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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

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June 22, 2020

Humayun Wins the Battle of Sirhind

On 22 June, 1555, the armies of the Mughal Emperor Humayun and the warlord Sikandar Shah Suri met near Sirhind, in what is now the Indian state of Punjab. After 15 years in exile from India, Humayun had come to reclaim the territories in India conquered by his father, Babur. Humayun emerged victorious, and his armies went on to reoccupy Babur’s former capital, Delhi, and reestablish the Mughal Empire in India.

It had been a rough two decades for the fledgling Mughal Empire. The first emperor, the Turco-Mongol warlord (and Genghis Khan descendant), Babur, had escaped his enemies in Central Asia and made his way to India in the 1520s. In 1526, Babur defeated the forces of Ibrahim Lodi, the last of the Lodis to rule the Delhi Sultanate, and proceeded to conquer and occupy a chunk of territory in North India until his death in 1530. Unfortunately for the newborn empire, Babur’s successor, Humayun, found himself engaged in a series of civil wars with his brothers in the years after Babur’s death. The weakened empire was further pressed to defend itself from a neighboring power, the Gujarat Sultanate. Amidst the constant conflicts, a Pashtun commander in the Mughal territories in the modern-day state of Bihar, Sher Shah Suri, saw his opportunity and asserted his own dominance over the territory. In 1539, Suri defeated the Mughal armies at Chausa in Bihar. The defeated Humayun fled North-Eastward, past present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, until he ended up at the court of the Persian Safavid Dynasty at Qazvin, in modern-day Iran.

Thus began over a decade of Mughal exile; as long as Sher Shah Suri’s new empire remained strong, Humayun had no chance of staging a return to Delhi. However, his time in Persia was not in vain. For one thing, it exposed Humayun to the flourishing Persian high culture that was then entering a golden age; the art, architecture, literature, and even language of the grand Safavid cities would later be replicated by Humayun and his descendants in India. For another, it gave Humayun a window into the administration, politics, and military techniques of the Safavids, who not only were a world power but were also, during Humayun’s exile there, engaged in a long conflict with another world power, the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Military technology, in particular, was in a state of flux; mass use of gunpowder weaponry had revolutionized warfare, and Humayun had a front-row seat to the latest developments. Not that he needed much of a lesson; his father, Babur, had pioneered the use of firearms in India, and Humayun’s forces and those of Sher Shah Suri had both employed dozens of cannons and artillery pieces each, to devastating effect. Humayun would have the chance to practice warfare, too; the Safavid ruler Tahmasp I eventually agreed to support Humayun’s military efforts.

Over the next years, Humayun fought a bitter conflict in modern-day Afghanistan and Uzbekistan against some of his own brothers, who had claimed the western parts of Babur’s empire for themselves after his death. His victory in those conflicts not only gave him a cadre of experienced generals - Bairam Khan prominent among them - but also a veteran army and a power base. By 1552, Humayun had eliminated his insurgent brothers and solidified his hold over the region. The timing was fortuitous. Sher Shah Suri had proven an energetic and able ruler, building up an efficient administration based in Delhi. After his death in 1545 (in a gunpowder accident, ironically), his son Islam Shah continued to grow the empire’s strength. On Islam Shah’s death in 1554, however, the Suri Empire was split in short order between numerous rival claimants to the throne who warred with each other. The once-formidable administrative apparatus broke down, and the Suri Empire lost internal coherence. The time was ripe for Humayun’s return.

Amidst the chaotic disintegration of the Suri Empire, the Mughals found little opposition as they marched through North India. They faced their real test in Punjab; a Suri warlord, Sikandar Shah, gathered a significant army - the last of the Suri strength - near the town of Sirhind, blocking Humayun’s path to Delhi. The stage was set.

After a month-long standoff, the Mughal chronicler Jouher explains, Humayun moved part of his army to block Sikandar Shah’s supply lines, goading the Suri warlord to battle. On 22 June, the armies drew up facing each other. Sikandar Shah’s army moved to attack the Mughal center; where the Mughal general Bairam Khan had stationed himself behind prepared entrenchments. While the Mughal center held fast, the Mughal flanks on either side moved to envelop and encircle the Suri army. By the end of the day, the panicked and surrounded Suri forces had fled the battlefield, leaving Humayun’s path to Delhi open. Soon after, a Mughal was once again installed on the throne in Delhi.

Sirhind remains a defining moment in the history of India not only because it led to a Mughal restoration but also because it could, until the very last hours of that day, have gone either way. The Mughals had begun the day outnumbered by their enemies. The double envelopment, an old tactic made famous by the Carthaginian general Hannibal, Alexander the Great, and Humayun’s ancestor Genghis Khan, was a risky maneuver; a year after Sirhind, the Mughals would employ the maneuver against the Hindu warlord Hemu at Panipat and fail badly, surviving the battle only because Hemu was killed by a lucky arrow. Nevertheless, Humayun triumphed, and the Mughal Empire was back to stay. The Suri Empire died a quick death in the following years, but Humayun – and his successor, Akbar – found its administration so effective that many of Sher Shah’s reforms would be adopted by the restored Mughal Empire (part of the reason we know so much about the Suri administration is that Akbar commissioned a book about Sher Shah’s administration, the Tarikh-i-Sher Shahi, years later). The events at Sirhind would see the Mughals define India’s history for two centuries, with ramifications continuing well into the present.

Sahaj Sankaran

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