Disintegration of the Sur Empire

Tomb of Sher Shāh Sur at Sasaram
Tomb of Islām Shāh Sur at Sasaram

On 30th October 1553, Islam Shah died and the battle of Panipat in which the Afghans were decisively defeated was fought on 5th November 1556. This period of three years from Islam Shah’s death to the defeat at the hands of the Mughals, is regarded as the period of disintegration of the Sur Empire which had been built with such great efforts by Sher Shah and Islam Shah.

Disintegration was brought about by two processes which were continuing simultaneously. One was the process of the growing Mughal pressure against the Surs. The Mughal military pressure started on the Surs from December 1554 onwards. In fact it was in November 1554 that Humayun set out from Kabul with the intention of re-occupying Northern India. He was encouraged to undertake this expedition by the news that he got at Kabul regarding the growing factional tussle within the Sur Empire after Islam Shah’s death. Humayun occupied Lahore on 24th February 1555. He defeated the Afghan forces led by Ibrahim Sur in the Battle of Sirhind on 22nd June 1555.

Side by side with this was the second process – the growing situation of the factional tussle within the Sur Empire which tended to get accentuated as the Mughal pressure against them mounted. In this discussion, we will be focussing on this second process.

Factional Fights & Rivalries

For having a proper understanding of the role that was played by different nobles and princes in this tussle, we should first of all have a broad view of the distribution of important military commanders in the Sur empire at the time of Islam Shah’s death. One knows that towards the last few years of Islam Shah’s reign he had almost totally displaced the senior nobles of Sher Shah’s time by his own favourites in high positions and important military commands. In fact when Islam Shah died, it was this group of the nobles who were called upon to manage the empire and serve under his successors. Some of their names occur in chronicles of the time. After the elimination of the Niazis in 1547-49, Islam Shah appointed to Punjab one of his relatives, Ahmad Khan Sur, who was the son-in law of Nizam and Adil Shah.

So Ahmad Shah Sur was at this time the muqta of Punjab after the elimination of Niazis in 1549.

Malwa was still controlled by Shuja’at Khan, who was one of those officers of Sher Shah who survived Islam Shah’s reign. He is often referred to as ‘Sur’ in some later histories like Niamatullah’s Tarikh-i Khan Jahani. But Abbas Khan never identifies him with Surs. On the other hand he gives the hint that he was related to the Niazi clan. He belonged to Sher Shah’s khasa khail. And when an attempt had been made to assassinate him by Islam Shah, he had fled to Malwa. Towards the end of Islam Shah’s reign, he was again under cloud and if Islam Shah would have survived, Shuja’at Khan would have been eliminated.

Mewat (that is the whole wilayat extending from Mewat located south-east of Delhi, upto Jodhpur, including Ajmer and Ranthambore, that is to say the whole of Rajputana) during the reign of Sher Shah was controlled by the khasa khails. After him the region was controlled by Haji Khan Sultani, a non-Afghan noble who belonged to Sher Shah’s khasa khail. He was again one of those who had survived Islam Shah.

The wilayat of Bengal, having 19 sarkars was controlled by Sur officers raised to high positions by Islam Shah, such as Muhammad Khan Sur or Muhammad Khan Gauria (the titled being so as he had lived a long time at Gaur). He was a powerful Sur officer who had risen after the elimination of other Sher Shah’s officers here.

The charge of sarkar Bayana was controlled by Ghazi Khan Sur. It was a geographically significant territory as being located west of Agra, anyone stationed there could put pressure on Agra. Ghazi Khan had become influential by this time due to his relationship with the Sur clan. He was the father of Ibrahim Khan Sur, who was married to Nizam’s daughter. He had made efforts to ascend the throne by the critical support of his father.

Then the Kararani Afghan tribe had risen to prominence under Sher Shah. They had come on the top in clash with Sher Shahi nobles under Islam Shah. Taj Khan Kararani, the senior-most Kararani noble had played an important role in the elimination of the khasa khails. Taj Khan was the muqta of Sambhal under Islam Shah. He was holding a number of parganas in Awadh as iqta. The rich parganas like Lucknow, Malihabad and Kakori were held by him at the time of Islam Shah’s death.

