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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.

Seeing his 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 wily Afghan.

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 Rajasthan.

Losing the empire

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's control.

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 Shah's 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 known, was 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.

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. Hindal, 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.

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 termed a 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".

Humayun's tomb

The tomb of Humayun in New Delhi, which bears a certain resemblance to the later Taj Mahal

View image


Main Sources

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000

Spear, Percival - The History of India, Penguin, 1990



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.