Indian History Part 81 Akbar Section II: The Regency Years

Crackenback, 08 June 2020

After the victory at Panipat, Akbar and Biram Khan marched directly from the battlefield to Delhi. Akbar still did not outwardly indicate the strength of character and resources of intellect that would become his predominant characteristics as he grew into manhood. It would seem that even his ‘guardian’ or ‘protector’ Biram Khan, himself a highly intelligent and shrewd noble, did not understand Akbar fully. Nobles who dismissed him as a mere boy and the son of Humayun would be surprised by the decisiveness of the prince, whenever he displayed that aspect of his character.

Akbar remained in Delhi for just a month, sufficient time to send out a minor expedition to capture the treasure that Hemu’s army had been carrying at the time of its defeat. He then recovered Agra with no opposition. At this time there was minor rebellion in Kabul by a cousin who wanted to take over and be independent, which was resolved without bloodshed. The cousin was induced by the senior nobles in Kabul to retire. Although Kabul continued to be permitted a certain amount of autonomy, it thereafter remained firmly subordinate to the Mughal Emperor ruling from Delhi-Agra.

Stabilising the North

Since the Punjab was still unstable, Mughal conquests to the south of the River Sutlej was still not secure. Before the Battle of Panipat, Sikandar Shah had been driven into Mankot, a fort in the lower hills of the Himalayas, located in the modern Jammu region. He had been bruised, but not contained or neutralised fully. Sikandar continued to wander the lower hills of the Siwalik ranges, hoping to drum up sufficient support to reclaim the throne of Delhi. It must be taken into account here that in reality, both Akbar and Sikandar Shah had equal claim on the throne of Delhi—one was a Mughal and the other an Afghan Sur; both had ancestors who had sat on the throne for the same amount of time. The rival claims were equally logical and therefore this was a contest that could only be decided by the sword.

In March 1557, Akbar received information that the Mughal forces he had left behind in the Punjab as a rear-guard, had been defeated by Sikandar near Lahore. By this time the Sur prince had fortified Mankot and made it his headquarters. His victory brought more Afghan rebels against the Mughals under his umbrella, which gradually strengthened his military base. On the advice of Biram Khan, Akbar now decided to deal with Sikandar Shah once and for all. Accordingly, they marched first to Lahore and then to Jalandhar, with Sikandar continually retreating in front of the Mughal might. Sikandar finally reached Mankot fort, where he was besieged by the Mughals.

After six months of the siege, Sikandar Shah was almost completely out of provisions and had also been weakened by a regular stream of desertions from his ranks. He sued for peace and was permitted to retire to his earlier jagir in the Bengal-Bihar region on the promise that he would never work against the Mughal Emperor. He died peacefully in his lands, two years later.

Akbar retired to Lahore and spent the next four months there, almost as a show of force, and then returned to Delhi, reaching the capital on 15 March 1558. In less than two years of his accession when he was just about 15 years old, Akbar had successfully defeated all serious threats to his claim to the throne; Mughal rule had been firmly established in North India. The full credit for this achievement must go to Biram Khan whose sagacious stewardship of the turbulent State led to this somewhat more stable situation.

Humayun had left behind the royal ladies in Kabul when he set out to reconquer his inheritance. After the victory at Panipat Akbar had send word that they were to be brought to India. They arrived during the siege of Mankot—Akbar rode out for a day to welcome his mother and other ladies back to Hindustan. In October, Akbar and the royal court migrated to Agra, at that time a town of limited significance. This move was the beginning of the Imperial Phase of Mughal rule in India—along with Akbar, the next three Mughal Emperors are considered the ‘Imperial’ or, as mentioned in some narratives, the ‘Great’ Mughals. [Babur and Humayun were only transient rulers in the Indian sub-continent and, in an unbiased analysis, do not qualify for the title of ‘Imperial’. Babur could be considered a ‘Great’ conqueror, but Humayun does not warrant even that title. However, these two Mughals, father and son, placed the Mughals on the map of India and oriented their successors towards Imperial status, a position that Akbar cemented. Therefore, Babur and Humayun have also been included in this narrative of the ‘Saga of the Imperial Mughals’; the story of six Mughal Emperors in India/Hindustan.]