Another Kararani noble, Ahmad Khan Kararani was holding the charge of the wilayat of Jaunpur. Still further west, one of the brothers of Taj Khan, Sulaiman Khan Kararani had the charge of Bihar at this time.

The Kararanis, thus together were controlling a very large part of the Sur Empire. All of them were strong adherents of Islam Shah.

Then of course, there were a few other important sarkars, for example, the sarkar of Kannauj, controlled by Shah Muhammad Farmuli who was originally a noble of the Lodi Empire. Shah Muhammad Farmuli did not enjoy any high position under Sher Shah, who was averse to giving high position to the remnants of the Lodi nobility – exception being one or two. But when struggle arose between Sher Shahi and Islam Shahi nobles, Islam Shah used some remnants of the Lodi nobility in putting down his enemies. Thus the Farmulis under Shah Muhammad regained the high position they had held under the Lodis.

Another group of the same category were the Nauhanis who had been neglected by Sher Shah. Under Islam Shah they had improved their position. Thus the sarkar Bahraich situated to the north of Awadh, was controlled by Rukn Khan Nauhani.

So it is obvious that the people who were in control were those promoted by Islam Shah. Shuja’at Khan and Haji Khan Sultani were the only two exceptions, who had also held similar positions under Sher Shah. They were loyal to Sher Shah’s family.

The Successors

After the death of Islam Shah, Firoz who was 2-3 years old was put on the throne. Within a fortnight or so he was killed by his maternal uncle, Mubariz, the son of Nizam, who declared himself the king with the title of Adil Shah. He came to be known as ‘Adili’. With his accession a struggle arose. The nobility refused to co-operate with him.

One can put forward only two explanations for the manner in which the nobles refused to co-operate with Adili and came out in the open against him.

One explanation is the revulsion which was created against Adili over the assassination of Firoz, not only because it was a barbaric act but also because many of the nobles who were intensely loyal to Sher Shah’s dynasty, including those raised to high positions by Islam Shah, felt revolted that the last surviving member of Farid’s dynasty had been put top death and the kingship had passed to the hands of Sher Shah’s step brother (Nizam) who was also a rival of Sher Shah!

Secondly, it was also a result of the deliberate policy pursued by Adil Shah which was aimed at replacing Islam Shah’s nobles by two set of nobles of whose loyalty he was more certain. One set of noble brought to prominence were those Sher Shahi nobles who were in rebellion against Sher Shah for most part of the reign. They were people like Isa Khan Niazi, one of the surviving members of the Niazi clan. Then there were persons like Shamsher Khan, the younger brother of Khawas Khan, son of Sukha.

Then there was Sarmast Khan, a member of a minor Afghan tribe of Sarvini, which was put on a low ladder by the Afghan nobility. He had risen to power and status during the early part of Islam Shah’s reign, but then had fallen from his grace and an attempt had been made to eliminate him. He was now taken in by Adil Shah.

Others were his personal adherents, some of whom were non-Afghans. For example Hemu, who from the time of Islam Shah was a noble of some status. He was a Brahmin of the Gaur caste who hailed from Rewari in the Mewat region. He had been a shahna-i bazarand had risen as a noble under Islam Shah on account of his competence. In 1551 he was important enough to be sent receive Mirza Kamran when the later came to visit Islam Shah for seeking help against Humayun. His position under Adil Shah was unprecedented: he was enjoying the same position as that of the wakil us saltanat under the Mughals – he exercised powers over the nobles in the name of Adil Shah. Although the office of the wakil and wazir were with Shamsher Khan, the real authority in civil and military affairs was in the hands of Hemu. He naturally inducted several persons of his clan to the Sur nobility. Example can be given of Mujahid Khan, originally a menial servant belonging to a non-Muslim caste, but converted and raised to the position of a trusted noble of Adil Shah who had affection for him. Then there was Daulat Khan, a neo-Muslim. There were a number of those nobles who had been neglected by Surs earlier, but had arisen now: e.g., Bahadur Khan Sarwani.

The New vs Old Group: Revolts

The rise of such nobles was naturally resisted by the older group of Sur nobility who started opposing the policies of Adil Shah. Stances of resistance by Islam Shahi nobles against the new sultan’s attempt to dislodge them from their iqtas became noticeable in the very first few months of Adil Shah’s reign.

