Indian History Part 79 Babur – First of the Great Mughals Section IV: Winning a Critical Encounter

Canberra 3 April 2020

The Lodi advance party was met by the right flank of the Mughal army under Humayun, Babur’s eldest son. The Mughals were able to defeat and rout the Lodi forces with the Mughals taking 100 prisoners and capturing eight elephants. Babur was overjoyed, not only because of the success, but since this was young Humayun’s first ever independent action. He felt that this victory boded well for the rest of the campaign. Babur now exhibited uncharacteristic cruelty by having all the 100 prisoners executed by firing squads under Ustad Ali, the master of guns. Two facts make this action an unusual behaviour for Babur. First, it went against Babur’s normal practice of pacifying the defeated people with his treatment of captured enemy soldiers bordering on the lenient. Second, if indeed the 100 soldiers had to be killed, then it would have been much cheaper to put them to the sword, rather than expend precious gun powder on them. There is no satisfactory explanation for the use of muskets for the execution.

There could be two reasons for this exhibition of Babur’s cruelty. First, this was the first time that he was faced with soldiers of a foreign country, some of whom could also have been kafirs, infidels, and idol-worshippers. So far in his military career he had only dealt with soldiers who belonged to his own community and religion. The in-built aversion that medieval Muslim military commanders had for kafirs, may have been dormant in Babur’s psyche and could have come to the fore in this instance. Although the veracity of this hypothesis cannot be proven, it is not inconceivable situation, considering Babur’s behaviour before going to battle with the Rajputs at a later time in India. Second, it could have been a ruse to intimidate and demoralise the adversary by demonstrating that the Mughal commander’s resolve as one who did not give quarter to any enemy soldier.

The Battle of Panipat – A Tactical Appreciation

Babur reached the banks of River Yamuna by mid-April, when the dreaded Indian summer had well and truly set in upon him and camped at a point east of Kurukshetra, the famed battleground of the epic Mahabharata. Ibrahim Lodi had been told by his astrologers that a military encounter with the Mughal did not favour him. However, haughty in the inherent power of his mighty army and over-confident of his own commanding presence at its head, Sultan Lodi did not heed these warnings. He marched out of Delhi to meet the invaders and camped near a small village called Panipat, about 80 kilometres to the north.

Babur had so far achieved fairly easy victories in India after crossing the Khyber Pass, meeting only desultory opposition from minor provincial chiefs in the Punjab. He had started out from Kabul with a force of about 12,000 soldiers and along the way, the soldiers manning garrisons that he had left behind in earlier campaigns had gradually joined him, swelling the Mughal ranks to an estimated 20,000 men. It is also possible that some of the local Lodi-Afghan soldiers stationed in the north-west frontier region also joined the Mughal ranks in the hope of victory bringing plunder and loot. The actual strength of the opposition, the Lodi-Afghan army, is also unknown. Babur estimated it to be around 100,000 soldiers with an elephant corps of a 1000 animals in its ranks. It is certain that the Delhi Sultanate army was numerically much larger than the Mughal force. On the other hand Babur had an asymmetric advantage, being in possession of a train of artillery guns, estimated to be between 100 and 200 individual pieces and a contingent of musketeers numbering around 4000. These ‘new’ weapons would be used in a field battle for the first time in North India and would play a critical role in determining the outcome of the battle. Even with this asymmetric advantage, the balance of power favoured Sultan Ibrahim Lodi.

The Mughal army had so far fought battles only in close combat in the mountains and hilly terrain, where the battlefield was constrained in area, which limited manoeuvre space for large forces. Per force, the skirmishes were between small contingents of mainly cavalry with minimal support from infantry. In such terrain and modus operandi, numerical superiority had very limited advantages and could not be clearly imposed. Essentially it was the fighting spirit of the army, the tactical acumen of the commander and bravery of the individual soldier/horseman that were the deciding factors that turned the tide in closely fought encounters. Babur was now faced with a battlefield that was flat open country where an astute commander could very easily convert numerical superiority into a clear battle-winning advantage. In such a battlefield, while valour, manoeuvre and surprise could contribute to victory, none of them by themselves, or in combination, could become the decisive factor. Babur, by now an experienced military commander and strategist realised that his victory in the forthcoming battle depended on three factors.

First was the need to devise a tactic that would neutralise the numerical superiority of the Lodi-Afghan army; second was to ensure that the battle was fought on a narrow front so that the smaller Mughal forces would not be encircled by the larger number and spread of the adversary; and third was that the Mughals needed to accentuate the effectiveness of the firepower of the cannons and muskets while at the same time providing the cavalry manoeuvre space. While these were the basics to ensure an offensive approach to the battle, Babur was also acutely aware of the possibility of his smaller force being swept aside like a twig in a river in spate by the sheer weight of numbers of the Lodi army. He knew that he had to strengthen his centre so that they would be able to hold the Lodi charge for a minimum stipulated period of time, which would permit the musketeers, painfully slow to load and fire, to concentrate their fire and break the main charge of the Lodi horde.

