Factors for Babur’s Success in Indian Campaigns

The Battle of Panipat, 1526

It is actually quite intriguing that Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, who came to India with such a small band of followers (not more than 8000 or 10,000 fighting hands and 125 or 150 military commanders) was able to worst armies which were more than 1 lākh strong!

A number of historians have tried to assign a number of causes for this brilliant success. Broadly speaking these reasons can be divided into two:

(a) The internal weaknesses (both political and economic) of the Indian states; and

(b) The strengths of the invaders: military, technological as well as tactical

Some textbook writers have tried to argue that it was the knowledge of guns and gunpowder which gave Babur’s forces an edge over his rivals. In a separate blog, we have already grappled with this and concluded along with scholars like Iqtidar Ālam Khan that Indians had a knowledge of both these things much before Babur entered the scene.

Let us first deal with what was the condition prevalent in India prior to Babur’s entry, which helped in strengthening his position and facilitated his success.

In spite of the large social base of the Afghans in Hindustan, the hostility of the population towards the Mughals who had come to be identified as uncouth, barbarian and hostile for at least 200 yrs, made the task of Babur and the Mughals difficult.

The Muslim population of India was also very hostile as against what Rushbrooke Williams says. Some passages in Lataif-i Quddusi go to suggest that Abdul Quddus & his relations were greatly apprehensive of the situation and were against Babur. The ashraf (of the Karnal area left their houses & shifted to a place in the rear of the Lodi army. After the Lodi defeat at Panipat, even Abdul Quddus Gangohi was taken prisoner & dragged behind a horse up till Delhi. Babur, we are informed by Lataif, attacked a dargah & burned a library. The Lataif-i Quddusi has certain letters depicting the oppressive nature of the Mughals, atleast in the initial stages. Babur in fact, did not command any support amongst the local Muslim population.

The Lodi Empire and Its Drawbacks:

The Lodi Empire was an Afghan Empire. The majority of the officers and nobles were from the Afghan regions. The Afghan identity gave it an advantage as there existed a large number of Afghan populations in N. India as a result of the continuous process of migration throughout the Sultanate period. By Tughluq period two Afghan rebellions against Mohd Tughluq had occurred. Then in 1441 Bahlul captured power with large Afghan following. He made a direct to Afghan tribal sentiments. The text of Bahlul’s announcements and farmans have been quoted by Abbas Khan and other Afghan history, the Tarikh-i Khan Jahani. Mushtaqi also wrote that he made an appeal to the Afghan tribals.

    To quote Abbas Khan: ‘God in his goodness has granted kingdom of Delhi to Afghans….whatever be conquered shall be shared with us’.

Thus RP Tripathi calls it the Afghan Confederacy. But then, not withstanding the Declaration, not all Afghans were given a share in the empire. Distribution was made between the favoured and the privileged on the one hand and those not important to be given position. For example, nobles under Bahlul and Sikandar Lodi were recruited from the clans of Lodis, Sarwanis, Lohanis and Farmulis (the Shakhzadas of Ghazni). The others were ignored and totally excluded. For example the Niazis, who were supposed to be the uncouth people and not fully fit even for the army. Similarly ignored were the Surs and the Kakkars etc.

Thus one can say that the Lodi Empire, which Babur replaced, was not an empire with Afghans having equal share.

Let us also be clear that from the very beginning, in the Lodi Empire the non-Afghan section was given a considerable share. Thus it was not exclusively an Afghan concern. The Indian Shaikhzadas were recruited in large numbers in the nobility. Thus for example, Shaikh Ghuran of Koil, the Syeds of Amroha, the Shaikhzadas recruited from the Gangetic plain and the Punjab. Then there were also incorporated a large number of Rajputs under Sikandar Lodi.

So by Sikandar’s time, the Lodi nobility was divided into two groups: (1) the Privileged Afghan clan groups; and (2) People of Non-Afghan origin, some of whom were non-Muslim and Rajput chieftains. This made the social base of the Lodi state very wide, in fact much wider than the early Mughals.

There was a large Afghan population. It has been roughly estimated in the range of 80 lakh families, i.e., 4 crore Afghans. Afzal-ut Tawarikh gives this number to explain Humayun’s defeat at the hands of Sher Shah. In addition to this, a very large section of Hindu chiefs were given a share in the Empire. The Lodis could rally the population paying allegiances to these groups.

