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Early Modern India

The Mughals: Babar

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 1 June 2009

Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, or just simply 'Babar', is attributed with laying the foundations for the rule of a new dynasty, the Mughals, in India in 1526.

Babar was the first Mughal to invade India, entering some time in 1519. He hailed from a small principality called Farghana in Badakshan (which cuts through the borders of modern Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and eastern Uzbekistan). He is said to have descended from the lineage of the great conqueror, Timur or Tamerlane, the founder patriarch of the Timurid dynasty of Central Asia, and Chagatai Khan, the son of Genghis Khan. However, his father's kingdom had been reduced to Farghana after successive defeats. He succeeded his father, Umar Sheikh Mirza at the tender age of twelve, and spent his early life as a king thwarting moves by his feuding relatives to dislodge him.

Babar, who was always fascinated by the conquests of Timur, attacked the Uzbek city of Samarkand in 1494, and captured it in 1497, when he was just seventeen years of age. But, just as he was about to consolidate his rule in Samarkand, a rebellion arose in his home province of Farghana. He had to return, but his troops deserted him along the way, losing him both Farghana and Samarkand.

Babar soon found himself threatened by the Uzbek chief, Shaibani Khan, whom he had encountered in Samarkand. Babar spent his life between 1494 and 1503 as a fugitive, avoiding capture by the Uzbeks.

In Kabul

Meanwhile in Kabul, a young boy who had been made king was displaced by one of his nobles, an unpopular man called Muquim the Arghun. Destiny beckoned Babar to interfere. In 1504, he managed to cross the Hindu Kush mountains and capture Kabul, followed later by Gazni (modern Kandahar).

Moghul emperor Babur

An early illustrated edition of the Babur-namah carries this portrait of Babur

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In 1507, Babar assumed the title of padishah, or emperor in Persian (later filtered as badshah in Urdu). He made many attempts to capture Samarkand, but failed miserably. Eventually, with assistance from the Persian king, Ismail, Samarkand did fall, but Babar was able to rule it only under Ismail's suzerainty.

Nevertheless, Babar already had the kingdom of Kabul under his absolute control. In 1513, he shifted his focus towards India. Since childhood, Babar had been taught of the immense riches of India, stories of the loot amassed in the raids conducted by his ancestor, Timur.

Babar now had an army of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Afghans and Turks rallied behind his banner, and he had learnt many military tactics during his conquests. He learnt the tulghuma [1] from the Uzbeks, the art of the ambuscade from the Mongols, the use of firearms from the Afghans, the use of artillery from the Persians, and the effective use of cavalry from the Turks. Putting all this together stood Babar in good stead for his subsequent battles in India.

There was a rebellion taking place in Delhi. Despite being sultan, many of Ibrahim Lodhi's courtiers were conspiring against him, including his own uncle, Alam Khan Lodhi. Sangram Singh, otherwise known as Rana Sanga, ruler of Mewar in Rajputana, was also conspiring to attack Delhi. Babar decided to take advantage of this situation.

[1] With the tulghuma, artillery is arrayed at the front, and behind it are the mounted troops, divided into centre, right wing and left wing, with flanking parties on the extreme right and left of the main line. The commander takes his place in the centre.

In India

He led many raids against Ibrahim Lodhi's Delhi sultanate between 1519 and 1526, along with his Turkish officers, Ustad Ali and Mustafa. He captured Bajaur, Berar, Sialkot, and Sayyidpur, and proceeded further to capture Lahore in the Punjab. The Afghan governor of the Punjab, Daulat Khan Lodhi, had displayed a flip-flop attitude towards Babar. For that, Babar decided to punish him. He captured the province of the Punjab, but later decided to revert his attention to Delhi. So he placed the Punjab under the care of Dilawar Khan Lodhi, the son of the former governor. But Daulat Khan managed to recapture Punjab himself.

In 1525, Babar attacked Punjab again, with a view to conquering it. He defeated Daulat Khan Lodhi again, making him a prisoner and sending him away to Bhera, but he died on the way.

On 21 April 1526, Babar met the army of Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi at the Battle of Panipat (in present day Haryana state). Sources say the Lodhi army had almost 100,000 soldiers (a 'lakh' in India), and a thousand elephants in comparison to Babar's twelve thousand. But Babar's superior military tactics and far better artillery proved to be the deciding factor in the battle. Babar defeated Ibrahim Lodhi's army conclusively, with Ibrahim himself being killed in the battle.

Lodhi's rebel courtiers and Rana Sanga tacitly supported Babar against the Lodhis, hoping that Babar, like his predecessors, would loot Delhi, weaken it and then turn back, leaving Delhi open and vulnerable for a Rajput attack under Rana Sanga from neighbouring Rajputana. But Babar had other ideas. He established his rule in Delhi, making it the capital of his vastly expanded kingdom.

