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Chapter 9 – The Ebb of the Tide – Humayun – 1530–1556 A.D.

It was no easy throne that Babar left to his eldest son in December, 1530, nor was Humayun man enough to fill it. Though only twenty-three years of age, he was not without experience; he had commanded under his father in the Indian war, and had governed the outlying province of Badakhshan beyond the Hindu Kush. Babar had lavished good advice upon the son whom he loved above all things. “His presence,” he once wrote, “opened our hearts like rosebuds and made our eyes shine like torches. His conversation had an ineffable charm, and he realized absolutely the ideal of perfect manhood.” The young prince was indeed a gallant and lovable fellow, courteous, witty, and accomplished as his father, warm-hearted and emotional, almost quixotic in his notions of honour and magnanimity, personally brave – as indeed were all the princes of his house – and capable of great energy on occasions. But he lacked character and resolution. He was incapable of sustained effort, and after a moment of triumph

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would bury himself in his harem and dream away the precious hours in the opium-eater’s paradise while his enemies were thundering at the gate. Naturally kind, he forgave when he should have punished; light-hearted and sociable, he revelled at the table when he ought to have been in the saddle. His character attracts but never dominates. In private life he might have been a delightful companion and a staunch friend; his virtues were Christian, and his whole life was that of a gentleman. But as a king he was a failure. His name means “fortunate,” and never was an unlucky sovereign more miscalled.

The qualities most essential at the time of his accession were a firm grasp of the military situation and resolution to meet it. It was a position that called for boundless energy and soldierly genius. Babar, as we have seen, had not conquered Hindustan; he had only reduced to partial submission a territory comprising little more than what we should now call the Panjab and Northwest Provinces. He had not annexed Bengal to the east, nor the great provinces of Malwa and Gujarat, now united under one king, to the south. The many chiefs of Rajputana were only cowed, not subdued, and in most of the outlying parts of the kingdom the Moghul power was but slightly recognized. Numerous Afghan officers still held powerful fiefs, and these men had not forgotten that the kings of Delhi had been Afghans but a few years before. When a member of the deposed dynasty appeared among them in Bihar, there were all the materials for a formidable

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insurrection. Thus even in his inherited dominions – about an eighth of all India – Humayun was not secure from rivals and revolts.

Nor was he safe from the hostility of his own family. Babar had particularly commended his other sons to Humayun’s kindness, and never was forbearance more cruelly tried. There was not one of his three brothers who did not intrigue against him. Kamran, the next in age, had already been ruler of Kabul under his father, and had not only retained his western province but had annexed the Panjab, always professing his allegiance to Humayun, whose preoccupations, no less than his brotherly kindness, induced him to tolerate the usurpation. It was short-sighted policy, however, for with Kamran practically independent on the northwest frontier, the main recruiting-ground of the Moghul army was cut off. Hitherto the fighting strength of the Moslems in India had been nourished and restored by the hill tribes of Afghanistan and the men of the Oxus. Now that source was closed, and Humayun was forced to depend upon the army already in India, which was constantly depleted by loss in battle or by natural causes, without any means of reinforcement, and was suffering the inevitable degeneration that overtakes a hardy race when exposed to the luxuries of wealth and the influence of an enervating climate.

Kamran, a surly, ill-conditioned traitor, unworthy to be the son of Babar, was the most formidable of the brothers. Askari and Hindal, ever weak and shifty, were dangerous only as tools for ambitious men. Their

Hindu and Mohammedan Buildings

The luxury and magnificence of the Hindu courts and of their Mohammedan rulers is amply attested by their sumptuous edifices, many of which are of unsurpassed grandeur even when in ruins.

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repeated treachery toward their too magnanimous brother was of a piece with their general worthlessness. Two cousins, Mohammad Zaman and Mohammad Sultan, also made their futile bids for a throne which not one of the family was then great enough to hold. Humayun was too gentle to do the only prudent thing, to make an end of them, and to this beautiful but unwise clemency he owed part of his misfortunes. But his worst enemy was himself. Instead of taking a statesmanlike view of the situation, meeting the most pressing danger first, and crushing one antagonist before he engaged another, he frittered away his army in divided commands and deprived it of its full strength; he left one enemy unsubdued behind him while he turned to meet another; and when victory chanced to reward his courage, rather than his tactics, he rested upon his laurels and made merry with his friends, whilst his foes used the precious time in gathering their forces for a fresh effort. Had he brought the whole of his strength to bear upon each enemy in turn, he must have been successful; for Babar’s troops were still the men who had won Delhi and defeated Sanga, and Babar’s generals were still in command of their divisions. But Humayun weakened their valour and destroyed their confidence by division and vacillation, neglected the counsels of the commanders, and displayed such indecision that it is a marvel that any army still adhered to his falling fortunes.

