Indian History Part 81 Akbar Sect IV The Conquering Emperor 6. The North-West and the Deccan

Canberra, 22 August 2020

Even when the rebellion in Bengal was raging without an end in sight, and it was thought that the East would be lost to the Empire, Akbar did not march to Bengal. Though all his military instincts—which were highly developed—prompted him to rush to the East, he held back, for the impulses of an Emperor convinced him that the main threat to his throne would emanate not from the provincial rebels of Bengal but from the ‘pretender’ from the North-West, his step-brother ruling in Kabul.

The Kabul Campaign

In December 1580, Nur ud-Din a senior general in the service of Muhammad Hakim, Akbar’s step-brother ruling in Kabul and now in alliance with the rebels in the East, invaded Punjab. This was the first such incursion after the previous one 14 years back. The invasion was quickly repulsed. At this setback, Muhammad Hakim himself now led an invasion of the Punjab, marching at the head of 15,000 cavalry. This large force reached Lahore and camped on the outskirts. Hakim had expected the mullahs of Lahore to declare their support for him and come out to welcome his arrival; proclaiming him as the rightful emperor as the mullahs of Bihar and some parts of Bengal had done earlier. However, this did not happen, the Lahore religious heads stayed away from supporting the ‘pretender’ step-brother. Hakim then made an overture to Man Singh who was the Mughal governor of Lahore to come over to his side. This was strongly rebuffed and Hakim quickly withdrew to his own territories.

This almost insignificant episode brings out two questions—one, why did Man Singh permit the Kabul army to reach and camp so close to the city; and two, was the Mughal control of the Punjab region so tenuous that Man Singh was reluctant to attempt pushing the invading army back from the outskirts of the city? There are only scanty details available regarding the exact situation of the Mughal control of the Punjab and therefore these doubts can neither be denied nor confirmed. However, from Akbar’s reaction to the incursion it would seem that the Mughal control of Punjab was less than optimum at this time.

On 8th February 1581, Akbar set out from Fatehpur Sikri to deal with his brother. Although Hakim immediately fled back to Kabul in panic, Akbar pressed on to Punjab, this time decidedly wanting to deal with his errant brother once and for all. This Mughal army was large by any standards. It consisted of 50,000 cavalry, 500 elephants, commensurate infantry and accompanying support infrastructure. Akbar took along his two elder sons on this campaign—Prince Salim and the younger Prince Murad, 12 and 11 years old respectively. They were accompanied by Father Monserrate, a tutor of the princes.

Father Antonio Monserrate (1536-1600)

Father Monserrate was a Portuguese Jesuit priest who was part of the three-priest team that formed the first Jesuit mission to Emperor Akbar’s Mughal court. The other two were, Fathers Rodolfo Acquaviva and Francisco Enriquez. The team left Goa on 17th November 1579 and arrived at Fatehpur Sikri, by then the capital, on 4th March 1580. Since the priests were invited by Akbar himself, they were well received. Father Monserrate was appointed the tutor to the elder princes. He also accompanied Akbar during the military expedition to Kabul in 1581, going as far as Peshawar with the main body and to Jalalabad with the rear guard. He remained in Akbar’s court until April 1582 when he returned to Goa.

The Commentarius

Father Monserrate commenced writing an account of his time in Akbar’s court in Latin on his return to Goa, calling it Commentarius and completing it in December 1590, while he was being held prisoner by the Turks in Arabia. For some obscure reason, the text was never send to Europe but was discovered in Calcutta (today’s Kolkata) in the early 20th century. The Asiatic Society of Bengal published the original in 1914. In 1922, John S. Hoyland translated and S.N. Banerjee annotated the book, publishing it as The Commentary of Father Monserrate, Society of Jesus, on his Journey to the Court of Akbar. It is a primary source for the study of Akbar, his court and Empire.

Monserrate kept a detailed chronicle of the events as they transpired and also his own interpretations of them. He details that the march was planned meticulously, there were no shortages of supplies, and that the soldiers who embarked were paid eight months’ pay in advance.

