Indian History Part 80 – Humayun Section V: Interlude II: The Demise of the Sur Dynasty

Canberra, 09 May 2020

It is obvious that Sher Shah had not anticipated such a sudden death without warning, especially since he was in extremely good health. Therefore, although he had two sons, he had not yet nominated one of them as his successor. It fell to the senior Afghan nobles to choose the next king, as was customary in Islamic dynasties. Of the two sons, the elder Adil Khan, was an indolent and pleasure-loving prince. The younger son Jalal Khan, on the other hand, had repeatedly proven himself as an efficient leader in battle—he was the commander of the Afghan forces that had defeated the Mughals at the Teliyagarhi Pass in Bengal. The nobles correctly chose Jalal Khan to be the next king. He was brought to Kalinjar and crowned on 26th May 1545, four days after Sher Shah’s death. He ascended the throne adopting the title Islam Shah.

Islam Shah’s Reign

In Muslim kingdoms traditionally the new king had to prove himself worthy of the throne, even if he had been chosen by the nobles and therefore could rely on their support. Invariably there were rebellions by disgruntled siblings and even cousins, who felt that their claims had been ignored by the nobles and that they were better qualified to be on the throne. The real reason of course was the pursuit of power and prestige and had nothing to do with an altruistic approach for the betterment of the kingdom. In this instance the reason for rebellion was also because of primogeniture, since Adil Khan, the eldest son had been superseded. In reality, this argument did not merit consideration since Islamic dynasties were not bound by the tradition of primogeniture.

In any case, a faction of nobles supported Adil Khan who marched to Agra to take over the kingdom. However, he and his followers were routed by Islam Shah and Adil barely managed to escape with his life. Although definitely better suited to be the king than his lazy and languid brother, Islam Khan was also no paragon of virtue—he was extremely vindictive by nature. This one character trait was the root cause for the downfall of the Sur dynasty, which was still in its early stages of establishing itself.

Islam Shah was obviously unhappy with the nobles who had supported Adil Khan in his rebellion. Before Islam Shah could vent his anger on them, there was an assassination attempt on him, which further soured his disposition towards the group of nobles whom he considered rebels. Further, his antipathy boiled over to the entire Afghan nobility in general. Islam Shah now displayed his virulent, vindictive nature. He conducted a vicious purge of the nobility, breaking all the cliques that existed. The underlying strength of the Afghan rule had always been the loyal support of the majority of the nobility to the king. Sher Shah had assiduously cultivated the nobility and ensured their undying loyalty to him, demonstrated by the nobles choosing his son as his successor, even though no heir apparent had been named. In one fell-sweep Islam Shah obliterated this support base and there was not one noble who was loyal to him from the heart—they were obedient out of fear of reprisals.

Although he was ruthless and also did not have the support of ‘loyal’ nobles, Islam Shah was an active and efficient ruler, improving on the administrative reforms that his father had initiated. He also continued to extend the centralised policies that had been instituted by his father. However, he insisted on placing himself at a higher plane than the nobles, a decision that brought about further resentment amongst the nobles, although obedience was enforced. This attitude was in sharp contrast to the manner in which his father had dealt with the nobles, ensuring that they felt almost at par with him. Sher Shah was self-effacing to a fault and had always projected himself as one among equals. Islam Shah behaved on the other end of the spectrum and being completely self-centred was brash and callous regarding the feeling of others. The nobles, at least most of them, remained obedient, but not loyal.

Islam Khan did not fight any battle of consequence during his reign. At one stage, Humayun had crossed the River Indus and Islam Shah had immediately set out to meet the invading army. However nothing came of this expedition since Humayun withdrew to Kabul on realising that the Afghan army had set out to confront him. Even though the army was not employed very much, Islam Shah systematically upgraded the Afghan army, firmly believing that the security of the kingdom was directly dependent on the efficiency of the army.

Islam Shah’s reign did not last long. He was afflicted with urinary infections and a fistula that finally claimed his life. For a virulently violent person, surprisingly, Islam Shah died in bed on 22nd November 1554, after a short rule of nine years.

A Faltering End to the Dynasty

On Islam Shah’s death, his 12-year old son Firuz Khan was raised to the throne. However, Sher Shah’s younger brother’s son, Islam Shah’s cousin and also brother-in-law Mubariz Khan, beheaded Firuz Khan in front of his mother, Mubariz’s own sister, and ascended the throne, assuming the title Adil Shah. He silenced and won over the nobles by gifting them with expensive presents. Adil Shah’s role model was Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the infamous 14th century ‘mad’ sultan of Delhi, and he equalled his idol in eccentricity.

