Indian History Part 81 Akbar – Section IV. The Conquering Emperor 4. Bihar and Bengal – Expanding to the East

Canberra, 1 August 2020, Saturday

In ancient times, the region known as Bengal now was called Vanga and at times Gauda. Epigraphic records show that around 11th century, the region started to be mentioned as Vangala-desa, which in turn was further localised to ‘Bangal’ (Bengal) by Muslim invaders—a name that is still used today.

Brief History

Ancient Bengal was for most of the time a vassalage, especially during the Maurya and Gupta periods. Gradually, strong chiefs evolved and rose to become independent kings of the region and even to create minor dynasties. In the 7th century, King Sasanka expanded his territorial holdings beyond the traditional borders of Bengal, capturing Magadha, Utkala and Kongoda (both parts of present day Odisha). In this expansionist drive, he came into conflict with the Pushybhutis of Thaneswar and the Maukharis of Kanauj, the two dominant powers of North India at that time.  The Pushybhuti king Prabhakara Vardhana’s daughter Rajyashri was married to the Maukhari king Graha Varman. Sasanka allied with King Deva Gupta of Malwa and invaded the Maukhari kingdom. In the battle that ensued, Graha Varman was killed and Rajyashri taken prisoner.

The new king of Thaneswar Rajya Vardhana, Rajyashri’s brother, challenged Deva Gupta but was killed treacherously with the aid of Sasanka. Harsha Vardhana who had come to the throne of Thaneswar on his brother’s murder, aligned himself with Bhaskara Varman ruling Kamrup and defeated the Bengal-Malwa combine, pushed them out of Kanauj, and rescued his sister Rajyashri. While Malwa was annexed, Sasanka managed to hold on to the core territories of his kingdom in Bengal. On his death, Bengal was divided between Harsha Vardhana and Bhaskara Varman. (Details of this event and the narrative of the Malwa-Bengal and Thaneswar-Kanauj conflict is provided in Volume III: The Disintegration of Empires, in this series of books From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History, this volume is Volume VIII in the series.)

Muslim Rule

Early in the 13th century, Bhaktiar Khilji overthrew King Lakshmana Sena of the Sena dynasty and started his rule from the capital Lakhnauti, renamed initially as Dayar-i-Lakhnauti and subsequently Gauda. During the time of the Delhi Sultanate, the governors of Bengal mostly remained vassals of Delhi, while some of them struck out independently, at times even assuming the title of sultan. The ones that claimed independence were at times successful in expanding their territorial hold towards Bihar, Awadh and to Orissa. During the time of the Tughluq reign in Delhi, Bengal was divided into three parts for administrative purposes, although they functioned as autonomous provinces.

The Muslim rulers of Bengal were ethnically varied, being Turks, Afghans and even Abyssinians. Bengal is the only region in the sub-continent where four Black-African Sultans ruled in succession from 1487 to 1494. These sultans and the nobles from the same region were called Habshis.

The Golden Age

Ala ud-Din Husain Shah (ruled 1493-1519) and Nusrat Shah (ruled 1519-32) were the most notable of the Bengal Sultans. Ala ud-Din came to power murdering his Habshi master, Shans ud-Din Muzaffar Shah. Both these sultans created a praise-worthy confluence of Hindu and Islamic culture that found expression across their kingdom; in art, literature, architecture and even in religious practice. The local populace, majority of whom were Hindus, at times equated Husain Shah with some of the Hindu gods, referring to him often as ‘Nripati Husain Shah’, considering him an incarnation of Lord Sri Krishna in the Kali Yuga.

The Karrani Dynasty

The Karrani dynasty was founded in 1564 by Taj Khan Karrani, an employee of Sher Shah Sur, and was an ethnic Pashtun from the Karlani tribe. Between 1562 and 1564, Taj Khan managed to capture Bihar and western parts of Bengal, then seized the entire Bengal region after assassinating the last Muhammad Shahi ruler of Bengal. However, the new dynasty was destined to be short-lived, as well as being the last dynasty to rule the whole of Bengal as an independent sultanate. In 1564, Sulaiman Khan Karrani came to the throne. A year later he shifted the seat of government from Gaur to Tandah.  In 1568 he annexed Orissa to his holdings. Sulaiman then attempted to besiege the Mughal fort at Rohtas but was unable to defeat the imperial forces holding it. Realising that retribution was bound to follow, Sulaiman withdrew to interior Bengal and immediately send presents and tribute to Akbar to placate him. He continued this practice at regular intervals, managing to keep the Mughal emperor appeased.

