The ill-fated ruler was farsighted in more ways than one. Restoring his mausoleum in Sasaram might be a good way to acknowledge his contribution, says R.V. Smith

The spotlight this week has to be on Sher Shah Suri, whose mausoleum in Sasaram, Bihar, was found dirty, defaced and utterly neglected by Union Minister Jairam Ramesh. The minister is a man of varied interests, as is apparent from his visit to an out-of-the-way monument last week, where only the local hoi polloi, particularly young lovers looking for privacy, are to be found day in and day out. The last resting place of Sher Shah’s father nearby is also a picture of desolation. Quite a contrast to his archrival Humayun’s tomb, now so spruced up under the Aga Khan Foundation restoration plan. Sher Shah died during the siege of Kalinjar in May 1545 during an explosion. He was mortally wounded and did not survive for long at a time when he was at the zenith of his power after ousting the Mughals, though temporarily. Had he lived on, Humayun might not have been able to win back his kingdom even with Persian help.

Sher Shah, acclaimed by most historians — particularly Dr. Kanungo — rebuilt Humayun’s Dinpanah (Purana Quila), one of whose prominent buildings is the Sher Mandal. It was there that Humayun eventually met his end after an accidental fall on the steps, which he was descending in a hurry to answer the evening call for prayer. The stair on which his foot got caught in his robes still exists and one can see that it is crooked and accident-prone. Was it a deliberate act by the masons or Sher Shah to teach a lesson to hasty enemies or a quirk of destiny that the stair should have been there in the first place? Secondly, the call for prayer was given at the wrong time by a man seemingly deputising for the regular muezzin while Humayun was scanning the skies for a constellation that “had swung into his ken” (to quote from Keats, as much an opium eater as the King). No doubt he was surprised by the early azaan, and his impulse to get down and rush to the masjid proved fatal. Was it kismet’s way of retribution for the sudden end of the Sur dynasty? One cannot help thinking thus, though it is not true.

In the case of Sher Shah, it is not known whether the gunpowder explosion at Kalinjar was an accident or a deliberate act by an envious soldier of his, perhaps harbouring ill will on behalf of the ousted Mughals. Some do not rule out this possibility at a time when victory was within easy grasp of the Afghan forces. Be that as it may, another surprising thing is, why did Sher Shah wish to be buried in distant Sasaram and not Delhi, which he had embellished with many buildings and even built a new city of Siri? The walls of his township still stand at places along with at least two gates — Lal Darwaza and Kabuli Darwaza. The simple answer is that the Afghan ruler was deeply attached to Sasaram, where he and his family had lived for long and where his father had died and was buried.

Giving concrete shape to his sentiments, Sher Shah built his mausoleum in his lifetime and that of his father too. And what a beautiful monument it is, situated in a mini-lake, with a baoli or step-well attached to it. Jairam Ramesh, in a letter to the Union Minister for Culture, Kumari Selja, as quoted by a news agency, has drawn attention to the deplorable state of the monument and the dirty water in the lake and the baoli, made filthier by human and animal excreta and dumping of other rubbish by visitors or vandals. And yet this magnificent building, according to reports, was included in 1998 in UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage Monuments, which included the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and Qutub Minar.

That Sher Shah’s creation should be at par with such world-famous sites is all the more reason to preserve it for posterity. It is a tribute to a farsighted monarch who not only built the G.T. Road from Calcutta to Peshawar, lining it with trees, wells and sarais or inns for the convenience of travellers but also suppressed highwaymen. It’s certainly a long way from Bengal to Peshawar and that the project could be completed by the ill-fated ruler during the course of the five years of his brief reign is an example of his sagacity and administrative skills. Even the British made use of the Grand Trunk Road to establish an integrated countrywide link.

It was on Sher Shah’s policies that Akbar based his principles of governance to achieve tremendous success and gain the title of “The Great Mogol” the world over. In that sense, Sher Shah could be said to be his precursor, albeit unknowingly. Even the rupee was his coinage — how smoothly it fits into our modern-day financial dealings is evident. As homage to this wise ruler, the Archaeological Survey of India should take immediate steps to protect and preserve his mausoleum.

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