Indian History Part 67 The Nizam Shahis of Ahmadnagar Section VII: The End – Chand Bibi’s Finest Hour

Singapore, 6 October 2018

Akbar had offered military assistance to Burhan Nizam Shah in 1590-91 to claim what Burhan perceived as his right to the throne by deposing his minor son who had been placed on the throne. In return, Burhan had made a vague promise that once he was ensconced on the throne, the Ahmadnagar kingdom would acknowledge Mughal sovereignty. This assurance had been ignored once he managed to get to the throne. Akbar had not forgotten  the promise and he now send emissaries to the Deccan, demanding that the Shahi kingdoms acknowledge his overlordship and join the Mughal Empire as autonomous provinces. The three major kingdoms—Ahmadnagar, Bijapur and Golconda—unanimously refused to do so.

The demand by the powerful Mughal emperor should have acted as a warning to the Deccan Shahi kingdoms. They should have united without delay and started preparing for an invasion that was bound to come since they had defied the power of the Mughals. However, the three main dynasties of the Deccan opted to continue their internal bickering, being at odds with each other for reasons that could only be considered petty and inconsequential. Far-sightedness had never been one of the characteristic virtues of the medieval Deccan kings. They had chanced upon their kingdoms through tactical military capabilities that came to the fore when their selfish opportunistic streaks were animated. Further, the environment in the Deccan was such that it was impossible for these dynasties to produce kings of strategic calibre. The Deccan Shahi kingdoms therefore did not present a united front to what was an impending and definitive external interference. Instead, the Bijapur and Ahmadnagar forces continued to skirmish. In one of these interminable battles, Burhan’s successor, Ibrahim Nizam Shah, was killed by the Bijapur forces a mere 40 kilometres from Ahmadnagar.

Succession Struggle

Even before and during the reign of Burhan, the long-standing divide between the Phirangi and Deccani factions of the nobles in the Ahmadnagar court was visually perceivable. On the death of Ibrahim Shah, the dissent between the factions became even more virulent. The Phirangi faction led by Afzal Khan wanted to place Ibrahim’s infant son Bahadur Shah on the throne under the regentship of Chand Bibi, Ibrahim’s aunt. The Deccanis led by Miyan Manjha feared that such a move would side-line them from power and therefore wanted to place the 12-year old son of Shah Tahir, Ahmad Shah, on the throne with one of them as the regent. Accordingly, they proclaimed Ahmad Shah as the king on 6 August 1595.

The further narrative of this succession struggle is a confusing trail of groups fighting each other and betraying allies with absolutely no thought for the future of the kingdom and an oblivious ignorance of the threat to its very existence gathering in the Mughal Empire in North India. Normally the Deccanis and the African faction of the nobles, mainly Abyssinians locally called Habshis, used to act in concert against the Phirangi faction. However, in this particular succession struggle, the Habshis led by Ikhlas Khan opposed the Deccanis. Therefore, Miyan Manjhu now courted some of the Phirangi nobles and made them join his faction in support of Ahmad Shah. Even so, the Phirangis had the upper hand in the on-going struggle.

Chand Bibi was the only person who had the sagacity to understand the threat that was being posed to her kingdom by the Mughals who were already manoeuvring to the north of Ahmadnagar. She started to settle the internal affairs of state that had been neglected for nearly a decade while in-fighting had consumed the kings, princes and nobles. The kingdom was reeling in a state of confusion and disrepair, not having been ‘ruled’ for a lengthy period of time. She also asked Afzal Khan to repair the fortress at Ahmadnagar in preparation for a possible assault on its ramparts. Miyan Manjha, feeling slighted, left the vicinity of the capital and took his followers to a place called Ausa where he made rebel camp.

The events that unfolded for the next year in Ahmadnagar are common embodiments of the long history of the sub-continent, both past and into the future—an initial succession struggle in a kingdom followed by the weaker faction seeking assistance from an external power base, normally a more powerful kingdom; the external agency attacking and defeating the legitimate rulers of the kingdom; and the kingdom itself thereafter being annexed by the external power.

