The Mughals- Conquerors of India 2: Humayun

After the death of the Mughal Empire’s founder and first emperor, Babur, his son, Humayun, would succeed him as the next emperor. During his reign, he ruled over a large territory consisting of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. Like his father, Babur, he lost his kingdom early, but with Persian aid, he eventually gained an even larger one. On the eve of his death in 1556, the Mughal empire spanned almost one million kilometers. After succeeding his father in India in 1530, his half-brother, Kamran Mirza, would obtain the sovereignty of Kabul and Lahore. He lost some parts of his empire to Sher Shah Suri, a Pashtun noble, but regained them with Persian aid fifteen years later. His peaceful personality, patience and non-provocative methods of speech earned him the title ’Insān-i-Kamil (‘Perfect Man’), among the Mughals.

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The Mughal Emperor Humayun

Babur’s decision to divide the territories of his empire between two of his sons was unusual in India, but it had been a common Central Asian practice since the time of Genghis Khan. Unlike most Monarchies which practiced primogeniture, the Timurids, following Genghis Khan’s example, did not leave an entire kingdom to the eldest son. Although under that system only a Chingissid could claim sovereignty and khanal authority, any male Chinggisid within a given sub-branch (such as the Timurids) had an equal right to the throne. Upon Babur’s death, Humayun’s territories were the least secure. Babur had ruled only four years, and not all umarah (nobles) viewed Humayun as the rightful ruler. Indeed earlier, when Babur had become ill, some of the nobles had tried to install Humayun’s uncle, Mahdi Khwaja, as ruler. Although this attempt failed, it was a sign of problems to come.

Upon Nasir ud-din Muhammad Humayun’s succession to the throne, he had two major rivals interested in conquering his lands – Sultan Bahadur of Gujarat to the south-west and Sher Shah Suri (Sher Khan) currently settled along the river Ganges in Bihar to the east. His first campaign was sought to confront Sher Khan Suri. Halfway through, Humayun had to abandon it as a conflict regarding Ahmed Shah had to be squelched. Following this, he annexed Gujrat and Malawa with Champaner and the great fort of Mandu following next.

The Mughal Emperor Humayun, fights Bahadur Shah of Gujarat, in the year 1535.

During the first five years of Humayun’s reign, these two rivals kept a close eye on the Mughal emperor while extending their rule, although Sultan Bahadur faced pressure in the east from sporadic conflicts with the Portuguese. When the Mughals had aquired firearms via the Ottoman Empire, Bahadur’s Gujrat had acquired them through a series of contracts drawn up with the Portuguese, allowing the Portuguese to establish a strategic foothold in north-western India.

Humayun was notified of an assault planned by the Sultan of Gujrat which featured attacking Mughal territories with Portuguese aid. Humayn gathered up his army and marched on Bahadur. His assault was splendid and within the course of a month, he had captured the forts of Mandu and Champaner. However, instead of continuing his attack, Humayun retreated to begin a new life in the captured forts. Meanwhile, Shah Bahadur escaped and took refuge with the Portuguese.

Shortly after Humayun had marched on Gujrat, Sher Shah seized the opportunity to wrest control of Agra from the Mughals. Once Humayun heard the alarming news, he immediately proceeded to Agra, along with his troops, which allowed Bahadur to regain control of the territories Humayun had recently captured. A few months later, however, Bahadur was dead, killed when a botched plan to kidnap the Portuguese viceroy ended in a fire-fight which the Sultan lost.

Sher Shah Suri

Whilst Humayun succeeded in protecting Agra from Sher Shah, the second city of the Empire, Gaur the capital of the vilayat of Bengal, was sacked. When Humayun’s troops ascended to try to capture fort Chunar, which was occupied by Sher Shah’s son, failed to do so. The stores of grain at Gauri, the largest in the empire, were emptied and Humayun arrived to see corpses littering the roads. The vast wealth of Bengal was depleted and brought East giving Sher Shah a substantial war chest.

Sher Shah withdrew to the east, but Humayun did not follow: instead he “shut himself up for a considerable time in his Harem, and indulged himself in every kind of luxury.” On the other hand, Hindal, Humayun’s 19-year old brother offered to help Humayun in the battle and protect the rear from, but abandoned his position and withdrew to Agra and declared himself emperor. When Humayun sent the grand Mufti, Sheikh Buhlul, to reason with him, the Sheikh was killed. Further provoking the rebellion, Hindal ordered that the Khutba or sermon in the main mosque at Agra be read in his name, a sign of assumption of sovereignty. Once Hindal withdrew the battle, Sher Shah’s troops advanced with the upper hand and attacked the rear – Humayun had lost the battle.

