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Emperor Akbar and Bairam Khan

The relationship between Mughal Emperor Akbar and his noble Bairam Khan is part of a string of similar associations that went awry leaving a bitter legacy

The relationship between Mughal Emperor Akbar and his noble Bairam Khan is part of a string of similar associations that went awry leaving a bitter legacy.

Bairam Khan entered the Mughal history at a juncture when the rule of the dynasty was in dire straits. Bairam Khan’s dramatic entry took place after Emperor Humayun suffered yet another setback during his wandering having lost his throne to Sher Shah Suri.

Bairam Khan was heartily welcomed in Humayun’s camp and the emperor-in-exile termed his arrival as a fortunate omen.

Bairam Khan was a Persian noble with plenty of qualities of head and heart and was part of the Mughal entourage since the days of Emperor Babar though he remained obscure due to the dominance of Turani nobles in the Mughal setup.

At the time of distress he joined Humayun’s entourage and there was no doubt about the loyalty of Bairam Khan as during the trying times faced by Humayun, Bairam was lured by the Suri dynasty to joining them but he refused.

It was partly due to his strong connections and noble ancestry in Iran that he was able to derive benefits for the exiled Humayun. He was instrumental in obtaining material and military support of the Safavid monarch for Humayun that enabled him to re-claim his throne in India.

It was due to his exertions that the Mughals regained their lost kingdom and it is often assumed that Akbar succeeded Humayun after his sudden death in 1556. But both the victory in the second battle of Panipat and Akbar’s accession to throne were largely due to the exertions of Bairam Khan.

Even after securing victory in the battlefield, the commanders feared disruption and collapse of the nascent kingdom as had happened with many Central Asian patrimonial conquests. A majority of commanders were of Central Asian origin and they were not comfortable being in India since the times of Babar and openly mentioned their wish to return to their home turfs.

At this critical juncture it was Bairam Khan who proved to be the only bulwark between Akbar and his intriguing commanders and he admirably played the role of king-maker for 13 years old Akbar and became his mentor. After the death of Humayun, Bairam Khan acted swiftly and did not let anyone know about the death of the emperor for two weeks and after gathering enough forces placed Akbar on a makeshift throne and then rushed him to Agra court and installed him there. He forcefully quashed dissent of rival courtiers and claimants to the throne and administered the affairs of the state as regent of the king.

Akbar recognised the favours done to him by Bairam Khan and titled him as Khan-e-Khanan and got him married to the Salima Sultan Begum, a granddaughter of Babur, as well as to Humayun’s new sister-in-law, a Mewati noblewoman. Akbar graciously treated Bairam Khan as a foster-father, affectionately and respectfully called him Khan Baba and deferred to his decisions. Bairam was resourceful enough to manage the kingdom effectively and hardly bothered Akbar who whiled away his time in hunting. Akbar was naturally precocious and being mature enough in his teen years started noticing the limits on his authority particularly the paucity of financial resources that were monopolised by Bairam Khan.

The main cause effecting irreparable schism between Akbar and his regent were two clans holding influence with the young monarch. Both of them represented the hold of the female relations of the monarch during this brief period. One ambitious clan was led by Shamsuddin, who had saved Humayun’s life during his disastrous defeat at the hands of Sher Shah Suri at Kanauj in 1540. Sometimes later when Humayun wanted to reward him he requested his wife to be made wet-nurse to the new-born Akbar thereby acquiring a revered status as his wife became foster-mother of Akbar, making Shamsuddin his foster-father and their children Akbar’s milk-siblings.

The fate compelled Humayun and his wife, Hamida Banu, mother of Akbar, to the rigours of exile during which they had to abandon Akbar and this family looked after him in Kabul, earning his everlasting gratitude. Throughout the reign of Akbar this family received high ranks in his administration. The other clan centred on another of Akbar’s wet-nurses and foster-mothers, Maham Anaga who was a much forceful lady than Jiji Anaga, the wife of Shamsuddin Khan. These foster-relatives highlighted for Akbar the alleged arrogance of Bairam Khan and also instigated a series of affronts to Bairam Khan’s prestige.

There was hardly any doubt that Bairam Khan was an assertively proud man and had taken undue advantage of the power reposed in his hands. The Khan-e-Khanan exercised absolute power and was authoritative to the extent of being insulting to his young ward. Akbar had to endure restrictions on his privy purse and felt resentment at the treatment meted out to his household whereas Bairam Khan’s cronies lived comfortably and openly displayed their pomp. He was also quite boastful and many stories of him denigrating Akbar in his closed circles circulated everywhere and also reached Akbar making him angry.

Bairam Khan became aware of the machinations of his detractors but stubbornly resisted all attempts to change his ways. The matters came to a head when Akbar quietly departed the capital on pretext of going hunting and, after safely ensconcing himself in a separate residence challenged the regent. Instead of offering to submit the arrogant noble arrayed his forces against an imperial army dispatched by Akbar to bring him to his heels. Akbar’s imperial Farman divesting Bairam Khan of his office was enough to encourage his supporters to switch sides and his motley force was easily defeated. Just four years after the enthronement of Akbar, in 1560, Bairam Khan was made to surrender his symbols of rank, relinquish his official offices and assigned revenue lands and, as was then the custom, seek Akbar’s permission to make the pilgrimage to Makkah.

Akbar showed tremendous grace to the dishonoured and powerless Bairam Khan and reassigned him some land revenues as a pension during his pilgrimage and in retirement after his return. It was quite a comedown for a reputable noble and served as a lesson for the rest of the nobles for the long reign of Akbar. On his way to Hajj, Bairam Khan was assassinated en route in Sind by hostile Afghans though his killing was attributed to imperial motives but there was no proof for this blame.

Akbar dispatched his body to be buried in Mashad in Iran and took his son Abdurrahim under his tutelage and later raised him to his father’s rank of Khan-e-Khanan. Akbar also married his wife, Salima Sultan who was the granddaughter of Babar.

Bairam Khan was once the bastion of power for Akbar but later proved to be a restraining factor in exercise of Akbar’s imperialistic ambitions. His downfall is the first in a long series of leading members of nobility biting the dust once they fell from royal favour. However, the passage of time proved that Akbar was very well-taught by Bairam Khan as he expanded his supremacy during the next four decades in the face of many challenges and through almost constant battlefield and ideological wars.

Akbar, however, also learnt the life-long lesson of never allowing any single noble to concentrate power. Throughout his tenure, Akbar consciously and carefully divided the authority among ministers who worked under Akbar’s direct supervision and usually held nearly equal power and rank. He rehabilitated Bairam Khan’s persona in Mughal chronicles and his affection for his son Abdurrahim is enough tribute of a rugged yet extremely prudent ruler to his cherished Khan Baba.

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