Complete biography of Sher Shah

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THE real name of this eminent adventurer was Farid the son of Hasan. He was a member of the Afghan tribe of Sur, who claimed descent from the princes of Ghor.

His grandfather, Ibrahim Khan, first entered the imperial service when Bahlul Lodi was emperor of Delhi. To Bahlul Lodi succeeded Sikandar Lodi, and in his reign Jamal Khan, the governor of Jaunpur, took into his service Ibrahim’s son, Hasan Khan, and eventually con­ferred on him the districts, of Sasaram and Tanda in Behar for the maintenance of five hundred horse.

Hasan Khan had eight sons, of whom only two, Farid Khan and Nizam Khan, were the legitimate sons of an Afghan mother. The other six were illegiti­mate and by different mothers. Hasan Khan so neglected his wife that when Farid grew up, he left home and enlisted as a private soldier in the service of Jamal Khan, the governor of Jaunpur. His father wrote to Jamal asking that he should send Farid back to be educated.

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To this young Farid objected that Jaun­pur had better schools than Sasaram; at the same time he showed himself to be in earnest by committing to memory all Sheikh Sadi’s Persian poetry and by becoming proficient in the other sciences and learning of the day. Three or four years later Hasan Khan visited Jaunpur.

Through the offices of family friends he and his son become reconciled and Hasan appointed Farid manager of his Sasaram estate, while he himself settled at Jaunpur. Farid when ac­cepting the post is reported to have said: “That the stability of every administra­tion depended on justice and that it would he his greatest care not to violate it, whether by oppressing the weak or by permitting the strong to infringe the laws with impunity.” This promise, which sounded like a pompous platitude, Farid kept alike as manager of his father’s jaghir, as king of Bengal and as emperor of Delhi.

Unfortunately Farid’s merits could not protect him from zanana intrigue. Hasan Khan’s favourite concubine had borne him two sons, Suleiman and Ahmad. She used all her charms to secure the Sasaram jaghir for Suleiman. Hasan Khan was very reluctant to turn out Farid; but the young manager, to avoid further unpleasantness, voluntarily re­signed his office and with his full brother, Nizam, went to Agra, where he obtained service with Daulat Khan Lodi. While Farid was at Agra his father, Hasan, died, and through Daulat Khan’s influence Farid obtained the Sasaram jaghir. In 1526 Babur, the first Mughal emperor, invaded India with a small but veteran army and an admirable train of Turkish artillery. He defeated and killed the emperor Ibrahim Lodi and made him­self master of the Delhi empire. Farid at first joined one Bahar or Bahadur Khan Lohani, who, under the title of Mahomed Shah, had proclaimed himself king of Behar. It was at this time that Farid changed his name. One day his master was charged, when out hunting, by a tiger and was in grave danger. Farid rushed at it and killed it with a blow of his sabre. For this act of loyal daring Mahomed Shah conferred on the young adventurer the title of Sher Khan, which he ever afterwards used.

In spite of It is obligation to Sher Khan, Mahomed Shah allowed himself to be so prejudiced against him by tale bearers that he ordered him to surrender his jaghir to his brother Suleiman and sent a large body of troops to enforce the order. Sher Khan at first resisted, but afterwards fled to Sultan Janid, whom Babur had appointed governor of Karra and Manikpur. Obtaining troops from his new patron, he defeated Mahomed Shah and not only recovered his own jaghir, but seized several other districts, which he professed to hold from the new emperor Babur. He supported his pro­fessions by waiting in the train of Sultan Janid on the emperor, who confirmed him in his holdings and gave him a military command in Behar.

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The imperial favour did not last long. While he was in the Mughal camp, Sher Khan was indiscreet enough to say to a friend that it would not be difficult to drive the foreigners out of India. The friend asked him his reasons. He replied that the emperor had ability, but that lie left all his affairs to corrupt ministers and that if the Afghans united they could drive out the Mughals. He added that, if fortune favoured him, he regarded himself as equal to the task. Some time later Babur remarked in Sher Khan’s hearing:

“This Afghan is not disconcerted by rifles: he may become a great man yet.” Sher Khan suspected that his rash words had been repeated to the emperor and that night he fled from the imperial camp to his estate.