There were three ominous clouds on his horizon when he came to the throne. On the northwest was his brother Kamran; but as he professed loyalty, however

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insincerely, Humayun was fain to let him alone.- On the east were the Afghans in Bihar, with a brother of the late Lodi, Sultan of Delhi, at their head. On the south was Bahadur Shah, the King of Gujarat and Malwa, actively pressing his triumphs over the Rajputs and rapidly approaching within striking distance of Agra.

River bank, Lucknow

He too had a pretender to put forward in the person of the cousin already named, Mohammad Zaman. Of the two chief perils the King of Gujarat was the more imposing, but the Afghan confederacy the more dangerous adversary. Humayun was perpetually hesitating between the two. First he marched to Bihar and easily disposed of Mahmud the Lodi in a decisive victory near Lucknow in 1531. Instead of following up his success by crushing the routed Afghans with his utmost strength, he abandoned the siege of Chunar, Sher Khan’s

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stronghold in Bihar, accepted a purely perfunctory submission, and thus left the most capable, unscrupulous, and ambitious man in the whole Afghan party free to mature his plans and strengthen his power while the emperor was away at the other end of Hindustan.

It was the fear of the King of Gujarat that induced this fatal retreat. Bahadur Shah undoubtedly was aiming at the conquest of Delhi, but he was not ready for it yet; and such raids or expeditions as he had encouraged the pretenders to the throne to lead against Agra and Kalinjar had been easily repulsed by the imperial troops. When Humayun, abandoning the fruits. of his victory at Lucknow, arrived in Malwa at the close of 1534, he found Bahadur busily engaged in the siege of the great Rajput fortress of Chitor. Instead of attacking at once, and by his timely interference probably winning to his side the inestimable friendship of the Rajput chiefs, he must needs stand by till the quarrel was fought out. It was admirable chivalry to call a truce while his Moslem enemy was waging what might be termed a Holy War against Hindu “infidels,” and one cannot help respecting Humayun’s quixotic observance of a Mohammedan scruple of honour; mais ce n’était pas la guerre. Profiting by the emperor’s fine feelings, Bahadur stormed Chitor; the Rajput women eagerly rushed upon the swords of their husbands and fathers to escape the shame of Moslem harems; the men sallied forth to be slaughtered; and the conqueror turned to meet his complaisant foe, who amiably awaited the issue.

Flushed with recent victory, the Gujaratis might

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probably have overwhelmed Humayun’s army, on which the irritation as well as the revels of the delay had exerted their usual influences; but the triumph of the heavy artillery in the siege of Chitor had given undue weight to the advice of the Ottoman engineer, the “Rumi Khan,” who had worked the guns with the help of Portuguese and other European gunners; and, as with Sir John Burgoyne before Sevastopol, the voice of the engineer prevailed over the bolder counsels of the cavalry leaders. At the Rumi Khan’s motion, instead of falling instantly upon the imperial troops, the army of Gujarat penned itself up in a fortified camp. The enemy, as the engineer foretold, confronted by the big guns, could not get in; but on the other hand the defenders could not get out. The open country around was in the hands of the Moghul archers, whose arrows gave short shrift to any men of Gujarat who ventured outside the ditch. Famine rendered the camp untenable, and at last in the dead of night Bahadur slunk away with only five followers. His army, discovering the desertion, immediately dispersed, and Humayun, on seeking the cause of the unusual hubbub, found himself in undisputed possession of the vast camp and all the spoils of the enemy. On this occasion he showed unwonted energy; pursued the King of Gujarat to Mandu, and on to Champanir, and Ahmadabad, and thence to Cambay, one fleeing as the other entered, till Bahadur at last found refuge in the island of Diu. The entire region of Malwa and Gujarat – two provinces which were equal in area to all the rest of Humayun’s kingdom – had

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fallen like ripe fruit into his hands. Never was conquest more easy.