Soon after he usurped the throne, the Delhi-Agra region was afflicted by a debilitating famine. However, Adil Shah did not attempt to alleviate the trouble of the citizens, but carried on as if nothing of consequence had occurred. He took all the privileges of being a king without accepting any of the responsibilities that came with it, much as his role model had done in his lifetime. Adil Shah was fond of luxury and ease and was unfit to rule a kingdom during turbulent times, when decisive and compassionate leadership is fundamental to the country’s stability and enforcement of central control. Attached to Adil Shah’s entourage was a ‘low-born’ Hindu shopkeeper from Rewari, Hemu, who was endowed with considerable administrative talent. Hemu had gradually worked his way into Adil Shah’s favour and managed to gather a great deal of power in his hands. He was to play a brief, but crucial, role in the flow of history at a slightly later time.

The Afghan nobles who were already alienated from the dynasty now moved back to their jagirs, some of them functioning as semi-autonomous chiefs. Several minor rebellions ensued, which were not contested by Adil Shah. Two other cousins of Islam and Adil Shah established independent fiefdoms—Ahmad Khan, creating a ‘kingdom’ in Punjab and assuming the title Sikandar Shah and Ibrahim Khan starting to rule the Delhi-Agra region. In the eastern part, Muhammad Shah declared independence in Bengal. Adil Shah was now reduced to ruling a truncated Bihar from the fort at Chunar. Even the part of Bihar that Adil Shah claimed as his kingdom was actually controlled by Hemu who by now had gathered all power to himself. In a cynical analysis of the situation, Hemu holding administrative power could be considered a good strategy on the part of Adil Shah. If the position had been given to an Afghan noble, Adil Shah would have lost the throne. Having a Hindu as the de facto administrative head ensured that he would continue to be the king, since the chances of a Hindu being able to usurp the throne in a Muslim court was next to impossible.

In the meantime Humayun once again entered Hindustan, this time determined to make an attempt to recapture his inheritance. The time seemed apt, the entire North India was in turmoil with three different claimants to the Sur throne—Adil, Sikandar and Ibrahim. Of the three, Adil Shah was completely detached from the on-going power struggle as well as the accompanying confusion and instability. He was immersed in his love for music, a surprising trait for one who had demonstrated a ruthless passion for the pursuit of his own goals.

‘This depraved and sanguinary monarch was one of the greatest musical virtuosi of his age. “Adil was so highly skilled in singing and dancing that Miyan Tansen, the well-known kalawant, who is a past master in this art, used to own to being his pupil, and Baz Bahadur … who was also one of the most gifted men of his age and had no equal in this life-wasting accomplishment, acquired the art (of music) from Adil,” says Badauni.’

—Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, pp. 98-99.

In 1557, the Sur edifice collapsed. Adil Shah was defeated and killed in battle by Muhammad Shah of Bengal. Sikandar Shah pushed south and defeated Ibrahim, expelling him from the Delhi-Agra region that he had ruled. Ibrahim fled to Orissa, where he died in obscurity. Sikandar himself was subsequently defeated by the Mughal forces under Humayun and fled to Bengal, where he also died in anonymity. The presence of the Sur dynasty in the northern and eastern Gangetic Plains had come to an inglorious end. As Abraham Eraly succinctly states, ‘Adil Shah’s music was the dirge of the Sur dynasty’.

The Sur Dynasty – An Appreciation

In carrying out an appreciation of the Sur dynasty, their rule and the impact that they had on the broader spread of Indian history, only the reign of Sher Shah Sur need be considered, since the two following rulers were inconsequential to a comprehensive narrative of events that transpired. It is true that the administration of the Delhi Sultanate had started to fall apart during the last days of the Lodi dynastic rule. The two Mughal kings who nominally ruled North India after Ibrahim Lodi was defeated at Panipat in 1526 did not have the opportunity—time and stability being against them—to establish their own imprimatur on the administration before Babur died and Humayun was exiled from India. By the time Sher Shah Sur came to the throne, there was no ‘administration’ to speak of and the kingdom, if it could be called that, was a free-wheeling territory where anyone with sufficient strength and ambition could carve out a fiefdom for himself.

Reform of Civil Administration

Early in his reign, while he was stabilising Punjab, Sher Shah had to rush to Bengal to deal with an incipient rebellion, the first and only one during his tenure, where the governor had started to rule almost as an independent king. During this forced march to Bengal he had enough time to think through the reforms that could be instituted to put an end to the scourge of rebellion, which had debilitated the Delhi Sultanate from the very beginning. Sher Shah decided that the need was to curtail, or even better, completely eliminate the power of the governors, especially of the ones in-charge of peripheral provinces. He therefore decided to split the larger provinces into small districts, which would be administered by district chiefs. Further, the district chief was only responsible for the law and order of the district, with a newly appointed Munsif looking after the civil administration and revenue aspects. Essentially, he divided the power of the administrator by creating two power centres and thus ensured that no one person became too powerful in a district.

At the next higher level, instead of a governor he appointed a provincial co-ordinator with no executive or military powers and therefore could not challenge central imperial power. The co-ordinator was effectively the king’s representative who would have to report all the goings-on in the province to the king at the capital. Thus the perennial challenge of rebellions in the outward-lying provinces was almost completely eliminated. Further, Sher Shah set up centrally controlled military outposts in all provinces. This arrangement ensured that even the smallest of rebellions in the provinces invited swift and vicious punishment, orchestrated by the king himself. It also acted as a deterrent to would-be rebels, the success of which is testified by the fact that Sher Shah did not face any further rebellions during his short reign.

The elimination of crime was an important aspect of Sher Shah’s administration, going back to the time that his father had given him independent control of the family jagir. Much like in his younger days, Sher Shah the king also laid emphasis on the role of the village headman in ensuring the prosperity of the village. He made the village headman responsible for the wellbeing and all actions of the village, based on his firm belief that nothing transpired in a village without the knowledge of the headman. While the headman was given actual control of the village, he was also held responsible for any unsolved crime and even punished if the crime-rate increased. This was found to be an effective way to deter petty crime at the lowest level of the administration.

Sher Shah inherently was of a suspicious nature and did not trust anyone. Deterring people from attempting fraud therefore became a personal crusade and the centre piece of his administrative reforms. In his zest, Sher Shah went to extent of equating the eradication of fraud to a moral challenge for the king. However, he was pragmatic enough to accept that he himself had gained the kingdom by catering to the avarice and fraudulent nature of princes, nobles and petty chieftains. The change in attitude now that he was king was the assertion that he would not have such a fate befall his own kingdom. Sher Shah was an extremely disciplined person and also a strict disciplinarian, who treated all his subordinates with equal fairness. His punishments were also uniformly exemplary, bordering on the ruthless at times.

The Sur Army

His army was Sher Shah’s personal pride and remained directly under his command throughout his life. The army was well-equipped and well paid, with the pay of individual soldiers being determined personally by Sher Shah himself. He established military posts across the entire kingdom and had contingents stationed in different parts, thus increasing the ability to swiftly respond to emerging challenges. These contingents themselves were rotated regularly to avoid their becoming overly familiar with the local population and thereby increasing the chances of corruption and losing their edge. He adopted a leaf out of Ala ud-Din Khilji’s administration of his army and branded all horses according to the contingent that it belonged to, so that substitution could not be done. He also ensured that a descriptive roll of all soldiers was maintained so that an actual count could be done during the king’s roll call.

Sher Shah also improved on existing infrastructure and created fresh ones to ensure the safety and security of the kingdom and its people. He built a number of forts across the kingdom to act as the centre of the administration and also as a refuge in times of external attacks. His plan was to have one fort in every district, although this could not be brought to fruition, mainly because of his truncated reign. He laid out many new highways while effecting rapid repairs of old ones and also repairing caravanserais. Sher Shah is credited with connecting the already existing highways and building roads in places where it was necessary, thereby creating a great highway connecting Gaur, the capital of Bengal to the River Indus and further linking Lahore and Multan with feeder roads. This highway was obviously not a new road per se as some reports suggest, but a repair and realignment effort.

He created caravanserais every six kilometres, establishing some 1700 of them during his reign. These also doubled as royal mail centres and housed government horses and riders who carried mail at a rapid pace across the entire kingdom. Obviously they were also centrally controlled intelligence gathering centres. Some commentators claim that India during Sher Shah’s rule was the safest place in the world for a traveller. This is a somewhat strange epitaph for a person who rose to power and status through being fully tuned to deception and realpolitik.

Agriculture and Trade

Of all the medieval rulers in North India, Sher Shah was the most caring for the welfare of the peasants. His sympathetic approach to the lowly peasant was obvious from the time that he administered Sasaram on behalf of his father. There seems to have been no doubt in his mind that the prosperity of the kingdom was directly connected to the welfare of the peasant and their productivity. This is a fundamental truth that holds good for all agrarian societies. He ensured that his army on the march did not destroy any crops and if the destruction of crops was inevitable, Sher Shah ensured that adequate compensation was paid to the peasant. These were revolutionary concepts for medieval times.

In order to ensure that productivity was maintained at the highest possible level, he also instituted a flexible revenue system, which catered for the different patterns of cultivation in different parts of the kingdom. The peasants were the first concern of this welfare-minded monarch. The processes and system of revenue administration that Sher Shah instituted formed the foundation for the much appreciated Mughal system in later years and was also the basis for the British revenue administration. The fundamental principle for assessing the income was that the king should not be cheated and therefore the assessment had to be as realistic as possible.

