Humayun’s Exile and Return

The Background

Babur descended from the Hindukush mountains into the plains of Punjab and created an empire spanning from Badakhshan to Bihar.

He had many sons out of whom only four were important – Humayun (the eldest), Kamran, Askari and Hindal (the youngest).

Babur died in 1530 leaving a fragile legacy in the more fragile hands of his 20-year old son Humayun, challenged by the nobles and Kamran. Every opponent was waiting for the right opportunity to hit. Humayun, however, relied on astrology and stars instead of SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats).

Indian Enemies and Clashes

Humayun had to face two threats  – Sher Shah Suri of Bihar and Bahadur Shah of Gujarat, who had also captured Malwa and Mewar.  Humayun failed to capitalise on his initial upper hand over both the rivals. Although Bahadur Shah was killed by the Portuguese in 1537, Sher Shah Suri took Bengal in 1538 and emerged as the biggest single threat to him.

Flight of Sultan Bahadur During Humayun's Campaign in Gujarat 1535
Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The then 32-year old Humayun was clobbered twice by the 54-year old veteran Sher Shah, first at Chausa near Buxar in Bihar in 1539, and later at Bilgram near Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh in 1540.

The Run and Chase Game in India

Humayun fled Delhi to Lahore along with his family, few loyal courtiers, and bodyguards. At this time, his brother Kamran was hostile as ever and Askari was  with Kamran at Kabul. Hindal was 21, and had proved his administrative capabilities in the past decade. So his ambitions couldn’t be discounted either. Apparently Humayun was not welcome at Kabul. Instead, Kamran tried to join hands with Sher Shah.

Sher Shah was quick in capturing the Punjab. Sensing the danger of possible nexus between the pursuing Afghan and his brothers, Humayun was left with no choice except fleeing south across the Thar desert to Sindh, then ruled by the Arghun sultan Hussain Shah. Fortunately for Humayun, Hindal pledged allegiance to him.

Humayun reached Sindh in 1541 and unsuccessfully tried to win over Hussain Shah Arghun, an unexpected favour from a person whose father was expelled from Kandahar in 1522 by Humayun’s father, Babur. Although Hussain Shah allied himself with Babur, he initially refused help to Humayun. Hindal tried to besiege Sehwan, an Arghun stronghold in northern Sindh. All the efforts proved futile.

In the meantime, Humayun married Hamida Banu, the daughter of a Shia Sufi spiritual master from Sindh named Shaikh Ali Akbar Jami, in September, 1541. Interestingly, the chief consort of Humayun, Bega Begum, was married to him roughly at the time when Hamida was born. There are hints of existence of unexpressed mutual feelings between Hamida and Hindal. But Hindal expressed it in a rather strange way after Hamida’s marriage to Humayun, by deserting him. Then the loyalties started deserting him increasingly.

Being refused by Maldeo Rao of Jodhpur (Marwar) for help,  Humayun sought help of the Sodha Rajput, Rana Prasad of Amarkot (now Umerkot, Sindh). He, along with the pregnant Hamida Banu, reached Amarkot in August, 1542. Jalal (future Akbar) was born at Amarkot in October, 1542.

In 1543, finally the Arghuns of Sindh allied themselves with Humayun and he proceeded towards Kandahar with his ‘new army’ with a hope to unite with his brothers, then in Kabul, to reconquer ‘Hindustan’.

But he crossed the Indus, to reach near Kandahar in late 1543, to find that Askari was forced to acknowledge the authority of Kamran while the refusal by Hindal had earned him imprisonment. On the other hand, Sher Shah started building the strong and impregnable strategic fort of Rohtas near Jhelum in Pakistan’s Punjab (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to check the entry of the Timurids into India. To make matters worse, Askari was ordered by Kamran to capture Humayun who camped near Kandahar.

When Askari approached Humayun, he had nothing left in India to rely upon. He made quick yet calculated decision to flee further westward to the Shia Safavid Persia. He left behind the fourteen-month old Jalal (Akbar) at the mercy of the invaders. Askari not only adopted Jalal but also persuaded Kamran not to be harsh upon the baby. Kamran probably took Jalal as hostage. Nevertheless, the childhood of Jalal was to be spent in adventures in and around Kabul. Until Humayun’s return, Askari took care of Jalal and ensured his safety from Kamran.

Asylum in Persia

Humayun, Bega Begum, Hamida, and their forty loyal bodyguards took the northern route to Herat, then under the Safavid Persia, where they reached after a month-long torturous journey. At least here they received a royal welcome. But, it wasn’t unconditional.

