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Lets begin with the a brief introduction of what happened before the battle. After the death of Babur the first Mughal emperor (in 1531 CE) Humayun ascended the throne of Delhi. A very learned man spent a lot of his time in royal library, but not a great ruler, as a consequence Sher Shah (the Afghan) drove him out of Delhi and sent him to exile in Persia. Sher Shah was so powerful ruler that the Mughals didn’t even think of attacking India while he was alive. But after the death of Sher Shah (in 1545 CE) the Suri dynasty crumbled to its feet, Humayun seeing a chance to occupy Delhi again marched with all his troops from Persia and was successful in capturing Delhi. But his glory was short lived as he died few months after in 1556 CE, leaving Delhi again unprotected. Bairam Khan the trusted general of Humayun, enthroned Akbar as the new ruler, and remained his guardian. However even after Akbar’s accession to the throne, the danger for the Mughals was not completely eliminated, that was the time of high conspiracies going all around. The battle between Afghans and Mughals to rule India gained a new height now, Sikander Shah Suri the Afghan ruler of Punjab often imposed a big threat to Akbar, hence leaving Delhi in the hands of Tardi Beg (a general in Mughal army) Akbar went to sack Sikander in Punjab.
Akbar as a boy
Sikander whenever he saw a Mughal army from Delhi avoided a confrontation and left his territory. This time it was the same, but while Akbar and his army were in Punjab, Hemu the Hindu ruler and who by then had become famous for his campaigns of Bengal, Bihar marched towards Delhi. Tardi Beg was no way a match to the victorious Hemu, Delhi was captured again and Hemu was coronated as the ruler of Delhi (7th October 1556). He was the first Hindu ruler after Prithvi Raj Chauhan of Delhi and he had both Afghan and Rajput support.
Gwalior fort a one time Hemu’s headquarter.
If you find it difficult to understand these strange alliances, remember that Afghans were now almost a native to India, since they were not at this stage were not new. Indians experienced Afghans from the time of Muhammad of Ghor(1202-1206 CE), the Khiljis( 1290-1320 CE) and the latest being the Suri’s. So in all way they became a bit more Indianised, pashtuns from Afghanistan comprise a good number of Indian population even now. But the Mughals were comparatively new comers, and they were hated by both the Hindus and Afghans.
Bairam Khan on hearing the news of capture of Delhi and of Hemu’s coronation, decided to march to Delhi and reconquer it. Knowing the advance of the Mughals, Hemu rallied his troops against the Mughals, and they would meet in this historic plain of Panipat (a town 30 kilometers away from Delhi).
Once both the armies meet each other, the battle order was given to both the armies. A battle order is a command structure given to the army.
The main battle formation as you can see comprised of the centre, left and right flanks. This was the style of formation prevalent in those days and is also used nowadays, albeit in a different way. The vanguard is the first line of soldiers which faces the enemy. Then ideally there has to be a centre and the flanks as well as the reserve. Among all the reserves, the reserve at the centre is most vital, when the commander of the army sees that the centre of the enemy has weakened, he sends the reserve to crush the enemy centre, thereby separating the two flanks from each other. If the two flanks are separated then they army formation is broken, they can no longer communicate with each other, and the composure of the army is broken. In real life example when a fight breaks out between two people, the mediator goes in between them, consequently separating them from each other. So this is how it works. Ok so these were some basics regarding formations, now we get back to the battle. There is absolutely no doubt that the army of Hemu is of greater number, well composed by experienced generals, supported by enormous elephants with heavy armour and a dagger fitted to their teeth.
Hemu before this unfortunate battle won 22 battles in a row, so in every way he was superior to the Mughal army. But what made Mughal army a bit dangerous was their cavalry archers.
The archers mounted on the horse with their legendary composite bow. To shoot a Mughal composite bow one uses the thumb, and not the index and middle fingers! The cavalry archers were extremely deadly, they wouldn’t engage the enemy in close proximity, instead from a safe distance would shower arrows incessantly on them, making them hither and thither. Until the enemy does the mistake of chasing them away, which they always wanted, and when the enemy does it they will be separated from the rest of their comrades.
