Babar the Conqueror

Barbar the Conqueror (1483-1530) was a descendant of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, who founded the Mughal (Mogul) dynasty of India and, although a devout Muslim, bequeathed a legacy of toleration for non-Muslims that characterized the Empire at its zenith.

"Strange and engrossing" was Sir Wolseley Haig's description of Babar's early life. A descendant on his father's side of the great conqueror Tamerlane and on his mother's of the Mongol overlord Genghis Khan, Babar (also known as Zahir-ud-din Muhammed Babur) inherited the legacy of division and war that had followed in these great conqueror's wakes. Tamerlane's central Asian Empire lay divided into a number of separate city-states ruled over by his Timurid descendants, who styled themselves princes and constantly fought to enlarge their domains. The cities and towns, ruled by local potentates, dominated their surrounding countryside thus giving each populated community a strategic importance which grew as they continually changed hands. Of these cities and strategic locations, Samarkand was the most important.

One such state, Farghana, was ruled by Babar's father, Umar Shaikh Mirzà. A scant 11 years after Babar's birth, his father died, leaving the child-prince the task of consolidating his hold as ruler of the kingdom in an atmosphere of intrigue and danger. His father's throne had not been particularly secure and Babar's position was threatened by older claimants to the throne and by external foes who greedily eyed their neighboring kingdom. The next 18 years were characterized by a succession of wars, battles, and treaties, as Babar sought to shore up his position. Active in spirit and mind, Babar also began a record of his life, composing poetry and prose to leave a tale that few would match in central Asian, if not world, history and literature.

Babar scored some initial successes. In 1497, after a bloody siege of some seven months, he captured Samarkand and the capital of a cousin's domain named Transoxiana, situated near present-day Iran and Afghanistan. Transoxiana and Samarkand remained Babar's obsession for the next decade. In his memoirs, his frequent and gracious references to the land of his birth provide ample illustration of his desire to secure his position in his own kingdom. He was, however, denied this wish. Driven from Samarkand in 1501 by an ally of his cousin, Babar was only granted freedom by promising his sister's hand in marriage. For the next three years, Babar was an exile in his own land, wandering homeless, accompanied by a handful of loyal followers.

Nevertheless, fate favored Babar. In 1504, his enemies were again fighting among themselves. His most powerful foe, Shaib'i Khan, chief of the Uzbegs, who had driven Babar into exile, had conquered most of Transoxiana. Khan's victories, however, propelled his former enemies' followers straight into Babar's arms, and Babar found himself at the head of an army, some 4,000 strong. But Babar did not feel sufficiently strong to attack Shaib'i Khan; instead, he turned to more profitable adventures in the Kingdom of K'ul, now Afghanistan. Claiming the throne of a long-deposed cousin, he led a brilliant campaign and captured the capital K'ul and thus the city-state.

Using K'ul as a base of power, Babar looked to the southeast and the northwest, eager to reclaim the thrones which he felt were his by divine right. He briefly ventured into the "fertile plains" of the Hind't', upper India in the early months of 1506. Leading his army through the famed Khyber Pass, Babar raided throughout the upper Indian plain over a four-month period, returning to his adopted homeland to subdue a rebellion. He returned to raid again the following year. Perhaps concerned with harnessing the power of his new territory, Babar did more than just make war; he tried to bring a certain order to his kingdom, collecting taxes and centralizing some power. His passion, however, remained the recapture of Samarkand and his father's throne in Farghana.

After slowly building up his strength, Babar felt confident enough to attempt the reconquest of his homeland in earnest. In 1510, the rivalries always simmering below the surface in Transoxiana had boiled over into a full conflict. Gradually expanding his domains, Shaib'i had overreached himself and incurred the wrath of the Sh' Isma'il, the powerful leader of a rival Timurid tribe, the larger cultural group of which Babar was a member. Later that year, Isma'il's smashing of the Uzbeg armies of Shaib'i revived Babar's hopes of regaining his lost territories. Concluding a temporary alliance with Isma'il in order to confront the Uzbeg threat, Babar was able to reconquer Samarkand and Farghana. By the end of 1511, he was once again lord over an extensive central Asian territory.

