The tomb of a French major, who served in the army of Begum Samru, will undergo a transformation in the next two months, with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) taking it under its wing and intending to begin restoration work in coming weeks.
Erected 200 years ago in an area now falling under Gurgaon, the tomb has undergone massive deterioration — with chipping paint revealing bits of bricks underneath, and the inscription on the tomb faded in several places.
“Our drawings, project and financial reports are ready. We now have to award the contract to a contractor to start work, which should be done in the next 15-20 days. An architect, who is an INTACH member, will supervise the work. He has estimated it should be done within a month,” said Atul Dev, convenor of INTACH’s Gurgaon chapter, adding that the restoration will likely cost “between Rs 15-20 lakh”.
Located at the centre of one of the three parks tucked away in Gurgaon’s Mohyal Colony, the structure has a tombstone at the top, which can be accessed by a flight of four stairs that runs along three sides. The inscription on the tombstone reveals it had been erected in memory of Major Jean Etienne, who was born in Bordeaux, France, and died in 1821 aged 75.
“He served HH BEGUM SOMBRE for Thirty Five Years was a Gallant Soldier and an honest Man” the inscription reads, ending with the phrase, “Poor Mortals Fare You Well”.
The wife of Captain Sombre from France, Begum Sombre came to locally be known as Begum Samru since people found it difficult to correctly pronounce her French name, say historians. After her husband’s death, she began her own mercenary army which, during one of its assignments, had camped in Gurgaon, between Badshahpur and Jharsa. Historians believe the tomb of Jean Etienne helped ascertain the location of this camp, when there was no other evidence of it.
“People talk of a palace in Jharsa that was demolished by a builder in 2008. Nobody really could tell you where exactly her camp was, until we discovered the major’s tomb , who served in Begum Samru’s army and was her trainer. His tomb lies at the edge of Jharsa village. That gave us proof of Begum Samru’s establishment in Gurgaon,” said Dev.
Among local residents, the story behind the tomb is more vague, with most only knowing it was erected in memory of a French major. Rumours and myths, however, surround another structure that adjoins it. While some insist it is “the grave of the major’s horse”, others say it is the tomb of Etienne’s daughter. Dev dismissed these claims: “These are all local myths. The structure actually seems to be not more than thirty or forty years old. It is not from the same time”.
“After the work is complete later this year, we hope to invite the French ambassador for the inauguration, and to also involve him to see if any of the major’s family in France can be tracked down, who can come and be part of the ceremony,” said Dev.
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