The Broader Education of Akbar

By late 1558, almost all opposition to Mughal supremacy had been reasonably eliminated and the royal court was being set up in Agra. However, young Akbar remained remarkably uninterested in assuming any part of his responsibilities as the Emperor. He refused to even attempt to understand the working of the State and was completely immersed in physical sporting activities that were oriented towards warfighting. In his name Biram Khan carried out all the duties of a king. However, while remaining aloof from all matters of governance, Akbar was carefully observing events as they unfolded, taking stock, analysing and maturing, while hiding his evolution from boy-prince to king from the public eye. He made up for his inability to read and write by employing other people to read out to him books and treatise that he selected. He was gifted with an extraordinarily powerful memory, letting him accumulate knowledge by purely listening to books being read aloud and being able to recall it when necessary. Apparently in medieval times, illiteracy in the modern definition of the word, was not a disadvantage for an Emperor-in-waiting.

Even with all these sanguine explanations, the picture that emerges is of a high-spirited, but fundamentally idle young prince. The result of this somewhat warped development was that in a royal family that prized learning and culture more than most others of the time, Akbar alone was illiterate. The truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme opinions. As a boy he had indeed learned the rudiments of reading and writing, but preferred not to display his poor grasp of this faculty—as a boy by choice, and in later life as a king in order to avoid exposing his lack of full functionality. Throughout his life Akbar relied on his prodigious memory and learned at a very early age to gather facts by listening to others, mainly reading out from texts. After all, his illustrious ancestor Timur—whose life story Akbar liked to have read out to him—conqueror, patron of art and great builder, had also been illiterate.

On the other hand, from a military point of view, his education was exemplary and oriented towards command at the highest level. He had taken part in military affairs from a very early age—when he was barely 10 years old, he was beside his father in battle and had been made the commander of his dead uncle Hindal’s forces; at 12, he was part of the advance guard of the Mughals entering India and the nominal commander of the army when the Mughals won the critical battle at Sirhind. He had a lifelong love for hunting and fighting mounted on elephants.

‘The very activities which took Akbar away from his books were, in their way, a good preparation for being a soldier king, the only sort of king that it was possible to be in such times.’

—Bamber Gascoigne,

The Great Mughals, p. 65.

Coming of Age – The Removal of Biram Khan

Even after the court was moved to Agra, Biram Khan continued to manage all affairs of State. It was obviously difficult for a young prince to shake off the influence and control of a great general who had been his ‘protector’ for so many years. It could also be that, even though Akbar may not have liked some of the actions initiated by Biram Khan, he may not have felt strong enough to throw off the yoke of the regent’s control. In fact Biram Khan had already initiated some actions which became the first steps to the coming estrangement between king and regent—he had removed some nobles who were favoured by Akbar from positions of power and influence without discussing the matter with the king.

Further, Biram Khan completely failed to recognise the growing maturity and stature of the young prince. He did not notice that Akbar was adding experience and knowledge to an already great natural gift of understanding human nature and, perhaps more importantly, his inherent leadership skills. Biram Khan continued to see the young boy who had been placed under his care and protection years ago. This inability of Biram Khan to recognise, understand and accept that the young boy had grown into a mature prince became the fundamental issue from which all other irritants between tutor and student emerged. At the same time, pressure was also building in the court against Biram Khan.

‘He [Biram Khan] continued to see in him [Akbar] the little boy of whom he had been the tutor, whose armies he had led to victory, and whose dominions he was administering. The exercise of power without a check had made the exercise of such power necessary to him, and he continued to wield it with all the self-sufficiency of a singularly determined nature.’

—Colonel G. B. Malleson,

Rulers of India: Akbar and the Rise of the Mughal Empire, p. 86.

Biram Khan, an aristocrat by birth, was openly arrogant; not afraid to flaunt his wealth and stature, confident in his power to not want to conceal it. His overwhelming prestige that flowed from the power he wielded was a peg on which other nobles hung their resentment. On top of this behaviour, Biram Khan was a Shia in an overwhelmingly Sunni court.

Through the ages and into the current modern times, surrounding every ruler there is always a coterie of men and women who would always be jealous of the greater power exercised at will by some other person and would give vent to this envy, if possible to the ruler in person. The Agra court was no exception and there were sufficient numbers of nobles who attempted to poison young Akbar against Biram Khan, by carrying tales of his orders and doings to the young king. While this intrigue was a continuing enterprise, Biram Khan further irritated the Sunni group. Around 1558-59, he appointed Shaikh Gadai, an insignificant Shia divine, as the Sadr-i-Sudur, one of the two highest ecclesiastic positions in the country. The position was very powerful and administered all religious grants made by the Emperor. This move palpably brought to the open the so far subdued religious hostility that the majority of nobles had felt against Biram Khan. This resentment also reached Akbar’s ears.

