Indian History Part 80 Humayun Section III: An Empire is Lost

Canberra, 27 April 2020

After having defeated and forced Humayun back to Agra, Sher Shah returned to Bengal and evicted the Mughal governor, Jahangir Kuli, installed by Humayun. Sher Shah knew for certain that he would have to fight Humayun again and therefore wanted to consolidate his territories as soon as possible. More importantly, he had had enough being labelled a ‘rebel’ and wanted the next confrontation with the Mughal to be one between two kings. Accordingly, he officially crowned himself the king of Bengal in the capital Gaur, becoming a legitimate king in his own right at long last. He had resisted the temptation to be crowned for a long time and had been comfortable as the de facto ruler. During this time the only status improvement he had made was to adopt the title of ‘Shah’ a few years earlier.

Sher Shah assumed the title Sultan-ul-Adil, meaning the ‘Just Ruler’, providing an indication of the future thrust of his rule. There was much celebration and feasting after the coronation, with a large number of Afghans from across the sub-continent joining Sher Shah to mark the re-establishment of Afghan rule in the Gangetic Plains. This was the first opportunity for the Afghans to savour a victory after the abject defeat suffered at the Battle of Panipat that had led to fall of the Delhi Sultanate. Even though the Lodis had not been particularly popular, and even disliked by some segments, they had been Afghans and therefore kin. Their defeat by the Turko-Mughal invaders had been considered a usurpation of the throne of Delhi, which the Afghans believed to be theirs by default. Sher Shah was now again ready to look and act west—he moved swiftly to retake Jaunpur and then set his sights on Agra.

Vacillation in Agra

When a defeated Humayun reached Agra, all four brothers were together once again. Hindal, who had presumed to take the throne had to be punished, but Humayun reluctant to do so and keeping his father’s dying wish in mind, gave in to Kamran’s intervention and forgave his younger brother his trespass. However, tensions continued within the closed group of Babur’s sons. They discussed the increasing threat from Sher Shah and very clearly understood that a decisive battle was imminent. They also realised that this battle would be fought close to Agra, since information had been received that Sher Sha was on the move and that Jaunpur had fallen to him. The on-coming battle would therefore decide the fate of the fledgling Mughal Empire. The threat was grave.

Even though the brothers realised that the threat was grave and approaching closer every day, for nearly seven months they continued to discuss the pros and cons of mounting a military campaign. This vacillation permitted Sher Shah to reach the River Ganga with his army. While Sher Shah was focused and his army well-trained, Humayun and Kamran could not arrive at an agreed course of action to confront him. Kamran had come down from Kabul with more than 12,000 cavalry, a force that was personally loyal to him. He was eager to lead them against Sher Shah immediately, ostensibly to support Humayun, but in reality to pursue his own ulterior motive of becoming the king. Even so, this was probably the best option available to the Mughals at that time.

Humayun, for all his happy-go-lucky ways, recognised the inherent threat to his position in permitting Kamran to lead the Mughal army against Sher Shah. He wanted to command the forces himself—his pride had been hurt because he had to flee the battlefield and he believed that as the king, it was his prerogative to lead the Mughal forces. Therefore, he rejected Kamran’s plan for immediate action and started to build a larger army that would function under his command. This decision exacerbated the already simmering discord and ill-feeling between the brothers. A few months later, Kamran left Agra and withdrew with his entire force to Lahore. Even though Humayun was the emperor, Kamran not only refused to place his forces under Mughal command, but also did not accept the role of subordinate commander. This situation directly indicates the Humayun’s lack of imperial stature and his inability to enforce his will on his subjects. The Mughal army, already in disarray after a defeat, was further demoralised by this apparent split between the king and his brother and Kamran’s departure with his forces.

On the other hand, the Mughal nobles took stock of the situation and the reality dawned on them that if Humayun fell, all of them would also be disenfranchised. Almost all the Mughal nobles started to move towards Agra with their forces to join Humayun against Sher Shah.

