The History of India: The Second Battle of Panipat and the Stray Arrow that Changed History The History of India: The Second Battle of Panipat and the Stray Arrow that Changed History

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Second Battle of Panipat and the Stray Arrow that Changed History

On November 5th, 1556 as the Samrat of Dilli, Hemu's armies faced the young challenger Akbar and his Mughal warriers across the plains of Panipat, it seemed as if the march of Indian history paused and watched with a bated breath. For today promised two future paths which would be very different from each other. On one side stood a potential resurgence of Hindu empire in India and on the other stood a permanent  establishment of Mughals. But to understand how this crossroad of Indian history came to be we need to look a little further back.

After the death of Sher Shah Suri in 1545, his son Islam Shah Suri was crowned emperor. Though he was a strong king, his untimely death in 1554 opened the doors for infighting and power struggle within the Sur dynasty. His successor, his son Firuz Shah Suri, who was aged only twelve was murdered by Sher Shah's nephew Muhammad Mubariz Khan, who then ascended the throne as Muhammad Adil Shah. He appointed Firuz Shah's competent wazir Hem Chandara (Hemu) as his own wazir. As Adil Shah whiled away his time in wine, opium, singing and dancing, it was left to Hemu to manage the affairs of the State.Sensing a weak ruler in Delhi, many of the Afgan governors refused to pay taxes. Ibrahim Shah Suri, the governor of Agra, revolted and overthrew Adil Shah from Delhi. At the same time Sikandar Shah Suri and Muhammad Khan Suri the governors of Punjab and Bengal respectively declared their independence. Adil Shah was left ruling small portions of land near Agra and Bihar. Leading Adil Shah's armies Hemu went from region to region crushing rebellions of various Afghan governors. In December 1555 Hemu routed the Bengal forces under Muhammad Shah, who was killed in the battle. Meanwhile, Humayun sensing opportunity to retake Delhi placed the command of his armies in the hands of Bairam Khan and marched from Kabul. Bairam Khan led Humayun's armies to victory against Sikandar Suri in Punjab and facing any further resistance, on 23 July 1555, Humayun once again sat on Babur's throne in Delhi.But the victory was short lived. Nine months later, as the thirteen year old Akbar and Bairam Khan were camped in Kalanor with the mughal armies chasing after Sikandar Suri, Humayun slipped down the steep stairs of his library and died of a fractured skull. As Stanley Lane Pool remarks " Humayun tumbled through life and tumbled out of it".

Hemu / Raja Vikramaditya
For the next seventeen days, as Akbar and Bairam Khan made preparations for return to Delhi, Humayun’s death was kept a secret from the empire. Mulla Bekasi , who resembled Humayun, was dressed up as the emperor every day and shown to the public (Jharokha Darshan) from the palace terrace. It was only on 11th February 1556, when the khutba was read in Akbar’s name from the Delhi mosques that the death of Humayun was made public. Meanwhile Akbar was formally crowned emperor on 14th February in Kalanor. He stood on a wooden platform and received oaths of fealty from his loyal amirs, generals and other nobles. Bairam Khan had expected initial threats to Akbar’s rule either from treachery from within Delhi or in the form of Sikandar Sur in the west. However, trouble came unexpectedly from the eastern part of the realm. Sensing opportunity to seize Delhi, Hemu marched with his army from Chunar and reached Delhi via Etawah, Kalpi and Agra. At Agra, the Mughal governor, Iskandar Khan Uzbeg offered some resistance but was soon overwhelmed. Hemu captured Agra with its huge trove of war equipments and treasure. On the heels of the retreating army, Hemu marched on to Delhi. Tadri Beg, the governor of Delhi sent messengers to Akbar in Kalanor and prepared for battle. Hemu and Tadri Khan’s armies met outside Delhi. Sir Jadunath Sarkar writes about the battle of Tughlaqabad as follows: “The Mughal army was thus drawn up. Abdullah Uzbeg commanded the van, Haider Muhammad the right wing, Iskander Beg the left and Tadri Beg himself the center. The van and the left wings attacked and drove the enemy forces before them and followed far in pursuit. In the assault the victors captured 400 elephants of Hemu’s and killed over 3000 of his Afghan warriors. Imagining victory already gained many of Tadri Beg’s followers dispersed to plunder the enemy camp and he was left in the field thinly guarded. All this time Hemu had been holding 300 of his choice elephants and a force of select horsemen as a reserve in the center. He promptly seized the opportunity and made charge upon Tadri Beg.” Tadri Beg panicked. Abandoning over 1000 iraqi horses, over 150 war elephants and an unprotected Delhi, Tadri Beg fled westwards to join with Akbar's advancing army. Hemu renamed Raja Vikramaditya, crowned himself king. He distibuted the captured treasures among his Afghan and Rajput nobles, had coins stuck in his name and held court from the imperial canopy. 

