II: An Emperor without a Seat

The eldest son of Mughal Emperor Alamgir II was Mirza Abdullah, better known in history by his titles of Ali Gauhar and Shah Alam II. For more than twelve years – while Delhi was under the administration of Abdali’s nominees – the unfortunate prince Shah Alam wandered from place to place as a rootless vagabond from 1759 until 1772, when he finally returned to recover his capital. In those twelve years, it appeared as though the Mughal Empire established by Babur had finally disintegrated and the Afghans would soon re-establish themselves at Delhi, whose rule had been seemingly interrupted by the fall of Lodi dynasty.

The young prince Shah Alam was described by the French commander Jean Law, as, “The Shahzada passed for one of those who had the best education and who have most profited by it.. He is familiar with the Arabic, Persian, Turki and Hindustani languages. He loves reading and never passes a day without employing some hours in it…He is of an inquiring mind, naturally gay and free in his private society, where he frequently admits his principal military officers in whom he has confidence.”


(Decorated ceiling of a side chamber. The architecture of Safdarjung’s Tomb is said to be ‘The last flicker of the dying lamp of Mughal architecture.’)

Going to the neighbouring provinces, one by one to seek support, Shah Alam contacted Najib-ud-Daulah, Shujaa-ud-Daulah – son of Safdarjung and the Nawab of Oudh at Lucknow and Mohammad Kuli Khan – the Nawab of Allahabad. He was attempting to strengthen his own claim of power by receiving the promise of backup from the men who were already unquestionably powerful.

During this period, the prince Shah Alam got married to Mubarak Mahal. His efforts to seek support from the powerful men like Najib-ud-Daulah unfortunately did not bear any fruit, as Najib did not want to risk his own position in Delhi by supporting the struggling prince. Fortunately, Shujaa-ud-Daulah and Mohammad Kuli Khan did offer their support. Shah Alam would have help in his efforts to regain his power.

Shujaa-ud-Daulah was described by Jean Law, the French Commander, as, “Shuja is the most handsome person that I have seen in India. He towers over the wazir by his figure, -the latter being small, – and I believe also by the qualities of his heart, but he has to yield to him in all that relates to the spirit. He is occupied in nothing but pleasures, hunting and the most violent exercises.” As per an English observer, “His harem was filled with wives and concubines, to the number, it is said, of eight hundred, from whom were born to him fifty children.”

Shuja’s Grand Edifice 

In Delhi, Shuja-ud-Daulah erected a grand mausoleum for his father known as Safdarjung’s Tomb. Safdarjung died in 1754 in Faizabad, but his body was brought to Delhi for burial. Today an airport, a hospital, a road and residential enclaves all commemorate the name of the great man, a sort of widespread memorial that can be attributed to the stunning edifice built by his son. The majestic grand tomb stands at the centre of a Persian chahar-bagh styled Mughal garden divided into four squares.


(Safdarjung Tomb stands on a raised platform in the middle of a Chahar-Bagh patterned garden, with a number of cells beneath the platform.)


(Details of ornamental painted net-vaulting under the entrance arch, done in purple on the gateway ceiling, at Safdarjung Tomb)

The garden is entered through an exquisitely painted double storey multi-cusped arched gateway on its eastern wall. A well-proportioned striped mosque sits on the same wall to the right of the entrance way.

Created and commissioned by Shuja-ud-Daulah, the monument is  often considered the last of the great Mughal mausoleums in classical architectural rendering. Designed by an Ethiopian architect, its highlights are ‘a Persian Chahar-Bagh garden (often abbreviated as char-bagh, Chahar in Persian means Four) with the mausoleum in the centre, a ninefold floor plan, a fivefold façade and a large podium with a hidden staircase.’ It stands on a raised platform with a series of arched cells sunken below.


(The ornamental painted ceiling of eastern gateway, Safdar Jung Tomb complex)

The ninefold plan is based on the famous Persian ‘Hasht Bihist’ (Eight Paradise) architectural concept used in mausoleums, such as in Humayun’s Tomb, as well as in the Taj Mahal. Here, a central octagonal domed hall is surrounded by eight chambers. Four square rooms are placed in its cardinal directions in the shape of a (+) while the four octagonal rooms are in its cross-axial diagonal directions in the shape of a (x). These eight rooms surrounding the central chamber of the mausoleum are the eight Heavens, or the hasht Bihist.

The pishtaqs (huge arched niches in rectangular frames) on its four facades are framed by two free standing guldastas (flower-vases). A row of nine small marble cupolas fills the space between the two guldastas, closing the central facade and hiding the drum’s neck. The tomb is surmounted with a somewhat out-of-proportion bulbous marble dome sitting on a sixteen-sided drum. Beautiful polygonal towers in red sandstone and white marble stand at the four corners of the tomb and are topped with chhatris, that are opened with a pillared gallery. The base of each chhatri is surrounded by a low balustrade filled with a stone-screen, or jali.


(The structure is said to be planned with Rococo, or ‘late Baroque’ style that uses asymmetrical designs. Safdarjung Tomb)

The duality of colour-scheme is quite evident here. Precious white marble is reserved for the central dome, that represents the extension of the celestial heaven under which the cenotaph lies. White colour signifies purity in architecture and its use in the dome makes it the central feature of the monument. The rest of the structure is designed in both red sandstone and white marble, to break the monotony and accentuate its lines. The terrace is marked by floral crenelations of standing-bud design in between the four corner minarets.

The cenotaph of Safdarjung lies under the beautiful, intricately designed vaulted roof of the central chamber. The ceilings of the central vault and the half-vaults outside are decorated with qalib kari, or mould work: so named because the pattern was pressed into wet plaster. The cenotaph stands atop a stepped plinth, with beautiful curled-back flowing motifs radiating down from large leaves in its bottom-most tier. The top level is similarly designed with overlapping curled-up leaves flowing up in the opposite direction. The north side of the cenotaph is lavishly decorated by a peculiar projecting ‘head rest’ draped in a symmetrical foliage motif.



(The graves of Safdar Jung and his wife are in an underground chamber of the mausoleum)

A subterranean chamber below the cenotaph contains the actual tombs of Safdarjung and most probably, his wife. The access to the lower cenotaphs is blocked to visitors. As per Islamic burial practice, the cenotaph is laid with north-south alignment, with the head  to the north and the face turned towards the west, which is the direction to Mecca. This is as per the belief that when the Trumpet will be blown on the ‘Day of Last Judgement’, they can rise in the correct position.


(The cenotaph in the upper central chamber.)

It is said that the marble and red sandstone used in the tomb were sourced by stripping the material from the tomb of Abdu’r Rahim Khan-i-Khanan. He was one of the ‘Navaratnas’ or ‘Nine Jewels’ in Akbar’s court and was a great general, statesman and scholar who had translated the Baburnama into Persian. His now-bald tomb lies at the far end of the Lodi Road near Humayun’s tomb and is currently under restoration. One explanation for this use of materials that were already in use elsewhere is that Shuja-ud-Daulah was making an effort to save costs in a rapidly depleting empire.



When the British Truncated the Mughal Empire

In 1759, the East India Company of Calcutta was beginning to unfurl its political colours in Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. Later that year, the prince determined he would wrench the Mughal Empire from the clutches of the British traders of Calcutta, attempting to salvage what was left of it. With the support of Shujaa and Kuli Khan, he set out on a military expedition to Bihar, the eastern theatre of action.

While on the march, news of his father Alamgir II’s demise reached him. The old man was tricked by his Wazir Imad, who claimed that a dervish had arrived at Delhi from Lahore and was residing at Firuz Shah Kotla and the emperor visited him to seek his blessings and experience his miracles. At the old Kotla, the emperor was carefully allowed to enter with only one slave and once inside, he was stabbed to death and his corpse was thrown down the fort onto the banks of Yamuna. News spread that he had fallen to his death accidentally, just as Humayun fell two centuries earlier. The prince immediately declared himself the next Mughal Emperor, under the new name of Shah Alam, “sovereign of the known world.“ He announced Najib-ud-Daulah as the Chief of Army and Shujaa as his Grand Vazir.