The Episode of Shah Mansur

During the repulse of Muhammad Hakim’s invasion of Punjab, some correspondence from Hakim which linked him and the rebellion to Shah Mansur, the erstwhile Revenue Minister was found in the possession of some captives. Mansur, as the revenue-in-charge had been unrelenting in his zest to collect tax dues from all, not sparing even the senior nobles. Further, he lacked courtly manners. The combination of his relentless and zealous application of the law and his uncouth behaviour had made him an extremely unpopular minister. The discontentment of the nobles had reached such a stage that Akbar had been forced to dismiss him from service. Even so, Mansur had accompanied the expeditionary army, perhaps hoping to regain the Emperor’s favour.

On the alleged correspondence between Hakim and Mansur coming to light, some sort of a sham trial was conducted. Akbar seems to have washed his hands off the affair, and various sources mention that the trial was decidedly biased against Mansur, his guilt having already been ‘proved’ by the other nobles. Shah Mansur was charged with treason, found guilty and almost immediately hung from a tree at Shahbad near Ambala. Later-day belief is that Mansur was actually not a conspirator, that he was the victim of a frame up and that a ‘judicial murder’ had been carried out. It is possible that the nobles wanted to find a scapegoat for the earlier invasion of Punjab, and Mansur, who was already out of favour with the Emperor and equally despised by almost all the nobles because of his unpopular but strict accounting practices, conveniently fitted the bill. This was also the time that Akbar was under siege from the orthodox religious rebellion in the East and tied up with the evolving revolt in Kabul and the North-West. He would have wanted to take the minds of his nobles off such serious matters, and may have decided to sacrifice Shah Mansur for the greater good of his rule. There are uncertain indications that in later years Akbar regretted his decision to wash his hands off the Shah Mansur episode.

Culmination of the Kabul Campaign

Akbar now pressed on towards Kabul. He made a sentimental detour to Kalanur, where a quarter of a century earlier, he had been crowned king of an as yet vague and unformed empire. He avoided the main arterial route through Lahore and moved keeping close to the Himalayan foothills, in order to avoid the challenges that came with the monsoon rains in the plains. Centuries earlier, Alexander the Macedonian had adopted the same method during his invasion of the sub-continent.

The Mughal army crossed the Rivers Ravi and Chenab by building bridges of boats and halted at Rohtas briefly before moving to the banks of the River Indus. Here Akbar stayed for 50 days before crossing the river.

Coming Full Circle

There was a general reluctance on the part of the Mughal nobles to proceed to Kabul, in direct contrast to the challenge that Babur faced in making his amirs stay on in India after the Battle of Panipat. Akbar’s nobles did not want to leave the sub-continent, even for a short military campaign—the Muslim nobles were ‘afraid of the cold of Kabul’; and on the other hand, the Hindu nobles also added the traditional religious taboo against crossing the River Indus as yet another reason for not engaging in the campaign. Accordingly, they advised Akbar not to push the quarrel with his brother to the extreme. Akbar, however, decided to press on to Kabul.

The perception of the Mughal nobility had come full circle.

Akbar did not take heed of the entreaties of his nobles and initially send out an advance party, led by his second son Prince Murad and assisted by experienced generals, as a sort of reconnoitring force. Akbar himself crossed River Indus on 12th July, after establishing a standing camp, a sort of home base, on the eastern bank.

Akbar entered Kabul unopposed on Friday 9th August 1581, Muhammad Hakim having fled to the mountains. He took up residence in the old fort, which was full of childhood memories for him. He started his return journey after a nine-day stay in Kabul, since he was anxious to get back to his capital. However, it did not stop him from planning to annex Kashmir, which was an ambition that he had harboured for long. The plan did not materialise at this time and Akbar made a direct return to Fatehpur Sikri.

While he was still in Kabul, Akbar received a message of submission from Muhammad Hakim although Hakim did not present himself in person. Akbar handed over the province to his sister Bakhtunissa Begum before starting his return journey. On the way back, he appointed Raja Man Singh the governor of the Indus province, in addition to the Lahore province that was already under his charge. The Kabul campaign had taken less than a year to complete and had been flawlessly executed, the only blight being the unfortunate hanging of Shah Mansur. Muhammad Hakim died of palsy four years later and Kabul became yet another province of the growing Empire.