Sulaiman Khan was a prudent ruler and died in 1572 to be succeeded by his son Bayazid, who was murdered by some Afghan nobles after a few months. They placed Sulaiman’s younger son, Daud Khan Karrani, on the throne. Daud turned out to be a dissolute young prince and was intemperate in his actions. On being declared the Sultan, Daud had Friday prayers, the Kutba, read in his name and also had coins stamped to declare his independent status. These actions were a complete repudiation and defiance of Akbar’s authority, even though it had been only nominal till then. Bengal at this time was a rich country with a strong military force. The Bengal army is reported to have consisted of 40,000 cavalry, 140,000 infantry, 20,000 guns and 3600 elephants. This is a large force, even by the standards of the day.

Daud now felt equal to taking on the Mughals and as a first step captured the fort at Zamania, a frontier post established by the Mughal generals. At the time of this audacious act, Akbar was conducting the Gujarat campaign. He instructed Munim Khan, the Khan Khanan in Jaunpur, to initiate action to retrieve the fort and punish Daud. Munim Khan was a loyalist Mughal general who had also served under Humayun and been raised to the title of Khan Khanan. He marched to Patna where he was opposed by Lodi Khan, one of the nobles responsible for placing Daud on the throne. After a few desultory skirmishes, Munim Khan ceased hostilities and granted very lenient terms to Lodi Khan. Akbar was not pleased with this tame outcome and send Raja Todar Mall to take charge of Bihar and deal with Daud. In the meantime, Daud treacherously killed Lodi Khan and confiscated his property, making him lose the support of the Afghan nobility.

Akbar Marches East

On 15th June 1574, Akbar who had earlier returned to Agra, started to float down the River Yamuna in a convoy of boats accompanied by a majority of his senior ministers and administrators. The army marched East on the land, in a parallel path. Even though the monsoons were in full sway and the river was in spate, the army on land and the royal river contingent reached Sayyidpur, the junction of the great Rivers Ganga and Gomati, after slightly more than a month. Akbar then moved to Chausa, the township near the field of battle in which Humayun had suffered his worst defeat in 1539, which was also the prelude to the loss of his kingdom. Continuing to float downstream, Akbar and his entourage reached the neighbourhood of Patna on 3rd August 1574.

Akbar paused here and took stock—deciding to besiege Patna and capture Hajipur as the initial action, since the township was the main supply point for Patna. Although Hajipur was on the north bank of the river and the river was flooded; and although the local chieftains put up a spirited resistance, the town was captured. The Afghan chiefs who had defied the Emperor’s orders and fought him were beheaded and their heads send to Daud—an indication of the fate that awaited him. Akbar now entered Patna in triumph, the Mughal army collecting a large amount of booty. Daud, assessed the situation as being precarious and decided that flight was the better part of valour; he left the capital in the middle of the night and took refuge in the interior of the country.

Daud had not understood or studied Akbar’s inherent tendency towards impetuousness and therefore had not anticipated a Mughal attack during the monsoon season. It was standard practice to cease all military campaigns while the monsoon rains drenched the sub-continent, beginning new campaigns, or resuming old ones, only in October after the rains had stopped and the land permitted to dry. [This tradition of avoiding monsoon campaigns has continued to the modern day. For example, the 1971 Bangladesh War was put off to early December, because of the difficulty in manoeuvring forces during the monsoons, especially in the riverine delta of the erstwhile East Bengal.] Akbar habitually disregarded adverse weather conditions. In this instance, opinions in court had been divided with an influential faction wanting to delay the Bengal campaign till better weather prevailed. Akbar had instinctively decided to start the invasion immediately, and that too using the major rivers of North India to hasten his move.