In Bihar, Shah Alam received the support of French military commander Chevalier Jean Law and his French troops and together they moved on to counter the Anglo-Bengali army led by Captain Knox, under the direct supervision of Lord Clive.

The Imperial Army was thoroughly routed by the British. Shah Alam had to retreat back from Bihar, ultimately being forced to camp in Oudh. Shah Alam led three attacks on Bihar – in 1759, 1760 and 1761 – and each time he had to face defeat at the hands of the well-organised British forces. In the meantime,  Mir Kasim succeeded Mir Jafar at Calcutta in 1760. However, Mir Kasim soon fell out of favour with the British.

In 1763, a Franco-German, called Walter Reinhardt entered the scene quite dramatically. Reinhardt was the son of a stone worker from the small village of Silbertal in the Montaufon valley of western Austria near the Swiss Alps. He later moved to Treves near Luxemburg. Reinhardt came to India as a sailor in the French Navy. He later left the French to join the British Navy and then returned back to the French Navy under Chevalier Law. Reinhardt eventually deserted Chevalier Law to work with Mir Kasim, alongside his Armenian General Gregory, or Gurjin Khan.


(The dome of Najib-ud-Daulah’s dargah, Najibabad)

In the Mir Kasim-British rivalry, Reinhardt butchered the British resident and his followers at Patna; after this battle, both Mir Kasim and Reinhardt fled and took shelter with the Nawab of Oudh, Shujaa-ud-Daulah. The British, of course, struck back; in the battle of Buxar in 1764, they defeated the combined forces of the two Nawabs: Shujaa-ud-Daulah and Mir Kasim. The massive victory left the British too pleased with themselves and full of gratitude. On 16th August 1765, the ‘treaty of Allahabad’ was firmed up between the British and Shah Alam to legitimize their victory: Shah Alam was allocated the districts of Allahbad and Kora as a British pensioner, receiving a little more than two lakh rupees as monthly pension (twenty six lakh rupees annually) and remaining under British protection. Shuja-ud-Daulah was allowed to retain Oudh except Allahabad and Kora, with the condition that he payed fifty-three lakh rupees to the British as war indemnity. The British benefitted because they were now legally authorized to directly collect revenue from Bihar, Orissa and Bengal, increasing the legitimacy of their power.

Delhi Calling: Return of an Emperor

Seven years after pulverizing the Marathas, the Afghan invader Abdali came back to India in 1767 to salvage his nominee Najib-ud-Daulah’s position, as well as to crush the attacking waves of Sikh armies. That was the last time he visited Hindustan. Soon after, the Marathas made up their mind to avenge their loss. Under the command of Mahdoji Sindia, they crossed over the Chambal, laid siege to Jaipur and Bharatpur and issued threats to Delhi. By 1770, the whole of the Upper and Central Doab regions were under control of the Marathas. The very next year, they stormed into Delhi and occupied the entire city, including the palace fortress.


(Graves of three Mughal Emperors, still a space for the fourth, at Zafar Mahal, Mehrauli: 1. Grave of Akbar Shah II, 2: Shah Alam II; 3: Empty Space that was reserved for the grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar; 4: Grave of Alam Bahadur Shah-I; The grave of Mirza Fakhru- the heir apparent of Mughal empire who died a year before the 1857 uprising – lies next to no.4 and is not in the picture frame)

Shah Alam always nurtured the hope of returning to his ancestral capital of Delhi. Although this dream was acknowledged and eventually promised by Lord Clive for more than five years, it never came to fruition. With the Marathas in place as the new masters of Delhi, Shah Alam’s natural desire to return to Delhi was re-kindled and he began negotiations with them, working to have Delhi restored to him. On 15th February 1771, after a long negotiation between Yakub Ali and Ramchandra Ganesh, the following four points were agreed upon:

  1. The Marathas would escort the Emperor from Allahabad to Delhi within two months and vacate the palace on his arrival;
  2. Shah Alam would cede Karra (Jahanabad) and Kora to the Marathas, or its equivalent territory near Delhi;
  3. Meerut and seven other mahals (estates) would be granted to the Marathas;
  4. Shah Alam would pay forty lakh rupees to the Marathas in the following form: Ten lakh rupees in cash in twenty days, Mahals worth of fifteen lakh rupees after Shah Alam is escorted back to Delhi and the remaining fifteen lakh rupees to be cleared in seven months’ time.

On 25th December 1771, Shah Alam finally entered Shahdara and paraded in a short procession to the new Delhi of Shahjahanabad. He must have felt extremely elated that day–sitting on his elephant, looking down at the happy faces of citizens lined up on the streets to welcome him and to show their loyalty to the Mughal Emperor. It was something he had worked for and dreamed of for years and it was finally here.


(Here sleeps Shah Alam II: son of emperor Alamgir II and Lal Kunwar, a.k.a Zinat Mahal. Died on 19th Novemeber 1806. At Mehrauli)

Mighty Marathas: Successors to the Mughals?

After barely three weeks, the Marathas pressed the Emperor to lead a 90,000-strong military expedition to Shahranpur and Muzaffarnagar to punish the devious Zabita Khan, son of Najib-ud-Daulah. After his father’s death, Zabita Khan had stopped paying his tributes and had fallen out of royal favour. Shah Alam tried to excuse himself by pretending to be ill, but to no avail. Zabita Khan fled the scene, leaving his family, including his eldest son, Ghulam Qadir Khan, to fall into the hands of the Mughal army and endure the maltreatment suffered commonly by fallen royalty. Little did anyone know that the same Ghulam Qadir Khan would lounge in the Diwan-I-Khas in Delhi someday (July to October 1788, to be exact) to incite mayhem in the city and extract a most unrestrained and savage retribution on Shah Alam himself.


(The small marble enclosure with lattice screens of the royal graves in Zafar Mahal, adjoining the Moti Masjid in Mehrauli. The Moti Masjid with three white domes crowned with marble finials is in the background.)

The royal forces captured all the forts of Shahranpur, as well as the Pathargarh fort at Najibabad, except the Ghausgarh fort where Zabita Khan’s family resided. Vast sums of money and treasure were seized by the Marathas from the Rohilla fiefdom.

The fall of the Rohilla fiefdom was now complete, as recorded in the passage below:

“..he (Zabita Khan) found himself possessed of nothing except the clothes he stood in. All his property and treasure, all his wives and sons had been left behind in Ghausgarh and all these passed into the hands of imperialists in the course of a week. The destitute Ruhila chief and his vanquished Sikh allies fled fast from Doab and retired to [the] Sikh settlement in Karnal…To cement their alliance Zabita made a public profession of [the] Sikh religion, being baptized as Dharam Singh. To such a depth had fallen the heir of the champion who held aloft the banner of Islam in Northern India for thirteen years.” (“Fall of the Mughal Empire,” Vol III, by Sir Jadunath Sarkar).


(A marble headstone once stood here, – believed to be destroyed in 1947 riots-, bearing the inscription as, “He is the forgiver and pardoner. And may God make paradise his residence. The year 1221. He is merciful. (1) Alas, the sun of the zenith of the royal dignity has been concealed below the earth by the gloom of the eclipse of death, (2) That is to say, Shah Alam, the protector of the world, departed from the world to the pleasure-ground of paradise, (3) O Sayyid, my miracle working pen has written a verse, each line of which is a chronogram thereof, (4) He was a sun on the face of the earth before this event. Alas, that the sun is buried under the earth. The scribe Mir Kallan. The year 1221.” ( 1221 A.H. is 1806 A.D., the year of Shah Alam’s death.)

Within the vast Doab territories of Zabita Khan that fell into the hands of the Mughal-Maratha army was Sardhana, for which Samru received a sanad from the emperor in 1776. Samru, or Reinhardt, is a name that we will encounter shortly in far more detail.

However, soon after, Zabita Khan reached an agreement with the Marathas in exchange of huge money. This followed a fierce encounter near Shahranpur between the forces of Najaf Khan and Zabita Khan in 1777. On 30th January 1779,  Shah Alam pardoned Zabita, restored his rule in Shahranpur district and was assigned to the exalted Amir-ul-Umrah’s office in the royal court, which his father had occupied before him. He enjoyed peace for the last few years of his life and died in 1785. His tomb is situated in the dargah of Bakhtiar Kaki in Mehrauli.


