Babur, a most remarkable man, founder of the Mughal dynasty of India, poet, diarist and soldier extraordinary, passed through Jhelum. Thus the various references to Jhelum in his diary show us. On the occasion of taking Bhera he tells of his departure from Kallar Kahar (Chakwal district) on 21 February 1519. Babur and his army crossed the river that same evening very likely by the ferry of Ahmadabad, a few kilometres downstream of Pind Dadan Khan. Having flown his banners on Bhera, Babur spent a few restful days there. Among other things, he tells us of his galas on longboats on the Jhelum River. As the waves of the river gently rocked the boat, much strong spirit (arak) and a confection of opium (ma’jun) was consumed to the accompaniment of the lute.
But the Mughal empire was not yet to be. Babur withdrew to Afghanistan and returned again in November 1523. The part of his diary dealing with this expedition being missing, it can only be conjectured that he crossed either at Jhelum or at a ferry below the town. Two years later, in December 1525, the day before Christmas, Babur was ferried across the ‘Behat water at a ford below Jhelum [town].’ This time his route is known. It lay through the country of the Gakkhars, down by that branch of the Rajapatha that our G. T.
The road now follows, south from the fortified caravanserai of Rewat and into the bed of the Kahan River in the vicinity of Bhakrala to skirt the northern edge of Tilla Jogian. The crossing place of the Behat was near the town of Sanghoi (twenty-five kilometres southwest of Jhelum) either by the ferry of Kot Basira or Khohar – both of which operate to this day. The difference today being that there is just one boat at each ferry and the ferries no longer serve long distance travellers, only local needs. As for Babur, this time around, he did not return to Afghanistan. He went on to conquer India and establish his Mughal empire that was to follow through five descendants before eventually giving way to other rulers.
Babur’s son Humayun was a weakling who very quickly ceded the empire to the ardent, wily and certainly much more capable Sher Shah Suri. Ousted and hunted, Humayun became a fugitive forced to leave India and seek asylum with the Persian king. It was only in 1555, ten years after the violent death of Sher Shah Suri, that Humayun was able to return to reclaim his father’s kingdom. This is a story worth telling.
The year was 1527, two years since the establishment of the Mughal empire in India when Junaid Barlas, a much-trusted nobleman in the service of Babur, presented Farid Khan to the court. Young and manifestly energetic, this man was a Pakhtun of the Sur family whose grandfather had migrated from Afghanistan to seek his fortune in India. The family settled in Bihar and there rose to high station in the service of the Pakhtun kings. Young Farid was known as Sher Khan for, it was said, he had once killed a tiger to save the life of the Nuhani king of Bihar. Once a great favourite at the Bihar court, Sher Khan had been banished from his home by the intrigues of his stepmother and half-brothers. Having chanced upon him, Junaid Barlas was much impressed by the obvious administrative and martial skills of Sher Khan. Considering him a suitable candidate to serve the Mughal king, the Turk brought the Pakhtun to court where Babur marked him as a man of ‘sense and spirit’ who held promise of future greatness. Sher Khan’s ambition was not to serve under the Mughal king, however. His dreams were greater. He defected from the Mughal court and after a good deal of wavering and scheming in his native Bihar, he was able to foment a Pakhtun uprising against the Mughals.
In the beginning of 1529, as Babur marched east to quell the trouble, he gave the first and only inkling of hurt at Sher Khan’s behaviour: ‘Sher Khan Sur whom I had favoured last year with the gift of several parganas and had left in charge of this neighbourhood, had joined these [rebellious] Pathans.’ The uprising was quelled and Sher Khan made a quick volte-face and tendered submission to Babur. On his part, the unsuspecting Mughal installed Sher Khan in his jagir.