Babur called a war council of the commanders of his army, who were veterans of many battles and skirmishes—some of them having been with Babur from the taking of Kabul and even before. After much debate regarding the pros and cons of possible actions, they devised a hybrid strategy and supporting tactics to be implemented on the battlefield. They modified the traditional Mughal formation of battle and adopted the Ottoman wall-of-fire tactics into the formation and combined it with the free-wheeling and encircling cavalry charge, perfected by the Uzbek cavalry, into their battle plans. Babur also believed that by taking extra precautions, he would be able to hold the direct charge of the Lodi-Afghan army to the centre of the Mughal army for sufficient time to let the musketeers become effective. According to his own writing in the Babur Nama, he moved away from the usual Mughal practice and having reached Panipat, dug himself in defensively, adopting a Turkish practice. For the Mughals knew that innovation was the only way to neutralise the Lodi advantage of numbers and traditionally they were inherently an extremely flexible force.

As an aside and by sheer coincidence, 1526 was the same year in which Suleiman the Magnificent blasted his way through Western Europe to the conquest of Hungary at the Battle of Mohacs. In preparation for the coming battle, Babur collected nearly 700 carts of all sizes and then created a barricade by binding them together with rope and leather thongs, about three to four metres apart. He placed musketeers in the gap between the carts, about six to seven in a group in each gap and also erected breastworks to protect Ustad Ali’s gunners. The idea was for the protected musketeers to pick off the Lodi cavalry at their own pace. These actions were initiated based on the lessons that Babur had learned after witnessing the battle in 1514 where the Turks had decimated the Safavid cavalry with the accurate and concentrated firepower of the musketeers.

By 12th April the Mughal forces were ready for battle. However, Babur for once decided to wait for the adversary initiate the first step, he was not going to take the offensive first, as was his usual custom. His entire strategy was based on creating time and space for the guns to be brought into the fray effectively and then to use his cavalry to advantage in a sweeping, flanking attack. Even the arrangement of his forces were done in such a way to facilitate these two actions. Babur arranged his forces with the right flank abutting and anchored on the buildings of the town to avoid being outflanked on that side. On the left side he constructed barricades of trees and dug trenches to delay any attacks from that side. His intention was to force the Lodi-Afghan army to attack his centre, where his guns were concentrated and where the battle front would be constrained, thereby denying the enemy the advantage of superior numbers. It is obvious that being encircled by sheer numbers in a flat open battlefield was the biggest concern for Babur, the military commander. He also wanted to be able to effectively direct the enemy attack to focus where he wanted it—to where his musketeers and guns were pre-located.

Considering the small number of forces that he had, Babur had created an almost perfect defensive-offensive position—he could hold the adversary attack and also afford to choose the timing of his own offensive attack; for in the final analysis he had to go on the offensive, since only offensive attacks would win the battle, not defensive posturing. For someone who had never fought a pitched battle in the open plains and not even witnessed or studied plains warfare, Babur’s arrangements were that of a genius. Analysing the arrangement five centuries later with the advantage of great hindsight, the only chink in the plan that can be detected was that it hinged on somehow ensuring that Lodi attacked where Babur wanted him to, the entrenched gun positions of the Mughals.

Waiting for Battle to Commence

Having completed all his positional arrangements, Babur waited for the Delhi Sultan to attack. Since the Mughals were invaders and the Sultan was expected to try and expel them from his territories, Babur was certain that Lodi would attack. However, Ibrahim Lodi had other plans. Even though the invader had come to within 80 kilometres of his capital, strangely he assumed a blocking defensive position, the objective being to ensure that Babur would not be able to proceed any closer towards Delhi. Lodi, it seems, had no plans to initiate an attack. He was willing to wait for the Mughal forces to manoeuvre, after all he had all the time to wait and the numerical superiority of forces was on his side. On the other hand, Babur could not afford to wait for too long—he was far inland in an alien land and his line of communication as well as possible retreat route were far too long and insecure; he faced a far superior army, in numbers and capability; and restlessness was creeping in to his force with the soldiers starting the become apprehensive. Babur needed to get quick results and could not afford to wait for much longer.

Babur therefore decided to provoke Lodi to attack, hopefully into his pre-prepared positions. He send out provocative raids into the Lodi camp, hurled insults at them and regularly had his archers shoot arrows into the Delhi camp. Ibrahim Lodi however, would not be provoked and held firm to the strategy that he had devised, to wait for the Mughal attack, which he was certain the Lodi-Afghan forces could easily absorb and then counter-attack to victory. Babur was forced to change his plans.