(The graves of Zabita Khan and his wife, in the blessed courtyard of Khwaja Qudbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki’s Dargah in Mehrauli, opposite the Majlis Khana and near the grave complex of Nawabs of Loharu. A marble low balustrade once surrounded both the graves. Most of the graves in the compound are believed to have been vandalized during 1947 riots.)

After the death of Zabita Khan, his son, Ghulam Qadir Khan, took up his mantle. Scindia’s army was raised by the French Commander Benoit de Boigne, whose General was the Maratha Appu Khandi Rao. De Boigne was a regular in the French army, but upon reaching India, he deserted the French and joined the British EIC in the Madras 6th NI. Soon after, he deserted the British as well and joined Scindia with the task of enlisting officers from other European countries into the army. In 1787, Scindia’s army faced an onslaught of attacks by a combined army, including the Rajput kings of Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur and the forces of Ghulam Qadir Khan. Scindia had to retreat to Gwalior and, taking advantage of the Maratha vacuum in North India, Ghulam Qadir Khan occupied Delhi as well as the palace. The Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam, was helpless until aid arrived from Begum Samru and her European Army, who drove away the Rohilla intruders.


(Zabita Khan was the son of Najib-ud-Daulah and was the father of Ghulam Qadir Khan who blinded Shah Alam II. Zabita Khan was the Umara/Chief of nobles and was driven out by Shah Alam II when he returned to Delhi from Allahabad, but was re-instated on the advice of Marathas.)

At this time, the Marathas entered into a form of compromise with Ghulam Qadir Khan and the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam was forced to reinstate Khan under the influence of the Marathas. In the Diwan-I-Khas, Shah Alam placed a jewelled fillet, called Dastur-u-Goshwara, on Ghulam Qadir’s head.

The Crime and Punishment of Ghulam Qadir Khan

Perhaps eager to avenge the insult that he had faced as Zabita Khan’s son, Ghulam Qadir Khan set out to Delhi in 1788 with his aide, Ismail Beg and captured the defenceless city easily. The long-awaited reinforcements from Begum Samroo and Scindia were still too far from the city. Emperor Shah Alam had no option but to bestow the invader with the gift of a richly jewelled shield in the hallowed hall of Diwan-I-Aam.



(Details of the adjoining grave, belonging to Zabita Khan’s wife. Fanshawe however quote the dargah’s caretakers stressing that the adjoining grave belongs to his son Ghulam Qadir Khan and not his wife.)

Ghulam Qadir Khan was subdued for several days and then he shifted his residence to the inside of the palace fortress itself and demanded that Shah Alam provide him with money so that he could drive out the Marathas.

The royal treasurer, Lal Sital Dass, was consulted and advised the emperor that the royal treasury could not be spent on an outsider’s war that was of no significance to the Kingdom.

During this time, Ghulam Qadir Khan proposed an alliance to Begum Samru, promising a share of the treasure in the Mughal palace, but the lady rejected his tempting offer. Qadir Khan, unable to secure Begum’s support, ordered the emperor to immediately remove Begum Samru. But, Shah Alam, emboldened with Begum’s rebuttal to the Rohilla, ignored his demand.


(The grand eastern entrance to the tomb of Safdar Jung – the Prime Minister of Mughal emperor Ahmed Shah)

Ghulam Qadir Khan was becoming restless to acquire the supposedly hidden treasures in the palace and put Shah Alam and his family under house arrest without food for three days; he then declared Bedar Bakht the Mughal Emperor, while the emperor was confined in the Salimgarh prison.

Towards the end of July and the beginning of August, Ghulam Qadir lounged on the royal throne along with Bedar Bakht, spewing insults and abuses at him and torturing Shah Alam and the royal ladies of Imtiaz Mahal. His mind was preoccupied with the search for the palace’s hidden treasures and he directed that the floors be dug up and the silver plating melted, while his aide, Ismail Beg, began a systematic plunder of the city’s bankers and wealthy citizens.

82(The three domed mosque with distinctive stripes on the right of Safdur Jung tomb’s main gateway)

The incident on the tenth of August, 1788 was perhaps the defining moment when a Mughal Emperor was stripped of his power so ruthlessly and publicly, apart from that which faced Bahadur Shah Zafar some 70 years later in 1857 in the same palace. That day, Ghulam Qadir sat as usual on the royal throne in Diwan-i-Khas and ordered Shah Alam to be brought before him from his confinement in the Salimgarh prison. Once again, he interrogated Shah Alam about the hidden treasures and once again, the hapless emperor communicated truthfully his inability to produce it. Ghulam Qadir then ordered the emperor’s family members to be tortured in front of him. As Shah Alam cried out in protest, Ghulam Qadir sprung off the throne onto the bosom of the fallen emperor and, with a quick stroke of his dagger, put out his eyes.

Seven days later, the first advance squads of the Maratha Army appeared in Delhi’s neighbourhoods. The Maratha build-up carried on slowly, stretching till the last day of Muharram on the eleventh of October, when the city was engaged in the festivities. That was the day when the French Commander Lestonneaux pounced upon the palace fortress with his ferocious Telinga Battalion. First, the powder magazine was blown up by the Franco-Maratha army and, faced with the imminent capture of the city, Ghulam Qadir Khan set the palace ablaze and escaped on a solitary elephant with all of the treasure he had plundered. The Marathas doused the fire, restored Shah Alam to his rightful throne and planned the capture of Ghulam Qadir Khan.


( Poem written by Shah Alam after losing his sight, in Persian, Ref 3)

Khan took shelter in the Meerut Fort, but the Maratha army soon confronted him. On the twenty-first of December, Ghulam Qadir Khan quietly loaded all his plunder onto a horse and decamped. However, not long after setting out on the treacherous route, the horse died and the Rohilla was caught by villagers and brought before the Maratha general, Rana Khan.

Scindia ordered an excruciating and grotesque death for Ghulam Qadir: in the city of Mathura, he was seated on a donkey facing its tail and was led from house to house to ask for a cowree from each. However, he soon became irritated and abusive, at which point, his tongue was cut out. His ears, nose and eyes were also removed and were sent to Shah Alam in Delhi in a casket, in a literal “eye for an eye” expression of revenge.



(The highlights of Safdar Jung Tomb are: a Persian Chaharbagh garden with the mausoleum in the centre, a ninefold floorplan, a fivefold façade and a large podium with a hidden staircase.)


De Boigne: The Ablest Son of France to Land in India

It is said that the jewel-laden horse of Ghulam Qadir Khan fell into the hands of the French Commander Lestonneaux, who suddenly announced his retirement from Scindia’s service and proceeded to France in 1789. Rumours persist that these jewels—including the royal Mughal crown—must be somewhere in France. With the sudden departure of Lestonneaux from Scindia’s army, Benoit de Boigne was promoted to the now unoccupied position. Lestonneaux’s exodus from Scindia’s army, no matter if it was jewel-motivated or not, proved to be beneficial for both de Boigne and the service.

Hailing from Savoy in France, de Boigne organised his force into three brigades, each with eight battalions of seven hundred sepoys, along with five hundred cavalry and forty field pieces of artillery. In tribute to his homeland, his army marched under the flag of the White Cross, the national colours of Savoy.

de Boigne 1

(La Fontaine des Elephants, in the city of Chambery, built in 1838 to honour Benoit de Boigne whose life-size statue stands atop a tall column, surrounded by four half-elephants: Wikimedia/Public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chamberyelephants.JPG)

At that time, France was sending the best and bravest of her sons to India; it was said that a Frenchman was worth his weight in gold. Of all the armies active in India, French officers occupied the most important positions. The French passion for equality was evident in the courtesy and generosity of such gallant fighters as Law, de Bussy and de Boigne.

Henry Keene writes, “.. one can fancy them (the French in India) of an evening at a table furnished with clumsy magnificence and drinking bad claret bought up from the English merchants of Calcutta at fabulous prices.. Discussing the relative merits of the slopes of the Alps and the cliffs of the Atlantic; admitting sorrowfully the merits of the intermediate vineyards, or trilling to the bewilderment of their country-born comrades, light little French songs of love and wine.”

