Indian History Part 79 Babur – First of the Great Mughals Section III: Hindustan Beckons

Canberra, 28 March 2020

‘A few days later, after the army had been mustered, the persons acquainted with Hindustan were summoned and questioned about its every aspect. The consultation ended with a decision to march on Hindustan.

In Shaaban [January AD 1505] when the Sun was in Aquarius, we rode out of Kabul for Hindustan.’

Babur Nama, p. 140.

The capture of Kabul and establishing his rule was perhaps the most significant move in Babur’s young life and yet it was most easily achieved, compared to the hardships that he had so far faced. For the rest of his days Kabul would remain his permanent base. The city was well-suited to Babur’s aesthetics and constitution—it abounded in pleasant gardens and fresh water springs; the fruits and honey were excellent; there was good grazing for the herds; and the climate was salubrious, even in summers.

Kabul was also an important trading post on the caravan route that linked India with Persia, Iraq and Turkey to the west, and through Samarkand to China in the north. As many as 10,000 horses passed through Kabul to India annually and in the opposite direction there was a constant flow of cloth, sugar, spices and slaves. Coming as he did from the mofussil Andizhan, a single language town in Fergana, Babur was awestruck by the bustling Kabul, which was multi-lingual, with as many as 12 different languages in use in the city. Even so, Kabul was not rich enough by itself to support Babur’s entourage and soldiers, forcing him to resort to regular raids in the surrounding areas. This was the first time in ten years, after he had come to the throne of Fergana that Babur was at relative peace, removed from constant strife, alarm and forced movement. This was also the first time that he had had an opportunity to establish a cultured court life of his own. He now developed a taste for gardening that was to stay with him for the rest of his life. He went on to create many gardens thereafter, both in Kabul and in India. However, the one he created on a hillside in Kabul remained his favourite; here on his own instructions, his body would be brought back for final internment.

Kabul under Babur became an island of unexpected stability in a turbulent world, gradually transforming itself into a safe haven for the persecuted Timurid nobility, fleeing the attack of the Uzbeks under Shaibani Khan. The stability in Kabul is a testified fact borne out by a number of written testimonials left behind by Babur’s cousins and other relatives.

‘One such refugee, his cousin Sultan Said Khan, described it as the “island of Kabul which Babur Padshah had contrived to save from the violent shocks of the billows of events”, and said that the two and a half years which he spent there were the most free from care or sorrow of any that I have experienced…’

As quoted by Bamber Gascoigne,

in The Great Mughals, p. 14

Babur himself had the leisure to pursue his interest in poetry, in which he had considerable talent, short poems remain scattered, but embedded, throughout his eminently readable memoirs. At this time, amongst the large number of Timurid courts, only Herat and Kabul survived as independent entities, the rest having been subsumed by the Uzbeks.

Sultan Husain Mirza of Herat recognised the writing on the wall and called for all Timurid princes to unite against the marauding Uzbeks. Babur had also answered the call but before he could reach Herat, the old Sultan died and Herat was being jointly ruled by his two sons. These two were not only not warriors, but also did not understand the grave danger their kingdom faced from Shaibani Khan. They invited Babur to visit Herat, which he accepted. Herat was renowned for its artistic achievements and was the residence of Bihzad, the most influential painter of the Timurid and Persian schools of art. The animosity between the Uzbek Shaibani Khan and the Timurid princes was not merely a power rivalry but a blood feud and there could never be any peace between them. In 1507, Herat fell to Shaibani Khan, without much of a fight. Babur had quickly returned to Kabul when he realised the precarious condition of Herat.

With Herat in Uzbek hands, Babur ruling Kabul remained as the only Timurid prince, and stronghold, with a respectable throne. Perhaps this distinction was what prompted Babur to confer on himself the title of Padshah, indirectly claiming the position of the chief of the Timurid clans. Claiming this position also denoted his ambition and presaged his destiny. On the other hand, being the only Timurid kingdom also made Babur vulnerable to Shaibani Khan and became his prime target, the bane of Timurid princes. It was certain that sooner or later the Uzbek would sweep below the mountains through Kandahar and come up to besiege Kabul. Babur realised that he needed to create a physical distance between himself and Shaibani Khan, which provided an added impetus to look at India as an alternative seat of power. However, it seems that fickle fortune decided to stay with Babur.

Before he could put into motion the plan to invade Kabul, Shaibani Khan entered into a slanging match with Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty ruling Persia, which very rapidly degenerated into war. The Uzbek forces although strong in their own terms, were no match for the might of the Persian army. The unfortunate Khan was soundly defeated and cornered in a cattle compound while attempting to escape. He was then killed; his body dismembered for display in different parts of the Persian Empire; his skull was set in gold and used as a drinking cup by the Shah.