Nor was ever conquest more recklessly squandered. The vast spoils of the Gujarat camp, of Champanir, and of Cambay, utterly demoralized the Moghuls. The emperor had shown energy and decision in the pursuit and he had proved his mettle when he himself took part in scaling the fort of Champanir by means of iron spikes, the forty-first man to reach the battlements. Then came the reaction. Instead of insuring the efficient control and administration of his new acquisitions, Humayun devoted himself to festivities in Malwa, while his brother Askari, as viceroy of Gujarat, revelled at Ahmadabad, and even boasted in his cups that he was king, and prepared to oust his brother, just as if there were no enemies in the land. The result of this foolish confidence was soon seen. The local governors and chiefs were still loyal to Bahadur, who had, moreover, purchased the support of the Portuguese by allowing them to build a fort at Diu. Finding his invaders entirely off their guard, the king advanced, and was everywhere welcomed with enthusiasm. Askari retired, and Gujarat reverted to its old ruler. Nor was this all. Humayun’s fatal weakness in Bihar was working its inevitable punishment. Sher Khan had become supreme on the borders of Bengal, and Mohammad Sultan was already proclaimed king at Kanauj. What ought to have been done before had to be done now, and Humayun marched north to recover what his own folly had lost. No sooner was he gone than Malwa threw off the

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Moghul authority and was joined again to Gujarat. One year had seen the rapid conquest of the two great provinces; the next saw them as quickly lost.

The only justification for the abandonment of so rich a prize would be the paramount necessity of suppressing the growing revolt in the eastern provinces. Yet the pleasure-loving emperor wasted a whole year at Agra in merrymaking and opiated idleness before he moved to the scene of rebellion. He even thought of first returning to recover Malwa and Gujarat before grappling with the very danger that had caused their abandonment. Nothing could more clearly show Humayun’s incurable vacillation and military incompetence. When at last he set out in July, 1537, with every man he could muster, he carried all before him. The Mimi Khan, who, being an adventurer, had deserted to the winning side on the flight of the King of Gujarat, now plied his guns for Humayun, and his science compelled the surrender of Sher Khan’s fortress of Chunar in the absence of its lord, who was then busily engaged in reducing the whole of Bengal to his sway.

This indomitable Afghan, whose bold career deserves a volume to itself, had long fixed his eyes on the decaying power of the Bengal kings and dreamed of a restoration of the Afghan ascendency. Descended from the royal house of Sur, kings of Ghor, he had risen from the rank of a mere administrator of a small district near Rohtas to be prime minister of one of the Lohani Afghans who had styled themselves kings of Bihar in the time of Babar. On that emperor’s advance, Sher

Tomb of Humayun near Delhi.

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Khan, or “Tiger-lord,” so called because he killed a tiger that leaped suddenly upon the King of Bihar, at first nominally sided with the conqueror, although this did not prevent him from joining in Mahmud Lodi’s attempt to recover the throne, nor from treacherously deserting the pretender at the battle with Humayun near Lucknow which dispelled the Lodi’s hopes. Despite the fact that he was then again nominally reconciled with the Moghuls, and made his submission to Humayun when Chunar was besieged in 1532, the Afghan chief never abandoned his dream of sovereignty. During Humayun’s long absence in the west, he skilfully enlarged his territories and strengthened his army, and while the emperor was busy for six months in a second siege of Chunar, its master was conquering Gaur, the capital of Bengal.

With unusual energy Humayun immediately pressed on to eject him before conquest had been consolidated into permanent rule in the wealthiest agricultural province of Hindustan. Sher Khan would listen to no overtures, though the emperor offered him pardon and the government of Jaunpur if he would submit. Leaving his son Jalal Khan to hold the pass which leads from Bihar into Bengal at the foot of the Rajmahal hills, the Afghan hurriedly conveyed his booty, treasure, artillery, and family into the impregnable fort of Rohtas, which he captured from its Hindu chief by the familiar stratagem of introducing armed men in women’s litters. As soon as this manoeuvre was accomplished and all was safe in Rohtas, Jalal, who had held the pass as long as

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was needed and had inflicted considerable loss on the imperial advance-guard, joined his father, and Humayun was allowed to march into Bengal in 1538. He entered a devastated and ruined country, and found a capital strewn with corpses. Nevertheless here he enjoyed himself and feasted six precious months away, admiring the sights of the fertile province, and indulging with all his court and all his army in jollity and sensual pursuits.

During this interval of periodical eclipse the emperor seems never to have realized that he was cut off. Sher Khan, a master of strategy, had let Humayun into Bengal only to seize the approaches and sever his communications. He had the less difficulty inasmuch as the emperor, with his usual improvidence, had taken no steps to keep them open; while in the west his brothers were quite ready to leave him to his fate. Hindal, who had taken part in the Bengal campaign, and had been allowed to go to Tirhut to bring up stores, seized the opportunity to return to Agra, where he was soon persuaded by interested counsellors to proclaim himself emperor; and the pious sheikh, whom Humayun sent to bring him gently to reason, was murdered by the inflated usurper. Loyal officers, anxious to preserve Delhi for their lawful sovereign, called in the help of Kamran, who quickly reduced the pretensions of his younger brother. But Kamran was as unwilling as Hindal to go to the rescue of the emperor, whose critical position was perfectly known to all. They went a few marches together, and then turned back. Their plan was to let Humayun be worsted by Sher Khan and then to engage

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the Afghan in their own behoof. They did not know the man they had to deal with. Sher Khan had seized every road leading from Bengal, he was laying siege to Chunar and Jaunpur, held all the country as far west as Kanauj, and had proclaimed himself king at Rohtas with the title of Sultan Sher Shah.