Babur died in December 1530 and his weak and inept son Humayun took over. With his mind forever befuddled with opium, this man was no match for the energetic and sharp-witted Sher Khan Sur who had considerably increased his power in the eastern provinces. It did not take very long for weakness of central government to incite the Pathans to rise in revolt under the banner of Mahmud Lodhi. The sharp-minded Sher Khan sent a secret message to the Mughals that though he was overtly siding with the Pathans, but as a loyal adherent of the House of Babur, he was on the Mughals’ side. The understanding he gave was that as soon as engagement began, he would detach his forces and withdraw.
Withdraw he did, enabling the Mughal army under Humayun to defeat the Lodhis. This was scarcely a military victory for Humayun, it was brilliant strategy on Sher Khan’s part. With the Lodhis weakened, Sher Khan’s power increased until it set the faint heart of Humayun aflutter. He made a feeble attempt to bring Sher Khan to heel, but failing, he returned to his capital while the Pakhtun rapidly added to his stature and power. When it was almost too late, Humayun shook away the clouds of opium smoke from his mind and spent most of the year 1537 campaigning in Bihar. Sher Khan did not give battle but withdrew to Bengal duping Humayun with the chimera of victory. No surprise then that in the following months in Bihar, Humayun shut himself away with his wine and opium.
In those heady days of intoxicated revelry, news and issues of government, no matter how important and pressing, were assiduously kept from the king’s ears by his aides. As Humayun sank deeper into his stupor, far away on the fringes of empire Sher Khan had applied himself to achieving his aim of ultimate power over the throne of India by steadily regaining his lost territory. It was entirely to his good luck that Mirza Hindal, Humayun’s younger brother, revolted and the feckless king was forced to return to his capital. In the vacuum, Sher Khan became the master of the east under the title of Sher Shah Suri.
In April 1539 Humayun marched east to settle matters with Sher Khan. In the vicinity of Chausa, negotiations brokered by a religious teacher engineered a peace that gave certain concessions to Sher Shah. Thinking this was yet again a victory for the Mughals, the useless Humayun once again gave over to endless partying. In a surprise move, Sher Shah brought his army into the rear of the Mughals, and just as morning was breaking on the 27th day of June, fell upon them. Bleary-eyed soldiery led by a drunken and spineless king is no match for an efficient fighting machine under an able commander.
The rout was utter and even as the day reached its mid-point, over twelve thousand Mughal troops lay dead on the field. In disgrace did Humayun withdraw to Agra.
In the beginning of 1540, news arrived that Sher Shah was moving westward at the head of a large army. Forsaken by his brothers yet again and leading a disaffected army, Humayun prepared to take the field. On the banks of the Ganga River by the city of Kanauj, the Mughal army drew rein. Across the brown eddies of the river Sher Shah’s Pathans were arrayed. As they lay about for a full month, the Mughal army frittered away by desertions while the Pathans became readier still for the coming contest. Early in May, not yet a full eleven months since the rout of Chausa, the Mughals crossed the river to give battle.
The best account of this ignominious defeat of the Mughals is given by the worthy Mirza Haider Dughlat, a cousin of Babur’s, in command of a division. Forty thousand disorganised and dispirited Mughal solders, he notes, fled before ten thousand well-orchestrated Pathans even before a single arrow had been loosed. So gutless and hasty was the Mughal rout that not a man from either side was wounded. In the scramble, writes Dughlat, many a man of illustrious name, too panic-stricken to remove his mail, drowned in the Ganga. And Humayun with all his pretence to generalship escaped across the river on a diseased, limping nag. That, for the time being, was the end of the Mughal empire in the subcontinent.
Humayun fled to Rajasthan and Sindh, but finding no truck with local rulers eventually took refuge in Persia. In India, Sher Shah Suri began to consolidate his hold over the new empire. One of the first things was to induce the Gakkhars to join him. This small but warlike tribe living on the northwest fringe of his empire, had sworn allegiance to Babur two decades earlier and had not hurried over to Sher Shah’s side. Advancing to Bhera on the banks of the Jhelum River, Sher Shah sent out an emissary to demand their loyalty. Sarang Khan, the Gakkhar chief, remained unequivocally defiant, replying with a pair of maces and some arrow-filled quivers. Gakkhar lore says there was a pair of lion cubs as well and the message, ‘You call yourself “Sher,” so I send you these cubs that you try to imbibe their qualities of these noble creatures. It is doubtful, but you may yet acquire some of their courage.’
If there was ever a declaration of war this was one. Sher Shah advanced across the Jhelum and into the Potohar Plateau where he got a good enough measure of the Gakkhars. Those of his advisors who knew this tenacious lot advised the king that it would be best to possess their territory by controlling the roads with strong permanent garrisons. The government would then not only be able to control their plundering raids, but also have access into their country whenever needed. And so a survey was undertaken to build the first garrison that was to hold the redoubtable Gakkhars at bay.
On the borders of Gakkhar country, by the right bank of the stream known as the Kahan, surveyors noted a straight-sided low hill. It was, the report to the king observed, ‘in the vicinity of Tilla Balnath.’ The site, a few kilometres south of the sub-montane branch of the Rajapatha and about fifteen kilometres from the ferry of Jhelum, was chosen for the garrison.
Here was to be built a fortress of singular strength and design that would overawe any aggressor. It would be called Rohtas, so the king ordained, after the fort of the same name in Bengal that he had won by stratagem only some years earlier.
The able Haibat Khan Niazi was placed at the head of the force to guard the northwest border of Sher Shah’s kingdom while administration was to be overseen by Khowas Khan. Todar Mal, Sher Shah’s revenue minister, was placed in-charge of the construction work. Leaving Toder Mal with a plentiful supply of funds and the instructions to complete the fort most expeditiously, Sher Shah returned to Bengal to quell a revolt.
Work on the fort of Rohtas began in 1541. Wages were good and able-bodied men from surrounding localities came to benefit from this new bounty. Slowly the massive walls of Rohtas began to rise above the sandy banks of the Kahan. The Gakkhar chief, resolute in his royalty to the son of Babur, proclaimed that anyone from the Gakkhar tribe working on the construction of Rohtas would be banished. Work slowed down, but it did not cease altogether for there were other willing workers as well. In sheer defiance of the Niazi general and his crack troops, the Gakkhars embarked upon periodic incursions to drive away construction workers.
Time came when Toder Mal was hard put to recruit labourers and stonemasons. Work came to a standstill. The man wrote to his king to apprise him of the state of affairs. Sher Shah, however, had no misgivings concerning his project. Nothing was going to come in the way of accomplishing it. He wrote back, ‘I selected you from among many, to execute this work, thinking you a man of sense and experience. You have been supplied with money. Go on, at any expense, to fulfil my object, and draw on my treasury for the amount, whatever it may be.’ History was never to say that Sher Shah was miserly when it came to achieving his desired ends.
Toder Mal made it known that the king of India was willing to pay whatever price the builders would ask. And so, it is said, wages hiked up to one gold ashrafi for each stone cut and laid. Historians have worked out the cost of Sher Shah’s most extravagant monument to have been between three and a half million tom just over four million rupees at that time. Fortune permitted Sher Shah to see his fort but once however, and that when it was not yet complete. To the general’s eye the fort did not seem capacious enough to hold a sufficiently large garrison that could stem a major uprising should there be one. He ordered its enlargement and so we have an under kot or inner fort enclosed within the sweeping outer walls of Rohtas.
In May 1545, five years to the day that he had routed Humayun at Kanauj, Sher Shah invested the fort of Kalinjer in Rajasthan. The Rajputs held out and Sher Shah had his engineers prepare to blow out a breach in the walls. The device misfired, igniting a powder magazine. Sher Shah who was supervising the operations right under the walls was in the way and grievously burnt. He ordered his injury to be concealed from his troops lest they lose heart and abandon the siege. With remarkable self-control he continued direct the operations until at last his Pathans stormed across the breach and overcame the Rajputs.
The sun was going down behind the western dunes when Sher Shah, his body wracked with excruciating pain, his mind amazingly clear, got word of the victory. He offered up thanks to his Lord and quietly passed away from this life. Farid Khan, a treacherous man of extraordinary genius whose ambition knew no bounds; ardent lover who made no secret of his amorous liaisons and military commander who could employ subterfuge and strategy with equal flair to win tough battles was dead. Farid Khan the ablest Pakhtun ruler India was ever to know and the gifted administrator whose rule brought unparalleled security to the lives of ordinary folks was dead. He had ruled the country for a full five years and two months styled as Sher Shah Suri.
His sons were no better than the sons of Babur. Adil Khan, the elder, was an irresolute man who being far away in Ranthambore was sidelined by the younger Jalal Khan. Styling himself Sultan Islam Shah (a.k.a. Salim Shah) he declared himself king and soon induced his brother to abdicate in his favour. But there were men like Khowas Khan and Haibat Khan Niazi who did not approve. So far as they were concerned, the crown should have passed on to the elder. To assert what they considered fair, these two worthy men set out to put things right. Battles ensued against imperial forces under Islam Shah in which the smaller confederacy was routed. It was perhaps the most ironical twist of fate that Haibat Khan fled to find refuge with the Gakkhars – the very people he had earlier battled so that Rohtas could be built. Khowas Khan headed for Kashmir where Taj Khan Kerani, a man who owed his very life to that worthy general, laid him low in his sleep. But that is another story.
Despite the ineptitude of Islam Shah, the empire that his father had raised kept the fugitive Humayun at bay for a full ten years after Sher Shah’s death. Early in the year 1555 Humayun staged his return. The Mughal horde advancing in all its pageantry along the sandy flood plain of the Kahan River, with the broken, scrub-covered hills of the Potohar in the background must indeed have presented a formidable sight to the lookouts manning the crenulations of Rohtas. The shout would have gone up even as the advancing Mughals were well out of cannon shot. Tatar Khan Kasi, the commandant of the Rohtas garrison had perhaps known this was the beginning of the end of Sher Shah’s magnificent empire. He did not even pause to argue. By the time the Mughal van waded across the shallow Kahan, the Pakhtun garrison had long abandoned Rohtas and melted away into the broken ground to the east.
Awe would have been the overriding emotion as the Mughals came across the water under the massive walls. Perhaps Humayun himself had scarcely expected Sher Shah to have possessed the finances as well as the military acumen to site and build such a fortification and might have paused a long time regarding the strength of the walls of Rohtas. But no deadly volley of arrows came soughing through the cold winter air. As they prepared the escalade the Mughals would have expected the machicolations with their tapering hoods to erupt with boiling water and oil to repel them. But there was nothing. All was quiet. Then only it would have become known that the heavy timber gates were unguarded; then only would they have been thrown open and Mughal soldiery teemed into Rohtas. The virtually unassailable fort of Sher Shah Suri capitulated without a shot being fired.
The only thing of note that transpired about this time was the blinding of upon Humayun’s orders of his rebellious brother Mirza Kamran. Gul Badan Begum, Humayun’s sister and author of the Ahwal Humayun Badshah, tells us that the event took place in the vicinity of Rohtas. Another more graphic, and therefore perhaps more authentic, account places the gruesome event in the Gakkhar fort of Pharwala, however.
With the return of Mughal rule, the magnificent Rohtas was reduced from the status of a frontier garrison to a stopover point in the heart of settled country. Humayun’s son Akbar placed the fort in the charge of his trusted Raja Man Singh who raised an impressive palace for his residence inside under kot. Jehangir inserts a brief note of the fort in his memoirs. He was evidently impressed by its siting and construction for he wrote, ‘This fort was founded in a cleft of the ground, and the strength of it cannot be imagined.’ He also goes on to tell us that the fort had been completed at the colossal cost of over four million rupees.