Preparations for Battle

While Humayun was squabbling with his brother and also trying to gather forces, Sher Shah crossed the River Ganga into the Doab, which was the heartland of Mughal territory. He was also attempting to create an alliance with Malwa. From being extremely cautious, Sher Shah was now full of bravado, especially since he had not been confronted even after he reached into the Doab. In a display of conspicuous audacity, he send a force under his son Qutb Khan across Mughal territory to join up with Malwa forces. However, this relatively small force was intercepted by Mughal forces. Qutb Khan was killed in the skirmish and his severed head send to Humayun in Agra in traditional Mughal style. This episode improved the morale of the Mughal army to a certain extent.

Heartened by this minor victory, Humayun came out of Agra fort and camped in the outskirts of the city. This facilitated the gathering of a large army under his banner. Unfortunately the army was not cohesive because clear command and control structures had not been established and resembled more of an armed rabble. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the Mughal army had lost a large number of veteran commanders and soldiers in the previous defeat at Chausa. The leadership was below par in the army that was assembling in Agra. Humayun also suffered from another distinct disadvantage. There is no doubt that he was personally brave, but he was not a charismatic military leader nor a strategic general. He was incapable of whipping up military fervour in the soldiers like his father, even if he wanted to, leaving his army in the eve of battle lacking in military frenzy. The ability of the commander to whip up such passion is often the only edge that one force has against another and provides the thin edge of difference between defeat and victory. The Mughal army in Agra was devoid of this spark. However, it still had most of the guns that had been critical to victory in most of Babur’s battles and these could bring to bear considerable firepower.

Sher Shah once again moved across the River Ganga when the Mughal forces marched out of Agra. The two armies now were encamped on either side of the river, remaining in this uneasy position in an indecisive wait for the eventual battle. Lack of concerted leadership started to impact the Mughal army’s morale, which started to crumble and desertions increased by the day. Humayun knew that the only way to stop the haemorrhaging of his forces—both physically and mentally— was to force battle, but even then he hesitated. Finally the crossing of River Ganga to come to grips with the enemy was also prompted by Sher Shah, who dared Humayun openly to cross the river and fight, promising that he would not attack or interfere with the Mughals during the crossing. The offer and the fact that Humayun accepted it shows the different mindsets of the opposing commanders. Sher Shah was almost over-confident of victory, a far cry from his inherently cautious approach to battle; and Humayun it seems was already contemplating defeat and a subsequent dependence on his adversary’s kindness.

The Mughal army crossed the river unopposed with Sher Shah keeping his word, uncharacteristically defying his inherent duplicitous nature. The Mughal army now camped in close proximity and facing the Afghans but still did not engage, although daily skirmishes ensued. In mid-May seasonal showers started to flood the Mughal camp. The situation was similar to what transpired in Chausa, but this time the situation was reversed—it was the Mughals who had to shift camp in disarray. Unlike Humayun’s indecision in Chausa that permitted the Afghans to regroup, Sher Shah had not doubts about what needed to be done. He did not waste a God-given opportunity to attack.

Battle is Joined

On 17 May 1540, Sher Shah launched a full-fledged attack on the discomfited and still disordered Mughal army. The Mughal army still numbered about 40,000 even after being weakened by months of desertions; whereas the Afghan army of Sher Shah was only 15,000 strong. The only advantage that Sher Shah had over Humayun was that his army was in high spirits, raring to go into battle. If ever there was an army poised to win at the eve of battle, Sher Shah’s Afghan army was it. The armies were numerically unevenly matched, but they were also unevenly matched in morale and spirits; and not surprisingly the result would also turn out to be uneven.

‘On the day of the battle, notes Haidar contemptuously, many of the Mughal amirs were so timid that they hid their yak-tail standards, “lest the enemy might see and bear down upon them”. The Mughal army was more ready for flight than for fight. So the battle was lost even before it began. “It was not a fight, but a rout, for not a man, friend or foe, was even wounded. … Not a cannon was fired—not a gun,” writes Haidar, who commanded a division of the Mughal army in the battle.’

Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 61.

[This account is clearly an exaggeration, since the description of the battle shows a concerted attack by the Mughal forces on its left flank. It was the right flank under the command of Askari that let down the entire Mughal force.]

Early in the battle, the Mughals fighting with the River Ganga at their back, seemed to be gradually gaining the upper hand by enforcing their numerical superiority. The left flank, commanded by Hindal, and the centre core of the Mughal forces, were successful in pushing the Afghan forces back. However, the battle started to become an even contest when the right flank under command of Askari, the least capable of Babur’s sons, started to give way and finally collapsed without offering even reasonable resistance. The attack on this flank was were led by the indomitable Afghan commander, Khavass Khan, who pushed forward with the attack, taking maximum advantage of the Mughal inefficiency in command. The right flank of the Mughal army, having collapsed, started to retreat and then disintegrated. [Askari was close to Kamran and may not have wanted to be part of Humayun’s forces. This may account for the rather lackadaisical approach that he exhibited in his command of the right flank. He had no motivation to make Humayun win the battle.]

Khavass now wheeled round and reached the rear of the Mughal army, even behind the camp followers. The ‘civilian’ horde that formed the large camp follower gathering now started to press against the rear of the fighting forces, gradually compressing the fighting area. The Mughal forces on the right now broke ranks. However, even at this stage, the Mughal left flank was advancing steadily, destroying everything in its path. Sher Shah, watching the progress of the battle moved out of his reserve position and stopped the Mughal advance and turned it towards the centre of the Mughal army. When this happened, the Mughals were unable to employ their artillery situated in the centre for fear of firing on their own forces. The artillery was one of their greatest advantages, which was now fully neutralised. Complete confusion followed the turning of the left flank towards the centre. Not long after, the Mughal army started to withdraw, which very quickly became a complete rout. Since the battlefield was to the east of River Ganga, the withdrawing army had to cross the river to the west to reach safety. Thousands of soldiers drowned in their attempt to cross the river, especially being weighed down with their armour. The battle for North India had been won and lost even before the sun had started to set.

Humayun was once again forced to cross the River Ganga in retreat, this time on an elephant, with the assistance of his officers and accompanied by both his brothers. Babur’s sons started a dispirited march back to the Agra fort. Even in medieval times, news of a defeat travelled fast. The retreating royal party was harassed by every village that they passed—after all the Turko-Mughals had not yet established themselves as the rulers of the territories that they had conquered; they were still foreigners and invaders.

The Aftermath

On the way to Agra, Humayun stopped at the house of an eminent Sufi scholar, who consoled him by elaborating on the fickleness of worldly fortunes. He advised Humayun not to make a further defensive stand at Agra, but to proceed post-haste to his brother Kamran’s camp at Lahore. Humayun received the Sufi saint’s advice with good grace and moved on to Agra. The brothers spent only minimum time in Agra to collect their families and some treasure, and started the journey north-westward to Lahore.

The passage was actually a full-fledged flight, in disarray, with no central control or any semblance of it being a royal party’s journey. Humayun feared that the Afghans would pursue him and wanted to put as much distance as possible between him and Sher Shah’s forces. On reaching Delhi, the royal party rested for a few days and then resumed the journey into the Punjab, reaching Lahore in early July. In Lahore Humayun was once again joined by Hindal and Askari who had separated from the main body to go to their own fiefdoms and collect their possessions. The brothers were physically together again.

The future of the Mughal Empire in India now hinged on the ability of the brothers to initiate concerted and forceful action against Sher Shah. However, predictably the brothers were could not arrive at a unified course of action, even in this time of extreme danger to their combined well-being, with each one of them also being in individual jeopardy. Kamran particularly was worried that he would be removed from his lands so that Humayun could take over and have some territory to rule, after all officially he was only a provincial governor. In fact, some nobles suggested to Humayun that Kamran should be eliminated. Humayun, continuing to be true to the promise to his father and also incapable of taking such a harsh decision, refused to have Kamran assassinated.