After capturing Patna, Akbar once again installed Munim Khan as the supreme commander and also appointed him the governor of, as yet to be captured, Bengal. However, this time he also provided Munim Khan with the services of some very capable generals including Raja Todar Mall. Before starting his journey back, Akbar awarded Todar Mall with a standard and kettle drum, only the second Hindu commander to have been so honoured. Further, Akbar also placed Jaunpur, Benares, Chunar and some other provinces under direct imperial rule in order to lighten the administrative burden on Munim Khan. Akbar wanted to capture Rohtas, an Afghan stronghold before leaving for Agra but was dissuaded from taking any action by senior counsellors. Uncharacteristically, Akbar heeded the advice and deputed another force to deal with Rohtas. He now started his return journey, satisfied that Bengal would be brought under Mughal rule soon, reaching Fatehpur Sikri on 18th January 1575.

Battle of Tukaroi

After Akbar’s departure, there was some infighting in the Mughal leadership, which was finally resolved by Todar Mall through the judicious use of bribes and persuasion. The Mughal forces, now in a more cohesive state, overran Bengal, easily forcing the pass at Teliagarhi—usually referred to as the ‘gateway to Bengal’. Daud fled to Orissa without offering any resistance. The path to Orissa was difficult and the majority of the Mughal forces demurred at being ordered to follow the fleeing king. However after a slight delay, they were persuaded by their generals to march into Orissa.

Encouraged by the dissention in the rank and file of the Mughal army, Daud decided to make a stand, supported by the Orissa governor Khan Jahan Lodi. He assembled a large force and met the Mughals at Tukaroi, where a decisive battle was fought. As the battle raged, the advantage swung both ways many times. Towards the afternoon, the elite of the rebel elephant corps led by the Afghan chief Gujar Khan, was wreaking havoc on the Mughal forces, with even the centre gradually being pushed back and on the verge of collapsing. A rout seemed imminent. At this inopportune or opportune, depending on the bias of the chronicler, moment a random arrow struck and killed Gujar Khan. Seeing their commander fall dead, his forces fled in panic. With the pressure lifted, the Mughals immediately recouped and won the day. Here once again the vagaries of battlefield ‘luck’ and the all-important role of the commander in medieval battles are clearly demonstrated. The impact of better organisation is also visible—the Mughal forces, a battle-hardened entity, on the verge of a disastrous defeat were able to recoup rapidly and take advantage of what was actually a stray incident.

Daud fled from the field on this reversal of fortunes and subsequently surrendered on 12th April 1575. He was given very liberal terms and permitted to keep Orissa as his ‘kingdom’ under Mughal vassalage. This treaty and its terms were opposed by Raja Todar Mall who believed that Daud was insincere in his statements of surrender and acceptance of Mughal suzerainty. He refused to sign the treaty or endorse its terms—his judgement proving to be succinct fairly soon after. The dissention of Todar Mall, effectively the representative of the Emperor, indicates the continuing schism in the Mughal hierarchy controlling Bihar and Bengal. The victorious Mughals erected their customary pyramid of enemy heads. This act is an indication that although the adversary in this case were Afghans, the Mughals continued to consider them as ‘others’, not one of them, irrespective of religious affiliations. In other words, the Mughals were, in their own mind, still invaders in the sub-continent, while the Afghans were considered locals of the place.

Daud’s Final Rebellion

The Battle of Tukaroi had been decisive. However, the ill-conceived treaty that was put in place permitted Daud to retain a considerable army. The possession of such an army in turn made him wait for a chance to regain his independence. Munim Khan, the governor of Bengal, by this time was an 80-year old cantankerous old man. He was not only obstinate, but also jealous of Muzaffar Khan, the newly appointed governor of Hajipir, charged by Akbar with protecting the Teliagarhi Pass. The discord between the two Mughal governors weakened the Mughal position in the Eastern region.

In his dotage, Munim Khan attempted to shift the capital of Bengal back to Gaur, but perished in an epidemic that spread across the region. At the same time Daud had started to recapture parts of his erstwhile kingdom and the Mughal forces in Bengal rebelled and retreated. Akbar appointed Husain Kuli Khan as the governor of Bengal and once again send Todar Mall to assist him. By this time Daud had recovered most of Bengal and also recaptured the important Teliagarhi Pass. However, before the onset of monsoons, the Mughal forces recovered the Pass. Akbar was now sufficiently angry to take to the field again; but after a day’s march out of Agra he received news of the defeat and death of Daud Khan Karrani on 12 July 1576.