The following year Mahmud Shah Lodi, a son of the dead king Sikandar Khan Lodi, conquered Behar with the Help of a Rajput army. Sher Khan joined him, but the Rajput forces were defeated and dispersed by Babur and Sher Khan had no alternative but to make his submission to the Mughal. The magnanimous Babur pardoned him but offered him no post, so Sher Khan returned to Mahomed Shah Lohani, the self appointed king of Behar. His patron died soon afterwards, but Sher Khan so won the affections of his widow. Sultana Lodi, the mother of the minor heir, Jalal Khan that she bestowed on him and his supporters all the key positions in the Behar government. On her death the administration fell wholly into his hands. Unfortunately the in-‘ creased power of his chief minister roused Jalal Khan’s jealousy. He implored the help of the hereditary king of Bengal, Mahmud Shah Purbia. A Bengal army invaded Behar, but the military skill of Sher Khan triumphed over superior numbers. The invading army was destroyed, its general, Ibrahim Khan, killed and the minor Jalal Khan forced to flee an exile to Bengal.

Sher Khan thus became master of Behar, to which he shortly afterwards added the stronghold of Chunar and its dependent lands. The commandant was one Taj Khan, who belches it as his own, although nominally for the Lodi family. He had two or three wives, one of whom was barren; by the others he had several children. The barren wife, Ladu Malika, in spite of her childlessness contrived to keep Taj Khan’s affections. The other wives, who had borne Taj Khan sons, resented this preference. One of them urged her son to murder Ladu Malika. He struck her so clumsily that he in­flicted only a slight wound. Taj Khan heard her cries and rushed at his son with drawn sword, only to fall slain in her defence. Ladu Malika roused the neighbourhood; and the local land­holders, disgusted with the parricide, appointed Ladu Malika to manage the estate. Sher Khan, learning this, offered the widow marriage. She accepted the offer, so the Chunar fortress, its wide lands and immense treasure passed into the hands of Sher Khan. Afterwards, I-regret to say, he neglected the widow and left her a bare subsistence:

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“Sher Khan took from the Bibi 300 mans of gold to equip his army and gave her two parganas for her support, besides leaving her some ready money for her immediate expenses.”

In December, 1530, Babur died and his son, Humayun, succeeded him as Mughal emperor. For the first nine years of his reign Humayun was sufficiently occupied with the rebellions of his brothers and the conquest of Gujarat. In 1539 he resolved to check the rising power of Sher Khan. The latter had on two occasions sent contingents to the im­perial army, but each time their com­mander, Sher Khan’s son, had deserted at a critical moment with results disas­trous to the Mughals. At the same time Sher Khan had in person invaded Bengal and shut up the king of Bengal, Mahmud Shah Purbia, in Gaur, his capital. Closely invested, Mahmud Shah saw his supplies run low. He tried to evacuate Gaur with his garrison, but he was overtaken and a battle forced on him. His army was defeated and he himself severely wounded. He fled and abandoned to Sher Khan the wealthy kingdom of Bengal.

While Sher Khan was still engaged in the siege of Gaur, Humayun marched on Bengal. On the road lay the fortress of Chunar which Sher Khan had strongly garrisoned. The Mughal officers pressed the emperor to take Chunar before proceeding. With greater wisdom his Indian officers urged him to mask it and press on to the relief of Gaur. Unfortunately for himself the emperor followed the advice of his Mughal officers and sat down before Chunar. The fortress held out beyond all expectation and by the time Chunar had fallen Gaur had also surrendered. As Humayun marched towards Gaur, he met near Patna the unhappy Mahmud Shah, who, still suffering from his wounds, implored the emperor’s assistance in the recovery of his kingdom.

