Emperor Humayun: His legendary story of retreat and survival

History Contributor
Emperor Humayun

Nasir ud-Din Muhammad Humayun is perhaps the least discussed of the first six Mughal emperors, who constitute one of the finest periods of growth and development in Indian history. Born in Kabul in 1508, Emperor Humayun died in a sad accident, tumbling down the staircase of his palace in Delhi in 1556, barely 48.

Between the gallant Zahir ud-Din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530), the founder of the great Mughal empire in the Indian subcontinent, and his illustrious grandson Abu’l Fatah Jalal ud-Din Muhammad Akbar (1542-1605), we often have a tendency to perfunctorily pass over the regime of a person, known to his Turkic compatriots as an Insan-e-Kamil, a ‘complete man’.  Yet Emperor Humayun was by all accounts a perfect gentleman, with liberal world views and a deeply inquisitive mind.

But above all stands out the resilience of his character, without which India’s history might have been very different. The steel of his character comes out the best in the remarkable story of his survival in complete wilderness for about four years, forsaken by relatives, allies and friends, after being evicted out of power By an Afghan general Sher Shah Suri. Humayun ascended the throne of Delhi in December 20, 1530. The first 10 years of his regime was not flower decked, with one rebellion after another, even as he built on the edifice of his father’s kingdom. We pick-up the story nine years down the line.

Emperor Humayun’s days in exile

June 26, 1539. Chausa, a small village on the banks of the Ganga, in present-day Bihar. Midnight. Humayun and his army was returning to Agra, his capital. His fatigued soldiers had just taken control of Bengal, where the Mughal sovereignty was being challenged by the ambitious Sher Shah. A truce of sorts had been struck, with Shah given control of Bengal but not sovereign power. Suddenly the Afghan general struck again, and in lightning speed decimated Humayun’s huge camp, describes Humayun’s noted biographer S.K. Banerji (Humayun Badshah, OUP).

Many others would have surrendered at that point itself. Not Humayun. According to some accounts, he fled the camp, swam across the roaring Ganga of monsoon hanging on to large inflated leather water-bag, an ‘air-filled animal skin’, in the words of noted historian Richard Eaton.

Plot against Emperor Humayun by his brothers

Humayun lived to fight another day. In the meantime, all his brothers had plotted against him. Returning to Agra, soft-natured Humayun pardoned all of them. He now hoped carry on with the task of building on his father’s legacy. History, however, had other designs. Sher Shah kept proceeding towards Agra. With this news his brother Kamran moved to Lahore and again rebelled by raising an independent army. Humayun, without any support from his brothers, met Shah’s army in Kanauj, following torrential rains, on May 17th 1540, and his army was routed again.

This marked the end of his regime, and put Sher Shah in power in Delhi. Again, for many, it would have been the end of the road. Not for Humayun. For, then began his legendary story of retreat, survival, finding shelter at the court of Persia’s Safavid emperor Tahmasp, return to India 14 years later to recapture power, and put the Mughal dynasty back on the throne for centuries to come!

With a camel in a desert

Pushed out of India Humayun’s journey in quest of some support and shelter began in 1541. It is an amazing story, worthy of a Hollywood thriller, and too large to be told in all details in this column. In brief, Humayun was forced to cross the thar desert in cruel summer with his pregnant wife Hamida Bano. And when, describes Prof. Eaton, Begum Bano’s horse perished, Humayun gave her his own horse, and the former emperor rode a camel trudging along to destination Sindh.

There was some respite at Umarkot, Sindh, where the local Amir gave him brief shelter and some reinforcement, and where Hamida Bano gave birth to a son, in the home of Rana Prasad Rao, who would grow up to be one of the greatest statesmen in India’s history, Akbar the Great. One can imagine the mental state of Humayun, when he had no option to soon leave behind the little child in Kandahar’s bitter cold and move on.

Humayun’s sojourn continued with wife Hamida and only 40 men. Soon came a time when the party simply had no food. Humayun ordered a horse hilled, its flesh boiled and eaten in helmets, to survive yet another day, writes Eaton. The month that followed defeats words to describe the misery of the party, until they reached Herat, and then in July 1544, Qazvin, where the Safavid emperor Shah Tahmasp welcomed him with open arms. Exactly 11 years later in July 1555 Humayun’s troops triumphantly reentered Delhi. What followed is the celebrated history of the Mughal rule.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

Enjoy Ali Huda! Exclusive for your kids.