Indian History Part 80 Humayun Section II: Trouble Brews in the East

Canberra, 12 April 2020

Although no material gains had been made in the campaign that he had mounted to Gujarat and Malwa, on his return to Agra Humayun celebrated his ‘victory’ with full-fledged revelry that lasted for nearly a year.  Meanwhile Afghan power was resurgent in Bihar, now under the able leadership of Sher Khan. Sher Khan had been a lieutenant of Mahmud Lodi during the Afghan rebellion that had been effectively put down by Babur in his last days. Since had pledged allegiance to the Mughals after that defeat, technically Sher Khan was a Mughal vassal. He had been a low-ranking officer in the Afghan-controlled Bihar and had gradually risen through the ranks to assume great power. Over a period of time he had surreptitiously usurped all power and had become the virtual ruler of Bihar—king in all but name.

Sher Khan was very ambitious but also extremely patient, as is obvious from his plodding rather than meteoric rise to power. In a general appreciation of the situation it is seen that the exact date or time when he assumed power in Bihar cannot be clearly identified, the process of his rise to power had been so gradual and clandestine in nature. He now started to covet the Mughal throne. Sher Khan was unusually canny, playing his cards close to his chest and extremely discreet in all actions that he took. While Humayun was busy in Gujarat and Malwa, and subsequently in his celebrations in Agra, Sher Khan had very gradually pushed into Bengal. Humayun was completely unaware of these manoeuvres in eastern India by his so-called vassal. Humayun had indeed dismissed the initial reports that came from Bihar and Bengal regarding Sher Khan’s encroachments, as the activities of a troublesome vassal. However, when Sher Khan finally took over Bengal, he went from being a vassal to a rival monarch to the Mughal.

All Sher Khan’s actions thereafter was oriented towards gathering strength to take on the Mughal might. Even so, it was only in mid-July 1537 that Humayun decided to initiate action against the Afghan leader. As a preliminary move, he send all the heavy equipment and most of the army down the River Yamuna to the River Ganga, while he himself set course eastwards to confront Sher Khan, accompanied by his brothers Hindal and Askari. Little did Humayun realise at that time that Sher Khan would prove to be the most wily and tenacious adversary that he would ever face in his life.

Humayun was a negligent and impulsive campaigner, never a detailed planner by nature, and nurtured a sense of ‘fair play’ in his decisions. He was prone to believe promises that were made by ally and adversary alike. Sher Khan on the other hand was a relentless and crafty military commander, not averse to adopting deceit and lies to achieve his ends. The two adversaries operated from different ends of the spectrum of human nature and by temperament were completely mismatched. Even before they actually clashed on the battlefield, a neutral observer could already visualise fairly accurately, the outcome of such an encounter.

A Litany of Blunders

The Mughal army and the king moved down the River Ganga at a leisurely pace and reached the Afghan fort of Chunar after five months. Chunar was a strong fort perched high on the banks of the river and was held by Sher Khan’s son. Humayun decided to besiege it and took the next six months to capture it. From a strategic perspective, Humayun should have bypassed the fort and moved on to confront the main body of Sher Khan’s army. If at all Chunar was to be contained, he should have left a detachment to keep the fort besieged. The inordinate delay that the siege brought about, was a blunder that had both operational and tactical repercussions and cascading effects on the rest of the campaign. The tardy march gave sufficient time for Sher Khan to complete the conquest of Bengal. He did not even send any assistance to Chunar, because while the fort was important to Sher Khan it was not vital to the wellbeing of his kingdom or military forces.

The Deceit of Sher Khan – An Example

When he started the campaign to annex Bengal, Sher Khan had left his treasure and harem in Chunar. However, when the Mughal forces started to move out of Agra, he had moved them to the safety of Rohtas, a hill fort in the upper reaches of the River Son, in rugged hill country that was impenetrable to traditional military forces.

The story of Sher Khan’s conquest of Rohtas is indicative of his cunning duplicity in dealing with rival kings and chiefs. Being a very strong and impregnable fort, Sher Khan wanted to capture it for his own use, but was pragmatic enough to realise that he did not have the military wherewithal to overwhelm Raja Hari Kishen who ruled the region from the fort. He pleaded with the Raja to give refuge to his family and for the safe keeping of his treasure in the fort while he was campaigning in Bengal. Sher Khan also mentioned that he would rather see the treasure go to the Raja than fall into the hands of the Mughals, in case he was defeated in battle. The Raja readily acceded to the request, no doubt also considering the prospect of confiscating the treasure at an opportune moment.

