• The rise of Sher Shah from the position of a petty leader of troops to being the ruler of one of the biggest empires which had risen in north India since the death of Muhammad bin Tughlaq in the middle of the 14th century is a saga of courage and determination. However, it has also led to uncritical adulation of an individual rather than focusing on the political and social processes at work.
  • The process of building an empire encompassing entire north India started with Sikandar Lodi’s final victory over Jaunpur, and was carried forward by Babur and Humayun. Babur’s victory over Ibrahim Lodi and Rana Sanga, and Humayun’s campaigns in Malwa and Gujarat had shattered the old balance of power. This process was carried forward by Sher Khan’s defeat of the ruler of Bengal, and Humayun’s campaign in Bihar and Bengal against Sher Khan. Thus, the winner of the struggle between the two was slated to emerge as one who would be the master virtually of the entire north India. As it was, Sher Shah could not complete this process — Gujarat remained out of his empire, and it was Akbar who had to complete the process.
  • Thus, Sher Shah’s achievement of the unification of north India under one aegis should be seen as a part of an historic process which had been at work for almost half a century.
  • Similarly, the rise of Sher Shah to supreme power from the position of a small noble calls attention to the social and political conditions in north India at the time when bold, unscrupulous men could forge ahead. Political duplicity, intrigues, and occasional lack of moral scruples which can be seen on occasions in the case of young Farid (later Sher Shah)have to be seen in this context so that the type of romanticisation of Sher Shah adopted by Afghan historians who wrote more than 40 years after the events can be seen in its proper historical perspective.

Sher Shah’s Early Life, and Rise to Power:

  • We have hardly any reliable details of Sher Shah’s family and his early life or rise to power.
  • Sher Shah’s grand-father, Ibrahim Sur, who was probably a petty horse-trader, came from Afghanistan to India towards the end of Ibrahim Lodi’s reign. One of his early patrons, Jamal Khan Lodi Sarangkhani, assigned a few villages in Hissar-Firuza in modern Haryana to him for the upkeep of 40 troopers. In those uncertain times, the position of an individual depended upon the number of horsemen at his command.
  • Both Ibrahim and his son, Hasan(father of Sher Shah), emerged as leaders of Afghan free-booters whose services were utilized by Raimal, the chief of Shekhawati, so that following the death of his father, Hasan was placed in charge of the entire pargana of Narnaul.
  • After the final conquest of Jaunpur, Sikandar Lodi appointed as governor of Jaunpur Jamal Khan Sarangkhani who had supported him in his struggle of succession to the throne. At the death of Jamal Khan, his son Khan-i-Azam Ahmad Khan Sarangkhani succeeded with a rank of 20,000 sawars. To strengthen his position in a region where the old Jaunpuri nobles were still strong, Ahmad Khan appointed Hasan Sur to the iqta of Sahsaram and Khawaspur-Tanda with a rank of 500 sawars (1510).
  • This was a big raise because Hasan Sur now became a small noble with a standard (flag). Another Sur whom Ahmad Khan promoted at this time was Muhammad Khan Sur under whose father Ibrahim Sur had served for some time. He was given the adjacent pargana of Chaund with the rank of 1500 sawars.
  • Thus, Hasan Khan Sur was not the only person who rose rapidly at a time when bold, adventurous men were needed to settle areas which were still under the control of the old Jaunpur nobles, the local Rajput rajas and tribal chiefs.

Early life of Farid:

  • Farid, later Sher Shah was born in Narnaul in 1486 or so, during the reign of Bahlol Lodi (1489). We know little about the early education of Farid except that, angry at his father’s neglect of his mother in preference to a younger wife-an Indian slave-girl, Farid came to Jaunpur, and spent a couple of years studying religious works, Arabic, history etc. at one of the well-known madrasahs there. After some time, he was reconciled to his father who gave him administrative charges of the two parganas held by him (1515-16). This gave young Farid first hand experience of the functioning of administration at the pargana and village levels.
  • By all accounts, Farid gave a good account of himself, and helped to settle the parganas distracted by Rajput zamindars who could defy the shiqdar on account of the dense jungles around their villages. Farid raised local levies to cut down the jungles, and in the case of recalcitrant villages, slaughtered all the men, enslaved their women and children, and settled new peasants. To the other villagers, he was strict in collecting the dues, but generous in levying them.
  • However, after 3-4 years (1519), due to the intrigues of his step-mother, Farid was displaced from his charge. Angry and without a job, Farid took to brigandage, robbing the Hindu rajas and zamindars of north and east Bihar. After some time, however, he joined the service of Taj Khan Sarangkhani, the commander of Chunar, and then of Nasir Khan Nuhani, the muqta of sarkar Ghazipur.
  • A little later, we find him at Agra where he entered the service of Darya Khan naib. He submitted a petition to the then ruler, Ibrahim Lodi, through his patron, to dismiss his father from his jagir of Sahsaram as he was too old and under the influence of his Indian slave -girl. Ibrahim Lodi sternly turned down his request, censoring him for making a petition against his own father. However, he relented when Hasan Khan died (1524). Armed with Ibrahim Lodi’s farman, Farid came to Sahsaram and ousted his step-brothers who had taken possession of his father’s property and jagir in his absence.
  • There now began the usual tale of family intrigue. Farid’s brothers repaired to Muhammad Khan Sur, the powerful jagirdar of Chaund, who offered to mediate between Farid and his step-brothers. To counter this, Farid, sought the help of Bahar Khan, son of Daulat Khan Nuhani who was the governor of Bihar. At issue was the principle whether the jagir should be divided like property between sons, as was the Pathan tradition. Farid rejected this, arguing that the traditions of Roh could not be continued in Hindustan, and the jagir should go to whomsoever the Sultan desired.
  • Following the defeat of Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat, Bahar Khan declared himself king, under the name Sultan Muhammad Shah. Many Afghans who were close to him were honoured. Among these was Farid, who was awarded the title of Sher Khan either on this occasion or earlier for services rendered rather than for killing a tiger (sher), as the Afghan historians would have us believe.
  • Thus, by 1526, by the time Babur established himself in India, Sher Khan had risen to the position of being an important figure in the politics of Bihar. He was about forty years at the time, and his rise was by no means a sudden one.