Gujarat Uprising

Muzaffar Shah, the deposed sultan of Gujarat had continued to wander ambiguously in the region, and with the passage of time had become a tough and ambitious leader of men. Gradually he had established himself at Junagadh and in 1583, he rebelled once again, having collected a number of disgruntled soldiers and minor commanders as followers under his banner. Muzaffar Shah managed to expel the Mughals from Ahmedabad and assumed the title and position of king. Abd ur-Rahim, recaptured Ahmedabad very shortly after the initial setback. In two more battles—fought at Sarkhaj, near Ahmedabad and again at Nandod at Rajpipla—Muzaffar Shah was defeated and fled to the wild regions of the Rann of Kutchch. From this inhospitable region he continued his fight against the Mughal Empire. Muzaffar Shah was finally captured in 1593, a full ten years after his rebellion. He committed suicide by cutting his own throat on being captured; at least that is what the official report states.

The Restive West

It is highly possible that Akbar did not even consider Gujarat a minor challenge, indicated by the fact that Muzaffar Shah was brought to justice only after a ten-year cat and mouse game. Muzaffar was not important enough for the imperial government to expend resources and energy in subduing him. Gujarat was a closed chapter and it was the North-West that interested Akbar. The Uzbegs, traditional adversaries of the Mughals, had come together under the leadership of Abdullah Khan Uzbeg and captured Badakhshan; which in turn brought Kabul and north-west India within striking distance for them. Akbar knew that the Uzbegs had to be carefully monitored. At the same time, the restive Afghan tribes were threatening to capture the Khyber Pass, which was the lifeline between India and Kabul.

Akbar at this time was calculating and pre-planning a move to the South with an eye on the Deccan. However, spurred by the death of his step-brother Muhammad Hakim, he changed his plans. In mid-1585, he once again set out for the Punjab—he would stay in the Greater Punjab for the next 14 years. He made base camp at Rawalpindi near Lahore and reviewed his priorities. Kashmir rated high in this list. (The Kashmir campaign has already been described in the previous chapter) Sind and Baluchistan, the other two unconquered territories also beckoned Akbar, who had a voracious and unsatisfiable appetite for conquest and annexation.

The Yusufzi and Mandar Afghan Tribes

Akbar moved to Attock and send out contingents in a three-pronged attack against the troublesome Afghan tribes, led by Zain Khan Kokaltash, Raja Birbal and Hakim, meant to culminate at Chakdara in the Swat valley. Of the three commanders, only Zain Khan was an experienced military commander and strategist, the other two being senior courtiers who wanted to embellish their position by achieving some success in the battlefield. The three commanders disagreed on the course of action to be adopted, the rational advice of Zain Khan falling on deaf ears and being ignored. The Mughal attack was thus disadvantaged from the beginning and unsurprisingly did not succeed.

The contingents started to withdraw to Attock and were harassed by the tribal forces, gradually degenerating into a complete rout. In the bargain, more than half of the Mughal forces perished—becoming the severest defeat suffered by Mughal forces during Akbar’s reign. In the confused retreat, Raja Birbal was slain at the Malandari Pass, while the other two commanders survived to tell the tale. A report states that Birbal started to run to save his life when under attack, was intercepted and slain, his body never being found. This is indeed believable, especially since Birbal had no battlefield experience to sustain him in desperate situations. Some revenge was effected on the tribes for this ignominious defeat by Todar Mall and later by Raja Man Singh, at the Khyber Pass. However, these two tribes remained mostly unsubdued.

Raja Birbal

Birbal had been Akbar’s constant companion for a number of years. Birbal was a poor Brahmin from Kalpi, called Mahesh Das (1528-1586). He was initially in the service of Raja Bhagwan Das, who brought him to Akbar’s court. Although he was 14 years older than Akbar, an unlikely friendship eventuated between the two. Birbal went on to achieve great renown as a poet, musician, wit and most importantly as a raconteur, earning the title Kavi Raj (king of poets) from Akbar.