Sher Khan’s forces were neither sufficiently disciplined nor numerous to meet the Mughal armies in the field. He, moreover, wanted time in which to store the captured treasures of the king of Bengal. He wished to deposit them in Rohtas, a strong place in the hilly tract to the south-west of Bengal. Rohtas did not belong to Sher Khan, but that mattered little to the resourceful adven­turer. It was the capital of the Raja of Rohtas. To him Sher Khan sent a letter with valuable presents. He de­scribed his own distressful condition and begged the prince to give to the families of. the Afghan soldiers shelter within his citadel. Sher Khan also took the precaution of sending a large bribe to the Raja’s Naib or prime minister, a Brahman named Churaman. The latter accepted the bribe and acting as Sher Khan’s advocate obtained the Raja’s consent to receive the Afghan women and children. Afterwards the Raja Hari Krishna Rai changed his mind and revoked his consent. Sher Khan thereupon sent a still larger present (no less than six maunds of gold) to Chura­man, begging him again to plead his cause. At the same time he threatened Hari Krishna Rai that he would make terms with Humayun and lead the Mughals in a joint attack on Rohtas if the Raja persisted in his refusal. Chura­man took even stronger measures. He threatened to commit suicide. “If you do not admit,” he said, “these families into the fort, I shall take poison and die at your doors.” Fearing to incur the blood guilt of a Brahman’s death, Hari Krishna Rai reluctantly consented.

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On obtaining the Raja’s consent, Sher 55 GREAT M Khan collected some twelve hundred litters. In the first dozen or two he seated old women. All the others he filled with picked Afghan soldiers fully armed. As the litters entered the fort gates the sentries looked inside them and found them to contain only old women. Sher Khan then sent a message to the Raja, begging him to discontinue the examination of the litters. The sentries, he said, had satisfied themselves that they contained only old women. It would be highly indecorous that his Afghans’ wives should be exposed to the gaze of common sepoys. The Raja was taken in by this mendacity and ordered the sentries to let the remaining litters pass without examination. When they had all entered, the Afghans sprang out and seized the fort gates. Sher Khan, who unobserved had brought a body of troops close to the fortress, rushed them inside. ‘The Raja and his garrison resisted gallantly, but they were overcome. The prince escaped with difficulty through a postern gate at the back of the fortress, leaving Sher Khan Master of his stronghold and of his family treasures. (March, 1538.)

While Sher Khan was securing Rohtas, Humayun marched in a some­what leisurely fashion on Gaur, which he occupied without difficulty. He rested his army in the Bengal capital for three months when he learnt that his brother, Hindal Mirza, whom he had left in northern Behar, had seized Agra, put to death Humayun’s loyal officer, Sheikh Bahlul, and had proclaimed himself a sovereign prince. It was no longer possible for the emperor to remain where he was, yet a march northwards was full of difficulty. The monsoon was at its height. The Gangetic Delta was one vast sheet of water and brooks dry in the summer had become unford- able torrents. Sickness raged in the imperial army and the disheartened soldiers deserted in thousands. When progress became possible, it also became possible to Sher Khan. While Humayun’s forces had shrunk, the Afghan’s army had grown, and he now became as bold as formerly he had been cautious. To clear the road for the march of the main body the emperor sent a strong van­guard under Khani Khan Lodi, a veteran officer trained in the school, of Babur. Khani Khan Lodi reached Mungir without opposition and sending word to Humayun of his safe arrival, cantoned his troops until the imperial army should join him. A few weeks later Sher Khan’s lieutenant, Khawas Khan, made a night attack on Mungir, surprised Khani Khan Lodi, took him prisoner and captured or killed his entire contingent.

Humayun was thunderstruck when the news of the disaster reached him. Leaving a garrison of five thousand men under Jahangir Kuli Beg in Gaur, he marched northwards. He reached Buxar safely, but at Chounsa or Jhusa he met Sher Shah, for the enterprising Afghan, confident in his past victories, had taken the title of Shah and pretended to the imperial throne itself. He had marched thirty-five miles to prevent Humayun from crossing the Ganges. The two armies entrenched themselves respectively on opposite banks of the river and watched each other for two months. Humayun collected boats and tried to make a bridge by which to convey his troops across. When the bridge was all but ready, Sher Shah took action (June, 1539). He hid his movements by leaving his camp standing and enough troops in it to conceal his departure. With a picked force he secretly crossed the river and shortly before daybreak fell on the imperial camp. Humayun’s army was completely surprised and hardly resisted.

The emperor, who did not lack courage, fought until his chief officers insisted on his flight. He rode across the bridge of boats until he reached the still remaining gap. He then plunged his horse into the Ganges. The horse, exhausted by the current and the weight of its panoplied rider, sank and was drowned. Humayun would have shared its fate had not a water-carrier, who was at the time crossing on the inflated skin from which he distributed water, gone to the emperor’s aid and brought him safely to the farther bank. In later years, as it is pleasant to read, Humayun, once more master of Delhi, sent for the water-carrier and, as a reward, bade him exercise the full imperial power for two hours. The water-carrier, undismayed by his sudden rise, spent the two hours profitably in providing himself and his relatives with extensive jaghirs.