The Social and Political background to the Rise of Sher Khan in Bihar:

  • The conflict between Sher Khan and Humayun has been often seen as a conflict between Afghans and Mughals, largely ignoring the social and political background of east U.P. and Bihar which played no small role in the conflict.
  • An important factor was the attempt of the Nuhanis to establish a separate kingdom in Bihar, in opposition to the rulers of Bengal on one hand, and the Mughals on the other. The Sarwanis and Farmulis, who had a strong position in east U.P., wanted to restore the old kingdom of Jaunpur. For the purpose, they sometimes used the Nuhani king of Bihar, and sometimes Mahmud Lodi, the younger brother of Ibrahim Lodi. They could not succeed and, in the process, destabilized the Nuhani regime in Bihar. Sultan Muhammad died shortly after the battle of Panipat and along with him, the Nuhani dynasty of Bihar virtually came to an end. It was kept alive for some time only due to the efforts of Sher Khan.
  • There was a conflict in almost every Afghan noble household over the transfer or division of the iqta, or if we prefer the later word, jagir, held by a member of the family. Babur took advantage of this situation by winning over to his side some of the leading Afghan nobles. Thus,Nasir Nuhani’s brother, Mahmud Nuhani, came over and was given the iqta of Ghazipur held by his brother. Likewise, Fath Khan Sarwani was given the title of Khan-ijahan and a large jagir in east U.P. In this way, Babur threw a spanner among the Afghans of east U.P. Sher Khan, who had been ousted from his jagir by Muhammad Khan Sur, also came over to the Mughal governor of Jaunpur, Husain Barlas, and received from him his old jagir and a few additional parganas.
  • However, many of these Afghan nobles defected, and raised the standard of Afghan nationalism. Threatened first from the side of Sanga and later, under Humayun, from the side of Bahadur Shah, the Mughals were not in a position to ensure the continued possession of their jagirs by these Mughal-supported Afghan nobles in the face of the forces raised by their rivals who gathered first under the banner of Sultan Muhammad, and later under Sultan Mahmud Lodi.  Sher Khan was also was one of those who defected.
  • Another factor which helped in the rise of Sher Khan was the important position enjoyed by women in Afghan society. This was perhaps a continuation of the greater freedom women traditionally enjoyed in tribal societies, as compared to more feudalised hierarchical ones.
  • Thus, when the ruler of BiharMuhammad Shah, died shortly after Babur’s victory at Panipat, power passed into the hands of his widow, Dudu, his son, Jalal, being a minor. Sher Khan won over the confidence ot Dudu who appointed him the guardian of Jalal leaving the affairs of state in his hands.
  • In another case, when the commandant of fort Chunar, Taj Khan Sarangkhani died, his wealth and power passed into the hands of his wife, Lad Malika, despite the presence of her stepsons. In the troubled situation, and to save herself, Lad Malika proposed marriage to Sher Khan, and at the marriage presented him 150 pieces of rare jewels, 7 mans of pearls, and 150 mans of gold(A/C to ,Abbas Khan Sarwani, author of Tarikh-i-Sher Shahi reflecting the less favourable view of women). Thus, Sher Khan not only got money to raise a large army but a powerful fort with the parganas attached to it.
  • Soon, Sher Khan had another lucky break. Gauhar Gosain, the childless wife of Nasir Khan Nuhani of Ghazipur, was widowed, and as Sher Khan had been in the service of Nasir Khan at one time, she proposed marriage to him, and brought him 300 mans of gold.
  • A little later, Bibi Fath Malika, daughter of Mian Muhammad Kalapahar Farmuli, who was the sister’s son of Sultan Bahlol, came into great wealth. She had, with her wealth, supported her husband’s brother, Maruf Farmuli, in his opposition to the Mughals. After his death, she thought at first of retreating into Bhata (Rewa) in Bundelkhand to save her property, but was persuaded by Sher Khan to come to him on a solemn oath of protection and non-interference with her wealth and liberty of action. But a little later, Sher Khan took 300 mans of gold from her leaving her a small amount of gold and some villages for her maintenance.
  • There has been a lot of discussion about the role of Sher Khan in the battle fought by Babur at Ghagra (1529) against the Afghan leaders, Biban and Bayazid, and at Dadrah (1532) against them by Humayun. In both cases, Sher Khan was compelled to join the Afghan rebels against his wishes, but he was not enthusiastic about a separate Afghan kingdom in Jaunpur because it would have adversely effected his position in Sahsaram, and because he had his own ambitions in Bihar. Also, while he considered Biban and Bayazid to be brave warriors, he had a poor opinion about their political sagacity and organizing capacities.
  • However, Sher Khan’s staying away from the battle of Dadrah cannot be considered the cause of the defeat of the Afghan leaders who were internally divided, and had no clear plans of battle.
  • In a manner of speaking, it was Babur who gave Sher Khan the opening which he fully exploited. After the death of Sultan Muhammad, his widow Dudu had joined the Bengal king, Sultan Nusrat Shah who had already acquired a dominating position in Bihar, having extended his control from Tirhut to Ballia. To counter this, Babur restored the Nuhani kingdom, only asking Jalal to pay him one krore of tankas annually. As we have noted, since Dudu, the Queen mother, was unable to manage the affairs herself, she appointed Sher Khan as naib (deputy) and tutor to her minor son, Jalal, and left all affairs of state in his hands, making him the virtual ruler of Bihar. Sher Khan devoted himself in improving the administration of Bihar, and centralising power in his hands till the Nuhani chiefs became jealous, and began to intrigue against him.It was the conflict between Bihar and Bengal, and Babur’s reluctance to be drawn into it, keeping out of Bihar, that gave Sher Khan the first opening in his scheme of dominating Bihar.
  • Renewal of the conflict between Bihar and Bengal gave him the next chance. Afraid of the growing power of Sher Khan, the ruler of Bihar, Jalal Khan after the death of his mother fled for protection of Sultan Nusrat Shah of Bengal who found this a good excuse to invade Bihar and crush Sher Khan. However, the invasion failed, and only added to the wealth and power of Sher Khan. Also, from now on, the Nuhani dynasty was no longer in the picture in Bihar, but had become the agent of an enemy power.
  • Sultan Nusrat died in 1535, but the attempt to conquer Bihar was continued by his brother, Sultan Mahmud. Sultan Mahmud launched two campaigns, the first against Makhdum-i-Alam, the Bengali governor of North Bihar, who was accused of not having helped the earlier campaign against Bihar on account of his friendship with Sher Khan. The expedition failed. However, Makhdum-i-Alam was killed, and all his property which he had handed over to Sher Khan for safe-keeping in return for his help, passed into the hands of the latter.
  • Sultan Mahmud now made a second and final bid to conquer Bihar. He sent a large force which was joined by the Nuhanis. But Sher Khan won a decisive victory against this combined force at Surajgarh (1534). Although this ended the Bengali threat to Bihar, Sher Khan was not prepared to take any chances. In the following year, he invaded Bengal, and forced Sultan Mahmud to cede territory upto Sikrigali and to pay a huge indemnity.
  • Sultan Mahmud now tried to seek the support of the Portuguese, almost like Sultan Bahadur in Gujarat. To counter this, in 1537, Sher Khan’s son, Jalal Khan, invaded and captured Gaur after a siege. This meant the virtual end of Sultan Mahmud’s dynasty. It also ended the danger of Portuguese encroachments on east Bengal.
  • Thus, the fluid position in eastern U.P. and Bihar which lasted for a considerable period due to Mughal pre-occupations elsewhere, the socio-political position inside Bihar and east U.P., and the continuing Bihar-Bengal conflict played a definite role in the rise of Sher Khan, Sher Khan was the leading person in Bihar ever since the death of Sultan Muhammad (c. 1530) and had at his credit many victories over the powerful kingdom of Bengal. Thus, he was far more powerful and self-confident than Humayun ever envisaged, or gave him credit for.

