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Kothi Begam Samru: a tale of transformation in 19th-century Delhi.

The Begam ... usually gives a grand fete, which lasts three days, during Christmas, and to which nearly all the leading society of Merat, Dehli and the surrounding stations is invited. ... Tents are prepared in the palace-garden for the accommodation of visitors, and every luxury which a profuse outlay can secure is provided for the company. ... Upon these grand occasions, the Begam usually honours the guests by presiding at the table; but she does not herself partake of any food in their presence. (1)


This account by an East India Company officer tells of Begam Samru, an affluent and politically astute lady of rather ambiguous origins who lived in the 19th century. (2) The account makes it amply clear that the Begam had cordial relations with the British who controlled Delhi and its outlying territories from 1803. Indeed, Lord Lake, the architect of the British victory over Delhi, was a frequent guest to the lavish entertainment soirees held at her residence there which were known for their splendid European style banquets, "nautch" sessions, and fireworks displays.

Begam Samru was one among the many jagirdars of the late 18th and 19th centuries who held territories around Delhi granted to them in lieu of military service by those they served. The Begam had inherited her jagir, Sardhana in Meerut district, from her husband, Walter Reinhardt (nicknamed "Sombre" on account of his gloomy countenance, which was colloquially distorted to "Samru" and subsequently became a family name). Reinhardt was a military adventurer whose antecedents like those of the Begam are obscure and whose chequered military career included serving among others the French, the Nawab of Bengal, and Nawab Safdarjung of Delhi. Even as jagirs rose to prominence and declined swiftly in the politically chaotic climate of the 18th and 19th centuries, Begam Samru, who had converted to Christianity following Reinhardt's demise, took charge of her legacy and ruled over it with sharp political acumen. A confidante of the incumbent Mughal ruler, Shah Alam II (1759-1806), who granted her several other jagirs in return for her loyalty--including the site in Delhi on which she built her kothi, the Begam also kept open communication with the British with whom she was on extremely cordial terms. Following the British occupation of Delhi and its surrounding territories, Begam Samru was allowed to retain her jagirs that were administered from Sardhana where she lived, but as was contemporary practice, she maintained a residence in Delhi to keep up with the latest political and social developments, the city being the political nerve centre with the Mughal ruler in residence. In a departure from convention, the Begam entertained officers of the East India Company and her lavish parties to which the most distinguished Europeans were invited were the subject of much remark among Delhi's Europeans. In keeping with her stature, the Begam also patronized the arts and her architectural endeavours included many buildings built both in Delhi and at Sardhana--among others, a Catholic church and cemetery and a number of palatial residences such as the one under consideration in this article. The Begam lived an eventful existence till her death in 1836-37. She was interred at Sardhana.


The Kothi as an Architectural Conception

Etymologically, the term kothi was used in the Indian subcontinent to imply a room for the storage of grain, built by those engaged in tilling the land. With the passage of time, this indigenous, essentially agrarian, built-form type underwent functional and spatial modifications. In 17th-century British India, the kothi came to be identified with a trader's residence that also included his warehouse. (3) Soon, the word was commonly used to designate the factory built by officials of the East India Company to facilitate trade. By the 19th century, the purview of the term had evolved yet again to include a novel residential built-form type catering to the dwelling needs of the subcontinent's elite--both the indigenous population and the British.

It was quite the norm to have kothis constituting the urban fabric of colonial cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Delhi was no exception, as revealed by 19th-century cartographic sources, with kothis of Europeans and the Indian elite built around the Mughal palace-fort. The kothis of the former tended to cluster north of the palace-fort around the Kashmiri Gate area, while those of the Indians lay to the palace-fort's south.