Babar's success was short-lived. The alliance with Sh' Isma'il collapsed and Babar's Uzbeg enemies immediately returned to the initiative. In a series of battles over the next year and a half, they drove Babar out of Farghana and Samarkand. More importantly, they thoroughly crushed his armies. In consequence, Babar's allies turned against him, attacking his camp and pushing him back to the relative safety of his throne in K'ul. Upon his return, finding that his subjects had revolted in his absence, Babar was forced to turn his attentions toward home, and a certain calm descended on his life as he abandoned all hopes of reclaiming his throne. Although he continued the intermittent expeditions and forays that characterized the lives of these nomadic mountain tribes—if for no other reason than to maintain his position within K'ul—he did not mount any major expeditions aimed at reconquering his lost territories or conquering new ones until 1519. He then turned his sights on northern India, entering what was effectively the second phase of his career.

"At the dawn of the sixteenth century" writes historian Stanley Wolpert, "India was … fragmented politically [and] divided spiritually into many relio-philosophic camps." This was perhaps an understatement. Any semblance of the old Sultanate (Empire) of Delhi had been shattered by Tamerlane's invasions at the end of the 14th century. In his wake, the empire had developed into a number of semi-independent governorships, the majority of these ruled by Muslim Afghani chiefs titled Lodis. The exception was the powerful R'''gà, chief of the Hindu Rajput confederacy, which lay to the south of the Delhi Sultanate. The elected head of this conglomerate was Ibr'im Lodi, who came to power in 1517. Ibr'im, however, was unable to secure the allegiance of all the chieftains and faced numerous threats to his hold on power. His position was so tenuous that he ignored the Portuguese trading centers and fortresses being established in the south despite their ominous implications. Ibr'im's foremost concern was the threat that was emerging from the rebellious western province of the Punjab and the capital city of Lahore.

Daulat Kh' Lodi, the governor of Lahore, was one of the key conspirators in the rebellions that plagued Ibrahim's rule. In 1523, Daulat learned that his governorship was to be rescinded and he was about to be deprived of power. Anxious to resist but lacking the forces to do so, Daulat appealed to neighboring K'ul for aid, promising to recognize Babar as his sovereign. Babar recounts in his famous memoirs that for the past "twenty years he had never ceased to think of the conquest of Hindustan" and thus readily accepted the invitation. The truth of this statement has been questioned in light of Babar's numerous attempts to reconquer Samarkand and Farghana, and his limited incursions into northern India in the past. It is, however, of importance mainly for numbering the "invasions" of Hind't' by Babar and in determining whether Babar was more an opportunistic adventurer than conquering visionary. Regardless of which viewpoint one selects, Babar showed his characteristic determination as he responded to Daulat's request.

Five years of war followed, during which Babar laid the foundation of the Mughal empire, establishing a dynasty which would rule India until overcome by the Western Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Employing superior military tactics and technology, Babar enjoyed successes against the Afghanis of northern India who had eluded him when he fought his own Timurid people. His first victory came in 1524 as his army defeated the Lodi army sent against Lahore by Ibr'im. Babar quickly consolidated his hold on the Punjab, unceremoniously ousting a surprised, and angry, Daulat Kh', and formally annexed Lahore to his kingdom. Delayed for a year by concerns over another Uzbeg invasion, Babar returned to his conquest of Delhi in 1526.

Urged on by rivals to Ibr'im's throne who hoped to use Babar for their own ends, Babar cunningly played one off against the other and devoted his full attention to Delhi. In April of 1526, Babar's army met and decisively defeated the massed forces of Ibr'im at the Battle of Panipat. Facing a force, according to Babar's memoirs, of over 100,000 men and some 1,000 elephants (the ancient equivalent of the tank), Babar's army numbered only 10,000, but they included some of the finest horsemen of the day who were backed by "foreign" cannon, an innovation for the armies of central Asia. Positioning the cannon directly in front of the advancing elephants, and using the superior mobility that his mounted riders gave him to surround Ibr'im's army, Babar was able to break the back of the attacking forces. Despite the sheer weight of their numbers, the Afghans found themselves assaulted on all sides, and after battling for the better part of the morning, they began to fall. Though the battle was closely contested, the Afghans fled the field by noon, leaving behind some 15,000 dead, including Ibr'im Lodi. It was a brilliant illustration of Babar's grasp of tactics and strategy. Delhi lay open before him.

