In 1525 a descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane crossed the Khyber Pass with a tiny army in a desperate gamble: an attack on the powerful Sultanate of Delhi. On the dusty plain of Panipat, he would lay the foundation of India’s mightiest empire: the Mughal!
Few would-be warlords were born with a more illustrious pedigree than Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, commonly known as simply Babur (“Tiger”). Born in 1483 the eldest son of the Timurid king of Ferghana, he was descended from Turko-Mongol conqueror Timur the Lame (known to the English-speaking world as “Tamerlane“) on his father’s side. On his mother’s side he enjoyed an even more celebrated ancestor: no less than Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire and perhaps history’s greatest conqueror.
But the empires of his two great ancestors had long-since fragmented into petty kingdoms and khanates by the time of Babur’s birth. The young prince’s prospects for future greatness seemed unlikely, and his place in the dangerous world around him was uncertain.
As his father’s son, Babur was heir to nothing more than the mountain-girt valley of Ferghana; bordered on the east by Kashgar, and in the west by Samarkand, former capital of the Timurid Empire. The kingdom’s only significance was that it lay along the northern portion of the Silk Road. That, and the historic excellence of its horses, which breed the ancient Chinese called the “Heavenly Horse”. When Babur’s father, Umar Sheikh Mirza, died in 1494 (two years after Columbus discovered the Americas) the twelve-year-old Babur  inherited the throne. The boy’s right to rule was immediately challenged by powerful uncles who ruled neighboring kingdoms (most of the rulers of this region were relatives of the boy, descendants of Timur).
The arid Fergana Valley today, which straddles eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan. Straddling the northern Silk Road, herein lay the petty kingdom to which young Babur was heir.
Despite his extreme youth, Babur held onto his throne, thanks to the skill of his maternal grandmother and the kingdom’s regent, Aisan Daulat Begum. This Mongol princess was descended from Chaghatai Khan, the second son of Genghis Khan; and possessed all the courage and political skills of those great men. Throughout his minority, she guided Babur and taught him the arts of king-craft. She also raised him on tales of the military exploits of Genghis Khan and of Timur, and became his earliest lessons in the art of warfare. Ever prepared to give praise and thanks where it was due, Babur later wrote of her: “Few among women will have been my grandmother’s equal for judgement and counsel; she was very wise and farsighted and most affairs of mine were carried through under her advise.”
In 1497 the ambitious and capable fifteen year old Babur decided upon nothing less than the capture of the imperial Timurid city of Samarkand. The city was at that time one of the wealthiest and most populous in the world, and a center of great learning. In alliance with his cousin Sultan Ali of Bukhara, Babur marched upon the city. This was a bold move for the young warlord.
The siege lasted seven months. Throughout this operation the young Babur showed a grasp of strategy and far-sighted judgement well beyond his years. As winter came, the young king’s officers wanted to disperse back to their homes. But not wishing to lift the blockade on Samarkand, Babur instead dispersed his Army into winter quarters in towns and fortresses around the city.
The haunting ruins of the once-great city of Samarkand
While dispersed about the city, a relief army approached from the north. These were fierce Uzbek Turks, nomads from north of the Aral Sea. “Untainted” by the softening influences of civilization and wealth, these Uzbeks were possessed of all the savage ferocity and hardiness that characterized the first generation of Mongol warriors who followed Genghis Khan off the steppes, to lay the world beneath their horses hoofs. This Uzbek horde was led by another descendant of Genghis Khan (through his eldest son, Jochi): their formidable Khan Muhammad Shaybani. The last great Mongol conqueror to come out of the central Asian steppe, Shaybani would prove to be the nemesis of Babur’s early life.
Arriving at Samarkand Shaybani had expected to find the young Babur unprepared, his army scattered back to their homes for the winter. But Babur had learned of the Uzbek’s imminent arrival. Mustering his nearby forces, he was prepared for battle when Shaybani arrived. Like wolves finding another strong pack already devouring the prey, Shaybani withdrew after a reconnaissance of Babur’s forces, the region around Samarkand, and the city’s defenses.
When the city fell at last, Babur showed clemeny to the population, which had suffered greatly during the long blockade; and refused to allow his army to plunder the city of Timur. This led many of his Turko-Mongol (Mughal) soldiers to desert in disgust: these wolves of the steppe fought for plunder, joining whatever strong warlord could best satisfy their hunger. The land was exhausted after so long a siege, and the passage of armies had damaged the surrounding fields. Unable to properly provision even his own personal vassals, many of these too returned home to Fergana. There, the disaffected chieftains rebelled against Babur.
