Indian History Part 82 Jahangir Section I: Early Years – Quelling a Rebellion

Canberra, 21 October 2020

The 17th century was the great age of the Mughal Empire. Akbar had reintegrated northern and central India and given it a modified Persian form. At his death, Akbar left behind an empire populated by 100 million people—at a time when the total population of the British Isles could not have been more than five million and all of Western Europe about 40 million. Even while supporting such a large population, the empire was not impoverished by any stretch of imagination. On the contrary, the abundance of manpower was instrumental in creating the surplus that propelled the Mughal Empire to greatness and glory. The largeness and spread of the country represented its true greatness; essentially the land and labour combination generated the wealth of the country—presenting an impressive picture of wealth and power to the outside world.

A Child Born of Prayers

By his 13th regnal year, Akbar had already captured the three bastions of Rajput pride—Chitor, Ranthambhor and Kalanjar—and was well established on the path to fame and glory. However, despite having taken a large number of women as wives and concubines, he did not have a surviving son to carry forward the dynastic lineage. Twins born to his Rajput princess Queen in 1564 had survived only for a month and other children born of mistresses and concubines had also died in infancy. Akbar had started to anguish that the Timurid dynasty in Hindustan was coming to an end. In desperation, he turned to holy men to intercede with God on his behalf.

Akbar came to know of a Shaikh, Salim Chishti, living in Sikri about 23 miles from Agra, who had a reputation for fulfilling silent wishes that were made in his presence. Akbar made a pilgrimage to Sikri, and the Shaikh told the Emperor before his departure that he would have three sons. That this prediction came true is recorded history. Whether or not the chroniclers used hindsight to support and enhance the perception of the spiritual powers of the Shaikh is more difficult to determine. Ancient and medieval Indian chronicles are full of stories that extol the mystic powers of sages and therefore, the story of Akbar and Salim Chishti is not surprising.

Akbar send his pregnant wife to Sikri for the period of confinement, so that the child could be born under the benign shadow of the saint—and on 30th August 1569, a son was born to him at noon.

Controversy Regarding the Identity of Jahangir’s Mother

There is on-going controversy regarding the identity of the queen who was Jahangir’s mother. One group of historians believe that the Rajput princess, known in folklore as Jodha Bai, who was the daughter of Raja Bihar Mal of Amber was the mother. However, Jahangir himself states in his autobiography, Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri written in Persian, that the Rajput princess who was Bihar Mal’s daughter was in his father’s house at the time of his birth. This indicates that she was one of his father’s wives and categorically negates the claim that she was his mother. Further, there is no contemporary evidence to prove that the Rajput princess Jodha Bai (if she was indeed called by that name, which is also a point of discussion) was Jahangir’s mother.

The earliest external reference to Jahangir’s mother is to be found in A Contemporary Dutch Chronicle of Mughal India, which states that Jahangir’s mother was Ruquiya Begum, the daughter of Mirza Hindal. Unfortunately this information cannot be corroborated with any other reliable source and therefore its authenticity must remain suspect. In the Tuzuk Jahangir mentions that both his brothers were born to royal concubines. It can be speculated that if he himself was born to a noble lady who was a legitimate wife of the Emperor, he would have definitely mentioned it, if not for anything else but to distinguish his own parentage. The other factor to consider here is that when the mother of a prince was a concubine, her name was consciously concealed and scrupulously suppressed in all chronicles. These two factors, although speculative, points to the high probability that Jahangir was also born to a concubine. An unverifiable source names the lady as Sujan Rai.


Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri, also referred to as Jahangirnama, is the autobiography of Emperor Jahangir. It is written in Persian and follows the tradition initiated by his great-grandfather Babur, who founded the dynasty and also wrote his autobiography famously known as Baburnama.

Although Babur only noted the history of his reign, Jahangir also included his reflections on art, culture, and politics as well as details regarding the royal family. Jahangir personally wrote the autobiography until 1624 and for the next two years it was written by an eminent author in the royal court, Mu’tamad Khan. The Tuzuk, along with his father Akbar’s biography Akbarnama, form important sources of information regarding the state of affairs during the 16th and 17th centuries.   

Akbar celebrated the birth of his son by distributing alms across the kingdom, freeing prisoners and feeding the poor. In keeping with a vow that he had taken during the first visit to the Shaikh, the prince was named Salim in the sage’s honour. Akbar also made good his vow to walk on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Moin ud-Din Chishti in Ajmer.

On Akbar visiting the hermitage to see his sons, after 36 days of the birth, Shaikh Salim Chishti is recorded as having said, ‘ Here is a child of many prayers; look after him with the devotion of a true believer. Forgive him his lapses, and punish him not even if he may be deserving of disciplinary treatment. There is no corrective better than love’. Akbar never forgot the words of the Chishti.

