Extending the narrative of the Baburnama, the memoirs of the founder of the Mughal empire, from the previous column:

Babur descends into the Indian plain at the head of 12,000 horsemen. Two decades earlier, his first foray into Hindustan had revealed “a new world – different plants, different trees, different animals and birds, different tribes and people, different manners and customs. It was astonishing, truly astonishing.” He has raided the fringes of India often since, but this time is determined to go all the way. The capital of North India is at Agra, having been shifted there from Delhi by Sikandar Lodi, whose son Ibrahim now occupies the throne. Babur’s camp proceeds steadily but without hurry, giving him time to examine India’s birds, beasts and flowers. He hunts, he has drinking parties on barges, he orders the construction of a garden at a pleasant spot.

The Battles of Panipat and Khanua

In April 1526, with the heat of the Doab grown insufferable already, his army approaches that of Ibrahim Lodi. Babur’s forces have, by now, perfected the flank attack in the manner of the Mongols. Two Anatolian artillery specialists have equipped his army with mortars and matchlocks unknown in India. He settles on Panipat near Delhi as the place that will give his outnumbered troops the greatest chance of victory, and plans his battle formation. The guns are strung out in the centre, with room between each shooter for cavalry to burst through. The wings are left free to outmanoeuvre the opposition with their speed.

His generals complain that no adversary will attack such a well-fortified position, but he predicts Ibrahim’s vastly larger army and the crushing power of his elephants will make the foe overconfident. His insight proves correct. The sultan marches to Panipat, and mounts an attack at dawn on April 20, 1526. The Lodi forces make a headlong charge, and are confronted by a volley of fire, before being encircled by a flank assault. Hemmed in and confused, they try to break out, but are repeatedly repulsed. By noon Babur’s army is victorious. He now controls all the land between Kabul and the frontiers of Bengal.

A few rebellions need crushing after the Panipat victory. Then the immense Lodi treasury is distributed, with every citizen of Kabul receiving at least a small share of the spoils. Humayun, who protected members of the Gwalior Raja’s family from harm in Agra after the battle, has been presented with a 40-gram diamond as a token of their gratitude. It is probably the gem from which the Kohinoor will be cut. He gives it to his father, who hands it back without a thought. This and other acts of generosity earn Babur the title Qalandar, which pleases him immensely. There are, however, kindnesses he regrets. Ibrahim Lodi’s mother, whom he has presented with a large estate, conspires to have his food poisoned. He recovers after falling violently ill, not having consumed enough of the deadly meat to die from it, but his health is never the same after the incident.

Before long, news arrives that the ruler of Mewar, Rana Sanga, is planning an invasion. Sanga heads a Hindu Rajput confederacy supported by a few Hindustani and Afghan Muslim generals. His army is well over a hundred thousand strong. He made overtures to Babur in the past, but no deal was concluded. The Rajput has waited on the sidelines, hoping to pick off the weakened army of the winner of the war between Babur and Lodi.

Babur has no faith in the forces he has inherited after Panipat, and dispatches them to protect different forts he now controls, depending on his Kabuli army to take on the Rajputs. But his soldiers are in no mood to fight, and his officers cannot understand why he is still hanging around in Hindustan. The operating procedure of invaders has been consistent for 2,000 years: get in through the Khyber, raid a few places around the Indus, grab as much loot as you can, go further if North India seems feeble, place a vassal on the throne who will pay tribute for a while, and get out.

Babur has other plans. He has finally conquered a real empire and isn’t about to let his place in history slip. His forces, though, are tired and homesick, and he fears their low morale could trigger a premature and self-fulfilling assessment that the battle is lost.

Section from the Baburnama depicting the Battle of Panipat. Credit: Painters of Babur [Public domain]

Facing a powerful non-Muslim enemy for the first time, Babur settles on a religious gambit. A few camel-loads of fine Ghazni wine have just arrived in camp. He orders the wine turned to vinegar, swears he will never taste liquor again, breaks his gold and silver drinking cups and has the pieces distributed to the poor. He exhorts his warriors that this is a heaven-sent opportunity to die as martyrs or live as holy warriors. He, who has often fled from battle, now asks his generals to swear with him on the Quran that they will all fight to the death. He is gratified with the outcome: “It was a really good plan, and it had a favourable propagandist effect on friend and foe.”

