Friday, 12 August 2016

Amazing Sardhana church built by Indian Muslim woman

Altar of Basilica of Our lady of Graces, Sardhana,

In India there are so many historical churches scattered across the country that were mostly built during the colonial days and these places of worship are symbolic of our past heritage. The church at Sardhana, Uttar Pradesh is a unique one because it was built by a Muslim woman.

The story of Sardhana church in interwoven with  romance and history, involving two  energetic souls belonging to two different cultures and countries.  It was built by  a widow  quite popularly known as Begum Samru,  born as Farzana Zebunisa in 1751 who converted to Roman Catholic Faith in 1781. She changed her name to Johanna.The small town of Sardhana  lies 19 kms. north-west of Meerut city.  In the late 18th century, a French man by the name of Walter Reinhardt came  here for adventure and work and finally settled down in Sardhana, He became popular and went by the nick name Samru.

Basilica of Our lady of Graces. Sardhana

Being adventurous and  hardworking he won the friendship of the local ruler and later became closer to him. Walter helped the ruler Najaf Khan of Delhi on some war expeditions and he successfully supported the ruler.  In 1773 Walter received Sardhana from Najaf Khan  and later the principality of Sardhana was formally established.Walter was almost like a small ruler with his own troops and other paraphernalia.  Upon  his death in 1778, Walter Reinhardt was succeeded by his  wife widow Begum Samru. Begum Samru inherited the Jagir of Sardhana after her husband's death. She married in her early teens Walter Reinhardt Sombre of Luxembourg (Sombre was shortened to Samru), a mercenary soldier.

During her lifetime she supported financially many charitable and religious institutions.  After her wedding with Walter, she developed keen interest in Christianity and she liked the teachings of Jesus Christ and ultimately she became a Roman Catholic in 1781.
Sardhana was the capital of the Begum Samru, as she was a small ruler.

Basilica of Our lady of Graces. Begam Samru's monuments
She, for along time, had a passion to build a church in that area that would bear name as well as her husband's. She engaged an Italian architect Anthony Reghelini to have an imposing church built in that small town. In 1822 the construction cost of that church was about four lakhs - a huge sum in those days. Two huge lakes near the church were created as a result of continuous removal of mud that was required for the church.Mud was the major construction material, besides lime and hard stones.

This historical west-facing church with entrance from north has a long  verandah  lined by 18 Doric pillars. The lofty spires and steeple are impressive; an interesting feature is the octagonal lantern atop the central dome. It is made of finely carved and carefully perforated slates and  capped with black and white marble. Atop the  three domes and two spires are heavily gilded metal balls surmounted by metal crosses. The altar is strikingly beautiful made of marbles  mined from Jaipur and it is nicely inlaid with a floral design of semi precious stones. Above the niche is the statue of Mother Mary to whom the church was dedicated. She supported financially many charitable and religious institutions and  her new palace had become the boys' school.

The altar steps and statuary floor is of black and white marble. On either side of the statuary there are two long wings - the left wing has the famous monument over the tomb of the Begum. This monument is well designed using Carrara marble with  eleven life size figures and three panels in beys-relief; right on top; the Begum sits  dressed in Muslim style

Immediately below her statue are four figures - David Dyce, Samru, Innayat-ullah, Diwan Rae Singh and Julius Ceasar Scotti. The six figures are supposedly symbolic of  fearlessness, wisdom, fulfillment, prosperity that were in existence in plenty during Begum's reign.

This church's veneration got a further boost when  the sacred image of Lady of Graces was enshrined in 1957. The visit of Pope John XXIII in 1961 to raise it to the status  of Minor Basilica, 
was a memorable event and it was a great honor for this church that was built by a highly spirited Indian Muslim woman. New Palace has become the boys school