Subsequently, he was titled Raja Birbal and raised to the rank of ‘Commander of 2000’ in the cavalry. Birbal’s poems have not survived but his witty exchanges with Akbar form part of Indian folklore even today.

The Raushanias (Illuminati)

The trouble with the Afghan tribes had been kindled by a self-proclaimed prophet called Bayazid. He had synthesised some elements of Hinduism and Islam and set aside all religious texts, including the Quran. Bayazid preached that nothing existed except God, who filled all space and was the substance of all forms. It automatically followed that all acts would be divine acts and therefore, there could be no distinction between right and wrong, good and bad. His followers were called the ‘Raushanias’, the Illuminati. Bayazid assured his followers that they were the chosen people and that they would inherit the earth.

However, this was not the proverbial meek inheriting the earth. Bayazid decreed that in anticipation of their future inheritance, they could seize all possessions of the non-believers in their midst. This part of the doctrine suited the lawless nature of the Afghan tribesmen who formed the predominant part of the ‘prophet’s’ following. Bayazid’s teachings galvanised the tribes into action, creating serious turmoil in the region, which Akbar realised must be put down to re-establish the stability of his rule.

Bayazid died in 1585 and was succeeded to the pulpit by his young, 16-year old son Jalala. Although young in years, Jalala was a charismatic leader and very soon managed to get the Kabul-Punjab road under his control. Jalala kept the Mughals at bay and in 1600 his followers captured Ghazni. However, he was killed soon after this victory. Even with his death, stability could not be ensured, religious turmoil and incessant warfare continued in the region, even during the reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Much later, when the sectarian fervour had diminished, their fierce and vigorous tribal spirit enabled the tribes to maintain their independence—a freedom of spirit still cherished and enjoyed by the Afghan tribes to this day.

Sind and Baluchistan

Akbar’s avowed ambition was to bring all provinces on North India and the North-Western mountain provinces under his sway. His foreign policy was carefully crafted to achieve this objective. At this stage, however, Southern Sind and Baluchistan were still independent entities. The conquest of these two provinces were a prerequisite to capture Kandahar, which had been a long-term ambition and discussed in detail in the royal court.

The Emperor chose Abd ur-Rahman, now titled Khan Khanan, to command the invasion of Sind and Baluchistan. He had already been appointed the governor of Multan in Northern Sind and was charged with capturing Thathah in South Sind. Thathah was ruled by Mirza Jani Tarkhan who had not yet paid homage to Akbar. Tarkhan attempted to repulse the invasion twice and was soundly defeated on both occasions, surrendering after the second battlefield defeat. He paid homage to Akbar in the court and was treated well by the Emperor—he was permitted to continue ruling his kingdom as a fief of the Mughal Empire. Akbar did not take any part in this campaign, letting his protégé carryout the campaign on his own and also take all the glory of conquest.


The Persian Shah had retaken Kandahar two years after Akbar had been crowned. Although Akbar remained ambivalent about recovering Kandahar, it was obvious that it rankled as an irritant in his mind. Kandahar was now under threat from the Uzbegs and the Shah, himself under threat from the Turks, was unable to send any assistance. Unsure of defending the city against the ferocious Uzbegs, the governor of Kandahar surrendered the city to the Mughals in April 1595. It speaks volumes about the pressure that the Persian Shah was under, that even after one of his cities were surrendered, his relationship with Akbar did not change; it continued to be cordial with ambassadors and presents continuing to be exchanged between the two monarchs.

In February 1598, Abdullah Khan Uzbeg died and with him died the threat that the Uzbegs had posed to the Mughal Empire for long years. A relieved Akbar now returned to Fatehpur Sikri and turned his attention to the much anticipated and long planned campaign into the Deccan Plateau.