The armies meet at Khanua, near Sikri, on March 17, 1527. The battle is much harder fought than the one at Panipat, but Babur’s firepower, his superior battle formation, and the mobility and discipline of his horsemen eventually prevail over an army ten times the size of his own. The Rajputs are crushed and there is now no major power in India that can threaten him. He spends his three remaining years concluding treaties, quelling rebellions, collecting his poems into a diwan, and composing treatises on prosody and jurisprudence. He feels an aching nostalgia for Kabul and for Samarkand, but never returns to those temperate lands, remaining twice exiled until his death in 1530.

Ethnicity, faith, and nation

Babur’s birthplace, Ferghana, lies in modern Uzbekistan, but he hated the Uzbeks above all his enemies. His grave is in Afghanistan, but he railed against the untrustworthiness of Afghans. In India, where he died, he is known as a Mughal, Persian for Mongol, but he wrote, “Havoc and destruction have always emanated from the Mughal nation”. He thought of himself as a Turk, but to call him that today is to link him in peoples’ minds to West Asia, which he never visited. The identification of countries with ethnic or religious groups is the source of great confusion, doubly so when one maps a time before nation-states existed onto current borders.

Uzbekistan has adopted Babur as a national hero. Two statues of the emperor stand in Andijan, his poetry is admired, his exploits well known. This belated recognition would have gratified a man who valued history’s judgment: “In the end, only qualities survive a person in this world. Anyone who has a modicum of intelligence will take steps so that he will not be ill spoken of afterward… The wise have said that a good memory is a second life.”

In India, though, Babur gets a pretty bad press, even though he and his immediate heirs, remain household names centuries after their deaths. Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb: it is hard to find another instance anywhere of six such exceptional individuals ruling a large kingdom in succession. The Mughals were the last Muslim kings to control North India, but in the popular imagination, Muslim sovereignty in Delhi is synonymous with the dynasty, an acknowledgement that its achievements far outstripped those of its predecessors.

Attitude to India

It could be argued that India’s dislike of Babur is merely a reflection of Babur’s dislike of India. The most commonly quoted passage from the Baburnama makes his distaste evident: “Hindustan is a place of little charm. There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility or manliness. The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry. There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no schools. There are no candles, torches or even candlesticks.”

That paragraph reflects both Babur’s insight and his prejudices. It is part of a descriptive section that alludes to many positive features of the land. Like any conqueror, he appreciated India as, “a large country with lots of gold and money”. He greatly admired the Indian numerical system, as also the classification of weights and measures, and the method of calculating time. He liked the fact that specialised talent was available for any task imaginable. The number of craftsmen boggled his mind. He was proud of having more stonemasons working for him in Agra than Timur had ever employed in Samarkand. Entertainers caught his attention as well. Indian acrobats, in his assessment, possessed skills far superior to those of their Kabuli counterparts.

He described Indian wildlife in detail as he had the flora and fauna of his previous homes. He loved the peacock’s colours, but was indifferent to the taste of its flesh (“One eats it, like the camel, only with reluctance”), and was puzzled by the bird’s ability to survive in the same habitat as jackals. He thought the fish of Hindustan delicious, and praised flowers like the hibiscus, oleander and white jasmine. While the fruits didn’t compare with those of Kabul and Mawarannahr, there were a few worth mention, particularly the mango. Sadly, the Hindustani word for it, aam, sounded like a Turki obscenity.

Section from the Baburnama. Credit: Painters of Babur [Public domain]

Babur relished India’s seasons much more than did his nobles, who hated the climate with a vengeance. He loved the monsoon breezes, and recognised the centrality of rain in the economy. He was impressed by the accessibility of ground water, and the flourishing of spring crops in the absence of showers, but less so by the humid air ruining bows, rusting armour, and making books, bedding and textiles go mouldy. The dependence on the monsoon meant irrigation was underdeveloped. If there were few water channels for farmland, there could be none for pleasure gardens.