One of the earliest incidents relate to Farmuli nobles, whose chief, Shah Muhammad Farmuli, was asked by Adil Shah to hand over the charge of sarkar Qannauj to Sarmast Khan Sarvini. This was naturally resented by the Farmulis. Badauni says that when these orders were conveyed to them, while in attendance to the King, Farmuli’s son, Sikandar Farmuli was provoked to protest against this order in a violent language. He even abused in a most aggressive manner Sarmast and his entire clan as well as the king, all of which resulted in a scuffle between the Farmulis and the supporters of Adil Shah which continued for 6 hours inside the royal diwankhana. In this scuffle several of Adil’s supporters including Sarmast Khan were killed. Sikandar and Shah Muhammad Farmuli were also killed: Adil himself escaped to his private quarters and looked himself. This incident indicates the great resentment which existed and the desperation of the Islam Shahi nobles.

Similarly the sons of Sher Khan Lodi and Muhammad Khan refused to hand over the charge of the parganas on their father’s death to a noble of Adil Shah’s choice.

Similar was the case of Taj Khan Kararani. He felt insecure in Adil Shah’s service when the later raised as wakil one of his enemies, i.e., Shamsher Khan. For some time, he held peace due to his large following and the large territory under his brothers. But after the episode of the Farmulis, Taj Khan became panicky, left the court without Adil Shah’s permission (Gwalior), and proceeded to his own jagir located in the Awadh region. As soon as the news of his escape came to the ears of Adil Shah, Hemu was despatched in his pursuit. The engagement between the two took place at Chhapramau near Farrukhabad. Taj Khan was defeated and escaped to Chunar where he tried to mobilize the Kararanis of Jaunpur and Bihar. But soon he was evicted from Chunar also. Adail Shah personally marched against him and pursued him to the Jaunpur region and then to Bihar. A number of conflicts took place between the two in which Adil Khan gained an upper hand and the Kararanis were driven out from most of their iqtas. But this operation took a very long time. For almost a whole year Adil Shah had to remain at Chunar.

These revolts started off yet another series of revolts which were much more serious. In these several Sur officers of the ruling clan declared themselves as rival kings.

The first revolt of this series took place while Adil Shah was still at Chunar. This was by Adil Shah’s brother-in-law, Ibrahim Khan Sur. Ibrahim was holding the charge of sarkar Gwalior and had been a party to Adil Shah’s capture of power. But then the revolts and the prolonged absence of Adil Shah from the capital encouraged him to march from Gwalior to capture Agra and Delhi on behalf of his father, Ghazi Khan Sur, who the muqta of Bayana. Haji Khan Sultani was crowned by him with the title of Islam Shah.

As the news of this rebellion spread, another brother-in-law of Adil Shah, Ahmad Khan Sur also rebelled. He was the son-in-law of Nizam, and the muqta of the wilayat of Punjab. He entitled himself as Sikandar Shah, and declared himself as the king of Punjab and marched upon Delhi with the support of Habib Khan Sultani, one of Sher Shah’s nobles.

The three centre of powers within the Sur Empire at this time were thus, Chunar, where Adil Shah was stationed; Agra & Gwalior, where Ibrahim Khan was holding sway; and Punjab and Delhi regions where Sikandar Shah was the third contender to the Sur throne.

Another revolt during this period was by Muhammad Khan Gauria of Bengal. He was certainly a Sur officer who had risen to prominence under Islam Shah as munsif of Bengal after Qazi Fazihat’s revolt. He took up the title of Sultan Jalaluddin Shah. His headquarters were at Gaur and was controlling Bengal and parts of North Bihar.

One other important revolt was by Rukn Khan Nauhani, the muqta of Bahraich, who just refused to accept the authority of Adil Shah.

Lastly was the rise of Shuja’at Khan in Malwa as an independent ruler. Till this time he didn’t claim the throne, but now he also declared his independence.

“Civil War”:

Thus the situation of a civil was quite unavoidable: a multi-cornered civil war was ensured – in the east between Adil Shah and the Kararanis; in the Doab between Adil and Ibrahim on the one hand and on the other, Ibrahim and Sikandar Shah.

Let us deal with some brief references to the important events of this struggle. One was the battle which took place between Adil’s forces under Isa Khan Niazi and those of Ibrahim Shah near Kalpi. Isa Khan was defeated. With this defeat, Adil Shah lost the Agra – Gwalior region which now passed on Ibrahim Shah (entitled Islam Shah).

