Was it Akbar who Killed Hemu?

Hemu was the vizier of the Afghan Suri king Adil Shah, also known as Adali. After the death of Mughal emperor Humayun on January 24, 1556, Hemu took control of Agra and Delhi.

When Humayun died, his thirteen-year-old son Akbar was in Punjab under the care of his guardian, Bairam Khan. Bairam Khan marched with Akbar to retake Delhi and Agra from Hemu.

On November 5, 1556, the armies of Hemu and Akbar met on the plain of Panipat. Luck was on the side of the Mughals, and during the fierce battle, Hemu sustained severe injuries. Mughal chief Shah Quli Khan Mahrum captured Hemu and brought him before Akbar. And Hemu was killed there.

The question now arises: who was responsible for the death of Hemu? This topic has sparked controversy, as various contemporary sources offer conflicting accounts regarding the death of Hemu.

Abul Fazl, Ferishta, and Nizam-ud-din are among the historians who agree that Bairam Khan was responsible for Hemu's death, although there are slight variations in their accounts.

Abul Fazl: "Shah Quli Khan brought in Hemu bound. Though they questioned him, he out of uncouthness made no reply. Perhaps he was unable to speak, or he was overwhelmed by shame and indisposed to say anything. Bairam Khan begged the Shahinshah to slay with this own sacred hand this stock of sedition, and to acquire merit by a holy combat. That lord of wisdom ...replied...that....his lofty spirit did not permit him to slay a captive and that it seemed to him that in the justice-hall of the Only One there was nothing meritorious in such an act. Though simple loyalists importuned and pressed him, the Shahinshah showed himself more and more averse to the proceeding....At last Bairam Khan when he perceived that H.M. was not inclined to take his view, withdrew from the attempt, and...himself became engaged in the acquisition of this fancied merit, and with his sword cleansed the world from the contamination of his existence."

He also makes the following comment: "Would that H.M. had come out of his veil and given attention to the matter! or that there had been some far-sighted master of wisdom in that court, so that they might have kept Hemu in prison and made him desirous of serving the threshold of fortune. Certainly he was a most excellent servant, and he had a lofty spirit. If he had been instructed by such a great one (as the far-seeing sage, or perhaps Akbar) what works might he not have performed?"

Ferishta: "When the unfortunate Hemu was brought into the presence, almost expiring with his wounds, Bairam Khan told the king, that it would be a meritorious action in him, to kill that brave infidel with his own hand. Akbar, in compliance to the advice of his tutor, drew his sword, but only gently touched the head of Hemu, bursting into tears of compassion. Bairam, looking sternly upon the king, insinuated, that the ill-timed clemency of his family, was the source of all their misfortunes, and with one stroke of the sabre, severed Hemu's head from his body."

Nizamuddin Ahmad: "Shah Quli Khan...took that elephant, with several others, that had been captured in the battle field, to the presence which was the asylum of the world, and brought it under the noble eyes. The Khan Khanan Bairam Khan slew Hemu with his own hand."


On the other hand, Khwaja Nimatullah, Ahmad Yadgar, and the Dutch chroniclers Francisco Pelsaert, Pieter Van den Broecke, and De Laet offer a different perspective. According to them, Hemu met his end at the hands of Akbar himself.

Khwaja Nimatullah: "Shah Quli Khan led the elephant to Akbar; and, dismounting Hemu, presented him before the monarch....Hemu, when carried before Akbar, breathed his last; but the emperor, with his own hand, severed the head of that infidel from the body, and assumed, from that moment, the title Akbar Padshah Ghazi."

Ahmad Yadgar: "When Shah Quli Beg was told of what had occurred, he came up to the elephant, and brought it into the presence of Bairam Khan. Bairam Khan, after prostrating himself, and returning thanks, caused Hemu to descend from the elephant, after which he bound his hands, and took him before the young and fortunate prince, and said, "As this is our first success, let Your Highness's own august hand smite this infidel with the sword." The prince, accordingly, struck him, and divided his head from his unclean body."

Francisco Pelsaert / Pieter Van den Broecke: "Shah Quli Khan presented to Akbar the prisoner Hemu and the elephant, pulling Hemu out the Ambarry. Then Bairam Khan took a sword and put it into the hands of prince Akbar who was then 14 years old and said "Put this godless heathen to death by your own hand." The prince did as he was told, being young and unable to think for himself. With one stroke he cut off the head which fell at a distance."

De Laet: "Hemu was brought before Akbar, who had hastened up on hearing of the rout of the Pathans; at the request of Quli Khan he cut off the head of the prisoner with his scimitar, and ordered it to be fixed on the gate of Delhi, a crime unworthy of a prince."


Among modern scholars, Vincent Smith supports the views of Ahmad Yadgar, and the Dutch chroniclers, asserting that it was Akbar who killed Hemu. Smith dismisses the notion of Akbar's magnanimity during Hemu's execution as a fabrication created at court to shape the emperor's character in a more favorable light. Instead, Smith argues that the truth is that the young prince obeyed his guardian and beheaded Hemu with a scimitar, earning the title of Ghazi.