—Muni Lal,

Jahangir, p. 6.

At the age of four years, four months and four days, Salim was initiated into formal education under the tutelage of the venerable Maulana Mir Kalan Haravi. At the age of eight, he was appointed ‘Mansabdar’, of 10,000 cavalry and at the age of 15, he was married to Man Bai, the daughter of Raja Bhagwan Das, one of the most powerful kings in Rajputana. A daughter, Sultana-ul-Nissa Begum and a son, Prince Khusrau (born 6 August 1587) was born of this union. A series of marriages followed—to both Muslim nobility and Rajput royalty. There is no accurate count of the children that Salim/Jahangir fathered, a number of them having died in infancy. The daughter of Raja Udai Singh, Jagat Gosain, was also married to Salim and their son, Prince Khurram who would later become the emperor Shah Jahan, was born in Lahore on 5th January 1592.

Fairly early in life Salim became addicted to wine, arrack and opium. It is believed that succumbing to the pleasures of the flesh blunted his finer sensibilities, making him fly into wild rages at the slightest provocation. This trait was further aggravated by his being inherently short-tempered.

Entry into Politics – The Rebellions

By the age of 13, Salim had started to become actively involved in the administration and policy-making of the kingdom. This was not unusual in the Mughal dynasty. His father made him in-charge of the important departments of Justice and Celebrations.

When Akbar decided to go into the Deccan and marched south, he provided a powerful army to Salim and instructed him to invade the kingdom of Mewar and defeat the Rana of Chitor. He was to be assisted by Raja Man Singh who would act as the general-in-charge. The initial part of the invasion was undertaken and the Rana engaged in some minor skirmishes, thereafter withdrawing to the mountains in the interior of his kingdom. The Mughal army was unable to gain any advantage.

Once the Rana had disengaged, Salim decided not to pursue him and to return to Agra with the intention of taking control of the provinces around Agra, to the east of the River Ganga. There is a mention that Man Singh instigated him to take this action, which has been discounted by some historians as mere rumours. Man Singh’s absolute loyalty to Akbar is given as the reason to consider such aspersions to be false. However, considering Man Singh’s actions later on during the reign of Salim, ruling as Jahangir, there may have been some substance to the rumours. In the event, Salim did not stop at Agra but proceeded directly to Allahabad. This was done to avoid meeting his grandmother who had come out to dissuade him from taking the rash actions that he was contemplating. Thus started the power struggle between father and son, which continued for almost five years, till Akbar’s death.

After settling down in Allahabad, Salim sized the royal treasury at Bahar and also gifted some jagirs to his supporters. Akbar was stifled by his love for his eldest son and obvious heir apparent and contented himself by writing a letter threatening his rebellious offspring with divine retribution for his reckless act. Salim’s initial reaction was to apologise to his father, but he did not consider it prudent to do so. Gradually the gulf between father and son widened and reached a stage when reconciliation seemed a very distant possibility. (Salim’s repeated rebellions and reconciliations with his father, the Emperor, has been detailed in an earlier chapter recounting the later part of Akbar’s reign. They are not being narrated again here.)

Accession to the Throne

As the news of Akbar’s fatal illness spread, there was an initial tussle for succession. There was a faction, led by Raja Man Singh, who supported Prince Khusrau to become the next king. However, this attempt to usurp the throne was short-lived and the rebel faction pledged loyalty to Salim. Salim forgave them since he wanted to start his reign on a peaceful note of reconciliation. Since there were no siblings to place counter-claims, Salim—now Nur ud-Din Mohammad Jahangir—ascended the throne on 24th October 1605. He was 36 years old.

Jahangir was liberally educated, naturally shrewd and endowed with an abundance of common sense. He was well placed to continue the statesmanlike policies that had been the hallmark of his father’s rule. Jahangir started his reign with a great sense of justice and proclaimed some ordnances to ensure just rule in his domains. However, it may not be wrong to assume that Jahangir came to the throne with a guilty conscience—at worst he was instrumental in murdering his father; and at best, he had been a conscientious critic of Akbar and a hot-headed rebel against his father. Further, his magnanimous attempt to be inclusive by forgiving the would-be rebels who supported his son against him also seems to have backfired. There was general dissent within his own support base for this act of forgiveness, while the rebellious faction continued to nurture their anger. The diplomatic skills necessary to convert enemies into friends and friends into loyalists completely eluded Jahangir; enemies remained enemies and friends remained wary.

After assuming the throne, Jahangir issued 12 ordnances meant to ensure better governance of the Empire. Even a cursory analysis of these directives displays a genuine concern and desire to ensure the security and freedom of individuals—a remarkable solicitude for the material and moral welfare of his subjects. Sadly, the fact remains that the ordnances were not enforced and therefore did not create the desired effect. Well-meaning though he was, Jahangir did not take long to be influenced by the religious zealots of the Muslim orthodoxy and his desire to ensure equality for all people, irrespective of religion, class and creed, remained a pipedream of an idealistic, newly crowned Emperor.  

