Indian History Part 81 Akbar Section I: A Boy-King is Inaugurated

Canberra, 31 May 2020

About two months before his death, Humayun had made an unusually wise decision, which would have long-term implications for the future of the Mughal Empire in India: he made Biram Khan, whose steadfast loyalty and military leadership had been primarily instrumental in regaining the throne of Delhi for the Mughals, the guardian and protector of the young prince Akbar. At the same time, in November 1555, he had formally appointed Akbar the governor of Punjab.

After his fateful fall down the steps, Humayun lingered for a few days and died on 26 January 1556. The senior noble and governor of Delhi, Tardi Beg Khan, immediately took charge of the affairs of state. His first act was to hide the fact of Humayun’s death, since the kingdom had not yet been stabilised and several minor rebellions were still to be contained. His intention was to secure Akbar’s succession before announcing Humayun’s death. For 17 days, Tardi Beg dressed one Mullah Bekasi, who superficially resembled Humayun, in the emperor’s clothes and paraded him on the riverside balcony of the palace, which Humayun habitually used to do. In the meantime he had send express despatches to Akbar and Biram Khan, informing them of Humayun’s death and Akbar’s succession to the throne.

On 10th February, Tardi Beg and some senior nobles went to the mosque and had the prayer for the Emperor read in Akbar’s name. Technically from the day of Humayun’s death till this day of the prayer being recited in Akbar’s name, there was no ruling Mughal emperor, although Humayun was still presumed to be alive and ruling. The actual date of the change in prayer vary in different accounts, with two reports stating 11th and 14th respectively as the date. Similarly, the number of days that Humayun lingered unconscious after the fatal fall is also disputed, ranging from a single day to four days. The correct date for the declaration in Delhi seems to be 10th February and the actual enthronement of Akbar to have been enacted on 14th February.

After the prayer was read in Akbar’s name, the royal insignia of the Empire and other accoutrements were send to Akbar in Punjab under the protection of the Imperial Guard. Along with these symbols a probable contender to the throne, Kamran’s son, was also send to Akbar’s headquarters. The implication is hard to miss. Tardi Beg did not want any incipient rebellion to coalesce around Kamran’s son. After effecting these actions, Tardi Beg secured the capital against any possible attack.

When news of his father’s death reached Akbar, he and Biram Khan were campaigning in the Punjab against Sikandar Shah, who had been defeated at Sirhind the previous year but had not been fully contained. Akbar was then formally enthroned in a garden on the banks of the River Ravi at Kalanaur in Gurdaspur district. The throne was a plain brick structure, 18 feet long and three feet high, resting on a masonry platform built for the purpose. This makeshift throne can be seen even today, five hundred years later, in the middle of the rich Punjab farmland. Akbar had inherited a turbulent kingdom. There were two threats that were real and persistent—first, the Afghans were planning to come together under the leadership of Sikandar Shah; second, and more importantly, from Hemu the low-caste Hindu who had been the Prime Minister to Sher Shah’s successor, Adil Shah. It was fortunate that young Akbar had Biram Khan as his guardian, for this indomitable general was extremely loyal and did not harbour any personal ambition other than to serve the Timurid dynasty founded by Babur.

Biram Khan – The Loyal Guardian

Biram Khan was a Turk and served in the army of the Shah of Persia and may have been vaguely related to the royal family. He was a captain in the Persian expeditionary forces that assisted Babur during his last Samarkand campaign. Babur liked the young captain and induced him to join Mughal service, where he remained at the junior level of command throughout Babur’s life. However, he rose up the ranks rapidly under Humayun and played a prominent role in Humayun’s Gujarat campaign. He was then elevated to the position of ‘Keeper of the Royal Seal’.

Biram Khan was partly responsible for Humayun’s escape to Persia and joined him there. In Persia, Biram Khan was the diplomatic face of the Mughal entourage, smoothening the relationship between Humayun and the Shah, which tended to be tense at times. Humayun made Biram the governor of Kandahar on his return journey into India. From there, the general joined Humayun in the Punjab and was responsible for the decisive victory at Sirhind against Sikandar Shah.

Humayun subsequently appointed him the guardian for the young Akbar.