The Sur Empire (1540-56)

Consolidation after Humayun’s defeat:

  • After his victory over Humayun at Kannauj, Sher Shah formally crowned himself. His first task was to hound the Mughals out of India, and to ensure that they were not able to return. He was able to do this without much difficulty on account of the deep division in the Mughal camp.
  • As At Lahore Humayun’s brother Kamran was neither prepared to fight Sher Khan, nor allow Humayun to take over Kabul, thus forcing Humayun to seek his fortune in Sindh, almost alone.
  • At Sher Shah‘s approach to Lahore Kamran retreated to Kabul while Mirza Haider Dughlat moved to Kashmir, and conquered it. Sher Shah’s forces marched upto the Khyber. While Sher Shah was at Khushab, many Afghan leaders from Roh called on him and received favours, while many Afghans from Roh joined his armies. But Sher Shah wisely decided not to try and incorporate the freedom-loving Afghans in the area into his empire. Thus, his empire did not extend beyond the Indus. This suggests that by this time most of the Afghans who had come to India at the time of Bahlol Lodi had become Indianized, and looked upon India as their home.
  • However, as a protective measure, Sher Shah thoroughly subdued the Gakhhars who lived in the Salt Ranges, and put up a new powerful fort at Rohtas to control them, and to interpose a check on any possible Mughal incursion into India. The task of completing this work was entrusted to Todar Mal Khatri.


  • As a part of Humayun’s pursuit, Sher Shah had sent an army to Multan, and himself spent some time there. This was to put pressure on the rulers of Sindh not to support Humayun, but to capture him. Multan, which was considered to be a part of Punjab, was brought under Sher Shah’s control, but no effort was made at this stage to enter upper Sindh, and to pursue Humayun any further. As it was, with the dispersal of the Mughal forces, Humayun was no longer a threat to Sher Shah.
  • Two years later, in 1543, Sher Shah organized a campaign to liberate Multan from the Biloch tribes which had over-run it. Perhaps, this step was designed to safeguard India’s trade with West and Central Asia in which Multan was a principal mart. This was also the purpose of Sher Shah building a new road from Lahore to Multan. The step also had a strategic purpose: it was designed to put pressure on Maldeo who was hobnobbing with Humayun.
  • Multan as well as upper Sindh, including Bhakkar and Sehwan, were annexed to the Afghan empire.

  • Having secured his position in Punjab and the North West, Sher Shah had time to building up a sound system of administration, rather than to engage himself in a career of constant conquest, as was the current ideal. Thus,,apart from pinpricks, no serious effort was made to dislodge Mirza Haider Dughlat from Kashmir, even though he had proclaimed Humayun as the sovereign by having the khutba and sikka in his name.


