Humayun in Sindh

Ambrin Hayat on the fugitive Mughal emperor Humayun's wanderings in the 16th century Indus valley

Humayun in Sindh
A king was on the run. Escaping death, his depleted entourage had just crossed the Ravi. Several people had died in this extended adventure. Enemy forces were looking for him - the people who had snatched his nascent kingdom from him wanted to end his very existence. Of course, the King had wanted to live and had dreamt of taking his kingdom back one day. Now, on the run from one little fiefdom to the other, from one principality to another, he was seeking refuge. When destiny is not smiling on you, even friends turn into foes. Nobody was ready to give refuge to an ex-emperor, not when the new ruler in Delhi was searching for him. Who would want to take on to the might of Sher Shah Suri?

It was the year 1540, when in an utter state of disorder, crossing the Ravi at a ford; the disoriented entourage was following their leader - looking for a place for shelter. Emperor Humayun (1508-1556) and his brothers were in Lahore for months, trying to formulate a strategy to defeat Sher Shah Suri. Kamran Mirza, Humayun’s half brother, did not want to extend any support; instead, he wanted to go to Kabul. He had no desire to wage war on Sher Shah for the sake of Humayun’s monarchy. Kamran had his own plans for the future, in which the Emperor of Hindustan was not Humayun. It had become apparent that Humayun was alone in this battle. With a tired and rapidly shrinking army, he was not in a position to win his kingdom back. When Sher Shah reached Sirhind, Humayun had sent an emissary almost pleading: he had left a major part of the country for Sher Shah, why not let Sirhind be the boundary between them? However, Sher Shah’s army was enthusiastic and strong. Why would Sher Shah cede any territory to a fleeing, beaten monarch? He had left Kabul for Humayun, which was the most he was willing to give. With this reply had also come the news: Sher Shah’s army was moving fast - very fast - towards Lahore.

Silver rupees struck by Sher Shah Suri, the Afghan warlord who drove Humayun and the Mughals out of north India and took over the throne at Delhi
Silver rupees struck by Sher Shah Suri, the Afghan warlord who drove Humayun and the Mughals out of north India and took over the throne at Delhi

A Sufi, clad in a green robe, appeared in the dream. Handing over his staff to Emperor Humayun, he urged him not to lose hope

Thus, Humayun and his followers crossed the Ravi in a state of absolute mayhem.

The year before, in 1539, 8,000 men and women were lost in war with Sher Shah Suri. Some had drowned in the Ganges, some were killed on the battlefield at Chaunsa. The memory of that humiliation was raw. Not only had Humayun lost large swathes of his empire, he had also lost several women from his household. Among them was, most importantly, his daughter Aqiqa. Sher Shah had captured his wife Bega Begum too, though she returned to Humayun later. That ominous night in Chaunsa, they were in a state of pandemonium, as they had crossed the Ganges. The Emperor could have drowned in that roaring river that night, if not for a bihisti, a water carrier, who actually saved his life.

Chaunsa was not the only disgrace: Humayun’s army was defeated again at Kanauj, where, even before the battle commenced, Kamran Mirza abandoned his post and proceeded to Lahore with 15,000 valuable troops. The defeat was decisive.

A refined and scholarly figure, quite different from his Turkic warlord father, Humayun proved unable to rein in rebellious nobles, especially his own brothers
A refined and scholarly figure, quite different from his Turkic warlord father, Humayun proved unable to rein in rebellious nobles, especially his own brothers

Humayun wanted to meet Hamida again, but to everyone's surprise, Hamida refused to meet him

Desperate for an alliance, Humayun had followed Kamran to Lahore in the hope of convincing him that only a collective effort could help regain their father’s lost empire. For months, the four brothers discussed, pondered and debated. Alas! It was a futile effort. Not everyone had come to the discussion with such sincere intentions towards a common cause. Their talks had failed, now the enemy was knocking at the door.

It was October 30, 1540, and the news was that Sher Shah had crossed the Bias, on his way to Lahore. Dispirited, crestfallen, in a state of melancholy, thousands of people escaping the enemy had left Lahore that morning. Exasperated and fatigued, crossing the Ravi, they camped on its banks on the other.

