Today in South Asian history: the First Battle of Panipat (1526)

Map - India - Mughal Expansion 1526-1605
Early Mughal expansion (you’ll see Panipat there in the upper middle area)

As I think we’ve mentioned before, Panipat has seen three major battles since the 16th century. I don’t think I’m doing the other two battles a disservice if I say that this first one was the most significant of the three, because it established the Mughal Empire in northern India–where, with the exception of a brief interlude, it would remain, in one form or another, until the 19th century. This First Battle of Panipat, on April 21 1526, is generally accepted as the foundation point for the Mughal Empire. The battle is also a pretty stark example of the potency of 16th century gunpowder weapons, which allowed a heavily outnumbered Mughal army (estimated around 12,000 men) to pretty easily defeat the army of the Delhi Sultanate (which various estimates put somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 strong).

The Mughals were commanded by their founder, Babur (d. 1530), who was heir to a very illustrious tradition of Central Asian conquerors but, ironically, had decided to march over the Hindu Kush into India in part because he was tired of getting his ass kicked in Central Asia so much.

Babur, whose real name was Zahir al-Din Muhammad, was a descendant of both Timur, on his father’s side, and Genghis Khan, on his mother’s side, so he had the bloodlines of a conqueror for sure. Timur’s empire had shattered in the decades since his death in 1405, so when Babur became the ruler of the city of Ferghana (in modern Uzbekistan) in 1495 (at the age of 11) he was only one of many Timurid princes controlling a small piece of what had once been a pretty vast empire. But Babur had designs on rebuilding his ancestor’s empire, and he set his sights on conquering Timur’s old capital, Samarkand. He actually captured it in 1497…then promptly lost Ferghana to a rebellion and immediately lost Samarkand when he left to try to put down the rebellion in Ferghana. He tried again to take Samarkand in 1501, but was defeated by the new power in Central Asia, the Uzbeks under Muhammad Shaybani (d. 1510).

Now without a home base, Babur and his army spent some time as guests of one of his uncles in Tashkent before, in 1504, crossing over the Hindu Kush and capturing Kabul. He was still bound and determined to conquer Central Asia, though, seeing India as merely a convenient place to do a little raiding when he needed resources. And when the Uzbeks conquered Herat in 1507, he was probably the last Timurid prince left standing. Eventually he cut a deal with the Safavids in Iran under which Babur would accept Safavid suzerainty in return for their help defeating the Uzbeks and installing him in Samarkand. This seemed like a pretty decent plan–the Safavids had crushed the Uzbeks at Merv in 1510 and killed Muhammad Shaybani (Safavid Shah Ismail I famously had his skull turned into a fancy goblet). But in 1512 at the Battle of Ghijduwan, the internal tensions that would plague the Safavids over the next several decades came to the surface and the Uzbeks won a surprising victory. Finally Babur had to face the facts: Central Asia was a bust. If he was going to be a great conqueror, his conquests would have to come elsewhere. Specifically, to the south, in India.

Northern India had been ruled since the early 13th century by a series of dynasties that get lumped together by historians as the “Delhi Sultanate.” This is a bit misleading, since it implies more continuity in rulership than was actually the case. It’s still more misleading in that Delhi wasn’t even always the capital of the sultanate–in 1526, for example, the capital was Agra. The sultanate at this point was ruled by the Lodi Dynasty, a Pashtun dynasty that had taken over the kingdom in 1451. They were ruled by Ibrahim Lodi (d. 1526, and yes that’s a spoiler). Ibrahim doesn’t seem to have been much of a ruler, and Babur was actually invited to invade Lodi territory around 1524 by other members of the Lodi family who were afraid that the sultanate was about to break apart.

The decisive battle came at Panipat in April 1526, when Ibrahim attempted to snuff out Babur’s much smaller army through sheer numbers. Babur evidently had enough advance warning of Ibrahim’s advance on Panipat that he was able to rope carts together to form a battlefield fortification that his gunners, firing both field artillery and matchlocks, could use for cover. This was a tactic the Ottomans used to great effect, and they’d adopted it from Europeans in the 15th century. Babur also chose an area where Ibrahim would have to narrow his line in order to advance, which left the Lodi army vulnerable to attack on both flanks. It doesn’t seem like there was very much to the battle–basically, Babur had guns and Ibrahim didn’t, and that combined with the flanking movement was more than enough to overcome the Lodis’ manpower advantage. Ibrahim did have war elephants, which had always been pretty devastating in battle, but not only were they rendered ineffective by Babur’s preparations, but it seems they were startled by the gunfire into trampling their own men. Ibrahim died along with roughly 15000 of his men, and the Lodi Dynasty was no more.

One of the great things about Babur is that he wrote an autobiography, which we call the Baburnama, which is not only a very useful source (bearing in mind that the author is a little biased) but is also remarkably plain-spoken and readable for something written in the 1500s (it was translated into English by Wheeler M. Thackston if you’re interested in picking up a copy). So for anything that happened in his life, we can actually read Babur’s own description. Here’s part of what he writes about the Battle of Panipat:

The sun was one lance high when battle was enjoined. The fighting continued until midday. At noon the enemy was overcome and vanquished to the delight of our friends. By God’s grace and generosity such a difficult action was made easy for us, and such a numerous army was ground into the dust in half a day. Five or six thousand men were killed in one place near Ibrahim. All told, the dead of this battle were estimated at between fifteen and sixteen thousand. Later, when we came to Agra, we learned from reports [these were likely exaggerated] that forty to fifty thousand men had died in the battle. With the enemy defeated and felled, we proceeded.

After the battle the Mughals occupied first Delhi and then Agra, which became Babur’s new capital. The next year, Babur defeated another much larger force, this time belonging to the Hindu Rajput Confederation, at Khanwa, and the Mughal Empire was clearly not going anywhere. Well, until Babur’s son, Humayun, lost the whole empire in 1540, that is. But Humayun got it back in 1555, his son Akbar won the Second Battle of Panipat in 1556, and the Mughal hold over northern India was pretty stable for the next couple of centuries.

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Author: DWD

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