  • First, Sher Shah nipped in the bud signs of a rebellion in Bengal, where the local governor had married a daughter of the late Sultan Mahmud, and started reviewing troops sitting on a raised platform like the former Bengal rulers.
  • Thereafter, Sher Shah’s campaigns were confined to Malwa, Rajasthan, and, as we have seen, Multan and Upper Sindh.
  • His last step was to assert his suzerainty over Bundelkhand. He had planned to invade the Deccan, i.e. Khandesh and Ahmadnagar, after this campaign.


  • After the retreat of Humayun from Malwa, Mallu Khan had, under the title of Qadir Khan, declared himself king, but he had been forced to allow local chiefs, including the Rajputs of Chanderi and Raisin, to function as almost independent potentates. Sher Khan invaded and conquered Malwa in 1542, but allowed many of the Hindu rajas to continue in their principalities.


  • The following year, he returned to Malwa to crush a rebellion there, and used the opportunity to oust the powerful Rajput chief Puranmal from Chanderi, 22 miles from modern Bhopal. Puran Mal who had defied Sher Shah earlier, withstood the siege. He came out of the fort with four thousand Rajputs and their families after a binding agreement had been reached by the two parties. But the Rajputs and their families were slaughtered when they were resting near Sher Shah’s camp, despite the promise of a solemn safe conduct.

Marwar and almost whole Rajasthan:

  • The conquest of Malwa and Chanderi was a prelude to the conquest of Marwar where Maldeo had ascended the gaddi in 1531. He had steadily augmented his power till it comprised almost the whole of western and eastern Rajasthan including Sambhal and Narnaul in Shekhawati.He had strongly fortified the old forts, such as those of Ajmer, Merta and Jodhpur, and built new ones at strategic points. His conquest of Satalmir and Pokharan had enabled him to induct into his army large number of Bhatis who were famous for their valour. His last conquest had been that of Bikaner ruled by his kinsmen who had died fighting to the last man before the fort surrendered. However, two of the ruler’s son, Kalyanmal and Bhim, had escaped earlier, and taken shelter at the court of Sher Shah, along with Biramdeo of Merta.
  • In his mad policy of expansionism, Maldeo came into conflict not only with the thikanedars (hereditary fief, holders) whom he had ousted from their thikanas, but also with the Rana of Mewar, the Kachhawahas, the Shaikhawati chiefs etc. These internal divisions played a big role in the subsequent defeat and downfall of Maldeo.
  • It is difficult to say what the true ambitions of Maldeo were. That he wanted to establish a Rathor hegemony over the whole of Rajasthan is understandable. Unlike Sanga, Maldeo did not have the support of the Rajput ” tribes” i.e. various clans of Rajputs or even his own clan of Rathors because of his policy of unbridled aggrandizement and his many faults of character.
  • However, in term of real politik, no empire based only on Rajasthan could hope to successfully challenge and defeat a power which had behind it the backing and combined resources of Punjab and the Upper Ganga Valley upto the border of Bihar. Maldeo was aware of this, and shrank from an open confrontation with Sher Shah. Thus, after his conquest of Malwa in 1541, Sher Shah occupied Ranthambhor, and the Kachhawaha country of eastern Rajasthan without encountering any opposition from Maldeo. Sher Shah’s next step was to capture Shaikhawati, including Nagor. This and a message to Maldeo agreeing to recognize his conquest of Bikaner if he would expel or capture Humayun, with an implied threat of invasion if he did not comply was sufficient for Maldeo to grow cold towards Humayun who was advancing towards Jodhpur on the basis of an earlier invitation extended to him by Maldeo. In this changed situation, it was wise for Humayun to turn away, though it does not follow that Maldeo had intended to arrest his own guest. This averted Sher Shah’s threatened invasion, but as events proved, it only postponed the day of reckoning. No power based on Delhi and Agra was likely to tolerate a power in Rajasthan which could threaten it from the flanks, and disrupt communications with Malwa and Gujarat.
  • Battle of Sammel: Early in 1543, Sher Shah advanced from Agra with an army of 80,000 horses, and a strong park of artillery, and camped at Jaitaran, mid-way between Jodhpur and Ajmer. Maldeo had an army of 50,000 but the Rajputs lacked artillery. In his usual fashion, Sher Shah had dug trenches and earthworks around his camp to protect his position including his artillery. It would have been suicidal for Maldeo to attack the well fortified Afghan camp. After facing each other for a month, it seems that Rao Maldeo wanted to retreat to Jodhpur and Siwana where he could prepare a better defence. But this was not to the liking of Maldeo’s sardars who considered retreat, even a strategic one, to be dishonourable.
  • Difference of opinion, or forged letters from Sher Shah sowing doubts in Maldeo’s mind about the loyalty of some of his sardars, led to disunity in the Rajput camp of which Sher Shah took advantage. While Maldeo retreated with the bulk of his army, Sher Shah had little difficulty in overcoming the small gallant band of Rajputs. Maldeo took shelter in the fort of Siwana, but Jodhpur and Ajmer fell to the Afghans. After establishing his outposts there, Sher Shah turned to Mewar. The Rana purchased peace by surrendering Chittor. Sher Shah set up his out-posts upto Mt. Abu. Thus, he became master of all Rajasthan except a tract in the west.
  • Sher Shah’s oft quoted remarks that ” I had given away the country of Delhi in exchange for a handful of millets” should not lead us to conclude that victory was almost in Maldeo’s grasp if he had attacked boldly. Sher Shah’s remark was, in fact, a tribute to the gallantry of Jaita and Kupa, the leaders of the Marwar army, and the willingness of the Rajputs to face death even in the face of impossible odds.