While Ahmadnagar was being convulsed by the succession struggle and Chand Bibi was trying to establish some semblance of order, the Mughal Empire had already started to manoeuver in its own ponderous manner. Akbar had send his son Shah Murad to Malwa with clear instructions, to both the prince and the governor of Malwa, to invade and subdue the Deccan. Miyan Manjhu, in a sulk at Ausa, approached Shah Murad in Malwa and requested him for assistance in attacking and capturing Ahmadnagar. This invitation aligned well with the Mughal plans. By this time the central Mughal forces had already joined with the Malwa forces under the command of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana, the efficient governor of Malwa. This combined force was also joined by Raja Ali Khan, ruling Mandu a vassal state of the Mughals. The combined Mughal army started its march towards Ahmadnagar.

In a side-show to this massive expedition, Miyan Manjhu had managed to defeat the Habshi faction, their rebellion against the Deccanis being short-lived. Many of the Habshi nobles deserted Ikhlas Khan and either joined Miyan Manjhu or directly defected to the Mughal army under Shah Murad. Viewing the power and might of the Mughal army, Miyan Manjhu started to have doubts about his decision to invite the Mughals to invade his own country. He regretted having joined the Mughals. It is highly likely that he was unaware of the ultimate objective of the Mughals and that the Mughal invasion of Ahmadnagar was a pre-gone conclusion, whether he had invited them or not. Irrespective of the invitation, the Mughals would have invaded Ahmadnagar soon. Miyan Manjhu, realising the threat to his country, separated from the Mughal forces, and taking Ahmad Shah the boy-claimant to the throne with him, marched post-haste to Ahmadnagar and placed himself and his forces under the command of Chand Bibi who was preparing to defend Ahmadnagar.

The Defence of Ahmadnagar

In December 1595, the Mughal forces laid siege to Ahmadnagar. Chand Bibi immediately asked for assistance from Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur and Muhammad Qutb Shah of Golconda, both of whom were her nephews by relationship. Meanwhile the Mughal forces harried and oppressed the people around Ahmadnagar, looting and pillaging the villages at will. According to the Akbarnama, the acclaimed biography of Akbar, Murad was outraged by the acts of plunder and wanton slaying perpetuated on the people of the Nizam Shahi kingdom by one of his subordinate commanders, Shahbaz Khan. There is also a report that states that Murad attempted to check the looting and plunder but by the time this action was initiated, the damage to the prestige and reputation of the imperial army had already been done. The people of Ahmadnagar came to believe that the Mughal army was a vicious and depraved horde and that they would not get any succour from them, even if they surrendered.

Prince Murad realised that it would be difficult to defeat Ahmadnagar if the reinforcements from Bijapur and Golconda managed to join up with the defending force. Therefore, he accelerated the siege actions by mining the fort walls in five different places. Chand Bibi was informed of this initiative by a Mughal noble who was sympathetic to the Ahmadnagar cause. She managed to excavate and remove two of the mines, but the other three were exploded by the Mughals, killing a number of Ahmadnagar troops and blowing a breech in the fort wall.

The breech in the fort wall spread panic in the Ahmadnagar forces. Seeing the confusion in her forces, Chand Bibi personally led the defence of the breech, herself fighting alongside the common soldier. The valiant Queen rallied her forces and guns were brought to bear on the invading army. Several repeated attacks by the Mughal army to force the breech were repelled and the broken walls repaired by night. During this desperate defence of Ahmadnagar, many acts of extreme bravery of the nobles of Ahmadnagar has been reported uniformly in all accounts of the siege. The Nizam Shahi forces successfully carried out many night attacks on the Mughal forces, although the Akbarnama refutes the efficacy of these attacks by the Deccan forces. In particular, two nobles, Miran Shah Ali and Mubariz ud-Din Abhang Khan have been mentioned in Ahmadnagar chronicles as having been extremely active and brave in their actions against the besieging forces.

The strong and determined defence of the fort by the Nizam Shahis made Prince Murad realise that capturing the fort would be an extremely difficult task. Therefore, he decided to negotiate for a settlement. At the same time the Mughal forces had started to feel the scarcity of provisions and resources necessary to continue the siege. The earlier burning and looting of the villages by the Mughal forces now started to backfire. The Mughals could not rely on any local provisions being available, which could be captured for their own use. The country was denuded of crops and habitation, making even communications with their far away home bases difficult. An uneasy peace was arrived at in February 1596, with Ahmadnagar ceding Berar to the Mughals.