This is reflected in the hymns of Guru Granth Sahib (tr. Macaulay in Sikh Religion vol.I) which suggests that the overthrow of the Lodis was a loss to the people. But in spite of the large social base behind them, the Lodis were not able to throw back the Mughal challenge. This can be explained if we keep in mind the contradictions in the Lodi state between the Lodi aspirations and centralization on the one hand and the decentralization of aspirations of the Afghan nobility. The history of the struggle between the two date back to the period of Sikandar Lodi. He gave up many of the policies and measures of Ibrahim Lodi pacifying nobles of equal position. This was altered and resulted in wide-spread discontent. Sikandar had no alternative but to depend on the section comprising the non-Afghan nobility in order to deal with the dis-satisfied Afghan nobles. The kind of autonomy which the Afghan nobles enjoyed till that time, and sought to be curbed by Sikandar Lodi, can be gauged by going through Abbas Khan Sarwani’s section on Sher Shah’s early career and his description of Sher Shah’s administration of his father’s jagir at Sahsaram.

Now what impression does this account of Abbas Khan create as far as the position of the Afghan noble’s are concerned?

1. That the nobles were free to decide the mode of assessment and mode of collection from their iqtas: ghallabakhshi or measurement. This indicates that there was no policy laid out by the centre. This is a situation of autonomy.

2. Any extra collection from the iqta or the assignment was pocketed by the noble himself. This was a laxity of the administration. In strong administration, this had to be deposited with the state. But this was not being done so during the reign of Sikandar. Sher Shah talks of ‘extra revenue’ being a boon to his iqta.

3. The noble’s were free to wage a war against local chiefs. They had assumed authority to create jagirs and zamindars to uproot established chief. The job of creation of new zamindars was never allowed or given to a noble, before or after this reign.

4. Afghan nobles in some cases were holding iqtas practically (not in theory) on hereditary basis. When Hasan Khan Sur died, a tussle arose in which Sher Khan won over his brother to hold over his iqta.

5. The principle of transfer of iqta followed under the Khanljis was conspicuous by its absence at this time.

During the reigns of Sikandar and Ibrahim Lodi revolts became more accentuated. For eg. Daulat Khan Lodi who controlled Punjab revolted and invited Babur to come to Hindustan. Alauddin Khan Lodi also turned against Ibrahim. The revolt of the Farmuli nobles was also a result of this situation.

The contradiction between the king and the nobles further accentuated and differences sharpened due to yet another factor. This was the shortage of precious metals which eventually resulted in the minting of smaller number of silver and gold coins during the Lodi period. This is borne out by the surviving collection of the silver and gold coins of this country. The surviving coins from the pre-Lodi period as well as those from the Mughal and Sur period is quite large. The surviving gold and silver coins of the contemporary states are also considerable. Their number is quite large indeed. This for the first time is noticed by John F.Richards, ‘Economic History of Lodi period’, JESHO, Aug’65

This paucity would naturally affect the position of the nobles. Further on account of slowing down of the pace of the money economy, resulting from the absence of silver and gold currency would promote the custom of collecting revenues in kind and not in cash. Naturally this would lead to paucity of money to raise troops. Absence of ready cash would also affect the ostentatious pretences.

Most probably the shortage of precious metals was due to short supply due to coming in existence of independent states on the coast. Lodi Empire had become land-locked, says Moreland. Edward Thomas, ‘Economy of Pathan Kings’, says this short supply was a result of Timur’s plunder of 1498. Richards has however pointed out that if this was the result of land-locked nation, then why the other land-locked states not experienced the same shortage? In case of Kashmir or Mewar or Malwa, we don’t observe this phenomenon. Richards also points out that Timur’s plunder is also not a good explanation. His explanation is that Bahlul paid lip-service to the nobles as the brothers wanted to curb their independence and power by withdrawing gold and silver currency deliberately.