Bundelkhand and death:

  • The conquest of Rajasthan should logically have led to the conquest of Gujarat, upper Sindh with its capital at Bhakhar, having been captured earlier. But for some odd reason, from Rajasthan Sher Shah turned to the conquest of Bhata (Rewa) in Bundelkhand. While besieging its fort, Kalinjar, Sher Shah died in May 1545 from burns when a rocket rebounded from the wall, and set fire to a bundle of rockets where he was standing. But he had the satisfaction of seeing the surrender of the fort before he died.

Jalal Khan(Islam Khan): (1545–1554)

  • Sher Shah was succeeded by his second son, Jalal Khan, who took the title of Islam Shah. Islam Shah’s reign of almost nine years was spent mostly in the civil war with his elder brother, Adil Khan, and in struggle with the nobility.
  • Although Islam Shah had been a noted warrior in Sher Shah’s time, he was both harsh and deeply suspicious, specially in his dealings with those nobles who had been close to his father, and who had helped to build the empire. At the same time, Islam Shah tried to assert the superior position of the monarchy, treating the nobles as servitors instead of being considered partners in the kingdom, as was the Afghan tradition. Thus, he issued detailed instructions which were read out every Friday in a gathering of high grandees where the slipper and the quiver of the Sultan were put on a high chair (qursi), and all the high grandees who were commanders of 20,000 or 10,000 or 5000 sawars advanced in proper orders and bowed to them.
  • He also tried to exercise greater financial control over the iqtas or jagirs of the nobles which led to the charge that he wanted to bring all the jagirs under imperial control (khalisa). He also tried to pay cash salaries to the soldiers, instead of jagirs.
  • All these steps led to resentment on the part of the Afghan nobles which burst forth after the death of Islam Shah in 1553, and led to the speedy disintegration of the Sur empire. This gave an opportunity to the Mughals to reassert themselves.
  • Islam Shah died on in 1554. He was succeeded by his son Firuz Shah Suri, who was only twelve. Within a few days the boy ruler had been murdered by Sher Shah’s nephew Muhammad Mubariz Khan, who then ascended the throne as Muhammad Adil Shah.
  • The incomplete tomb of Islam Shah lies about a kilometer to the North-West of Sher Shah’s tomb.

Administration and Contribution of Sher Shah and Islam Shah

  • Tarikh-i-Sher Shahi (History of Sher Shah), written by Abbas Khan Sarwani, a waqia-navis under later Mughal Emperor, Akbar around 1580, provides a detailed documentation about Sher Shah’s administration.Abbas wrote the Tarik-i Sher Shahi using his own local cultural style not in the style and language of standard Persian

Law and Order:

  • Although Sher Shah ruled only for about five years, he has many contributions to his credit. Sher Shah’s foremost contribution was the establishment of law and order over the length and breadth of the empire. Sher Shah laid great emphasis on making the roads safe, and took stern action against robbers and dacoits. He was convinced that the safety of the roads could only be ensured if the zamindars, some of whom were in league with the robbers, were kept under control. Thus, he took stern action against Fath Khan Jat who had devastated the entire tract of Lakhi Jungle (in the modern Montgomery district, and the old sarkar of Dipalpur) and had caused confusion from Lahore to Delhi by his violent behaviour.
  • The governors of the sarkars Sambhal (near modern Moradabad) and of Lucknow suppressed the contumacious zamindars and rebels of the area thoroughly where they had found shelter, and sought deliverance after repenting for having committed theft and highway robbery. Similarly, the governor of Kannauj dealt sternly with rebels and highway plunderers in the area under his control.
  • Thus, establishment of law and order implied not only making the roads safe, but of bringing to book zamindars and the raiyat which were remiss in paying land revenue, or in carrying out imperial orders.


  • Sher Shah laid great emphasis on improving roads and the system of communications, both to help military movements and to foster trade and commerce. The roads also ensured greater control over the countryside. Thus, he restored the old imperial road from the river Indus in the west to Sonargaon in Bengal.(Shershah suri marg)
  • He also built a road from Agra to Jodhpur and Chittor, which must have linked up with the roads leading to the sea-ports of Gujarat. He built a third road from Lahore to Multan which was the starting point for caravans to west and central Asia. He built a fourth road from Agra to Burhanpur, again linking it with the roads leading to the sea-ports of Gujarat.

Sarais and Dak Chauki(Postoffice):

  • For ensuring safety on the roads and for extending comforts to the travellers, he built sarais (kos minar) on the highway at a distance of two karohs (4 miles). Separate apartments were built for the Hindus and the Muslims where they could get beds and cooked food, and Muslim and Brahman cooks were appointed for the purpose. There also was provision for uncooked food-supplies being given to Hindus who had their own caste rules. According to Abbas Khan, Sher Shah made a rule to the effect that ” whoever came to the sarai was to be served with food out of government money according to one’s rank and his pony was given grain and drink.” A custodian (shahna) was appointed in each sarai to safeguard the goods of the merchants, and rent-free lands were allotted in the neighbourhood for their expenses, and for the expenses of the imam and the muezzin for the mosque which was built in each sarai.
  • Sher Shah built 1700 such sarais. They were really fortified inns, and were built strongly because some of them have survived even to-day. Sher Shah caused markets to be set up in every sarai. Many of the sarais became mandis where the peasants came to sell their produce, and were the nucleus for the growth of towns (qasbas) where trade and handicrafts developed.
  • These sarais must have been popular because later, Islam Shah ordered a sarai to be built between every two sarais of Sher Shah.
  • The sarais were also used for dak chowkis (postal service) for which two horses were kept at every sarai. By this means, by relays of horses news from a distance of 300 kos could reach in a day.