Chand Bibi’s courageous leadership had averted disaster for the Nizam Shahis. Her personal bravery that had so inspired the entire army to fight in a spirited manner earned Chand Bibi the sobriquet ‘Sultana’, and she was henceforth known as Chand Sultana. Although he was not defeated, Murad’s reputation suffered a great blow since he was the one who had initiated the peace negotiations. Further, a bilaterally agreed settlement was not considered a victory for the powerful Mughal army. In a holistic assessment, the prestige of the Mughals had suffered a setback. Therefore, it was inevitable that a second attempt would be made in the near-future to humble the Nizam Shahis. The Mughals never took a slight to their status lightly. With the arrival of the Golconda and Bijapur reinforcements in Ahmadnagar, the Mughal army retreated fully from the area.

The Aftermath of ‘Victory’

As soon as the Mughal threat had been warded off, Miyan Manjhu once again raised the flag of revolt, attempting once again to place his protégé Ahmad Shah on the throne. This single act demonstrates the short-sighted and selfish attitude that the nobles of the Deccan Shahi kingdoms displayed throughout the history of these kingdoms. Their inability to see beyond narrow, sectarian, and short-term interests seems astounding when examined with the advantage of hindsight from this far away in time. Even by medieval terms, their failure to see the proverbial ‘wolf at the door’ and the pitiable state their country was being driven to, smacks of selfish incompetence.

Chand Bibi, now Sultana, fully in control as the Regent and ably assisted by her nephew Ibrahim Adil Shah, very easily quelled Miyan Manjhu’s rebellion. However, in order to avert further revolts and maintain the peace, she permitted her nephew to make Miyan Manjhu a noble of his own court and take him back to Bijapur. The unfortunate Ahmad Shah, a mere puppet in the hands of the Deccani nobles’ faction, was given some estates for personal use and allowed to lead a life of leisure. Chand Sultana now formally proclaimed Bahadur Nizam Shah as the king and she herself became the Regent.

A trusted noble, Muhammad Khan, was appointed Peshwa. However, as was usual with such appointments, he attempted to usurp all power to himself by sidelining the Regent. The efforts to sideline powerful and popular regents if they were women, irrespective of their calibre, is also a common theme in medieval Indian history. Once again, Chand Sultana asked her nephew in Bijapur for help. Ibrahim Adil Shah send and army under a general, Sohail Khan, to sort out the matter—Muhammad Khan was imprisoned and the Sultana then appointed Abhang Khan as Peshwa. Thus Ahmadnagar was somewhat stabilised.

By this time, there was a common belief that the Nizam Shahis had won a ‘victory’ over the Mughal forces in the earlier battle, whereas the reality was something else. Buoyed by this sense of invincibility, the Deccani nobles of Ahmadnagar, with the tacit approval of both the Adil Shah of Bijapur and Qutb Shah of Golconda, repudiated the peace agreement that had been signed with the Mughals. Against Chand Sultana’s advice, they recaptured Berar. The Deccanis, if they were aware of them, had not taken into account the strategic moves that the Mughals had carried out after the peace had been settled and their forces withdrawn from Ahmadnagar. On being informed that the siege of Ahmadnagar had been unsuccessful and the fort had not been captured, Akbar had personally moved south and camped at Malwa. He was personally supervising the Mughal preparations to invade the Deccan and the Peninsula. Prince Murad had died in 1599 and Akbar appointed his youngest son Danyal to command the forthcoming expedition. The Ahmadnagar nobles were oblivious of the Mughal king’s focused efforts to conquer their kingdom as a first step to the broader annexation of the Deccan.

The Final Fall of the Nizam Shahis

Chand Sultana seems to have been the only person in power who was even vaguely aware of the dire threat facing her country. She prepared grimly for what she knew would be the inevitable Mughal onslaught. At this stage, some of the nobles in the Ahmadnagar court realised the close proximity of the powerful Mughal Emperor who was personally laying plans for the invasion and seeing the might of the Mughal army, abandoned Chand Sultana. Chand Sultana asked both Bijapur and Golconda to send maximum reinforcements and also asked them create a unified front to face the invaders, which she knew was an emerging common danger. The first battle between the two forces took place at Sonpat on the banks of the River Godavari—even after two days of intense fighting the battle remained indecisive.