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Although Humayun did not perish in this disastrous action he lost almost his entire army. His empress, Bega Begum, fell into Sher Shah’s hands. He treated her with the utmost courtesy and attention, and sent her at the first opportunity to a place of safety. Humayun with a dwindling retinue made his way first to Calpi and thence to Agra. The garrisons that he had stationed at Jaunpur and Chunar left their posts to join him. Sher Shah occupied the abandoned fortresses and proclaimed himself king of Bengal, Behar and Jaunpur; but he took no immediate steps to pursue the emperor. He feared that any such action might cause the emperor’s brothers to join Humayun with their forces.

Sher Shah’s proclamation of his assumption of the triple throne was an elaborate affair. He” had the royal umbrella of the king of Bengal opened over his head. The Khatba was read in his name and he took the additional title of A1 Sultan ul Adil or the Just Sultan. Abbas Sarwani’s description is as follows:

“For seven days drums were beaten in token of rejoicing. Afghan youths came in troops from every tribe and danced according to Afghan custom. Gifts were made to the musicians and the servants of Sher Shah sprinkled saffron and musk, mixed with rose water and ambergris of various colours, upon the heads of the dancing youths. Delicious dishes emitted sweet scents that suggested the perennial flavour of the dinner table of heaven and drinks which suggested the sweetness of the Divine Love were distributed among the revellers.”

For eight months Humayun strove to raise another army. He was hampered by the treachery of his brother Kamran. The latter had heard that Humayun had been killed at Chaunsa and was bitterly disappointed at his safe arrival in Agra. He had marched on that town hoping to seize the imperial throne, but Humayun was already there. So Kamran, after months of useless discussion, retreated to Lahore, leaving with the emperor a draft of a thousand men. In April, 1540, Humayun, hearing that Sher Shah had reached the Ganges near Kanauj, marched to meet him. Indeed the constant desertions of his troops left the emperor no alternative. On the road Sultan Mirza, a general of the house of Timur, barely changed sides. Still Humayun thought it best to advance. On the 17th May, 1540, Sher Shah attacked the emperor at Bilgram. He had only fifteen thousand men, while the imperial army numbered some forty thousand; but the latter had degenerated into a mob. As the Afghans advanced the Mughal soldiers broke and fled and Sher Shah seems to have won the battle without the loss of a single man.

In the pursuit the Mughals suffered heavy losses. Humayun, whose horse was wounded, could not swim the Ganges. He asked a mahout to take him across on his elephant. The mahout refused. Humayun knocked him off the elephant’s back and put a eunuch in his place. The eunuch drove the elephant into the river, which it swam; but it could not mount the opposite bank. The emperor would have been drowned had not two soldiers tied their turbans together and thrown one end to their master and dragged him to safety. Humayun made his way back to Agra where two of his brothers, Hindal and Askari, joined him with contingents. Humayun did not linger at Agra. He collected his treasure and stores and retreated to Lahore, where Kamran reluctantly received him.

Sher Shah followed the fugitive, but Kamran did not wish to fight his brother’s battles. He ceded the Punjab to the victor and fell back on Kabul. Forced to leave Lahore, Humayun tried in vain to establish himself in Sind first and then in Jodhpur. At last he found a refuge at Amarkot, the chief of which, Rana Prasad, received him hospitably. At Amarkot his wife gave birth to the famous Akbar. She was a Sindi, with the beauty for which Sindi women are still renowned, and she was called Hamida. He met her at an entertain­ment given in his honour by his step­mother, the mother of Prince Hindal. Against the family’s wishes Humayun insisted on marrying Hamida and she bore him a son destined to raise the Mughal fortunes to their zenith. It was usual at the birth of a child for the father to give presents to his friends; but Humayun was absolutely destitute. All he could do was to break open a packet of musk, distribute fragments of it among those near him and express the hope that his son’s fame would be diffused through the world like the odour of the perfume. Humayun again tried hard to establish himself in Sind, but again failed. At last he quit the empire in despair and took refuge in Kandahar (1543). It was not until 1555 that he made his victorious return to Delhi.