Trade and Commerce:

  • Apart from above steps, Sher Shah adopted other measures, too, to promote trade and commerce. He struck fine coins of silver and copper of uniform standard in place of the debased coins of mixed metals of earlier times. His silver rupee remained a standard coin for a long time.
    File:Sher shah's rupee.jpg
    Rupiya released by Sher Shah Suri, 1540–1545 CE, was the first Rupee

    File:Copper Dam of Sher Shah Suri, issued from Narnul mint.jpg
    Copper Dam of Sher Shah Suri, issued from Narnul min
  • The system of tri-metalism which came to characterize Mughal coinage was introduced by Sher Shah. While the term rūpya had previously been used as a generic term for any silver coin, during his rule the term rūpiya came to be used as the name for a silver coin of a standard weight of 178 grains, which was the precursor of the modern rupee.
  • He also made some effort to standardize weights and measures.
  • In Sher Shah’s empire, goods paid customs duty only two times—at the place of entry and at the time of sale. As an example, Abbas Sarwani tells us: ” When they (the merchandise) came from Bengal, the custom was levied at Garhi (Sikrigali)” . He adds, ” When it (merchandize) came from the direction of Khurasan, the custom duty was levied on the borders of the kingdom, and again a second duty was levied at the place of sale.” It is not clear why the produce of Bengal was clubbed with foreign merchandize.
  • For the safety and tranquility of the roads Sher Shah made it a rule to make the muqaddams (headmen of villages) and zamindars responsible for apprehending the culprits if the theft took place within their charge, or to make good the loss if they were unable to do so. If murder had been carried out, and the murderer not traced, the muqaddams themselves were to be put to death. It was a barbrous rule to club the innocent with the guilty, but it was based on the principle that theft and highway robbery were committed either at the instance of the muqaddams or that the muqaddams at least had full information about them. In any case, Sher Shah’s approach appear to have yielded good results so that Abbas Sarwani says ” In the days of the rule of Sher Khan if an old white-haired woman proceeded on the road with a basket full of good and ornaments on her head, none of the thieves and night patrols, out of dread of Sher Khan, could even go near her.” Abbas Khan’s emphasis was on the dictum ” First make the roads safe from the robbers, if you want the country to remain populous and prosperous.”
  • Sher Shah also urged the local and other officials not to injure the travellers and the merchants, and not to lay their hands on the property of the merchants if any one of them should die by accident and without heirs.
  • Also, officials were to purchase goods from the merchants only at their market price. That these injunctions were not always followed in practice is shown by similar regulations being made later on by Jahangir, and Bernier’s complaint of the mistreatment of the merchants by high nobles under Shah Jahan.

Revenue Reform:

  • It has been said that the most striking contribution of Sher Shah was his reform of the revenue system. He was well qualified to do so because he was fully acquainted with the prevailing revenue system as incharge of his father’s jagir, and as the virtual ruler of Bihar for ten years after 1530.
  • Sher Shah wanted that the assessment of land-revenue should not be based on crop sharing or estimation. Nor should the village head-men and zamindars be allowed to pass their burden on to the shoulders of the weaker sections.
  • Hence, as a ruler, he insisted upon the system of measurement (zabt). Although a system of measurement of the sown area was very old in India, and had been instituted or revived by Alauddin Khalji, the system of measurement introduced by Sher Shah was different from the traditional system.
  • In the traditional system, the crop-yield was estimated on the basis of sample cuttings in the sown area. Under Sher Shah, lands were divided into three categories — good, bad and middling, and the average yield computed. One-third of the average yield was the share of the state. On this basis, a crop-rate (ray) was drawn up, so that as soon as the sown field was measured, the share of the state could be determined. This could then be converted into rupees on the basis of local rates. The peasants were given the option of paying in cash or kind, though Sher Khan preferred cash.
  • Only Multan was excluded from measurement on account of special circumstances, the old system continuing there, with the state share being only one-fourth. He also laid down the charges to be paid to the measuring parties.
  • The measurement of fields was to be carried out every year. As a safeguard against famine which was a recurrent feature, a cess at the rate of two and a half seers per bigha was also levied.
  • There has been a good deal of controversy as to the extent to which these reforms were applied to different parts of the empire under Sher Shah and Islam Shah, and whether the settlement was made with each individual cultivator, or with the village headmen (muqaddams) and zamindars.
  • Although Abul Fazl says that under Sher Shah and Islam Shah, Hindustan passed from crop-sharing and estimation to measurement, but even under Akbar the system of measurement was prevalent only in the settled parts of the empire in the doab, Punjab and Malwa, and that even there it is probable that it did not cover the whole land in any province.However, the starting of the zabt system was undoubtedly a significant development.
  • The amount each peasant had to pay was written down on a paper called patta, and each one was informed of it. No one was allowed to charge anything extra. This has led some to compare it to the ryotwari system of the British whereby the state established direct relations with the peasants. However, modern research does not support this. While an attempt was made to assess the obligations of individual cultivators, the local head-men and zamindars were involved both in the process of assessment and collection of the land-revenue, and received remuneration for their services. No attempt was made by the medieval state to do away with the muqaddams and the zamindars because it was in no position to do so. All that it could do was to limit their exactions.