Meanwhile, even at this juncture of mortal threat to the kingdom, internal strife continued unabated in Ahmadnagar. Abhang Khan made an effort to take the regency into his own hands and for his efforts was removed from his position by Chand Sultana. Abhang immediately became a rebel, although he did not join forces with the enemy. He faced Prince Danyal on his own with his followers and was defeated in battle. He made a feeble attempt at returning to Ahmadnagar and joining the main army, but was turned away by Chand Sultana. He and his small contingent retreated to Junnar.

The Mughal army now laid siege to Ahmadnagar. The internal divisions of the Ahmadnagar forces, especially within the ranks of the nobles, now became the fundamental cause for the final collapse of the Nizam Shahi kingdom. In very short order, the intrigue and jealousy within the court played out, leading to the fall of Ahmadnagar.

Chand Sultana was under no illusion regarding what would be the final outcome of the siege. Therefore, she had initiated peace talks through a Mughal commander, Abul Fazl who was also a reputed poet. The Sultana promised to hand over the kingdom of Ahmadnagar to the Mughals and accept Junnar as the fief of the Nizam Shahi king, her ward. However, her trusted advisor, a eunuch called Hamid Khan, advised and entreated her to continue to fight. Chand Sultana felt that she could not trust the loyalty of her nobles and the commanders of the army and took the decision to continue pursuing the peace initiative, on the terms that she had herself drawn out. In these terms she had also stipulated that no harm was to come to the people of the kingdom or to the defenders of the fort.

Hamid Khan was peeved that his advice had been ignored and betrayed Chand Sultana by leaking the peace initiatives of the Regent to the public and stoking their anger. This act by the eunuch is confirmed by Abul Fazl in his memoirs. Hamid Khan instigated the people to attack Chand Sultana’s residence to stop her from suing for peace. There are two versions of the events that subsequently took place. One, that the mob rushed into the Regent’s residence and put her to death and two, that Chand Sultana, seeing the turn of events, committed suicide to avoid dishonour to herself. [Having followed the flawless behaviour pattern of the Dowager-Regent from the time of her marriage to the then Bijapur king, which itself was one of convenience and statecraft, this author is prone to believe that Chand Sultana took her own life. She would not have wanted to live on in ignominy or be killed by the rampaging public in dishonour. To the end she maintained a regal dignity befitting the best queen, aunt, sister and regent that the Deccan Shahi kingdoms ever produced.]

After four months of siege, Ahmadnagar fell to the Mughal forces, around early 1600. Bahadur Nizam Shah, the boy-king, was captured and send as a prisoner to Akbar, then camped at Burhanpur. Akbar appointed Prince Danyal as the ‘Viceroy of Deccan’ and returned to Agra. The once proud and powerful Ahmadnagar kingdom of the Nizam Shahis thus came to an ignoble end, brought down primarily by the greed and ambition of petty-minded nobles who had been raised above the stations that they really deserved.

Chand Bibi ‘Sultana’ – An Appreciation

Chand Sultana inspired great love and respect in the hearts of the common people of Ahmadnagar. Their trust in her was such that even after her death, the commoners believed that she had only gone into hiding and that she would come out to save them and the kingdom ‘when the time came’ to drive the Mughals out and restore the Nizam Shahi dynasty to its rightful place on the throne in Ahmadnagar. They believed wholeheartedly that Chand Sultana would restore the kingdom to its golden years of former glory.

Chand Sultana was the only person capable of standing between the people of Ahmadnagar and Mughal imperialism. The fall of the Nizam Shahis was a powerful portent of future events that would engulf both Bijapur and Golconda. The kings there knew that their turn would come next, sooner rather than later.

The most popular image of this great queen shows her riding a horse during a hunt; a regal figure and nationalistic royal commander of soldiers, who was let down and her authority undermined by the constant bickering and in-fighting of her nobles in a male-dominated time in the history of the Peninsula.


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2018]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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