Indian History Part 80 Humayun – The Sentimental Dreamer Section I: A Royal Inheritance

Canberra, 10 April 2020

On his deathbed, Babur introduced his eldest son Humayun as his successor to a specially convened council of nobles and ministers. He then went on to advise the prince, to whom he had bequeathed his kingdom, ‘do naught against your brothers, even though they may deserve it’, an instruction that the sentimental Humayun considered an order and would heed throughout his life with great filial devotion and obedience. There are two opinions among historians regarding the impact of this injunction from a successful king, but an ailing and somewhat incoherent father, to a somewhat weak and vacillating prince inheriting a shaky kingdom. A group of analysts give this advice as the reason for Humayun’s extraordinary leniency towards his younger half-brothers, who were extremely disruptive to the stability of the kingdom, throughout his tenure. Others believe that Humayun found it expedient to use his father’s instruction as the reason for his inaction and lack of resolve to step in and stop the sibling rebellions. There seems to be a certain amount of truth in both the claims, although the inability to rein in his brothers must ultimately be considered a singular failure on the part of Humayun.

When he handed over the throne to Humayun, Babur had been in India for a mere four years and had not created an ‘empire’ as it is normally portrayed. He was in the process of consolidating what can at best be called a military occupation of the northern part of the Gangetic Plains and the north-western parts of the Indian sub-continent. Even this military occupation was being challenged in different parts of the region under occupation. Full control of the region that had nominally been overrun was still a faraway dream. The on-going efforts at consolidation was dependent directly on Babur’s personal reputation as the Mughal who had defeated in battle the two most powerful kings of North India—the Delhi Sultan Ibrahim Lodi and the great Rajput warrior king Rana Sanga. Further, Babur had a very solid and loyal following within the Mughal army in India, after all he had been a military commander from the young age of 15 and in his later years an exceptionally successful one. Babur had also been extraordinarily generous to both the nobles and the soldiers alike, lavishing gifts on them and sharing plunder after each battle. In short, he was a well-liked king with a great deal of charisma, able to evoke extreme loyalty in his troops. However, in the final reckoning, Babur’s legacy was a disparate conglomeration of territories that were not bound together by any common bond of union or interest. Although he is proclaimed to have been the founder of the Mughal dynasty, like the Muslim dynasties that preceded the Mughals in North India, at his death the Mughals also had not grown any tangible roots that bound them to the soil of India.

Humayun had none of the qualities or the charisma that had made his father a successful military commander and king. No doubt, he was personally courageous and his bravery had been repeatedly demonstrated as a subordinate commander during the battles that his father had fought in India. Unfortunately Humayun had no grasp of long-term strategy. He also took over the reins of the kingdom with a distinct disadvantage—he was saddled with three disgruntled half-brothers and a royal injunction from his father to forgive them all their trespasses. Humayun’s brothers resented his inheritance and were all waiting for the slightest opportunity to rebel against him. In this effort, they had already managed to divide the loyalty of the army.

Humayun’s Inherent Character

Humayun was personable, intelligent, cultured and amiable, possessing natural talent, steady and brave in battle, and full of wit in social interactions. He was the picture of graceful royalty in all his dealings. However, he lacked the inner grit that was so essential to deal with the turbulent world in which he had inherited his kingdom. He did not possess the tenacity of purpose to follow an action that he had initiated to its logical conclusion that was desired, which would then convert them to achievements. Throughout his life he displayed a character trait that made him content with the partial achievement of desired objectives, never having the inherent ambition to follow through these minor successes to make them full-blown victories. This was a fatal flaw that could not be compensated by any other qualities.