Early Childhood

Akbar’s birth and the drama associated with it have already been detailed in an earlier chapter. Since Humayun was an exile and in flight during the time of his birth, Akbar’s first impressions of his father were of a fugitive who was in constant danger from his own brothers. The young prince received a mother’s affection from Maham Anga, who supervised the wet-nurses assigned to Akbar and stood-in as the mother figure when Humayun and Hamida were in exile in Persia. However, it is believed that Maham Anga did not personally suckle Akbar. Of the foster mothers, Jiji Ananga was the most important. She was the wife of Shams ud-Din Muhammad, the soldier who had rescued Humayun from drowning after his defeat at Kanauj by Sher Shah Sur.

The Tradition of Wet-Nurses

In India, and other Asiatic countries, it was a common royal custom to put a new born baby first to the breast of the royal mother and thereafter to be suckled by wet-nurses. Normally, there was very high competition to be a wet-nurse for a prince who was the heir apparent, since this foster-motherhood provided the wet-nurse with the opportunity to advance the career of their own husbands and sons. The sons of the wet-nurse were considered foster brothers of the prince and were linked to him for life. Some of these foster brothers rose to high rank in the administration.

Moving forward, Maham Anga would become very influential in the early part of Akbar’s reign. She was a highly capable person and being ambitious, pushed herself and her family forward, till she fell from royal favour later in life.

As a child Akbar was hyperactive, headstrong, physically strong and tough. To the great disappointment of his erudite, scholarly and cultured father, Akbar could not be made to study. All attempts from the age of five, by a bevy of tutors, his own father, and even the great general Biram Khan, failed to get the young prince to learn fluency in reading and writing. [It has been speculated that Akbar may have been extremely dyslexic and therefore being frustrated in his attempts, did not want to learn to write and read; a highly possible explanation.] However, he imbibed a love for Sufi poetry from one of his tutors, Abdul Latif. He willingly learned by heart the mystic verses of the two major Sufi poets—Hafiz and Jalal ud-Din Rumi. Other than for this achievement, Akbar was declared a ‘thoroughly idle boy’ by one of his many tutors.

Akbar’s childhood interests were entirely physical: a restless child, he romped about the hills, raced horses and above all else applied himself to learning martial arts. Even as a young boy he excelled in horsemanship, archery, fencing and was a good marksman with the musket. From a young age Akbar had an instinctive and intuitive understanding of human nature and as he matured, he honed this skill-set to be able control and manipulate men. The combination of a great understanding of human nature, and an extremely high martial excellence provided Akbar with the necessary ability to rule without any hindrance. Perhaps this combination was more important for a king than pure bookish learning in medieval times.

Abul Fazl’s Letters

Abul Fazl was Akbar’s Secretary of State for a number of years and has left behind a collection of letters that provide an insight into the character of the governance of the greatest Mughal. However, according to competent scholars the letters do not provide any significant facts of historical importance. It is obvious that Fazl hero-worshipped Akbar. He states that through sports and other physical activity Akbar ‘practised wisdom under the veil of concealment’ and that his wisdom ‘was not learned or acquired, but was a gift from God’. The second quote is a bit difficult to authenticate.

India – 1556

When Akbar was inaugurated, North India was unstable and ill-governed. The entire North India, including the Delhi-Agra region was desolated by a lengthy famine brought about by repeated failure of the monsoon rains in combination with almost two years of devastating wars. The region was economically ravaged and in a devastated state. In February 1556 when he was enthroned in Kalanaur, Akbar only established his claim to empire and sovereignty, he did not possess either at that time. The small Mughal army under the able Biram Khan had a precarious hold over a few districts of the Punjab. Further, Akbar had yet to prove himself to be better than rival claimants to the same territories, if he was to win back at least his father’s lost domains. The core territory of North-West India, centred on the Punjab and Delhi, was disputed. Two members of the Sur family claimed it as also Hemu, now transformed into a ‘general’, who claimed to have set up an independent kingdom.

