“By means of her uncommon ability and discretion, united to a masculine firmness and intrepidity... she managed to preserve her country nearly unmolested, and her authority generally unimpaired, during a period of surrounding storm and tempest, which shook several great powers from their thrones...”

— 'Military Memoirs of Lieut-Col James Skinner', James Skinner

A four-and-a-half-foot girl, picked up from a Chawri Bazar brothel by a European adventurer, went on to rule the prosperous kingdom of Sardhana for 55 years, at a time when the largest of empires were crumbling and no man was safe. With her diplomatic abilities and her commanding presence, Begum Joanna Nobilis Samru (r 1776-1836 ce) is an unlikely feminist icon of that age.

It was the end of the 18th century, otherwise known as gardi ka waqt, or a time of trouble. The Mughal Empire, which had been at its greatest geographical spread at the time of Emperor Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, was now in a shambles, weakened by years of internecine warfare and plunder by external raiders like Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali. It is said that by the end of the 18th century, the Mughal ruler Shah Alam II’s rule only extended from Delhi to Palam in the suburbs of Delhi, leading to the saying: Badshahat e Shah Alam, az Dilli ta Palam. He barely had 5,000 troops: a sad comedown from the lakhs commanded by his ancestors.

With no strong central power, Matsya Nyaya (the law of the jungle) prevailed, with everyone scrambling for a piece of the pie. Erstwhile Mughal governors had declared themselves rulers of their own provinces; native groups like the Rajputs, Marathas and Sikhs, long suppressed, were trying to create their own empires; and the British, French and other European powers began to morph from traders to the far more profitable role of rulers, inspired by the singular success of Robert Clive in Bengal. The British had gained control of Bengal after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and forced the Mughal emperor Shah Alam to grant them the diwani of Bengal, the right to collect taxes, when they captured him after the Battle of Buxar in 1764.

Indeed, anyone with a brave heart and a few soldiers at his disposal began to dream of carving out his own kingdom.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, it was also the heyday for European mercenaries, who led troops of a few thousand men trained in European technology and organisation, and offered their services to the highest bidder. Many of these mercenaries were French, like the legendary Benoît de Boigne, who made his fortune in India with the Marathas.

Into this thick soup of intrigue entered Walter Reinhardt Sombre in 1750, an Austrian mercenary who had been part of the French army in India. In his account of Sombre, James Skinner, a military adventurer in the East India Company, who later came to be known as Sikandar Sahib, says that Sombre had originally been a carpenter.

In 1760, Sombre offered his services to Mir Qasim, the nawab of Bengal – then chafing under British dominance – to aid him in his efforts to reoccupy Patna. Sombre’s troops carried out the massacre of about 150 Englishmen, which earned him the soubriquet “The Butcher of Patna”. Soon afterwards, Sombre fled from British retribution to Oudh (in western Uttar Pradesh), where he continued his career as a mercenary.

In 1765, at the age of 45, Sombre dropped into Khanum Jan’s kotha (brothel) in Chawri Bazar in Delhi for an evening of entertainment.

There he encountered the charming 15-year-old Kashmiri dancer, Farzana. Her origins are uncertain; she is variously considered to be the offspring of a Mughal nobleman, or even a child picked up by the kotha’s owner from the street. Enchanted by Farzana, Sombre soon moved her to his zenana, or harem.

He already had children from a previous concubine, Barri Bibi, but this was not unusual. Many Europeans at the time maintained large harems. Sir David Ochterlony, the British resident in Delhi in the early 19th century, for instance, had 13 bibis, or concubines, whom he would promenade every evening down the main thoroughfare of Chandni Chowk, seated on elephants! The quick-witted and astute Farzana became Sombre’s companion and comrade in arms as he offered his military services to various nobles, including the Jat rulers of Deeg, who were then occupying Agra.

Surajmal Jat had grown very powerful in the aftermath of the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761. In 1773 the Mughal forces under Najaf Khan, a vizier in the court of Shah Alam II, fought the Jats and expelled them from Agra. Even though the Jats had lost this battle, Najaf Khan was so impressed by the fighting prowess of Sombre’s troops that he invited him to join the Mughals.

In those fickle times, Sombre had already changed 14 masters.

He and his troops gladly joined the Mughals. Over the next three years, while living in Delhi, Sombre and Farzana, now called Begum Samru (from Sombre), entrenched themselves in the affairs of the Mughal court, becoming favourites of both Shah Alam II and Najaf Khan. This was often attributed to the begum’s ability to make friends and influence people.

The couple became so influential that not only did they manage to escape being handed over to the vengeful British, but were also granted the rights to the rich jagir (territory) of Sardhana, which yielded around 6 lakh rupees in revenue per annum (equivalent to about 30 crore rupees today) in 1776, with a royal sanad, or deed, from Shah Alam II. And so, these penniless adventurers became rulers. Sombre was also made the civil and military governor of Agra.

Excerpted with permission from The Women Who Ruled India: Leaders. Warriors. Icons, Archana Garodia Gupta, Hachette India.