The Deccan Campaign

The Deccan Plateau was divided between the minor sultanates that had emerged after the break-up of the Bahmani kingdom. These sultanates were inherently weak and prone to incessant in-fighting and contests for power and fortune. Their mutual alliances were extremely fickle, although matrimonial ties bound them together in an intricate manner. These relatively minor kingdoms made an attractive prize for any ambitious and powerful emperor to conquer, and Akbar, if anything, was ambitious to the core. He now felt sufficiently secure in North and North-West India to initiate an adventurous Southern policy. (For a detailed analysis of the Deccan kingdoms see Volume VI: Medieval Deccan Kingdoms of this series of books with the generic title From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History)

In 1591, Akbar put in place the preliminary actions in his move to the South. He send out embassies to the capitals—Burhanpur, Ahmadnagar, Bijapur and Golconda—of the four major sultanates of the region, asking them to accept Mughal suzerainty. Khandesh, with its capital Burhanpur, was a small kingdom in the valley of the River Tapti and had been subdued earlier in 1564 during the annexation of Malwa and accepted the demand without demur. Bijapur and Golconda were more diplomatic and circumspect. They were aware of Mughal power and therefore, received the embassies with the utmost courtesy and send them back with expensive gifts, but without offering any answer to the demand of acknowledging Mughal overlordship. Ahmadnagar, ruled by the Nizam Shahi kings, was actually the front-line state, since it was the northern most of the Deccan sultanates and would have to bear the initial brunt of any Mughal invasion. However, the ruling Nizam Shah haughtily dismissed the Mughal envoy, obviously refusing even token acceptance of the Mughal demand.

Akbar now initiated the Mughal military operations in the Deccan, while he was still in Lahore. However, the dual-command structure that he had prescribed for the campaign—with his son Prince Murad and Abd ur-Rahman Khan Khanan in equal charge—resulted in a jealous relationship that hindered the smooth progress of the campaign. Akbar moved from Lahore to Kashmir in 1597, and although he fell ill there, recovered rapidly. Prince Murad was an arrogant drunk who entertained hopes of replacing his elder brother Prince Salim as the heir apparent. He was impossible to work with, as Abd ur-Rahman found out. Realising the situation, Akbar appointed Mirza Shahrukh as the sole commander and withdrew Prince Murad back to Agra. However, in May 1599 Prince Murad died of delirium tremens, while still in the Deccan.

Akbar returned to Agra from the north-west after nearly 14 years. Even though his intention had been to proceed south almost immediately, he had to halt in the capital for several months to sort out the ‘difficulties’ created by his sons. In July 1599, Akbar started his march to the Deccan. Before departing Agra, Akbar placed Prince Salim in-charge of the capital and also of Ajmer province. He also left clear instructions that the Prince should spare no exertions in subjugating the Rana of Mewar who had still not surrendered and was fighting a guerrilla campaign against the Mughals. However, Salim ignored the orders and commenced his own rebellious activities at the first opportune moment.

Akbar crossed the River Narmada in August and occupied Burhanpur, without opposition. Since Burhanpur had been captured, the Khandesh forces moved to Asirgarh, the fort that commanded the road from the north to the interior Deccan. Akbar also brought his third son Prince Daniyal to the campaign, although his arrival did not significantly alter the ground realities. Although Asirgarh was besieged, the Mughal forces could not break through the defences of the fort. The other part of the Deccan campaign waxed and waned with the Mughals not achieving any spectacular victories as they had become used to, and at times also suffering some reverses.

Akbar firmly believed that no king should be allowed to be completely independent if his kingdom was within marching distance of Mughal armies. He had also taken note of the Nizam Shah’s earlier belligerent attitude and bided his time. Four years after the Mughal embassy was rebuffed an opportunity presented itself to Akbar. There was a succession struggle in Ahmadnagar and one of the factions sought Mughal assistance to prevail. This was the excuse that Akbar had been looking for to intervene in the Nizam Shahi kingdom. In 1599-1600, Akbar personally led a large army into Ahmadnagar and annexed a majority portion of the kingdom, including the capital. The Nizam Shahi rulers continued to control a small part of their old holdings for a few more decades before being wiped out completely from the history of the Deccan and the larger sub-continent (From Indus to Independence: A trek through Indian History, Volume VI: Medieval Deccan Kingdoms pp. 263-285 refers).