Delhi Gate, Agra Fort

These disastrous tidings, filtering through the bazar gossip, gradually roused Humayun from his torpor. With mutiny open or concealed at Agra, with a rival king cutting off his communications and besieging his cities, with no hope of succour from any side, it was certainly time to act. Six months he had trifled in Bengal, and now the question was how to get out. His troops were demoralized by dissipation, disheartened by inaction, and reduced by sickness. They had to be bribed to advance. When at last they did march, they met with no opposition. Sher Shah was known to be on the watch, but he did not attempt to stop them. His

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design was apparently to avoid a pitched battle, and rather to harass and, if possible, surprise the imperial army than to attempt its destruction in the field. Humayun accordingly was suffered to march along the left bank of the Ganges as far as Monghyr, where he deliberately crossed over to the right or south bank – the side on which Sher Shah lay – in order apparently to show that he was not afraid of him.

Thus he proceeded past Patna till he reached a spot close to where the battle of Baxar two hundred and thirty years later once more decided the fate of the same Moghul empire. Here, at Chaunsa, the army was suddenly checked by Sher Shah, who, tempted by the dispirited state of the imperialists, abandoned his watching attitude and rode in hot haste to stop their advance. The two forces camped opposite one another, and as neither seemed strong enough to warrant an attack, they remained facing each other. for two months. The imperial troops were suffering grievously. The cattle and many of the horses were dead, troopers were dismounted, the country in front was in the enemy’s hands, supplies were scarce, and there was no hope of help from Agra. The situation was desperate and Humayun opened negotiations. A treaty was arranged by which Sher Shah was to retain Bengal and part of Bihar, on condition of due and public recognition of the emperor as his suzerain. Everything seemed settled, or on the point of settlement, and the two armies began to fraternize while preparing to break up their camp. Suddenly, in the midst of the confusion of the removal, at

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break of dawn, the Afghans fell upon the unsuspecting Moghuls from all sides. The surprise was complete. Many were slain asleep. Few had time to mount. Humayun himself was only saved by a water-carrier who supported him on his water-skin across the Ganges, into which he had recklessly plunged. Most of his army was drowned or captured, and the unlucky emperor arrived at Agra almost alone in May, 1539.

Silver coin of Sher Shah Struck at Delhi, A.H. 947 (A.D. 1540–1)

For nearly a year both sides gathered their forces for the final struggle, Sher Shah consolidating his power in Bengal, Humayun vacillating and wasting time, yet striving to unite his brothers in the common cause. On May 17, 1540, the armies met again opposite Kanauj, and the battle of the Ganges for a time put an end to the Moghul empire. Humayun’s army, though at first one hundred thousand strong, was half-hearted, badly officered, weakened by constant desertions, and hampered with crowds of panic-stricken camp-followers; and the fight was over almost as soon as begun. “Before the enemy had discharged an arrow,” says the historian Mirza Haidar, who was present, “the whole army was scattered and defeated” by mere panic and crowding; “not a gun was fired.” All fled in utter confusion to the Ganges, where the bridge broke down and many were drowned in their heavy armour. Humayun

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again escaped by the skin of his teeth. India had cast him off.

From that day for fifteen years he led a life of wandering. He was in the deserts of Rajputana and Sind for three years, in great straits and hardships, trying to beat up recruits; there he fell in love with the daughter of his brother Hindal’s sheikh, a sayyid of the Prophet’s race; and there at Amarkot his son Akbar was born, October 15, 1542. Then he fled to Persia, where he became the not very welcome guest of Shah Tahmasp. Aided by the shah, he conquered Kandahar from his own brother Askari in 1545, and took Kabul from Kamran in 1547. He was now in much the same position that Babar had occupied before his invasion of India twenty-five years earlier.

The next nine years were spent in varying fortunes, sometimes in conquest, sometimes in loss, and it was not until his brothers were dead or exiled that Humayun had peace in his little Afghan realm. Hindal fell in battle; Askari died on a pilgrimage to Mekka; and the irreconcilable Kamran, after repeated forgiveness, had to be blinded and sent to Mekka, where he too died. Humayun owed much of his misfortunes to this unnatural brother, and cannot be charged with anything but long-suffering patience of his misdeeds.