The Shah was well-disposed to Babur, following the age old principle of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. He send Babur’s elder sister Khanzada—now the widow of Shaibani Khan—with all courtesies as well as gifts for Babur, back to Kabul. Khanzada had earlier been given in marriage to Shaibani Khan as part of the peace offering when Samarkand had fallen to him.

Samarkand Dreams

The Shah’s obvious overtures of friendship combined with his own obsession with ruling from Samarkand made Babur believe that with the Shah’s assistance he would be able to recapture Samarkand, which was considered, with some justification, to be the seat of Timurid power and glory. The Shah agreed to assist Babur in reclaiming Samarkand, but with a caveat—he wanted Babur to adopt the dress and customs of the Shia sect of Islam.

The Sunni – Shia Divide in Islam

Since the first century of Islam there has been deep and continuing rivalry between the Shia sect and the Sunnis, or orthodox Muslims. Babur and the Timurid clan were all Sunnis. The division and differences between the two are doctrinal and dates back to the disagreements that surfaced in the years immediately following the death of Prophet Muhammad. The divergence in thought was mainly regarding the legitimate successor to the Prophet as Imam—whether he should be an elected person as the Sunnis wanted, or restricted to be selected from the descendants of the Prophet through his son-in-law Ali as the Shias believed. In later years the Shia sect came to be identified with Persia. The Safavids were Shias and particularly active in trying to spread Shia sectarian beliefs, since they claimed direct descent from Musa al-Kasim, the seventh of the 12 Shia Imams.

Shah Ismail was cunning to the extreme as well as bigoted in spreading Shia doctrine. He planned to use Babur’s legitimate, if somewhat indirect, claim to the throne of Samarkand to bring it under his own control. The deal he proposed went far beyond Babur adopting the dress and customs of the Shia. The Shah wanted the two traditional symbols of sovereignty—striking of coins and the reading of the Qutba—to be done under his name in Samarkand, which effectively reduced Babur to vassal status. The Shah however permitted Babur to strike his own coins and read the Qutba in his name in Kabul, for which actually Babur did not need the Shah’s permission, at least for the present. If he agreed to these terms, Babur would virtually give up any claim to Samarkand being an independent Timurid throne. However, blinded by his single-minded ambition to claim the throne of Samarkand, Babur agreed to the conditions, perhaps because he was not a bigot nor even a particularly pious Muslim. Whether he wore the Shia dress or was considered a Sunni did not matter to the young Padshah—he wanted the throne of Samarkand. He may have thought that once he was ensconced on the throne, he could declare his independence; or that his sectarian beliefs would not have an impact on the local people. He was to be proven wrong in this judgement.

Babur marched north and with Safavid assistance captured Bukhara, subsequently driving the now leaderless Uzbeks out of Samarkand. He triumphantly entered Samarkand in October 1511. People rejoiced at the return of a popular Timurid prince to reclaim his patrimony and inheritance. The only anomaly that stood out like a sore thumb in this frenzied celebration of victory by Sunni citizens was Babur himself in the fine regalia of a Shia nobleman. The people’s belief that he would revert to the Sunni fold was belied, since Babur continued to honour his promise to the Shah. Babur believed that he would not be able to hold Samarkand without Safavid help and since he had given his word to the Shah, he continued to act as a Shia, holding up its values in a sectarian manner. It was not long before he lost popular support and eight months later the Uzbeks once again took control of Samarkand.

Babur Looks East

This was the third time that Babur had failed to hold Samarkand. Further, his experience of an alliance with the Persians was not particularly pleasant—it had been created in favour of the Shah. Babur now decided to turn away from coveting Samarkand, a pragmatic move. After this sad setback, he never ever looked either west or north to expand his territories. Babur, practical as ever, now started to look east away from the Safavid territories, their possible influence and interference. Babur had earlier reconnoitred the Khyber Pass, when Shaibani Khan had been running rampant in Herat. In an obtuse manner, Babur considered Punjab on the other side of the Khyber Pass to be his by right. To understand this claim, one needs to go back more than a century in history. In 1399, after Timur’s whirlwind conquest of northern India he had appointed Khizr Khan as the vassal governor to control Punjab. Khizr Khan had later become the Sultan of Delhi and founded the Sayyid dynasty. However, even while ruling the Delhi Sultanate, Khizr Khan had professed allegiance to the Timurid dynasty, claiming to be the viceroy of India on behalf of Timur’s son Shah Rukh. (Details of the Sayyid dynasty can be studied in Volume V: The Delhi Sultanate of this series of books, From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History)

Based on this historic fact, Babur had even attempted by sending a message, ‘for the sake of peace’ to make Ibrahim Lodi, the reigning Sultan of Delhi, to hand over Punjab, the lands of Timur to Babur his rightful heir. This was perhaps the most optimistic to have passed between two kings about to go to war with each other.