A sense of desolation had taken over every one of them. In such an air of despondency, a ray of light sparkled. On the banks of the Ravi that night, Humayun had a dream. Not only did the dream infuse optimism but also a renewed conviction, in an otherwise demoralised Emperor. A Sufi, clad in a green robe, appeared in the dream. Handing over his staff to Emperor Humayun, he urged him not to lose hope; prophesying that he would regain his empire one day. He also predicted a son to be born to Humayun, suggesting the name Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar, and foretelling that the son who would be from the lineage of Ahmed Jami, a Sufi saint. Humayun woke up in a state of elation. With a renewed earnestness, he resolved to continue his struggle for Hindustan.

Hamida Banu Begum, who went on to become the wife of Mughal emperor Humayun
Hamida Banu Begum, who went on to become the wife of Mughal emperor Humayun

Humayun left Lahore with his entourage. Travelling along the Jehlum River, they reached Khushab, where the road now bifurcated: north-west to Kabul and south-west to Sindh. Kamran Mirza’s entourage en route to Kabul met then at this junction. That is where the facade of progeny was finally broken: Kamran refused to take Humayun with him to Kabul. Humayun had nowhere else to go; all he could see ahead was hardship and destitution. Fully realising this fact, he gave permission to his army and officials to join Kamran Mirza, if they so wished. Some of Humayun’s men did leave him and went to Kabul with Kamran. Most of the women elected to proceed with Kamran. After this, Humayun, with a smaller entourage marched towards Sindh.

Babur had awarded Alwar to Hindal Mirza as his fiefdom. After Babur passed away, Hindal, another step brother of Humayun, had unsuccessfully tried to take over the crown. Humayun, remembering his father’s last wish, had forgiven Hindal’s misadventure. Since then, Hindal had stayed loyal to his bother. Later, Hindal wanted to take Sehwan. After some persistence, Humayun relented and Hindal established suzerainty over Sehwan. After the brothers’ unsuccessful effort in Lahore, Hindal had proceeded to Sehwan.

Humayun’s strategy was to take over Gujarat, but for that he needed some support - in his own much-reduced army, morale was at its lowest. There was one possibility: he would be able to muster support in Sindh.

After a night’s stay in Multan, where no support was offered, the party continued their journey until they came upon a roaring river, the Indus. They had no boats. The town and its surroundings were ruled by a Baluch ruler, Bhakshu Langah. Humayun sent him gifts of a banner, four elephants and more, with a request for boats. The Amir in return sent a hundred boats for the entourage to cross the river and large amounts of grain, etc. Humayun was delighted at the respect shown by him and noted that once he regained his empire this Amir would be compensated. Later, he was awarded the title of Khan Jehan.

Shah Hussain, the Arghun, was the main sovereign of Sindh then, with his capital in Thatta and a substantial army. Humayun proceeded with the hope that Shah Hussain might help.

On his way, he attacked the fort in Bhakkar, a town in Sindh. Here, according to Gulbadan Begum, a fort had been built in the centre of the river, but the effort was wasted. Humayun needed time to regain strength. He wanted to meet Shah Hussain in person. They camped in a beautiful garden called Chaar Bagh, built on the banks of the Indus River in Rohri. The Emperor sent two ambassadors with a message that Shah Husaain was expected to pay his respects to the Emperor.

There was a general ambiguity in the environment. Shah Hussain kept evading the Emperor on one pretext or another. Many months passed. The grain reserves, whatever little they had, were now quickly vanishing. There was anxiety and apprehension in the rank and file of the army. People had started eating horses’ and camels’ meat, as food was scarce. Humayun feared more troops might defect. He sent a messenger again, urging an immediate meeting with the Arghun. Shah Hussain surprised everyone with the news that his daughter was recently betrothed to Kamran Mirza, and that therefore he was unable to help Humayun. It became apparent that Kamran Mirza was still aspiring to supplant Humayun, and forging alliances to that end. Of course, Shah Hussain would support Kamran to be the next emperor. Humayun was stunned and saddened.

Hindal Mirza, the only brother who had shown some loyalty so far, could be a source of endurance at this point. With that expectation in heart, the entourage proceeded to Paat where Hindal and his mother Dildar Begum were residing. Paat is located in district Dadu of Sindh and is an ancient town. Situated about fifty miles north of Sehwan, close to the Dadu canal, Paat is about 20 miles away from the Indus River. The town had played a role in the cultural and philosophical exchange of ideas in the region. Close proximity to the river had evolved a syncretised society. For centuries, a diverse population was mingling here and exchanging ideas. Paat had become a place where there was an ongoing dialogue between different creeds of wisdom and conviction. In the 12th century, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar (1177-1274) had met another Sufi of Persian descent, Pir Haji Ismail, in Paat. Mian Mir (1550-1635) a native of Sehwan had his spiritual education in Paat. Hindaal and Dildar Begum had already reached Paat from Lahore, which now seemed like an obvious destination for Humayun.

