Medieval Indian History - Sur Empire


  • Founded by Sher Shah, the Sur Empire ruled India from 1540 to 1555.

Sher Shah

  • Sher Shah Suri ascended the throne of Delhi at the age of 67. His original name was Farid and his father was a jagirdar at Jaunpur.

Sher Shah
  • Sher Shah spent his childhood with his father and remained actively involved in the affairs of his father’s jagir. Because of this, he learned rich administrative knowledge and experience.

  • Sher Shah was very intelligent, as he never let any opportunity to go in vain. The defeat and death of Ibrahim Lodi and the misunderstanding in Afghan affairs let Sher Shah emerge as the most important Afghan sardars (of that time).

  • Because of his smart skill set and administrative quality, Sher Shah became as the right hand of the ruler of Bihar.

  • After killing a tiger, the patron of Sher Shah adorned him the title of ‘Sher Khan.’

  • As a ruler, Sher Shah ruled the mightiest empire, which had come into existence (in north India) since the time of Muhammad bin Tughlaq.

  • Sher Shah’s empire was extended from Bengal to the Indus River (excluding Kashmir). In the west, he conquered Malwa, and almost the entire Rajasthan.

  • Maldeo, the ruler of Marwar, ascended the gaddi (kingdom) in 1532, and in a short span of time, took the control of whole of western and northern Rajasthan. He further expanded his territories during Humayun's conflict with Sher Shah.

  • In the course of the conflict, the Maldeo was killed after a courageous resistance. His sons, Kalyan Das and Bhim, took shelter at the court of Sher Shah.

  • In 1544, the Rajput and Afghan forces clashed at Samel (located between Ajmer and Jodhpur). While invading different jagirs of Rajasthan, Sher Shah had taken the great precautions; at every step, he would throw up entrenchments to guard against a surprise attack.

  • After the battle of Samel, Sher Shah besieged and conquered Ajmer and Jodhpur, forced Maldeo into the desert.

  • Merely in 10 months of ruling period, Sher Shah overran almost the entire Rajasthan. His last campaign was against Kalmjar; it was a strong fort and the key to Bundelkhand.

  • During the Kalmjar campaign (1545), a gun burst and severely injured Sher Shah; the incident took, Sher Shah’s life.

  • Sher Shah was succeeded by Islam Shah (his second son), who ruled till 1553.

  • Islam Shah was a competent ruler and general, but most of his energies were lost in controlling the rebels raised by his brothers. Besides, rebels of tribal feuds also pulled Islam Shah’s attention.

  • Islam Shah’s death (November 1554) led to a civil war among his successors. The civil war created a vacuum that ultimately provided an opportunity to Humayun to recover empire of India.

  • In 1555, Humayun defeated the Afghans, and recovered Delhi and Agra.

Sher Shah’s Work

  • Sher Shah was one of the most distinguished rulers of north India who had done a number of developmental works (along with well-planned administrative works). His works can be studied under the following heads −

Administrative Works

  • Sher Shah re-established law and order across the length and breadth of his empire.

  • Sher Shah placed considerable emphasis on justice, as he used to say, "Justice is the most excellent of religious rites, and it is approved alike by the king of infidels and of the faithful".

  • Sher Shah did not spare oppressors whether they were high nobles, men of his own tribe or near relations.

  • Qazis were appointed at different places for justice, but as before, the village panchayats and zamindars also dealt with civil and criminal cases at the local level.

  • Sher Shah dealt strictly with robbers and dacoits.

  • Sher Shah was very strict with zamindars who refused to pay land revenue or disobeyed the orders of the government.

Economic and Development Works

  • Sher Shah paid great attention for the promotion of trade and commerce and also the improvement of communications in his kingdom.

  • He reinstated the old imperial road known as the Grand Trunk Road, from the river Indus in the west to Sonargaon in Bengal.

  • He also built a road from Agra to Jodhpur and Chittoor, noticeably linking up with the road to the Gujarat seaports.

  • He built a separate road from Lahore to Multan. At that time, Multan was one of the central points for the caravans going to West and Central Asia.

  • For the convenience of travelers, Sher Shah built a number of sarai at a distance of every two kos (about eight km) on all the major roads.

  • The sarai was a fortified lodging or inn where travelers could pass the night and also keep their goods in safe custody.

  • Facility of separate lodgings for Hindus and Muslims were provided in the sarai. Brahmanas were appointed for providing bed and food to the Hindu travelers, and grains for their horses.

  • Abbas Khan Sarwani (who had written ‘Tarikh-i-Sher Shahi’ or history of Sher Shah) says, "It was a rule in the sarai that whoever entered there, received provision suitable to his rank, and food and litter for his cattle, from the government."

  • Sher Shah also made efforts to settle down villages around the sarai, and the land was set apart in these villages for the expenses of the sarai.

