Before Humayun got Persian help to regain Hindustan, his Sunni faith clashed with the young Shah’s Shi’ite orthodoxy

Daughters of the Sun
Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire
Book Excerpt 

[From the chapter 'Hamida Banu and the Persian Escapade']

In the winter of 1543, Humayun and Hamida abandon their kingdom, their inheritance and their son, and head for Persia. The royal party is much reduced and numbers, according to Hamida, only ‘as many as thirty people’. Accompanying the royal couple are, amongst others, the great general Bairam Khan, Hamida’s brother Khwaja Muazzam, the eunuch Ambar, and Humayun’s foster-brother Nadim Kuka, whose wife Maham Anaga remains behind with the infant Akbar in Kandahar. Left with Akbar is another foster-mother, Jiji Anaga, and both these ‘milk mothers’ will have spectacular, intertwined and bloody destinies linked to this early role they play in the care of the young Akbar. The royal party, meanwhile, make their miserable way, hounded by ‘that unjust creature, Mirza Askari’, through the frigid mountains. They labour through the snow and so scarce are the rations that a precious horse is killed for food. ‘There was no cooking-pot,’ writes Gulbadan, aghast, ‘so they boiled some of the flesh in a helmet, and some they roasted.’ The people of the mountains are as inhospitable as the arid countryside and Gulbadan writes that they saw ‘a few savage Biluchis whose speech is the tongue of the ghouls of the waste’. In bitter midwinter cold so intense that Humayun would complain that ‘my very head was frozen by the intense cold’, Hamida and Humayun and their paltry entourage make their way to Khorasan and then on to Sistan, a province of Persia.

In Sistan, the governor Ahmad Sultan Shamlu welcomes the royal party to his province and according to Jauhar, ‘made an offering of a celebrated horse called Leilet al Kudder (the Night of Power), after which he conducted the padshah to his own habitation and performed all the rights of hospitality,’ including sending his mother and his wives to wait on Hamida Banu. The Shah of Persia is now Shah Tahmasp, son of Shah Ismail who had converted the loathed Shaybani Khan’s skull into a drinking cup in an earlier time. A formal representation is now made to Shah Tahmasp, the gist of which is ‘we are arrived in your country, and await your royal orders’. At the court of Shah Tahmasp, the news that the descendant of the great Timur himself was seeking the hospitality of Persia ‘was hailed with delight’ and ‘the kettle-drum was beat for three days at the royal residence at Kazvin’. Farmans are sent to the different governors, ordering them to give Humayun an honourable welcome. Shah Tahmasp’s orders to his governors are meticulous and detailed and he specifies that ‘upon his auspicious arrival let him drink fine sherbets of lemon and rosewater, cooled with snow; then serve him preserves of watermelon, grapes and other fruits with white bread just as I have ordered. For this royal guest prepare each drink with sweet attars and ambergris; and each day prepare a banquet of five hundred rare and delicious and colourful dishes.’ This is a fine reversal of fortune for Hamida and Humayun. The contrast between the delicate sherbets and fresh fruit with the fibrous horse-meat cooked in a helmet could not be starker. But there will be a price to pay.

Shah Tahmasp is the twenty-seven-year-old son of the founder of the Safavid dynasty, Shah Ismail. Pronounced king at the age of ten when his father died, Tahmasp is an enthusiastic patron of Persian adaab (etiquette) and cultural life, and has in his ateliers all manners of artists, miniaturists, calligraphers, historians and poets. A talented painter himself, the influence of Persian culture as promoted by Tahmasp on the conquered cities of Khorasan, Marv and Herat is unprecedented. Between the years 1541 and 1555, the cities of the Safavid empire, enthusiastically supported by the royal family, show a singular degree of cultural sophistication. Tahmasp’s royal ateliers are now producing illustrated books of spectacular brilliance and these are indeed the most magnificent works created in the Islamic world at the time. And it is to Herat that the royal Timurid-Mughal couple now proceed. As they approach Herat, the royal couple finds that there are people lining the streets of the villages and towns, as orders have been sent ‘that every person of the city from seven years of age to seventy should advance to meet his Majesty’. Farmans have been sent to the governors of the cities on their route commanding them ‘to receive and entertain the imperial guest with every mark of honour, and to furnish him and his retinue with provisions, wines, fruits, and whatever else would contribute to their comfort’. In Herat, the governor is ordered to present ‘five hundred trays of meat of different kinds besides sweetmeats’ and 1,000 men on horseback were always to attend him. Outside Herat the hills and plains are a mass of gesticulating, waving people acclaiming the arrival of the padshah and the queen. They are conducted to an encampment in the Murad Bagh (Garden of Desire) outside the town of Herat itself.