"At the time Akbar was a boy barely 14 years of age, and that since his birth he had been reared among scenes of violence and bloodshed by Muhammadans who regarded the killing of Hindu infidel as a highly meritorious act....Is it probable that the boy Akbar in such a position would have felt any scruples?....Is it likely that in the circumstances a boy of 14 would set up his private opinion against that of his guardian and all the bystanders? Admitting that Akbar, in later life, might have felt qualms about cutting off the head of a surrendered and  insensible prisoner, it does not follow that he must have felt the same sentiments at the age of 14."

Dr. Damodar Singh and Sukumar Ray supports Vincent Smith's claim by quoting two contemporary Mughal records of Akbar's reign written by Arif Qandahari (Tarikh-i-Akbari) and Bayazid Bayat (Tazkira-i-Humayun wa Akbar).

Arif Qandahari: "When Hemu was brought before His Majesty, Khan Khanan prayed that he be killed by the emperor's sword. The king struck Hemu with his sword and he won the title of Ghazi. As there was some life left in him, Khan Khanan Bairam Khan killed him with his sword and finally sent him to hell."

Bayazid Bayat: "Hemu was taken to the foot of the elephant [Akbar's]. The servant of Hazrat [Akbar] said: 'If you become Muslim then I shall forgive you'. But Hemu declined the offer. At last the servant of Hazrat [Akbar] struck Hemu with his sword; and consequently that day Jalaluddin Akbar was given the title of Ghazi.


Jahangir relates a curious account about Hemu's death in his Memoirs: "Immediately they brought him [Hemu] as he was before His Majesty Arsh-Ashyani [Akbar]. Bairam Khan said that it would be appropriate for His Majesty to stick a sword into this infidel with his own hand so that he may acquire the reward for ghaza and incorporate the title ghazi into the seals of his decrees as part of his blessed name. "I have already torn him to pieces," His Majesty said. And then he explained, saying, "One day in Kabul I was practicing drawing with Abdul-Samad Shirin-Qalam. I drew a picture of a person with disjointed limbs. One of those nearby asked who it was a picture of. I said, "It's a picture of Hemu." So as not to defile his hand with Hemu's blood, Akbar said to one of his servants, "Behead him!"

Abul Fazl also mentions this event. During one of Akbar's drawing sessions, he sketched a man with all his limbs separated. When a courtier asked about the unusual drawing, Akbar explained that it was a representation of Hemu, even though Hemu was not well-known at the time. On the day when Bairam Khan tried to induce Akbar to personally slay Hemu, Akbar declared that he had already defeated and dismembered him on a previous occasion, referencing the incident of the picture. This happened when Humayun returned to India after defeating Sikandar Suri in 1555!


Lastly, the account of Badauni is of great importance in understanding Akbar's reign, as it contains significant criticism of him. Badauni's work was kept secret and he had no reason to make false statements. Therefore, Badauni can be considered a reliable authority on the death of Hemu. He states:

"They [Shah Quli Khan] brought him [Hemu] as he was to the camp. And Shaikh Gada-i Kamboh and others, said to the emperor, "Since this is your Majesty's first war against the infidels, you should flesh your sword in this unbeliever, for such an act would have great reward." But the emperor replied, "Why should I strike him now that he is already as good as dead? If sensation and activity were left in him, I would do so." Then the Khan Khanan was the first to strike his sword into him, as an act of religious warfare, and following his example, Gada-i Shaikh, and the others, deliberately made an end of him."


Hemu's death is mentioned in a contemporary Rajput chronicle, the Dalpatvilas: "Then they [Shah Quli Khan and Wali Beg] took hold of him [Hemu], and brought him to the emperor. The Khan Khanan said to the emperor, "If you slay him with your own hands you will be a Ghazi." The emperor replied, "I have not the heart to kill him." The amirs requested him again three or four times. But the emperor said, "I cannot kill Hemu. I feel pity for him." Then Bairam Khan from one side and Wali Beg from the other did Hemu to death."


Many historical accounts agree that the young Akbar displayed a magnanimous sentiment by refusing to kill a helpless captive. This suggests that 'liberalness and magnanimity were the inborn qualities of Akbar'. On the other hand, if Akbar agreed to Bairam Khan's request to strike Hemu, it would mean that his broad humanity developed later in life.


The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians. Elliot & Dowson

Tarikh-i-Khan Jahani Wa Makhzan-i-Afghani of Khwaja Nimatullah

Tarikh-i-Firishta or Gulshan-i Ibrahim of Muhammad Qasim Hindu Ferishta

Tabaqat-i-Akbari of Nizamuddin Ahmad

Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh of Abd al-Qadir Badauni

Tarikh-i-Akbari or Tarikh-i-Qandhari of Muhammad Arif Qandhari

The Death of Hemu in 1556, after the Battle of Panipat By Vincent A. Smith

Who Killed Hemu? By Dr. Dasharatha Sharma

The Execution of Hemu Dr. Damodar Singh

The Death of Himu By Sukumar Ray