  • Sher Shah built about 1,700 sarai; some of them are still existing, which reflect how strong these sarai were.

  • Over a period of time, many of the sarai developed into qasbas (market-towns) where peasants flocked to sell their produce.

  • Sher Shah’s roads and sarai have been called as "the arteries of the empire." These development works strengthened and fasten the trade and commerce in the country.

  • In Sher Shah’s entire empire, customs duty was paid only at two places: the goods produced in Bengal or imported from outside paid customs duty at the border of Bengal and Bihar at Sikrigali and goods coming, from West and Central Asia paid custom duty at the Indus. No one was allowed to levy custom duty at roads, ferries, or town. The duty was paid a second time at the time of sale.

  • Sher Shah instructed his governors to compel the people to treat merchants and travelers well and not to harm them in any way.

  • If a merchant died, no one to seize his goods.

  • Sher Shah enjoined the dictum of Shaikh Nizami i.e. "If a merchant should die in your country it is a perfidy to lay hands on his property."

  • Depending on the territoriality, Sher Shah made the local village headmen and zamindars responsible for any loss that the merchant suffered on the roads.

  • If the goods of a merchant were stolen, the headmen and/or the zamindars had to produce them, or to trace the haunts of the thieves or highway robbers, failing which they had to undergo the punishment meant for the thieves and robbers.

  • Though it sounds barbarous (to make innocent responsible), but the same law (discussed in the immediate above point) was applied in cases of murders on the roads.

  • Abbas Sarwani explained Sher Shah’s law and order in the picturesque language i.e. "a decrepit old woman might place a basketful of gold ornaments on her head and go on a journey, and no thief or robber would come near her for fear of the punishment which Sher Shah inflicted."

  • Sher Shah’s currency reforms also promoted the growth of commerce and handicrafts.

  • For the trade and commerce purpose, Sher Shah made an attempt to fix standard weights and measures across his empire.

Administrative Division

  • A number of villages comprised a pargana. The pargana was under the charge of the shiqdar, who looked after law and order and general administration, and the munsif or amil looked after the collection of Land revenue.

  • Above the pargana, there was the shiq or sarkar under the charge of the shiqdar-i-shiqdran and a munsif-i-munsifan.

  • Accounts were maintained both in the Persian and the local languages (Hindavi).

  • Sher Shah apparently continued the central machinery of administration, which had been developed during the Sultanate period. Most likely, Sher Shah did not favor leaving too much authority in the hands of ministers.

  • Sher Shah worked exceptionally hard, devoting himself to the affairs of the state from early morning to late at night. He also toured the country regularly to know the condition of the people.

  • Sher Shah's excessive centralization of authority, in his hands, has later become a source of weakness, and its harmful effects became apparent when a masterful sovereign (like him) ceased to sit on the throne.

  • The produce of land was no longer to be based on the guess work, or by dividing the crops in the fields, or on the threshing floor rather Sher Shah insisted on measurement of the sown land.

  • Schedule of rates (called ray) was drawn up, laying down the state's share of the different types of crops. This could then be converted into cash on the basis of the prevailing market rates in different areas. Normally, the share of the state was one-third of the produce.

  • Sher Shah’s measurement system let peasants to know how much they had to pay to the state only after sowing the crops.

  • The extent of area sown, the type of crops cultivated, and the amount each peasant had to pay was written down on a paper called patta and each peasant was informed of it.

  • No one was permitted to charge from the peasants anything extra. The rates which the members of the measuring party were to get for their work were laid down.

  • In order to guard against famine and other natural calamities, a cess at the rate of two and half seers per bigha was also levied.

  • Sher Shah was very solicitous for the welfare of the peasantry, as he used to say, "The cultivators are blameless, they submit to those in power, and if I oppress them they will abandon their villages, and the country will be ruined and deserted, and it will be a long time before it again becomes prosperous".

  • Sher Shah developed a strong army in order to administer his vast empire. He dispensed with tribal levies under tribal chiefs, and recruited soldiers directly after verifying their character.

  • The strength of Sher Shah's personal army was recorded as −

    • 150,000 cavalry;

    • 25,000 infantry armed with matchlocks or bows;

    • 5,000 elephants; and

    • A park of artillery.

  • Sher Shah set up cantonments in different parts of his empire; besides, a strong garrison was posted in each of them.

  • Sher Shah also developed a new city on the bank of the Yamuna River near Delhi. The sole survivor of this city is the Old Fort (Purana Qila) and the fine mosque within it.

  • One of the finest nobles, Malik Muhammad Jaisi (who had written Padmavat in Hindi) was the patron of Sher Shah’s reign.

Religious View

  • Sher Shah did not, however, initiate any new liberal policies. Jizyah continued to be collected from the Hindus.

  • Sher Shah’s nobility was drawn exclusively from the Afghans.