Attitude towards cultivators:

  • We find some contradictory elements in Sher Shah’s attitude towards the peasantry. He was very solicious of the interests of the peasantry. While looking after his father’s jagir, he is supposed to have said, ” I know that the humble raiyat are the pivot of agriculture. If they are happy the cultivation will thrive. If the raiyat are in a bad condition, the agricultural output will diminish.” Thus, he was very careful that when his army marched the cultivated fields were not affected. Horsemen were posted to prevent the soldiers entering into the cultivated portions of the farmers’ land, and he took stern action against those soldiers who were found violating this.
  • Abbas Khan says that if on account of the narrowness of the passage, the cultivation came to be trampled down by acts of necessity, trustworthy amins were appointed to measure the devastated portion of the cultivation and then to pay the compensation money to the raiyat.
  • However, Sher Shah solicitude applied only to peasants who were fully loyal, observed the imperial regulations, and paid their dues without demurr. No mercy was to be shown to those zamindars and their followers who were remiss in making the payments, or did not attend the office of the amils. In that case, their villages were to be captured, the men slain, women and children enslaved, their animals and property seized, and new peasants settled in the area. This, apparently, was a traditional practice.

System of government:

  • It does not seem that Sher Shah made any changes in the system of government in the country.
  • The lowest unit was the pargana which comprised a number of villages. Each village had a headman (muqaddam) who looked after law and order, and a patwari who kept accounts. Neither of them were government servants, but were entitled to a share in the produce.
  • The pargana was under the charge of  a shiqdar who looked after law and order and general administration, and a munsif or amil whose responsibility was to measure the land for land-revenue. Both these officials were responsible for the collection of land-revenue. They were assisted by two clerks who maintained accounts both in Persian and the local language (Hindavi). There was also a khazanadar or poddar who kept the cash and the money collected.
  • Sher Shah considered the posts of amils to be profitable ones, and changed the amils every two years so that others close to him could also benefit. This implies that the regulations he had made prohibiting collection of cesses and charges beyond those permitted were flouted in practice, and he had no means of stopping it.
  • Above the pargana was the shiq to which the word sarkar had begun to be used increasingly from the time of the Lodis. Although we are told that the sarkar was headed by a shiqdar-i-shiqdaran, no persons with such a title is found anywhere. The word used for the head of the sarkar was the faujdar or the muqta, and he was assisted by a munsif or munsif-i-munsifan who was responsible for the assessment of land revenue, and settling the boundary disputes between parganas. Both these officials were responsible for the collection of land-revenue which sometimes implied militarily operations.
  • Sultanat there was no provincial organization as such but sometimes a number of shiqs were grouped together, and called khitta or vilayat. This generally happened in frontier areas such as Bengal or Punjab, or some of the more turbulent areas. It appears that Sher Shah more or less maintained the same system. In Lahore, Bihar, Multan, Jodhpur, Ranthambhor and the hill-areas around Nagarkot, a number of shiqs or sarkars were group together under the control of an amin or muqta who was really a military commander. Khawas Khan was placed in charge of the vilayat of Jodhpur so that the faujdars of the sarkars of Ajmer, Nagor, Mewat were under him. Bengal was fragmented into units or shiqs because of fear of rebellion, and a non-military man, Qazi Fazilat, was appointed amin, merely to coordinate.
  • Thus, provincial governments evolved only under the Mughals. Sher Shah’s contribution was to stabilize and further consolidate the boundaries and structure of the shiqs or sarkars which remained the real unit of administration even under the Mughals.
  • Sher Shah did not like the Mughal system of government in which large powers were left in the hands of the ministers who were corrupt. Hence, he looked into everything himself, and devoted himself to work unremittingly, and constantly toured the country.This type of personal administration is supposed to be typified by his army organization.
  • He introduced the branding system (dagh) of the horses and descriptive-rolls (chehra) which had fallen into disuse. He imposed it very harshly. Descriptive rolls of even sweepers and female slaves in the palace were recorded. He used to personally interview every soldier and fixed his pay before he was inducted into the army, and had the horses branded in his own presence.
  • He maintained a personal army of 150,000 cavalry, 25,000 bowen and infantry men, including matchlock-men and bowmen, a park of artillery and 5,000 war elephants. In addition, there were nobles, some of whom were commanders of 20,000 sawars, or 10,000 or 5,000 sawars.
  • We do not know how their soldiers were recruited. Perhaps, the Afghan nobles must have recruited them on a tribal basis. Although we are told that Sher Shah himself fixed the monthly stipends of newly recruited soldiers, we do not know how much they were paid. It seems that both the nobles and the soldiers were paid by means of land-assignments or iqtas. 
  • Before undertaking any campaign, he asked his chiefs and soldiers if any of them was without iqtas so that arrangements could be made for grants to them before setting out. The chiefs were under strict instructions not to take anything out of the iqtas reserved for the soldiers. Thus, the question of Sher Shah wanting to do away with the iqta or jagir system does not arise.
  • However, howsoever hard an individual might work, it was impossible for him to personally supervise the administration of a vast country such as Hindustan. It seems that there was a revenue department and a department of the ariz which looked after the army. There also was a sadr who looked after the revenue-free grants made to religious people, scholars, etc., the sadr being asked to review all the grants made earlier. Thus, the traditional departments must have continued, but those at their head were perhaps allowed little power or authority. Such over-centralization proved harmful once a masterful man like Sher Shah had been removed from the scene.
  • Summery of Adminitrative structure of Shershah: Sher Shah had four ministers after the model of the Sultanate period. They were
    1. Diwan-i-Wazarat:The department was related with financial matters such as collecting taxes and maintaining accounts of the state exchequer.
    2. Diwan-i-Ariz:: Headed by ariz-i-mamalik, it was a military department.
    3. Diwan-i-Risalat:Headed by sadr, this department dealt with the religious and foreign affair matters. Diwan­i-Kaza, headed by qazi, worked under this department. The qazi looked after judicial administration.
    4. Diwan-i-Insha:Working as a secretariat, it issued royal orders. The head of this department was called dabir.

    Besides them there were minor officers, two of whom (the chief qazi and the head of the news department) enjoyed fairly high rank and are placed by some writers in the category of minister.

