The second Moghul emperor, Humayun (1508-1556) lost and regained his kingdom to continue Moghul rule at the expense of Muslim rule in India.

Deficient in diplomacy, resolution, and noblesse oblige, Humayun was the knight-errant of the Moghul dynasty. Childish but endearing, he was versed in the arts and may be described as a cultivated gentleman in the Persian style. But his love of pleasure periodically got the better of his natural energy and good sense. Humayun was, in essence, an attractive dilettante, who found himself playing the role of empire builder during complicated and hazardous times.

While growing up in Afghanistan, Humayan learned Turki, Arabic, and Persian and was interested in mathematics, philosophy, and astrology. To further train his son, the emperor Babur appointed him governor of Badakhashan at the age of 20. In one significant battle, Humayan defeated Hamid Khan, an Afghan chief. Subsequently, the young governor fought at Panipat and Khanua, two decisive battles in Indian history, and was granted jagir (landlordship) of Sambhal. In 1530, while on his deathbed at Agra, Babur named Humayan his successor. Even though Humayan had been trained as an administrator and a warrior, he could not keep pace with the rapidly changing political events in northern India.


Inheritance of a Divided Empire

The Hindustan (India), which Babur had bequeathed to Humayun was a magnificent but shaky inheritance. Notes Kulke and Rothermund: "His succession was by no means a foregone conclusion: according to Mughal custom all royal princes were equally entitled to inherit power, which led to many rivalries in later years when Mughal princes fought each other until the most competent, the most ruthless, or simply the luckiest ascended the throne."

Within his own circle was Humayan's brother Kamran, who was consistently faithless. The Moghul presence was still nothing more than a military occupation, and Babur had been able to sustain the empire largely by his personal reputation and by the loyalty of his own followers. Humayun had none of these advantages. More interested in opium and astrology than political power, the second Moghul ruler was challenged by his younger brothers and by Afghan generals, who had served under his father. His enemies were not Hindus but his own Muslims.

At the time of Babur's death, Kamran treacherously took the Punjab and the Indus Valley. The other two brothers, Hindal and Askari, were weak and shifty tools in the hands of Humayun's opponents. His cousins also opposed him. Instead of dealing with his enemies firmly one after another, he divided his forces, weakened them and wasted time in merry making. The loss of Kabul and Qandahar deprived Humayun of the most important recruiting grounds for the Moghul army.

Though on the defensive, Humayun managed to introduce some reforms. To increase the glory of his court, he heightened its ceremonial aspects, rituals meant to attract learned and pious men from adjacent countries. The emperor wrote verses and encouraged discussion, while Persian became the language of the court. It became a magnificent court, worthy of a great Timurid sovereign.

In 1533, the new emperor personally laid the foundation stone for a new city in Delhi—an area rivalled only by Troy. It was to be called Din-panah (Asylum of Faith). Remains of Humayun's Din-panah can still be seen in New Delhi, specifically the high walls of the citadel, called the Purana Qila, or the Old Fort. Delhi's founding gave notice to the Muslim world that here was the capital of a new liberal empire where philosophers and poets of any Islamic sect would be welcome. This was in contrast to the bigotry and persecution practiced by rulers in Persia and Turkey.

Humayun was no different then earlier Delhi sultans, however, in his dealings with the Hindus. Though it would prove to be highly injurious to his interests, he refused to attack fellow Muslims engaged in war with the Hindus. He also demolished Hindu temples at Kalinjar. But he was not a bitter persecutor and followed no systematic policy of Hindu repression. Like his father, he was free from sectarian bigotry and had little ill-will toward the Shia's.

But all the while, Humayun struggled to defend his dominion. Unfortunately, he had no grand strategy. On the suspicion that its raja was in sympathy with the Afghans, he besieged the fort of Kalinjar in Bundelkhand but had to withdraw to deal with the Afghan menace in the east. After gaining a decisive victory over the Afghans, he drove out Sultan Mahmud Lodi from Jaunpur. He then besieged Chunar, held by the Afghan chief Sher Shah, but soon abandoned it. Without suppressing the rising chief, Humayan accepted "a purely perfunctory submission" and allowed Sher Shah free scope to develop his resources and power. Humayan would live to regret it.