Whatever the cause, the nobles were hurt due to this. During Ibrahim’s reign this situation became almost unbearable for the nobles. Under Ibrahim, for several consecutive years, there were very good rains, and thus bumper crops. This resulted in a sharp fall in the prices of food grains and especially influenced the general price index. Side by side to this, before Ibrahim Lodi, there was the introduction of a new coin. Bahlul had introduced this coin which came to be known as the Bahluli Tanka. This was different from the tanka of the Sultanate period. It was of copper (tanka-i siyah) and had a ratio of 1:20 with earlier coins. Thus this was a debased tanka and this was a further catastrophe. The result was that the peasants were not in a position to make payments or submit revenue to the nobles in cash or in the new copper tanka. And whatever revenue was collected in kind was almost entirely valueless as there was no market for it. Thus the income of the nobles was further adversely affected by this. Thus we encounter widespread revolts during Ibrahim’s reign. Thus the fiscal policy was partly responsible for the extinction of the Lodis.

Handheld Guns and Manoeuvrability

Still we can not deny that the kind of fire-arms used by Babur was something new for the Indians. It also cannot be denied that the way and manner in which he used them was also new. The novelty of fire-arms and the tactics employed for use was something which gave him military and strategic advantage.

One very great advantage was that by the time Babur invaded the Lodi Empire, the rulers & common people had not yet become familiar with the handguns: they were familiar with the canons but Babur’s soldiers were equipped with some kind of handguns, the arquebuses & matchlocks. The arquebus was a gun which fired by putting the burning object in touch with the hole in the barrel held in the hand.

Thus the new innovation brought by Babur was not the gun & gunpowder, but the use of handguns in open battles. This was an innovation which in Hindustan had not yet become common outside Gujarat in 1526. It seems that the arquebus was not fully known outside Gujarat & certainly not in the North-western region. Babur in the siege of Bajaur describes the reaction of the local garrison to his use of handguns in a manner which goes to indicate that most probably the Bajauris were not familiar with this particular kind of firearms:

“As the Bajauris had never before seen tufung, they at first took no care about them; indeed they made fun when they heard the report and answered it by unseemly gestures. On that day Ustad Ali Quli shot at, and brought down five men with tufung; Wali the treasurer, for his part, brought down two; other matchlock men (tufungchis) were also very active in firing and did well shooting through shields, through armour, and brought down one man after another. Perhaps seven, eight or ten had fallen to tufung fire (zarb-i tufung) before night. After that it so became that not a head could be put out because of the fire.”

This account dates back to 1519, around the same time that Barbosa says that handguns were used in Gujarat.

These tufungs were evidently matchlocks whose use had spread rapidly east from the Ottoman-Iranian borderlands. Venetians sent firearms to north-western Iran to the Turkic Aq Quyunlu enemies of the Ottomans in the late 15th Century. They may have spread further east then – and perhaps with even greater speed following the Ottoman use of firearms when they shattered the Safavid army at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514.

At Bajaur Ustad Ali Quli twice used a weapon which was called “Farangi”. Babur says the weapon used fired farangi tāshi (farangi stones). The Safavids use the term top-i farangi for the weapon they used in a battle in 1528-29.

The second point is that Babur introduced the handgun in the open battle where it was used by infantrymen who would fire their guns while standing on the ground. Other on the coast, were used to firing from the back of the elephants. In the case of Babur, the handgun wielders were made to stand on the ground & fire: this was a great advance in the technique.

Thirdly, it seems, Babur not only brought with him the most advanced guns which he borrowed from the Ottomans, but he also, for the first time utilized them in an open battle. Before this all reference in Hindustan which we have are either for the use of canons as shore battery against ships or their use in siege operations from fixed positions. We don’t come across the use of canons or handguns before 1526 in an open battle.

Such deployment would need proper kind of carriages to take them swiftly from one place to another. Such a technique was yet to evolve. Secondly it was not possible for the gunners to change the direction of the guns swiftly: they could be fired from fixed positions in one direction. Thus the cavalry would be in a position to capture it – almost half an hour was needed to fire one piece. In this half an hour, the rival cavalry could overcome it thus making the use of heavy canon useless in an open battle. But once fired from the ramparts of a fort, this fire could be effective: the danger of the artillery being over-run by cavalry would not be there.