De Boigne was born in the beautiful city of Chambery in the French Alps, surrounded all around by breathtaking mountain ranges like the Mont Blanc, crystal clear lakes—including Lac du Bourget, the largest lake of France—and numerous meadows and streams. Presently, the town is known more for its scenic location at the crossroads of the Alps and nearby charming ski resorts like Chamonix, Val d’Isere; it is also famous for the quaint thermal spa-towns of Evian and Saint-Gervais-les-Bains.


(A view to the sky: balcony view of the Safdar Jung mausoleum)

However, the symbol of the town’s strong historical linkage with Delhi is quite unmistakable. In the centre of the quaint town, the  full-length statue of Benoit de Boigne, its son-of-the-soil, stands on a tall column, surrounded by four Indian elephants. The Fontaine des Elephants is the most famous landmark of the beautiful town.

De Boigne reached the pinnacle of his military career when he captured Jaipur, Udaipur and Jodhpur, defeating the combined armies of Rajputs and Ismail Beg. The Savoyard general operated from his headquarters in Aligarh and his territory extended from Mathura to Delhi and the whole of Upper Doab. The credit for the upkeep of the Taj Mahal in those turbulent times is often given to de Boigne alone, as he passionately requested both the East India Company and Scindia to release funds for this effort. Some even go so far as to insist that the Taj Mahal would not be here today if not for the care of de Boigne.


(Another ceiling, another design: too good and beautiful, Safdar Jung Tomb)

In 1792, the Savoyard general de Boigne fought the most difficult battle of his life with his compatriot du Dernec, who represented Holkar, Scindia’s arch-rival. Holkar’s army was defeated by de Boigne and his general du Dernec deserted Holkar to join Scindia’s army under du Boigne. This was only a small example of how powerful and far Scindia’s reach actually was.

Scindia’s rule extended from the Himalayas to the Vindhyas and from the Sutlej to the Ganges. There were three pillars of this vast empire: Scindia placed himself in Mathura, de Boigne at Aligarh and Begum Samru at Sardhana. Scindia was a master in statecraft as well as a military strategist, earning him the title of Madar-ul-Maham, ali Jah, Bahadur, or the “exalted and valorous Centre of Affairs” from the blind Emperor Shah Alam. Obviously, he thought of himself as playing a far more important role in the heart of Hindustan in Delhi than at his native Puna, where his master, the Peshwa, resided. After Mahadji Scindia, his far less influential nephew and adopted son, Daulat Rao Scindia, took over his role in 1794 at the age of fifteen and based himself at Puna.


(Details of Safdar Jung Tomb)

De Boigne, in 1796, decided to enjoy his lifelong earnings in the solitude of his native Savoy and he planned to retire there with an amassed fortune of half a million sterling. After leaving India, he first settled in London for few years before retiring to France. He loaded his Indian treasure-trove onto a vessel called Cronberg and departed for London, heading from the shores of India that was his home for more than two decades. However, the ship sank off the coast of Denmark, but de Boigne successfully employed divers who miraculously salvaged the entire cargo.

In Savoy, he lived his days under the title of Count de Boigne and regularly entertained Indian visitors who happened to visit France. He literally re-built his hometown of Chambery with personal earnings from India by ways of mercenary services for the Marathas and from his investments in  Indigo business.


(Safdar Jung Tomb’s upper storey)

He funded a number of establishments in the town: a college, a theatre, a school, a workhouse for the destitute and a hospital for contagious diseases and sick foreigner travellers. He also set up an entire new street from his stately mansion of Chateau de Buisson-Rond to the Boulevard. He died in 1830 and was cremated with full military honours.

In India, his place in Scindia’s army was taken up by compatriot Perron, while du Dernec was in charge of the army brigades.


(Four polygonal towers with kiosks adorn its corners, highlighted by the interesting interplay of red and white colour. Safdar Jung Tomb)

Siar-ul-Mutakharin depicts an interesting contrast of styles between the French officers and their English counterparts, “M.de Bussy always wore embroidered clothes or brocade. He was seen in an immense tent, about thirty feet high, at one end of which he sat in an arm chair embroidered with his King’s arms, on an elevation covered with a crimson cloth of embroidered velvet; over against him his French guard on horseback and behind those his Turkish guard; his table was covered with three and sometimes four services of plates….Governor Hastings always wore a plain coat of English broadcloth and never anything like lace or embroidery; his throne a plain chair of mahogany, with plenty of such thrones in the hall; his table sometimes neglected; his diet sparing; and always abstemious; his address and deportment very distant from pride and still more from familiarity.”


The Delhi Gazette of 5th June 1874 describes the residence of French officers in Aligarh, “ de Boigne lived in his famous mansion, called Sahib Bagh, between the fort and the city and on leaving for France, he gave it to Perron, who considerably improved the building and garden, which was well laid out with all descriptions of fruit trees procured from distant climes. He so adorned the place that it was said by the French officers that the garden was next to that of Ram Bagh, on the Agra river, so beautiful was the scenery. Perron had a number of officers in his army, English, French and Italian. Next to Perron was Colonel Pedron, who commanded the fortress of Allygurh; this officer had his mansion in an extensive garden, which at the British conquest was converted into the Judges’ Court and the site is the same where it now stands. …” – History of Coel. Aligurh by an Old Resident.


Flamboyant Samru ki Begum with her Hookah and Horses

Despite Scindia’s best intentions, it seems that the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam, always nurtured the secret ambition to shake off the Maratha influence, even if that meant accepting support from the nearby Hindu states. So, when the Rajput kings of Jaipur and Ajmer sent an invitation to Shah Alam in 1788   to take possession of the Ajmer fort, he set off on a march immediately. Assisting him in his expedition was Begum Samru and her army, led by the Irish general, George Thomas, who originally hailed from Tipperary in Ireland.


(South & North view of Begum Samru’s haveli from ‘ Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi’ , 1843, with the accompanying text by Sir Thomas Metcalfe (1795-1853) © The British Library Board, Add.Or.5475. Reproduced with kind permission.(http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/addorimss/s/019addor0005475u00047vrb.html)

On the way, Shah Alam decided to launch an attack on Najaf Quli at the Gokalgarh Fort. However, in the fierce encounter, the Emperor was nearly slain by the enemy, but for the timely intervention of Begum Samru and her Irish general. This was the second time the lady had saved the Emperor and in recognition he conferred on her the title ‘most beloved of my daughters’. This was not the first time that she was bestowed with such a decoration. In the eyes of the emperor, she already was a lady who had eclipsed all of her sex and was titled  ‘Zeb-un-Nissa’, or the ‘ornament of her sex’, for supporting him during Ghulam Qadir Khan’s extortion attacks.

Often compared to Ahilyabai of Indore and Mamola Begum of Bhopal, the Begum had been described quite contrastingly: the British referred to her as ‘Her Highness Begum Samru’, while the Mughal emperor Shah Alam of course profusely described her as the ‘most beloved of my daughters’ and the ‘ornament of her sex’ and the general population referred to her as ‘Samru’s concubine’ or even, ‘the Witch of Sardhana’.


(Exploded  View of Begum Samru’s haveli from the BL image as referenced in previous picture)  

Whatever her identity, she was an intriguing personality who had lived through every phase of the ‘Gardi ka Waqt’, or the ‘troubled times’, as referred to by the Dilliwallahs to describe that part of 18th century  triggered by Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi in 1739 and followed up by a series of punishing attacks from Kabul by Ahmed Shah Abdali.

Born in 1751 as Farzana, the Begum was abandoned as a young girl on the busy streets of Delhi by her dying mother in 1760, but was rescued by a tawaif called Khanum Jan of Chauri Bazar. The 18th century contemporary historian William Francklin says that the Begum was the daughter of an impoverished Mughal noble. He wrote that she was the “… daughter of a Mughal nobleman, whose family, from the unsettled state of the times, had fallen into distress…”. The young Farzana grew up as a favoured dancing girl, much in demand by the nobles and connoisseurs of the city.