The flight of Humayun left Sher Shah in possession of the Mughal empire; but before he could exercise complete control he had to reduce a number of powerful barons, who had like Sher Shah himself taken advantage of the general unrest to make themselves independent. A certain Rajput, Puran Mai, had established himself in Malwa or Central India and had treated the Muslims there with intolerant cruelty. His chief stronghold was Raisin. In January, 1543, Sher Shah’s son, Jalal Khan, marched against Puran Mai. After Humayan’s flight Sher Shah joined his son; but the Rajput prince defended himself with obstinate courage. At last Puran Mai offered to evacuate the fort, if he and his troops and their families were granted a safe conduct and the honours of war. The Afghan emperor agreed and withdrew his troops to a distance of two marches and swore solemn oaths that he would in no way molest the Rajput retirement.

It is probable that Sher Shah meant honourably to keep the terms of peace; but he had not counted on the savage temper of his followers. Directly the Afghan soldiery saw the Rajputs march­ing through the open plain they dis­regarded completely their leader’s commands. At the same time the Muslim priests pressed on Sher Shah the wickedness of keeping a treaty with the unbelievers.

Sher Shah had to watch helplessly while a division of his Afghan troops set out in pursuit of Puran Mai. The Rajputs met their assailants with their usual splendid courage. They first killed their wives and children. They then clothed themselves in saffron to show that they would neither give nor take quarter and, charging the Afghans, died fighting to a man.

From Central India Sher Shah marched against Jodhpur in Rajputana; but it was no light task to conquer the Rahtor cavalry in their own plains. The military skill of the Raja Maldev checked Sher Shah’s advance at Mairta, some seventy miles north-east of Jodhpur. The two armies entrenched, but Sher Shah had far greater difficulty in obtain­ing supplies than the Rahtors. Soon the Afghans were in a desperate plight. Sher Shah extricated his men by a ruse that should have deceived no one. He forged letters in the name of the Raja’s nobles and caused them to be dropped near the tent of Maldev’s vakil. The latter sent them to his prince. Com­pletely hoodwinked, Maldev ordered an instant retreat. It was in vain that the nobles swore to their loyalty by the most solemn oaths; the Raja fled, panic- stricken, to Jodhpur.

Some of his chiefs with twelve thousand men vindicated their honour by attacking, unsupported, the entire Afghan army in position and died fighting. Thereafter Sher Shah rapidly overran the whole of Rajputana and even Mewar made no resistance. Having accepted the submission of the Rajput chiefs, Sher Shah returned to Central India. There he invested Kalinjar (November, 1544). He first offered the Raja easy terms which the Rajputs, mindful of the Afghan treachery at Raisin, contemp­tuously rejected. The emperor then sat down before the fortress. To quote the words of the Tarikh-i-Daudi:

“Sher Shah encircled Kalinjar and began to construct mines and a lofty tower for mounting a battery and covered approaches. The latter reached the fort and the tower was built so high that the land within the fort could be overlooked from its top. For the space of seven months the soldiers and camp- followers laboured day and night.”

On the 22nd May a general assault was ordered. The first attempt was defeated by the heavy stones rolled down by the defenders. Sher Shah ordered a second attack, led by grenadiers carry­ing hand bombs. In his eagerness he went part of the way with them to encourage them. Unhappily, one of the bombs fell short and striking the parapet of the wall rebounded and exploded close to a powder magazine, which instantly blew up. Several of the generals were hurt but Sher Shah was mortally injured. In spite of his suffer­ings he still directed the assault. When the fortress was finally carried, the emperor exclaimed “Thanks be to God!” and never spoke again.

So ended the life story of this brilliant soldier of fortune. From the rank of a private he rose to be emperor of India. A most skilful and active general, he yet found time to bring order into his territories and he constantly sought to improve the civil government. He made roads with rest-houses at every stage and he dug wells at intervals of a mile or two miles. By the roadside he planted innumerable trees and he compelled the owners of the land through which the roads passed to suppress brigandage and to see to it that travellers could journey in safety. His early death was a heavy loss to India, for he left no posterity capable of continuing the great traditions of his reign.

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