Learning of the loss of his home-base, Babur marched from Samarkand with those forces still loyal. While enroute he fell ill; and rumors soon spread that the young lord was dying. This led to the desertion of many who still followed him. The governor he’d left in Samarkand also now rebelled; and Babur found himself a warlord without a realm, having lost both Samarkand and his native Fergana.
For a brief 100 days he’d ruled Transoxiana from Samarkand, and had seemed poised to reunite the Timurid realm under a strong young leader. These dreams were now dashed, and failure dogged Babur. Repeated attempts to recapture Fergana came to naught. When he tried to recapture Samarkand in 1501, Shaybani and the Uzbek horde returned, this time to stay. Babur and his tiny force of loyal followers was forced to flee. He took refuge among the hill tribes of Tashkent, where relatives sheltered the fugitive.
This was the most bitter period of Babur’s turbulent life. Though he raised fighting men among the hill tribes, the realm of the Timurids he had planned on reuniting were instead overrun by Shaybani’s Uzbeks. During this time Shaybani took advantage of the weakness and division of the Timurid kingdoms to gobble them up one-by-one. After capturing Samarkand, he went on to take Bukhara in 1506 (which would become the seat of his new Khanate), and Herat in 1507, driving out the last independent Timurid ruler. The Uzbek Khanate he thus founded would last till the coming of the Russians in the 19th century.
KING IN KABUL
All this Babur watched from a new refuge: Kabul.
In need of a new power-base and place of refuge, Babur crossed the the snowy Hindu Kush mountains and seized Kabul. The ruling dynasty had collapsed with infighting among various contenders and Babur seized the opportunity to oust them and take over this small but wealthy kingdom. Kabul was a center of trade, and the valley around was famed for its melons. From here he consolidated his power. As Shaybani crushed one Timurid kingdom after another, refugees fled to him in Kabul, swelling his numbers and military strength. By 1507, he was the last ruling Timurid prince; and proclaimed himself Padishah (Great King, or Emperor) of the Timurids.
However, even in Kabul he faced internal dissensions. In 1510 he was ousted from power by rebel generals while away from Kabul. However, acting quickly, he returned and the rebellion collapsed. In this, as in all his dealings, Babur showed great clemency and an unusual mildness of temper for a descendant of two of history’s most brutal conquerors. When the rebel leaders were captured and brought to him, he treated them with kindness, sitting them beside him at his table and allaying their fears (the usual treatment of rebels in this age was extreme, including elaborate torture and death). Instead of execution, they were allowed to leave the country. In his memoirs, Babur decided to leave their punishment to “fate”; which rewards and punishes a man according to his deserts, and in the case of traitors and ill-doers is “an avenging servitor”. Throughout his campaigns, Babur always showed justice to the peasants and to foreign merchants who fell into his hands in time of war; refusing to allow his men to plunder or mistreat either. He was a just and enlightened ruler in an age of ruthless tyrants.
That year, 1510, news reached Babur that his nemesis, Shaybani, was dead. The Uzbek conqueror, expanding toward Iran, had come up against another rising power: the Safavids of Iran. This new Shia state was centered on Azerbaijan. Its expanding power relied on the fighting abilities and fanaticism of its Turkomen followers; who, because of their distinctive high-peaked red turban were called Qizilbash (“Red Heads”). The Safavid Dynasty was founded about 1501 by Shah Ismail I, a brave and charismatic religious/political leader. Under his leadership the Safavids united Iran and made Shia Islam the dominant sect in the land.
At Merv, Shaybani’s career as a conqueror came to an end. Lured into a premature battle with the Shah Ismail’s smaller forces before the mass of his Uzbek horde could be assembled, he was defeated and killed. The Shah had his corpse divided into parts and sent to various places of his kingdom as proof of his defeat and death. Shaybani’s skull was coated in gold and made into a jeweled drinking goblet. This grisly trophy was sent to Babur by the Shah as a goodwill gift.