In March 1606, he celebrated the feast of Nauroz, the New Year, with great pomp and splendour. Jahangir was not found of conflict—he wanted to have more time to enjoy the pleasures of life and wars ate into this time. Unlike his warlike father, he believed that unilateral offensive action was unethical, although the defence of one’s own kingdom was considered correct and even necessary. This was a strange attitude to assume for the scion of the Timurid dynasty, which had always worshipped offensive action that resulted in plunder and annexation of territories.

For a few years now, Rana Amar Singh of Mewar had been carrying out punitive incursions into Mughal territories. Jahangir therefore decided to send out an army to make him desist. The objective, unlike all previous Mughal expeditions into Rajputana, was to work out a reasonable plan of coexistence, not to defeat or humiliate the Rana. Jahangir’s forefather’s would have been appalled at their successors thought-process, since in their rule book an army was only send out to defeat and conquer, never to parley for coexistence. For this campaign Jahangir appointed his second son, Prince Parvez, as the commander of the forces, ably assisted by a bevy of capable generals. However, before the expedition could be effectively mounted, dire developments in Agra overtook it.

A Prince Rebels

Prince Khusrau, Jahangir’s eldest son, was also the nephew of Raja Man Singh, whose sister was the prince’s mother. Earlier, during the transition period of succession, Man Singh had attempted to plot against Salim to place Khusrau on the throne. However a reconciliation had been affected at the last minute, Khusrau had been presented in court and received by Jahangir with affection. The affection was only outward show since father and son were actually fully estranged from each other. Jahangir (Salim) had always felt wronged by his son, perhaps without much reason.

Khusrau was blessed with a very engaging personality, but was also impetuous with a fiery temper. He had nurtured hopes of claiming the throne from his grandfather and even now hoped to attempt to realise his dream. It is unclear as to who was responsible for planting this seed in his mind—that his father was not worthy of the great Mughal throne and that he was the chosen one to succeed Akbar. The fact remains that Khusrau was driven by this blind ambition. Being the eldest son of the emperor, he was ideally placed to become the nucleus of political intrigue, and that is what he became. Fairly rapidly he managed to collect a large number of disgruntled and disaffected nobles around him, who in turn swore allegiance to him.

Within a few months Khusrau felt he had sufficient support and decided to act. On the night of 8th April 1606, Khusrau rode out of Agra with about 350 followers, on the pretext of visiting his grandfather’s tomb at Sikandra. The clandestine departure was reported to Jahangir who reacted angrily. He asked his Wazir-ul-Mulk to take any and all actions deemed necessary to bring the recalcitrant prince to heel. A force of 20,000 cavalry was assembled under the command of Shaikh Farid Bokhari, an experienced general, and scouts sent out within the hour. By now Agra was abuzz with rumours of the revolt, spreading panic. Jahangir’s worst fears were that Khusrau would circle eastward and try to join forces with his uncle Raja Man Singh who was at that time the governor of Bengal. Jahangir is reported to have said, ‘… no one is a relation to a king; kingship regards neither son nor son-in-law’. In the Tuzuk he writes, ‘When the peace of an Empire is at stake, no regard must be paid even to our children, for that a king has no relations’.

Jahangir wanted to pursue the rebel himself, but was dissuaded from doing so by well-meaning courtiers. Khusrau was soon joined by Husain Beg Badakhshani with a force of 3000 cavalry. Badakhshani had recently been dismissed by Jahangir from his position as governor of Kabul and was therefore seeking revenge. The prompt tie up of the forces proves that the rebellion was not a sudden and spontaneous event as reported by some historians, but a carefully planned manoeuvre to topple the new regime. Even at this stage Jahangir’s main concern was that Khusrau would make an attempt to join forces with his uncle in Bengal. If such a tie up eventuated, then Jahangir knew that he would have the fight of his life on his hands. Fortunately for the Mughal, Khusrau continued his march towards the Punjab, making no effort to veer towards Bengal. This action points to the possibility that Man Singh was not actively involved in the revolt and that his impetuous nephew had acted somewhat on his own.

The combined rebel force now moved towards the Punjab, terrorising and laying waste the countryside on their way. A number of mercenaries, on the lookout for a quick profit through plunder, joined ranks with Khusrau. Abdur Rahim, who was the governor of Lahore, joined Khusrau at Panipat and was appointed to the position of Wazir (Vizier, Prime Minster). The rebel forces now moved to Taran Taran, where the Sikh Guru Arjan Dev gave Khusrau his blessings and minor monetary assistance. Arjan Dev commanded great respect in the region from all communities and his liberalism had been admired by Akbar. The Guru stood for high moral and social principles.