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For Hamida Banu, the complete alteration of her circumstances is almost unimaginable. Her wildering years are over and the jagged fear of life as a haunted exile will never return. In Persia, Humayun and Hamida are always treated as royalty and are consistently feted as glorious inheritors of a fabled line. The splendour and opulence of Hamida’s life now is extravagant. As one example, the presents sent by Tahmasp for the royal couple include horses, daggers, ornamented swords, housings of cloth of gold, and brocades. White bread, baked with milk and butter is served on spotless table linen accompanied by sherbets cooled in ice. The days of gleaning for seeds and berries and scrambling for muddy water are truly over. Costumes and clothes are offered to them and they are supplied with utensils of all kinds. Hamida is attended upon by the very cultured ladies of a most refined court and she is still only nineteen years old. For the next two years Hamida will be able to admire the finest miniature paintings anywhere in the world. She will visit monuments and cities of ancient magnificence. She will admire the gorgeous elegance of the people at the court, their layered, long robes in contrasting colours of lapis blue, emerald green and blood red all enhanced with silk and gold brocade.

Humayun and Hamida spend several months between the great cities of Persia, visiting shrines, forts, fountains and monuments along the way while they await a summons from the Shah. A message finally arrives from Tahmasp, first requesting the presence of Humayun’s ambassador Bairam Khan at the court at Kazvin. Bairam Khan is a Turkic tribesman originally from Persia who had fought alongside Babur before joining his son Humayun. Now, accompanied by ten horsemen, he presents himself before Shah Tahmasp where he is faced with a delicate and potentially incendiary situation.

After a relatively carefree and even somewhat libertine youth, Shah Tahmasp has undergone a spiritual awakening of sorts, rejecting his earlier sinful ways and bringing back Twelver Shi’ite orthodoxy to Persia. Tahmasp has outlawed irreligious behaviour and taverns and brothels have been closed. This expression of Twelver Shi’ism is visibly demonstrated by the wearing of the Taj-e-Safavid, or Taj Haidari, which is a white turban with twelve folds wrapped over a red felt cap, a creation of Tahmasp’s grandfather, Shah Haidar. When Bairam Khan arrives at the Persian court, Tahmasp brusquely asks him to cut his hair and wear the Taj-e-Safavid but Bairam Khan is able to diplomatically side-step the issue by declaring that as a servant of another prince, he can do nothing but obey his own master. Tahmasp does not insist, but in a fit of pique and certainly in an attempt to impress Bairam Khan with his power, has a few heretics of the Ismalia sects brought into his presence and beheaded. After this awkward and bloody meeting between Tahmasp and Bairam Khan, relations are, not surprisingly, somewhat strained between the Shah and Humayun for a while. There are a number of minor incidents in which the Persians seem to be testing the Hindustani padshah, grazing the limits of arrogance and posturing. At last Humayun and his entourage are received by Tahmasp himself at his summer palace in the mountains. ‘The Persian monarch placed Humayun to his right,’ writes Jauhar approvingly, ‘and they sat down on the same cushion.’ But soon enough, Tahmasp asks Humayun to wear the Taj-e-Safavid and thereby demonstrate his conversion from Sunni to Shi’ite. The pragmatic Humayun, who has clearly known what would be expected of him, courteously tells Tahmasp that ‘a Taj (crown) is an emblem of greatness; I will with pleasure wear it.’ Humayun wears the Taj, without much fuss, and honour is saved. Tahmasp is enormously mollified and ‘they passed the night in feasting and carousing’. Despite further excursions and amusements, however, Tahmasp is relentless about Humayun’s conversion to Shi’a Islam. Humayun understands the true heft of his helplessness, at the mercy of Tahmasp’s uncertain moods and so, one day, after visiting the ruins of Persepolis, Humayun ‘ordered his diamonds and rubies to be brought to him; and having selected the largest diamond, placed it in a mother-of-pearl box; he then added several other diamonds and rubies; and having placed them on a tray gave them in charge of Bairam Beg to present them to the Persian monarch, with a message, “that they were brought from Hindustan purposely for his majesty.”’ The large diamond is the same magnificent one which Humayun has obtained from the family of Bikramjit, Raja of Gwalior. Some believe it to be the famous, and cursed, Koh-i-Noor, which eventually made its way back to the Deccan.

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