Indian History Part 79 Babur – First of the Great Mughals Section V: A Dynasty is Established

Canberra, 6 April 2020

On arrival at Agra, Babur was presented a magnificent diamond by Humayun his son, who had taken charge of the Lodi capital. The stone had been given to Humayun by the family of the Raja of Gwalior who had taken shelter in the Agra fort, since the Raja had died in the Battle of Panipat. Although some authorities dispute the fact, it is certain that this diamond was the one which was later named Koh-i-Noor, making its first appearance in history. Babur states in his memoirs that he gave the stone back to Humayun, since he had no used for such ‘baubles’ that indicated worldly wealth. By this time, there is no doubt that the Lodi dynasty had completely collapsed and been consigned to history.

Although the nominal master of North India, Babur had other troubles. The fundamental issue was that the majority of his nobles and soldiers were completely appalled by the heat, dust and ferocious nature of the Indian summer and wanted to go back to the cool hills of Kabul. In their minds, they had conceived this campaign also as one more expedition and a pillaging raid like the ones before. They could not reconcile to the depth of penetration into the sub-continent of this campaign and, more importantly, Babur’s decision to stay in India. For Babur, Fergana and Samarkand, and the events that transpired there had now become distant dreams that had been forever wiped off his memory. The more than 20 years that he had spent as the Padshah of Kabul was a pleasant enough memory that was a sort of background to his thinking, something that had already served its purpose. For Babur, his future was here in Hindustan.

Babur was now in a position akin to what Alexander of Macedon faced on the banks of the great River Indus during his world-conquering march. Alexander was forced to turn back because of the dissatisfaction of his soldiers, which could not be overcome by his charisma and demonstrated victories. However, Babur managed to win over most of his nobles by distributing great wealth among them. He then gave a rousing speech to his entire army, winning them over by his exhortations and shaming them into following him. Even so, climatically the summer of 1526 was one of the worst in memory and the Mughals sweltered in Agra. Babur himself fretted about the ‘dreary’ land and fully sympathised with his men, understanding exactly how they felt, although he did not entertain any thoughts of returning to Kabul.

Settling Down

The local population of the sub-continent did not welcome the invaders, being sullen and hostile to them, and harassing the Mughals at every opportunity. The villagers had become opportunistic highway robbers and every town and village was fortified to withstand Mughal efforts to capture them or bring them under control. They, collectively and individually, defied the Mughal occupying forces. Babur had his work cut out for him, it seemed that Hindustan would have to be conquered one village at a time. The Mughal was in control of Delhi and Agra, and may be a thin corridor connecting them, nothing much more than that.

The enormity of the task ahead was not lost on Babur. However, he was determined to rule Hindustan and his writing in his memoirs indicate that he was very aware of the magnitude of the task ahead. He writes, ‘India is a large country [that has] enormous wealth and innumerable workmen’. Reading his comments in the Babur Nama, one gets the distinct impression that Babur was looking way beyond his time as the emperor, of creating a ‘dynasty’ staying on to rule Hindustan. One of Babur’s favourite sayings was, ‘Give me but fame, and if I die I am contented. If fame be mine, let Death claim my body’. The sentiment expressed is clearly thinking ahead to the future. Even as he had made up his mind to stay in India, he reluctantly permitted some of his most trusted nobles and soldiers—some who had been with him from the first conquest of Samarkand and the wilderness years of wandering—to return to Kabul. There is absolutely no doubt that he himself missed the hills and gardens of Kabul. Had not manifest destiny tethered him to Agra, he would have returned to Kabul at the earliest.

Without doubt, the Battle of Panipat was a watershed moment in the broader history of India and in a more personal manner, for Babur. Babur was also experienced enough in real-politic to realise that he could not rest on his laurels, especially since his vaulting ambition would not let him be yet another ‘minor’ king amongst a horde of others, squabbling for territorial control of provinces in the Gangetic Plain of North India. On reaching Agra, for two reasons Babur had a little respite to recoup after the strenuous battle that had just been won. First, the remaining Lodi-Afghan nobility and the Rajputs waited to take stock of the situation and also to see what the victor of Panipat would do next, restraining themselves from initiating any precipitate action. Second, victory at Panipat brought Babur some Indian allies that included few Lodi nobles who wanted to be aligned with the winning side.