Babar also displayed a deft touch in his dealings with the conquered Afghans, indicating that he had reflected on both the military and diplomatic lessons of his earlier failed attempts at conquest. While restraining his men from plundering and looting Delhi and the future Mughal capital of Agra as they advanced, he also protected the women and children of the upper classes from the savagery that was a common element of central Asian warfare. After securing the public treasures himself and saving those pieces with a cultural value, he liberally distributed the rest among his troops, thus ensuring their loyalty. It proved to be an astute move as the resistance to the Mughal power was not yet finished.

To the southwest, the Hindu Rajput Confederacy— under the leadership of R'''gà, "child of the sun"— was readying itself to move against the Muslim invaders. Allied with Ibr'im's brother Mahm' R'à, a one-armed veteran who bore the scars of over 80 battles, R'à Sangà assembled a huge army of some 100,000 horsemen, representing Hindu India's united stand against the Muslim Mughal invaders. When the battle took place in 1527, Babar's smaller forces were quickly surrounded by R'à's army. Although the morale of Babar's forces sagged, it was said that he boosted his men's spirits by vowing to never touch forbidden drink again and distributing his silver and gold wine vessels among his beleaguered troops. Whether truth or myth, Babar was able to rally his army and seize the initiative from the over-confident R'à. Adopting the tactics that had brought him success a year earlier, Babar used his artillery to good effect, blasting a hole through R'à's assembled force and charging with his mounted troops. Ten long hours decided the Battle of Khanua; R'à's forces were routed and Babar was master of northern India.

Although Mahm' Lodi made one final attempt to restore the Sultanate of Delhi, his army was crushed in May 1529. Now Babar had only internal enemies to face. His government and army was riven by disputes over whether to establish an empire in India or return to central Asia. Territory won by strength of arms had still to be organized and administered, but the internal divisions of the ruling Mughals sapped the time and energy needed to implement the sinews of empire. Babar's descendents would have the responsibility for expanding and unifying the empire, for his fate was decided before he saw his work completed. Residing in Agra to record in verse and prose his adventures, Babar died in 1530, weakened in body and spirit from his years of warfare and from concerns for his seriously ill son Hum''. Although Hum'' recovered to claim the empire his father had bequeathed, he faced many rivals and the glory days of the Mughal Empire were still in the future. Babar, however, had laid the foundations and established Muslim power in Northern India, leaving a legacy of culture and conciliation as well as power and military strength.

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Further Reading on Babar the Conqueror

The Memoirs of Zahir-ud-din Muhammed Babur, Emperor of Hindustan was translated by John Leyden and William Erskine and edited by Sir Lucas King (2 vols., 1921). See also L. F. Rushbrook Williams, An Empire Builder of the Sixteenth Century (1918), and Harold Lamb, Babur, the Tiger: First of the Great Moguls (1961). There is a chapter on Babur in Bamber Gascoigne, The Great Moghuls (1971), a scholarly and beautifully illustrated work. Background studies include A. B. Pandey, Later Medieval India: A History of the Mughals, (1963); Michael Prawdin (pseudonym for Michael Charol), The Builders of the Mogul Empire (1963); and S. M. Ikram, Muslim Civilization in India (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Memoirs of Zehir-ed-Din Muhammed Babur, Translated by J. Leyden and W. Erskine. Revised by L. King. London: Oxford University Press, 1921.

Haig, Sir Wolseley, The Cambridge History of India. Volume IV: the Moghul Period. Delhi: S. Chand, 1971 [1st ed., 1957].

Streusand, Douglas E., The Formation of the Mughal Empire. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Grenard, Fernand, Babar, First of the Moguls. Translated and adapt. by Homer White and Richard Glaenzer. London, 1930.

Habibullah, A. B. M., The Foundation of Muslim Rule in India. 2nd rev. ed. Allahabad, 1961.

Wolpert, Stanley A., A New History of India. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

The Baburnama: memoirs of Babur, prince and emperor, Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1995.

Edwardes, S. M. (Stephen Meredyth), Babur, diarist and despot, New York: AMS Press, 1975.

Hasan, Mohibbul, Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire in India, New Delhi: Manohar, 1985.

Jena, Krishnachandra, Baburnama and Babur, Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan, 1978.

Lal, Muni, Babar: life and times, New Delhi: Vikas Pub. House, 1977.

Shyam, Radhey, Babar, Patna: Janaki Prakashan, 1978.