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Early Modern India
The Mughals: Humayun
by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 1 June 2009
Nasiruddin Muhammed Humayun was born in Kabul on 6
March 1508. He
was the son of the Timurid Mughal emperor, Babar, and his wife, Begum Mahim Sultana. His younger brothers,
Kamran and Askari were born of another wife of Babar's, Gulrukh Begum,
while Hindal, the youngest of them all, was the son of Dildar Begum.
Humayun was well-educated, erudite, and trained in warfare.
He had participated in the battles of Panipat and Khanua,
alongside his father. He also helped in attending to the
administration of the areas of Hisar Firuza, Badakshan and Sambhal during the
lifetime of Babar. Babar really doted on his son, and nominated him his successor before his death.
But as was typical of court politics, after Babar's death his
wazir, Nizamuddin, tried to nominate Babar's brother-in-law, Mahdi
Khwaja, as his successor to the throne. Fortunately, popular support for Humayun forced the
wazir to rescind his nomination.
So Humayun ascended the throne on 30 December 1530, four days
after Babar's death.
Partly due to his generous nature and partly to avoid any friction
with his brothers, Humayun gave away large parts of his territory to
those brothers. Kamran received Kabul and Kandahar, Askari received Sambhal, and
Hindal was handed Mewat.
The 'wily Afghan'
Only a few months after his accession
did Humayun embark on his
first invasion. Prataprudra Deo, the ruler of the fortress city of Kalinjor, was said to
be sympathetic to the Afghans, who were old foes of the Mughals.
Humayun laid siege to Kalinjor in 1531, but before he could
establish his grip on the city, the Afghans under Sher Shah Suri
attacked the fort of Chunar. Mahmud Lodhi, nephew of Ibrahim Lodhi,
Babar's old enemy, was also approaching Jaunpur.
territories in trouble, Humayun made a hasty compromise with
Prataprudra, and after recovering some compensation for his war
expenses, he proceeded to counter the Afghans. Humayun very
convincingly subdued their leader, Mahmud Lodhi, forcing him to flee from the battlefield of Dauharia. Humayun then tried to
capture the fort of Chunar (which was by now under the control of
Sher Shah Suri). Humayun lay siege to it for almost four months, but was unsuccessful against the
Meanwhile, another Afghan ruler, Bahadur
Shah of Gujrat,
was making attempts to invade Rajasthan. When Humayun heard of this, he
was forced to make a treaty with Sher Shah Suri which allowed the
Afghan to keep Chunar but desist from attacking other Mughal
territories. In return Humayun would withdraw his troops from Chunar.
Buying peace with Sher Shah Suri by these means, Humayun returned to Agra.
All the while, Bahadur Shah was maintaining contact with both
Sher Shah Suri and Nusrat, shah of Bengal. Bahadur Shah had strengthened
his forces, and had built up a strong artillery arm under the guidance of Rumi
Khan, a Turkish gunner. He went on to capture Malwa in 1531 and Raisen
in 1532. Bahadur Shah then moved to attack Chittor, in
Humayun was meanwhile getting anxious to
settle scores with Bahadur Shah. He first captured Malwa. While
Bahadur Shah was looting Chittor itself, Humayun was moving towards Mandsor, near Chittor,
and then consolidating his position in Mandsor, circling it
surreptitiously. When Bahadur Shah neared Mandsor in order to check Humayun,
Humayun's forces cut off all his supply routes.
Cornered, Bahadur Shah's army lost its
morale and surrendered. Bahadur Shah himself managed to sneak out, but was chased by Humayun
and his forces up to Cambay. Then Humayun left the task of pursuing
Bahadur Shah to his generals, and turned to capture
another fort, that of Champaner. Soon the entirety of Malwa and Gujarat were under
Humayun appointed his brother, Askari, as the governor of Gujarat and
left for Mandu in Malwa to manage its affairs. However, Askari was
unable to handle Gujarat for long. Just a year or so later, Bahadur
trusted lieutenant, Imad ul Mulk, stirred up a revolt against
Askari. Bahadur Shah had escaped Humayun's clutches, and now he rallied his forces
and attacked Gujarat again, forcing Askari to flee to Champaner. Tardi
Beg, who was in charge of the fort of Champaner, refused him
entry as he wasn't on good terms with Askari. Askari then had to
leave for Agra. Bahadur Shah then attacked Champaner, forcing Tardi Beg to flee.
Bahadur Shah had won back Gujarat
Tardi Beg fled to Mandu and met Humayun who was lost in celebrating
his victories, oblivious of what was brewing up behind his back.