By his careful handling of the general population, Babur gradually managed to dissipate the hostility that had made life difficult for the Mughals. He also managed to lure, through invitations and some cajoling, some more Mughals from Central Asia to make the journey to India and join him in Hindustan. This was a pre-calculated move since the Mughal position in India was still very precarious and Babur needed all the support that he could get to ensure that the foothold that had been established did not get overwhelmed by being spread too thin. At the time that he was defeated and killed in battle, Ibrahim Lodi had ruled over an enormous kingdom. In contrast, Babur controlled only a long strip of land that connected Lahore, Delhi and Agra, which itself was prone to being disturbed by rebel agents. Further, the Mughals were not even the dominant power in North India. Even though the Lodis had been defeated and removed from power, Afghan power controlled both Bihar and Bengal to the east; and the powerful Rajput confederacy under the redoubtable Rana Sanga of Mewar had revived their hopes of creating a Hindu empire from the debris of the Delhi Sultanate.

Emerging Threats

There were other smaller groups calculating and waiting to test the resolve of the new power in India. The first to go on the offensive were the scattered Afghan chiefs of the Sultanate who regrouped and advanced to Kanauj, about 200 kilometres east of Agra. Babur promptly despatched a contingent to confront them. On the approach of the Mughal forces, the Afghans scattered without offering battle. At the same time, the Rajputs were coming together and waiting for the right opportunity to initiate actions. Uncharacteristically, in this instance Babur seems to have underestimated the Rajput threat, noting in his memoirs that he considered the Rana to be a lesser threat to that posed by the Afghan chiefs earlier.

Rana Sanga however, was a great distance away and the rains came down in the Gangetic Plains. This was the season, the monsoons, in the year when no military operations are undertaken in the Indian sub-continent, a convention that is still honoured in the planning of campaigns in the modern day. This situation provided a few more months of respite to Babur who spent the time laying out gardens and planning the building of palaces in Agra. His nobles followed suit, creating a symmetrical and flourishing suburb nearby.

The Rajput Wars

The monsoons came to an end and it was time for Babur to go back to war. Rana Sanga, now bolstered by some Lodi nobles joining him, started to advance on Agra. There is a little known twist in the tale here. Babur and Rana Sanga had established friendly contact before the Battle of Panipat. However, after the battle their amicable relationship had turned to hostility and they had become bitter opponents. Babur accused the Rana of reneging on his promise to make a diversionary attack on the Lodi forces during the Battle of Panipat and the Rana resented the fact that Babur now controlled and claimed the lands to which he felt he had a better ancestral claim, much more than a wandering Timurid prince. The real issue was the tussle for supremacy in North India, which was considered ‘Hindustan’, the Peninsula and South India very seldom entered the calculation in such times.

Rana Sanga was an intrepid and ferocious warrior and a strategically astute general. One-eyed, one-armed and with a leg that had been crippled by a cannon ball in earlier battles, he was the epitome of Rajput valour and gallantry. The Rajput army was estimated to be around 200,000 soldiers, consisting of the combined armies of ten independent chiefs who had come together to form a great confederacy. As this huge army approached, the Mughal forces started to become apprehensive. Some of the Indian nobles who had joined him started to abandon Babur.

On 11 February 1527, Babur marched out of Agra to meet the Rajput army. Every camp he made, Babur ensured was well-protected with defensive barricades being set up before retiring for the night. Babur was by now an experienced commander and realised the low morale of his forces with the soldiers pining for home. It is at this juncture in his career that Babur overtly used the religious card. Religion and the call to arms to destroy the infidel, kafir, had always galvanised medieval Muslim armies and unleashed uncontrolled fury in some of them. Babur, astutely capitalised on this one trait. He decided to declare a ‘jihad’, a holy war, to emphasise the religious divide that existed between his predominantly Turko-Mughal army and the Hindu army of the Rajput monarch. Further, this was his first battle against an army that was not Muslim in its constitution, his first against an infidel force.

Babur’s Religious Dramatics

In order to ensure that his men realised the importance of the coming battle, Babur decided to enact some dramatics. So far in his life, he had been a heavy wine drinker and had earlier made a personal decision to give up drinking wine. However, now he chose to make his giving up of intoxicants into a high drama of sacramental rite.

Babur assembled his entire army, invoked the blessings of Allah, and swore an oath never to drink wine again. Then he had all the stored wine brought out and poured on to the sand, broke all his gold and silver goblets and gave away the broken pieces to the poor and dervishes. He turned and addressed the assembled army, declaring a holy war against the Hindu infidel. The soldiers were enthralled.