Dildar Begum was not only Hindaal’s real mother but was also the mother of Gul Badan Begum, Humayun’s stepsister who wrote the Humayunnama. It is quite likely that Dildar was of Persian descent. It is also quite possible that the reason Dildar and Hindal were in Paat was because there was an established Persian community residing there for generations. Amongst these Persian families of Paat was the family of Sheikh Akbar Jami, a descendant of Sheikh Ahmad Jami, a revered Sufi saint of Persia. It is quite possible that Akbar Jami, who was also a close friend of Hindal’s, because of his lineage from a saint, wielded some influence on the community. Maybe that is the reason why people in Paat had provided refuge to the Mughals. Incidentally, Humayun’s own mother, Maham, was also a descendant of Sheikh Ahmad Jami.

Whatever the reasons were, Humayun camped in Paat for many months, waiting for a meeting with Shah Hussain, which in the end never happened. However, it was during this long stay in Paat that he happened to come across Hamida Banu Begum. One day, Humayun arrived at Dildaar Begum’s house to discuss a serious matter; this was when fourteen-year-old Hamida Banu Begum (1527-1604) also happened to be visiting. Humayun had never met her before. Hamida’s father was Sheikh Ali Akbar Jami alias Mir Baba Dost. The Jami family was present in Alwar, Hindal’s fiefdom, on many different occasions. However in these turbulent times they had taken refuge in their hometown. Although Hamida was often in Dildar Begum’s house in Paat, this was Humayun’s first introduction to Hamida.

After that first meeting, Humayun visited Dildaar Begum with a request. He wanted to marry Hamida and requested Dildaar Begum to initiate the customary process. It was quite traditional for the Mughals to marry within their extended family. Hamida was distantly related to him through his mother. In a way, it was quite an acceptable proposal. However, the first objection to the proposition came from Hindal. He opposed any such alliance on the basis that he was very close to Hamida’s parents and that he treated her like a sister. He knew that Hamida’s parents could not afford to give a dowry fit for an Emperor. Hindal would not want them to be embarrassed or his association with them to be estranged. Hindal’s vehement opposition made Humayun upset and he left the house displeased.

Dildar Begum, on the other hand, did not find the idea of Humayun marrying Hamida inappropriate. When Humayun did not come to visit her for a few days, she sent him a letter saying that what Hindaal had said was not important, Hamida’s mother had already been suggesting such an alliance. Dildar was ready to talk to Hamida and her parents on the Emperor’s behalf. That evening, Dildar Begum hosted Humayun for a dinner party. Emperor Humayun was exuberant and wanted Dildar to initiate the process soon.

To everyone’s surprise, the second opposition to such a proposition came from an unexpected source. Hamida refused to marry Humayun. Although young, Hamida like other Mughal women of her times, was educated and confident. Later in life, Hamida built the magnificent tomb for Humayun in Delhi and played an important role in Akbar’s reign. The Mughal women in the society participated in important matters of everyday life and in decision-making on vital occasions. For a fourteen-year-old girl, Hamida displayed a remarkable sense of character and appeared to possess a sophisticated degree of wisdom.

After the day of the banquet at Dildar Begum’s home, Humayun wanted to meet Hamida again, but to everyone’s surprise, Hamida refused to meet him. It so happened that on Humayun’s request, Dildar Begum sent an invitation to Hamida for an audience with the Emperor. To this Hamida replied in a most eloquent manner, “If it is to pay my respects to the Emperor, I have done that once already. Why should I meet him again?” Surprised, both Hindal and Dildar were unable to convince Hamida. However, the Emperor was persistent. His messenger would appear on Hindal’s door often, with the same request. Finally, Hindal Mirza sent the courtier directly to Hamida Begum. Her response remained the same:

“To see an Emperor once is lawful, to see him again is forbidden, I shall not come!”

Works of interest for the reader

Humayun Nama by Gulbadan Begum (1524-1603), translated by Annette S. Beveridge

A Gazetteer of the Province of Sindh by Albert William Hughes

Encyclopaedia of the Indian Women through the Ages: The Middle Ages by Simmi Jain

Mughal Empire in India by S.R. Sharma

Tazkereh Al Vakiat of Moghul Emperor Humayun by Jouher, translated by Major Charles Stewart