After consolidating his rule in Delhi, he decided to try his luck in its neighbouring territories. This, of course, included Rajputana (or Rajasthan). The Rajputs are warrior clans belonging to the land of Rajasthan, and the word 'rajput' itself literally means 'the son of the king', with the people being known for their valour. When Babar attacked, he met with stiff resistance from the Rajputs under Rana Sanga. Rana Sanga was the veteran of a hundred battles who, having been disappointed by Babar's intentions towards Delhi, had decided to take him on in battle.

The Rajput army was almost twice the size of Babar's army, which itself was sceptical of its chances against the Rajputs. But Babar motivated his army in the name of Islam. He even announced that he was giving up alcohol until the submission of the Rajputs could be achieved. So Babar's army came face to face with the rana's army at the Battle of Khanua in 1527. Luck again sided with him when Rana Sanga was severely wounded in the battle. His army panicked in the absence of leadership and Babar had surmounted the Rajputs.

Next, Babar defeated Medini Rai, a vassal of Rana Sanga, at the Battle of Chanderi in 1528. This gave him control of Malwa, which opened the trade routes for Babar to the western parts of India.

Mahmud Lodhi, the nephew of Ibrahim Lodhi was plotting a return of the dynasty to the Delhi throne. He rallied the Afghans under him and challenged Babar in Bihar. He was promised help by Nusrat Shah, the Afghan ruler of Bengal. But Babar was on a winning spree. He defeated Mahmud Lodhi at the Battle of Ghagra in 1529. Mahmud Lodhi agreed to Babar's suzerainty. So did Nusrat Shah.

Babar had by now captured most of northern India.

Babar the ruler

He was fifty years old when he was taken seriously ill. There is a story that Humayun, his son, had become ill first. That's when Babar prayed to Allah to exchange his life for Humayun's. But many historians have refuted this story as apocryphal. They have concluded that Babar became ill almost six months after Humayun's illness had occurred and that Babar's long and tiring lifestyle and his addiction to alcohol and opium had taken their toll on him.

Babar died on 26 December 1530, after nominating Humayun as his successor to the Delhi throne. He was buried at Aram Bagh in Agra, but was later reburied in Kabul as per his last wishes.

Babar's character has been praised by many Muslim historians. He is said to have been a good son, an affectionate father, a caring relative and a very good friend. He was brave and chivalrous. He had a very strong physique and could run along a rampart holding two adults. He swam across all the rivers of India which he encountered. He was considered a great swordsman and horseman.

Babar is also said to have been a good diplomat, but was a laissez faire administrator. He left the day-to-day affairs of his kingdom to his officers. Moreover, no administrative reforms were introduced by him, and he just continued to use the administrative style of the Afghans.

Also, his kingdom was always short of finances due to his constant campaigning. He lavished much of his captured lands and wealth on his satraps and courtiers, but this munificence very often placed him in financial difficulties. His son, Humayun, had later to face the problems caused by Babar's fiscal indiscipline.

Persian culture and customs were said to have left an indelible mark on Babar. Later, he introduced this culture into India in a big way. He constructed Persian gardens, monuments, statues, fountains, and buildings reflecting the Turko-Persian culture and architecture which he'd left behind him in Khorasan and Transoxiana.

Babar was very scholarly. He is credited with having penned several poems in Persian and Chagatai Turkish. He wrote books, the Mubayyin and Khat-e-Baburi', indicating Muslim law. He also translated a famous work, Risala-i-Walida from the Turkic. His memoirs, the Baburnama, are considered to be a great work by many historians. In the Baburnama, Babar wrote about his time in India, its wealth, its artisans, its climate. He also made many disparaging remarks about India and its inhabitants, but this can be attributed to the fact that he viewed India with the eyes of a conqueror.

Moreover, he hadn't stayed in India for long enough to study all its regions and people. His view was more myopic and his perspective was that of a foreigner.

Babar was a Sunni Muslim, but was said to be very lenient towards the Shias. That is evident from his closeness to the shah of Persia, who was a Shia. Babar had also willingly accepted the suzerainty of Shia Persians over Samarkand. He was not a bigot, but he was very severe against non-Muslims, something which was very much the norm with Islamic invaders at the time, all of whom viewed all non-Muslims (kafirs, infidels, pagans), as prioritised enemies who had to be converted to the fold.

He had proudly assumed the title of 'gazi' (slayer of the infidels), after mercilessly slaying thousands of Rajputs during his campaigns. He had also destroyed a temple in Ayodhya (in modern Uttar Pradesh), which was revered as the birthplace of Lord Rama by Hindus, and had constructed a mosque over the ruins. This is still a political and proprietary dispute between the Hindus and Muslims of modern India.

Babur's tomb

The Bagh-e Babur in Kabul contains the tomb of Babur, where he was laid about nine years after his death, by Sher Shah Suri no less

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Main Sources

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000

Spear, Percival - The History of India, Penguin, 1990



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.