Fine, enough of education lets start the battle. Hemu, whose pride and prejudice were the elephants, throws the huge beasts on the Mughal left and right flanks. As the elephants( famously known as medieval tanks) attacked the Mughal flanks, the infantry found it real difficult to hold these creatures. The elephant with their mighty trunk grabbed one arm of the enemy soldier, with his front foot crushed one leg, and then with an enormous pull of the trunk riped the poor soldier apart. Now imagine how terrible and horrific this sight is for the enemy. The black beast sends a clean message right away- clear the path else get cleared. Such was the ferocity of the attack that the Mughals were shaken, but I must really admire their nerves, seeing a bad situation hundreds of arches surrounded the elephants and started shooting at their feet. This is a useful tactic I think, I mean to wound the elephant’s legs at some point it would make them retreat. Abdullah, Sikandar, Muhammad Quasim were up on their toes, but soon they realized it’s of no use to fight the elephants, as they could see a cloud of dust approaching them. They didn’t fail to understand that these were from the hoofs of the ferocious Afghan and Rajput cavalry charging towards them.
Well let’s not wait then, I think, they said to themselves. If the Rajputs and Afghans are advancing, let them have the taste of our arrows, Abdullah and Sikander charged towards them. No sooner both the flanks would be fighting each other, and Hemu chanced upon a wonderful idea. This was high time for him to attack the Mughal centre; he immediately sent command to gather the rest of the resources at the centre. Now if everything goes well, Hemu’s centre would fall upon the Mughal centre and make them fall like a pack of cards.
But it seems something dreadful is happening. No doubt Mughal flanks are separated from the centre and it may have been that Hemu’s flanks are enticing them to do so. There is a reason to believe this way, in the last battle where Mughals lost the battle against Hemu, it happened the same. So it might have been that Hemu’s generals are allowing the Mughal cavalry to come way too forward, and allow Hemu’s charge against the Mughal centre much more effective. Hemu certainly took to the situation; he gathered all his troops and charged towards the Mughal centre. The Mughal centre at this point were compressed to a narrow place now, and they had a huge ravine in front of them, meaning they cant go forward, the only road is run backwards, but that means the battle is lost, so they stick to the ground. The ravine also stopped Hemu’s charge to the Mughal centre; the elephants cannot cross the ravine, the soldiers even if they do, will not be supported by the elephants, so there is a big problem. The Mughal centre take an advantage of this, they start to harass Hemu’s elephants and soldiers by showering arrows and hurling spears at them.
The situation from now is quite difficult for Hemu, his centre is unable to approach further, his flanks are encircled by the Mughal cavalry, he himself with his men is confined at the centre. Although Shadi Khan and Ramaya, two of his most trusted general are giving tough fight to the Mughals, yet somehow victory for Hemu is just a step away. Casualties at both sides are high.
At this hour of crisis some unfortunate events happened, Shadi Khan and Ramaya was cut down by the Mughals. The death of these two commanders was huge blow for Hemu, yet he continued fighting. He was not a big man, rather small, but had commanding voice; he stood over the howdah (the royal seat on the elephant) and encouraged his soldiers to fight. In a battle it is necessary that the army sees the commander and take commands from him, but his death could eventually led to a route, no matter how good the situation maybe. Hemu was an exception, he unlike the Mughals went to the centre of the battle, and no Mughal ruler carried himself so deep into centre of action. Perhaps he believed in leading from the front and leading with examples, and so far these have worked. Now I am not very much sure that the Mughals actually snipped him, looks quite unlikely though, since I don’t find any good reason, moreover the Mughals had no idea in which elephant he was on. Five of his generals rode enormous elephants and in the heat of the battle it’s quite difficult to find who’s who.
Anyway, when Hemu’s marvelous display of bravery and command was lifting the spirit of his army, he was shot by an arrow which pierced his eye. He didn’t fall right away; he bandaged the wound and ordered the fight to go on. But the hit was so fatal that within moments he went unconscious over the howdah. Shah Quli khan who was near Hemu’s elephant immediately knew something great has happened, he gathered few men, caught the mahout to the point of his sword and forced him to say the name of rider of the elephant. The mahout out of fear revealed that it was Hemu, on hearing this Shah Quli tossed his helmet onto the air, he knew the battle was won. The wounded yet alive Hemu was brought down from the elephant, and carried to the Mughal camp, while the army of Hemu perceiving Hemu dead, flew in every directions. The battle was over, and Hemu’s fate was obvious, although Akbar refused to execute him, Bairam Khan made sure that his head was sent to Kabul, and his trunk to Delhi. Abul Fazal the author of Akbarnama, says that if Akbar had taken Hemu a prisoner and made the latter to serve him, with Hemu’s might and Akbar’s vision what could not have been achieved, but clearly the will of the destiny was entirely different.
Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.