Meanwhile Sher Shah had reduced the greater part of Hindustan to submission, and among the Moslems at least there was every disposition to hail the accession of an Afghan king, born in India, and gifted with unusual administrative as well as military talents. His

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ability and wisdom are unquestioned, and in his fiscal and other reforms we see the true origin of many of Akbar’s most famous measures. “The whole of his brief administration,” in the words of Keene, “was based on the principle of union. A devout Moslem, he never oppressed his Hindu subjects. The disputes of his own people he suppressed with all the energy of his nature. He laboured day and night, for he said ‘It behooves the great to be always active.’ He divided his territory into hundreds, in each of which were local officers whose place it was to mediate between the people and the officers of the crown. Not content with the administrative side of social reform, he went beyond most Moslem rulers and attempted a certain crude legislation. The nature of the attempts attributed to him shows that a critical moment was passing in medieval India. His ordinances touched on almost all the primary parts of administration, and evinced real care for the people’s welfare. All this has an importance beyond the immediate time. After the Moghul restoration Sher Shah’s officials passed into Akbar’s service; the faults imputed by the shah to what he called Moghul administration – but which are common to all Turks – were prevented; and this far-sighted man even after his death and the subversion of his dynasty, remained the originator of all that was done by medieval Indian rulers for the good of the people.”

It must not be imagined that all this was accomplished by mildness. “Sher Shah’s authority,” says his historian, Abbas Khan, “whether he was absent or

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present, was completely established over the race of Afghans. From fear either of personal punishment or of deprivation of office there was not a creature who dared to act in opposition to his regulations; and if a son of his own, or a brother, or any of his relations and kin, or any chief or minister, did a thing displeasing to Sher Shah, and it got to his knowledge, he would order the culprit to be bound and put to death. All, laying aside every bond of friendship or regard, for the sake of the honour of the Afghan name, obeyed unhesitatingly his irresistible decrees. From the day that Sher Shah was established on the throne no man dared to breathe in opposition to him; nor did any one raise the standard of contumacy or. rebellion against him; nor was any heart-tormenting thorn grown in the garden of his kingdom; nor was there any of his nobles or soldiery, or a thief or a robber, who dared to turn the eye of dishonesty upon another’s goods, nor did any robbery or stealing ever occur in his dominions. Travellers and wayfarers in Sher Shah’s reign had no need to keep watch, nor feared to halt in the midst of a desert. They camped at night at every place, desert or inhabited, without fear; they set their goods and provisions upon the plain and turned out their mules to graze, and themselves slept with easy mind and free from care as if at home, and the mansabdars, or commanders of companies of horse, kept watch over them lest any mischief might befall the travellers and they themselves be held responsible. Such a protection overshadowed the world that a cripple was not afraid of

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a Rustam.” This quotation is sufficient to indicate the influence which Sher Shah exerted during his short sway.

His brief but beneficent rule came to an end in 1545, when he was killed at the siege of Kalinjar during a vigorous attempt to subdue the indomitable Rajputs. He left no fit successor to carry on his wise schemes, on which he was still meditating as he lay wounded in his tent. Under his son, Islam Shah, the ancient rivalries of the Afghans revived, and when Islam Shah died nine years later, everything was in confusion. His son, a boy of twelve, was murdered by his uncle Adil Shah (or Adali), a debauched brute, who left all real power in the hands of his Hindu vizir Himu. Rebellions naturally arose. Ibrahim Sur seized Delhi and Agra, and Sikandar Sur, another nephew of Sher Shah, took possession of the Panjab, and then drove Ibrahim from his new sovereignty.

In the midst of this turmoil Humayun, for once, grasped his opportunity. Descending from Kabul with only fifteen thousand horse in 1555, and seizing the Panjab, he routed Sikandar at Sirhind, drove him to the Himalayas, and took possession of Delhi and Agra. Prince Akbar was sent in pursuit of the fugitive Afghans, while Humayun set about organizing his recovered kingdom. It seemed as if his luck had turned at last. But nothing ever went well for long with this unfortunate monarch. Scarcely had he enjoyed his throne at Delhi for six months when he slipped down the polished steps of his palace, and died in his forty-ninth

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year (Jan. 24, 1556). His end was of a piece with his character. If there was a possibility of falling, Humayun was not the man to miss it. He tumbled through life, and he tumbled out of it. At his tomb, three centuries later, the last of the Moghul emperors, the feeble and aged Shah Alam, surrendered to Hodson of Hodson’s Horse, and the old man’s savage and worthless sons paid the penalty of their treachery. It was perhaps fitting that the grave of the humane and chivalrous son of Babar should be the silent witness of a righteous vengeance.

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