Babur (1483 – 1530) was the founder of the Moghul Empire in India. He was a charismatic military leader who not only conquered large parts of India, often with ruthless efficiency but also embodied personal qualities of wisdom and forgiveness. His strength of personality created a more unified identity for his Muslim followers and played a considerable role in bringing Persian culture into India. He wrote an extensive account of his life in famous memoirs known as Babur-nama.
Early life Babur
Babur was born in Farghana, in Turkestan, the region of Central Asia, on 20 April 1526. He considered himself to be a Timurid. At the age of 12, he became ruler, following the death of his father. However, he was soon usurped by his uncles who sought to wrestle control. But helped by his maternal grandmother, Aisan Daulat, he was able to secure the throne of Fergana. It was one of his many internal struggles against rival factions within his people and even extended family.
At the time, the surrounding regions were in frequent conflict, with descendants of Genghis Khan fighting for supremacy over towns and small regions. Babur was ambitious to strengthen his rule and gain new territories. In 1497, at the age of 15, he took the city of Samarkand after a long siege. It was a notable victory and impressive for a boy of just 15. However, whilst away from his home town taking Samarkand, there was a rebellion back in Fergana. And after just 100 days, Babur was forced to leave the newly gained prize of Samarkand to a rival prince and return empty-handed. It was a loss that pained him throughout his life.
To regain Samarkand, he spent three years building a stronger army. Babur’s personality, generosity and demeanour meant he was successful in encouraging many Tajiks to join his cause. However, when he went back to try and retake Samarkand, he was attacked by a rival – Muhammad Shaybani, Khan of the Uzbeks. Babur was forced into a humiliating peace treaty and he returned to try and re-take Fergana. But, failing to take Fergana, he was left bereft with only a few followers. For a few years, he lived in great poverty and it appeared his hopes of gaining a strong empire were over.
His fortunes started to turn in 1504 when he was able to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains and take Kabul, in modern-day Afghanistan. He ruled this kingdom until 1526. And over time, more Muslim princes sought refuge in Kabul to escape the invasions of Shaybani in the west. However, despite this success, Babur was not satisfied, the area was poor and far from major trading routes. Even in Kabul, life was rarely peaceful and Babur had to quell domestic rebellions. But as he strengthened his domestic position, he began building and training his army into a formidable fighting force with the best modern equipment. Seeking more lands and, to escape the threat of the Uzbeks, Babur turned to Hindustan (the lands of Pakistan and India). The area had been on Babur’s mind for a long time as it had once marked the furthest part of Timur’s empire.
Foundation of the Moghul Empire
Babur moved into the Punjab and, helped by division amongst the Indian rulers, he took Lahore in 1524. In 1526, he marched on to Panipat, where he met the large army of Ibrahim Lodi. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Babur’s superior tactics enabled him to comprehensively beat the opposition army of 100,000 men and 100 elephants. Babur encircled Lodi’s army and fired artillery from all sides. Babur’s superior tactics and discipline of his army was a landmark victory in his move into India. He remarked in his journal.
“By the grace of the Almighty God, this difficult task was made easy to me and that mighty army, in the space of a half a day was laid in dust.”
After hearing of the death of Ibrahim Lodi, Babur asked to be taken to his body. Lodi was an opponent who Babur admired for his bravery and honour. Babur took it upon himself to ensure Lodi was given a respectful burial for a king.
Babur continued to be successful – fighting off rebellions and battles from challengers such as the Hindu king, Rana Sanga. In 1527, with the effective use of cannons and superior tactics, he beat Rana Sanga’s army and the following year he completed his triumph with another comprehensive victory over Rana Sanga at the Battle of Chanderi.
Babur was the key figure in establishing the Mughul Empire in India. He was helped by weak and divided Hindu forces, but his conquest changed India forever, leading to a growth of Muslim inhabitants amongst a largely Hindu population. The early years of the Moghul empire were marked by vicious violence. Babur often wrote how he felt he was doing God’s work in defeating the ‘pagan’ Hindu The Sikh prophet Guru Nanak records seeing the great violence of the Moghul Emperors.
“[Thanks to Babur’s destruction mania,] temples as strong as a thunderbolt were set on fire.” -Guru Nanak,
Babur could also be ruthless in his killing of defeated soldiers on the battlefield.
However, although Babur’s army brought great violence, he also helped to unite his kingdom and he did display acts of charity, tolerance and forbearance. For its time he was relatively enlightened, Babur, sought to make peace with his former enemies. He allowed people to continue with their Hindu religion and customs. Babur promoted the arts and was instrumental in bringing Persian culture into India.
Babur was a mix of conflict qualities. Ruthless in battle and ambitious to extend his empire, he could also exhibit forgiveness to his enemies. On one occasion his grandmother instigated one of his cousins to fight against Babur. After defeating the rebellion, did not kill his grandmother or cousin, but directly forgave them.
“The cream of my testimony is this, do nothing against your brothers even though they may deserve it.” – Babur
Babur was an exceptional leader, who could command the loyalty of his army through his own example. Once when Babur was leading his army to India, they were caught in torrential rain with nowhere to shelter. Then some soldiers found a small cave and begged Babur to take shelter. But, out of oneness with his army, he replied:
“How can I do that? You are my intimate friends and companions. This protection is not enough for all of us. Since it is not adequate for all, I do not need it. I cannot sleep in comfort while you remain in misery. Whatever hardship has to be faced, I will face it with you. I am more than happy to pass the night outside with you.” (link)
Unlike many of his predecessors, Babur had a great interest in literature, art, music and gardening. He felt it important to live a joyful and happy life.
“The new year, the spring, the wine and the beloved are joyful. Babur make merry, for the world will not be there for you a second time.” – Babur’s diary.
He wrote an extensive diary, which was unusual for the time, but gives a wealth of insight into his life and the times of the people. His writings display a considerable degree of self-awareness.
“I have not written all this to complain: I have simply written the truth. I do not intend by what I have written to compliment myself: I have simply set down exactly what happened.” ~ Babur
His support for culture was an important development in the Moghul Empire. His initial interests were later expanded by his grandson Akbar. He was religious and a fairly devout Muslim. However, aged 30 in Kabul, he took up drinking alcohol and wine which he did with great abandonment. He later forsook alcohol for health reasons and encouraged his court to do likewise. As was common for the time, he took several wives and had many children. His closest as his son. Humayan.
In 1530, Babur’s son and heir apparent, Humayan became gravely ill with his death seemingly imminent. Babur was distraught as he wanted his young son to live and succeed him. One account states that a saint visited Babur and said he if could sacrifice something most precious, like the Kohinoor diamond, his son would live. Babur replied he did not think the Kohinoor diamond was that precious so he walked three times around his bed praying to Allah.
“Allah, take my life instead of my son’s. Let me die in his place, and let him live on earth. This is my only prayer and my most willing sacrifice.” Babur-nama
After completing this prayer, his son recovered, but Babur fell ill and within three months had died. At the time of Babur’s death, he was living in Agra, India, but his body was later moved to be buried in Kabul.
Military figures – Famous military leaders and soldiers, including Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Ataturk, Erwin Rommel, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower.
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