She grew up amidst the rich spectacle and heady city life of Shahjahanabad’s gallis, kalans and bazars, as well among the broad vistas of Chandni Chowk, where the nobles and amirs roamed on gorgeously caparisoned elephants and horses. She immersed herself in the nuances of the city’s katras, enjoying shopping trips to buy betel and spiced tobacco, listening to dastan-gohs and savouring delicacies from a kababia or perhaps from one of the many Mughal sweetshops. Standing amazed at the steps of Jama Masjid, she must have looked a thousand times at that grand edifice of the Red Fort – the powerhouse of Hindustan – imagining perhaps the palace intrigues going on behind those thick walls.


(Exploded  View of Begum Samru’s haveli from the BL image as referenced in previous picture)  

Time flies and it was not long before the young beauty with sparkling eyes was whisked away from her accustomed surroundings of Chauri Bazar and the tawaif’s kotha. The person responsible for whisking her away was none other than the mercenary soldier Walter Reinhardt Sombre – the distinguished visitor ‘Somra Sahib’– at the kotha of Khanum Jan. We know nothing of the subdued but animated negotiations that might have taken place between the smooth-tongued Khanum Jan and the fleshless, putty-coloured and grim-faced Austrian in his military costume, who must have looked like an old fighting bird of prey swooping down on the delicate young Farzana. We can only imagine them in the dimly lit room of the kotha – standing in a semi-circle of light, coming filtered through the heavy velvet purdahs of the adjoining hall. The rising crescendo of her golden voice, accompanied by the tunes of sarangi and the beats of a tabla, perhaps filtered through the intoxicated air of wine, perfume and glittering oil lamps. The swaying frame of a svelte Farzana, adorned in a bright muslin dress and strings of ghungroos, dancing, unaware of the business-like dealings going on in the next room. Neither do we know how many gold mohurs passed from the hands of Somra Saheb to the folded hands of Khanum Jan to secure the young Farzana.

When the young Farzana left Shahjahanabad in a curtained palanquin in 1760, little did she suspect that one day she would return as a gallant warrior and furthermore, as an influential wire-puller in the power-politics of the region – indeed, a king-maker to command the respect of the Mughals, the mighty Marathas and the British alike – and that she would be instrumental in writing the history of Hindustan on her own flamboyant way.

bank of delhi

(‘Bank of Delhi’ or the Begum Samru’s haveli, after it was damaged by mortar and gunfire in 1857; photographed in 1858 by Major Robert Christopher Tytler and his wife, Harriet. ; © The British Library Board, Photo 193/(12), reproduced with kind permission. (http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/photocoll/t/019pho000000193u00012000.html)

After the death of her husband Reinhardt, she became known as Samru ki Begum. For reasons still unclear, she converted to Christianity under the new name of Joanna Nobilis Somer at Agra in 1781. She also started construction of the largest cathedral in the entire north India on her estate and as per her request to the Pope, soon a chaplain arrived from Rome at Sardhana.


(A corner tower of the Badshahpur Fort, once used by Begum Samru. At Gurgaon)

The Begum took on Sardhana’s state affairs with an iron hand and with due attention to agriculture, ensuring the small area yielded as much as ten lakh rupees of revenue per year. One incident though showing the Begum’s strong side that is often cited, albeit with possible embellishments, relates to the case of two slave girls who had set fire to estate properties and caused widespread arson. She concluded a quick investigation and the girls were found guilty and sentenced to death. The punishment was immediately carried out by the Begum herself. The two were flogged and buried alive in pits dug into the ground, over which the Begum pulled up a bed and sat calmly smoking her hookah, while the muffled cries of the two slaves slowly died out in the earthen pits.

Often she is painted as the ‘witch of Sardhana’, such as by Baillie Fraser, who described her as, “The people in the Dekhan, who knew the Begum by reputation, believed her to be a witch, who destroyed her enemies by throwing her chadir at them; the word chadir meaning chain shot as well as woman’s veil”.

During that time, European officers hailing from different countries were popular, even in Begum Samru’s army. Her two chief officers were the Frenchman Colonel le Vaisseau, whom she later married and the Irishman George Thomas. She had five battalions of soldiers and about forty pieces of field artillery. However, the Begum’s force consisted mainly of uneducated European ruffians, whom even le Vaisseau refused to admit to his dinner-table. After a few years’ service, Thomas left the employment of Begum Samru and was adopted by the Maratha general Appu Khandi Rao as his son.

Thomas was so Indianised from his time spent in India that when later, the Governor General Lord Wellesley asked him to prepare a report on the country’s affair, he sought his permission to pen it in Persian, as he had totally forgotten the English language. Also, according to rumours at the time, it was Begum Samru’s illegitimate daughter born before her marriage with Reinhardt, that she later arranged to be the wife of Thomas.


(Begum Samru’s haveli at Chandni Chowk)

In 1795, when England was at war with the French Republic, Begum Samru was faced with the exodus of her men to the Maratha camp and finding no other option, she and her husband contacted the Governor General directly and a secret agreement was reached between the British and Scindia to allow the couple safe passage as prisoners of war. However, the proposed plan fell apart and so they made a desperate attempt to flee – pursued by their own soldiers.

They set out on the road to Meerut but first agreed with each other on a suicide pact in case either of them was captured, in order to avoid the indignity of an execution. They had hardly journeyed three miles, when the traitorous sepoys of Sardhana set upon hounding them – with le Vaisseau on his horse brandishing his pistol to the palanquin bearers carrying the Begum to urge them to hurry them up. Suddenly loud cries emanated from the female attendants of the Begum and he noticed the Begum’s white dress dripping with blood.


(An interesting haveli interiors, in village Badshahpur, Gurgaon)

It is said that the Begum inflicted the dagger wound herself to her chest, but it struck her chest bone and she did not have the courage for a second attempt. Some even say that the Begum did this intentionally to deceive le Vaisseau. When le Vaisseau saw the blood-soaked Begum in her palanquin surrounded by wailing attendants, he pointed his pistol at his own head and pulled the trigger. Surprisingly, the Begum survived her suicide attempt and soon, she sought the support of her bête noire George Thomas. Ultimately, her estate stretching from the neighbourhood of Aligarh to north of Muzzafarnagar was restored to her and she continued to rule over it till her death in 1836.


(An interesting haveli interiors, in village Badshahpur, Gurgaon, near an ancient fort used by Begum Samru)

George Thomas, the Irish general in her army, describes Begum Samru as, “small and plump; her complexion fair, her eyes large and animated. She wore the Hindustani costume, made of the most costly materials. She spoke Persian and Urdu fluently and attended personally to business, giving audience to her native employees behind a screen. At darbars she appeared veiled; but in Eurpean society, she took her place at the table, waited on exclusively by maidservants. Her statue, surmounting a group in white marble by Tadolini, stands over her tomb in the Church at Sardhana.”

Begum’s Mansions

She based herself at Sardhana, where she built her palace, as well as a convent, school and a cathedral. Apart from Sardhana, two of her more palatial bungalows were set up in Chandni Chowk and in Gurgaon. A white European-style building in Chandni Chowk, with an imposing porch and Greek-styled high pillars, was built on land given to her by the emperor Akbar Shah II in 1806 on a Mughal garden named Khas Bag.

After her death, the mansion was sold to ‘Delhi Bank’ in 1847, but during the 1857 uprising, it suffered major damage, including from mortar fire. Indeed, the bank’s British manager and his family were killed on the very roof of the building in one such attack in 1857. From 1857 until 1922, the building was held by Lloyd’s Bank, whose name can still be seen in a faded signage on top. Thereafter, trader Lala Bhagirath acquired it in 1922. Today, it is tucked behind the main thoroughfare of Chandni Chowk; its once-majestic southern façade housing the rather unimpressive Central Bank, while its once beautiful lush-green garden is occupied by a collection of flimsy electrical and medical stores, known as the Bhagirath Electrical Market, right up to the garden-mansion’s sweeping staircase.


(Begum Samru’s Haveli at Chandni Chowk, Delhi)

Once the dusk had fallen and the house was illuminated with hundreds of tiny, bright lamps and lanterns, it was not hard to imagine that the Begum, surrounded by an army of her uniformed attendants who lounged up and down the curve of the avenue, was waiting on these very stairs for some European or royal Mughal guests to arrive for dinner.