The residents of a kothi included the owner, European or Indian, who lived on the premises with their family and a retinue of service providers and personal attendants. Architecturally speaking, a kothi mediated between the indigenous haveli and the colonial bungalow, assimilating the design elements of these two spatially distinct residential built-form types of the colonial city. For a European family, not only was it necessary for the kothi to have rooms in accordance with their specific cultural mores, but equally important was the incorporation of indigenous design elements effective in combating the stifling heat and humidity of the subcontinent, for example spatial provisions such as the tehkhana (subterranean chamber) and the hammam (bath). Leopold von Orlich who visited Delhi in the 1840s, remarked that the house of the editor of the Delhi Gazette possessed "like many of those inhabited by Europeans, subterranean apartments, in which, during the prevalence of the hot winds, he is protected against the dry, sultry heat, and enjoys a temperature lower by 10 degree." (4) Equally well known was the tehkhana in Major Smith's residence where the "descent to the apartment was 30 feet. ... A retreat of this kind in the hot months of April, May and June, is a luxury scarcely to be described. ... The rooms are ample, large, lofty and convenient." (5) Likewise, the hammam of Begam Samru's kothi and that at Skinner's House were something of a tourist attraction for the Europeans visiting Delhi. On the other hand, for the Indian occupants of a kothi, the incorporation of spatial planning derived from bungalows and architectural features of European provenance announced the owner's "progressiveness". Thus 19th-century Delhi's streetscape presented an architecturally assorted spectacle to a first-time European visitor who encountered not just bungalows of Company officials but also houses of the indigenous elite displaying "various styles of architecture, partaking occasionally of the prevailing fashions of the west. Grecian piazzas, porticos, and pediments are not infrequently found fronting the dwellings of Moslem or Hindoo." (6) In the eclectic urban grain of the colonial city, the kothi as an architectural conception was one with the urban landscape.


Architecturally speaking, the typical kothi was a walled enclosure containing the kothi proper and ancillary structures for servants and services. The open space around the built mass was laid out as gardens interspersed with driveways and pathways for access. As for the kothi proper, it usually stood on a raised plinth with prominently located staircases for access. Internally, the chief spatial organizer was a large central hall, usually called the Durbar Hall, used as a formal gathering space. Like the haveli's ubiquitous courtyard, the Durbar Hall formed the focus of the spatial, functional, and ritualistic life in the kothi. Rooms were disposed around the central hall and comprised living spaces that drew upon both European and Indian sources. The former included drawing-room, sitting-room, bedrooms and bathrooms, and the verandah, while the latter comprised the hammam, tehkhana, and zenana (women's quarters). The furnishing and decoration of the interior spaces also tended to borrow from both European and Indian sources. The facade was usually articulated with elements of Western architecture such as the pediment, cornice, classical colonnade, and classical statuary and urns. These were often interspersed with floral and animal motifs borrowed from indigenous sources.

Kothi par excellence

The kothi of Begam Samru counted among Delhi's most prominent addresses in the 19th century. Built by the Begam as her residence in Delhi it stood to the west of the Mughal palace-fort and immediately to the north of the city's most important avenue, the east--west bazaar avenue that later came to be called Chandni Chowk in its entirety. The site on which the kothi was built is believed to have been carved out of Jahanara Begam-ka Bagh that had been laid out as a zenana pleasure garden in the 17th century and was gifted to Begam Samru by Shah Alam II in 1806 as a reward for her loyalty. That the kothi was an important landmark of 19th-century Delhi is indicated by the fact that it was included in a folio of drawings prepared for a Company official, Thomas Metcalfe, serving in Delhi in the 19th century. Called Reminiscences of Imperial Dehlie, the folio was an illustrated compilation of Delhi's history, monuments, and people and was a gift from Metcalfe to his two daughters. It carried an account of the Begam with two illustrations of her kothi labelled as "Her late Highness the Begum Sombre's Palace facing the Chandni Chowk or Principal Street." (7) Cartographic representations of 19th-century Delhi also did not fail to mark the kothi, lending further credence to its significance as a place of importance in Delhi. (8)

A scrutiny of the sources facilitates reconstruction of the kothi whose precinct was a walled enclosure entered via a double set of gateways, leading from the avenue first into a transitional space and then into the kothi enclosure. The kothi proper stood in the middle of a garden planted with flower and fruit trees. Orthogonal walkways divided the garden into square and rectangular parterres, and an avenue lined by cypress trees led to the kothi proper. The ancillary structures included outhouses for the Begam's retinue, an ahata (enclosure) with barracks for soldiers, a large well, and a hammam. The kothi proper was also aligned on a north--south axis and was a near square in plan, raised on a high plinth with a double flight of grand sweeping steps at both front and rear. The pride of place was given to the central Durbar Hall, where the Begam held court and entertained her guests with her lavish parties. The rooms opening off the Durbar Hall were smaller in size and put to varied uses that included the Begam's zenana, affording her a private retreat away from the hustle and bustle of her social life. Besides the Durbar Hall, the kothi was known for its tehkhana with its famed marble hammam providing the much-sought after relief from the Delhi heat. Externally, both the north and south facades of the kothi proper (as illustrated in Metcalfe's folio) were organized in a symmetric tripartite scheme. This comprised a solid base punctured with arched openings, above which was a colonnaded verandah with tall, circular, fluted columns bearing classical details, with a wooden lattice at roof level and the wall articulated with pediment-topped fenestrations with wooden louvred shutters, the whole arrangement topped by a balustrade decorated with classical statuary.