By nature, Humayun was mild and benevolent to an excessive degree, thus converting what should have been endearing and graceful character traits into vices. Essentially, Humayun was a misfit for his times—a time that was ferocious in its harshness and fit only for the most tough, hard-hearted and ruthless commanders and kings. He was an easy-going and pleasure-loving prince amongst a warlike people who shunned any kind of weakness, a prince placed by fortune and time in-charge of a kingdom that was yet to be fully established, a kingdom that was swaying in a precarious manner at the time of his ascension to power. To make matters worse, he was addicted to wine, and to opium that he took in the form of pellets washed down with rose water; he enjoyed poetry; and perhaps the worst trait of all, he was superstitious to a fault, making him look ludicrous even by the somewhat lax standards of the times.

Humayun – The Crown Prince

Humayun was born Nasir ud-Din Muhammad Humayun in Kabul on 6th March 1508. As per the Mughal custom, when he became 12 years old, he was appointed the governor of Badakshan and send to that remote province. He stayed there for the next seven years, before being called by his father to join him on his final onslaught into the Indian sub-continent. It appears that the tenure as governor was not particularly successful, although there are no reports of any remarkable failures either. However, the first mention of Humayun in Babur’s memoirs comes at this juncture, in which Babur writes about the tardiness with which Humayun was moving to join the main body. Humayun was late in coming to the designated place where he was to meet up with the Mughal army and Babur had to write harsh letters admonishing his son for his ineptness. On hindsight, this lethargy could be taken as an indication of characteristics that Humayun would display in the future.

In India, Humayun fared well, perhaps because he was under the direct supervision of his father. He was blooded in battle for the first time, when he led the Mughal contingent that routed the Lodi-Afghan advance auxiliary force near Ambala. He returned from this skirmish with prisoners and captive elephants. In the Battle of Panipat and subsequently in the Battle of Khanua, Humayun commanded the right wing of the Mughal army effectively. After the victory at Khanua, Babur send Humayun back to his province of Badakshan. Humayun at that time was 19 years old. On his way to Badakshan, Humayun raided the treasury of Delhi, earning Babur’s displeasure for doing so. The raid may have been just a prank of a young prince who had been victorious in multiple battles, but it also indicated the frivolous nature of the heir apparent. Humayun continued to display this character trait of not being serious about matters of state throughout his life. Even though Babur send a harsh letter to Humayun rebuking him for the Delhi raid, there was never any doubt that Humayun was the chosen heir.

Early Rule

Four days after Babur’s death, on 30th December 1530 the day chosen by astrologers as being auspicious, 23-year old Humayun ascended the Mughal throne in Agra. He immediately set about reorganising the royal court in accordance with his fancies. The entire administrative machinery was arranged to fit into an elaborate astrological process, much like a game being played. All public offices were placed under four newly created departments named for the four elements—Earth, Air, Water and Fire. Apart from this seemingly frivolous reorganisation, Humayun also devised elaborate games based on the zodiac, which he played in the royal court, forcing his nobles and courtiers to become participants.

He also undertook other, more serious activities. In 1533, he personally laid the foundation for a new city to be built in Delhi. In this respect, it is interesting to note that Delhi has spawned a number of cities, built over or beside each other, much like the ancient city of Troy. It is estimated that as many as 11 cities are layered below the current one, Lutyen’s Delhi, which is counted as the 12th.

Humayun’s city was to be called Din-panah, the ‘asylum of faith’. It would seem that in the third year of his rule, Humayun was announcing to the larger Muslim world and the empires of Central Asia, Persia and Turkey, that a liberal empire was being built in India. It could also be that he was declaring to the more bigoted empires who practised religious persecution of the non-believer that his was an empire built on openness. The new city was to be established as a cultural centre in the tradition of Herat and Samarkand, the original cities of the Mughals. Unfortunately Humayun did not either get the time to finish the project or more probably, as usual lost interest half-way through its completion. In either case, the new city did not get built.