The Second Battle of Panipat
Then Hemu advanced from Delhi to meet with Akbar's forces. Remembering Babur's strategic use of his artillary to defeat Ibrahim Lodi in the first battle of Panipat, Hemu sent his park artillary including large field guns, cannon, rockets and moartars in advance escorted by a relatively weak vanguard towars Panipat. In the narrow passages of Panipat he planned to block the advance of Akbar and Bairam Khan's forces and force them to either turn back or attempt a suicidal frontal attack.Sensing the move, Bairam Khan sent a part of his force at neck breaking speed, which made a surprise attack on Hemu's artillary before his main army could arrive and captured almost all of Hemu's artillary. However, Hemu's army arrived before Bairam Khan and Akbar could catch up with the rest of their forces and started launching massive attacks on the Moghul vanguard army. Akbar's vanguard was barely able ot hold on till help arrived. The two main foces finally met on the battlefield on 5th November 1556. The strength of Hemu's army was predominantly in its elephants. Their huge stature and built combined with effective war training made them lethal killing machines. These elephants were furnished with chain mail and defensive armour and daggers and sabers were attached to their tusks. Despite their size, they were of the most amazing swiftness and agility. Musketeers and bowmen were seated on their back. Hemu's army had around 1500 of these war elephants and a fighting strength of around 50,000 cavalry. He put them under three commands - the right wing under Shadi Khan Kakar, the left under his sister's son Ramya while sitting on his famous elephant 'Hawai' he commanded the center. The Mughal army which was smaller in number with around 25,000 horsemen. The main cavalry of the Mughal army rode forward in a two pronged attack to relieve its vanguard. They were supported by the archers and muskeeters who followed. The central army was made up of the remaining cavalry of around 4000 men. The two pronged attack initially halted Hemu's advances but soon the battle tide turned. The two flanks were slowly driven inwards and Hemu's well desciplined elephants pushed forward despite many wounds. The Mughal army's flanks were driven back towards the center. Then Hemu attacked the central flank himself leading a charge of elephants and cavalry. The Mughals deployed a strategy of meeting the elephants with a shower of arrows in a hope of making them turn around and stampede. Though this was not successful, one of such stray arrows pierced Hemu's left eye and he collapsed unconcious. This decided the fate of the battle. Hemu's army, seeing him fall, scattered to save their lives and were chased and decimated by the Mughals. Hemu himself was captured and brought to Akbar and Bairam Khan. 

According to Abul-Fazl Hemu was beheaded  by Bairam Khan on the battlefield. His head was sent to Kabul and the trunk was hung at the gates of Delhi. There it was left to rot till only bones remained. Within a few hours the Mughal army regrouped around mounts of war spoils and a pyramid of over ten thousand severed heads of Hemu's warriors. This was an age old practice of the Mughal warriors, followed by Babur and going way back to Timur and Genghis Khan. 

With this victory Akbar firmly established himself as the Emperor of India and started an consolidation process which saw him become the richest and the most powerful emperor of the world in that period.

1 comment:

  1. Hi..Thanks for sharing such great history. one can check out the palace of Hemu situated in Rewari, the birth town of emperor Hemu. For accommodation, check out these hotels in Rewari.