While early 19th-century European visitors to the city mentioned the kothi in their memoirs not so much for its architectural attributes, but for the parties that were hosted there by the Begam, there can be no denying the fact that the kothi's architecture matched the grandeur of the Begam's parties.


Transformation of the Kothi Precinct

Following Begam Samru's demise, the property was inherited by her adopted son, Dyce Sombre. Sombre lived on the premises for some time before he decided to emigrate to England. In 1847 the now vacant kothi was considered by the Company representatives in Delhi as a possible place to house the kacheri (court) which would have been administratively convenient as the kotwali (police station) stood close by. However, the British move was thwarted when Lala Chunna Mal, a wealthy Indian banker and resident of Delhi, bought the premises and set in motion the transformation of the kothi into a bank. (9) Soon the kothi reopened as the Delhi Bank. This transformation did not entail substantial alteration as the Durbar Hall provided a large centralized space for banking operations and the other rooms took on associated functions. The bank manager, Mr Beresford, took up residence on the premises with his family. During the 1857 siege of Delhi, the bank was among the places attacked by the rebels. The Beresford family's brave resistance notwithstanding, the Delhi Bank was looted and badly damaged and the bank manager and his family lost their lives in the ensuing violence. Even as some Mutiny accounts recorded that the building was burnt, its skeleton probably survived although its grand columns and staircases were in a highly dilapidated state. On September 17, 1857, following their victory, British troops took over the premises and the captive King of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was confined in the kothi for a short period before being shifted to the fort and finally being exiled to Rangoon.




The post-1857 era witnessed large-scale transformations in the urban landscape of Delhi under the watchful eye of the military that had control of the city. Unlike the fate of the properties of the city's indigenous elite, the kothi precinct escaped coercive confiscation and demolition. The site's association with the events of 1857 granted it a sanctified immunity that ensured that the property would be unharmed and instead be incorporated into Delhi's post-1857 civilian landscape. Felice Beato, a photographer commissioned by the War Office in London to capture on film the sites of the Mutiny, visited Delhi and immortalized the Delhi Bank as one of the sites of intense action during the siege of Delhi, thus raising its worth as a Mutiny pilgrimage site. (10) The kothi was rebuilt, though it cannot be said with certainty if the original spatial planning was followed. It seems plausible that it was not totally gutted in 1857 and enough remained, including its facade with the colonnade and grand steps (captured by Beato), for it to be reconstructed on the earlier pattern. Banking operations resumed in 1859 with the premises being taken over by Lloyds Bank. (11) Even as the rest of the city underwent a dramatic transformation (first under the military authorities and later under Delhi Municipality) that saw the Mughal palace-fort being converted into a garrison and the railways coming into the heart of the city, the kothi premises remained relatively little altered. The kothi was now approached from the east-west bazaar avenue via a gali (lane) lined with shops that came up on what had once been a part of Begam Samru's front garden. The garden around the kothi proper was revived and was listed in the Delhi Gazetteer of 1883-84 as worth a visit. (12) Indeed, the premises were not merely attractive to European tourists on account of the garden but also revered by them as a Mutiny site, as mentioned above. With the progressive laying of the railway network in the city, the extent of the kothi's garden was curtailed towards the north, part of the garden being taken over for housing the railway staff employed in Delhi. Lloyds Bank continued to function from the kothi till the 1920s when it was sold to a leading Delhi advocate who in the 1940s sold the kothi to a Delhi businessman.

