Indian History Part 80 Humayun Section VII: Hindustan Regained

Canberra, 23 May 2020

Free of his rebellious brothers at last, Humyaun’s first thought was to expand his territorial holdings—he contemplated an invasion of Kashmir, the reason for which has never been well-established. However, he was dissuaded by his nobles who pointed him towards his inheritance in India. Humayun then moved along the River Kabul and arrived at Peshawar, where he reconstructed an existing fort, as a possible staging post for his planned invasion of India. He then returned to Kabul.

That winter, events in Hindustan came to a head and provided a window of opportunity for Humayun to initiate his plan to invade India. Islam Khan had died prematurely and the Sur kingdom was in turmoil, gradually breaking apart. Disorder and confusion was the order of the day. The prevailing situation was almost an invitation to Humayun to return to India and take over the throne of Delhi. In November 1554, he set out from Kabul for Jalalabad, taking his son Akbar with him while leaving behind the rest of the family. His younger son, Muhammad Hakim, was appointed the nominal governor of Kabul and placed under the care of the venerable general Munim Khan, who was to act as the regent.

From Jalalabad, the contingent floated down the River Kabul and reached Peshawar. The Mughal forces were numerically and in overall capability absurdly small for the great enterprise that they had embarked upon—they numbered just about 5000 cavalry. Fortunately for Humayun, there was no dominant power to oppose him as he continued his advance into the Punjab. Under the direct leadership of the great general Biram Khan, the small Mughal army literally trotted through Punjab, the Afghan forces and garrisons scattering in front of them without offering any effective opposition. The Afghan leadership had already broken up and had forfeited any loyalty from their forces.

The Mughal forces occupied Lahore without opposition. Rohtas, the fort on River Jhelum that Sher Shah had constructed to withstand just such an eventuality, surrendered without a struggle. Reinforcements send by Sikandar Shah ruling the region were easily routed by the Mughals in a battle fought at the banks of the River Sutlej. Humayun now advanced to Sirhind where Sikandar Shah and his army opposed him. Sikandar was the most powerful of the three Sur pretenders to the throne and he commanded an army that was numerically larger than the Mughal forces. It had been a lucky break for Humayun that when he entered Punjab, Sikandar Shah was near Delhi with his army, battling his cousin Ibrahim for control of the Delhi-Agra region. If he had been in the Punjab, Humayun would have been confronted much earlier. Sikandar now halted the Mughal advance.

Battle was joined on 22 June 1555, Sikandar Shah was defeated mainly because of the superior tactics employed by Biram Khan. He fled to the foothills of the Himalayas, leaving the path to Delhi open to the Mughals.

The Altered Mughal Tactics

After the two decisive victories that Babur had achieved earlier while fighting from a defensive formation, no Indian army was willing to attack a Mughal army that had already established and ensconced itself in a defensive formation. Realising this, Biram Khan deployed most of his army in carefully constructed defensive positions. Then he had an advance party in front of the dug-in forces to make contact with the enemy in an attack formation. Once contact was established and fighting started in earnest, he pulled this offensive force back and lured the enemy into the pre-prepared defensive positions and into the face of withering canon fire. The effect was the same as starting a battle from strong defensive positions albeit with slightly higher casualties.

On 23 July 1555, a full 15 years after he had been chased out of Delhi by Sher Shah Sur, Humayun reoccupied the throne of Delhi. Agra was captured soon after, offering no resistance. The situation now was very similar to that when Humayun had ruled for ten years before his exile—he was surrounded by Afghan nobles holding most of the territory. However, there was a subtle difference in the circumstances this time around. In his earlier tenure Humayun did not have any commanders that he could trust implicitly; the Mughal nobles had three other sons of Babur to whom they could owe allegiance, thereby dividing their loyalties. Now with one of them blinded and banished, and the other two dead, the Mughal nobles gave Humayun their undivided loyalty, for in this alien country their own welfare was directly connected to the Emperor’s welfare. One by one, the provinces of the old Mughal kingdom were wrested from the Afghans by Humayun’s generals and annexed to the growing Mughal Empire.

Only a small cell of rebellion in the Punjab remained, kindled by Sikandar attempting to cut the Mughal line of communication from Kabul and Peshawar to Delhi. Biram Khan, taking Akbar with him as the nominal commander of the army, stormed back to Punjab and repulsed Sikandar, making him flee back to the hills. The empire was now quiet. It seemed that Humayun’s luck had finally turned.

It was time to reward the loyal nobles who had travelled the troubled road with him. Humayun rewarded their loyalty with titles and presents. Biram Khan came in for special mention, being bestowed the tittle of Khan-Khanan, Lord of Lords. Humayun now relaxed in Delhi, almost as if his life’s work had been accomplished.

The Scheme to Reorganise the Administration

Humayun refurbished one of Sher Shah’s larger mansions and made it into a library and set up an elaborate observatory on the roof to further his astronomical studies. He spent an inordinate amount of time in this mini-palace with his favourite nobles.