Chroniclers of the time state that the effect on the soldiers was electric and Babur himself notes, ‘… the plan was perfect. It worked admirably’. For the historian, the question remains whether this was a mere ruse to instil some strength of will into the men or whether the flame of religious righteousness had been lit in Babur’s heart. Although a sense of cynicism is apparent in his diary entry quoted above, there is no way to confirm that the entire episode was a mere subterfuge. The answer will continue to be an enigma and the question must remain moot.

In the dawn of 16th March, the two armies met outside a small village called Khanua, about 40 kilometres west of Agra. The Battle of Khanua was a virtual replay of the Battle of Panipat of the previous year, the only difference being that this battle continued till dusk and was much more fiercely contested. The decisive factor once again was the ability of the Mughal forces to make the enemy concentrate on a relatively narrow front and then pour withering fire into them. The Mughal firepower once again proved to be the war-winning edge. By evening, the Rajput army had broken and fled. Rana Sanga, withdrew and managed to escape, much to Babur’s chagrin.

Uncharacteristically, Babur erected a pillar of severed heads on a hill, much like his Mongols forefathers used to in earlier times, perhaps to further demoralise any potential adversary. More importantly, he then assumed the title of ‘Ghazi’, or holy warrior, reaffirming the religious bias of the battle that he had just won.

The next battle against the Rajputs was fought almost a year later, Babur using the interim period to wipe out small sectors of minor rebellions to consolidate his hold on power. This time he went against a powerful lieutenant of Rana Sanga, Medini Rai who was ruling Chanderi in north-east Malwa. After the fort was besieged, when Medini Rai realised that he would not be able to withstand further attacks from the Mughals, the Rajput chief decided on initiating the ‘Jauhar’. Babur for the first time in his life witnessed the Rajput rite of Jauhar, in which when faced with certain defeat, the women and children self-immolate in a sacred fire and then the men sally forth ceremonially to fight and die. This was the Rajput way of ensuring that their honour was not sullied by defeat and subjugation. In a cynical appreciation of the Chanderi episode, it can be said that the Rajputs kept their honour; and Babur took the fort.

The Afghan Revolt

Around the time that Chanderi was being annexed, Afghan forces in the eastern Gangetic Plain, who had scattered earlier, once again regrouped under the leadership of Mahmud Lodi, Sultan Ibrahim’s younger brother. The combined force started to move west towards Agra. Mahmud had by now declared himself the king of Bihar and had a sizeable force under his command. Babur, now back from the Malwa campaign, launched an offensive, meeting the enemy forces near the confluence of the Rivers Ganga and Ghagra, near Patna. On 6th May 1529, the two forces met in battle and the Lodi-Afghan forces were once again decisively defeated. This was the last battle that Babur fought in his military career.

The End of a Tumultuous Life

Throughout his time in India, Babur had continued to keep a listening and monitoring watch on the developments taking place to the west of the Hindu Kush mountain ranges, across the Khyber Pass. His love for the core of the Timurid lands was undiminished and he still carried a flame in his heart for the lands of his ancestors. On hearing of the Uzbek-Persian clashes, and coming to know that the Persians were winning most of the clashes, he ordered Humayun who was governing Badakhshan, to join the fray against the Uzbeks. For Babur, the Uzbeks remained the eternal enemy of the Timurid clan. He himself started to entertain plans to move back to Kabul in order to be nearer the action. It is obvious that ambition ran high in Babur’s veins. However, nothing came of this plan to once again indulge in Central Asian politics—the Uzbeks rapidly gained the upper hand in the conflict and took back the initiative; Humayun quickly aborted his still-born campaign; and Babur never saw Kabul again.

In late 1529, Babur had gone as far north-west as to be in Lahore. Surprisingly, considering his innate urge to go back to Timurid lands, for some inexplicable reason he did not make the short hop from Lahore to Kabul. His memoirs do not provide any reason for this. In fact, in a completely uncharacteristic manner, his memoirs stop in mid-sentence on 7th September 1529. It is speculated that the reason for both these facts of unusual omission was Babur’s own ill-health.

Babur had not been in full health for some time and been taken ill and laid up off and on for some years. Now these episodes of ill-health started to become repetitive and more frequent. He suffered from frequent bouts of fever, diarrhoea, sciatica, discharge for the ears and spitting of blood. Perhaps because of his illness, he also started to suffer from depression, frequently talking about wanting to become a hermit. His once iron-will and the exuberant zest for life started to falter. Babur returned to excessive drinking of wine and became extremely attached to two Caucasian slave girls. The attachment to the girls was surprising and unexpected since throughout his life Babur had not been partial to the company of women. His dissipation seemed to be complete.

While the king was thus engaged in drowning his personal troubles in the traditional pursuit of wine and women, the kingdom was being administered by Mir Khalifa, a senior noble and the de facto Prime Minister. By this time Babur was also displaying signs of an early onset of senility, his mind often ‘wandering’ while in conversation. In an unprecedented move, Humayun the informal heir apparent, returned to India from Badakhshan without being summoned or asking permission from Babur. There are unconfirmed reports that Humayun had come to know of a plot engineered by Mir Khalifa to replace Babur on the throne of Agra and therefore took this step to protect his father and his patrimony. In any case, a palace coup did not eventuate, may be because of Humayun’s precipitate arrival at Agra. After spending some time with his father, Humayun moved to Sambhal his fiefdom near Delhi. In Sambhal Humayun fell seriously ill, the reasons for this sudden illness are unknown.

On hearing of his son’s illness, Babur had him transported back to Agra. By the time he arrived Humayun was critically ill. At this juncture, the narrative as recounted by all available chroniclers takes a supernatural turn.

Heavenly Intervention

Babur, it seems, was told by astrologers and other learned people that only God could save Humayun from his grave illness. Further, there was an idea being bandied about that God could be propitiated by surrendering something that Humayun valued immensely. A senior noble suggested that the great diamond, of which Humayun was very fond and proud of—the would-be Koh-i-Noor—would be an appropriate gift to God. [No doubt this noble would also have made back channel arrangements to get his hands on the diamond after it had been ‘surrendered’ to God.]

Babur took this idea further in his usual manner, which dismissed worldly possessions as of no significance. Babur now thought with his heart rather than his head, and made a sentimental rather than pragmatic decision. He declared that Humayun would value his father’s life more than anything else in this world and so offered his life in lieu of his son’s life, which he appealed to God to spare.

Mughal chronicles state that Babur circum-ambulated Humayun’s sick-bed and then prayed. He immediately came down with a fever and it is reported that Humayun recovered soon after, being able to give audience to the people the very next day.

Irrespective of the veracity of the above story of heavenly intervention and Babur’s direct appeal to God, the fact remains that Humayun recovered miraculously within a few days and went back to his fiefdom in Sambhal to recuperate. Babur, on the other hand, fell ill and progressively went on to become critical, so much so that the nobles recalled Humayun from Sambhal. When Humayun reached Agra, Babur was in great pain and gradually losing his mind. However, he had brief periods of lucidity during one of which he anointed Humayun as king in front of all the senior nobles. Then, after giving his son his blessings, Babur died on 26 December 1530.

Babur was laid to rest in the ‘Garden of Paradise’ that he had designed and created outside Agra, opposite to which the famous Taj Mahal would be built four generations of Mughals later. In 1543, or thereabouts, Babur’s mortal remains were exhumed and transferred to Kabul, as per his own written desire, and re-buried in his favourite garden on the Shah-i-Kabul hill. The intrepid adventurer, the most optimistic and ambitious of a generation of Timurid princes, was back where he belonged, amidst the mountains that he loved so dearly.

Babur – The Man, General and King

Although born to the greatest royal house in Transoxiana, counted as a descendant of the great Genghis Khan, and expanding the borders of the minor province that he inherited beyond the even the wildest dreams of any Timurid prince, Babur remained a Timurid exile throughout his life. His one burning ambition was to rule from Samarkand, resting in the shadow of Timur’s famed throne, which he never properly achieved—an unfulfilled craving that he carried with him all his life. Babur therefore displayed—at various times in his life—all the classic angst of the exile. In his writings, and the few letters that have survived, one can feel the sentimental longing of the refugee for the land left behind, the mental trauma of the loss of friends, the yearning for the social life of the ‘old country’, and even the architecture of Central Asia, particularly Samarkand. In modern terms and today’s parlance, it can be stated that from the age of 15 onwards and for the rest of life, Babur was forced to function outside his ‘comfort zone’. He displayed all the depressive trauma such a situation brings about.