Humayun’s other brother, Kamran, marched from his territories and arrived at Punjab where he offered to aid Humayun. However, his return home had treacherous motives as he intended to stake a claim for Humayun’s apparently collapsing empire. He brokered a deal with Hindal which provided that his brother would cease all acts of disloyalty in return for a share in the new empire which Kamran would create once Humayun was deposed.

A coin from the time of Sher Shah

Sher Shah met Humayun once again in battle at the banks of the Ganges, near Benares, in Chausa. This battle would be an entrenched battle where both sides dug themselves into their respected positions. The major part of the Mughal army, the artillery, was now immobile, and Humayun decided to engage in some diplomacy using Muhammad Aziz as ambassador. It was agreed that Sher Shah would have special permission to rule over Bengal and Bihar, but only to consider them as provinces granted by the emperor himself, falling short of outright sovereignty. The two rulers also struck a bargain in order to save face: Humayun’s troops would charge those of Sher Shah whose forces then retreat in feigned fear. Thus honour would, supposedly, be satisfied.

In another battle, Sher Shah took the advantage with a surprise attack on Humayun’s troops as the majority were asleep during the night; he managed to kill nearly all of them. The Emperor survived by swimming the Ganges using an air-filled “water skin,” and quietly returned to Agra.

Back in Agra, Humayun discovered that all of his three brothers were present. He pardoned his brothers for plotting against him and betraying him during battle. With Sher Shah’s army leisurely picking up speed and nearing Agra, it was time for an attack. Kamran withdrew as Humayun refused to unleash a quick attack while Hindal and Humayun squabbled over how to proceed. When Kamran returned to Lahore, his troops followed him shortly afterwards, and Humayun, with his other brothers Askari and Hindal, marched to meet Sher Shah just 240 kilometres (150 mi) east of Agra at the Battle of Kanauj on 17 May 1540. The battle showed Humayun’s tactical erros recurring once again and it led to victory of Sher Shah, who then created the short-lived Sur Dynasty of northern India with its capital as Delhi.

The four brothers united in Lahore, but every day they were informed that Sher Shah was getting closer and closer. When he reached Sirhind, Humayun sent an ambassador carrying the message “I have left you the whole of Hindustan (i.e. the lands to the East of Punjab, comprising most of the Ganges Valley). Leave Lahore alone, and let Sirhind be a boundary between you and me.” Sher Shah, however, replied “I have left you Kabul. You should go there.” Kabul was the capital of Humayun’s brother’s empire, Kamran Mirza, who offered to revolt against Humayun with Sher Shah. Sher Shah refused to help, but the treacherous proposal spread around the empire and once it reached Humayun, he had an urge to make an example of Kamran and kill him, but he remembered his father’s Babur’s last words, “Do nothing against your brothers, even though they may deserve it.”

Akbar, Humayun’s son

Humayun decided that it would be wise to withdraw still further, Humayun and his army rode out through and across the Thar Desert, when the Hindu ruler Rao Maldeo Rathore allied himself with Sher Shah Suri against the Mughal Empire. In many accounts, Humayun mentions how he and his heavily pregnant wife, had to trace their steps through the desert at the hottest time of year. All the wells had been filled with sand by the nearby Hindu inhabitants in order to starve and exhaust the Mughals further, leaving them with nothing but berries to eat. When Hamida’s horse died, no one would lend the Queen (who was now eight months pregnant) a horse, so Humayun did so himself, resulting in him riding a camel for six kilometeres (four miles).

Humayun asked his brothers to join him as he fell back to Sindh. The previously rebellious brother, Hindal Mirza, remained loyal, but Kamran Mirza and Askari Mirza instead decided to stay in Kabul. Humayun expected aid from the Emir of Sindh, Hussein Umrani, whom he had appointed and who owed him his allegiance. The Emir Hussein Umrani welcomed Humayun’s presence and was loyal to Humayun just as he had been loyal to Babur against the renegadeArghuns. Whilst in the oasis garrison of Umerkot in Sindh, Hamida gave birth to Akbar on 25 October 1542, the heir-apparent to the 34-year old Humayun. Humayun also asked his astronmers to check the position of the planets as it was a special day.

With Emir Hussein Umrani, Humayun and him made an alliance which was to regain the lost territories. After Humayun gathered hundres of Sindh and Baloch men, they all marched towards Kandhar and later Kabul, thousands more gathered by his side as Humayun continually declared himself the rightful Timurid heir of the first Mughal Emperor Babur.

After Humayun set off from his expedition from Sindh, along with 300 camels (mostly wild) and 2000 loads of grain, he set off to join his brothers in Kandhar after crossing the Indus River on July 11th 1543. This time, Humayun was determined and confident that he could overthrow the Suri Dynasty and restore the Mughal Empire. However, more porblems were to come. Kamran Mirza ordered that Hindal Mirza be placed under house arrest in Kabul as he didn’t have the Khutba recited in Kamran Mirza’s name. His other brother, Askari Mirza was ordered to organize an army and attack Humayun.