Sher Khan smuggled elite soldiers into the fort in covered palanquins/litters supposed to contain the females of his harem and family. Once inside the fort, these soldiers easily captured it and the Raja was forced to flee through a hidden back door.

This story is denied by Afghan chroniclers who state that the Rohtas fort was captured by Sher Khan in a fair fight. However, there is absolutely no proof or information that is available to corroborate their report as no battle for the fort is mentioned in either the Hindu or other Muslim records. Rohtas obviously fell to some deceitful stratagem.

By the time Humayun reached the outskirts of Bengal, Sher Khan had already subjugated the entire region and returned to Bihar, his stronghold. Humayun’s indecisive nature was now displayed. After having marched all the way to the Bengal border, he made an attempt to settle the situation amicably by offering to return Chunar along with another fort to Sher Khan if he would relinquish control of Bengal. Sher Khan in reply made a counter proposal for Humayun to keep the forts, while he would become the ruler of Bengal, which was not acceptable to the Mughal.

Humayun was now briefed that Sher Khan’s hold on Bengal was tenuous since he had returned to Bihar, leaving only a small contingent under the command of his son Jalal Khan to control Bengal. Humayun then decided to continue his march towards Bengal. The decision of both parties to spurn the offer being made by the other entailed that both accepted the fact that this would be a fight to the finish, only one of them would remain in power at the end of the struggle. The situation also brought about the realisation, at least for Sher Khan, that he and Humayun could not coexist in North India.

Sher Khan now changed his plans and hurried back to Gaur, the capital of Bengal. There he declared himself the emperor of Bengal, assuming the title Sher Shah, rather than continuing as a ‘Khan’, a mere chieftain. Sher Khan, now Sher Shah, did not attempt to stop the ponderous Mughal march into Bengal. He had calculated that since the monsoon rains had set in, the Mughal army would get mired down in Bengal without being able to manoeuvre. He send his son Jalal Khan to block the narrow Teliyagarhi Pass, which was the entry point into Bengal from the west, with instructions to delay the Mughal advance. This delay would provide sufficient time for Sher Shah to transfer treasure from Bengal to his Rohtas fort.

Jalal Khan did better than to merely delay the Mughal advance. He made contact with the Mughal force that was in complete disarray, attacked and scattered them, claiming the first victory of Sher Shah’s forces over the Mughals. This was a portent of what was to come. Sher Shah in the meantime had moved to the safety of Rohtas with enormous treasure from Bengal. He was planning to strangle Humayun in Bengal by cutting off his lines of communication after the bulk of the Mughal forces had entered Bengal. Jalal Khan obligingly moved out of the Teliyagarhi Pass and permitted the Mughals to march into Bengal and reach Gaur. Humayun, never a strategist or even a careful tactician, happily and oblivious to the trap being sprung, walked into Bengal and Sher Shah’s lair. Another complete blunder with both strategic and tactical repercussions.

The Unfolding Debacle

When the Mughals entered Gaur, it was a completely ravaged town with dead bodies littering the streets and stripped of anything of value. Even so, for some unknown reason Humayun took to Bengal even in its sorry state, whereas his soldiers detested the place, its humidity and the incessant rains. In an astute move, Sher Shah had furnished his palace ostentatiously, which pleased Humayun who fell for the charm of the palace. He loved the weather and the fertile land, and once in the palace felt that his aim had been achieved—he had driven Sher Shah out of Bengal. As had become a custom with Humayun, he partitioned Bengal amongst his nobles although the country had not yet been conquered or annexed. Virtual achievement of objectives and a false appreciation of his own success were critical flaws in Humayun’s character, which would crop up at the most importunate circumstances. After dividing a country that was neither his nor been captured by him, Humayun retreated to his harem, abandoning himself to indulgences and wholesale revelry. He spent the next three months without conducting any official business. No notice seems to have been taken of the defeat that the Mughal forces suffered at Teliyagarhi Pass, the sorry state of the capital of Bengal and the fact that the Mughal forces were now mired in Bengal with their lines of communication disrupted.

