Dawn, The Review, September 7-13, 2000
‘What’s your sun sign?’ The answer to this question could decide one’s appointment to the civil services in the days of Humayun, if one is to believe the story that he organized his entire administration on astrological elements. According to this account, for instance, the officers belonging to water signs (Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces) were to supervise irrigation and rivers, and so on.
The story is not entirely baseless. Humayun had a strong passion for astrology, among countless other things. And he was an eccentric. Indeed in the case of Humayun, one wonders if the usual rule of historical discrimination should be reversed: if something related about Humayun does not sound unbelievable then it could not be true! In the gallery of the Mughals he has the dubious distinction of being the only one who lost his Indian Empire and then regained it. But his frailties were all very human, and they make him one of the most loveable of all kings.
Born on 6 March 1606 (hence a Pisces, he would have wanted us to remember in any case), Humayun was as good as a spoilt child could be. He shared the diverse virtues of his father, Emperor Babur, but lacked the essential will power that could hold these diverse traits in harmony. His relationship with Babur is one of the most interesting father-son equations in history, almost reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And indeed, Humayun is one real-life version of Prince Hamlet that we find. His tragic flaw, like Hamlet’s, was an overdrawn demand for perfection. As the eldest son of his father Humayun tried to assume his father’s role, and in that he probably filled himself up with more virtues than his limited soul could contain. Babur was nobody’s match as a superman – he was at the same time a remarkable soldier, athlete, calligrapher, statesman, conversationalist, poet, writer, historian, mathematician and astrologer. Above all, Babur possessed an almost supernatural gift for looking into people’s souls. Humayun lacked this last trait probably because he grew up in an illusion, fantasizing himself to be Babur himself, and hence never developed his own contact with the real world until very late in his life.
The father was obviously aware of his son’s extraordinary affection for him, as well as the son’s tragic flaw. ‘You have written me a letter, as I ordered you to do,’ Babur wrote to Humayun in one of his letters while Humayun was ‘retiring’ in Badakhshan. ‘But why haven’t you read it over? If you had tried, you wouldn’t have had been able to! And unable to read it yourself, you would certainly have revised it. Though by taking great pains it can be read, it is still very puzzling, and who ever heard of a riddle in prose!’ After cracking this joke, more motherly than kingly, Babur then makes a profound observation that could only have come from him. ‘Your hesitation from writing frequent letters seems to come from the same thing that makes your letters unreadable: your love for elaboration. In future write without elaboration. Use plain, clear words. You will save so much pain to yourself and your reader!’
That is a profound insight into Humayun’s character. In the events that happened after Babur was dead, Humayun lost an empire, not because he didn’t have the capability to fight his formidable enemy, but rather because he wanted to fight too well. His love of perfection perversely transformed into lethargy because he thought too much. In the same letter Babur had mentioned this other flaw as well. ‘As for retirement, retirement spoken of in your letters, retirement is a fault for sovereignty…’ Here Babur quoted a couplet from Saadi, and then observed, ‘No bondage equals that of sovereignty. Retirement doesn’t go together with the rule.’
Humayun succeeded his father in 1530, at the age of twenty-four. Babur had advised him to treat his brothers generously, and Humayun took this as an excuse to pamper them. He had three stepbrothers and he gave them whichever provinces they asked for. Kamran was the most insolent and insisted on taking Kabul, the capital of Babur’s empire. If the ghost of Babur were to appear like King Hamlet of the play, he would have advised Humayun against making this mistake. But Humayun was bent upon overdoing himself, like always, and conceded to Kamran’s demand. That decision of Humayun, incidentally, shifted the capital of the Mughal Empire from Kabul to Agra. In the next few years Kamran silently exploited this fact to increase his own power. Humayun either didn’t notice, or if he did, he was too shy to make it an issue.
Revolts followed the accession of Humayun, just as expected. What was quite unexpected was Humayun’s response to them. In one remarkable burst of energies he rose from Agra and swept across the trouble-ridden regions of his Indian Empire. Among such regions were Gujrat and Malwa, which he bestowed upon his brother Askari, who soon afterwards lost them to the Afghans and fled away with his life. Needless to say, Humayun offered him consolation instead of asking him to explain that senseless defeat.
