A Tireless Tiger from Kabul – Babur (1484-1530)
Zahir-ud-din Muhammad otherwise known as Babur or ‘the tiger’, was eying the events in Delhi and Agra under Sikandar Lodi with great interest. Lodi was building a new city in Agra. Building of a great fort was well underway, when a devastating earthquake hit Agra, toppling buildings and leaving the foundations of the fort in ruins. Sikandar Lodi was also having trouble in another front with Raja Mansingh, who was resisting within his well-fortified city of Gwalior. To add to this there seemed to be internal strife among the Lodi clan. Babur, who was of Mongolian descent in the line of the great Genghis Khan (form his mother’s side) and fifth-generation descendent of Timur (from his father’s side), was the ruler in Kabul, Afghanistan. He started his series of invasion into Panjab in the year of the earthquake in 1505 and continued to do so for the next twenty years, further weakening the Lodis. Five incursions later he finally took Delhi and Agra by defeating Ibrahim Lodi in the battle of Panipat in 1526. An uncle of the sultan and the governor of Lahore, Daulat Khan, aided the Mughal in overthrowing Ibrahim Lodi.
A vigorous warrior and trooper, Babur was the epitome of fitness. He was comfortable on the saddle as a warrior or as a connoisseur of great pieces of literature and poetry. A romantic with nostalgia and a softhearted love for his central Asian homelands, Babur was a tireless soldier. He soon saw the ill effects of inebriants on the performance of a cavalry and promoted prohibition. He was a contemporary of Henry the VIII in England, who was disabled by his obesity but admired the nimble Babur. Though Mongolian blood ran in his veins, Babur’s allegiance was to his place of birth, the erstwhile kingdom of Timur more than a century earlier, in the Turkic controlled central Asia (current day Tashkent). He grew up speaking Turki and he considered India only as a stepping-stone towards ultimate control of Samarkand, Timur’s capital. As a teenager he had attacked and occupied Samarkand three times and then driven away after a short period. With Kabul as his capital now he found himself waging war in India.
After his first raid after the earthquake, it took him another fifteen years to try again and finally in 1526 he succeeded in toppling the weak regime in Delhi. With a small but very mobile force he crossed the River Indus, and helped by a new gunpowder technology, was able to overpower the larger Lodi army. He took a keen interest in the newly emerging firearms and cannons. Man and beasts of war were frightened off their wits with the booming and deafening sounds of exploding cannons. Another matter that helped Babur in his quest was the internal strife of the Lodi brothers. They had divided the sultanate into two factions and then later, Ibrahim had his brother assassinated. The unsettled rivalry between Ibrahim and his governors and secret deals with the Rajput chief of Mewar, one Rana Sangha, also helped Babur win the battle of Panipat. A panicked foe of 100,000 soldiers and 1000 elephants was conquered even with a smaller army of Babur. He marched on to Delhi while his son Humayun hastened to the capital Agra to secure the treasury. Raja Mansingh’s successor raja Vikramaditya, who was a feudatory of Lodis since 1519, was also in Agra. After he was slain his family made a deal with Humayun.
Babur-nama, a memoir-cum-diary of Babur mentions that the family gave Humayun countless jewels including one unique diamond weighing 186 carats. Babur writes that this diamond originally belonged to Ala-ud-din Khilji, perhaps obtained from Golconda (Andhra Pradesh) during his expedition to Deccan. How the raja of Gwalior came to possess it is not known. This diamond later was known as the Koh-I-Nur, the mountain of light. Humayun offered it to Babur but Babur wisely refused it as there is a legend that ill luck would befall whoever owns such a stone. History, however calls it Babur’s diamond. To commemorate the victory at Panipat, Babur built a mosque there. Another mosque he built later called Babri Masjid was mired in controversy as Hindus claimed it was built in the birthplace of Rama of Ayodhya. Fanatic Hindus razed it to the ground using pickaxes in 1992.
With the help of Humayun, Babur extended his kingdom. However, he had to thwart some of the dissent among his ranks, when the nostalgic Mughals wanted to return to Kabul (reminiscent of Alexander’s Macedonians). They had had enough of hot and muggy Indian summers. Even at the risk of facing poverty back in Kabul, the rank and file senior members wanted to return. Nothing short of a pep talk by Babur himself could stop them from their determination. Finally the persuasion by their leader worked as well as the relief from Indian summer came in the form of cooler monsoon rains.
The Rajput from Mewar, Rana Sangha had aspirations of his own. Though he had assisted Babur in deposing the Lodis, he was hoping a quick withdrawal by the Mughals leaving him to reap the benefits. When this did not become a reality, Rana Sangha began his campaign against Babur. The morale of Babur’s troops ebbed, again to be rallied by their tireless leader. Stressing that the adversaries were idolaters and infidels Babur was able to designate the war a holy war (jihad). Cowardice would only prevent martyrdom and is punishable, according to Koranic teachings. He worked his troops into a religious frenzy and made his men swear off alcohol, another taboo as per the holy book. Rana Sangha was thoroughly defeated in the battle at Khanua (Khanwar). Following this Babur cherished any challenge. Firmly ensconced in the throne, he looked forward to skirmishes where he could personally lead his army to victory. The Afghan nobles loyal to Lodis were defeated in Ghagra. Babur conquered more and more territories that his successors found difficult to hold together. His empire extended from Kabul to Bihar and from the foothills of Himalayas to Gwalior.
His dream of returning to central Asia looked more and more unattainable. However, he sent his favorite son, the eldest Humayun to Samarkand for a campaign. Humayun was not successful in his bid and had to return to India due to his father’s ill health. In a dramatic change of events, Humayun fell gravely ill and the distraught father was seen praying at his bedside. He asked God to trade places with his son and forfeit his life for Humayun’s life. The twenty-two year old son recovered and the forty-seven years old father faded. He was interned in 1530 in a garden in Agra, which according to his wishes was later removed to Kabul, amongst his favorite melons and vineyards. It took only four busy years (1526-1530) for Babur to establish one of the greatest empires of the world.
Next: The Fugitive King: Humayun