Muslim Against Muslim

He then marched against Bahadur Shah in the west who was pursuing a policy of expansion. In 1535, with determination worthy of his father, Humayun defeated the Shah at Gujrat. Though the Moghuls were temporarily relieved of their most dangerous enemy in the west after Bahadur's death, there soon appeared various pretenders to the Shah's throne, causing internal confusion in Gujrat. Humayun, while enjoying "his pleasure" in Agra, could only dream of the reconquest of the western kingdoms and the re-establishment of his glory. But when, after long months of idleness, he at last assembled his army for a new campaign, it was not for the reconquest of the west, but to break the continually rising power and the dangerous ambitions of Sher Shah in the east. The most powerful of the Afghans, Sher Shah established himself as an independent ruler to challenge the Moghul rule. After 1536, Sher Shah claimed the resourceful and wealthy province of Bengal. Though Humayun managed to oust Sher Shah temporarily from Bengal's capital of Gaur, he was soon trapped by the monsoon and lost part of his army to bad weather before facing defeat by Sher Shah's cleverly deployed force at Chausa in 1539. In the battle, 8,000 Moghul troops perished.

Following Chausa, the Muslim Sher Shah drove the Moghul Humayun to the west, defeating him again at Kanauj on the Ganges River in April 1540. In the battle of Bilgram that same year, the Afghan attack was so vigorous that the Moghul troops, whose movement was impeded by the presence of unruly camp-followers, began to flee, and Humayun's efforts to rally them came to nothing. Compelled to quit the battlefield, Humayun fled to Agra. When the Afghans followed him, the emperor abandoned the city and hurried west to Lahore. Hardly had he reached Lahore when news came that the Afghans had taken the capital city of Agra. Meanwhile, Sher Shah reached the Punjab and sent his general in pursuit of Humayun, instructing him not to capture the emperor but to drive him out of India.

In this moment of crisis, Kamran blocked his brother Humayan's access to the Punjab and Kabul. Thus, Humayun had no choice but to make his way toward Sindh, beginning his march through the most inhospitable part of the country. While on his way to conquer Sindh with the help of Rana Virsala, a Hindu ruler, Humayan received the happy news of the birth of his son Akbar. Having no money, he could not give presents to the nobles on this happy occasion. He also failed to capture Sindh.


Exile in Persia

Narrowly escaping his brother's forces, Humayun reached Persia, where Shah Tahmasp offered him a hearty reception. Humayun had brought about his own downfall. First, he should never have divided his kingdom among his treacherous brothers. Second, he seems to have believed, until as late as the early months of 1539, that Sher Shah was a mere upstart and could easily be stopped. Third, on reaching Gaur, Humayun had wasted more than eight months during which Sher Shah occupied the country from Teliagarhi to Kanauj. Humayun had shown little determination in bringing down his greatest rival.

Eventually, Humayan would conquer his brothers. When Kamran was later arrested, Humayun had him blinded and exiled to Mecca. Kamran would die in Arabia in 1557. Humayun's other brother Askari would also be sent to Mecca, while an Afghan would kill Hindal. Thus, Humayun would finally be free of his dangerous rivals, who had been an important link in his expulsion from India.