The genius of Babur lay in the manner in which he used his artillery, his handgun-men, the tufungchis at Panipat and Kanwa. He ensured their safety of his canons & tufungchis to the same extent to which it would be ensured from the ramparts of fortifications. It also did not hamper the movement of his cavalry.

The Tactics: Tulughma and Use of Araba

There were 10,000 troops along with Babur. The whole army was divided into tulughma formation of three units, the right wing (maimana), the left wing (maisara) and the centre (hashm-i qalb).

It was in 1507 at the Battle of Qandahar that Babur had used the battle order (yasal) which came to be known as the tulughma formation. Mentioning this with the fact that he commanded very few men, Babur writes:

“I prepared an excellent battle order. Never before had I arranged things so well. In the khāsah tābīn, the imperial troop, for which I selected all proven warriors, I appointed commanders of tens and fifties, [after] dividing them up into [sections] of tens and fifties. Each [section] of ten and each [section] of fifty stationed at the right and left, were prepared: they knew their positions, their orders and were ready for the onset of battle. Right and left flanks, right and left wings, right and left sides, right and left, mounted, formed up without difficulty and without the help of a tovachii, an adjutant, each [section] was properly positioned and so forth.”

In an elaborate note Babur carefully explains these divisions of his force. He identifies three major subsections: irawul / harawal or vanguard, the ghol / qalb, the centre, and the two wings, the baranghar / maimana or right wing and the javanghar / maisara or left wing. The qalb / ghol itself was subdivided into two principal sections: the khasa tabin, the imperial troops, and the two sides: an ong qol, or right arm and a sol qol or left arm.

Tulughma Formation

He further divides the khasa tabin into five subdivisions, the boy or inner circle with its ong, right, and sol, left, and its ong yan, right side and sol yan, left side. However, when describing actual battles, Babur rarely identifies all these subsections but usually only names leading members of the vanguard, the centre and the right and left wings.

Placement of Araba before the canons

The araba formation was also preferred. He deployed ordinary carts tied with raw hide as a barricade. Between each column of the cart he left space for 100 troopers to pass in one row. Behind these carts he deployed mantelets (turah) which were stands giving protection to individual gunners & support for his handgun. Then, behind he deployed his advance guard under Khusrau Kokaltash. On one side of the advance gaurds were the firangis: i.e heavy mortars cast in bronze (from W.Eur). On the other side he deployed the zarb-wa-zan, the light artillery.

Behind the zarb-wa-zan he stationed his left wing (maisara) of the army. Behind the firangi he stationed the right wing (maimana) commanded by Humayun. Then behind these columns were the large central reserve, again divided into centre (hashm-i qalb), right (maimana) & left (maisara). Babur himself was in the centre. Then on the flanks were placed two flanks of the central reserve: the turning party of the left and the turning party of the right. These were for delivering the charge. The turning parties would issue away from the enemy, turn abruptly & deliver charges on the flanks of the advancing enemy.

This was the battle plan of the ghazis of Rum. He resorted to tulughma tactics which he had experienced with the Uzbeks.

He divided his army into different flanks which were to wheel around and surround the enemy. On three sides he had complete defence: he dug ditches on two sides and on the third the the town of Panipat. The only course left was to charge from the front where Babur had placed the carts. But this was not hampering the movement of Babur’s party as there were sufficient spaces left in the front line for them to move.

On the Afghan side, the battle plan was conventional. It spread on a large track. Ibrahim’s troops had to compress to launch an attack on the enemy. Babur says that Ibrahim Lodi was a young man of no experience and was negligent of his movements.The crowd became dense, and when they reached close range to Babur’s artillery, they were pressed and pushed from the behind. The confusion increased. At this point Babur’s effective use of artillery fire slaughtered them. They could neither advance nor withdraw. They had no option but to be slaughtered.

Thus the artillery and the tufungchis played a decisive role due to the novel battle plan drawn by Babur which he had borrowed from the ghazis of Rum. Salim the Terrible had used it in the Battle of Chalderan against Ismail Safawi of Iran.

At Kanwa, the only difference was that side by side with the cavaly, the tufungchis were also moving: the tripods on which the canons were mounted had had wheels to move them; and the chains tying the carts were now iron chains. The effect of the araba & tulughma war tactics in this battle was also same: the Rajput soldiers were demoralised & badly defeated.

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi