Indian History Part 80 Humayun Section VI: The Mughal Revival

Canberra, 16 May 2020

The exiled Humayun reached Shal on his way to find shelter in Kandahar, where he was informed that Askari was close at hand with a large force to apprehend him. Humayun changed his plans and decided to flee to the Persian border with his wife, while leaving behind his son and the attending ladies behind. He believed that Askari, or for that matter any of his other brothers, would not harm the infant. Askari was disappointed that Humayun had escaped but treated the infant, his nephew, with affection. The infant prince was conveyed to Kandahar, where Askari was the governor and placed him under the supervision of his own wife, Sultana Begum, who looked after the child like her own son.

Different Traditions

In European history, it would have been a fatal error to leave one’s progeny to be ‘captured’ by a rival claimant to the throne, even if it was one’s own brother or a near relative. It appears that the Timurid traditions were different and developed on some unwritten rules, especially with regard to any struggle for supremacy or claiming the throne of a kingdom. There was an unspoken convention that safeguarded infants and women generally even in times of all out conflict. Infant Akbar benefitted from this tradition.

Humayun’s Last Flight – Persia

Since his brothers’ territories were hostile to him, Humayun’s course of action was determined for him, he did not have to make a decision. He would flee to Persia—if he was well received there, he would seek the assistance of the Shah to reclaim his throne; otherwise he would continue his journey towards Mecca, the soft-exile option normally exercised by Muslim princes and royal families. Accordingly, Humayun send a letter to the Shah of Persia. However, he did not have the time to wait for a formal reply since it was imperative that he move out of Kamran’s territory at the earliest. He crossed the River Helmand and entered Persia in January 1544. On reaching Persian territory Humayun’s life, and luck, changed.

During his exile and flight in India and Afghanistan, Humayun had been treated by most local rulers with barely concealed disdain, and at times even open antagonism, since they generally considered him a threat to their own positions, some of which were transitory and precarious in themselves. Shah Tahmasp I of Persia (ruled 1524 – 1576) dealt with the exiled king adopting a completely different psychology. He knew that the ousted king of Hindustan with a following of less than 40 soldiers was absolutely no threat to the might of the Persian Emperor. More importantly, the Mughal king requesting refuge in his kingdom added great lustre to himself as a great emperor. Tahmasp worked on the principle that greater the stature of the refugee, greater would his own stature become.

Based on this somewhat selfish calculation, the Shah treated Humayun as a great king, laying out the full royal protocol from the time he entered Persian territory. The Shah gave specific instructions that ensured that no ‘unfriendly’ gestures were made towards Humayun and his limited entourage and also prescribed the manner in which the refugee king was to be treated, wined and dined. He also made elaborate security arrangements all along the route. Subsequently Humayun was ceremonially received at Herat by the Shah’s infant son, who was the nominal governor of the province, and the regent-governor.

Herat was one of the great cities of the medieval Muslim world and Humayun stayed in a palace laid aside for him and rested for a month. Like his father before him, in Herat Humayun was exposed to the cultural traditions of his Timurid genealogy, in its most refined form. Humayun’s short-stay in Herat would have a great influence on the cultural sensibilities of the entire Mughal rule in India.

The Mughal School of Painting

While staying in Herat, Humayun travelled to Tabriz, where he met two distinguished pupils of the great painter Bihzad—Khwaja Abdus Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali. He invited both these artists to visit him in Hindustan, if he ever managed to regain his throne. (Humayun’s lack of self-confidence and uncertainty regarding his future is apparent in this invitation, to visit ‘if’ he regained the kingdom, not ‘when’ he regained it.)

Later the two painters took up the invitation and visited Delhi. Under their tutelage, Indian artists undertook the first series of paintings in what is now known as the Mughal School – the Dastan-i-Amir-Hamzah.

After a month at Herat, Humayun embarked to Kazvin, the Persian capital. The journey was slow and lingering, the Mughal enjoying the sights and luxuriating in the royal treatment being accorded to him and his entourage. He finally reached the capital seven months after entering the country, by which time the Shah was already in Surliq, the summer capital of the country in the hills. It is here that Humayun first met Tahmasp, who greeted him as an equal, making him sit on the same cushion as himself, treating him as an honoured guest. The Shah was an ardent Shia and also prone to attempting conversions. Tahmasp insisted that Humayun and his entourage become Shias, similar to the event that had transpired with his father Babur early in his life. The cajoling and intermittent threats finally worked and Humayun, at least temporarily, started to wear Shia dress and headgear.

During this time Kamran send envoys to the Shah’s court, requesting that Humayun be handed over to him in return for which Kandahar would be surrendered to Persia. Fortunately for Humayun, the Shah’s favourite sister advocated on his behalf and the Tahmasp decided to back Humayun against his brother. The Shah now promised Humayun 12,000 cavalry and sufficient materiel to mount a prolonged campaign against Kamran on the condition that Kandahar would be handed over to Persia when it was captured.

In a number of statements attributed to Humayun, he repeatedly emphasises the need for urgency to march back to Afghanistan and India to recapture his lost kingdom. However, in deed he showed no hurry to do so and seemed almost reluctant to leave Persia, where he was being given all the respect, pomp and ceremony due to a monarch without his having to shoulder any responsibilities that accompany being a king. This was characteristic of Humayun who was loath to make any difficult decisions and was happy to go along with the flow as long as he lived in extreme indulgent luxury. Humayun therefore embarked on a sight-seeing trip across Persia instead of preparing for an invasion of the sub-continent. When, even after a year of travelling in Persia, the Shah did not perceive any planning on the part of Humayun to start his campaign and homeward journey, he ordered the Mughal to leave Persia immediately.

Homeward Journey

A cultured, erudite dreamer, Humayun was under no illusion regarding the awesome challenges that faced him in his quest to regain his lost throne. He crossed into Afghanistan at Sistan in mid-1545, to start his reluctant journey home and moved across the desert towards Kandahar, his first objective. Humayun’s forces, mainly Persian cavalry, laid siege to Kandahar, which was under the command of Askari. Kandahar withstood the siege for four months and then was captured on 3rd September 1545. Humayun promptly handed over the town to the Persian envoy accompanying him, honouring his agreement with the Shah. However, when the cold winter set-in a few months later, Humayun took Kandahar back from the Persians, to ensure proper protection for his forces. Luckily, Tahmasp did not react to this event.

Kandahar thereafter would remain a bone of contention between the Persians and the Mughals for a full century, changing hands many times and finally falling to the Persian in 1649. Settling into Kandahar in the winter of 1545-46, Humayun looked to be in a winning proposition—the Persian forces were still with him and by now his brother Hindal and cousin Yadgar had joined forces with Humayun.

Akbar – Moved to Kabul

When Humayun was besieging Kandahar, Kamran send word to his brother Askari to transfer the infant Akbar to Kabul, probably with the intention to use him as a bargaining tool at a later date. Askari and his nobles, on the verge of defeat, debated whether to send Akbar back to his father with an escort as a peace offering and an act of penitence. They considered whether or not this act might soften Humayun’s attitude towards them. However, the enmity between Humayun and Askari had become far too venomous for such an act to have any practical meaning or to be considered an act of appeasement.

Askari, knowing that he was on the verge of defeat, send Akbar and his sister Bakshi Banu Begum to Kabul to ensure that he would stay in favour at least with Kamran. In Kabul, Kamran did not ill-treat the child, but handed him over to the care of Khanzada Begum, Babur’s sister and Akbar’s great aunt.

Humayun advanced on Kabul, which surrendered without a fight on 15 November 1545, Kamran and his family having already fled from the town on the approach of the Mughal-Persian army. Humayun was reunited with his son and daughter and there was great rejoicing. Hamida joined the royal camp in the spring of 1546 and the family spent a few months in domestic celebration, which suited Humayun’s temperament of easy-going rule and avoidance of confrontation. In moving from Kandahar to Kabul, Humayun had shown uncharacteristic alacrity, maybe because he was worried for the safety of his son who was ‘captive’ in Kabul at that time. However, this relative tranquillity and domestic peace was short-lived. The tussle for dominance in Kabul between Humayun and Kamran would last the next eight years, descending to very low levels of moral and ethical conduct by both parties.

Power Struggle in Kabul

Domestic peace and stability did not stop Kabul from becoming turbulent for Humayun—the struggle for dominance of the Mughal throne and inheritance was slowly brewing. In less than a decade, Kabul would change hands between Humayun and Kamran the feuding brothers, as many as five times. Both were well aware that the contest was not only about the throne, but also that defeat meant the loss of life for the loser—the fight was temporal but intensely personal. As the struggle dragged on, the conduct and viciousness of the actual fighting intensified, becoming ruthless with both parties flouting the unwritten rules that had so far been instrumental in keeping battles within the bounds of morality. On many occasions both sides targeted women and children and in one instance, Kamran had the boy-prince Akbar brought to the ramparts of the fort so that Humayun’s forces would stop shelling the besieged fort.

Finally Humayun took possession of the fort for good and some sort of a superficial peace was negotiated between the brothers. However, this peace was a portent of things to come in the Mughal dynasty—peace between siblings and/or rival claimants of the throne would be permanent only with the death of one of them. The nearly two centuries-long future history of the Mughals would see this unfortunate saga played out repeatedly.

After his initial flight from Kabul, Kamran had reclaimed Kabul twice. However, he was vindictive by nature and inflicted severe punishment on the people whom he thought had collaborated with Humayun in the interim periods. This attitude made him unpopular with the general populace and they now preferred to be ruled by the more easy-going, and somewhat gentler, Humayun. At the same time his inner circle of nobles was continually urging Humayun to be more decisive in his dealings with his brothers. This on-going effort by well-meaning nobles culminated in a solemn ceremony where the noble swore allegiance to Humayun in return for the king promising to obey the group of nobles on all matters of policy. Decisive action by Humayun thereafter, especially against his rebellious brothers, could be attributed to the pressure applied on him by this influential group of nobles.

Of the three brothers of Humayun, Hindal who had become loyal to him died in a skirmish with Kamran’s forces. Askari was captured after a minor battle and kept in chains for a period of time in a prison. Subsequently he was forcibly sent on a pilgrimage to Mecca—a form of soft-exile—and died en route in 1558. Kamran, Humayun’s immediate younger brother and the most troublesome of the lot, attempted to forge an alliance with Islam Khan, Sher Shah’s son and successor, but was rejected by the Sur king. Around 1553, he made his way to Adam Gakkar’s court in Punjab seeking refuge and assistance. Gakkar was aware of the changed attitude of Humayun and not wanting to antagonise him, arrested Kamran and handed him over to the Mughal king. Kamran was immediately imprisoned and the courtiers insisted on his being executed. Humayun, would not consent and instead had him blinded. Thereafter Kamran also was send to Mecca, where he died in 1557. Humayun was now free from any sort of interference and was as ready as he would ever be to march into Hindustan to reclaim his lost inheritance.

Kamran – A Requiem

Kamran was obviously a less likeable character in comparison to the gentle and sensitive Humayun. However, the question still looms, can he be picturised as a treacherous traitor and a villain? For the actions that he took against the women and children of Humayun’s harem during the later sieges of Kabul, he is to be condemned as being a vile human being who broke away from the traditionally accepted moral conduct of a king. However, before condemning him for battling Humayun for the control of Kabul towards the end of his life, he should be given a second hearing.

It is possible that in his own mind Kamran may have considered himself the wronged party rather than as the villain. It is almost certain that he felt what he did was within his right. There is an explanation for his behaviour. The tradition in both Genghis Khan’s dynasty and that of Timur, the two illustrious lines that the Mughals had emerged from, was that the sons divided the kingdom as their inheritance after the death of the father. After the division each one would try to improve his share of the holdings by all means possible, while staying the actions within certain unwritten rules and conventions. Thus one finds that one of his brothers was already marching to capture the fiefdom of Omar Shaikh Mirza, Babur’s father, at the time of Omar’s death. In the current scenario, Kamran had been given Kabul as his inheritance and he felt (and was probably correctly so) justified in opposing the dispossessed Humayun from coming into his territory, almost definitely with the intention of usurping control as the king and elder brother.

The issue here was not so straightforward. Kamran was obviously following the traditional nomadic practice and conventions of the Timurid kingdom. On the other hand, Humayun was on the cusp of adopting the Indian and Persian custom of strong and centralised kingdoms wherein one ‘crown prince’ inherited the entire kingdom. The two concepts were incompatible with each other. One was based on inheritance-equality of all progeny of the deceased king, while the other was based on primogeniture. The second concept of primogeniture had so far invariably led to bloody fratricide at the death of a king. Ruthless killing of all brothers and even strong-willed cousins on ascending the throne became the norm in both Indian and Middle-Eastern Muslim dynasties, with the new incumbent wanting to decimate all possible opposition at the beginning of his rule. For example, Sultan Muhammad of Turkey is reported to have killed 19 of his brothers when he ascended the throne in 1595. The Mughal dynasty was to follow suit in this custom. It was just unfortunate that the gentle Humayun was the one to usher in a transition in tradition from the customary Timurid practice to one of primogeniture. In several instances, his pain at having to treat his brothers harshly is palpable even after so many centuries.

© [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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