Hemu Bania: The Last Hindu Emperor of India

Not until very recently did I know that the last native ruler of India, the last indigenous Hindu Samrat – Emperor – who sat on the throne of Delhi, who almost ousted Mughals before India fell under their rule, was a man of humble origins from the merchant or trading class, a bania, whose name is only mentioned in passing in our history books. Indeed, history is written by the victors! He was Samrat Hemchandra Vikramaditya, or Hemu Bania as commonly known.

I learned about Hemu from Guruji in one of my recent visits and was intrigued (and also a bit ashamed that I did not know about this historical figure of India.) I searched for more information about him and found a few references available online. But the most comprehensive one is here: http://indianhistoryfact.blogspot.com/2012/12/vikramaditya-hemu-chandra-great.html. Presenting excerpts from this article to describe Hemu’s story in a nutshell:

Hemu rose from humble beginnings in a vendor / shopkeeper family in northwestern India. At the time, in early 1500s, significant parts of India were under Afghan occupation. In 1526, Babur, a tribal king from Central Asia, invaded India and captured the throne of Delhi to establish Mughal empire. Sher Shah Suri defeated Babur’s successor, Humayun, and reestablished Afghan rule in 1550. Hemu, starting as a goods supplier to Sher Shah’s army, rose through the ranks to Governor of Punjab under his son, Ismail Shah. While the Afghans disintegrated through infighting, Hemu continued to play a pivotal role in their administration and rose to become the Prime Minister. Seeing the downfall of Afghans, Mughals under Humayun tried their luck again and invaded and captured Delhi. Hemu, noticing the leadership gap among the Afghan Suris and sensing the bigger danger from the Mughals, rose to the occasion, declaring himself as the king with the consent of his Indian and Afghan generals, and led the charge against the Mughals. With only 50,000 soldiers he won through Bengal, Bihar, UP and MP, entering Agra without a fight as the Mughal commanders there fled in panic, and eventually defeated the Mughal army to win over Delhi.

Victorious Hemu entered Delhi on October 6, 1556 as a sovereign. It’s difficult to imagine the exact thoughts in his mind. But it was a historical moment for India. After 350 years of almost unbroken Afghan rule, an Indian king had entered Delhi! Hemu must be acutely aware of the significance of this moment. That is why he assumed the title of Vikramaditya – a title assumed by many illustrious Indian emperors in the history of India!

On Nov 5, 1556, Mughal army led by young Akbar and his guardian and chief military strategist, Bairam Khan, attacked to reclaim Delhi. Hemu led the charge for his side (while for Mughals, Akbar and Bairam Khan stayed back 8 miles from the battlefield prepared to flee back to Kabul in case of a defeat!) He was poised for victory. But his destiny, as well as India’s destiny, had something else in mind! A stray arrow hit him in the eye and he collapsed due to severe bleeding. Seeing that, his army lost their fighting spirit – no other commander came forward to step up – and an easy victory turned into a disastrous defeat. Unconscious Hemu was captured and beheaded by Bairam Khan. Akbar and Bairam Khan entered Delhi the next day. And as expected, genocide was ordered of the ‘community of Hemu’ – Indians and his main Afghan supporters. Thousands were killed and minarets were built of the skulls of the dead. At least one painting of such minarets is displayed in ‘Panipat Wars Museum’ at Panipat in Haryana.

One cannot but feel disheartened at the tragic loss of Hemu’s armies in the second battle of Panipat. Many historians mention this loss as Hemu’s bad luck. It was in fact India’s bad luck! When it appeared that after 350 years of oppression people of North India would finally see the light of freedom, occupation returned with a greater force and cohesion.

But Hemu’s defeat does not make his valiant effort any less significant. He was not born in a traditional Kshatriya family, but the caste barriers – a traditional weakness of Indian society – could not stop him from becoming an Emperor. And he did so in style – assuming the title of Vikramaditya was a clear sign of his desire to present his rule as a continuum of the ancient traditions of India. He was the last Indian who became the ruler of Delhi and might have been successful in creating an Indian dynasty.

It is disheartening, and a shame, that very few Indians know about him today. Hemu Bania, or Samrat Hemchandra Vikramaditya, really is an unsung hero of India.

There’s now a Wikipedia page on Hemu, which is, sadly, inundated with conflicts and biases. The page has been edited over 1,500 times(!), by over 500 “armchair historians”. They make changes, then undo others’ changes. This text from the article was carefully and silently deleted in one of these edits:

After Hemu’s death, a massacre of Hemu’s community and followers was ordered by Bairam Khan. Thousands were beheaded and towers of skulls were built with their heads, to instil terror among the Hindus and Afghans. These towers were still in existence about 60 years later as described by Peter Mundy, an English traveler who visited India during the time of Jahangir.

This text was added so that Akbar is seen in a good light:

Bairam Khan asked the 13-year-old Akbar to behead Hemu, but he refused to take the sword to a dying man. Akbar was persuaded to touch Hemu’s head with his sword after which Bairam Khan executed him.

It’s hard to understand what Akbar’s alleged nobility had to do with the story of Hemu! It may be because the only official historical records surviving today about Hemu and that battle were made in the court of Akbar.

What saddens me, more than these appeasement gimmicks, is the argument about whether Hemu was really a Vaishya (bania) or Brahmin! People are going to great lengths to prove that he actually was a Brahmin, as if his being a bania would somehow lessen his valor and his accomplishment. The only thing they care about is that “there should be an healthy discussion and research about his caste and clan so that a clear view can be shown to public at large.” I don’t know what “view” they are trying to show, but this is the kind of narrow-mindedness that resulted in 1000+ years of foreign rule over India, and the sad part is that it still survives today.

Anyway, read this great article for comprehensive details about Hemu’s life and impact: http://indianhistoryfact.blogspot.com/2012/12/vikramaditya-hemu-chandra-great.html

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