Even though Humayun continued to ‘rule’ from Agra for the first few years of his reign, trouble in paradise had started immediately on Babur’s death. Before his death, Babur had divided his holdings between his sons. The throne, overlordship of the empire and the Mughal lands in India were given to Humayun; Kamran was made in-charge of Kabul and Kandahar; the two younger siblings, Askar and Hindal, were given minor fiefdoms; and Badakshan was given to Suleiman Mirza, Babur’s nephew. This division of the empire dictated by Babur was enacted after his death. However, Kamran was a spirited youth and instead of establishing himself in Kabul he moved east, crossed River Indus and overran a large tract of land to the west of the River Sutlej, claiming it as his by right. Instead of contesting this high-handed approach, Humayun acceded to the claim and also handed over some more land to Kamran, adhering to his father’s injunction to not punish his brothers.

Around the same time, some Mughal princes who were cousins of Humayun, rebelled in Agra; while Mahmud Lodi, Ibrahim Lodi’s brother, had become resurgent in Bihar and was preparing to contest the Mughal legitimacy to rule North India. Humayun reacted to these emerging threats with alacrity and in a spirited manner. He rode out of Agra and subdued Lodi with ease and then scattered the cousins who were getting together. Humayun’s actions were effective enough to permanently curtail both Lodi and the group of cousins from any further rebellious activity. These were the first challenges to his rule and Humayun had demonstrated uncharacteristic decisiveness of action in dealing with them.

Even though the minor rebellions were thwarted, greater challenges were looming on the horizon—two adversaries were extending their territorial control and surreptitiously increasing their power base. Happily ensconced in Agra, Humayun was either unaware of the twin dangers that were gathering pace or he chose to ignore these developments as being of no consequence. The first challenge came from Sultan Bahadur Shah, ruling Gujarat and the second from Sher Khan (later calling himself Sher Shah) a leader of the Afghans who had settled along the River Ganges in South Bihar.

The Fruitless Gujarat Campaign

Gujarat was a territorially small but wealthy kingdom. Its riches and prosperity were derived from the great deal of trade and commerce that passed through its ports, into and out of the Indian sub-continent. Its current ruler, Bahadur Shah was ambitious and energetic, a combination of character traits in a king that almost always led to offensive wars against the neighbours. After the fall of the Lodi dynasty to Babur the Mughal, Bahadur Shah had assumed the leadership of the Afghan ruling elite. Over a few years Gujarat had become the focal assembly point of Afghans who resented the Mughals, turning the kingdom into something of an anti-Mughal stronghold. Even some of the disgruntled Mughal nobles journeyed to Gujarat to join the Afghan confederacy. Alam Khan, who had initially invited Babur to invade India and take on the Lodi Sultan of Delhi, had also reached Gujarat, and joined the emerging confederacy against the son of his old ally. He had been greatly disappointed when Babur had not invited him to take the throne of Delhi after Ibrahim Lodi had been defeated and killed in battle.

Bahadur Shah was exuberant at the assembly of such a large force in his kingdom, all of them owing allegiance to an alliance of which he was the unquestioned leader. His joy knew no bounds and his ambition soared, and he now started to initiate aggressive moves in several directions simultaneously. Bahadur Shah devised a plan to envelope the core of the Mughal lands that was directly controlled from Agra, in one combined effort. Accordingly, he send out contingents of the assembled military forces to different regions—a contingent was send north to Rajasthan and the Punjab; another east to Malwa; and inexplicably, a third to the south to threaten and contain the Deccan Sultanates. A basic truism regarding military forces is that their power is absolute as long as they are concentrated in one place and retain the ability to apply force in a focused manner. By dividing the forces and deploying them in different directions, Bahadur Shah broke this fundamental tenet and spread the forces too thin, thereby diluting the power of the assembled military forces. Humayun once again went out to confront his adversaries.