Another point of contention between king and regent was personal. Biram Khan controlled the household expenses of Akbar, who did not have a separate privy purse for his expenditure. Akbar’s household was held on a very tight budget while Biram Khan himself lived in exaggerated luxury. Akbar’s household servants were paid extremely poorly, while the personal servants of Biram Khan were highly paid and becoming rich. This seems to be an inexplicable omission on the part of Biram Khan and it cannot be explained away by stating that the general may not have been aware of the situation. He closely monitored every aspect of the young Emperor’s living. Akbar’s resentment against this improper treatment was simmering, no doubt made worse by the opportunistic whispering of the anti-Biram nobles group.

The first open clash between Akbar and Biram Khan was also the result of a personal family matter. Almost immediately after the royal ladies had arrived in the Punjab from Kabul, Akbar had married for the first time. Now in Agra, he wanted to take a second wife, the girl chosen being the niece of Kamran’s wife. Biram Khan did not approve the match and objected to the marriage since it was not a politically desirable alliance for the Emperor. However, Akbar was adamant and an open clash was only avoided by the intervention of well-meaning nobles—Akbar had his way and Biram Khan was forced to relent.

Now an impetuous 18-year old king, it was becoming galling for Akbar to bear the nit-picking control that Biram Khan imposed over every aspect of his life. Akbar was impatient to be the king in fact, not only in name. Such feelings are only natural for a young and strong-minded prince and it was fanned by the third group in the melee, the ladies of his personal household. Biram Khan on the other hand had by now developed a sense that he was indispensable for the well-being of the Empire. Further, he was also reluctant to relinquish even a bit of the absolute power that he had exercised for so many years. As the scenario was changing in the royal court and Akbar was becoming increasingly independent, Biram Khan saw his control over the Emperor gradually reducing. Realising that he was no more the only influence on the young king, Biram grew anxious about his own position. He became brusque, irritable and even more authoritative in his daily dealings. He had so far been an affable, suave and prudent leader. The noticeable change in his governance style further distorted his perceptions as well as how he was being perceived by others.

The circumstances gradually deteriorated to the point where it became clear that either Akbar or Biram Khan had to yield to the other—reconciliation between the protecting noble and the protected prince was impossible. Typical palace intrigues of frantic plotting and planning ensued.

The ‘Ladies Brigade’ Enter the Fray

The most powerful opposition to Biram Khan emanated from Akbar’s inner family, the ladies of his household. Maham Anga, headed the ladies’ quarter, deriving her power from having been the head of Akbar’s wet-nursing ‘brigade’ when he was an infant. She was a powerful, shrewd and ambitious woman. Her son Adham Khan was a foster-brother to Akbar and considered one of the family. Even though personally brave in battle, Adham Khan was unfortunately an impetuous and cruel person, unfit to exercise any kind of authority. Maham Anga was supported in the ladies’ quarter by Akbar’s mother Hamida Bano Begum.

The lady conspirators were canny, if anything, and decided to proceed with caution, especially being aware of the fact that Biram Khan still controlled the army and the entire administration. The ladies, who were still in Delhi, established clandestine contact with Akbar. Mother and foster-mother induced Akbar to go to Delhi, on the pretext of going out hunting, while Biram Khan was still in Agra and unaware of the Emperor’s move. Akbar, already aware of the palace coup being orchestrated, took Kamran’s son Abdul Kasim with him to ensure that there would not be a pretender available to place on the throne in case Biram Khan decided to rebel—a prudent and far-thinking move on the part of the young and as yet untested king.

Once in Delhi, the two women, both mother figures for Akbar, worked on his psyche and influenced his thinking. In March 1560, under the direct influence of Maham Anga and Hamida Begum, primarily the former, Akbar wrote to Biram Khan dismissing him from all his official positions. The decision to dismiss Biram Khan and write that letter must not have been easy for Akbar. Akbar habitually called Biram, Khan Baba, since he had been a father figure to him from his childhood. Biram Khan was also immensely powerful; however, it was the same power and prestige that mandated his removal, if Akbar was ever to take independent charge of his kingdom.

