Indian History Part 81 Akbar Section IV: The Conquering Emperor; 3. The Gujarat Campaign

Canberra, 24 July 2020

Gujarat, situated to the south-west of the Mughal province of Malwa and shored by the Arabian Sea was a rich kingdom, mainly because of its seaports that facilitated a flourishing maritime trade. It was geographically large and consisted of the territories and districts of Surat, Broach, Kaira, Ahmedabad, large parts of what is now Baroda, the Mahi and Rewa regions, Palanpur, Radhanpur, Balisna, Cambay, Khandesh and the Kathiawar Peninsula. Indirectly, and in a rather tenuous manner, it could be termed as old Mughal territory, since Humayun had conquered it and held it as a province for a short while. Gujarat was also the traditional departure point for the Muslims embarking on the pilgrimage to Mecca. These were the underlying reasons for the conquering Emperor Akbar to add Gujarat to the list of kingdoms that he wanted to bring under his control, although he had not assigned any priority to it.

Akbar did not need a reason for invading Gujarat—he was consumed by the lust for conquest and the richness of Gujarat made it an irresistible prize. He had already made up his mind to conquer the kingdom. He now started to look for plausible excuses to put in motion his plan of conquest. The immediate reason for Akbar’s interest that was declared was that the Mirzas, who had earlier been driven out of Mughal territories, had started to operate from a base that was established in South Gujarat and Akbar wanted to punish them.

There are also reports of a clique of nobles approaching the Mughal and requesting him to invade in order to establish stability. This explanation also rhymes with the statements in contemporary chronicles that Akbar invaded other kingdoms to ‘relieve’ the population of oppressive conditions. In this instance it so happened that Gujarat was in administrative shambles with no clear or legitimate ruler. A nominal king Muzaffar Shah III ruled without being able to establish legitimacy or exercise any authority. The kingdom had been parcelled out to seven provinces or principalities, each ruled by a Muslim noble. These seven chiefs were always vying with each other for supreme power, creating alliances of convenience to attack weak neighbours, alliances that were broken immediately after the temporary raid had been completed. The Muslim nobles were alien to the majority Hindu population and ruled through the perpetuation of systemic oppression. For the common man, endemic poverty was the rule of the day. In all of Akbar’s conquests, the reason of relieving oppressed people that is supposed to have been the altruistic reason for his offensive foreign policy, as faithfully reported by Abul Fazl, is perhaps applicable only in this case. Gujarat was in disorder and unstable.


Akbar set out for Gujarat in the first week of July 1572. The move to Gujarat was leisurely, Akbar went hunting regularly and also dispensed justice wherever he stopped, when needed. He took nearly five months to reach Gujarat; following a route that first took him to Sanganer, 18 miles south of Jaipur; to Ajmer and then to Nagaur, 75 miles north-east of Jodhpur, with the bulk of his army. Then he pushed on to Patan in November, finally reaching Ahmedabad in December. While the conquest of Rajputana had been equally triumphant and tragic, the Gujarat campaign could be considered Akbar’s most famous military exploit. For the first time, Akbar was reasonably secure on his throne. In Ahmedabad he was crowned Emperor of Western India.

On the arrival of the Mughal forces, Muzaffar Shah fled the city. However, he was captured and pensioned off after he had submitted to the Emperor. There is a report that Akbar executed some of his own troops who had attempted to loot Muzaffar Shah’s camp. From Ahmedabad Akbar proceeded to Cambay, where he saw the sea for the first time and also boarded a ship for a short sailing trip. He also met with some Portuguese merchants who had come to pay their respect to the most powerful monarch in the world at that time. Since the capital Ahmedabad had fallen, Akbar erroneously presumed that the entire Gujarat had been annexed. Neither the Emperor, nor any of his advisors, seem to have understood the fact that Gujarat was ruled by chiefs of perpetually warring principalities who were yet to be subdued. Therefore, in reality, Gujarat had not been conquered. Oblivious to this fact, Akbar appointed his favourite foster-brother, Mirza Aziz Koka the governor of Gujarat and elevated him to the title of Khan-i-Azam.

Battle of Sarnal

While Akbar was in Cambay one of the senior Mirza chieftains, Ibrahim Husain Mirza, had murdered a prominent noble of Gujarat, who also happened to be a Mughal supporter. It would seem that Husain Mirza had taken advantage of the Emperor being far away. Akbar was angry and impetuously decided to pursue Ibrahim Husain towards Surat, which was a wealthy port at the mouth of the River Tapti and the Mirza stronghold. He was accompanied by a small contingent of his forces. On reaching the banks of River Mahi, another river in Gujarat that flows into the Arabian Sea at the Gulf of Khambat, Akbar received information that a much larger force of the Mirzas was holding the town of Sarnal, a small town on the other side of River Mahi. Sarnal, a well-known town about five miles east of Thasra in the Kaira district, exists today. Akbar was advised to wait for reinforcements and to then mount a night attack. He disdainfully replied that night attacks were dishonourable and decided to fight immediately.

The Mughal forces accompanying Akbar has been variously mentioned as numbering 100, 156 and 200. Whatever may have been the actual number, it is certain that they would not have amounted to a large contingent. Akbar was accompanied by Raja Man Singh and his adoptive father, Bhagwan Das. The trio along with their forces forded the river and reached Sarnal. A vicious and at time precarious battle ensued. During the battle, Bhagwan Das saved Akbar’s life by coming to his rescue when the king had become surrounded by enemy forces. The Mughals finally prevailed and the Mirzas fled the field. Victorious, Akbar returned to his base camp on 24th December. Here the Emperor awarded a banner and kettledrums to Bhagwan Das for his bravery in saving him, the first time this honour was bestowed on a Hindu by a Mughal Emperor.

The Siege of Surat

Akbar took about a week to recuperate and to ascertain the defences of Surat and marched from Baroda to Surat on 31st December 1572. The siege of Surat commenced on 11th January 1573.

The Portuguese Presence

The Mughal chroniclers write that the Portuguese naval forces arrived to protect Surat, with whom they had trade alliances. However, on seeing the strength of the Mughal forces besieging the port, prudently decided to withdraw and assume a neutral stance. On the other hand, the Portuguese records indicate that Akbar was wary of Portuguese interference and had send an envoy to Viceroy Dom Antonio de Noronha in Goa requesting him not to intervene in the siege.

The truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme positions. The Portuguese wanted to extend their trade in the sub-continent and therefore wanted to be friendly with the Mughals, the most prestigious power of the time in North India. Akbar, from his perspective, did not want an attack by the Portuguese naval squadron while Surat was being besieged. A neutral stance by the Portuguese suited both the parties.

The Mughals were a land-centric power with no interest in maritime matters and was content to let the Portuguese control the Arabian Sea.

Surat capitulated on 26th February 1573. After settling Gujarat, Akbar started his return journey to Agra on 13th April, reaching his capital on 4th June. Before embarking on the Gujarat campaign, Akbar had started the construction of a new township at Sikri, outside Agra. On returning in triumph in June, he renamed the township Fatehpur Sikri (City of Victory in Sikri), and constructed a gigantic and monumental Bulund Darwaza, the majestic gateway to the Jama Masjid.

The Mirzas are Brought Down

Ibrahim Husain Mirza had fled from the defeat at Sarnal, initially to Punjab and then to Multan. Husain Kuli Khan, the governor of Punjab captured Ibrahim and his brother Masud; Ibrahim soon died of his wounds and Masud had his eyes sewn shut before being imprisoned. When Masud Husain Mirza was produced before Akbar, he had the eyes of the prisoner opened, an act of kindness that finds prominent mention in all Muslim chronicles. Other than this one act of ‘kindness’, Akbar’s behaviour with the Mirzas borders on the barbaric. Around 300 prisoners were shown no mercy—they were tortured through ingenious methods and then executed on the king’s personal orders.

Akbar’s behaviour was in sharp contrast to his much touted philosophical approach to dealing with defeated adversaries. The ruthlessness inherent in his Tartar ancestry shone through on a number of instances in his dealing with the Mirzas. The pursuit of the Mirza rebels derailed the Mughal campaign to capture the fortress at Kangra in the lower Himlayas. A hurried truce was made with the Raja, who accepted Mughal suzerainty. Kangra did not fall during Akbar’s reign, being captured later by Jahangir in 1620.

Rebellion in Gujarat

Akbar had returned to Agra believing that he had stabilised and settled Gujarat well. However, within a very short time of his departure, an insurrection under the leadership of Muhammad Husain Mirza erupted in Gujarat. The governor send word that the rebels were far too strong for him to control and that he would need imperial assistance. Akbar decided to return to Gujarat in person.

The army in Agra was exhausted and in dire need of reequipping and recuperating. The Mughal system required nobles to furnish a stipulated number of fully equipped troops to the imperial army. Akbar realised that this process would be far too long-drawn to suit his intention of an immediate departure to Gujarat. He reequipped the forces with resources from the imperial treasury, personally supervising all details. Akbar rode out into the deserts of Rajputana on 23rd August 1573, taking only a small band of soldiers with him, to ensure a swift passage. It is revealing of the constitution of the Mughal army of the time that out of the 27 officers who rode out with the Emperor, 15 were Hindu princes or nobles.

Akbar embarked on a continuous series of forced marches, at times covering more than 50 miles a day in the stifling heat and dust of the Thar Desert. The rush across Rajputana took Akbar through Ajmer, Jalor, Disa and Patan (Anhilwara) the ancient capital of Gujarat. The small imperial force stopped at Balisna, a minor town before Ahmedabad. Here Akbar reviewed his battle preparations. The forces under his command included an advance party of cavalry and the royal guard, in all totalling 3,000 troops. However, these were the cream of the Mughal army. Ranged against them were around 20,000 enemy soldiers. Akbar now decided on the order of battle. He kept only a 100 trusted soldiers as personal guards and distributed the rest into three brigades—for the centre, right and left of the enemy dispositions. The command of the centre, the core of the army and the post of honour, was given to Abd ur-Rahim Khan, the 16-year old son of Biram Khan, who had been Akbar’s mentor and erstwhile regent.

Abd ur-Rahim Khan

Abd ur-Rahim was born in Lahore on 17th December 1556 and was physically present with his father when he was murdered in Gujarat in January 1561. He and his family had been rescued by Akbar and brought to the imperial court. He was then educated under the Emperor’s personal supervision. Abd ur-Rahim’s education was unusually thorough—he was proficient in Arabic, Persian, Turki, Sanskrit and Hindi. He is best known for his translation of Babur’s memoirs, originally written in Turki, into Persian, which is the version that most historians have used.

By appointing him the commander of the centre, Akbar was providing him with an early opportunity to distinguish himself in the field of battle, an essential accomplishment for further advancement in the hierarchy of the nobles in court. In due course, Abd ur-Rahim Khan would become the greatest noble of the realm.

Battle of Ahmedabad – 2nd September 1573

The numerically inferior Mughal forces had planned to join with the forces of the governor of Ahmedabad, the Khan-i-Azam, before battle ensued. However, the governor was kept inside the confines of the city by a rebel commander Ikhtiyar-ul-Mulk and was unable to join Akbar’s forces. Even so, the Mughal forces had a psychological advantage over the rebels—the presence of the Emperor in person. Akbar’s presence had come as a complete surprise for the rebels since he had been reported to be in Agra just a fortnight back and was now in Ahmedabad. They also could not believe that Akbar had travelled without his elephants, which he had seldom done earlier. The rebels now decided to fight for their very lives.

Although outnumbered, the Mughal force was formidable by any standard. Muhammad Husain Mirza prepared to face the Mughal assault with 1500 fierce cavalry, although logically it should have been the other way around and he should have been assaulting the Mughals. Muhammad Mirza and his force seemed to have already lost the psychological battle. Akbar was advised by his counsellors to wait till the contingent in Ahmedabad could break-out and join forces with him. However, Akbar rejected this advice and impetuously crossed the river and charged the enemy. His soldiers had no option but to follow their king and battle was joined.

Tenacious hand-to-hand combat took place and the final verdict hung on the balance many times. At one stage, Akbar was left with only two bodyguards and his horse was wounded; some of his very loyal soldiers managed to intervene and save the monarch, gradually driving the rebels from the field. In the melee, Muhammad Husain was wounded and captured. At this stage Ikhtiyar-ul-Mulk arrive on the battlefield with some reinforcements for the rebels, but it was too little too late, and the relieving forces fled in confusion. Ikhtiyar himself was wounded, captured and decapitated. The Battle of Ahmedabad had been fiercely contested, and won by Akbar.

The aftermath, as reported has few anomalies. There is a report that his nobles forced Akbar to give the order to kill the rebels who had either surrendered or had been captured. This is not believable considering the manner in which Akbar had marched out of Agra and the impulsive action that he had initiated in battle. Added to his anger was the inherent bloodlust that he had displayed a number of times before and it is certain that the executions did not need any promptings from his advisors. The ‘customary’ pyramid of enemy heads was made; all Mirzas who were captured were beheaded—leaving Shah Mirza as the only significant survivor of the clan. He was destined to be a homeless wanderer in the desert for the rest of his life and is never heard of again.

This was the final conquest of Gujarat, and although minor disturbances continued sporadically, it remained firmly in Mughal grip as a province ruled by Mughal viceroys; who exercised varying degrees of sovereignty and independence—until the Marathas definitively captured Ahmedabad in 1758 and annexed the region.

An Appreciation

There is no reason to doubt that Akbar was furious when he conducted the second Gujarat campaign and was in no mood to give clemency to anyone even vaguely connected with the rebellion. It is reliably reported that he personally beheaded a minor rebel commander after he was captured because that commander had slain Bhupat, brother of Raja Bhagwan Das in the earlier Battle of Sarnal. The carnage that he left behind at the end of this campaign was great and the bloodbath perpetuated against the rebels ruthless.

Akbar also introduced revenue and administrative reforms in Gujarat under the able guidance of Raja Todar Mall. This initiative coincided with the broader administrative reforms that he had started to implement across the whole kingdom. The planning for these reforms had already been undertaken and started to become visible in 1573-74. The Gujarat reforms could be considered a pilot project for the broader overhaul that was being planned.

The return journey to Agra was not as hurried as his arrival. Even so, Akbar was back in his capital, riding into the city with a spear in his hands to signify the military victory that he had almost single-handedly crafted, on 5th October 1573. He had been out of the capital for only 43 days—making this campaign perhaps the fastest successful campaign of the time. At the end of his 18th regnal year, Akbar reigned over the north-west, central and western India, including the Punjab and Kabul; and to the east his authority extended to the banks of the River Karamnasa. Beyond lay Bihar and Bengal, independent and at times posing a threat to the Mughal Empire.

© [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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