In the meantime, Sher Shah had established a new dynasty, the Sur Dynasty, named after his tribe. He was calmly following the fleeing Mughals, reaching Delhi in mid-June. The Afghan army continued to trace the footsteps of the Mughals, not rapidly but relentlessly, and reached Sirhind. While Sher Shah halted here to take stock of the situation, Humayun attempted to broker a peace with the Sur king. He send an ambassador to Sher Shah suggesting that Sirhind be considered the boundary between the holdings of the two kings. Sher Shah now a two-time victor against the Mughals, send a curt reply asking Humayun to go back to Kabul or he, Sher Shah could and would throw him out of India. Humayun knew that he was not welcome in Kabul, which was Kamran’s capital. Kamran by now did not acknowledge and had fully ignored his own role, brought on by petulance, in Humayun’s defeat. He continued to not offer any assistance to his brother and in fact actively discouraged Humayun from moving to Kabul. Kamran was unwilling to hand over ‘his territory’ to Humayun just because Humayun had not been able to protect his inheritance and had been driven out of Agra. The Mughal entourage was in static stasis in Lahore.

While Humayun remained in limbo in Lahore, Sher Shah crossed the River Beas and advanced on Lahore. The Mughals scattered in all directions like pigeons do when attacked by a determined cat. More than 20,000 people were in flight, the Mughal exodus out of India had started. Among the princes, Kamran and Askari moved out towards Kabul; Hindal and a senior noble, Yadgar, went south to Gujarat; and Haidar, a cousin of Humayun’s went to Kashmir, conquered the place and ruled the territory well for a number of years. Humayun, as usual was undecided even at this hour of great personal danger and finally joined Hindal at the last moment. They went down the River Indus and reached Sind. This was the beginning of the division of the brothers into two groups, Kamran and Askari remaining as one bloc thereafter and Humayun and Hindal staying together. Although Hindal was only a step-brother, he had been brought up by Humayun’s mother and after this flight from Lahore remained loyal to his elder brother.

Thus started 15 years of exile and humiliation for Humayun, the second Mughal Emperor of Hindustan, while Sher Shah Sur and his descendants ruled North India. In January 1541, Humayun along with a handful of followers was holed up at Rohri in Sind, opposite to the island of Bukkur on the River Indus. He had lost everything, including the inheritance bequeathed by his father—he was now a king in name only, with no kingdom to call his own.

Fretting in Sind

Sind was ruled by Shah Husain Mirza, nominally subordinate to the Mughal king, but in reality an independent ruler. Husain was uncomfortable with Humayun’s presence in Sind, since a fugitive king with no throne of his own was prone to rash actions. Therefore, Husain Mirza did not welcome Humayun to his kingdom. He was also painfully aware of the fact that just over three decades back, in 1504, Babur had taken over Kabul from Husain’s family when he had been in a very similar situation to what his son was facing now in 1541. Further, Husain also did not want to offend Sher Shah by giving refuge to Humayun. On the other hand Husain did not have the gumption to order Humayun to leave his country—he was unsure as to how such an order would be received.

Husain decided to prevaricate. He promised to assist Humayun in all kinds of ways, but actually did nothing to improve the Mughal’s situation. On the contrary, he surreptitiously thwarted every effort that Humayun initiated to regain his throne. Humayun, rather naïve even now in the wheeling and dealing of real politic, took over six months to realise that he was not making any progress to regain his lost kingdom and, more importantly, that no assistance would materialise from the ruler of Sind.

The only pleasant thing to have happened during his time in Sind is that he met his future queen during this unhappy sojourn. Even this union was not without its own unpleasantness. Hamida was a Persian of the Shia persuasion and in some vague fashion attached to Hindal’s entourage. Humayun fell in love with her on seeing her for the first time, but Hamida was not interested in marrying a much older person and that too a fugitive king without a kingdom. Further, although only 33 years old at this time, Humayun was already a dissipated man. Since Hamida was only 14 at this time, the difference in age was great even by the standard of the royal families of medieval times. Hindal also objected to the proposal, giving rise to the rumour that he was romantically involved with Hamida. Humayun’s mother, Dildar Begum, facilitated the match by putting to rest Hindal’s objections and then cajoling and persuading Hamida to accept her son as husband. They were married on 21 August 1541 and Hamida became the queen, of a king without a country, assuming the title Hazret Maryam-Makani Hamida Banu Begum.

