Indian History Part 81 Akbar Section IV: The Conquering Emperor 5. Annexation of Kashmir

Canberra, 16 August 2020

Kashmir, the mountain kingdom resting partially on the Himalayas and flowing into its foothills, had always been a difficult place to invade and capture from the outside. Its natural ramparts had been instrumental in Kashmir preserving its independence for centuries, even when great empires had come knocking on its borders. The entrance to the Kashmir valley was only through few passes, which the rulers made sure were always well-guarded. The only possible inroad to conquest was through fomenting internal rebellions and then having some of the divided nobility support an external invasion. However, historically even such attempts had not been very successful. Kashmir remained defiantly independent, even if it was at times embroiled in bitter internal political turmoil. Even so, there were many invasions in the long history of the kingdom, with some of the invading armies managing to penetrate deep into the valley.

Even in the few centuries before Akbar came on the scene, the Mongols had invaded in 1320, and Mirza Haidar Dughlat in 1531 and again in 1540. Multiple sources confirm that Akbar cherished the idea of conquering Kashmir ‘for a long time’. This is understandable since it bordered the expanding Mughal Empire; and Akbar was a great empire-builder, ambitious in the extreme and could never resist a tempting target. Abul Fazl, Akbar’s worshipful chronicler, considers the annexation of Kashmir as a distinctive achievement of the great king, even though by this time the Mughal Empire had expanded to faraway places. The degree of difficulty, both physical and socio-political, in capturing the unique kingdom may have been one of the reasons for the success of this campaign being rated as a great victory.


From the time of Babur, the first Mughal king of North India, to the regency of Biram Khan in Akbar’s youth, the Mughals had send forces seven times into the Kashmir valley—either to attempt a conquest of the kingdom or to install some noble to power. While some of these expeditions were marginally successful, none of them had achieved complete satisfaction. However they did produce some valuable military lessons, especially since the last attempted invasion had resulted in a complete rout of the Mughal forces. The most important lesson to come out of the repeated attempts by different groups to conquer Kashmir was that it was not possible to achieve without assistance from strong local alliances. The Mongols and Haidar Dughlat had learned this fact the hard way.

On the other hand, the habitual in-fighting among the Kashmiri nobility made it easy for external elements to interfere in and influence local affairs. They would also go on to produce a situation that would make it easier for the Mughals to intervene. The only factor necessary for Akbar to pursue was to exercise patience and attempt to instigate civil unrest from the outside. Accordingly, the proposed Mughal invasion was preceded by a concerted series of diplomatic initiatives, mostly extending support to dissidents and rival claimants to the throne, aiming to weaken the regime. Akbar also intended these diplomatic forays to establish his position as the ultimate and most powerful arbitrator in all political matters in the Kashmir Valley. Akbar gradually ensured that the general population started to become aware of his power by continually treating the Kashmir sultan as a vassal while enhancing his own image as a great emperor. The treatment meted out to the Kashmir ruler bordered on Mughal overlordship. Akbar underlined his power with subtle reminders of the plunder, loot and rape that had followed previous Mughal incursions into the Valley. He had consciously combined soft-power and coercive diplomacy, creating a favourable situation before sending the army into war in difficult terrain.

Preparatory Phase

Akbar send two exploratory missions to Kashmir, in 1569-70 and later in 1578. The intention was to assess the situation on the ground and also to establish preliminary contact with possible allies for the future. The Sultan, in awe of Akbar’s might, treated these embassies with utmost courtesy, although it is certain that he was aware of the nefarious activities that the embassies undertook during these visits. The Sultan even send a princess of the royal family as a bride for Prince Salim, the presumed Mughal heir apparent. There is an unconfirmed report that for the duration of the visit of the embassies, the Friday prayers called the ‘Kutba’, was read in Akbar’s name. These were tacit but symbolic acceptance of Mughal sovereignty, part of the political manoeuvring by the Chak sultans to placate Akbar and ensure that their independence was preserved. However, these actions also had the unanticipated effect of diluting the status and control of the Chak sultans and increasing the fissiparous tendencies of the more powerful nobles of Kashmir.

Akbar, watching and waiting, was not satisfied by the ritual actions and overt acceptance of Mughal superiority—he wanted to annex the beautiful Valley to the Mughal Empire. In 1580, the opportunity that Akbar had been searching for came to the Mughal throne on its own. Yusuf Shah Chak, a claimant to the Kashmir throne was frustrated by the opposition of a group of nobles to his becoming the sultan. He approached Akbar, through Raja Man Singh who was the governor of Punjab at that time, for assistance to claim what was considered his right. Akbar, a consummate diplomat when he wanted to be one, welcomed Yusuf as a royal guest to his court. After a year at Agra, Yusuf Shah was send back to Kashmir with sufficient Mughal forces to capture the throne.

