Sher Khan Sur’s capture of Rohtasgarh fort through stratagem (late 16th century painting)

Sher Khan Sur’s capture of Rohtasgarh fort in 1539 A.D. Ascribed to the artists La’l, Dhanu and Khem Karan, leaf from the ‘third’ Akbarnama, Mughal India, circa 1595-1600 A.D.

Rohtasgarh Sher Shah Suri painting

Capture of Rohtasgarh by Sher Shah Suri

This skillfully designed painting illustrates part of the Sher Khan Afghan’s campaign against the Sultan of Bengal and against Humayun when he attempted to interfere. Sher Khan Sur was an Afghan born in India who carved out an empire for himself in Bihar and Bengal while Babur was busy expanding his empire from Agra and Delhi. In 1540 Sher Khan, or Sher Shah as he became, was able to drive Humayun out of India and assume the throne at Delhi. He was already the master of eastern India when Humayun marched against him in 1538. Humayun captured Gaur, the capital of Bengal, but Sher Khan had fled into the mountains of south Bihar with the treasure of Bengal and captured the great fortress of Rohtasgarh by the following stratagem:

From the Akbarnama (I, p. 335): 

“When Shēr Khān arrived in the neighbourhood of Rohtās, which is a very strong fort, he sent messengers to Rājā Cintāman, a brahman, the owner of the fort, reminding him of past favours, and after making a foundation of friendship, he represented to him that he was in a difficulty, and begged him to treat him with humanity and to receive his family and dependants into the fort, and thus make him (Shēr Khān) pledged to be his benefactor. By a hundred flatteries and deceptions the simple-minded Rājā was persuaded by the tricks of that juggler. He, a stranger to friendship’s realm, prepared six hundred litters, and placed in each two armed youths, while maidservants were placed on every side of the litters. By this stratagem he introduced his soldiers and took the fort. Having placed his family and soldiers there, he extended the arm of sedition and blocked the road to Bengal.”

Inscribed in the lower border: ‘designed by La’l, painting by Dhanu, portrait painting by Khem Karan’ and ‘Shir Khan’s capture of the citadel of Rohtas through stratagem’

On the reverse top left-hand corner: ‘New number 53’, ‘169’ in red at lower left; ‘Taj Muhammad Khan’. The remaining inscriptions seem to be magic letters with two words legible: Medicine (or magic) for health’.

(i) La’l

La’l has made brilliant use of the normal Mughal high or birds-eye view perspective allowing us to get a good idea of the vertiginous cliffs above which the great fortress sits. Four of the female palanquins are being borne along a defile and across a bridge leading to the gate of the fortress of Rohtas with beautifully detailed textiles on the tops of two of them. At the bottom, an expectant group of horsemen and a camel- and elephant-rider are perched above the defile awaiting developments. Inside the fortress the attack has already started. The buildings represented inside the fort are not unlike the palace buildings of Raja Man Singh, the Subahdar of Bengal under Akbar (see the aquatints published by Thomas and William Daniell, who visited Rohtasgarh in 1790, in their Oriental Scenery in Archer, nos. 81-3). La’l is one of the principal artists of the late Akbari period. He was extremely prolific and his work is found in most of the great manuscripts commissioned by Akbar between the 1580s and 1605 when he disappears (Verma, pp. 221-31). He and his colleague Dharm Das define the late Akbari style, and it is mostly from variations from the norm that we can discern the more individual artists.

(ii) Dhanu

Dhanu is a rarer artist whose colouring we find in some of the great manuscripts but who was entrusted with solo work only in the lesser manuscripts. Some of his solo work is highly sensitive, see Losty, no. 2. 
(iii) Khem Karan

Khem Karan is a senior artist of the whole Akbari period, since he is mentioned as a major artist by Abu’l Fazl in A’in 34 of the A’in-i Akbari, see Verma, pp. 216-19. Although not known as a portraitist, he and the other two artists of this folio also performed the same roles in the first known painting from this third manuscript of the Akbarnama, in the collections of the Maharaja of Jaipur, exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1947 (Ashton, pl. 127).
Source: ‘Court art from India, Persia and Turkey’ by Oliver Forge and Brenden Lynch.

Leave a comment