The absence of running water, outside of rivers, distressed Babur more than anything else in India. He was put off by the primitive irrigation techniques he witnessed: “In Agra, Chandawar and Bayana they irrigate by means of the bucket. This is a laborious and filthy method. A forked stick is raised next to a well and across the fork a pulley is fastened. A large bucket is tied to a long rope, which is thrown over the pulley. One end of the rope is tied to an ox. It takes one person to lead the ox and another to empty the water from the bucket. Every time the ox is led out to pull up the bucket and then led back, the rope is dragged through the ox’s path, which is sullied by ox urine and dung, and then falls back into the well. For some types of agriculture that need irrigation, water is carried in jars by men and women.” Five centuries after he wrote those words, the method he described is still practiced in parts of India.

Though Babur could not transform the North Indian plain into the undulating countryside he preferred, he made up for it by constructing a series of symmetrical gardens on the banks of the Yamuna, devising a method of raising water from the river and sending it coursing through qanats and down terraces. His nobles imitated his fondness for gardens, and, thus,“In unpleasant and inharmonious India, marvellously regular and geometric gardens were introduced. In every corner were beautiful plots, and in every plot were regularly laid out arrangements of roses and narcissi.”

Mosque and garden

Babur’s name has been in the limelight, not for the gardens he designed, but for a temple he is supposed to have destroyed. The Babri Masjid is central to a larger narrative that labels him an oppressor of Hindus. Yet, it wasn’t he that sought to fight the Rajputs, but Rana Sanga who invaded his newly-won dominion. He did appeal to faith in the Khanua battle, and described defeated Hindu opponents as kafirs sent to hell. While such phrases, pervasive in Muslim histories, make unpleasant reading, he didn’t treat Hindu adversaries any differently from the dozens of Muslim foes he had confronted.

In the clean-up operation after his triumph at Khanwa, for instance, he besieged Chanderi, held by one of Sanga’s lieutenants, Medini Rao. Pragmatic as always, he offered Rao safe passage and an alternate fief, but the Rajputs chose a suicide charge combined with jauhar.

Less relevant to India, but important in assessing Babur’s overall tolerance of alternate belief systems, was his even-handed treatment of Shias. He lived in a time of great Shia- Sunni conflict, consequent to the Safavi emperors commencing the conversion of Iran into a Shia-majority land.

A section from the Baburnama. Credit: Painters of Babur [Public domain]

A similar balanced approach is visible in his treatment of built structures. The Baburnama touches on two incidents of vandalism, one involving his order for a Muslim saint’s shrine to be razed, and the second the erasure of nude Jain figures carved onto a rockface in Gwalior. The nudity offended his sensibility, but he also toured the old temples of Gwalior and described them without expressing any religious antipathy. How likely is it, then, that he could have commanded the destruction of a Ram temple? The Baburnama offer a mixed message: he was disinclined to desecrate religious sites, but was not above doing so.

It no longer appears to matter, in any case. If India’s Supreme Court clears the way for a Rama temple to be built where the Babri Masjid once stood, it will reward the criminal act of demolishing that shrine.

There is another connection between Babur and Rama, a benign history perhaps more characteristic of India than the dispute over temple and mosque. The first garden the emperor built in Agra was named the Bagh-i-Nur Afshan, or Light Scattering Garden. His body was interred here after his death before being taken to Kabul. The Persian name was as difficult for Hindustanis to pronounce as “Zahiruddin Muhammad” had been for Babur’s Mongol uncles. Agra’s citizens preferred the straightforward Aram Bagh, or Garden of Rest. Over time, as it was overtaken by weeds, its water courses dried up, and its walls crumbled, the garden came to be known by the name by which it welcomes tourists today in a smartly restored form: Rambagh.

Also read:

Babur before India: The journey of a cultured emperor who is among modern India’s most hated figures