Indian NGO resumes restoration of 200-year-old tomb of French soldier near Delhi

·2-min read

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage has resumed a project to restore the tomb of French soldier Major Jean Etienne, on the outskirts of Delhi, who is believed to have served for three decades in the mercenary army of dancing girl turned legendary warrior Begum Samru.

Located in the middle of a park in Gurgaon, just southwest of New Delhi, is a worn out tomb erected in memory of Major Jean Etienne, who hailed from Bordeaux, France, and died in 1821 at the age of 75.

Decades of neglect have seen it significance drift into the distant of locals. But now the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), one of the world’s largest heritage organisations, is getting its act together to preserve it.

“The structure has been identified as one of historical, architectural, educational value as it is the only surviving tomb out of many others representing the era of early 19th century,” Major Atul Dev, convenor of the Gurgaon chapter of INTACH told RFI.

“We are going to take up the restoration now that restrictions have eased during the Covid period.”

In the service of Begum Samru

The towering white structure throws light on an important ruler of pre-independent India. The estate where Etienne's memorial is located was once owned by Begum Samru, the legendary warrior who rose from being a dancing girl to the leader of a mercenary army which saved Mughal emperor Shah Alam twice.

Historians claim Begum Samru, born in 1750 with the given name Farzana, was the daughter of a Muslim nobleman; others contend that she was an orphan raised as a nautch dancing girl.

To suppress mutinous local warriors, Mughal kings hired European mercenaries, including Walter Reinhardt, from Austria, who earned the sobriquet ‘Butcher of Patna’ after he killed 150 Englishmen there in 1763.

Reinhardt, historians say, was smitten by Farzana and the pair teamed up and formed a power couple as mercenaries for hire. Begum Samru, or Sombre, as the British called her, played a defining role in the history of Gurgaon, officially Gurugram.

'Common soldier, honest man'

Begum Samru was the supreme commander of 3,000 troops, including at least a hundred European mercenaries in 18th century northern India.

One of the officers of Begum Samru was French national Jean Etienne, a major in the French armed forces, who served her for 35 years. When he died in 1821 the Begum constructed a memorial in his memory.

“He served Begum Sombre for thirty-five years, was a common soldier and an honest man,” reads the fading epitaph on his tomb.

“It will be an interesting structure once the restoration work is complete and it will be a tourist spot too,” a senior French diplomat told RFI.

Organisers are hoping to track down descendants of Major Etienne in order to invite them to be part of the inauguration ceremony, when the works are finished.