The second important event was the battle of Farah – in the North-West of Agra, near Mathura. In this battle, Sikandar Khan and Islam Shah faced each other. Badauni gives a long account of this battle. A proposal kept before the battle was that the entire Sur Empire be divided between the two. When the negotiations failed, the battle was fought in which Sikandar Shah won. He occupied Agra, while Islam Shah escaped to Sambhal.

The Battle of Farah was fought at a time when Humayun was advancing towards Sirhind. The Battle of Sirhind took place soon after the Battle of Farah. Sikandar was not able to prepare himself sufficiently and thus Humayun was able to oversome him in June 1555. Thus now the equation shifted in favour of Adil Shah. Islam Shah was eliminated at the battle of Farah, and at Sirhind, Sikandar Shah was weakened. Islam Shah once again tried to retract his position by trying to encircle Sikandar in the Delhi Agra region by trying to occupy Agra. A fierce struggle between the two ensued and a number of battles took place. During the same period Humayun succeeded to inflict defeats on Ibrahim Shah who was forced to take shelter at Bayana. Humayun had already occupied Delhi by this time. According to Badauni around 13 battles were fought during a short period of 6-7 months. Eventually in December 1555 was fought the Battle of Chhaparghat

The Battle of Chhaparghat was fought on the banks of Jamuna, 18 Km north of Kalpi between Adil Shah’s forces under Hemu and the forces of the governor of Bengal, Muhammad Khan Sur, one of the contestants to the throne. It was fought at a time when Hemu had just succeeded in crushing Ibrahim Khan Sur at Bayana.

This battle may be regarded as a turning point in the sense that after this victory of Hemu over Muhammad Khan Gauria, Adil Shah’s authority was established in the whole region from Chunar and Jaunpur to Agra. Three formidable contenders were eliminated: one due to defeat at the hands of Mughals in June 1555 at Sirhind (i.e., Ahmad Khan Sur or Sikandar Shah); the other was Ibrahim Khan (as Islam Shah) who was crushed by Hemu; and the third was now Muhammad Khan Sur (Jalaluddin Shah).

Meanwhile Adil Shah had also succeeded in dislodging Rukn Khan Nauhani from Bahraich. He had established himself as an independent ruler. Thus now Adil became the undisputed authority from Chunar to Agra and Gwalior.

In this new situation, Adil had now to fight on the eastern front against Taj Khan Kararani and his relatives. He also had to contend with Muhammad Khan Gauria’s son, who made a joint cause with the Kararanis. On the western front Adil’s men had to contend with the Mughals who had established themselves at Delhi in July 1555.

From Adil Shah’s point of view, a further favourable development was the unexpected and sudden demise of Humayun at Delhi on 27th January 1557, within a month of the battle of Chhaparghat. Humayun’s son was only 12 years old and was not in a position to provide active leadership to the Mughals. There was also every likelihood of a serious rift taking place within the Mughal nobility over the person to be entrusted with the charge of acting as the young Akbar’s guardian and the acting head of the state.

In this situation of uncertainty, the Mughals were not expected to assert as visibly as before. Thus this was a golden time for Adil Shah. These hopeful signs helped him in regaining the support of some of the influential Afghan nobles who had opposed him tooth and nail till this time.

This is borne by the references that many of those nobles siding with Ibrahim Khan or Ahmad Khan Sur till the end of 1555, are reported in the first half of 1556 as fighting in the armies of Adil Shah which he sent in different directions. Mention may be made of the sons of Sher Khan Lodi, who had defied Adil’s authority earlier and had refused to hand over the parganas held by their father as iqta to the person nominated by Adil as the new muqta. Thus Muhammad Khan Lodi and his brother, who had rebelledin 1553, were now serving under Hemu during this time.

Similarly Rukn Khan Nauhani, the muqta of Bahraich, who had acted independent and had been suppressed in 1555, was in 1556 serving under Adil Shah. Similar is the case of Rau Hussain Jalwani, who had supported Ibrahim Shah Sur from the beginning, is now mentioned as serving under Hemu against the Mughals. Another important person of this category was Haji Khan Sultani, the Sher Shahi noble of Mewat who had originally sided with Ibrahim Khan Sur, is now mentioned as serving under Hemu during the campaigns conducted in 1556.