Humayun had also thought through a scheme to reorganise the country and the administration—this time not based on astrological fantasies as the last time but based on some strong albeit revolutionary concepts. He had taken into account the changes that the brilliant Sher Shah had instituted and had taken the Sur administration as a model. His scheme was based on a novel idea in which he planned to divide the empire into virtually autonomous provinces, with the emperor as the overlord. He envisaged that the emperor would have a guard of 12,000, akin to the Praetorian Guard, and he would constantly tour the provinces on inspection visits to ensure good governance and to collect tribute. In all other aspects the provinces were to be completely independent in their administration. This was an untried concept and on examining the vague details that are available for the modern analyst it would seem to have been a risky proposal in medieval times. There was the real danger of the provincial heads, even if they were princes or perhaps especially if they were princes, declaring independence after consolidating power. In all probabilities, if it had been implemented the scheme would have thrown the empire into civil war and strife.

As the events transpired, Humayun did not have an opportunity to implement his scheme—an unfortunate accident brought his life to a premature end.

An Untimely End

Humayun’s death was as unlucky as anything else in his life—there is no doubt that he had led a rather unlucky life from the time he was declared the crown prince. He was a sentimental dreamer, an educated, erudite and cultured prince, a humane and chivalrous person who enjoyed poetry and the finer things in life. Unfortunately he had to content with three extremely ambitious younger brothers, whom his father had forbidden Humayun from harming. Not only did they try to usurp the throne at the slightest opportunity, but they also refused to help Humayun even at the time that he faced the greatest danger in his life. Humayun could perhaps be labelled the most unlucky of the ‘Great Mughals’.

In the evening of 24th January 1556, Humayun was in his observatory with a group of astrologers, discussing the time that Venus would rise that day. The moment of the rise of Venus on this particular day was considered propitious, since it was a Friday and Humayun was keen to make some important appointments at that time. He began to descend the steep steps from the roof when he heard the muezzin’s cry that summoned the faithful to prayer. He stopped on the steps and turned to the direction of the mosque to bow. His foot got caught on the robe that he was wearing and he tumbled headlong down the steep steps. During the fall, he struck his right temple on a sharp edge and became unconscious. It is reported that when the courtiers and doctors reached him, there was blood trickling from his ear.

Humayun lingered alive for two more days, regaining consciousness at times, but died on the evening of 26 January 1556. He was 48 years old and had been on the throne of Delhi for merely six months.

The account of Humayun’s death is perhaps best described by Stanley Lane-Poole, in a less than generous manner:

‘His end was of a piece with his character. If there was a possibility of falling, Humayun was not the man to miss it. He tumbled though life, and he tumbled out of it.’

—Stanley Lane-Poole

Medieval India Under Mohammedan Rule (AD 712-1764) p. 237

Humayun – A Turbulent Life

Among the six ‘Great’ or ‘Imperial’ Mughals, Humayun is the least famous or celebrated—almost considered a failure and being a non-entity. Definitely, he was the weakest in terms of strength of character. Humayun was impetuous while at the same time being indecisive, a combination of character traits that would be confounding even in a normal person, let alone a prince destined to be an emperor. Unfortunately he also had an uncanny knack of leaning towards one of these traits—impetuousness and indecisiveness—at the wrong time for that trait to be predominating in the decision-making. Further, Humayun was addicted to opium and this drawback always stood in the way of his becoming an effective leader.

Humayun has always been compared to his father in terms of the troubles, suffering and privation that he had to endure in his life. It is indeed true that Humayun’s sufferings in his life are perhaps only rivalled by the events that Babur had to go through in his life. However, the similarity ends there. Even in his most depressed state, Babur faced adversity with confident daring and an exuberant energy to fight his way out of the trouble, step by step if necessary. Humayun on the other hand submitted to life with equanimity, in a most passive manner. Characteristically Humayun found confrontation, real or imagined, uncomfortable and he avoided it as much as possible. He went through his entire life as a sentimental dreamer, buoyed by romantic aspirations of greatness in a most languorous manner. Greatness was never to be his.

Humayun’s lifelong enemies were his own brothers and kinsmen, yet he baulked at the idea of controlling them or instituting harsh measures to bring them to heel. He had a highly developed sense of gratitude towards the people who had helped him, epitomised in the manner in which he treated the lowly water-carrier who had assisted him to cross the River Ganga. Although Humayun was personally courageous and brave in battle, he was not a strategic general; and unfortunately neither was he a good administrator. A holistic analysis of his actions brings out the fact that Humayun did not persevere on any one effort for the length of time necessary for that project to succeed. He wanted to see results immediately, failing which he moved on to new initiatives. This is a disastrous trait in any supreme commander or ruler. Humayun was perhaps unfit for the times that he lived in—after all he was devoted to the study of astronomy, loved painting and wrote Persian poetry; all pursuits that a warring prince would have rejected as being unsuitable for an effective ruler in turbulent times.

Humayun was modest by nature, and he had a lot of things to be modest about. Stated in a different manner, there was nothing that he had achieved in his life that he could have been overly proud about. However, these appreciations discount the fact that he had regained the throne that he had decisively lost, even though it took 15 years of exile and wandering in the wilderness to achieve.

‘With his air of civilised lethargy, his excessive superstition, his sentimentality, his lack of self-confidence, Humayun gives the overall impression of a man childish but endearing—not perhaps the best qualifications for an emperor. But it is worth adding that his life, which looks like a failure, ran a course remarkably parallel to his father’s, which certainly looked a success.’

—Bamber Gascoigne,

The Great Mughals, p. 58


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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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