Babur Takes Action

After few days of almost desperate but unsuccessful attempts to provoke an attack by the Delhi army, on 19th April, Babur launched a night attack on the Lodi camp—he could not afford to wait any longer in a static defensive position. He detached around 4500 cavalry from his left flank, almost a fourth of his total strength, and send them out to attack the enemy camp. Babur himself and most of his generals stood fast in the centre, ready for the counter-attack that they were certain would follow. Babur had counted on surprise for the success of this raid, but in turn his raiding party was surprised. The Lodi army was ready and waiting for the attack and the Mughal cavalry was forced to beat a hasty retreat to avoid being engulfed and slaughtered. One stray report states that this cavalry column got lost and could not find the enemy camp, and that they had to be escorted back to the Mughal camp at dawn. This report is suspect and highly unlikely to have happened, especially considering the professionalism of the Mughal commanders. In any event, the raid was a failure and did not eventuate in any serious engagement, let alone lead to a decisive battle, as Babur had hoped.

In the event, Babur continued to be favoured by lady luck—the failure of his cavalry raid brought him the Lodi attack that he had so far been attempting to provoke. On 20th April, Babur expected a counter attack and an edgy Mughal army waited till late in the night for it, although the anticipated attack did not come. On the morning of 21st April, Mughal pickets picked up the Lodi-Afghan army on the move. Over-confident, especially since the rout of the Mughal night attack, the Lodi army believed that victory was almost in sight. One element of the Lodi army attempted, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to dislodge the Mughal right flank from being anchored to the town buildings. The main body of the army charged at full gallop to the centre body of the Mughal army, exactly as Babur had wanted them to behave. The Battle of Panipat had begun, and it was short-lived.

The Battle Proper

The determined advance of the Sultanate army in the centre was stopped and contained by the barricade of carts and the fortified guns of the Mughals who held their ground without giving an inch. The Lodi numerical superiority now became a liability—confronted with the withering albeit slow rate of fire, from both the musketeers and cannons, the front ranks of the Lodi army were decimated. Because of the large numbers pressing on to a limited frontal area, the Lodi advance forces could not withdraw in good order to recoup and re-attack. They were milling round, providing the gunners with a great opportunity to decimate the cavalry and the soldiers. The Mughal gunners did not need a second invitation. Appreciating the situation, Babur now ordered his flying cavalry to carry out their famous wheeling attack, taking the Lodi army in the rear and completely enveloping them. Trapped between the guns and the cavalry, the Lodi army was unable to leverage their natural superiority of numbers, critical to success in an open plain—a veritable massacre followed.

At the same time, the Lodi elephant corps, unused to the smell of cordite, and the sound and smoke of the gun fire, panicked and started to trample soldiers indiscriminately—friend and foe alike. The numerical strength of the army had become its weakest link. Thereafter the battle did not last long. By early noon, the Lodi army was broken and Ibrahim Lodi lay dead on the battlefield, the only Muslim ruler of Delhi—Turk, Afghan or Mughal—to ever fall in battle. His body was recognised by some junior Mughal officers, his head cut off and presented to Babur as proof of is victory.

Babur Pays His Respect

Among the Mughals, it was customary to bring the severed head of the defeated enemy commander to the king as proof of victory. Babur is reported to have treated Ibrahim Lodi’s head with great respect, and is supposed to have said, ‘Honour to your bravery’ while lifting the head with reverence.

Although he had spoken ill of Ibrahim Lodi before the battle, he now honoured the dead Sultan. Ibrahim Lodi’s body was washed, shrouded in brocade and buried where he fell. The tomb that was built over the burial site still stands in Panipat.

Now Babur was no longer just the Padshah of Kabul, he was Master of Delhi and the founder of what would turn out to be an illustrious dynasty. An Empire had been won in a matter of about five hours. (Details of the battle and the tactics employed by either side has been provided in the prologue.)

‘The sun had mounted a spear-high when the onset of battle began, and the combat lasted till mid-day, when the enemy was completely broken and routed, and my friends victorious and exulting. By the grace and mercy of Almighty God, this arduous undertaking was rendered easy for me, and this mighty army, in the space of half a day, laid in the dust.’

Babur Nama, p. 262.

Babur Assumes Power

In the afternoon of 21st April itself, Babur despatched Humayun with a light detachment to ride post-haste to Agra, the city that had been the Lodi capital since 1502, to take over the palace and secure the treasures. Babur himself reached Delhi three days later on his way to Agra. In Delhi, he reports that he celebrated in a drunken orgy on a boat in the River Yamuna. He stayed in Delhi only to have the Qutba read in his name during Friday prayers at the main mosque and then continued to Agra. He reached Agra on 4th May, covering the 280 kilometre journey from Panipat to Agra, including the short stay in Delhi, in two weeks during the height of the Indian summer. He camped outside Agra for a few days and then ceremonially entered Agra on 10th May, taking up residence in the palace as the ‘Emperor of Hindustan’.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2020]
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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 Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide 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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