The Siege of Asirgarh

Even though the Nizam Shahis had been brought down, the Khandesh fortress at Asirgarh stood defiant in Akbar’s path. It is this steadfast defiance that brought about a turn of events that also tarnished Akbar’s reputation as an honourable warrior-king, who may not have given any quarter to the enemy, but was also fair in his dealings with the adversary. The Mughal accounts only mention a voluntary surrender of the fort after a long siege, obviously not wanting to shine a light on their emperor’s nefarious activities. The Jesuit missionaries who accompanied Akbar on this campaign provide a much starker account of all the activities that were undertaken to ensure the fall of the fort.

Akbar initiated many actions—most of them in clear breach of faith and even treaties—to satisfy his overriding ambition for conquest and ego-satisfaction. There are a number of reports of torture being initiated against captive princes and nobles during the siege of Asirgarh. He used guile and perfidy when military means had failed to make the fort surrender, his actions not adding to the lustre of a conquering emperor. Finally, when all other means had failed, he resorted to plain bribery; for Akbar was facing the pressure of time to return to Agra—Prince Salim had started to reign as an independent king in Allahabad. After 11 months of siege, bribery worked where nothing else had, and Akbar was able to capture the greatest fort in India through discreditable means.

It is not surprising that the Mughal accounts mention a voluntary surrender of the fort by the defending forces, whereas the Jesuit accounts state that the reigning sultan was kidnapped from the fort by nobles who had been bribed, after which the officers of the fort surrendered, when the sultan was threatened with being put to death. Even by the fairly broad and acceptable standards of medieval times, Akbar’s behaviour during the siege of Asirgarh will have to be considered ‘incorrect’. However, the perfidy that was practised during the siege is not mentioned by any other chroniclers other than the Jesuit priests. Akbar’s behaviour pattern should however come as no surprise to anyone who had followed his progress from a boy-king to an invincible emperor. There is nothing to wonder about the behaviour of the Emperor, one who has been considered by posterity to have been ‘great’ and in many aspects ‘good’.

There is no doubt that absolute base personal treachery was not Akbar’s normal behaviour. However, medieval statecraft was not above insincerity and extreme craftiness and it can be noted that in many instances Akbar drew a distinctive line between public and private morality. Acts conducted in support of the interest of the State may not always be considered correct in private life—this is still the universal truth. There is no doubt that Akbar had to capture Asirgarh, his military reputation, almost at the far-end of his career, was staked solely on the subjugation of this one fort.

By early 1601, it became imperative for Akbar to return to Agra, to contain the rebellious activities of his eldest son and heir apparent, Prince Salim. Before his rather hurried departure, he appointed Prince Daniyal as the Viceroy of the Deccan with wide jurisdiction, perhaps as a counter-point to the growing power of Prince Salim in the north. It is not inconceivable that at this delicate time in his reign, Akbar may have considered dividing his Empire into two; the north and north-west as one unit, and the south and west as the other. However, the reality of such a consideration will have to remain in the realm of speculation.

The culmination of this campaign into the Deccan Plateau marked the end of Akbar’s military career and conquests. The Mughal Empire by this time enveloped the area of the sub-continent north of the River Godavari barring a minor tribal belt in Bihar; extended to Kashmir in the north, the River Helmand in Afghanistan in the west, and to the Brahmaputra valley in the east. The empire was one of the largest in the history of India and had a population of over 100 million people. Akbar was inclined to stay on in the Deccan to pursue further conquests but was obliged to return to Agra since his eldest son Prince Salim had risen in revolt. Akbar would conquer no more.

‘But the perfidy which failed to win and the ignoble corruption which won Asirgarh marked the waning of Akbar’s fortunate star. His remaining years were few and evil. He was no longer ‘the terror of the East’, and was forced to lay aside for ever his grandiose projects of winning back the Central Asian realms lost by his grandfather, of annexing the kingdoms of Golkonda and Bijapur, of carrying his victorious arms to the extremity of the Peninsula, and of driving into the sea the hated Portuguese whose ships and forts mocked his power.’

—Vincent A. Smith,

in Akbar: The Great Mogul 1542-1605, p. 287.


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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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