The border states of Kashmir, Sind and Baluchistan were fully independent kingdoms. Kabul was under the nominal governorship of Akbar’s younger brother with a regent ruling, fully independent of Indian Mughal control. Bengal was under Afghan rule and had been independent of Delhi for almost two centuries. The Rajputs in Rajasthan and surrounding regions had become fully independent and there was no vestige of the defeat of Rana Sangha by Babur visible anymore. Malwa and Gujarat had been independent kingdoms for a long time and in any case had not been under control of Delhi nor had they forged any allegiance to the Delhi Sultanate. The Central provinces, the forested regions of Gondwana, were controlled by chieftains who recognised no sovereign lord. Similarly, Orissa was also fiercely independent.

South of the Vindhya Ranges, the Deccan Sultanates of Ahmednagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur, and Golconda were ruled by sultans who were completely immersed in their own self-centred politics and had absolutely no interest in the events transpiring in the Delhi-Punjab region. North and South India were really two separate entities. In the Peninsula, south of the Rivers Krishna and Tungabhadra, the great Empire of Vijayanagara was at the full zenith of its power. Vijayanagara was large and powerful, an empire that stretched across the Peninsula and also encompassed the Deep South. Goa and some other minor sea ports were under Portuguese rule and they also controlled most of the Arabian Sea.

If they were to create an empire, Akbar and his guardian Biram Khan had their work cut out for them. Their first and foremost task was to establish full and unquestioned authority over Delhi, from where the campaign to control Hindustan could be mounted.

Fight for the Throne of Delhi

At the time that Akbar was enthroned in the Punjab, he and Biram Khan did not have any idea that a revolt was brewing in Kabul, and neither did they have any information regarding Hemu’s march towards Delhi.

The Rival Claimants

The descendants of Sher Shah, the Afghan Surs, have to be considered as having equal claim to the throne of Delhi as the Mughal Akbar. Babur and Humayun, Akbar’s predecessors, had ruled a truncated kingdom from Delhi-Agra for 15 years. Similarly Sher Shah Sur and his son Islam Shah had also ruled for 15 years, perhaps a more consolidated kingdom and in a better fashion than the Mughals.

Akbar therefore did not have the weight of lengthy rule to tilt the balance in his favour as the legitimate claimant. The two Sur claimants, Sikandar Shah in the Punjab and Adil Shah in Bihar, and Akbar had equal claim on the throne of Delhi.

Although technically the ruling king, Akbar had left the affairs of state and its governance to Biram Khan. To sit on the virtual throne of Delhi and stabilise the situation would have been a far too complex and precarious undertaking for an inexperienced boy-king. Biram Khan’s exceptional administrative acumen and human relations management skills made India safe for the Mughals to attempt to carve out a kingdom and an empire. Biram Khan’s loyalty to Akbar was absolute and unquestioning—he never wavered in furthering his ward’s interests throughout his life. The fact that such a capable person as Biram Khan was available at this critical moment to hold what was still a virtual Mughal Empire together was one of the most fortunate coincidences in Mughal history.

Akbar and Biram Khan decided that, although he was retreating to the Kashmir region, Sikandar Shah was the most imminent threat. Their objective was to secure the Punjab, while Sikandar had taken refuge in the fort at Mankot. At this time they also received news about the revolt in Kabul as well as the events transpiring in Delhi. Akbar left a blocking force at Mankot to ensure Sikandar Shah was confined to the fort and returned to Jalandhar. (In this narrative, until the time that Biram Khan was ousted from power, whenever a statement regarding a decision made by Akbar is made, it should be taken to automatically mean that the decision was made by Biram Khan or approved by him on behalf of the boy-king.) By this time Hemu had already captured Agra without a fight and defeated the Mughal army outside Delhi. Tardi Beg Khan, the governor of Delhi, had made a hasty retreat to Sirhind.

Who was Hemu?

Hemu (full name Hemachandra) was a ‘low-caste’ Hindu who started life selling saltpetre in the streets of Rewari. Over a period of time he became the weigh-man of the market. His abilities were noticed by the Afghan rulers and he rose in their service. Islam Shah made him the superintendent of the Delhi market from where he moved up to become the head of intelligence in the palace. By this time he had gained the full trust of the king. He went on to become the Chief Minister of Adil Shah (as mentioned in the previous chapter).

Hemu was physically feeble, of medium height, almost puny in size and could not ride a horse. However, he was a great leader of men and had won 22 battles in succession for Adil Shah. These military victories, although none were in great battle, must have given him the impetus to become his own master and climb the throne to be king.