This led to the two rulers meeting the following year. Shah Ismail returned to Babur his sister, who had been taken by Shaybani when the Uzbeks captured Samarkand in 1501. This detente led to three years of campaigning in Transoxiana by Babur as a subordinate of the Shah’s general in the region. For a third time he briefly regained Samarkand, as well as Bokhara; only to again lose both to the Uzbeks under their new leader, Ubaydullah. Due largely to the brutality of the Safavid Qizilbash and the arrogance of their general, Emir Najm-e Sani, the allies alienated the countryside, and the Uzbeks were able to regain their hold. Babur then advised the Safavid force to retreat and await reinforcements. Najm, however, ignored this advice; which resulted in the mutiny of several Qizilbash chieftains, who deserted his army. On November, at the Battle of Ghazdewan, Najm was defeated and captured by the Uzbeks, who put him to death.
Frustrated again in his attempt to regain his ancestral lands, Babur returned in 1514 to Kabul. He brought with him a force of Qizilbash whose fighting prowess he had come to admire in the Transoxiana campaign. These provided him an elite guard of loyal men, independent of any other local affiliation or allegiances; a shield against the betrayals by family-members and subjects he had experienced in the past.
THE OTTOMAN CONNECTION
Meanwhile, events in western Iran would have a direct impact on Babur’s future success.
There, his ally Shah Ismail had gone to war with the first and foremost of the so-called “Gunpowder Empires” that rose in Western Asia: the Ottoman Empire. Selim I, called “the Grim”, perhaps the most accomplished military leader the Ottoman Turks ever produced, marched into eastern Anatolia at the head of a well trained army of between sixty and two-hundred thousand warriors. He met Ismail’s smaller force of Qizilbash-Turkomen horse archers on the plain of Chaldiran. On August 23, 1514 the two armies clashed. The battle was a prelude of what was to come when Babur invaded India twelve years later.
At Chaldiran, the Sultan’s army was the most “modern” in the world: a well-balanced force of matchlock-armed Janissary infantry, field artillery, and light and heavy cavalry (Akinjis and Sipahis). The Sultan deployed his forces in the Hungarian fashion  with his center protected by carts, chained together to form a barricade. The carts would break the charge of enemy horsemen, allowing his Janissary matchlock men and his field artillery positioned behind and between the carts to devastate the enemy with firepower. Shah Ismail’s Qizilbash horsemen attempted to avoid the Ottoman center, sweeping around both flanks instead. However, there they were met and thrown back by the Sultan’s cavalry and raked by the Turkish guns, which were the most mobile field pieces in the world.
The result was a catastrophic defeat for the Safavid army. It was the first and most dramatic reversal of fortune for Shah Ismail. His aura of invincibility was shattered and his faith in his destiny never fully recovered (he took to drink and gave over the affairs of his kingdom to others).
Sultan Selim’s “modern” tactics, based on cannon and arquebus-armed infantry defending mobile field works, had triumphed over the Middle East’s best horse-archer based army. Since the Parthians had arrived from Central Asia in the 2nd century BC, light cavalry horse archers, supported by armored lancers, had been (arguably) the most effective fighting force in the region (and perhaps the world). The Mongols had created the world’s greatest empire based on this tactical system (augmented by a sophisticated, mobile siege engines).
Now something new had at last arisen in the world to challenge the old tactical math.
In the first quarter of the 16th century the Ottoman Turks used this new tactical system to spread their power throughout the Middle East. Following Chaldiran, Selim would conquer eastern Anatolia from the Safavids, as well as Mesopotamia. The Grand Turk would next turn his guns against the Mameluks of Egypt, another horse archer-based Turkoman empire that had grown in the 13th century in the wake of the Mongol invasion of Central Asia. The resulting Ottoman–Mamluk War (1516–1517) would validate the lessons of Chaldiran; resulting in the fall of the Mamluk Sultanate and the incorporation of the Levant, Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula into the Ottoman Empire.
Babur was at first concerned over his ally’s defeat, not least because the weakening of Safavid power in Iran took pressure off of his deadliest enemy, the Uzbeks in Transoxiana. However, unexpectedly, Selim the Grim extended the hand of friendship. A detente between the Ottomans and the King of Kabul developed, resulting in Selim sending a team of military advisors to help Babur: Ustad Ali Quli, an artillery expert, and Mustafa Rumi, a master matchlock marksman. With the aid of these two experts Babur would begin to fashion a fighting force modeled on that of the Ottoman Turks. One capable of defeating traditional Asian cavalry armies; and which would allow the relatively small army at his disposal to hold its own against numerically superior foes trained in the “old school”.