Khusrau and his much accentuated forces reached Lahore, but the general-in-charge, Dilawar Khan, had been forewarned and refused to surrender the fort. Lahore was besieged by the rebels. Meanwhile, Jahangir, having realised the seriousness of the situation, had set out with a large force in pursuit of the rebels. He was now worried about Khusrau joining forces in the North-West with the Uzbeks and Persians, traditional adversaries of the Mughals. On the ninth day of the siege of Lahore, Jahangir reached the area with a force of Mughal cavalry. Although negotiations were opened, Khusrau was not amenable and prepared for battle, which was joined at Bhaironwal. Although the rebel forces fought hard and even had the upper hand in the initial phase, the imperial Mughal forces carried the day. However, Khusrau, accompanied by Abdur Rahim and Husain Beg managed to escape the battlefield without being captured. The two generals now gave contrary advice to the beleaguered prince—Abdur Rahim wanted to double-back into the larger Punjab territory and create strife for the Mughals, whereas Beg advised a headlong dash to Kabul to join forces with the Uzbeks. Khusrau decided to flee to the West but all three were captured while attempting to cross the River Chenab and produced in front of the Emperor in chains.

The Blindness of Imperial Justice

Jahangir decided to judge the rebels as a vindication of the impartial authority of the State. When Khusrau was presented to him in chains, and was thrown into prison without any sign of leniency. The two rebel commanders and a number of the rebels were treated barbarously. Husain Beg was stitched up in an ox-skin and paraded on the streets, where he died of suffocation within a few hours. Abdur Rahim was stuffed inside an ass’s hide, but was helped by his friends and survived the ordeal. He was reinstated after three years, given back his position as the Wazir of Lahore and his jagirs returned to him. The common rebel soldiers were impaled on stakes planted on both sides of the road through which Khusrau was taken in chains to his dungeon. Khusrau himself, even though a prince, was not spared insults and indignities. Many zamindars who had assisted Khusrau during his flight and fight were also executed and their wealth confiscated in an effort to cleanse the region of rebellious elements—a natural enough reaction and fully understandable.

These punishments were at par with the norms of the day. However, Jahangir made a strategic mistake at this stage. Since Guru Arjan Dev of the Sikhs had shown compassion towards Khusrau, he was summoned by the Emperor to the royal court. The Guru was in no doubt regarding the fate that awaited him in the Mughal court and therefore appointed his son Hargobind as his successor before departure. Still angry at the rebellion, Jahangir confiscated the Guru’s property—the fact that the Guru did not own any property and therefore, the lands confiscated were that of the Sikh community at large did not seem to matter to the Mughal. Then he committed the biggest blunder of his life—he executed the 43-years old Sikh Guru.  

This murder—for that is what it was—committed for political reasons also had religious overtones, and was a crime. Arjan Dev’s fearlessness throughout his ordeal in the Mughal court became an inspiring heritage for the Sikhs and his steadfast refusal to budge from the path of righteousness, a guiding star to lead the faith. The death of their Guru at the hands of the Mughal Emperor embittered the Sikhs, who had so far been at peace with the Mughals. This was imperial high-handedness and hubris at its extreme. The murder of Guru Arjan Dev went against the religious and social tolerance that had sanctified Akbar’s reign. Jahangir writes an introductory paragraph regarding the murder of Arjan Dev in the Tuzuk, his memoirs, which clearly demonstrates the religious bias that had crept into his decision-making process. The undercurrent of religious intolerance was already becoming visible, just a few years after Akbar’s death.

It would seem that Jahangir considered the execution-murder of a venerated holy man—the spiritual leader of a large section of his own people—to be a trivial matter of limited consequence. There is even today a school of thought, which attempts to prove that the execution of Guru Arjan Dev was a purely political act. This is an incorrect assessment. Even if the act was not overtly religious in nature, definitive religious overtones were visible even at that time. By the time of the Guru’s murder, Jahangir was already on the path to placate the orthodox Muslim segment who had been discomfited by Akbar’s long term foray into secular and tolerant religious policy. Accordingly, the punishments meted out to the Guru’s followers who were unwilling to compromise their faith, were harsh and extraordinary. From these actions and the writings in his memoirs, it is obvious that Jahangir never aspired to the high pedestal of tolerant religious sophistication that his father had achieved. In fact, it would be a long time before religious toleration returned to the Indian sub-continent.  

Treating Guru Arjan Dev as an ordinary culprit could be counted as the biggest mistake that Jahangir made in his reign. This was the point from which the Sikh opposition to the Mughals began to take tangible form. The seeds of hatred between the two communities began to flower and only became more exacerbated with time. The Mughals paid a high price for this one act of folly by an Emperor who had gained a grand throne only because of a fortuitous birth.   

© [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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