She was gifted the villages of Jharsa and Badshahpur in present day Gurgaon. It is possible that she built or used many structures in that area.  As per Haryana Tourism [Ref. 16: http://haryanatourism.gov.in/showpage.aspx?contentid=5820], a bungalow in Civil Lines, Gurgaon, that is presently being used as the residence-cum-‘Camp Office’ of the District Collector, was built by her.  A beautiful building of limestone blocks, it was built on a higher ground elevation than the surrounding area. With due permission, I was allowed to inspect it thoroughly. The main features are its huge ceilings of more than 20 feet high, walls of thickness more than two feet and a wide surrounding verandah with large semi-circular arches.  The balcony roofs are strengthened with I-shaped iron beams similar to those used on rail tracks.  A flight of stairs from inside the residence section leads to its terrace. The roof is waterproofed with a kind of textured net-cloth applied throughout. The view from the terrace allows an unobstructed view of the surrounding garden, with a couple of peacocks ambling about.


(Begum Samru’s Gurgaon mansion in Civil Lines: now used as District Collector’s residence-cum-‘Camp Office’.)

However, after going around the building, it seems more of a colonial-era structure, than a late Mughal one.

As per other reports [Ref.17], an ancient fort in Badshahpur in Gurgaon is said to have been used by the Begum. The site lies in the village. A flight of stone stairs leads to an elevated ground, which must have been the original fort level.  Only a corner bastion of the ancient fort exists today, while the entire structure of the fort is now lost to encroachments. Modern houses are built over the entire area.


(Stairways to the erstwhile fort in Badshahpur Village in Gurgaon, that was once used by Begum Samru)

However, while exploring the village, one cannot miss a nearby strikingly beautiful Haveli. With permissions of the residents, I was allowed to inspect the three-storeyed Haveli. A narrow staircase leads to its different levels from the inside of the house. On each floor, a narrow balcony is supported on a series of curved brackets. Old wooden doors are framed by arched niches in the first two floors, while the top level seems to be a later addition, with simple workmanship. The building probably dates back to the early 20th century.


(Haveli interiors in Badshahpur, Gurgaon)

George Thomas and Perron: The Irish and French Sailor-Kings

George Thomas had an almost independent reign of a vast stretch of land consisting of fourteen parganas and nine-hundred and fifty villages. His transformation from a common sailor into the head of a large province was truly remarkable. He based his administration at Hansi, in the province of Haryana, somewhat an arid area, ironically named Harri-ana, or the “Green Land.”

Of his achievements, he wrote, “I established a mint and coined my own rupees, which I made current in my army and country…cast my own artillery, commenced making muskets, matchlocks and powder…”

Thomas then set out to snuff the rebellious elements in Begum Samru’s army, which was under his command after he restored Begum. It was a common practice during his predecessor Reinhardt’s reign that the sepoys would tie Reinhardt to a heated cannon to extract money. When Thomas took charge of the army, he immediately identified those ringleaders and blew them off from the mouth of a cannon.

Murad Bakht

(Grave of Murad Bakht, wife of Shah Alam II, lies next to the Mughal tomb and is now a part of a private residence. At Bakhtiar Kaki’s Dargah, Mehrauli)

However, Thomas—the Irish “sailor-turned-Raja of Hansi”—could not get away with running a parallel country so close to Delhi and his formidable antagonist and national enemy (another “sailor-Raja,” the French commander General Perron) soon crossed his path. Perron was the acknowledged master from the shores of Sutlej to Narmada, with an income that almost rivalled that of the British Governor General and Commander-in-Chief put together.

Perron summoned George Thomas to Delhi and asked him to join Scindia’s army under him, which the Irish Raja did not agree to. A strong Franco-Maratha force under the command of Louis Bourquien then attacked Thomas and completely routed his capital city of Hansi. Thomas reached an agreement for safe passage to British-occupied territories along with his accumulated fortune at the end of the battle and, on January 1, 1802, he set out to Calcutta riding a fine Persian horse. He died on his way, breathing his last at Berhampur.

While Perron and Thomas were engaged in a battle in the name of their national honours, a bigger game soon unfolded in the Indian theatre.  On January 1, 1803, the “Treaty of Bassein”  the Peshwa of Pune and the British was signed to ultimately keep the French influence out of India and to buy peace for the Peshwa at Pune. The treaty did not acknowledge either Scindia or Holkar, the two warring Maratha chieftains. The British received a portion of Bundelkhand, the entire west coast and command of the Indian Ocean. Emboldened by this, the British prohibited Scindia from proceeding to Pune and launched a military campaign against Holkar.

By that time, British rule was already imposed on Gorakhpur, eastern and central Doab and a large part of Rohillakhand. The frontier territories of Oudh were ceded to the British by the Viceroy Saadat Ali Khan in lieu of the maintenance fees due them for their military assistance.


(District Collector’s Residence, Gurgaon, built by Begum Samru)

The “Peace of Amiens” treaty between England and France was on the verge of breaking down and war was imminent between the two.


Flickers of the Final Face-Off

At that time, the French General Perron of Scindia’s army was dissatisfied with his commander and wished to retire. In 1802, Perron was directed by Scindia to surrender all estates (mahals) in his possession and decided then to relinquish his command. However, until his last day in the army, his preparation for the imminent war with the British was meticulous indeed. Perron’s army consisted of 15,000–20,000 horses led by three hundred European officers, among whom more than two hundred and fifty were French. There were also a number of mixed-race officers, such as the two Skinners, Lucan, Ferguson, Stewart, Carnegie, Scott, Birch and Woodville (who were the Eurasian offspring of British fathers and Indian mothers). Perron discharged them from service immediately, as he believed they could not fight whole-heartedly against their fellow British.


(The wide fort walls of Pathargarh and the parapet with loopholes, Najibabad)

The French strategy was to continue Shah Alam’s rule with the full support of the French Republic. As Lieutenant Lefebre’s August 6, 1803 memoir at Pondicherry stated, “… The English Company, by its ignominious treatment of the great Moghul, has forfeited its rights as Deewan of the Empire.” This was of course a debatable opinion, as it was the French under whose confinement the emperor was living, after he returned from Allahabad to Delhi despite the opposition of the British.

On 6th July 1803, Lord Wellesley received news that the war with France was to be renewed. The very next day, he wrote to General Lake, his commander-in-chief as, I wish you to understand, my dear Sir, that I consider the reduction of Scindiah’s power on the north-west frontier of Hindostan to be an important object in proportion to the probability of a war with France. M. de Boigne (Scindiah’s late general) is now the chief confidant of Bonaparte; he is constantly at St. Cloud. I leave you to judge why and wherefore.”


(Not the Sultan’s horse, Baradari, Najibabad)

Wellesley had planned a two-pronged strategy to subdue the Franco-Maratha influence over the subcontinent: while the Deccan encounter would be fronted by General Arthur Wellesley—his brother and the future conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815—Delhi and upper India would be attacked and wrested back by General Lake.

Delhi, as per Lord Wellesley’s words, had become a part of the “French State of the Doab,” and subjugating it would be the crowning glory of British conquest.

General Lake and His Occupation of Delhi

General Lake had at his command some 10,500 troops, including eight cavalry regiments (of which three were European), eleven sepoy battalions and three hundred British artillerymen, while the Franco-Maratha force that assembled in Delhi was 35,000 strong. Despite their numerical and the strategic advantage of fighting on their home ground, luck definitely favoured the British. As the British forces pounded the Aligarh fort and arrested French Lieutenant Colonel Pedron, General Perron reached an agreement with the British for his safe passage to British territories, along with his family and properties. The Maratha forces in Delhi did not accept the authority of their new commander, Bourquien and it was this leader-less and chaotic group that the disciplined 27th Dragoons and the 76th Foot of the British forces pushed back on that fateful day of September 11, 1803, after slaying more than 3,000 native sepoys. General Bourquien and four other French commanders surrendered, as did du Dernec.


(Unknown inscriptions on the stone platform of graves, Najibabad)

When the blind emperor, Shah Alam, heard the news, he immediately sent the heir-apparent, Mirza Akbar, to escort General Lake in a grand procession watched by thousands of curious citizens who lined the streets leading up to the palace fortress. In the famed Diwan-i-khas, the emperor—sitting on a poor caricature of the great Mughal throne, which retained only a sorry reflection of its former glory—received General Lake and conferred on him the title of “Khan Dauran.”


