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History of India

November 5, 2017

- Padma Mohan Kumar, freelance writer

The tragic death of the second Mughal emperor Humayun in 1556 was followed by the accession of his son Abu'l-Fath Jalal ud-din Muhammad Akbar to the throne. Akbar at the time of his accession was a mere stripling of 13. But with the passage of time he had established his power and influence over the entire subcontinent. With his unsurpassed skills he had dominated the economic, military, political and religious matters of state. His enlightened policy of religious tolerance won for him the unflinching support and loyalty of his non-Muslim subjects. His diplomatic policy of marriage alliances with important ruling families helped to strengthen his position. He not only patronized art and culture but also supported the literature of several languages. It was entirely due to his far-sighted policies that the empire developed into a multicultural society under his rule.

Akbar's early years
Akbar's father Humayun had been vanquished by his Afghan foe, Sher Shah Suri at the battle of Kanauj in May 1540 and had to flee for his life. He and his pregnant wife Hamida Banu Begum were given shelter by Rana Virsal, the Hindu ruler of Umerkot in Sindh. Rana Virsal also assisted Humayun with men and materials so that he could carry out his plan to march against Thatta and Bhakkar. It was at Umarkot that Akbar, who was destined to be India's greatest Muslim monarch, was born on October 15th, 1542. He was named Abu'l-Fath Jalal ud-din Muhammad at birth. Humayun who had set out on his expedition against Thatta and Bhakkar, was overjoyed on receiving the news of his son's birth. He broke a pod of musk and distributed it among his followers with the apology that this was all that he could afford to gift them.

However, misfortune seemed to dog Humayun's footsteps. His expedition against Thatta and Bhakkar ended in failure. To make matters worse, some of his followers fell out with Rana Virsal which cost him the Rajput ruler's friendship. Hamida Banu Begum had to leave Umerkot along with her baby son. She joined her husband at Jun where he had waited for six months to capture Sindh. Humayun's efforts to take Sindh again met with failure so he decided to go to Persia and seek the ruler's help. It was at Mustang in Afghanistan that his brother Askari launched an attack on him. Askari was then ruling over Afghanistan and Humayun was in no position to meet this challenge so he fled with his wife Hamida Banu Begum leaving his infant son Akbar behind. Askari picked up the little boy and handed him over to his wife. She lavished full care and attention on him. Akbar was brought up in the homes of his paternal uncles Kamran Mirza and Askari Mirza. Humayun could not get back his son as he had to be constantly fleeing from his enemies. Akbar was trained in the art of warfare and hunting during his growing up years. Though he was not taught to read and write, he had a curious, enquiring mind and would get scholars to read out learned works on art and religion to him during his later years. His father Humayun had fled to Persia where the ruler Shah Tahmasp provided him shelter and support.

In 1545 Humayun marched onto Kandahar which was under Mirza Askari. The young prince Akbar, who was with Askari at that time, was dispatched to Kamran at Kabul so as to prevent Humayun from recovering his son. During the course of Humayun's struggle with Kamran, the little prince Akbar was made to stand on the battlements of Kabul fort in an attempt to expose the child to the threat of the gunfire from Humayun's artillery. But Humayun's gunners noticed the tiny figure on the battlements and quickly turned their fire in another direction. Thus the little child had a lucky escape.Akbar's early life was full of adversities but his circumstances greatly improved after he was reunited with his father. Bairam Khan, a highly dependable and faithful military commander of Humayun was entrusted with the guardianship of the young prince. He devoted himself fully towards discharging this responsibility.

In 1551 Akbar was made the governor of Ghazni after the death of his uncle Hindal. Humayun meanwhile was awaiting an opportunity to recover his lost possessions in Hindustan. His chance came soon enough when the successors of Sher Shah Sur and his son Islam Shah Sur failed to hold the dominions together. Disunity set in among the Afghan nobles which in turn led to the disintegration of the empire. Powerful nobles laid claim to different parts of the domain-Muhammad Shah Adil took Agra; Ibrahim Sur was in possession of the Punjab while Delhi was under Sikandar Shah. Humayun, on seeing the disunity among the Afghans, decided to seize the opportunity and marched out of Kabul in 1554 with the objective of recovering his lost territories in Hindustan. He met Sikandar Shah Sur's army at Sirhind and with the able support of his young son Akbar, inflicted a heavy defeat on them. This victory enabled Humayun to reclaim the lost throne of Delhi with the backing of the Persian monarch Shah Tahmasp. In July 1555, he entered Delhi and ascended the throne. Akbar was made the governor of the Punjab and he was also declared as the heir apparent.

Humayun however was not destined to remain as monarch for long. In 1556, he met with a fatal accident while climbing down the steps of his library. Akbar, who was 13 years old at that time, succeeded him to the throne. The young prince was proclaimed 'Shahanshah' on February 14, 1556 at Kalanaur in Punjab. The news of Humayun's death was kept secret from the public for 17 days. Akbar had reached the capital only then. A look-alike of Humayun named Mulla Bekasi was asked to appear before the public at the royal balcony till the prince reached the capital. After his arrival, Akbar was formally declared Emperor of Delhi in 1556. Bairam Khan the military commander of the late emperor took up the post of Regent for young Akbar and ruled on his behalf till he reached the age of maturity.

The Second Battle of Panipat
The Mughal Empire, at the time of Akbar's accession to the throne, comprised parts of the Punjab, Kabul, Kandahar and Delhi. He had to face challenges right at the very outset of his rule. The very first of these came from the Afghan ruler of Chunar, Sultan Mohammad Adil Shah soon after Humayun's death. The Afghan ruler aspired for the throne of Delhi and was prepared to wage war on the Mughals in order to achieve his objective. In 1556, he sent an army under the leadership of his Hindu general, Samrat Hem Chandra Vikramaditya (also known as Hemu) to capture Agra and Delhi. The invaders inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Mughal army and compelled them to flee. Hemu crowned himself king on October 7, 1556, thus ushering in Hindu rule after 350 years of Muslim domination.

Akbar however was not one to take this humiliation quietly. On the advice of his regent, Bairam Khan, he proclaimed his decision to recover the throne of Delhi and marched to Panipat in order to realize his objective. A conflict took place between Hemu's forces and the Mughal army at Panipat on November 5, 1556. The Mughal army was much smaller than the enemy forces which consisted of 30,000 horsemen and 1500 elephants. Moreover Hemu also had the backing of both the Hindu and Afghan rulers who considered the Mughals as invaders. Bairam Khan kept Akbar at a safe distance while he maintained his position at the back of the army. Skilled generals were placed on the front, left and right flanks. Hemu was initially at an advantageous position but a sudden change in military tactics by the enemy led to his downfall. He was seated on his elephant when he was struck in the eye by an arrow. His mahout attempted to save him but he was pursued and captured by the Mughal soldiers. Hemu was brought before Akbar. Bairam Khan urged Akbar to cut off his head but on seeing the young emperor's hesitation he beheaded Hemu himself. Thus with the death of the Hindu ruler, Mughal supremacy was reestablished.

The victory of the Mughal forces ushered in the glorious era of Akbar's rule. Bairam Khan captured and imprisoned Hemu's relatives, while Sher Shah's successor Sikander Shah Sur was ultimately forced to surrender in 1557. The year also witnessed the defeat of Muhammed Adil, another Afghan rival, who was killed in a battle. Owing to these reverses Akbar's enemies fled from Delhi and the neighbouring areas to seek safety in other states. Under Bairam Khan's regency Ajmer, Malwa and Garhkatanga were also added to the Mughal dominions. Bairam Khan remained in his post till 1560 when he was dismissed by Akbar and told to either proceed to Mecca or to remain in retirement at the palace. Bairam chose to go to Mecca. It was while travelling through Gujarat that he was assassinated by an Afghan whose father had been killed in a battle led by him about five years back. His death took place on January 31, 1561.