Deterioration of the Kothi Premises

The departure of Lloyds Bank from the kothi premises perhaps set into motion a sequence of deterioration that ultimately transformed the once prestigious structure into an incoherent built mass with ill-assorted usage. The Delhi businessman, Lala Bhagirath, and his family occupied part of the premises while the remainder was commercially rented. The kothi was renamed Bhagirath Palace, a name that later extended its domain to an entire neighbourhood. Once the premises were given over for commercial use, the property met the same fate as other erstwhile elite properties in the city. With the British attention focused completely on building New Delhi, the old Mughal built city (now referred to as Old Delhi) was encouraged to act as a service provider for the new capital. This caused the former residential neighbourhoods to be rapidly converted into areas housing non-compatible functions--commercial and industrial along with residential. The unregulated growth led to civic problems like overcrowding, poor building stock with little or no maintenance, and fragmentation of a property for rental and commercial/industrial purposes. Commercialization of the kothi premises led to its subdivision into smaller shops and warehouses. The shops on the premises catered to the wholesale supply of all kinds of electrical goods ranging from lighting fixtures to hardware. With time the premises evolved into a major electrical goods market.



Today, the kothi still bears witness to the vicissitudes of time. While it is almost impossible to determine the limit of Begam Samru's erstwhile property owing to the haphazard growth in the area, the kothi itself still stands out on account of its large size in an urban sprawl dominated by several small shops and tenements. The building retains its grand, elevated colonnaded verandah even as its base is completely obscured by commercial establishments dealing in sundry electrical goods. As for the interior, a branch of a nationalized bank operates from what had been Begam Samru's grand Durbar Hall. The banking operations also extend into the surrounding rooms. Remains of stucco decoration on the walls and ceiling have survived. Parts of the building remain inaccessible while others are transformed beyond recognition. However, one reminder of the past remains: the kothi's parapet still carries the name, Lloyds Bank Limited, in bold lettering, visible to all those who can manage to see it despite the visual blight of modern-day advertising and messy electrical wiring.


(1) Lieut. Thomas Bacon, First Impressions and Studies from Nature in Hindustan (London. 1837), Vol. II, pp. 51-52.

(2) For a detailed discussion on the life of Begam Samru, see Nicholas Shreeve, Dark Legacy: The Fortunes of Begam Samru (Delhi, 1998).

(3) Irfan Habib, "Merchant communities in pre-colonial India", in James D. Tracy, ed., The Rise of Merchant Umpires (Cambridge, 1990), p. 390.

(4) Leopold von Orlich, Travels in India, H. Evans Lloyd, tr. (London, 1845), Vol. II, p. 16.

(5) Major Archer, Travels in Northern India (London, 1833), Vol. I, p. 108--cited in Percival Spear, Twilight of the Moghuls (Cambridge, 1951), p. 151.

(6) Anon., "Delhi in 1835", in The Tourists Guide from Delhi to Kurrachee (Lahore, 1835) cited in Anthony D. King, Colonial Urban Development: Culture, Social Power & Environment (London, 1976), pp. 204-05.

(7) Thomas Metcalfe served the East India Company in Delhi both as Agent and Commissioner. His folio, Reminiscences of Imperial Dehlie, was reproduced in M. M. Kaye, ed., The Golden Calm: An English Lady's Life in Moghul Delhi (Exeter, 1980).

(8) The following maps of the city and its environs show the kothi: "Plan of the city", IOR: X/1659 Oriental and India Office (OIOC) Collection, British Library, London; "Cantonment, Civil Station, City and Environs of Delhi 1867-68", IOR X/1666/1-4 OIOC Collection, British Library, London; "Delhi 1857: A Plan of the City and its immediate surroundings", drawn in the Quarter-Master General's Office in the British Camp on the Ridge; "Delhi & Environs", by J.G. Bartholomew, Imperial Gazetteer Atlas of India, plate 55; and "Delhi Survey 1910-11-12", Surveyed under the order of the Municipal Committee, Delhi by Mr A.J. Wilson late of the Survey of India, Town and Country Planning Office Collection, Delhi.

(9) Narayani Gupta, Delhi Between Two Empires, 1803-1931 (Delhi, 1998), pp. 16-17.

(10) The photograph showing the ruined Delhi Bank formed part of Beato's two-volume photographic documentation of post-Mutiny Delhi. For a detailed discussion, see Jim Masselos and Narayani Gupta, Beato's Delhi--1857, 1997 (Delhi, 2000).

(11) Spear, Twilight of the Moghuls, p.150.

(12) A Gazetteer of Delhi (1883-4), (Gurgaon, 1988, 2nd edition), p. 185.

Figure Acknowledgements

All photographs taken on site by Janhwij Sharma.
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Title Annotation:Perspectives
Author:Sharma, Jyoti P.
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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