(One side of the gateway, showing panels of multi-cusped blind arches, Najibabad Qila)

The emperor’s sovereignty was withdrawn by the British, who allowed him to retain authority only in the city and a small surrounding area. The Mughal emperor’s decisions were subject to the approval of the British resident and he remained a mere pensioner, receiving 90,000 rupees per month.

As per Thorn, one of the officers of General Lake, ‘The descendant of the great Akbar..was found, an object of pity and seated under a small tattered canopy, the fragrant of royal state and the mockery of human pride.’


(The Staircase opens to the terrace, Pathargarh Fort, Najibabad.)

The note “The Governor-General in Council to the Secret Committee of the Honourable The Court of Directors” signed by Wellesley, G.H. Barlow and G. Undy, at Fort William, dated June 2, 1805, gives the details of the emperor’s privileges:

“..That to provide for the immediate wants of his Majesty and the Royal household, the following sums should be paid monthly, in money from the treasury of the resident at Delhi, to his Majesty for his private expenses, Sa. Rs. 60,000; to the heir-apparent, exclusive of certain Jagheers, Sa. Rs. 10,000; to a favourite son of his Majesty named Mirza Izzut Buksh, Sa. Rs. 5000; to two other sons of his Majesty, Sa. Rs. 1,500; to his Majesty’s fifty younger sons and daughters, Sa. Rs. 10,000; to Shah Newsanze Khan, his Majesty’s treasurer, Rs. 2,500; to Syud Razzee Khan, British agent at his Majesty’s Court and related to his Majesty by marriage, Sa. Rs. 1,000; total per mensem, Sa. Rs. 90,000. 

That in addition to the sums specified, the sum of Sa. Rs. 10,000 should annually be paid to his Majesty on certain festivals agreeably to ancient usage.”

The day was  Sept 11, 1803, when the Oriental dreams and ambitions of the French were so decisively quenched and annihilated by the British, at the very heart of India, in the city of Shahjahanabad.

However, little did Lord Wellesley know that some fifty years later, in 1857, the same grounds of Shahjahanabad would once again rise to rebuff and repudiate the British flag and once again the guns and canons of the natives and the British would co-mingle to give yet another dramatic spin to the history of the sub-continent.


(The arched entrance to the mosque-cemetery complex of Najib-ud-Daulah, in Najibabad)

“Bright northern star from Cabul’s realms advance: Imperial Timur poize the avenging lance.

On these vile traitors quick destruction pour: Redress my wrongs and kingly rights restore;

Thee too, O Sindiah, illustrious chief:  Who once didst promise to afford relief;

Thee I invoke, exert thy generous aid:  And over their heads high wave the avenging blade.

And ye, O faithful pillars of my state:  By friendship bound and my power elate,

Hasten, O Asuf; and ye English chiefs: Nor blush to sooth an injured monarch’s griefs…”


( Part of Shah Alam’s poem, Ref.3,  where he appeals to the following to come to his aid and avenge his cause: Timur Shah – son of Ahmad Abdali, king of Kabul, who had married Shah Alam’s daughter; the Maratha chief Mahdaji Sindia ; Asaf-ul-Daula who was the son of Shujaa –ul-Daula; and finally  the East India Company)


Sidenote#1: Forgotten Monuments of Najibabad

Pathargarh: Known popularly as the Qila (Fort), or Sultana Daku ka Qila (Fort of the Bandit King), the name is somewhat of a misnomer, because all that exist here, is only its strong wall with majestic gateways.


(Majestic gateway to Pathargarh Qila showing its outer and inner chambers, Najibabad)

A series of three arched entrances mark its entrance. The first  to encounter on its outer facade  is a cusped arch with eight small semi-circular lobes on either side joined together at its pinnacle. It is  lined with a twisted-rope moulding, with a creeper vine with large leaves running along it. A single blooming flower adorns its top, with its eight curled-back petal lips incised with sharp lines. The petals surround the flower’s delicate ovary and two filaments terminating in little anthers. Around this flower motif at the pinnacle of the entrance archway, the entire gateway structure is perfectly divided into two exact mirror-symmetrical halves.


(The flower with eight curled-back petal lips, at the apex of the cusped entranceway with a twisted-rope moulding and a creeper plant with large leaves running along it)

The entrance-way is flanked by a set of three blind-arches on both sides – cascaded in a three-tier setting. These three large niches are once again flanked on either side by a series of  smaller niches in the shape of blind arches, arranged in columnar frames. The same design is repeated with minor variations in the gateway interior, as well on its back side.


(The double-storeyed inner chamber of the gateway, Qila, Najibabad)

There are two chambers in the gateway, framed by three majestic arches. As one enters from outside into the fort premises through the wide gateway, the two come in sequence. The outer chamber is a simple rectangular compartment enveloped between the entrance archway on the outer wall facade and the middle arch. It then opens into an inner vaulted chamber that is the heart of the gateway. It is framed between its middle archway on one side and the arch on the back facade of the gateway. The centre of this striking compartment is highlighted by a beautiful 32-petalled flower design adorning the gateway’s vaulted roof. Two tiers of platforms are fronted by an arcade of three rectangular columns on each floor. They flank both sides of the gateway, with the surrounding wall decorated with small niches. It is designed in the form of a naubat-khana or a drum-house, where a group of musicians could have been placed on the first floor.


(Vaulted-roof of the inner chamber with four sides and four squinches and decorated with a 32 flower petals radiating out, Najbabad Qila)

On the back side of the fort-wall, the main thoroughfare is again flanked by six niches on either side, in sets of two vertical panels of three niches each. The lowest of these three vertically arranged niches on the leftmost and rightmost panels open into two stairways, whereas the rest of the five niches are walled up as blind arches.


(Back facade of Najibabad Qila gateway with staircases and blind arches, image taken by Deepak Kumar)

The staircases lead to the upper chamber and then on to the terrace. The terrace wall is marked with four huge lotus capitals – two on either side and the wall between them is punctured with numerous sloping square loopholes for discharging arrows. The lotus petals are surrounded by a narrow series of sepals, while its penducle is covered with two bands of overlapping curled-back leaves.


(Small loopholes for arrows, Najibabad Qila gateway terrace)


(Lotus capital on the Qila terrace with curled-down petals on its ‘stem’, along with loopholes, Najibabad)


(Sloping loophole in Najibabad Qila’s terrace)

A flight of stairs leads down to its massive wall, that is wide enough for a pair of horses to move side by side. The wall has a raised parapet facing the outside that is similarly provisioned with arrow-holes. Local villagers say that there were some structures inside the boundary wall in olden days, but today, only a huge ground lies in it.

Baradari: The strikingly beautiful site stands in the middle of a village, with its four tall turrets standing around a heap of collapsed rubble. The name ‘baradari’ might have referred to a 12-door central chamber that no longer exists.


(The four turrets of the baradari, Najibabad)


(One of the three-tiered baradari turrets topped with a bulbous dome, Najibabad)

Each of the four towers is made of three storeys, with the ground level serving as the entrance. They are octagonal in shape, with round bulbous domes adorning their tops. The terrace at the uppermost level is provisioned with eight multi-cusped arched openings for a beautiful view all around. The whole structure is made of thin Lakhauri bricks. The name ‘lakhauri’ for these types of thin bricks has not been fully explained by historians. As per some, its name origins from ‘lakh’, or the unit of 1,00,000, because these bricks were very common in building structures, starting from the late Mughal period.


(Winding Stairway inside the tower, Baradari, Najibabad)

A circular winding staircase leads to the top floor and once at the top, one can see the beautifully engraved ceilings, which is the only remaining decorative feature of this otherwise dilapidated structure. Two concentric bands of geometric pattern mark the top of the eight arched windows.


(Two bands of ‘plaster-work’ decoration touching the apexes of eight multi-cusped arches in the airy top floor of a tower, at Baradari, Najibabad)

It seems that the four towers were joined together with the central structure in its original design. From the local villagers’ account, the structure was supposedly built by the daughter of Najib-ud-Daula.