While Humayun was wasting his time indulging in wine, opium and the pleasures of the harem, Sher Shah was busy. He now took the offensive in Bihar—he captured Jaunpur, Varanasi and Chunar—bringing the entire province under his control. He further took the families of the local zamindars hostage to ensure that no local support would be available to the Mughals. When informed of Sher Shah’s activities, Humayun was ‘surprised’; he had further surprises waiting for him. On his eastward journey, Humayun had left Hindal half-way along the River Ganga to ensure that his lines of communication and support, which would be extended by the time he reached Bengal, would be secure from disruption. Hindal, as was the wont of all Humayun’s brothers, had waited at his position for a brief period of time and then embarked for Agra, to claim the throne for himself.

With Humayun and his entire force bottle up in Bengal, Sher Shah now blocked the passes into Bengal from the west. Rather late in his appreciation, Humayun realised that he had to move out of Bengal, even though the urgency to do so was lost on him. As usual he was tardy in making his way out, with the result that by the time the Mughal army started its march out of Bengal, the monsoons had once again arrived on its shores. The move back, or more correctly the retreat, of the Mughal army was untidy at best and really a morale-sapping homeward march of a broken army. There is no exaggeration in stating that the ‘army’ that reached Bihar was a ragtag bunch of undisciplined auxiliary levies that did not in any manner resemble the war-winning army that Babur had created.

Sher Shah, ever the shrewd strategist, was at this time still besieging Jaunpur. On the Mughal force arriving in eastern Bihar, he lifted the siege, crossed the River Ganga and moved to South Bihar. He was still unwilling to engage the Mughals in a pitched battle and therefore decided to adopt guerrilla tactics to harass an already tired army. This decision clearly demonstrated Sher Shah’s one predominant and fundamental character trait—that of extreme caution. After all, coming from extremely humble beginnings, he had not risen to be king and emperor by being reckless or impulsive in his words and deeds. He knew that he was facing a broken army, which was devoid of brilliant leadership that may have made a difference to the outcome of a battle, but was still reluctant to gamble all that he had so far achieved on the outcome of a single battle. Caution made him throw away this chance at assured victory and control of the entire Gangetic Plain. Further demonstration of his abundant caution was the fact that he kept his own route of retreat to Bengal open at all times.

Humayun on the other hand was a highly impulsive military commander, more often than not side-tracked easily into celebrations and parties, being satisfied with minor victories even in the midst of serious military campaigns. Humayun watched the Afghan army cross to the opposite side of the river and also decided to cross to the southern bank, for no strategic reason other than ego satisfaction; after all how could he stay on one side of River Ganga when the ‘rebel’, as Humayun continued to consider Sher Shah, was on the other side. The Mughal army was in slightly better fettle than when it had come out of Bengal. Humayun now began to move along the River Ganga, past Patna, crossed the River Son and reached a place called Chausa, at the confluence of the Rivers Karmanasa, meaning destroyer of karma, and Ganga. Throughout this march, Afghan scouts had followed the Mughal army, harassing the rear at every opportunity, skirmishing but never giving major battle at any time.

The Imminence of Battle

When the Mughal army camped on the banks of the River Karmanasa, Sher Shah considered it time to change his strategy and decided to engage Humayun in full-fledged battle. The decision must have been based on the facts that the morale of the Mughal army was at its lowest ebb; they were facing logistic challenges; and he had overwhelming superiority of forces—numerically and in capability. Sher Shah now emerged from his position in South Bihar, skirted the Mughal army, crossed the River Karmanasa and appeared directly in front of the Mughal army. The armies now faced each other, on either banks of the river at Chausa. Sher Shah was now effectively blocking Humayun’s path to Agra and if the Mughal wanted to return to his capital, he had no option but to fight his way out.

Humayun was advised by his nobles of the only two options open to him—first, to attack the Afghan army; and second, to adopt the time-honoured Mughal tradition of fighting from an entrenched position, relying on the firepower of their cannons and the sweeping flank attack of their cavalry. Humayun opted for the second option, crossed the River Karmanasa, and encamped in the traditional Mughal defensive-offensive formation. For two months the armies lay facing each other, indulging in occasional skirmishes, with both sides avoiding escalation into major battles. Humayun send urgent messages to his brothers in Agra to send reinforcements and to move to envelope Sher Shah’s forces. During this period more stragglers from Bengal were joining the Mughal army regularly, gradually shifting the numerical advantage in Humayun’s favour. However, Mughal morale continued to be low. Humayun himself was unsure of his position since his brothers were busy brewing trouble in Agra.