At this time, Tahmasp I was the Safavid Sultan, the second one in his lineage, ruling since 1524. The imperial capital was Isfahan (Esfahan). The meeting between Humayun and Tahmasp in 1544 is depicted through a painting in the Chehel Sotun Palace of the city. Apparently, Hamida’s illustrious Shia background must have had strengthened the bonds between the two monarchs.

Safavid frescoes in the Chehel Sotun palace, in Isfahan
Humayun (to the left) is welcomed by the Safavid Persian ruler, Shah Tahmasp, at whose court he finds refuge in 1543 [Image Courtesy]
Tahmasp’s conditions were clear. Humayun had to shun Sunnism and accept Shi’ism. After all the current Shi’ism in Iran and Azerbaijan has direct connection with its Safavid past, which itself was actually the political manifestation of the Shia Safaviyya Sufi order from Azerbaijan, a region comprising of north-western Iran and a sovereign nation by that name.

Secondly, Humayun was to cede the strategic fort and town of Kandahar to the Safavids as soon as he captured it.

Such conditional asylum was nothing unusual for any prudent ruler like Tahmasp who repeated the brilliant move in the case of the fugitive Ottoman prince, Bayezid, who happened to be very capable military leader and brilliant administrator, and could apparently succeed Suleiman the Magnificent, the greatest Ottoman emperor.

So Tahmasp supported Humayun with 12,000 troops to recover his lost domains, except Kandahar.

Regaining the Lost Ground

Humayun besieged and took Kandahar from Askari in mid-1545. To add to his happiness, a simultaneous siege at Kalinjar in India killed his arch-rival  Sher Shah Suri in May. Nevertheless, Delhi would elude him for a decade.

Humayun proceeded to Kabul to confront Kamran, who found himself isolated as most of his allies and loyalists joined Humayun and forced him to leave Kabul without offering any resistance. This is how Humayun got Kabul in November, 1545.

Humayun showed his characteristic lethargy by not hunting down Kamran at this juncture. He instead indulged in festivities as he joined his lost son Jalal (Akbar) after a long. But the evasive Kamran managed to tease Humayun. Kamran took and lost Kabul twice, losing it forever in 1550. His resolution to dethrone Humayun was still there in his vindictive soul.

This was relatively easy time for him. In 1546, Humayun married Mah Chuchak Begum, a lady of military genius from Kabul. But this was to make the Kabul affairs complicated for his son Akbar as she bore Humayun two sons – Hakim and Farrukh.

In an attempt made by Kamran to retake Kabul in 1551, Hindal lost his life between Kabul and Peshawar. As a gesture of sympathy and gratitude, Jalal (Akbar) was married to Hindal’s daughter Ruqaiyyah Begum, who remained the chief consort of Akbar. Askari’s daughter Sakina too was married to Akbar.

Kamran did not give up. He asked for help from Sher Shah’s son, Islam Shah and the Ghakkars of western Punjab (now in Pakistan) who were loyal to Humayun, but was refused by both and instead captured and handed over to Humayun in 1552. A confused Humayun was under tremendous pressure this time from his loyals as the latter had lost too much and suffered from miseries for over a decade due to the former’s ill-sighted actions and indecisive behaviour. Humayun finally blinded Kamran and sent him on Hajj to Mecca, where he died in 1557.

Jalal (Akbar) was made the governor of Ghazni and he showed his mettle which he was going to prove in India over the rest of the 16th century.

Finally Delhi !

Sher Shah died in 1545. He was succeeded by Islam Shah Suri. In November 1554, Islam Shah Suri too died in Delhi, followed by quick successions to the throne. Islam’s minor son and successor, Firoz Shah’s was assassinated by his uncle, Muhammad Adil Shah. Adil Shah was overthrown by his brother-in-law, Ghazi Khan alias Ibrahim Shah. But Sikandar Shah declared his independence at Lahore and defeated Ibrahim at Farah near Mathura and became the emperor. This all happened within just six months, thus breaking the backbone of the Sur Empire.

Humayun had patiently waited for about 15 long years for the right moment to strike. And finally his penance paid off. With no rivals either in vicinity or between him and Delhi, he marched towards the de-facto capital of ‘Hindustan’ since centuries.

When the Sur civil war was going on, Humayun took Rohtas Fort, which Sher Shah had built to check Humayun’s entry into ‘Hindustan’, then Dipalpur and Lahore in early 1555. Finally, the decisive battle took place at Sirhind on 22nd June, 1555 in which, Sikandar Shah Suri was defeated and fled towards the Himalayas in today’s Himachal Pradesh. Still, Muhammad Adil Shah posed a considerable threat along with his trusted general, Hemchandra or Hemu. It was now Adil Shah’s and in effect, Hemu’s turn to wait for the better chance.