With the death of Daud, the Karrani dynasty’s short rule of Bengal came to an end. More importantly Bengal, which had been autonomous province with only tenuous connections to the Muslim rulers of Delhi for more than two centuries from 1340 to 1576, ceased to be independent. During the previous two centuries, Bengal had been ruled by Afghan military chiefs—essentially military adventurers and warlords—controlling a submissive Hindu population. The ‘kings’ of Bengal during this period, who styled themselves ‘Sultans’, were all uniformly off-shoots of the Delhi Sultanate. They did not achieve anything of significance during the two-century long rule, other than perhaps a gradual Islamisation of the region achieved through the relentless building of mosques and provision of royal patronage to poor and subsistent farmers who were ‘encouraged’ to convert to the Islamic religion. [The Islamisation, which started in the early 14th century, was by and large not virulent or accompanied by violence. However, in the long-term it led to the creation of a Muslim majority enclave that resulted in the partition of Bengal into West Bengal and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) at the time of India being granted autonomy from British colonial rule in 1947.] Other than for this almost unnoticeable creep of religious change in the demography, the changeover of government from the Hindu Sena dynasty to the Muslim Afghan warlords and then to Mughal viceroys made no difference to the general population. Perhaps because of this status quo situation, from a general and short- to medium-term perspective, there is very limited information about the region of Bihar-Bengal in the Mughal imperial chronicles.

Further Rebellions

Akbar appointed a number of officials to Bengal in order to improve the administrative mechanisms of the region, which had so far been neglected. The newly appointed governor died in 1578 and was replaced by Muzaffar Khan the next year. Akbar issued instructions from Agra that all horses provided for government service by the nobles should be branded to ensure that the correct numbers were provided without double-counting. Further, he also ordered that an audit and investigation of the titles of jagir lands in the control of the Afghan nobles be carried out, with all excess land in their possession to be confiscated and attached to the imperial estate.

Both these measures were obviously unpopular and the overstrict enforcement of these instructions by zealous imperial officials led to violent discontent amongst the Afghan nobility of the region. Compounding the situation was the fact that some of the junior officials were corrupt, charging money and treasure for granting favours and exemptions. Akbar had also decreed that imperial soldiers serving in Bengal should be paid double and the ones in Bihar fifty percentage more than normal pay, as compensation for the hardship of these postings. However, Khwaja Shah Mansur who had been appointed the Finance Minister for Bihar and Bengal, unilaterally reduced these extra pay amounts to 50 and 20 percentage of normal pay. Discontentment in the military grew without being addressed.

While these material factors were all contributory, the fundamental resentment that was boiling over, was actually more religious in nature. The Muslims of Bihar-Bengal considered the open tolerance that Akbar displayed for all religions untenable with the edicts of the more conservative Islamic faith. Since Akbar’s tolerant behaviour was already openly manifest, they considered it at the least an affront to, and more seriously, as a direct attack on Islam itself. It must be accepted that, to a certain extent, Akbar had started to be mildly hostile to Islam by this time—his experiments with various philosophies had started to influence his religious policies. (These are discussed in a subsequent chapter.)

Senior officials and nobles in the Bihar-Bengal region started to actively plot against Akbar. They started to support his younger step-brother Muhammad Hakim, ruling in Kabul, as the alternative emperor to replace Akbar on the throne of Hindustan. Early in 1580 Mullah Muhammad Yazdi, the Kazi of Jaunpur (the senior priest of the region), formalised the revolt by issuing a ‘fatwa’—a formal religious order to the faithful—against Akbar which stated that any rebellion against his rule would be lawful under the Sharia, the Muslim law. This statement by the senior Kazi brought about an immediate and sudden revolt by the imperial officers stationed in the region. The rapidity of the revolt was also because the local, mainly Afghan, nobility resented the governor Muzaffar Khan who had behaved in an arrogant and haughty manner from the beginning, treating them as riff-raff. Essentially, the senior nobles from Agra had not endeared themselves to the local chiefs in any way.