Drama in Agra

Hindal, who had wilfully abandoned his post as the protector of his brother’s lines of communication and returned to Agra, took up residence in the royal palace and started to behave tentatively as the emperor. He was not really sure that he was doing the ‘right’ thing. After a few weeks and on the instigation of few nobles who had their own scores to settle with Humayun, he declared himself king. His mother, Dildar Begum, advised him sincerely against taking this step and is reported to have wept when Hindal refused to listen to her, stating that she was weeping for her dead son. In the belief that he had popular support, Hindal now moved towards Delhi to take possession of that city, when he was stopped en route by some officers and nobles loyal to Humayun.

These same nobles had already send a message to Kamran, sulking in Lahore, to come and put down the rebel. Kamran arrived with a large cavalry force and Hindal submitted to his brother without putting up any resistance. The brothers now joined forces and started to march east to relieve their elder brother, the king. However, after three days they inexplicably turned back and returned to Agra. The reason for the volte face is not given in any narrative of the incident. It is possible that Kamran’s own ambition was the catalyst for this move, especially since the brothers felt that Humayun’s situation in Bihar was hopeless. Kamran may have considered that Humayun would not be able to break the stranglehold he was in and therefore could have entertained visions of becoming emperor himself. The Mughals were suffering from a crisis of leadership—Humayun had by now lost all his own confidence, which was meagre to start with, and his brothers were certain that he would not be able to protect their future. They abandoned him to his fate in Bihar.

Further Developments

Meanwhile the monsoons came again to the sub-continent, drenching all without exception, hitting Bengal and Bihar earlier than the North Indian plains. Sher Shah had not factored in consideration of the monsoons while choosing the site of his camp. Perhaps he must have calculated that the battle with Humayun would be finished before the monsoons. In any case, with the arrival of the torrential monsoon rains Sher Shah was forced to move camp since the earlier one was inundated. This should have been a golden opportunity for Humayun to attack and rout a disarrayed adversary. However, he did not act and failed to take advantage of the adversary’s discomfiture.

Even though Humayun was not very decisive in matters of strategy, he was shrewd enough to realise that no help would come from Agra. He also understood that his brothers were planning to usurp the throne, which he felt was a greater threat to his wellbeing than the threat posed by Sher Shah. It was now imperative for Humayun to find a passage to Agra at the earliest. Rather than fighting his way out, Humayun send an emissary to Sher Shah, seeking peace and an end to hostilities.  After a great deal of negotiations an armistice was agreed. However, later events proved that Humayun had negotiated in good faith whereas Sher Shah had already decided that he would not adhere to the conditions. His ulterior motive was to break the peace accord and shift the onus of responsibility for it to Humayun. Unaware of the deceitful nature of Sher Shah, Humayun started to plan his return to Agra, through the Doab and across a bridge of boats on the River Ganga.

The promise of a peace accord had lulled Humayun into a relaxed state of mind, while Sher Shah had continued to prepare for war and was ready to attack. In the night of 25-26 June 1539, Sher Shah attacked an unprepared Mughal camp and routed the forces very rapidly. Humayun who was sleeping when the attack started, managed to mount a horse and fight bravely, trying to rally his forces. However, the battle was already lost. A junior officer forced Humayun to abandon the camp and plunged into the River Ganga with his king to swim across. Mid-stream, Humayun fell off his horse and was assisted by a water-carrier, called Nizam, to get across to the other side of the river. Humayun crept back to Agra.

An Impulsive Promise

On reaching the other bank of River Ganga with the help of the water-carrier, Humayun made an impulsive promise to Nizam, stating, ‘Thou shall sit on my throne’.

After Humayun reached Agra, Nizam presented himself in the open court, only expecting to receive some largess from the emperor. Humayun, however, honoured his promise and invited him to sit on the throne. Nizam prudently only ordered some riches to be given to his family and after ‘playing’ emperor for a few hours, left Agra richer than even his wildest imagination. There are some reports that state that Nizam sat on the throne for two days, which is obviously an exaggeration.

The Sher Shah raid at Chausa was an unmitigated disaster for the Mughal forces—thousands were slaughtered, and an equal number drowned in the River Ganga while trying to flee. Humayun himself barely managed to reach the other shore alive. Although he was unhappy at Humayun’s escape, Sher Shah was magnanimous in his victory. He send the families of the nobles and Humayun’s harem back to Agra without asking for any ransom or being molested and under the protection of a special escort. Erring on the side of extreme caution, as was his wont, Sher Shah did not pursue Humayun or the routed army to Agra.

© [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 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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