After Tardi Beg and the Afghan officials fled from Delhi, Hemu became the master and declared himself the king, raja, in Delhi. He assumed the title of Raja Vikramaditya, in an attempt to establish a connection to that legendary king of ancient India. His ambition was to conquer the Punjab and, after he had established control over the Delhi region, started to collect his army for the expedition. His manipulative genius is seen in the manner in which he declared himself king. Although he declared himself Raja, he tactfully continued to humour Adil Shah, professing fealty to him and the Sur dynasty. He also astutely manoeuvred to carry the powerful and proud Afghan nobles—who were against the Mughals—with him. He persuaded them to accept him as their sultan and they started to call him Hemu Shah.

The Wisdom of One

After Delhi had fallen and Hemu had claimed the throne, Akbar assembled his nobles and asked their opinion regarding the next course of action to be adopted. All of them advised him to retire to Kabul and wait for an appropriate time to once again invade India. Biram Khan understood the situation differently and analysed it in a more strategic manner. He knew that retreat to Kabul meant being satisfied with a small kingdom around it for an indefinite period of time. The choice therefore was between being confined to a small kingdom for good or attempting to gather a kingdom in Hindustan with the distinct possibility of great expansion.

Biram Khan therefore advised, and forcefully prompted, Akbar to march across the River Sutlej and join forces with Tardi Beg and his column which was camped in Sirhind. The plan was to thereafter march to Delhi in an all or nothing attempt to capture the city. He knew that Delhi had by now been lost twice and it was imperative to bring it back under Mughal control, if Mughal rule was to be established in India. The credibility of the dynasty was at stake. This was the critical moment in the progress of the Mughals into India, the determining point whether they would remain Timurid masters of a small fiefdom in Afghanistan, or they would break free, spread their wings and become a full-fledged dynasty of India. At this juncture, Biram Khan made the decision that would have a permanent and long-term impact on Indian history.

Biram Khan the intrepid general, knew that taking the initiative in any battle was crucial to achieve victory, especially when one was numerically inferior. The Mughals marched out of Jalandhar in October, crossed the River Sutlej and reached Sirhind. By now Akbar, although still very young for a king, had realised that Biram Khan had appropriated all the power of the state to himself and was the de facto king. Akbar remained a king in name only. In Sirhind, the first rift between ward and protector took place, although both were careful to ensure that it remained hidden and was not brought out or discussed in the open. The reason for the rift was a precipitous action that Biram Khan initiated, which Akbar did not like.

Even during their service with Humayun, there had been simmering contest and jealousy between Biram Khan and Tardi Beg, the two senior nobles in the court. There seems to have been an undercurrent of religious tension also between the two. It is also possible that the religious tensions were exacerbated by that actions of self-serving nobles in both camps. Tardi Beg was a Turk, a rugged and coarse soldier of the Sunni persuasion; a dervish who had been raised to nobility by Babur. Biram Khan, on the other hand was a suave aristocrat, connected to the Persian royal family and belonged to the Shia sect. On arriving at Sirhind, Biram Khan summoned Tardi Beg to his tent when Akbar was out hunting and had him assassinated. The ostensible reason given was that Tardi Beg had evacuated Delhi in too much of a hurry, thus displaying cowardice. When he came to know of this act, Akbar was greatly displeased, especially since he felt that the charge of cowardice was almost certainly trumped up and used to get rid of a powerful rival, who could have created an alternative power centre to the one Biram Khan held.

Murder or Necessary Removal?

Some historians have denounced and condemned Tardi Beg’s assassination as pure murder. However, the analysis based on this opinion of the event does not take into account and are not appreciative of the traditions of the time, which accepted the fact that: inconvenient opponents could be, or rather should be, removed by any means that was available. From this point of view, it would seem that the Tardi-led group posed an existential threat to Biram Khan and indirectly to Akbar himself, since they were actively plotting Biram’s downfall. In effect, Tardi Beg was indirectly planning a coup and the removal of the young king. Tardis Beg’s ‘murder’ was well within the norms of the time and not an event that tarnishes the reputation of Biram Khan—he was merely doing his duty, looking out for his ward who was the sovereign.