Thus information if put together, is a clear indication of some reconciliation between the disaffected nobles and Adil, after the battle of Chhaparghat.

But then at the same time Badauni and Rizqullah Mushtaqi tend to suggest that with the enhanced prestige and authority during the post-Chhaparghat period, a new rift started between the nobles loyal to Hemu and those Afghan chiefs who were loyal to Adil Shah. Those with Adil resented the overbearing attitude of Hemu.

There is an interesting passage in Rizqullah Mushtaqi’s account which brings out this resentment:

“Hemu became all powerful; he did not allow anything except food to Adil Shah. He seized royal treasures and elephants and also brought the whole of the kingdom under his own control. He appointed his own men everywhere and thus the reins of government slipped from Adil Shah’s hands. He (Hemu) did not pay even a single penny while his own men got liberal payments.”

 Hemu couldn’t have possibly behaved like this as his troops consisted of Afghan chiefs and troops. It is an exaggeration. It is a record of discontent of displeasure being expressed by them. Rizqullah was close to the Afghan chiefs of this period. This is significant as it points to the fact that a rift was developing. This is confirmed by Badauni’s account, whose account of the history of the later Surs in the vol. I is the only detailed account of the period that we have. He says that after the success over Ibrahim and Bahadur shah, Hemu used to hold feasts at Agra and ask Sur nobles to eat more and more; and if they expressed refusal, he would rebuke how they would fight the Mughal? His behaviour was rude with the Afghan nobles.

We are informed that between December 1555 and October 1556, one noble (Shadi Khan) sent by Adil Shah, inflicted a serious defeat on Humayun, whose troops fought under Ali Quli Khan on the west banks of Ganges at Sambhal. This significant victory of the Surs is not mentioned in the textbooks.

Before the Battle of Tughluqabad, the Afghans had won at Sambhal, and this gave them a great leverage against Delhi.

The Rise of Hemu and the Second Battle of Panipat

In October 1556, according to Abul Fazl, Hemu advanced on Delhi with 50,000 horses, 50 canons and 50 warboats. He also had with him a number of nobles who were in rebellion against Adil Shah in 1555.

On the Mughal side, a silent tussle was going on for supremacy in Mughal camp. Though the Mughal officers had agreed on Bairam Khan as Akbar’s ataliq in 14 February 1556, still they were not reconciled to the fact that Bairam Khan exercised supreme authority: one person who resented Bairam was Tardi Beg, the commandant of Delhi, whose jagirs were in the Mewat region and had supporters around Delhi.

In October 1556, thus there was a situation where the Mughal officers were divided and there was no unity of command in the Mughal camp. This is borne out by the Battle of Tughluqabad. When news reached Bairam Khan, he wrote to Tardi not to engage till his arrival at Delhi. He also wrote to Ali Quli Khan to come to Delhi. Tardi was anxious to engage the Afghans before the arrival of Bairam Khan so that the credit should go to him. On the other hand, Bairam Khan had instructed his envoy, Pir Muhammad Khan Sherwani, who had come to Delhi, that if the battle was given in spite of his advice by Tardi , Pir Muhammad should see to it that Tardi’s plan was frustrated. We thus find that Pir Muhammad withdrew at a critical time, resulting in the defeat of the Mughals. Pir Muhammad was used to prove charge of treachery against Tardi later on. So it was in these circumstances that Hemu gave a crushing defeat to the Mughals and occupied Delhi.

Within one month of this development, the Mughal army under Bairam advanced from Punjab and succeeded in defeating the Afghans. This was a final defeat for the Surs. Before the Battle of Panipat, he put Tardi Beg to death and succeeded to unite the command in the Mughal camp. One of the significant military factors to the advantage of the Mughals was the capture of the Afghan artillery by the Mughal advance guard 24 hours prior to the battle. These 51 canons were those monstrous Islam Shahi canons built at enormous expense. Thus at the Battle of Panipat, only the Mughals used their artillery. The Mughals also learnt the lesson of the unviability of heavy canons in battles and thus thereafter they emphasised on zarb w zan. With this second battle of Panipat, the Sur Empire was no more.

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi