Mughal era painting depicting a Gurkani nobleman on horseback supposedly the commander Bairam Beg. Source Wikipedia.

Humayun the Merciful.

A tenacious and bold commander in the early Gurkani army and the man chiefly responsible for consolidating the Gurkani empire in the region of Hindustan after the accidental death of the emperor Humayun at a time when he had barely just initiated the process of rebuilding back his lost realm with formidable opposition still left in the field, Bairam’s story is a remarkable introspection of the degree of loyalty military commanders exhibited in the medieval age to fight, bleed and die for a cause that was not their own and ultimately the bitter truth, a soldier no matter how valued and cherished was never more than a servant in the eyes of the emperor he so honestly served, completely expendable at any hour, and callously dealt with if he ever so lightly raised an eyebrow of suspicion or strayed from the ordained path.

Born and raised in the green meadows of mountainous Badakshan in present day Afghanistan, and a Bahrulu clansmen of Iranian origin whose descendants presently dwell within the ancient city of Darab in the Fars province of Iran, a region renowned for its rich cultural heritage with roots reaching back to the Achamenidian empire of antiquity from where begins much of Iran’s fabled Persian history, Bairam was the son of a minor chieftain appointed by the Timurid Babur as governor of Ghazni, after his conquest of the historic city some years prior to his invasion of Hindustan, and as per the customs of his time and noble status groomed and educated to master the quill, sword, horse and Quran, before being permitted to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father to enlist in the Timurid army at the age of sixteen – very likely to continue the family’s tradition of serving their overlords with loyalty, the opportunity to win honor and reward for gallant services rendered or perhaps to simply gain riches plundered from conquered territories just like other ambitious young men in the fifteenth century who flocked to the banner of  a regent for a short military campaign before returning back to their homes and farms, ladened with wealth, fame and a bagful of campfire tales of their exploits.

Babur, a liberal minded king and a revolutionary thinker for his age who valued talent over religious sentiments and made place in his life, court and army for both members of the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam had right from the start taken an immediate liking for the young Bahrulu, and observing he was barely four years older to his own son, Humayun, assigned him to the prince’s division in Badakshan to serve with unfaltering fidelity which Bairam later in life was to indeed accomplish – going beyond his call of duty to stand and fight in the heat of battle, first as a common soldier pledged to serve his prince, then as a brother-in-arm fighting by the side of his emperor and finally as the trusted friend, advisor and indispensable sword arm instrumental in winning back Humayun’s lost empire.

Though an active participant in almost all of the Gurkani wars since Babur’s invasion of Hindustan including the destruction of Humayun’s veteran army in the battle of Chausa, Bairam’s loyalty begins to emerge more clearly in the documented history of the era after the Gurkani’s humiliating route and expulsion in the battle Kannuj at the hands of the Afghan Sher Shah Sur in 1540, as he with deliberate intent sets out to prove his unfaltering loyalty to Humayun was free of personal greed or motive:

By traversing miles of enemy infested territory, eluding capture, imprisonment and certain death at the hands of the Afghans to unite with his regent once more in the region of Sindh, some two years after in 1542, just as other loyal commanders and soldiers disheartened by the emperor’s string of misfortunes were beginning to defect for greener pastures.

And then by playing a decisive part in motivating and guiding his disenchanted emperor to the realm of Shah Tahmasp in Persia to seek refuge – and prove his fidelity a second time by upholding his allegiance in the face of Tahmasp’s barbaric threats and later the bribe of the lucrative governorship of present day Azerbaijan, the home of his forefathers, in exchange for disowning the powerless and fugitive Humayun (see Farbound.Net snippet: 15 years of Humayun’s exile on a Google map).

The Humayun-Nama by Gulbadan Begum, a historical account of the Gurkani era that documents minor and important events during the reign of the early emperors makes several mentions of the hardy Bahrulu in regard to the deep loyalty he reserved for Humayun.

In the siege of Champaner in present day Gujarat, India (see Farbound.Net snippet: Wars of Humayun.) Bairam is identified as the fortieth man to climb a rope ladder to assault an impregnable fortress shielding Humayun who is the forty first climber. In Bengal, Bairam is revealed as the commander who brashly and without care to his own life rides hard to reinforce his emperor, narrowly surviving ambush and death at the hands of the Afghans. And in Kabul, as Humayun’s trusted envoy who without fear spends six weeks with his emperor’s hostile half brother, Kamran, negotiating for the latter’s submission. A time during which in an attempt to make the hostile prince honor Humayun’s sealed document as well as Tahmasp’s letter, Bairam is believed to have presented a Quran along with the official documents to force Kamran to rise and respect the offerings.

After Humayun’s death in 1556, Bairam, appointed as protector, guide and mentor of his son Akbar, and endowed with the additional responsibility of governing the empire till the young emperor came of age to handle the affairs of state on his own, was to play a crucial role in consolidating the Gurkani domain in Hindustan. A period during which he as an older and wiser mentor arranged tutors for the young boy’s education, acquainted him to the ways of warfare and kept him secure from the friction that had existed for centuries between the royalty and nobility, bitterly engaged in outmaneuvering the other for power and control.

His bold decision in rallying a frightened Gurkani army fleeing from the Hindu general Hemu and his calculated gamble of waging a war against a vastly superior Afghan host was to ultimately prove instrumental in gaining the Gurkani’s a fortunate victory in the second battle of Panipat in the winter of 1556, paving the way for them to become a dominant power in the sub continent for the next three centuries. While his efforts in reclaiming back lost provinces and looking after its governance not only strengthened Akbar’s empire by bringing under the crown the regions of Gwalior, Janpura and Lucknow but put in place the basic administrative structure that later emperors would build upon and refine.

But the reign of Akbar too was to bring about the downfall of the loyal soldier at the hands of both the royalty he served and his political opponents eager for his removal from office and bent on tarnishing his meritorious service.

A Shia noble wielding enormous power among a larger Sunni nobility in the role of prime minister and supreme commander of the armed forces, the loyal soldier after a point of time had become an irritating eyes sore to his political rivals not just because of the Shia and Sunni rivalry that prevailed in Islamic medieval courts but more prominently for his uncompromising stance towards nobles and courtiers in order to maintain cohesion in the army and a working government. A noted example of which is recorded to be Bairam’s assassination of the Sunni noble Tardi Beg, for dereliction of duty just prior to the second battle of Panipat – speculated by some historians to have been a required action to prevent a general route as the senior most and veteran commander had abandoned the Gurkani’s capital at Agra without a fight and may have intended to firmly oppose Bairam’s plan of engaging the superior force of the Afghans in favour of a retreat.

The stern attitude was to eventually result in his alienation in court and attack on his personal appointments of hand picked Shia officials in key positions, specially from the corner of his worst and deadliest political opponents: Akbar’s wet nurse, Maham Anaga, her son Adam Khan, her son-in-law Shiabuddin Atka, the tutor Mulla Pir Muhammad and Bairam’s bitter political rival, Munim Khan – a coalition of Sunni nobles and courtiers attached to the royal household with considerable influence over the boy emperor and aided by Hamida Banu Begum, Humayun’s fourth wife and mother of Akbar, an eye witness to the important role Bairam had played in helping her husband and son, yet one who chose to turn a blind eye, very likely in favour of seeing her son assume absolute power.

Making Bairam’s position even more delicate at the stage had been his reluctance of handing over the reigns of power to Akbar, possibly from the point of view of a mentor who feels his ward has not yet come of age to take on responsibility or the suspicion the young emperor’s decisions were influenced by his rival Maham Anaga, a member of the royal harem. A suspicion that may also explain why, the commander in latter years is known to have punished servants of the royal household and restricted their allowances – as his execution of Akbar’s Mahout who accidentally or intentionally is recorded to have rammed his pachyderm into Bairam’s own mount.

Close to 1561, the veteran commander would finally loose the political struggle that raged between nobles of a medieval court vying to eliminate their rivals and control their emperor. In a plot orchestrated by Anaga, an impetuous Akbar, already inflamed and impatient to take over the reigns of the government, passed the decree ordering the dismissal of his guardian and leave the way open for Bairam’s political rivals to force him into rebellion – a course the loyal soldier in all his years of power had refused to partake in for the fondness he felt for his ward and his loyalty to Humayun.

Putting up a feeble resistance and accepting defeat in the engagement that followed the dismissal, the veteran commander and victor of many battles, heart broken and tired of the ordeals accepted the offer to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, signifying his retirement rather than opting for the other two choices presented before him of continuing as advisor to the emperor or taking up a minor command – however in 1561 enroute to Mecca, the commander was murdered by Mubarak Khan Laḥuni, an Afghan who nursed a grudge against him for the death of his father in the battle of Machiwara fought between the Afghans and a Gurkani detachment under Bairam’s command, in 1555.

Interpreting the events that led to Bairam’s fall and the means by which Akbar had him dismissed, several historians over the course of the nineteenth century have criticized the boy emperor for his callous approach, evident in the remark of the historian Sir Wolseley Haig who states:

“It was inevitable that a young man of Akbar’s force of character should emerge from a state of tutelage, but he would have done well to wait a little longer, for he was not fit to assume the sole charge of his empire and for the next four years remained under the pernicious influence of the harem party. The means by which he (Akbar) escaped from Bairam’s influence was probably the best he could have adopted but the insults and ungenerous treatment which drove the protector into rebellion would be blot upon his (Akbar’s) memory where it not certain that they originated with Bairam’s bitter enemies in the harem party”

– Sir Wolseley Haig

A bitter fact Akbar himself was to be acquainted with after the death of Bairam, as he would struggle in the early part of his reign to curb the power of the nobles of his court and ultimately order the execution of Adam Khan, the son Maham Anaga – a haughty noble, Bairam himself had warned the emperor about and earnestly wanted to have removed.

Humayun in his own time, betrayed by his own half brothers and blood ties during his reign as emperor, was deeply fond of Bairam and greatly indebted to the loyal soldier for his unwavering friendship and support in reclaiming back his empire. A sincere sentiment the emperor publicly expressed by honoring the commander with the titles of Yar-e-Wafadar (loyal friend), Baradar-e-niku-siar (good natured brother), Farzand-e-sa’adatmand (fortunate son), Khan-e-Khanna (king of Khans) and by referring to him as the unrivaled lamp of his family. The emperor’s highest expression of gratitude, perhaps, arranging his wedding with Salima Sultan Begum, a grand daughter of Babur and his niece, to bind the commander to his family.

Much like his friend and emperor Humayun, the Shia Bairam in his personal life is believed to have been a deeply religious man yet tolerant of other sects of Islam a fact that finds credibility in his selection for the boy emperor, Akbar, the Persian tutor, Mir Abdul Latif, a Sunni fleeing persecution in Persia and his generous patronage of all men of letter and fine arts regardless of their religion such as his patronage of the singer Ram Das of Gwalior, a famous artist who was a Hindu by birth. An accomplished poet himself, Bairam’s own composition of Persian and Turki verses, panegyrics praising Humayun and Gazals are noted for their sweetness and fervor, and considered to be a reflection of a gentle soul. The saraparda, an enclosing canvas wall that is believed to have originated during the reign of the Gurkanis is also said to be his invention.

A celebrated personality in both Gurkani and Persian history, many modern day historians believe the loyal solider was an upright and decent man with good intentions at heart. Even the Gurkani era historian Abdul Qadir Badayuni purported by scholars to be a staunch Sunni with absolutely no love for a Shia, writes of the commander: In generosity, sincerity, goodness of disposition, submissiveness and humility, Bairam surpasses all.


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