Cemetery Complex of Najib-ud-Daulah: Out of the three monuments, this one is relatively easy to locate, as it lies within the main market of the town. The structure is rectangular-shaped and entered through an arched gateway. Four decorative turrets mark its corners.


(The dargah wall with five rows of blind arches, Najib-ud-Daula’s cemetery complex, Najibabad)

The outer wall has five rows of decorative recessed niches. The gateway opens into a spacious courtyard, surrounded by a series of rooms and prayer chambers and a continuous covered balcony with arched openings. The platform of the balcony is fronted by an arcade of rectangular columns supporting the multi-cusped arches. In the centre of the courtyard, lies a raised platform – with the graves of Najib-ud-Daulah and his wife. Towards the right, there is another raised platform having seven smaller graves believed to be of his family and descendants. All the graves are aligned on a north-south direction. On closer examination, a series of undeciphered texts can be seen engraved on a cornerstone of the main platform.


(Tombs of Najib-ud-Daula and his wife, in Najibabad)

The rooms are normally closed, but can be opened upon request. The main prayer chamber has a deep recessed mihrab towards the customary qibla, or the westerly direction to Mecca. A flight of stairs leads up to the terrace, where a bulbous dome with an inverted-lotus filial with two side-chambers stand. From the terrace, a number of dilapidated graves can be seen lying in the surrounding grassland.


(Prayer chamber in the Najib-ud-Daula’s cemetery complex, Najibabad)

The son of the caretaker, or the khadim, explains that all the rooms in the complex remain cool despite the outside heat. For the locals, he explains, the site is an important landmark, since it has the tombs of the town’s builder.


Sidenote#2: Kanva Ashram – Where the Country Got Its Name

The rich heritage and history of the area is filled with many mythological narratives. Kanva Ashram is located around 14 kilometres from Kotdwara, the last rail head on way to Lansdowne and next to Najibabad. It is said that the place was once the abode of Sage Kanva (his hermitage) and the site was a major educational centre where thousands of students lived in the ancient past.

Kanva was a wandering Yogi (Ramta Yogi) and he set up his ashram here on the banks of Malini river, while he was on the way to Badrinath. Once he visited a prosperous hermitage of another Yogi near Narmada river and wished he too had such a permanent and beautiful setting and as he prayed to God, he received the blessings and the divine instructions that he should set up an ashram there, on the first stop on his way to Badrinath. His ashram was a major centre to impart both Vidya and Gyan (Knowledge and Enlightenment).


(The Stairs leading to Kanva Ashram, Kotdwara)

Sage Vishwamitra was his contemporary and once when he was in deep meditation on the banks of Malini river, the king of Gods Indradev sent down the beautiful celestial nymph, or Apsara, Menaka to break his concentration, fearing that he might become too powerful with his meditation. Sage Vishwamitra married her and a daughter was born to them. However, after the childbirth, Menaka disappeared from the earth, as her mission was successful. Sage Kanva was wandering in the forest, when he saw the infant surrounded and protected by Shakun birds. He brought her to the ashram and named her as Shakuntala, or ‘one-who-was-saved-by-Shakun.’


(The Path to the Kanva Ashram, Kotdwara)

Once King Dushyant of Hastinapur was travelling in the area with his troops and was chasing a herd of deer. The students of the hermitage requested the king not to harm the animals as they belonged to them and invited the curious king to visit the ashram. Since Sage Kanva was travelling, he met his daughter Shakuntala. Both fell in love and got married in a Gandharva Vivaha, but Shakuntala could not go with the King as her father Kanva was not in the ashram.  Dushyant left the hermitage and presented her a ring as a parting gift.

One day, sage Durvasha visited the hermitage and being lost in her thoughts, Shakuntala could not give him due attention. The infuriated sage cursed her that the person in her dreams would forget her. Two of Shakuntala’s aides – Priyambada and Anusuya pleaded with the sage to pardon her. The sage relented a bit and said that the person would recognize her only if she exhibits some token or present. Shakuntala and her aides were relieved that they had the king’s ring as his token of love.


(Kanva Ashram in Kotdwara- marks the place where the country got its name)

When Kanva came back, he came to know about her marriage and sent her off to Hastinapur. On her way, when they were crossing the river Ganga on a boat, she absent-mindedly ran her fingers on the tranquil blue waters of the river and dropped the ring, which was eaten by a fish.  At Hastinapur, the king could not recognize her and with no other options, she took shelter in Sage Kashyap’s ashram, where her son Bharat was born.

In the meantime, many months later, a fisherman found the ring and on seeing the mark of the king on it, gave it to King Dushyant. The king suddenly remembered Shakuntala and longed to find her. Once Dushyant was going through the area of Sage Kashyap’s ashram and found a small child counting the teeth of a tiger. This impressed the king and he inquired his name and parentage and the little boy told him that he was the son of King Dushyant and Shakuntala. The family was re-united, but Bharat grew up in Sage Kanva’s ashram, which was a major educational centre.


(A small temple in Kanva Ashram, Kotdwara)

Pandavas and the Kauravas were the 16th generation in the line of King Bharata. The country was named as Bharat after his name. Swami Ramanand ji who manages this quaint ashram today, laments the lack of tourist infrastructure and also people’s awareness about the place considered to be the root of the country’s name.

The place lies roughly 14 kilometres from Kotdwara and does not appear on any tourist itinerary. Public transport to the place is non-existent and one has to walk a bit to reach the ashram. Swami Ramanad ji told that ancient stone statues are often found here during landslides, such as those that happened in 1990 and in 2012.


Many thanks to friends Deepak Kumar and Arvind Kumar for helping and accompanying me in exploring the hidden monuments of Najibabad, and also Kanva Ashram, Kotdwar. Thanks to the District Collector, Gurgaon for kindly allowing me to thoroughly inspect the official DC’s residence building, which is said to have been built by Begum Samru.



  1. The Fall of the Moghul Empire: 1760-1803; by Henry George Keene, 1876, London.
  2. The Fall of the Mughal Empire: Volume 2; by Sir Jadunath Sarkar, 1934, Calcutta
  3. The History of the Reign of Shah Aulum; by W. Francklin, 1798, London
  4. From Savoy to Agra: The cross-cultural Narrative of Benoit De Boigne, by Christopher Rollason : http://yatrarollason.info/files/BoignePegasus.pdf
  5. Monuments of Delhi, by Archaeological Survey of India, 2010, New Delhi.
  6. Begum Samru: Fading Portrait in a Gilded Frame, by John Lall, 1997, New Delhi.
  7. List of Muhammadan and Hindu Monuments, Vol III, by Maulvi Zafar Hasan, J.A. Page & J.F. Blakisston; A.S.I., 1922, Calcutta
  8. The Complete Taj Mahal, by Ebba Koch, 2006, London
  9. Delhi, A Thousand Years of Building, by Lucy Peck, 2005, Delhi
  10. British Library Blog: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2015/09/battle-of-panipat-1761.html
  11. ASI set to restore ‘forgotten’ fort: Sept 19, 2014, Times of India: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/agra/ASI-set-to-restore-forgotten-fort/articleshow/42922966.cms
  12. Lost to history: Najib-ud-Daula fort : Dec 8, 2014, Times of India: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/meerut/Lost-to-history-Najib-ud-Daula-fort/articleshow/45418670.cms
  13. TOI blog on Najibabad – ‘When monuments go missing!’ : http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/HiddenHeritage/when-monuments-go-missing/
  14. Poor Mausoleum of a Powerful Man, by Basishali Adak, Nov 21, 2012, Deccan Herald: http://www.deccanherald.com/content/293239/poor-mausoleum-powerful-man.html
  15. Sec 15 residents clean up 150-year-old Jharsa dam: Oct 9, 2014, Times of India:http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/gurgaon/Sec-15-residents-clean-up-150-year-old-Jharsa-dam/articleshow/44729207.cms
  16. Begum Samru’s Palace: Haryana Tourism: http://haryanatourism.gov.in/showpage.aspx?contentid=5820
  17. Begum Samru’s mahal in jeopardy in Gurgaon: August 10, 2009, Mail Today: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/Begum+Samru’s+mahal+in+jeopardy+in+Gurgaon/1/55903.html

10 thoughts on “A Breath of French Air for the Blind Emperor of Delhi

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