BABUR LOOKS TO INDIA
Despairing of ever regaining his ancestral home, and with Kabul too small a place to satisfy his ambitions, Babur began looking elsewhere. He also wanted to get further from the reach of his Uzbek enemies laying beyond the Hindu Kush. Over the next few years, he set his sights upon the Punjab (modern Pakistan and northwest India). This land of well-watered plains provided both a place for profitable raids, where he could gather booty to pay his followers; and a possible area into which to expand his power. These were also lands once subjugated by his ancestor, Timur; and Babur let it be known that he considered himself, as the chief of the remaining Timurids, the rightful lord of these lands.
However, Punjab was then part of the Empire of Lodi, the Afghan dynasty that half-a-century before had conquered Delhi and northern India. Any attempt at subjugation would bring him into conflict with this powerful (though declining) state.
Babur began raiding into the Punjab in 1519. These raids brought back plunder and weakened the hold of the Lodi Sultan. It caused the local governors to begin to consider accommodation with the King of Kabul, even acknowledging him their suzerain should he press the issue. He made five such incursions between 1519 and 1524, which led to the installation of several pro-Babur amirs in the various cities; most of whom were relatives of and rebels against the Dehli Sultan, Ibrahim Lodi.
In 1524 Babur sent an ambassador to Ibrahim, laying claim to the Punjab. However the ambassador was detained at Lahore and only released months later. In retaliation, Babur marched again into the Punjab, and sacked Lahore. Then, in alliance with a rebel uncle of Ibrahim, he raided toward Dehli.
Though of a later period, this image of a Mughal army on the march shows the mounting for the cannon that Babur brought to the Battle of Panipat
In November 1525, Babur marched towards Dehli with an army of 12,000. This time, he came not to raid but to conquer. Crossing the Indus River, he overran the Punjab in three weeks, the Lodi forces melting away in the face of his advance. Marching on Dehli, he reached the plain of Panipat on 20 April 1526, where he took up position and awaited the imminent arrival of Sultan Ibrahim.
Panipat, 5o miles from Dehli, is the site of three battles by that name (1526, 1556, 1761). Its level plain is eminently suitable for the deployment of large forces, and for the maneuver of large bodies of cavalry. It lies along the natural path leading from the northwest (Punjab and Afghanistan) to Dehli and the Ganges plain. Having boldly invaded Ibrahim’s land and marched upon his capital, Babur now halted and prepared to fight on the defensive.
The Lodi army numbered between 50,000 and 100,000 fighting men and 100 elephants. Ibrahim’s forces were a mix of horse archers and cavalry lancers, supported by bow and javelin-armed foot. The elephants were used as shock troops, to fix and break their enemy’s line, while the foot archers supported this attack with massed archery, and the cavalry attacked the enemy’s flanks.
To prevent his much smaller force from being enveloped, Babur drew-up his army with his right wing resting on and protected by the village of Panipat. His left was partially protected by the Yamuna River. But as this was further from the end of the line than was convenient to prevent envelopment, he set his men to cutting branches and thorn bush; which were laid in a trench perpendicular to his line, forming a barrier covering his exposed left. He also used his baggage carts, along with additional carts gathered for this purpose from the surrounding countryside, across his front in Ottoman/Hungarian fashion. Gaps were left through which cavalry could pass; these gaps guarded by infantry armed with matchlocks, and protected from arrows by movable mantlets. Cannons were positioned to fire between gaps in the carts (the exact number of guns is unknown). Behind this front line were substantial reserves of cavalry, commanded by Babur in person; while off to the flanks were bodies of Mughal horse archers. Across the front a screen of light horse archers covered and partially concealed his deployment from the enemy.
The Lodi army arrived in the pre-dawn hours of April 21st. With scant time to fully reconnoiter the Mughal position, Sultan Ibrahim deployed his vanguard (much of his army was still marching up the road, and in fact would fail to join the battle before it ended).
Ibrahim deployed his cavalry in the first line, in four divisions. His infantry formed the second line, with the Sultan himself commanding a picked force of armored lancers between the two lines. A mixed force of cavalry and infantry were deployed to the left, to assault the Mughal line where it rested on Panipat village, with the purpose of driving this wing back from the village and rolling up that end of Babur’s line. Across the entire front, Ibrahim deployed his elephants as a screen and vanguard.
