Most of us have read or heard the Birbal stories. In fact, we grew up reading those stories. Birbal, a courtier of Emperor Akbar, one of the nau rattan or the nine jewels of Akbar’s court, was known for his quick wit, wisdom and repartee. His stories were always amusing. In his exchanges with the king or other people, Birbal could always turn a point around, and manage to extricate himself honorably from a difficult and embarrassing situation. For example:
“Birbal was in Persia at the invitation of the Persian king. He was entertained and rich presents were heaped on him. On the eve of his departure for home, a nobleman asked him how he would compare the king of Persia to his own king? ‘Your king is a full moon,’ said Birbal, ‘whereas mine could be likened to the quarter moon.’ The Persians were very happy to hear that. But when Birbal got home he found Emperor Akbar furious with him. ‘How could you belittle your own king’ demanded Akbar. ‘You are a traitor!’ No, Your Majesty,’ replied Birbal. ‘I did not belittle you. The full moon diminishes and disappears whereas the quarter moon grows from strength to strength. What I, in fact, proclaimed to the world was that your power is growing from day to day whereas that of the king of Persia is about to go into decline.’ Akbar grunted in satisfaction and welcomed Birbal back with a warm embrace.”
Yes, Buner, which today is a district of Malakand Division, in Pakhtunkhwa, and was in the headline news for the Taliban insurgency and the subsequent army operation, in 2008 and 2009.
Many of us, even if we have heard or read about Birbal, probably didn’t know that Birbal was ever in Malakand and Buner or, for that matter, in the present-day Pakhtunkhwa.
At least I didn’t know it until, recently, I came across this book “Historical Battlefields of Pakistan”, written by Johny Torrence-Spence, a former British brigadier and military attaché in Islamabad from 2000 to 2004. (The book’s preface is written by General Jahangir Karamat, a former Chief of Pakistan Army and, later, ambassador to the US.)
The book describes the historical battles fought on the territory that, today, constitutes Pakistan. One such battle was the Battle of Malandari Pass, fought in Buner between the Mughal army, led by Birbal, and the local tribesmen, in 1586.
Here is the story, shorn of the military and other logistical details and paraphrased:
Akbar assumed the throne at Delhi in 1556 at the age of 14, and ruled India for nearly 50 years. By 1585, Akbar was at the peak of his power, and his rule extended even to Kabul, Afghanistan, where Akbar’s half-brother, Hakim, ruled as an autonomous governor.
When Hakim died suddenly in July 1585, Akbar, to preempt any incursion from across the Oxus (present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) immediately sent Mann Singh, a reliable general and one of Akbar’s “nine jewels” to take control of Kabul. Akbar also set about widening and improving the road from the Attock Fort to Kabul, through the Khyber Pass.
The area around the Khyber Pass was inhabited then, as now, by wild and fiercely independent tribes, whose main source of income was, and to a large extent still is, extortion from the travelers through the Khyber. (The quantum of extortion and the methods used these days have changed, though.) To police the road through the Khyber, Akbar spent a fortune raising levies from the local Khattak and Mohmand tribes. But the raids and plunder continued.
In 1586, the tribesmen overran the Khyber Pass and even attacked Peshawar, killing the governor.
Akbar thought enough was enough. He asked Man Singh, in Kabul now, to march through the pass and clear it, which Man Singh accomplished, albeit with some difficulty.
Second, to prevent any future attacks, Akbar decided to punish and subdue the tribes in the surrounding areas. To that end, he sent an expedition under the command of his foster-brother, Zain Khan to chastise the tribesmen.
Zain Khan was an illiterate person, but a brave soldier, a tough fighter and a good commander. He started from Attock with a column of soldiers, marching towards Nowshehra and then turning north towards Swat, following more or less the same route that leads to Swat today, he reached Chakdarra, the gateway to the Swat Valley and Bajaur. His march to Chakdarrah was not easy. In fact, he was harassed by the Yousafzai tribes all along the route. In Chakdarra, he started building a fort as a base from where he could lead forays into the adjoining areas.
At the same time, anticipating tough resistance from tribesmen, he asked Delhi to send reinforcements. Akbar agreed, but two contenders emerged for the honor of military command. Both were from among the “nine jewels” – and least qualified: One was Birbal and the other was Abul Fazal, a scholar and historian. Not wanting to displease any of the two, Akbar decided to cast lots. Birbal was chosen, who left for Malakand with a contingent of troops that also included elephants and, of course, horses and stores.
Soon, another contingent was also sent under the command of Abdul Fateh, another close friend of Akbar.
The three commanders – Zain, Birabal and Abdul Fateh – met at Chakdara where Zain was already camped. The three had different personalities and different war strategies. While Zain was a semi-literate person but a tough soldier and a good commander, the other two were educated and cultured individuals with very little fighting experience, if any. Zain wanted the fort built first and then launch the offensive against tribesmen. He thought moving the whole army in the narrow gorges, without a base, would be disastrous, Birbal and Abdul Fateh, on the other hand, wanted the whole army to move into Buner, to the East of Chakdarra, overwhelm the tribesmen, then move south to Swabi-Mardan, beating any resistance that came their way, and reach Attock Fort as quickly as possible. Zain yielded to the other two because of their higher pecking order in the royal court.
The Mughal army, now numbering 16,000, left Chakdarra on 12 February 1586, with Birbal in the lead and Zain bringing up the rear. It immediately ran into fierce resistance. The first hurdle they came across was the Karakar Pass — a steep climb. The pass was narrow for elephants to pass through easily, and the tribesmen continuously attacked the troops. After three or four days, they managed to the cross over the Karakar and descend into the Buner Valley. A war council was held once again. Zain Khan again proposed to build a base in the valley from where to attack the tribesmen, but Birbal and Abdul Fateh wanted to continue the march and fight their way back to Attock. And they prevailed.
But the valley was deceptive. To go south, they had to cross yet another obstacle, the Malandrai Pass. While the troops were camped in the valley, the tribesmen, using their age-old tactics, had already taken high positions on the hills on both sides of the track. The army entered the pass on February 24, 1586. The Yousafzais opened up with volleys of arrows and stones. In the ensuing melee, the route was blocked by elephants and horses. Birbal’s soldiers, panic-stricken and confused, fled into every direction into the maze of hills and ravines, to be slaughtered by tribesmen. Birbal was killed.
Only Zain Khan, in the rear and retaining any semblance of order, stubbornly pushed through the pass, picking up Abdul Fateh on the way, who was cowering under a bush. Having lost 8000 men, half of the army, the Mughal troops finally emerged from the Malandarai Pass into the Peshawar Valley and eventually made it to Attock.
When Akbar heard of the rout of his army, he was angry, and also devastated by Birbal’s death. It is said, he didn’t touch food or drink for two days.
The Yousafzais, meanwhile, flushed with victory, came down the hills and proceeded to attack Attock. Zaid Khan, however, using whatever troops he was left with, beat the tribesmen back. In the plains, the tribesmen were no match for a regular, disciplined army.
Zain Khan remained a reliable general and rose to the rank of “punj hazari” or commander of 5000, and governor of Kabul. He died in 1602 – of excessive drinking.
From here onwards, the Mughals did not interfere with the Pakhtun tribes in the hills. They continued to live independently, as they had always done in the past – until the British arrived. But that is another story, for another day.