In the letter Akbar suggested that Biram Khan go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, which was the preferred unofficial soft-exile preference in the Mughal kingdom. Further, Biram Khan had many times publicly expressed his desire to have an opportunity to safely hand over his political responsibilities and make the pilgrimage which would ensure his salvation. In a roundabout manner Akbar was offering him a way out of the confrontational situation without Biram having to lose face.

The Final Fall of Biram Khan

When Akbar’s missive was received in Agra, Biram Khan’s advisors were divided on the next course of action. One faction wanted to immediately march to Delhi and seize Akbar. Biram Khan, to his everlasting credit, sanctified his honour by refusing to sully his reputation of a lifetime of selfless service to the Mughal dynasty by turning traitor. He decided to submit to the Emperor’s orders and started to make preparations for the journey to Mecca. The response from the great general and administrator was honourable, dignified and correct—he would not disobey his sovereign’s direct orders. One by one the courtiers started to abandon the Biram Khan Camp since he had obviously fallen from royal favour. The desertion of the nobles was carefully crafted by Maham Anga, by now recognised by everyone as the unquestioned leader of the ‘ladies brigade’, who was mounting a palace coup d’état. In any case, most of the nobles in the Mughal court were crass opportunists.

Akbar, now fully under the influence of Maham Anga and her worthless son, now committed a shameful act that would forever standout as an act unworthy of a great emperor. Excuses for Akbar’s action abound—ranging from the pleading of his being very young, to the argument that he was unaware of the actions being undertaken—but nothing can wipe away the shame of this act against a loyal, if somewhat imperious, noble. On Akbar’s orders, a small army under the command of one Pir Muhammad, was send to chase Biram Khan out of the Mughal territories and hasten his departure for Mecca. Pir Muhammad had initially been a lowly servant of Biram Khan and had been raised by him to higher levels of command and later been discredited for corruption and inefficiency and dismissed. Information available confirm that it was Maham Anga who initiated this action, but nowhere does it state that Akbar was unaware of it. This act was not only a tactical blunder, but one that besmirched Akbar’s reputation for ever.

When the small army caught up with him, Biram Khan was already proceeding to Biyana, on the first leg of his journey to Mecca. It was April 1560. Biram Khan, loyal even now, send his insignia and other emblems of office to Akbar, but the insult of being shepherded out of the country that he had ruled for so many years was too much to bear for the noble. Adding insult to injury was the fact that it was his own unscrupulous and discredited servant that was trying to push him out. Biram Khan was now pushed to a corner—he was being denied the opportunity to exit India with dignity and honour befitting his status and position. There was no alternative but to stand and fight in the face of this calculated insult.

Biram Khan now proceeded to the Punjab instead of making his way to Gujarat, the traditional point of departure to Mecca. He left his family in the fort at Tabarhind (modern day Bathinda) and initiated a rebellion, merely to save his honour. However, Biram very quickly learned the difference between being the trusted Prime Minister of the Mughal Emperor and being a rebel against the Emperor. All his former associates declined to help and he was forced to fight with a small following of soldiers. Biram Khan was very easily defeated by royalist forces at Jalandhar and fled to the hills. He was captured and produced before Akbar.

By now good sense had prevailed in Akbar’s mind. He treated the man who had single-handedly shaped the foundations of the Empire, working tirelessly for four long years, with great honour. The defeated ‘Khan Baba’ was welcomed with grace and magnanimity. Some reports suggest that Akbar offered Biram Khan his previous position. This is unlikely and in any case events prove that even if such a situation came to pass, Biram Khan had obviously refused the offer. Munim Khan who had been the regent in Kabul had been summoned to Delhi and made the Prime Minister. Munim now personally ensured that Biram Khan was provided liberal allowances and other amenities to proceed to Mecca—in a manner befitting the personage of the Prime Minister of the Mughal Empire and in keeping with his rank, stature and above all keeping in mind the eminent service rendered to the Mughal dynasty.

Some historians argue that this treatment of Biram Khan after he was forced to rebel and then defeated set right the wrong that Akbar had committed towards his ‘protector’. It is not so. Biram Khan, the de facto ruler of the Empire for four years, was now a fallen Prime Minister, a rebel defeated in battle, who was forced to silently go on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Nothing would alter this stark fact of defeat and humiliation. It was an unfortunate end to a brilliant career marked throughout by unquestioned loyalty, even to the time he abdicated his position without demur, obeying a wilful order from a young and wrongly influenced king.