Humayun was in an impossible situation—the few allies that he still had could not see any great future ahead of him and therefore gradually started to abandon him. His following now reduced to literally a handful of people. Reaching the end of his tether in Sind, he accepted a long-standing invitation from the Raja of Marwar (later Jodhpur), Mal Deva to go to his kingdom. Mal Deva was the most powerful and influential Rajput king of the time. Mal Deva may also have been contemplating an alliance with Humayun against Sher Shah who was becoming increasingly powerful in North India. Humayun left Sind and started the trek to Marwar in May 1542, accompanied by a small group of followers and his new wife.

A Son is Born

Sher Shah was not only a successful military general, he was also an accomplished diplomat. He realised that a combined challenge from the Raja of Marwar and the Mughal king could be difficult to withstand. His inherent cautiousness came to the fore and he made diplomatic overtures to Mal Deva. Mal Deva also realised that Humayun’s plight was hopeless and that he did not bring any military forces or other allies with him—he would be fighting Sher Shah on his own, if he gave refuge to the Mughal.

There are two versions of what transpired next. One is that Mal Deva now decided to capture Humayun when he reached Marwar and hand him over to Sher Shah as a peace offering. Humayun came to know of this chicanery and turned back before reaching Marwar. The second is that Mal Deva had promised Sher Shah that he would hand over Humayun to him, but since he had invited Humayun to visit Marwar did not want to sully his honour by capturing an invited guest. Therefore, he send word to Humayun that he should not come to Marwar and that he should stay away from Marwar territories to avoid getting captured. Humayun had no option but to turn back. [Considering later events, the second version is the more probable, the Raja of Marwar was an honourable man.]

The Humayun camp now turned back in the desert and was hounded by the Raja of Jaisalmer and his son who tried to starve the group of water. Humayun was now wandering in the desert with no destination to go to and without a refuge in sight. He and his few followers were living off the land, which in the desert meant that there was very little available to eat or drink. The group lived for days on end on wild berries only. In this wandering they reached close to Umarkot, a small town at the edge of Sind territory, where the Raja, Rana Prasad, welcomed Humayun. This was perhaps the lowest point, the nadir of his exile: Humyaun had only the clothes on his back as possessions and was accompanied by just seven horsemen; and to further complicate matters, Hamida was now heavily pregnant.

The Raja of Umarkot took Humayun inside his fort and offered to provide him with 7000 horsemen to fight Husain in Sind. Rana Prasad was not entirely altruistic in welcoming the exiled Mughal. Earlier Husain had killed the Rana’s father and he wanted revenge, which he thought could be extracted by supporting Humayun.

However, Umarkot is famous for another event. Humayun’s son, Jalal ud-Din Akbar was born here on 15 October 1542—Hamida was only 15 years old at this time. Since his interest in astrology had not diminished with time, Humayun was personally involved in casting the horoscope of his son. All details turned out to be auspicious, rightly so as it turned out later. Further, almost like an indication of changing fortunes, Humayun was now joined by Biram Khan, a powerful noble and military general who had been captured in Kanauj by the Afghans and had managed to escape. Biram Khan was fully loyal to Humayun and remained loyal to the Mughal dynasty throughout his life, rendering yeoman service to them.

By now Husain was irritated enough with Humayun’s ghostly presence in and around his territories to bribe him to go back to his ancestral lands. Humayun agreed and was given 300 camels and a great deal of provisions for the journey, reported as more than 2000 camel-loads. On 11 July 1543, Humayun crossed the River Indus and started his journey to Kandahar, leaving Hindustan as a destitute and defeated king in search of support and succour.

© [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 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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