Saturday, May 25, 2013

Empire of the Moghul, Brothers at War – Alex Rutherford

The sequel to the first in this series 'Empire of the Moghul - Raiders of the North' is equally impressive. This one tells the tale of Babur’s son, Humayun (1508-1556), the forgiving, soft spoken, star gazing emperor, and it is a fascinating tale and one I never knew or expected. Humayun was chosen as the Emperor (December 1530) by his father Babur and fought the first battle of Panipat when the small Moghul army defeated a much larger army of Ibrahim Lodi. But his claim to the throne as Emperor was forever contested by his half brothers Kamran Mirza, who was older, Askari Mirza, and the youngest of them all, Hindal. Fighting his own addictions, doubt, betrayal by his brothers and others close to him Humayun lost everything. The book is a racy tale as Alex Rutherford (pen name of Diana and Michael Preston) recounts how Humayun survives all the odds and comes back to reclaim what he believes is rightfully his.

As the Emperor of Delhi Humayun launched a daring assault on Fort Champinir, Fort Manda, Gujarat and made good much wealth. This campaign established Humayun’s prowess as a leader. But he was constantly troubled by his step brothers, mainly the ambitious Kamran, supported by the much weaker Askari, and a young Hindal, who plotted to overthrow him. Humayun, as he did so many times in his life, forgave them and welcomed them back despite their treachery. It was seen as a weakness and perhaps it was because Humayun was apt to take his time, trusted easily and forgave easily. To make matters worse his step mother, Kamran’s mother Gulrukh, initiated the young Emperor and made him an opium addict which clouded his judgement, just as his belief in the prophecies of the stars did, for several years. 

Seen as a weak and eccentric ruler Humayun lost his hold over his people. That was about the time when Sher Shah Suri rose from Bengal. Going to quell the upstart Humayun lost the battle, again due to his rather trusting nature. and just about  saved his life by swimming across the Ganges. There is a fine tale of how a water carrier saved him at that battle and how Humayun made him a promise to seat him on the Mughal throne for a while, and as the tale goes, honoured it.

Humayun was forced to retreat and worse, forced to leave Delhi too, after a humiliating loss at the Battle of Kanauj to Sher Shah Suri. Humayun is chased all the way across Lahore, as more and more of his allies and subjects deserted him, allying with Sher Shah Suri instead. He apparently lost the loyalty of his younger brother Hindal when he chose to marry Hamida, a girl that Hindal also loved. With dwindling armies, suffering one betrayal after another, his young wife pregnant with the future king Akbar, Humayun is forced to flee deeper and deeper. In the desert it is said that Humayun’s pregnant wife was not given a horse to ride when her own steed died and Humayun offered her his, choosing to ride a camel – a moment Humayun recounted as the lowest in his life.

Akbar was born in a desolate place called Umarkot, but the infant prince was taken away soon after by the half brothers. Kamran and Askari, who have now captured Kabul, tell Humayun to go as far as Persia and spend his life there. Humayun agrees to go having no other option as he wants his son back. It is described that the Emperor and his small group was forced to eat the meat of a horses boiled in a helmet those days!

Humayun waa welcomed as an Emperor by the Shah of Persia and treated with great respect. Not wanting to be treated as a beggar Humayun apparently gifted the Koh-i-Nur to him. (The diamond later made its way back to Shah Jehan.) The Shah of Persia gave Humayun his armies and help, but converted Humayun, a Sunni, into a Shia. Left with no alternative, Humayun even embraced the change in faith.

Armed with the powerful Persian army Humayun attacked Kabul. But Kamran has no qualms about putting up the young Akbar in the line of fire and Humayun was forced to retreat. Help comes in the most unexpected form – his younger brother Hindal says he will bring Akbar to him as he understands Kamran well. Hindal did bring back Akbar and with nothing to stop him now, Humayun attacked Kabul, already reeling under some pestilence, and took the city, which is already tired of Kamran’s misrule. Once again Humayun forgave his half brothers and let them go against all advice.

Humayun, despite the retreat of the Persian force, planned to conquer Hindustan. However many Persian nobles, including the formidable Bairam Khan chose to remain with him, and it is this Persian influence that spread into the Mughal culture, architecture, literature that one sees in Mughal architecture and culture. Hearing of Sher Shah’s death in a freak accident on the battlefield, Humayun found that the throne in Delhi awaited him with only Sher Shah’s son Islam Shah, Sekandar Shah and Adil Shah between him and the throne.

But before he started for Hindustan Humayun had another matter settled. Hindal is killed and his body is delivered to him. This time, Humayun captured his bothers who he suspected of this misdeed, but typically, forgave Askari again, and let him go to Mecca. Askari never reached Mecca; died fighting pirates on the way. Kamran, the one who would never give him peace, is also spared, but blinded. Kamran also leaves to Mecca and finally died there.

Free now from the internal problems of his brothers Humayun turned to Hindustan with the Persian chief Bairam Khan as the Commander-In-Chief. After a relatively easy acquisition of territories along the way the Mughals fought the battle of Sirhind where Sekandar Shah was defeated, before he conquered Delhi. Six months after, Emperor Humayun died while suffering a fall on the steps of his observatory, making Akbar the Emperor at a young age.

Humayun’s story was a revelation to me. If Babur struggled all his life trying to reclaim Samarkhand, Humayun did the same with Delhi. Like Babur, he lost everything and regained it all. It is estimated that at his death the Mughal empire extended from Afghanistan to India, spread over one million square kilometres. Humayun’s qualities of patience, forgiveness, soft spokenness earned him the title of ‘The Perfect Man’.

Having started reading the book I was drawn into it once the Sher Shah attack and deception at Chausa began. I read it all night, stopping only at 0430 am as the book took me all over along India, Afghanistan, Persia, with Humayun. It was a fascinating read again and I am all the more interested now in going to Delhi, Agra and Panipat, and trace some of the places where they went.

Alex Rutherford is a brilliant story teller and I am glad to have read this book. I wonder now why we have never had writers write our own history so well. I wonder how much of our today would have been different if our history had been told much better. There is so much to know, to learn and all I can do is wonder. But they must be congratulated – Rutherford, Dalrymple, Zubrzycki – and others for presenting us with our history in a manner that we can understand and enjoy. And thanks Prarthana for lending it out to me.
Now on to reading the next two - Ruler of the World and Tainted Throne - and await the last in the series The Serpent's Tooth which is due for release.

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