There followed a time of peace, or in any case, Humayun tried to believe that it was so. He reveled in luxuries: women, books, opium and daydreaming. It was around this time that he began to organize his empire according to astrological signs. Days of the week were divided accordingly. For instance, Thursday was fixed for meeting the scholars since it was the day of Jupiter, the planet of wisdom and learning. Meanwhile an undistinguished enemy, Sher Khan Souri, enlisted the Indian Afghans on his side and completed his detailed plan for becoming the Emperor of India. When he was ready he began by taking over the entire Bengal.
Humayun was compelled to leave his capital again and just like before he recovered the lost territory with considerable ease. But this time, the territory was Bengal. Lush green landscape evoked the poet in the king. He called a halt to enjoy the beauty while Sher Khan waited for a natural ally: the monsoon. It was just too late when Humayun realized that he was trapped in a bad weather with his supply line entirely cut off by the enemy. ‘Retirement doesn’t go together with the rule,’ as his father had warned him so prophetically.
Kamran and Hindal, who had been left behind near the heart of the empire, both rose in rebellion. This was one stab in his back that couldn’t have afforded at that moment. On his hasty march backward, his army was completely annihilated by Sher Khan at the battlefield of Chausa. Humayun himself would have drowned in the river if he weren’t rescued by a water-bearer, whose name was probably Nizam Saqqah. Humayun asked him to name whatever he desired, and Nizam, more of a dreamer than Humayun himself, asked to be made a king for two days! Humayun brought him back to Agra and after forgiving his treacherous brothers he placed Nizam on the throne of the Mughal Empire for two days. Every courtier was ordered to pay homage to the water-bearer just as they did to the king himself. Hindal had already taken leave to go away, and Kamran pretended to be sick. ‘There were other ways of rewarding a servant,’ he complained to Humayun. ‘Why indulge in this kind of a joke!’ But that was more than a joke. Humayun might have intended to show his brothers that the servant was superior to them because he had desired the king’s throne without being a traitor.
The next rendezvous was Qanauj, six months later in 1540. Humayun waited for about a month in the battlefield, trying to perfect his war strategy while his army got disheartened. His defeat in that fateful battle gave Sher Khan the control of Agra and Delhi, and Humayun had to leave for Lahore. All four brothers gathered there and Kamran openly demanded to be seated on the throne with Humayun. Humayun’s advisors urged him to execute Kamran, but the melodramatic emperor relied on composing a remarkable couplet in Persian and sending it to his stepbrother: ‘Although one’s image be shown in the mirror, It remains always apart from one’s self. It is wonderful to see one’s self in another form: this marvel will be the work of God.’
Humayun sent an equally melodramatic message to Sher Khan, though in prose. ‘Why are you being so mean? I have left you the whole of Hindustan. Leave Lahore alone for me…’ That was cute, but Sher Khan, now emperor of India by the title of Sher Shah Suri, was in no mood to adopt a child. ‘I have left you Kabul. You should go there,’ he replied. Going to Kabul was, indeed, the best option, but Humayun had already committed the mistake of placing it under the control of Kamran. Kamran categorically refused, although he knew well that his brother had nowhere else to go.
With a heavy heart, and most probably a few tears in his eyes, Humayun had to wander in the deserts of Sindh and Rajasthan for nearly three years. It was here that he fell desperately in love with Hameeda Bano, daughter of a Sindhi chieftain of Persian origins. ‘I won’t marry a king,’ the adolescent girl replied. ‘I want someone with whom I could be on an equal footing.’ However, Hameedah’s family prevailed upon her and hence the future king of India, Akbar the Great, was born out of a most poetical prince and a most practical woman. It is said that when Humayun received the news of his son’s birth he didn’t have anything to offer the news bearer as was the custom among the Turks. Humayun, reduced to a complete pauper by that time, only had a handful of musk by some chance, and that is what he offered. As soon as he got the time, of course, he cast the horoscope of the newborn. It is said that he was so much overwhelmed with joy that he kept jumping around for hours, and later told his most trusted companions that the horoscope was simply unbelievable.
The safest hideout was the court of Tahmasp, the Safavid king of Iran. But that was a dangerous journey, because Humayun, in his brotherly love, had given his brother Askari the strategic city of Kandahar. Now Askari was all bent upon arresting Humayun, who at last realized with much sorrow that he was facing death, or at least being blinded, if he fell into the hands of his brother. Askari raided Humayun’s entourage on its way to Iran but Humayun fled with his wife and women. The infant Akbar, however, fell into the hands of his ungrateful uncle. Miraculously, he remained safe.
Iran under young Tahmasp was on the highway to prosperity in spite of extremist religious policies adopted by the Safavids. Humayun received a red carpet treatment there and in the person of Tahmasp he found a mentor. ‘Brothers turned against me,’ Humayun is said to have explained the causes of his defeat at one point. ‘My generals were divided in their loyalties and the natives of India belonged to a different race and religion.’ To this, the Persian king gave the most profound advice, ‘You can’t rule a country if you remain a stranger there. When you go back and conquer India again, remember to bridge the gap between yourself and the natives.’ A little later, as they were having lunch, Tahmasp’s brother came forward with a bowl of water for him to wash his hands. Tahmasp gestured Humayun to observe how a king must treat his brothers.
Tahmasp’s might have been moved initially by an opportunity to bring Humayun, and through him the people of India, under the fold of the Shiite faith. Indeed that was one of the conditions he placed before Humayun when offering him Persian troops to recapture India. Humayun agreed, and before very long he was all set to take back all he had lost. He returned like a reformed man, and set out correcting all mistakes. Kandahar fell first, and Askari surrendered to Humayun. He was forgiven, as usual, but not trusted with any strategic position again. The next target was Kabul, which Humayun captured after great difficulty. Kamran presented himself, and attempted a very successful blackmail at Humayun’s brotherly love. Humayun lost his resolve, broke down in tears and eventually placed Kamran next to himself on the throne. For a while after this, Humayun was his own lousy self again: the entire city was ordered to dress in green as a sign of rejoicing, and some forty young women, also dressed in green, were left in the nearby mountains where Humayun and his chosen companions reveled in delicate sexual orgies. Kamran soon found an opportunity to revolt again and killed many of Humayun’s followers, including their stepbrother Hindal. He was finally brought to chains, and this time Humayun couldn’t refuse his nobles who insisted that the king’s treacherous brother should be blinded in punishment for the unspeakable atrocities he had committed on others. Humayun gave out the orders, and it seems that taking this step finally killed the demon within him. There were no more delays, and he marched down on India.
The final battles of Humayun are nothing to write home about. The sturdy Sher Shah Suri was long dead, and his feeble successors were no match for the renewed energies of Humayun or of his faithful general Bairam Khan. The Mughal army now moving like one ruthless war machine with Humayun acting like its fully awakened mind, took over Punjab, Dehli and Agra in less time than it had lost them before. Humayun didn’t live long enough to reap the fruits of glory.
One evening in January 1556, he fell from the stairs of his library and received fatal injuries in his skull. Eyewitness accounts inform us that Humayun slipped because his eyes were fixed on the planet Venus in the sky, his mind probably solving a problem of astronomy, his feet moving down the staircase while his entire body attempting to twist in the direction of Makkah in answer to the initial call for the Maghrib prayer. The wounds that killed him resulted from the same flaw that Babur had attempted to correct in him long ago: a desire to be too perfect!
This article is part of the series “The Great Mughals” : Tamerlane | Babur | Khanzadeh Begum | Humayun | Akbar the Great | Anarkali | Jahangir | Nurjahan | Shahjahan | Mumtaz Mahal | Dara Shikoh | Aurangzeb Alamgir | Muhammad Shah “Rangeela”
Next in the series: Akbar the Great