Although young Akbar was annoyed by this action, the removal of Tardi beg from the calculus of the court had the effect of leaving the Chagatai nobles’ clique with no effective leadership and therefore more pliant to deal with. The fact that the Chagatais were in majority in the Mughal court at that time should also be considered in understanding the actions of Biram Khan. In a holistic analysis, it would seem that Biram Khan’s actions were neither impetuous nor biased, but action initiated after much forethought.

The Second Battle of Panipat

While the Mughal army was recouping and stabilising in Sirhind and Akbar was re-evaluating his relationship with his guardian, mentor, prime minister and commander-in-chief, Hemu started to move his army in preparation for the battle that had to be fought. He send his artillery to Panipat, intending to follow with his cavalry and infantry immediately behind. Akbar also moved out of Sirhind, marching towards Panipat. He send out an advance element of 10,000 cavalry under the command of Ali Kuli Khan-i-Shaibani, who had fought against Hemu in Delhi and had a reputation of being an enterprising commander. This was a fortuitous move.

Ali Kuli Khan reached Panipat and observed that Hemu’s artillery had already reached the plains and that they were not supported by any cavalry or infantry to guard them. He immediately captured the entire artillery force, and was rewarded by Akbar with the title Khan Zaman. Although he was disheartened by this reversal, Hemu continued his march towards Panipat with the rest of his army.

On 5th November 1556, thirty years after Babur had faced the Lodi army on the same battleground, Akbar and Hemu came face to face—once again to fight a battle that would determine the fate of Hindustan. Both the parties knew that this was no run-of-the-mill, normal battle. This was a battle for supremacy in North and North-West India and would be the most decisive one for a long time to come. The battle unfolded and as medieval battles were bound to do, unexpected actions and events would have a profound impact on the final outcome.

Hemu had divided his army into three divisions with the elephant corps in front, which he personally led. Initially he led this force to the left flank of the Mughals and threw them into confusion and disorder. However, the attack was not well-planned and therefore it lacked infantry support to exploit the initial breakthrough that was obtained. Hemu was forced to get back to his initial position and then he attacked the centre of the Mughal army. The Mughal centre was commanded by Biram Khan himself. Biram Khan had noticed earlier that the elephant riders wore helmets, but their eyes were not protected, leaving them exposed for better all-round vision. He had briefed his archers to capitalise on this vulnerability. During this second attack, Hemu was hit in the eye by an arrow and collapsed into his howdah, temporarily unconscious. The Hindu army seeing their sovereign fall down and not get up, presumed the worst and were confused. The attack that was in full swing stopped. Biram Khan, a great battle commander, immediately seized the opportunity afforded by this slight ease in the attack and took the offensive. The Delhi army now retreated in chaos, culminating in a complete rout.

Hemu, who had only been wounded but had lost his mahout, was captured and brought before Biram Khan and then taken to Akbar. Biram Khan asked Akbar to cut down Hemu, but Akbar refused saying, ‘he [Hemu] is no better than a dead man; how can I strike him’? Biram Khan then personally beheaded the hapless Hemu. Some reports mention that Hemu was still unconscious when he was captured and brought before Akbar and hence the young king’s statement of Hemu being already dead. These reports go on to state that Biram Khan executed Hemu personally while the king was still unconscious, congratulating himself on doing a holy duty of slaying an infidel. However, this report does not seem to be true, especially considering Biram Khan’s reputation as a great general. It is certain that he would not have besmirched his honour and reputation by beheading an unconscious adversary king.

Akbar send a cavalry contingent to chase the fleeing Delhi army so that they would not have any opportunity to stop and reform. The very next day, the Mughal army marched 53 miles and entered Delhi in triumph. This victory ensured that Akbar now did not have any worthwhile adversary to mount a counter claim to the throne of Delhi. 30 years after Babur, his grandfather had seized Delhi, Akbar occupied the throne of Hindustan, even if at this time it was a virtual one—territorial control was non-existent other than for the region immediately surrounding Delhi and small pockets in the Punjab. Delhi was finally in Mughal possession and would remain so for nearly three centuries thereafter. Akbar was 14 years old and as yet untutored in the thrust and parry, and ebb and flow of politics, diplomacy and court intrigue.

© [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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