When Humayun received word of the approaching hostile army he decided against facing them, and instead sought refuge elsewhere. Akbar was left behind in camp close to Kandahar for, as it was December it would have been too cold and dangerous to include the 14-month old toddler in the forthcoming march through the dangerous and snowy mountains of the Hindu Kush. Askari Mirza found Akbar in the camp, and embraced him, and allowed his own wife to parent him, she apparently treated him as her own.

Once again Humayun turned toward Kandahar where his brother Kamran Mirza was in power, but he received no help and had to seek refuge with the Shah of Persia.

Shah Tahmasp greets the exiled Humayun.

Humayun fled to the refuge of the Safavid Empire in Iran, marching with 40 men and his wife and her companion through mountains and valleys. The Imperial Family was forced to live on horse meat boiled in troops’ helmets. These indignities continued during the month it took them to reach Herat, however after their arrival they were reintroduced to the finer things in life. Upon entering the city his army was greeted with an armed escort, and they were treated to lavish food and clothing. They were given fine accommodations and the roads were cleared and cleaned before them. Shah Tahmasp, unlike Humayun’s own family, actually welcomed the Mughal, and treated him as a royal visitor. When gone sightseeing, Humayun was amazed by the artwork and architecture of the numerous architects and artists of the time.

But, let’s skip to the main part.

When Humayun’s brother, Kamran Mirza, offered to cede Kandahar to the Persians in exchange for Humayun, dead or alive, Shah Tahmasp refused. Instead the Shah threw a party for Humayun, with 300 tents, an imperial Persian carpet, 12 musical bands and “meat of all kinds”. Here the Shah announced that all this, and 12,000 choice cavalry were his to lead an attack on his brother Kamran. All that Shah Tahmasp asked for was that, if Humayun’s forces were victorious, Kandahar would be his.

With the loyalty and generosity of the Persians, Humayun was able to win his empire back in no time after trading the Koh-i-noor Diamond for the 12,000 cavalry troops. In about a swift two weeks, Humayun won Kandhar from Askari Mirza. When advancing towards Kabul, it was discovered that Kamran Mirza was no longer leader. Humayun had easily won Kabul, though his poor leadership skills did make him lose Kandhar and Kabul before regaining them.

Humayun’s brother, Hindal Mirza, died fighting on his behalf while Askari Mirza was sent for pilgrimage and died en route to the desert outside of Damascus. However, Kamran Mirza yet again tried siding with the Suris, and this time, Islam Shah, Sher Shah’s successor. He was instead apprehended by a Gakhar. Instead of killing Humayun, he faced a consequence – Humayun had Kamran blinded.

Sher Shah Suri had died in 1545; his son and successor Islam Shah died too, in 1554. These two deaths left the dynasty reeling and disintegrating. The Mughal Emperor Humayun, gathered a vast army and attempted the challenging task of retaking the throne in Delhi. Humayun placed the army under the able leadership of Bairam Khan. This was a wise move given Humayun’s own record of military ineptitude, and turned out to be prescient, as Bairam was to prove himself a great tactician.

After defeating Bahadur Shah’s confederacy in Gujarat, Humayun placed the following Generals in Gujarat:

  1. Mirza Askurry at Ahmedabad
  2. Yadgar Nasir at Patan
  3. Kasim Hussein Sultan in Bharoach
  4. Hindu Beg in Baroda
  5. Tardy Beg Khan in Champaner

However, these officials and generals could not contain uprisings and left Gujarat to be occupied by Bahadur Shah again.

On 27 January 1556, Humayun, with his arms full of books, was descending the staircase from his library when the muezzin announced the Adhan (the call to prayer). It was his habit, wherever he heard the summons, to bow his knee in holy reverence. Kneeling, he caught his foot in his robe but some say that he was pushed while he was trying to do that, tumbled down several steps and hit his temple on a rugged stone edge. He died three days later. They say ‘he tumbled in life and finally tumbled out of it too.’ His body was laid to rest in Purana Quila initially, however, because of attack by Hindu king Hemu on Delhi and capture of Purana Qila, Humanyun’s body was exhumed by fleeing army and transferred to Kalanaur in Punjab where Akbar was coronated.

Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, India

Next week, we’ll be looking at Humayun’s son, Akbar, known as Akbar the Great. During his time as Emperor, the Empire prospered much better than Humayun’s Empire. He expanded the Empire greatly, and he too, like his grandfather, Babur, wanted to be remembered in great words. But Akbar’s tolerance in religious matters worried the Ulema a lot, and it turned into only one religious rebellion.



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