Rohtas Fort
Skazimr at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
His sudden success was less to do with his calibre, except promoting his Turcoman (Turkmen) companion and military commander Bairam Khan, who came to limelight through these victories. Sikandar could invade from the north. So the twelve year old Jalal (Akbar) was left in Punjab under the guardianship of Bairam Khan as Humayun headed for Delhi accompanied by his another trusted lieutenant, Tardi Beg.

Humayun triumphantly entered Delhi in July, 1555. It was a hard won victory which made him realise that reliance upon astrology is good only for entertainment and not for practical and tactical judgements. But this time, ironically, he was proved wrong again, not by any foe but a mishap. He lost his life in late January, 1556 due to the injuries sustained while descending the stairs of Sher Mandal (probably Sher Shah’s library or perhaps an observatory) in Old Fort (Purana Qila) in Delhi.

More than three centuries later, after this Mughal Empire established by Humayun was really over in all respects, the British historian Lane Poole rightly said – “he tumbled out of life as he had tumbled through it.”

Persia vis-à-vis the Mughal Empire

Mughals were already highly Persianised. In fact, the term ‘Mughal’ itself is the Persian word for ‘Mongol’. Humayun’s exile opened the gates for further and faster Persianisation and if one is honest enough, he would call Mughal Empire a ‘Persianate’.

References :

  • Humayun-nama by Gulbadan Begum
  • The Life and Times of Humayun by Ishwari Prasad
  • Humayun Badshah by S.K.Banerji
  • Advanced Study in the History of Medieval India by J.L.Mehta
  • The Mughal world : Life in India’s Last Golden Age by Eraly Abraham
  • Akbar, the Greatest Mogul by S.M.Burkhe
  • Medieval India under Mohammedan Rule by Stanley Lane-Poole
  • Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World by Ruby Lal

Gallery | Hessing’s Tomb, Agra

Text of the information plaque at Hessing’s Tomb, Agra and the Tomb inscription (below gallery)

Hessing’s Tomb (1803 AD)

This is the tomb of Col. John William Hessing who was Dutch and came to Ceylon as a freelance adventurer. He participated in the battle of Kandy in 1765. Then, he served the Nizam of Hyderabad and in 1784, entered the service of the Maratha chief Mahadji Sindhia. He fought several battles under the command of the French general De Boigne. Mahadji trusted him the most, and Hessing accompanied him to Poona in 1792. On Mahadji’s death there in 1794 he returned to Agra which was held by Marathas. He was made commandant of the fort and its Maratha garrison in 1799. He died here on 21 July 1803. The fort was captured by the British the same year. His tomb was built by his children.

It stands on a square platform which 11.25 feet high and 58 feet side, containing a crypt with the real grave and a corridor around it. An octogonal chabutra is attached to each corner in the form of a mini-tower. Twin stairways are also attached to it on the western side of the platform measuring 22 x 8.75 feet. The tomb reposes effectively in the middle of the main platform. It is square in plan with 34.75 feet side and 28.5 feet in height. Each facade has an iwan in the middle, flanked on either side by ornamental peshtaq (alcoves). It is essentially a Mughal design. Slender turrets are attached to the central iwan frame. They are crowned by pinnacles. Square turrets, 2 feet side, are attached to the corners of the tomb. These have vertical flutes and are surmounted by beautiful square chhatris. The tomb is roofed by a double-dome, crowned by mahapadma (Sheath of lotus petals) and Kalash finial. With pinnacles and chhatris of the turrets, it makes up a perfect superstructure. The interior is a square chamber 17.75 feet side with ribs-and-panels soffit. The cenotaph bears an inscription in English. As a whole it is a perfectly balanced and beautiful building and is rightly called “A Taj in miniature.” This is in fact, the most beautiful tomb of a European at Agra, and probably in India. Though a Dutch tomb, it belongs in letter and spirit, to Agra and the art of the Jamuna-Chambal region. It marks continuance of Mughal “ideas”, “feelings”, and “skills” in 19th Century A.D

Tomb Inscription

1803 — HESSING, J. W. Colonel

John William Hessing, late a Colonel in the service of Maharaja Daulat Rao Sindhia, who, after sustaining a lingering and very painful illness for many years with true Christian fortitude and resignation, departed this life, 21st July 1803, aged 63 years, 11th months, and 5 days. As tribute of their affection and regard this monument is erected to his beloved memory by his disconsolate widow, Anne Hessing, and afflicted sons and daughters, George William Hessing, Thomas William Hessing and Magdalene Sutherland. He was a native of Utrecht in Holland and came out to Ceylon in the Military service of the Dutch E. I. Company in the year 1752, and was present at the taking of Candia by their troops. Five years afterwards he returned to Holland and came out again to India in the year 1733, and served under the Nizam of the Deccan. In the year 1784, he entered into the service of Madho Rao Sindhia and was engaged in the several battles that led to the aggrandizement of that Chief and wherein he signalized himself so by his bravery as to gain the esteem and approbation of his employer, more particularly at the battle of Bhondagaon near Agra in the year 1787, which took place between this Chief and Nawab Ismael Beg, when he then became a Captain, and was severely wounded. On the death of Madho Rao Sindhia in 1793, he continued under his successor, Daulat Rao Sindhia, and in 1798 he attained to the rank of Colonel and immediately after to the command of the Fort and City of Agra, which he held to his death.