Although his mind was set on invading Hindustan, Babur was in no hurry to launch the invasion. He continued to build up his military might in stable Kabul. The 11 years Babur spent in Kabul, after the loss of Samarkand for the third time and he had reconciled to the fact that the capital of Timur would never be his, was a time of relative peace and tranquillity for him personally. He had sufficient leisure to indulge in his passion for literature and the arts and enjoy the pleasures of life. During this period, till the commencement of his final Indian expedition, Babur held numerous wine and opium parties, enjoying himself to the hilt. He also focused on the education of his sons during this time, fully aware that this was an aspect that would be neglected once he was on the campaign trail.

Babur’s Sons

Babur had four ‘senior’ sons: the eldest, Humayun born in 1508; Kamran in 1509; Askari in 1516; and the youngest in 1519, the news of whose birth reached Babur when he was on one of his preliminary expeditions to Hindustan, and therefore named Hindal.


Once serious planning started for a concerted push into India, Babur realised that while he would be out campaigning in India, his capital Kabul would be open to attack from the west. In order to create a defensive bulwark for Kabul, he decided to capture Kandahar, which had a strong fortress and its control was essential to secure Kabul. Babur’s forces besieged Kandahar for three successive summers and finally captured it in 1522. The second part of the preparations proved to be decisive in the crucial battle that was fought later in the northern plains of India. Some years before the expedition Babur acquired the first supply of artillery guns and muskets, along with an experienced commander, a Turkish officer named Ustad Ali. There is a long gap from 1508 till 1519 in Babur’s memoirs, a period during which the relevant papers seem to have been lost. Therefore, the exact circumstances of his acquiring the cannons and muskets cannot be determined.

It is reported that Babur had watched Shah Ismail’s magnificent cavalry being decimated by Turkish guns in a conflict in 1514. Immediately after this debacle, the Safavid army very rapidly inducted guns into its inventory. Babur was also not slow in doing the same. Cannons were already in use in the South Indian peninsula, brought to the west coast by the Portuguese and the Turks and had already been adopted by the local rulers. It is an interesting fact that most of the artillery commanders in the Peninsula were Turks, with a smattering of Europeans entering local service. However, the use of guns had not yet spread to North India, giving Babur a great advantage in the critical battle that he was about to fight.

Initial Moves

From 1519 onwards Babur made four distinctive, but minor invasions into India. In this context the reader must understand that the eastern side of the Khyber Pass was considered the beginning of the Indian sub-continent, as it does even today in a geographical sense. However, these were mere probing raids and he did not penetrate very deep into Indian Territory. From these tentative expeditions, it would seem that his ambition was restricted to capturing and annexing the Punjab, which deep in his mind he believed, in any case to belong to him by right of inheritance. While these cautious and hesitant expeditions were being mounted, sort of to test the waters, opportunity came knocking and Babur did not hesitate to open the door wide.

Destiny arrived in the guise of two nobles connected to the Delhi Sultanate. The first was Dilawar Khan, send as a messenger by his father Daulat Khan who was the rebel Afghan governor of Punjab and the second was Alam Khan, a disgruntled uncle of Ibrahim Lodi, the Delhi Sultan. Both came soliciting Babur’s assistance in ousting Ibrahim Lodi from the throne of Delhi. Accordingly, Babur set out on an expedition in 1524 and managed to capture Punjab. Daulat Khan wanted to take possession of the entire area, which was not acceptable to Babur. However, he acted prudently and withdrew to Kabul after leaving a minor garrison in Lahore, more to indicate Timurid presence than anything else. Babur did not want to advance further into India with Daulat Khan sitting astride his line of communication, and more importantly his line of retreat.

Babur started his fifth and final expedition into India in mid-November 1525, moving south and east with 12,000 men, traversing the Khyber Pass before the snows blocked it. In mid-December he crossed the River Indus, never again to recross it and was met by his immediate adversary, Daulat Khan, who had turned against Babur. However, the old man was full of bluster and on the approach of Babur’s army surrendered without a fight, while his army scattered.

Ibrahim Lodi was facing internal strife and opposition to his rule and was able to send an advance party to oppose the advancing Timurid army only in February 1526. By this time Babur had advanced far into the Punjab.

‘I put my foot in the stirrup of resolution, set my hand on the rein of trust in God, and moved forward against Sultan Ibrahim, son of Sultan Sikandar, son of Bahlul Lodi Afghan, in possession of whose throne at that time were the Delhi capital and the dominions of Hindustan.’

Babur Nama, p. 256.

Babur had the carefully nurtured zestful energy of a nomad. By now he was an optimist and an intrepid adventurer, for whom success was the ultimate certainty, while failure was only a temporary setback that had to be put right. To such an adventurer, the direction that life took was as much a function of fate as it was of his own quest for his inheritance. Babur’s final march to Hindustan symbolised this philosophy.

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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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