Babur was inherently of a joyous nature, generous to his friends and always an optimist, other than for the short time towards the end of his life when he was suffering from depression. His embracing life to the full in a confident and hopeful manner attracted the affection and loyalty of his nobles and soldiers alike. He was sensitive to the beauty of nature and remarkably talented in the fine arts, which was quite unusual for the age in which he lived and for his background. While there is no doubt that he loved and revelled in war and glory, it was not at the cost of neglecting his love for the arts and poetry. In a strange manner, although he was first and foremost a successful warlord, he also looked for peace and stability at all times during his reign, although these were denied him. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Babur was paid by his cousin, Haidar Mirza who was very close to the king, when he stated, ‘Of all his qualities, his generosity and humanity took the lead’.

In what is something of a paradox, it was not his failures that brought on the angst he suffered from throughout his life. His enduring military successes, from the time he proclaimed himself the Padshah of Kabul, themselves became the enemy for Babur, for each victory took him further away from Kabul, Fergana and Samarkand. The battlefield victories continually kept him away from effecting a reasonable withdrawal to his comfort zone in the territories of Central Asia. The price of success was hard on the psyche of the mountain prince.

From the start of his final campaign into Hindustan, Babur was at war almost without a break, across the breadth of North and Central India, becoming a conquering general and the Master of North India. The only respite he had during these four hard years was during the Indian monsoons when the rains made it impossible to mount any meaningful military campaigns. He spent these respites in writing his memoirs, particularly in the descriptions of Timurid cities he had left behind and the ‘cultured’ society that he longed to be part of again.

‘Babur’s nostalgia for the lost Timurid heartland, his deliberate evocation of the Central Asian landscape and the Timurid princely courts, matched with his openly expressed ambivalence regarding his newly conquered territory of Hindustan, would become a central feature of the Timurid legacy, powerfully influencing his imperial descendants, enhancing their awareness of imperial identification and intensifying their efforts to affirm ancestral links in culture, ideology and territory.’

—Lisa Balabanlilar,

Imperial Identity in the Mughal Empire, p. 32.

Babur could be placed high in any compiled list of world famous conquerors. As a military commander he was brought up in the true Timurid fashion, able to live and fight from a horseback for days on end. There is no doubting his toughness and bravery, or the fact that he always led from the front. His soldiers and nobles were loyal to him and followed where he led without demur. In fact he had some close friends, who were nobles of his court, who stayed with him throughout his career of ups and downs. He was also infused with a high degree of responsibility, towards his people and kingdom, even though he frequently lost and gained multiple kingdoms, till he finally came to establish himself and settle down in Kabul. From his father Babur inherited a generous streak and an inherent disdain for worldly goods, being content with stoking his ambition to be an ‘emperor’ with military victories.

Babur’s measure and status as a king can only be gauged by his stint as the Padshah in Kabul, since his four years in India were spent mostly in putting down both major and sundry rebellions. He did not have the opportunity to ‘rule’ what he had conquered in the Indian sub-continent. In Kabul, once he had established himself and factored in the fall of Herat, he not only claimed the Timurid dynastic legacy, but also made Kabul a safe haven for the scattered and at times persecuted Timurid clan. Although generous, Babur was a strict but benign king, not a great follower of religion and fond of revelry and partying.

The only questionable action that could really be considered a flaw, as a king and military commander, was the overt religious practices that he conducted after reaching Agra, when he was faced with his first non-Muslim adversary, in the adversary’s country. That he had to evoke and invoke religious sentiments in his army and declare himself a ‘Ghazi’, a religious warrior-commander, could well have been a carefully crafted ruse. But that one episode set the tone for his successors to follow in what they considered an alien country. Had this not been the case, the historical narrative of medieval and modern India may have moved forward in a slightly different track to what is known today.

‘A ruler from whose brow shone the Light of God was Zahir Uddin Muhammad Babur Padshah. Together with majesty, dominion, fortune, rectitude, the open hand and the firm Faith, he had his share in prosperity, abundance, and the triumph of victorious arms. He won the material world and became a moving light. For his every conquest he looked for light towards the World of Souls … Paradise is forever Babur Padshah’s abode.’

—Inscription at the grave-head of Babur’s grave,

Carved on the orders of Jahangir,

As quoted in the Babur Nama, p. 345.


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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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