Tardi's interaction with Humayun led the Mughal emperor to believe that Askari
wasn't to be trusted and may even challenge his control over
Agra. Humayun hurriedly left for Agra, only leaving Malwa to be
captured by Bahadur Shah. After he met up with Askari, Humayun realised
how wrong he had been. Both the brothers were reconciled, but thanks
to events conspiring against them, as well as their own errors, within a year the Mughals had won and lost both Gujarat and Malwa.
The Bengali threat
While Humayun was busy fighting Bahadur
Shah, the Afghan leader Sher Shah Suri, or Sher Khan as he was also
consolidating his position in Bihar. As he was already the master of
the strong fort at Chunar, most of the Afghan nobles
gathered under him. Nusrat Shah, ruler of Bengal, had died, and his
successor, Mahmud Shah was incompetent. Sher Shah Suri seized his
opportunity and captured and annexed Bengal.
A portrait of Humayun's toughest enemy, the wily Afghan leader, Sher
This was when Humayun, realising the growing clout of
Sher Shah Suri, decided to cut him down to size. He attacked Fort Chunar and
captured it after six months of effort. Then he proceeded to Bengal and
captured that too. But, again, Humayun wasted valuable time in Bengal. His
procrastination proved very costly for him. Sher Shah Suri used
that period to reorganise and then strike out to capture Benaras, Kara and
Sambhal. Meanwhile, Humayun's brother, Hindal, declared himself
emperor at Agra. Humayun had to leave Bengal to tackle Hindal and again,
Sher Shah Suri stepped into his Bengal shoes, taking control there.
seeing Humayun's huge army, surrendered to him.
Then Humayun turned to face Sher Shah
Suri again. They met at
Kannauj, where the Battle of Bilgram in 1540 proved decisive.
This time around, Sher Shah Suri's military skills proved to be
better than Humayun's, with the Afghan ruler routing the Mughals. His rampaging
forces meant that Humayun had to flee for his life. Sher Shah Suri captured Agra and
then Delhi, the capital of the Mughal empire.
Exile and return
Humayun was to remain in exile for the next fifteen years. He was given
protection by King Virsala, ruler of Amarkot, and it was here that
he was married - to Hamida Banu. A year later, his son, Akbar was born. By
now, resigned to his fate as an exile and for the safety of his family, Humayun left
for Lahore, only to find that his brother Kamran (who was disillusioned
with Humayun's leadership capabilities and who had wanted a kingdom
of his own),
had declared himself king of Afghanistan with help from Askari,
who had allied himself with Kamran, the two of them of course being
full brothers. Kamran
refused to entertain Humayun, but Askari agreed to look after
Humayun's son if Humayun would leave Lahore. Humayun agreed, leaving
his son in safety while he proceeded to the court of Tahmash, the shah of Persia,
to receive asylum from the sympathetic Persian ruler.
Shortly afterwards, with the help of Tahmash, he
was able to launch a fresh bid to return to power in India, recapturing Afghanistan from Kamran
and Askari as the first step. Typical of his nature he forgave his step-brothers, but exiled them to Mecca.
The vital fort of Chunar which was one of the first locations to be
lost by Humayun
For the remainder of Sher Shah Suri's lifetime, Delhi seemed like a distant dream to
Humayun. Sher Shah Suri was a brilliant general (and could even be
legendary administrator, as was evident from his rule over Delhi). He
gave Humayun absolutely no opportunity attack him again.
As fate would have it, Sher Shah Suri was killed in a freak accident,
a sad anti-climax to this great ruler's life.
He was succeeded by his son, Islam Shah, who also proved
to be a formidable adversary for Humayun. Only when Islam Shah died in 1553
did Humayun sense that his opportunity had finally come about. With a
great deal of
determination, he returned to Delhi and after a fierce battle at
Sarhind in 1555, Humayun defeated the Afghans and recovered his lost
capital. At last, Humayun was able to march victorious through the
streets of Delhi.
What Humayun gained by his brilliance, he lost by his indolence,
but the recapture of Delhi was indicative of his resilience and
tenacity. Sadly, he was not able to rule Delhi for long. Just a year
or so after that glorious re-entry into the city, he fell down the
stairs of his library at Din Panah, fracturing his skull. He died two days
later, on 26 January 1556, aged just forty-seven.
Such was Humayun's ever-changing destiny, he was never to hold
his own ground successfully. As Lanepoole remarked, "Humayun tumbled
through life and tumbled out of it".
The tomb of Humayun in New Delhi, which bears a certain
resemblance to the later Taj Mahal
Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History,
Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000
Spear, Percival - The History of