At this stage, the selfish and precarious nature of alliances was once again demonstrated. Before Yusuf could re-enter Kashmir with the Mughal forces, a group of Kashmiri nobles intercepted him and persuaded him to refuse the military assistance from the Mughals. These nobles also played on the sentiment of the presumptive sultan by insinuating that the Mughal forces, once in the Valley, would not leave and that Yusuf, as sultan would not be truly ‘independent’. It is true that Yusuf Shah was a somewhat gullible person, but he also saw the logic of the argument and the threat of the Mughal forces becoming a permanent fixture in Kashmir. He, therefore, ‘escaped’ from the Mughal camp in Punjab and managed to capture the throne of Kashmir with the help of some local groups of nobles.

Akbar was furious at this turn of events. He considered Yusuf’s actions to be perfidy and a direct insult to himself, the great Emperor, and to his Empire. Akbar, by this time the unquestioned Emperor of the north and north-west regions of the sub-continent, habitually treated all other kings and nobles he interacted with as his vassals irrespective of their status and the actual situation. This was particularly so in the case of kings on whom he had lavished gifts—and Akbar had bestowed great favours on Yusuf Shah during his year-long stay in Agra. Even though Yusuf Shah Chak had gained his throne without Mughal assistance, Akbar and his court continued to refer to him as Yusuf Khan, and not by his royal title of Shah, thereby denying him the status of a king. Further, Akbar now demanded that Yusuf present himself in person in the Mughal court to acknowledge Mughal supremacy.

Deteriorating Conditions

Yusuf Shah had on his own defeated all opposition to his becoming the sultan, the primary reason for his having sought Mughal assistance. However, he was vindictive by nature. Rather than being magnanimous in victory and building up support for his rule, he was deliberately cruel towards the vanquished. Through his inherent viciousness against adversaries and neglect of the affairs of state, he managed to lose even his own dedicated followers. The Kashmir nobility was habitually prone to perfidy and sedition with an insatiable lust for power and wealth. Realising the deterioration in the situation, they unsuccessfully tried to get help from Tibet to dethrone Yusuf Shah.

Around the same time, a group of Kashmiri nobles under the leadership of Haidar Chak reached Lahore and entered into Mughal service under Raja Man Singh. Man Singh, already displeased with Yusuf Shah, welcomed the dissident group and managed to get the jagirs of Bhimber and Naushahra bestowed on Haidar Chak. Man Singh also rebuffed outright the overtures of friendship from Yusuf Shah.

From 1581-85, Akbar send five summons to Yusuf Shah to present himself at the Mughal court, none of which were obeyed. However, Yusuf displayed all signs of loyalty to the Mughal Emperor, sending his son in his place, but never presenting himself at the imperial court. Akbar could not be pacified; for him Yusuf Shah was a vassal and no vassal was permitted to show even the slightest hint of defiance. There is a report that Yusuf Shah was actually ready to submit to Akbar, having personally seen the power and might of the Mughal Empire for a year. However, it seems that his ministers and counsellors advised against this move, instead asking him to strengthen the borders and prepare for war. The Kashmiri nobles held independence as their highest priority. Akbar by now had become very irritated with Yusuf Khan for not presenting himself personally at the Mughal court to pay obeisance. Yusuf Khan had initially send his third son and later his heir apparent to Akbar’s court. In a situation reminiscent of what had transpired with Mewar years earlier, Akbar wanted to put an end to the pretensions of the king of Kashmir to being an independent sovereign with no vassalage attached to his rule. Akbar’s overarching ego would not be satisfied until Yusuf Khan was made a vassal.

There was a clash of two diametrically opposing perceptions of sovereignty here—the Kashmiri concept of complete and unhindered independence on the one hand; and on the other, Akbar’s firm belief that all neighbours should toe the Mughal line and pay obeisance to him, the Supreme Emperor. War was inevitable.