More importantly, Bahadur Shah in his haste to achieve greater status, forgot the fundamental and first principle of war—the selection and maintenance of aim. His aim should have been the battlefield defeat of Humayun, which was critical to his achieving his ultimate ambitious objective of gaining the throne of North India. An analysis of Bahadur Shah’s actions obliquely reveals that he was reluctant to directly confront Humayun on the battlefield, although the reasons for this hesitancy are not readily apparent. Further, a study of his earlier battles brings out an uncomfortable indication of his mindset—all his battles were fought in such a manner as to ensure that he would not loose, the urge to win was never reliably visible. Fighting to win and fighting not to lose are two very different mindsets and follows different strategies and tactics. Overall victory never attends a force that adopts a strategy to ensure that it will not lose.

Initially the three Gujarat-Afghan contingents, now fighting in different regions, achieved some amount of success. One of the contingents even managed to reach the outskirts of Agra. After the initial successes the Gujarat army started to lose ground everywhere, the contingents were unable to apply focused force and the leadership was not up to the task of rallying the men to battle against increasing odds. Fairly rapidly, Bahadur Shah retreated without offering battle in the face of the advancing Mughal forces and after being chased around, finally took refuge in the island of Diu. Humayun concentrated on chasing Bahadur Shah whom he correctly identified as being the ring-leader, first to Cambay and then to Champanir. At Cambay, Humayun became the first Timurid prince to gaze upon the ocean. Champanir was a fort with good defensive capabilities and it took Humayun four months of intense siege to capture it. The final capture was effected in a night raid by a small but capable force personally led by Humayun. This daring capture of the fort could be counted as Humayun’s finest hour as a soldier and military commander. The fort contained a great amount of treasure, which fell to the Mughals. Humayun, magnanimous to a fault, distributed the entire captured treasure amongst his commanders and soldiers, dividing it according to individual position and status. Although he had managed to capture Champanir, Humayun did not give any thought to consolidating his victory and annexing the conquered lands. Instead he lapsed into his old behaviour pattern and started to celebrate with wine and opium in Champanir.

While the Mughal king was still celebrating in Champanir, Bahadur Shah came out of Diu, and probably with the help of the Portuguese made an unsuccessful attempt to recapture his kingdom. Humayun realised the danger and drove Bahadur Shah out of Gujarat and occupied the capital Ahmadabad. Thereafter he left Askari, his step brother, in-charge of Gujarat and moved on to capture Mandu in Malwa. There is a slight discrepancy in the narrative from a different source at this juncture. It appears that Bahadur Shah’s fortune did not change even after he had sought refuge with the Portuguese in Diu. A few months after he went back to Diu after being defeated a second time, it is reported in this account that he was killed by the Portuguese at a diplomatic parley. This story is obviously wrong, since we find Bahadur Shah making an appearance in Gujarat at a slightly later stage.

After the main Mughal force had left Gujarat, Bahadur Shah once again advanced on Ahmadabad. This time, the Mughal force there under Askari did not offer any resistance. Askari, the provisional governor of the region abandoned Ahmadabad and started to march towards Agra. The reason for this action and his intentions in marching towards Agra remain fully shrouded in mystery and there are no explanations that have been given. It could be speculated that Askari was contemplating seizing the throne in Agra, since Humayun was still in Malwa. However, at the same time Humayun was also marching back to Agra from Mandu. The two columns of the brothers met, joined forces and reached Agra together. Almost immediately, the Afghans recaptured Mandu and the territories of Malwa that had fallen to the Mughals. In the meantime Bahadur Shah had re-established his rule in Gujarat.

From the beginning of this campaign, till he returned to Agra, Humayun had been on the campaign trail for 20 months—November 1534 to August 1536. A holistic analysis of the situation in September 1536, reveals that the Mughal had nothing to show for his valiant efforts of 20 months—the treasure that had been captured, mainly in Champanir, had been generously distributed and no territory had been added to the control of the Mughals. After six years of lackadaisical rule Humayun had neither consolidated his inheritance nor annexed more territories. Of a more serious consequence, he had not managed to put down the rebels who were nipping at his heels in every corner of the would-be empire. Humayun’s proclivity to start month-long revelries and to being locked in the harem for long periods of time were fast coming to an end.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2020]
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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 Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide 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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