[There is little to be added to the history given in the epitaph. He was born in 1740. There is no record of his adventures between 1763 and 1784. He served in De Boigne’s brigades of regular troops. The “several battles” are Lalsot, Chaksana and Patan. After Patan, he quarrelled with De Boigne and left him but Madhoji Scindia employed him to raise a bodyguard for him. which grew to 4 battalions. In 1800 he was compelled to resign his command by ill- health and retired as commandant of Agra to that city. He is described as a “good, benevolent man and a brave soldier.” His tomb is a miniature of the Taj in red Agra sandstone.]



  1. Blunt, Edward. List of inscriptions on Christian tombs and tablets of historical interest in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. Allahabad: Printed by W.C. Abel, Offg. Supdt., Govt. Press, United Provinces, 1911. Print. p. 46-47 Download.

OpenSource Books | Bal Gangadhar Tilak

Today is the 160th birth Anniversary of Bal Gangadhar Tilak — Lokmanya, or, as the British chose to call him — Father of the Indian Unrest.

In an introduction to Tilak’s writings and speeches, this is what Sri Aurobindo had to say about Lokmanya Tilak.

Two facts of his life and character have to be insisted on as of special importance to the country because they give a great example of two things in which its political life was long deficient and is even now not sufficient. First, the inflexible will of the patriot and man of sincere heart and thorough action which has been the very grain of his character; for aspirations, emotion, enthusiasm are nothing without this; will alone creates and prevails. And wish and will are not the same thing, but divided by a great gulf; the one, which is almost of us get to, is a puny, tepid and inefficient thing and, even when most enthusiastic, easily discouraged and turned from its object; the other can be a giant to accomplish and endure. Secondly, the readiness to sacrifice and face suffering, not needlessly or with a useless bravado, but with a firm courage when it comes, to bear it and to outlive, returning to work with one’s scars as if nothing had happened. No prominent man in India has suffered more for his country; none has taken his sacrifices and sufferings more quietly and as a matter of course.

~ Sri Aurobindo

Download the full book here. [446 pages, Various Formats]

Photograph in Featured Image:By Madras : Ganesh & Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

OpenSource Books | Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi

Today is the 158th death anniversary of Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi. We found this short poem by Michael White, written in 1902.

Within no peerless Taj Mahal her body lies,
No gilded dome, nor fairy minarets against the azure skies,
Proclaim the place, where she, called by her foes, the “bravest and the best”
Was laid by reverential hands to her victorious rest:
But in the eternal sanctuary of her race,
The holy river, holy Mother Ganges, that coveted embrace,
Doth hold her ashes, and for a monument to her name,
Sufficeth it, that in the people’s hearts, her fame,
Doth shine immortal. For she was deeply loved, this Queen.
The beauteous, valiant Rani, India’s great heroine.

~ Michael White, in Lachmi Bai: Rani of Jhansi, 1902. Download the book for free from, here.

Featured image: By Lala Deen Dayal (1844–1905). [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Historians: Dr. RC Majumdar

Dr. RC Majumdar was the series editor of (and a contributor to) “The History and Culture of the Indian People,” a definitive collection, of history and culture, right from the Vedic Age to the Indian freedom struggle. The eleven-volume series started in 1951, which took 26 years to complete. Dr. Majumdar was 88, when the final volume was published.

Dr. Majumdar has many other books to his credit. [Wikipedia]. Dr. Majumdar was interviewed by Dr. Jyotsna Kamat (of Kamat’s Potpourri) shortly before he passed away, in 1980.

Ramesh Chandra Majumdar was born in 1888 in East Bengal (present day Bangladesh) in the village of Khandarapara of Faridapur District. His talent knew no bounds, like the Padma (Podda) river that flows there. The story of this famous historian is also interesting. In East Bengal, there are rivers, lakes, and streams everywhere, and children grow up with water. In Majumdar’s house, even to go from one room to another, he had to walk in ankleful of water! When it poured, the whole house was flooded. When he was an infant, one day he was about to be swept away in the floods in the night. “Somehow my aunt was woken up, and I am alive today to tell you my story.” — He laughed.

Read the full interview here: Kamat’s Potpourri: India’s Greatest Historian