Since no previous attempt to invade Kashmir had been successful, there was reticence on the part of Mughal counsellors to commit to yet another invasion, especially since Akbar’s explicit orders this time was to conquer the kingdom. Considering the history of earlier Mughal incursions, this reluctance was obviously not without reason. The invasion was launched on 20th December 1585 with the army placed under the command of Haidar Chak, who was assisted by a locally well regarded Kashmiri Sufi scholar, Shaikh Yakub Sarfi. This attack was an impetuous action by Akbar, a reaction to Yusuf Shah’s defiance of his order. The precipitate action did not take into account the prevailing weather of winter snows, chill and storms. Nor did it consider that the Kashmiri army had blocked the Buliyas Pass on the Baramula route and was in a tactically stronger position. Equally important was the fact that internal political conditions in Kashmir had still not shifted in favour of the Mughals.

Raja Bhagwan Das opened back channel negotiations with Yusuf Shah and used coercive diplomacy to make him submit to the Mughal forces. However, the defiant Kashmiri nobles refused to submit and coalesced around Yaqub Shah, Yusuf’s son, who became the rallying point for the opposition to the Mughals. Bhagwan Das once again entered into negotiations and bargained a treaty with Yaqub Shah, according to which Yaqub would recognise the symbolic sovereignty of the Mughal Emperor; present himself at Akbar’s court; and permit the Mughals to collect some revenue in the region. In return, Yaqub Shah would be permitted to rule his kingdom independently and the Mughal forces would withdraw outside the Valley. Since the Mughal army was being constantly harassed by the Kashmiri forces, and the invasion was not going according to plan, Akbar accepted the terms of the treaty.

Mughal records maintained by Abul Fazl mention that Yaqub Shah broke the terms of the treaty, whereas the facts were something completely different. Yaqub had come to know that his father Yusuf, who had signed a peace accord with the Mughals, had been imprisoned by Akbar. Further, by insisting on collecting part of the revenue payments from the people, Akbar was planning to establish a parallel government in Kashmir. This was not acceptable to Yaqub and the Kashmiri nobility. There is no doubt that in this instance Akbar, catering to his high ego-state, was the violator of the treaty agreements.

Yaqub’s defiance was an affront to Akbar’s pride, and was intolerable to the egotistic character of the Emperor. However, the Mughal counsellors were reluctant to commit more forces to the Kashmir campaign, considering the repeated repulses of the Mughal invasion. In the meantime, Haidar Chak and the Sufi pir were able to gradually influence Kashmiri nobles to side with them and managed to isolate Yaqub Shah from his support base. At the same time Akbar was re-orientating the Mughal forces, enforcing a ‘zero tolerance’ policy against any ‘wickedness’ for which the earlier Mughal raids had become notorious. He was on the path to convince the Kashmiri people that the Mughal army was not an occupying force and that there would be no loot, rape or arson.

On 28 June 1586, the Mughal army once again entered the Kashmir Valley. This time they found the Kashmiri forces internally divided and unable to resist the Mughal might, which was also combined with the strength of the Kashmiri collaborators. The Mughal forces under Qasim Khan entered Srinagar, the capital, on 7 October 1586. Qasim Khan made some initial mistakes in trying to pacify the restive population and some parts of the nobility, but eventually managed to subdue incipient rebellions. The Kashmiri opposition was divided by their own in-fighting and unable to present a strong and united front to oppose the invaders.

Akbar was at his diplomatic best, adroitly using the Kashmiri nobles who had joined him to gradually bring the rebel nobles also under his control. He also ensured that the Mughal army predominantly consisted of Kashmiri nobles leading Kashmiri soldiers; the war had become essentially one of Kashmiris fighting Kashmiris. Akbar was also lavish in distributing wealth to the nobles who sided with him and also encouraged matrimonial alliances between Mughal and Kashmiri noble houses, thus gradually easing the tension between the two sides. He managed to assiduously cultivate an image of benevolence for the invading Mughal Army.

End of Kashmiri Independence

Akbar went on to annex the entire kingdom, organising the region under imperial officers. Yusuf Shah and his son Yaqub were pensioned off under stringent conditions, by any standards, although there was no reason for Akbar to be vindictive in this instance. Further, the harsh treatment of father and son is surprising since Akbar had so far been magnanimous to most defeated kings and chiefs. There is no possible explanation for this vengeful attitude assumed by the Mughal Emperor.

Kashmir became the private gardens of the imperial Mughals, their favourite summer retreat. Akbar vacationed there three times—in the summer of 1589, August 1592 and the summer of 1597. By 1592, the entire kingdom had been converted to imperial crown land: yet another province of the Mughal Empire, with no distinctive or independent identity.

© [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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