  • At the sarkar level: (i) shiqdar-i-shiqadaran to maintain law and order; and (ii) munshife-i-munshifan to supervise the revenue collection.
  • Three important officials at the paragana level were: (i) shikdar to maintain law and order; (ii) amin to collect revenue; and (iii) munsif to look after judicial matters.

Justice System:

  • Sher Shah gave great emphasis on justice. He used to say, ” Justice is the most excellent of religious rites, and is approved alike by the king of infidels and of the faithful.” Also that ” None of the devotions and prayers can be equated with justice and here all the sections of infidels and Islam are one on the point.” ” Justice implied making no distinction between men of his own tribe and near relations and others in awarding punishment, and to prevent oppression by those in power. It is difficult to say how effective he was in practice in this sphere, despite the presence of a large number of spies who reported on everything.
  • Qazis were appointed throughout the kingdom to dispense justice though we know little about their working. Panchayats and caste bodies must have continued to provide civil law to the Hindus, while zamindars and shiqdars were also involved in providing criminal justice.

Shershah as a builder:

  • Sher Shah’s reputation as a builder rests largely on the magnificent mosoleum he had built for himself at Sahsaram which was in a class by itself for strength, stability and harmony.

    File:Sher Shah Suri Tomb.jpg
    Sher Shah Suri Tomb at Sasaram
  • Sher Shah built monuments including Rohtas Fort  many structures in the Rohtasgarh Fort in Bihar, Sher Shah Suri Masjid, in Patna, built in 1540–1545 to commemorate his reign.

    File:Rohtas Fort Magnificent Kabuli Gate.jpg
    Rohtas Fort’s magnificent Kabuli Gate
  • He built a new city Bhera of Pakistan in 1545 and inside the city built historical grand Sher shah suri Masjid.
  • He built a city at Delhi on the bank of the Jamuna the only surviving parts of which are the Old Fort with its massive battlements, and the magnificent mosque (Qila-i-Kuhna mosque) inside it.Qila-i-Kuhna mosque, built by Sher Shah in 1541, at Purana Qila, (old fort) Delhi.
    Qila-i-Kuhna mosque

    File:Lal Darwaza or Sher Shah Gate, with ruins along approach.jpg
    Lal Darwaza or Sher Shah Gate, the Southern Gate to the Sher Shah Suri’s city, Shergarh, opposite Purana Qila, Delhi, also showing with the adjoining curon walls and bastions
  • A Humayun citadel started in 1533, and later extended by him, along with the construction of Sher Mandal, an octagonal building inside the Purana Qila complex, which later served as the library of Humayun.

    File:Sher Mandal, Purana Qila.jpg
    Sher Mandal, Purana Qila
  • These examples suffice to show that Sher Shah had great understanding and sensibility for architecture.
  • Although Sher Shah was generous in providing support and patronage to religious divines and scholars, the Sur period was too brief to produce any remarkable work of note, the only exception being the Hindi work Padmavat by Malik Muhammad of Jais in east U.P.

Character of the State under the Surs:

  • Sher Shah’s state is said to be ” a compromise between the Afghan and Turkish theories of sovereignty” The Afghan sardars were not supposed to be partners in the kingdom, but like Sher Shah himself, any of them could aspire to suzerainty.
  • Although Sher Shah was a despot, and kept the nobles under strict control with the help of spies, he paid attention to the susceptibilities and needs of his nobles and the soldiers. He paid special attention to the recruitment of Afghans who rallied around him. Large jagirs or iqta were given to the nobles. Khawas Khan, a favourite and leading noble of Sher Khan, had the whole sarkar of Sirhind as his maintenance iqta which he placed under the charge of his slave, Bhagwant. Khawas Khan, it may be noted, was not an Afghan, but the son of an Indian slave of Sher Shah, Malik Sukkha. However, the nobility under Sher Shah and Islam Khan was predominantly Afghan.
  • Sher Shah tempered his despotism by generosity and benevolence. He is reported to have ordered his high officials to maintain records of all the disabled and handicapped persons in different towns, cities and territories. All of them received maintenance allowances as well as cash grants.
  • He maintained a large langar khana (free kitchen) for the poor and the needy and this example was followed by some of his nobles.
  • Sher Shah was an orthodox Muslim and observed his prayers regularly. He was well acquainted with religious sciences, and constantly associated with learned men and religious divines. However, he was not bigoted. The cruel treatment meted out to Puran Mal of Chanderi cannot be justified, but it was a political measure which was given a religious gloss.
  • Although jizyah continued to be collected, it is called a city tax which implies that it was collected in the countryside as a part of land-revenue. There are no reference to destruction of temples. There are a few references to grant of rent-free lands not only to Muslims and foreign scholars, but also to brahmans, temples and maths. Thus, when Sher Shah was leading the expedition to Kalinjar, he met a brahman and was impressed by his frankness in speaking and gave him in grant one entire village in sarkar Kalpi and five hundred rupees in cash.
  • Islam Shah took an important step in limiting the influence of the ulama. He issued detailed orders not only on administration and revenue matters which had to be followed in every sarkar, but also in religious matters, without bothering whether they were in conformity of the sharia or not.
  • As the administration tightened, more and more Hindus were appointed to the revenue department, to the discomfiture of the Afghans. Opportunities for the Hindus broadened till under Adali, a successors of Islam Shah, Hemu, who had started official life as a shuhna of the market at Delhi, rose to the highest position of wazir. Although this happened in a period of disintegration, it showed a trend whereby the Afghans state set up by Sher Shah was slowly opening out and the social base of the ruling class becoming broader. But a basic change had to await the arrival of Akbar.

Leave a Reply