When Akbar was informed of the revolt in February 1580, he immediately send Raja Todar Mall to contain it. He also took conciliatory steps by issuing orders that censured the governor for his indiscretions. However, the censure did not have any effect on the rebels. In fact, the rebellion gathered momentum and added impetus when Masum Khan, the jagirdar of Patna joined the rebel ranks. He established contact with Akbar’s step-brother in Kabul, the presumptive emperor, and assumed the leadership of the rebellion. In March, the rebels captured the capital Tanda, and Muzaffar Khan was taken prisoner, tortured and killed. A large amount of treasure fell to the rebels.

Although his initial and impetuous reaction to the developments was to proceed immediately to Bengal, Akbar judiciously held off from embarking. He was aware that Muhammad Hakim was preparing to invade from the north-west and that he was in communication with the rebels. Akbar could not risk the Kabul army taking over either Delhi or Agra in his absence. However, the anticipated invasion from Kabul materialised later than anticipated. In Bihar-Bengal, Todar Mall was besieged in Monghyr, modern day Mungir, for some time, but managed to gradually breakout. With the extended delay in the invasion from Kabul taking place, and Todar mall’s determined efforts to exert Mughal control, the rebellion gradually fizzled out. Todar Mall recovered Teliagarhi Pass, which was the first step towards containing the rebellion.

Settling Bihar-Bengal

Akbar appointed his foster brother, Mirza Aziz Kokah, to be the governor of Bengal and also send Shahbaz Khan, an experienced and capable general, to assist him settle the rebellious region. Shahbaz defeated the insurgents in Southern Awadh in early 1581, although it was only by late 1583 that the Bihar-Bengal rebellion was fully contained. Uncharacteristically, Akbar was lenient to a fault with the rebel chiefs, at times pardoning some of them as many as three times in a row for repeated offences. Even then, Akbar got rid of the troublesome chiefs in a surreptitious manner, rather than in his usual style of making a demonstration of the punishment being meted out to rebellious chiefs, which might have triggered further rebellions. Akbar was being extremely cautious in dealing with the Afghan chiefs and their followers. In this context, the dual factors of the rebellion having a religious bias and these chiefs being Muslims, and therefore also not considered the ‘other’, seems to have made a difference to their treatment; especially considering that no such leniency was ever shown to the Rajputs who opposed the might of the Mughal Empire.

Since the Bengal rebellion had definitive religious connotations, Akbar was extremely careful not to ruffle Muslim sentiments in the region. Open ruthlessness, it would seem, was reserved for the Hindu kings and chiefs who did not fall in line with the Mughal’s wishes. The ‘mullahs’ who had instigated the rebellion were ordered to present themselves to Akbar in his court. On their way to the palace their boats ‘unfortunately’ floundered in the river and all of them perished. It is obvious that the sinking of the boast was not only because of divine intervention intended to punish ‘wrong-doers’. Throughout his career, Akbar never displayed any qualms about getting rid of inconvenient opponents privately, if he felt that public sentencing and executions had the potential to create further challenges. Nevertheless, these subtleties were reserved for adversaries of the Islamic faith and never exercised when the opponent was a Hindu. Without reading too much of malice into these events, it has to be acknowledged that Akbar was an opportunist who realised that he could ill-treat the defeated Hindu chiefs openly, while the Muslim rebels had to be treated differently and at times with deference to ensure that his reign was not threatened. The above analysis is a mere statement of fact.

The Bihar-Bengal rebellion was a grave challenge to Akbar, which was finally subdued effectively. By the early 1580s, Akbar was undisputed master of the land that stretched from Gujarat to Bengal, the whole of Rajputana, Central India, Punjab and the North-West region all the way to Kabul. In a timespan of slightly over two decades, Akbar had taken control of the entire North India. He now turned his attention to administrative reform and, more importantly, to spiritual and religious matters that had always intrigued his inquisitive mind. The results of these self-induced study and investigation would become his greatest achievement and be considered the legacy of his long 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 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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