Traders were treated well in every way and merchants were protected by royal decree. The merchants and traders were able to travel throughout the kingdom and the administration ensured that their goods were safe. Theft was punished severely and therefore very rare. Sher Shah also simplified the trade levies by abolishing irregular taxes and levying them only at the point of entry and at the point of sale. Sher Shah also standardised the coinage by ensuring that each coin of the same metal, whether gold, silver and copper, had the same weight. This system of coinage ensued throughout the Mughal era.

Justice System

Sher Shah lived up to the name that he had adopted when he assumed the throne and delivered robust and even-handed justice to all. Justice was delivered in accordance with the Islamic judicial principle of retaliation, while working within the Islamic religious traditions at all times. The system had been put in place by the Delhi Sultans earlier and Sher Shah merely followed it while ensuring that justice was made available to all. He epitomised impartiality and extreme attention to detail in enforcing the law. This insistence on impartiality at all times was one of the major reasons for his being able to keep the turbulent Afghan nobles pacified and under his control throughout his reign.


The two Mughals who preceded Sher Shah on the throne of Agra-Delhi did not have the time or the opportunity in India to emulate the great building tradition of the Persians. True, Babur built a mosque in Panipat to give thanks for his easy victory over the Lodi Sultan. Later, he also built another mosque in Ayodhya, the Babur-i-Masjid. This mosque is said to have been built on the site of a Hindu temple, which was destroyed on Babur’s orders; the temple itself being considered to have been built on the spot where Lord Ram of the epic Ramayana was born. [More has been written and discussed about this edifice than any other in India, especially in modern times. Adding any further contribution to the already existing and vexed reportage would only invite contradiction and criticism. Therefore, this author has nothing more to add to the on-going controversy, other than to record that Babur built a mosque in Ayodhya. This narrative does not comment on any aspect of the controversy surrounding the mosque.]

Humayun had started the construction of a complex in Delhi, on the site of Indraprastha, the legendary capital of the Pandavas of Mahabharata, now called the Purana Quila (Old Fortress). However, he was ousted from the throne before the construction could be completed. Sher Shah added to Humayun’s complex and then built a mosque in it. Only part of the complex and the mosque survive today, but the mosque is considered to be of measured dignity and perfect taste. Much more arresting is Sher Shah’s magnificent five-storied tomb in Sasaram, where he is interred. Octagonal in shape and set upon a stepped plinth in the middle of a lake, the mausoleum is unique—it is nearly 50 metres high and the scale of the tomb is impressive. It has ‘chhatris’ (pillared and cupolaed pavilions) of exquisite craftsmanship and is of stunning beauty. This tomb dwarfs all previous ones and had the effect of making the Mughals strive to improve on it, or at the minimum keep pace with Sher Shah the Usurper, who had set an impossibly high standard to maintain.


Considering that Sher Shah ruled only for short period of time, his achievements are nothing short of phenomenal. He was a shrewd practitioner of realpolitik and did not shy away from employing deceit, when necessary, to achieve his objectives. Further, Sher Shah was never an innovator and was not interested in abstract ideas and/or highly idealistic concepts. He dealt in the here and now, wanting to hear and heed only suggestions that made the administration of his kingdom more efficient. Pragmatism should have been his middle-name.

It could be speculated that Sher Shah would have been a great builder of monuments, but his reign was far too short for him to have indulged in creating monuments for posterity, even if he was so inclined. Sher Shah’s building capabilities therefore, must remain in the speculative sphere. He was a devout Sunni Muslim but considered religion to be only of personal interest. Although Sher Shah altered almost all aspects of the administration, in a frenzy of reformist changes, he did not delve into religion. He was content to follow the more liberal practices of the Delhi Sultans—not oppressing the non-believers too much and merely treating the local people as subject people, who had been conquered. Sher Shah practised charity, again very similar to most contemporary Indian rulers, both Muslim and Hindu alike. A cynical analysis, based on his extreme pragmatism, is that Sher Shah may have considered his extensive charities as an investment to curry divine favour at the time of the final reckoning.

There is no doubt that Sher Shah was driven initially by ambition that was almost like a fire in his belly and later as king by his desperate internal craving to be successful. This may have been a manifestation of the difficult relationship that he had with his father throughout his life and also the sense of rejection that he faced in his younger days from his father. As he himself was driven to continuous work, he drove his officials the same way, never condoning any effort that produced less than the best output. Sher Shah was a king of the people—he did not have any qualms about joining his soldiers to dig trenches or about being seen as part of his common subjects—after all he did come from common stock.

© [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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