Biram Khan is Murdered

Biram Khan left the royal court two days later, this time accompanied by a sizeable entourage and marched across Rajputana towards the coast. In due course he arrived at Patan (also called Nahrwala and Anhilwara) the ancient capital of Gujarat, where he was received as an honoured guest by the Afghan ruler. In Patan, while visiting some gardens by a lake, Biram Khan was set upon by a gang led by an Afghan called Mubarak Khan. Mubarak’s father had been killed by Biram Khan in an old battle fought at Macchiwara, and he was settling the old score. Biram Khan was stabbed to death and his corps left on the ground. Some passing fakirs and charitable people gave the body a decent burial. Thus died Biram Khan, the man responsible for establishing the Mughal Empire firmly in India—a sad end to a truly great man. Although Mubarak Khan plundered Biram Khan’s camp, the family managed to escape to Ahmadabad, pursued by the Afghan gang.

Although there are no reports about the complicity of the Afghan ruler of Gujarat in the murder and the subsequent sacking of Biram Khan’s camp, considering the circumstances of the time, it is not possible that the ruler of Gujarat was innocent of this ‘security lapse’. It is more than probable that an Afghan nexus between the ruler and Mubarak Khan seeking revenge would have existed. The Afghan king of Gujarat would have turned a blind eye to the plan to murder Biram Khan.

Biram Khan’s family was rescued on Akbar’s orders and brought to the Mughal court. Akbar married Biram Khan’s young widow, Salima Begum, and his four-year old son, Abdur Rahim was brought up under Akbar’s protection. Like his father, Abdur Rahim went on to attain the rank and title of Khan Khanan and like his father, served loyally and with distinction under both Akbar and Jahangir.

Retrospective Observations

The series of actions leading to Biram Khan’s removal from office, forced rebellion and final murder leave behind an unpleasant taste. An unbiased analysis of the flow of events show that the entire saga was the result of intrigue initiated by the ‘ladies brigade’ and their supporters for personal benefit and had nothing to do with the betterment of the Empire. They played on the emotional attachments of a young and impressionable king in order to influence him into taking precipitate action against Biram Khan, with whom the king was already irritated.

Even though Akbar’s actions could be considered somewhat intemperate, Biram Khan had submitted to his sovereign’s will in a dignified manner, without even a murmur of dissent. However, the conspirators made sure he was insulted to an extent wherein, as an honourable noble of distant royal descent, he was forced to rebel. The calculation was that this would completely destroy him, either being killed in the battlefield, or if captured being given a horrible death sentence by the king. The specious argument that Akbar was unaware of the actions of Maham Anga in the later part of this sorry episode is tenuous and not acceptable. It is certain that he knew of the contingent being send to push Biram out of Mughal territories. That the last part of the conspirators’ plan fell apart because of Akbar’s affection for his protector and mentor was not an event that had been factored in by them.

Following the ‘rebellion’ and subsequent capture of Biram Khan, it comes out clearly that even his rebellion was somewhat half-hearted, meant more to salvage his self-respect, rather than to claim independence from the Mughal Emperor. It would seem that he was almost relieved to have been defeated and captured. At the end, even his greatest detractors agreed that, ‘Biram Khan was in reality a good man, and of excellent qualities’. Biram Khan was of steadfast loyalty and able to make very tough decisions on behalf of his charge, such as the decision to assassinate Tardi Beg, which was necessary to ensure the survival of the Mughal dynasty. Both Humayun and Akbar owed the recovery of their Indian thrones to this sagacious nobleman.

Under these circumstances and considering the yeomen service that Biram Khan had rendered for so long, it was incumbent on Akbar to ensure that when the time came for him assume independent charge of the kingdom and exercise full power—essentially necessitating the decommissioning of Biram Khan—it was done gently, with grace and gratitude. However, this did not happen. The reasons may be many—the impetuous nature of young Akbar; wrong advice and emotional pressures; lack of a moderate voice in his inner circle after he had ‘run away’ to Delhi—and in addition, excuses for his inexcusable and crass behaviour abound. Some of these excuses are being fabricated even in modern recounting of Akbar’s reign.

Irrespective of the number of reasons and explanatory excuses, the fact remains that the treatment meted out by Akbar the Emperor to Biram Khan the Prime Minster and Regent was abhorrent and remains a blot on an otherwise illustrious reign.

© [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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