The battle began at 6 am, with the Delhi forces advancing. At 400 yards Babur’s cannon commenced fire. The noise, smoke, and deadly shot cause panic among the elephants, which halted or rampaged in terror back through their own ranks. Meanwhile, the picked force attacking Babur’s right encountered the barrier of the carts, and defensive fire from arquebus and cannon. This caused the Lodi attack on Babur’s right to stall, and reinforcements arrived at the threatened sector to push the attackers back.
As the Lodi attack stalled, Mughal horse archers positioned far out on the flanks now swept inward, in the envelopment maneuver the Mongols called the tulughma, or ‘standard sweep’. From the flanks these poured fire upon the now disorganized masses of Ibrahim’s army.
Cannon and matchlock fire from their front, and arrows fired from powerful composite bows on their flanks, combined to inflict horrid destruction upon the Lodi force. Attempting to cut his way through the barrier of carts, Sultan Ibrahim charged forward with his guard of armored lancers. In this assault he was cut down, and his death demoralized the Delhi forces.
His enemy dead and their forces halted in disarray, Babur now led his reserves of cavalry through the gaps between the carts. At this the Lodi forces broke, routing from the field with Babur’s horsemen in hot pursuit.
The fate of the Lodi Sultanate was sealed in a matter of a few hours. In his memoirs, Babur wrote: “The mighty army of Delhi was laid in the dust in the course of half-a-day.” Sultan Ibrahim’s body was recovered from beneath a pile of dead, and his head was brought to Babur. The last Lodi Sultan of Delhi was buried in a tomb on the field where he fell.
Three days later, Babur entered Delhi in triumph. The Mughal Era in India had begun.
Cannon at Panipat had proved the counter to massed elephants; while, as at Chaldiran, infantry armed with firearms defending a line of carts (mobile field works) stopped the attack of cavalry. Combining Ottoman with his own people’s Mongol tactics proved a winning combination for Babur. He would successfully repeat these tactics in two more battles against Indian foes in the coming years, as he consolidated his conquest of northern India: first against the Rajputs at Khana a year later, in 1527; then a final time at Ghaghra against the remaining Lodi forces in Bengal.
The Mughal Empire Babur established was the third of the “Gunpowder Empires” of Western Asia to be founded in this period (the second, after the Ottoman, being the Safavid, who after falling victim at Chaldiran to the new tactics and technology, adopted it in the reign of Shah Ismail’s successor, his son Shah Tahmasp I). It can be said that in Europe, Spain became the greatest of the “Gunpowder Empires” to spring-up in the first quarter of the 16th century; and using sea power spread across the globe.
Babur died at the age of 47 on January 5, 1531. He established the foundation of the Mughal state, carving out an empire that stretched from Kandahar to Calcutta. He left the work of consolidation to his eldest son, Humayun; and the Mughal realm would finally be consolidated by his grandson, Akbar. After his death Babur’s body was moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, his home for most of his adult life; where it lies in Bagh-e Babur (Babur Gardens), a park he designed.
Ironically, Babur is today celebrated as a hero in Uzbekistan by the ancestors of the Uzbek foes who were, during his life, his greatest enemies.
His legacy is that of a military adventurer of some genius, a gambler who never feared to risk all, but who never let defeat dampen his boundless optimism. He was a humane conqueror, who acted in a civilized and gracious manner to all who came beneath his sword, ever showing clemency to the defeated. He was also a gifted poet and writer; and his autobiography is a historian’s treasure trove of information.
The Mughal Empire would spread under his son and grandson to encompass all of India. In its days of glory, India became a center of culture and learning. Under the Mughals Indian architecture reached its fullest expression, exemplified in the magnificent Taj Mahal. The empire would wax through the early 17th century, then begin to wane in the 18th. Its remnants would be absorbed, along with all India, into the British Empire in the 19th century.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy: Clash of Titans: Tamerlane and “the Thunderbolt” at Angora, 1402
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
- Though it is sometimes stated that Babur was eleven at this time, in his own autobiography he states otherwise: “In the month of Ramzan of the year 899 (June 1494) and Haidara- in the twelfth year of my age, I became ruler in the country of Farghana.”
- The Hungarians in the late 15th century, during the reign of the soldier-king Matthias Corvinus, developed a tactical system partially based on the Hussite model; in which infantry with firearms fought behind a mobile barricade of carts, supported on the flanks by reserves of cavalry. The Turks, long enemies of the Hungarians, were no-doubt inspired by frequent contact to emulate this tactical system.