During his exile in Persia, Humayun's great rival Sher Shah, who had established a vast and powerful empire supported by a wise system of administration, died in 1545. But Sher Shah's son, Islam Shah could not keep his Afghan nobles in check. When Islam Shah died in 1553, the Afghan Empire was well on its way to decay. Aware of this disintegration, Humayun was eager to return to India with newly recruited armies. Shah Tahmasp of Persia offered him a force of 14,000 men on Humayun's promise to conform to the Shi'a creed. When Humayun crossed the Indus River, Bairam Khan, the most efficient and faithful of his officers, joined him. Many commanders from Qandahar came to help. While all around there was frequent strife, its governor maintained Qandahar as the undisputed base of Moghul operations. Thus with Persian help and Bairam Khan's support, Humayun was in a position to capture lost provinces. In February of 1854, he occupied the Punjab, including Lahore, without any serious opposition. At the news of the Moghul success, the Afghan leader Sikandar Shah sent detachments against the Moghuls, but at every encounter the Afghans were beaten. According to Moghul historians, Sikander's armies were larger than the Moghuls, but the superior Moghul tactics gave Bairam Khan a resounding victory on June 22, 1555. That same year, after an interval of 15 years, Humayun reconquered the Punjab, Delhi, and Agra, and reoccupied the throne of Delhi. He now appointed Akbar, his young son and heir apparent, governor of Punjab and assigned Akbar's private tutor, Bairam Khan, to assist him. This step was necessary in order to put down Sikandar Sur whose army had swelled and who was carrying on expeditions in the Punjab.


Restoration of Moghul Power

Humayun's second reign lasted only seven months. Still surrounded by Afghan enemies, the supporters of the Sur dynasty, he had recovered only part of his dominion. The most difficult task was that of establishing a firm system of administration and winning the sympathy of the people. There was now one advantage. With his brothers dead or banished, there was nowhere for the loyalty of his followers to swerve. He rewarded his friends and supporters. Bairam Khan was then created Khan-Khanan, the lord of lords.

During this time, Humayun selected sites for several observatories. With poetry almost the lingua franca of court life, discussions took place in the building called the Sher Mandal that was turned into a library. Here his valuable manuscripts were kept in safe custody; here Mir Sayyid Ali taught drawing to Akbar. In fact, both Humayun and Akbar took lessons in drawing. It was under two Persians, Khwaja Abdus Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali, that Indian artists undertook the Dastan-i-Amir-Hamzah, the first great series of paintings in what is now known as the Moghul school of art.

During Humayun's five-year absence, Sher Shah had greatly improved the system of provincial government and revenue collection. Humayun wanted to recreate the system, maintaining Sher Shah's village and district administration, while dividing the domain into provinces, each with its own capital. But, on January 24, 1556, in pious response to the sacred call of the muazzin for evening prayer, Humayun, while hurriedly descending from his library in Delhi, stumbled down the stairs. Two days later, in the words of historian Lane-Poole, he "tumbled out of life as he had tumbled through it." Since Humayun had not had time to introduce reforms, it was now left to his 13-year-old son Akbar to fulfil his intentions, building an enduring administrative edifice on Babur, Sher Shah, and Humayan's foundations.

Among the first six Great Moghuls, the image of Humayun is that of the nonentity, the one obvious failure. He was impetuous as well as indecisive. With all his weaknesses and failings, Humayun deserves a significant place in Indian history. The restoration of Moghul power paved the way for the splendid imperialism of Akbar. The Indo-Persian contact, which Humayan stimulated and reinforced, was of far-reaching consequence in the history of Indian civilization. Humayun also added to the development of Moghul architecture. Aesthetically inclined, he undertook in the early years of his reign, the building of a new "asylum of the wise and intelligent persons." It was to consist of a magnificent palace of seven stories, surrounded by delightful gardens and orchards of such elegance and beauty that its fame might draw the people from the remotest parts of the world.


Further Reading on Humayun

Gascoigne, Bamber. The Great Moghuls. Harper, 1971.

Kulke, Hermann and Dietmar Rothermund. A History of India. Routledge, 1986.

The Moghul Empire. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1984.

A New History of India. Oxford University Press, 1977.

Sastri, Nilkanta K. A. Sastri and G. Srinivasachari. Advanced History of India. Allied Publishers, 1970.

Srivastava, Ashirbadilal. The History of India. Shiva Lal Agarwala, 1964.