The History of India: The Lion King of India - Sher shah Suri The History of India: The Lion King of India - Sher shah Suri

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Lion King of India - Sher shah Suri

Sher Shah Suri
The Indian history of the first half of the 16th century is the story of the Afgan-Mughal contest for dominance and power in the sub continent. In 1526 Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi, the Sultan of Delhi, in the first battle of Panipath marking the advent of Mughal empire in India. However the Afghan chieftains were not completely destroyed. Disarrayed and discontent to an alien rule they required the guidance and charisma of a strong leader. This they found in the form of Sher Shah Suri.

Sher Shah was born Farid in Haryana. At an early age his father Hasan took him to Sasaram in Bihar where he had been awarded a small jagir. In his childhood days Farid was ill treated by his step-mother and at the age of 22 left his household to travel and study in Jaunpur. After the death of his father Farid took possession of his paternal jagir and in 1522 got into the service of Bahar Khan, the ruler of Bihar. He rose quickly in the court of Bahar Khan and was soon appointed his deputy. He also became the tutor and mentor of Bahar Khan's minor son. Once, hunting in the forest, Farid killed a full grown tiger with his bare hands and was awarded the title of Sher Khan by Bahar Khan. But in a few years Sher Khan fell out of favour with Bahar Khan and joined Babur's camp in 1527-28. On the death of Bahar Khan, Sher returned to Bihar as its governor and guardian to the minor prince. After becoming the governor of Bihar, he began reorganizing the administration efficiently. In course of four years he organised a well disciplined, one of the largest and most efficient army and became the recognized ruler of Bihar. In the same time the Fort of Chunar came into his possession. The Lord of Chunar had been killed by his eldest son, who had rebelled against his father. His widow however married Sher Shah and gave the fort to him. 

Sher Shah's Empire
As Humayun focused his armies towards western India in order to defeat Bahadur Shah of Gujarat, Sher Khan in a surprise attack on Bengal annexed a large part of its territory. In 1530s as Humayun attacked and defeated Bahadur Shah of Gujarat, many of the defeated Afghan generals fled and joined Sher Shah as he was increasingly perceived as the new rising Afgan leader. Strengthened by his acquisitions in 1537 Sher Khan attacked Bengal and besieged its capital Gaur. Humayun on his return journey from Gujarat made his way towards east but instead of joining forces with the Sultan of Bengal, besieged the Fort of Chunar. There he was unable to conquer it for over six months while Sher Shah was able to utilize the time for capture of Gaur. Unable to capture Chunar, Humayun moved his forces towards Bengal and entered Gaur in July 1538. However, Sher Khan avoided direct confrontation with Humayun's forces and moved his forces to plunder Mughal territories in Bihar, Jaunpur and Kannauj. Finnaly the Mughal and Afghan armies met on the plains of Buxar in June 1539. Here the Mughar armies met with a heavy defeat and most of the Mughal soldiers were killed or captured by Sher Shah's army. Humayun himself escaped by hiding in the water skin of a water carrier and was carried across the Ganges. The victory over the Mughal ruler widened Sher Khan's empire which now extended from Kannauj in the west to the hills of Assam in the east. To legalize what he had gained, he now assumed the royal title of Sher Shah and ordered the Khutba to be read and the coins to be minted in his name. The next year Humayun retried to capture lost territories and met Sher Shah's armies in Kannauj. Commanding a demoralized and badly trained army, Humayun was again defeated on 17th May, 1540 in the Battle of Kannauj. The defeat marked the end of the empire created by Babur and heralded the arrival of Sur dynasty which ruled India unto 1557. 

Apart from being a great military leader, Sher Shah Suri, was an extremely able administrator. He introduced a tax collection system, built roads along with resting areas for travelers, dug wells, improved the jurisdiction, founded hospitals, established free kitchens, organized mail services and the police. His management proved so efficient that even one of the greatest rulers of human history, the Mughal Emperor Akbar, organized the Indian subcontinent on his measures, and the system which lasted until the 20th century. He is widely considered to have built the civil and administrative structures which were later used and developed further by Akbar. To Sher Shah Suri are attributed four key achievements:

  1. Introduction of an Effective Monetary System: Sher Shah introduced the tri-metal coinage system which later came to characterize the Mughal coinage system. He also minted a coin of silver which was termed the Rupiya that weighed 178 grains and was the precursor of the modern rupee. The same name is still used for the national currency in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Mauritius, Maldives, Seychelles among other countries.
  2. Development of Roadways: For military and trade movement, Sher Shah connected the important places of his kingdom by a netwrok of excellent roads. The longest of these, called the Sadak-e-Azam or the "Badshahi Sadak" (renamed "Grand Trunk Road" by the British) survives til this day. This road is the longest highway of Asia and extends over 1500 Km from Sonargaon in Eastern Bengal to the Indus. All the roads were flanked by shade giving trees and there were sarayes (traveller's inns) all along the routes. 
  3. Administrative Subdivision of Empire:  The Sur empire was divided into forty-seven separate units called sarkars. Each of these was further subdivided into. Each paragana had its own administrative system with its own Ami , lawkeeper, treasurer and account keepers. Over the next higher administrative unit, the sarkar, were placed a Shiqdar-I-Shiqdaran and a Munsif-I-Munsifan to supervise the work of the paragana officers. To keep a tab on the performance of his officers, Sher shah had panned to rotate them across the empire every two or three years. Every branch of the administration was subject to Sher Shah's personal supervision.
  4. Development of the First Postal System: The sarayes developed along the road network also served as post offices. Sher Shah Suri established the foundations of a mounted post or horse courier system, wherein conveyance of letters was also extended to traders. This is the first known record of the Postal system of a kingdom being used for non-State purposes, i.e. for trade and business communication. 

Sher Shah Suri died from a gunpowder explosion during the siege of Kalinjar fort on May 22, 1545 fighting against the Chandel Rajputs. Had it not been for his untimely demise the Sur dynasty would not have declined and perished and the Mughal empire may never have been re-established. 

The Sher Shah Suri Tomb (122 ft high) stands in the middle of an artificial lake at Sasaram, a town that stands on the Grand Trunk Road, his lasting legacy.