“From the year . . . , when Kabul was conquered, until this date  I had craved Hindustan. Sometimes because my begs (high-ranking officers) had poor opinions, and sometimes because my brothers lacked cooperation, the Hindustan campaign had not been possible and the realm had not been conquered.”
— Emperor Babur, on conquering India, in his memoirs
In the long march of civilisation, there are days which decisively change the history of a nation or people — for better or worse. The day when Babur defeated the forces of the Lodi Empire of the Delhi Sultanate was one such historic occasion. For, the victory of Babur’s invading army on 21 April 1526 in what is called the First Battle of Panipat, led to the establishment of one of the great empires of the medieval world — the Mughal dynasty.
Though Mughal power rapidly dwindled after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, it continued to hold the awe and respect of many Indian rulers and nawabs. It would take another momentous event—the revolt of 1857 or India’s First War of Independence—to put an end to even those remnants of the Mughal empire that were by then restricted to a small area within capital Delhi.
But it all began with Babur and the Battle of Panipat, more than 330 years before Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, was sent to exile in Rangoon by the British.
A prince of Timurid vs. the Delhi Sultanate
Babur became the effective ruler of Farghana (in Trans-Oxiana or the Afghan-Uzbekistan border region) when he was only 11 years old. Those were days of continuous strife in the region, and the Timurid princes, including Babur, spent most of their time fighting each other. Meanwhile the menacing Uzbek threat loomed large. The young Babur took Samarqand, but the Uzbeks captured the territory soon after, pushing him out. He then turned his attention to Kabul, which he held with some difficulty. Pushed from all sides, both by the Uzbeks and inter-clan rivalry, he turned his attention to Hindustan and through a series of probing raids over the years, felt increasingly confident about becoming the ‘padishah’ (ruler) of Delhi.
After several such raids, a final conflict with the ruler of Delhi—the Lodhi dynasty’s Ibrahim Lodi—became inevitable. Ibrahim Lodi was a ruler of the fifth dynasty of what is collectively known as the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526). Before the Lodis, the other Sultanate dynasties were the Mamluks, the Khiljis, the Tughlaqs, and the Sayyids.
As it turned out, Ibrahim Lodi would be the last ruler of the Delhi Sultanate.
The setting of the historic battle was the village of Panipat (now a town in Haryana).
According to some estimates, Babur had 15,000 men whereas Ibrahim Lodi’s forces numbered at least 100,000. Though Lodi could not summon all his forces, anything between 30,000 and 40,000 men from his side took part in the battle. Babur’s men—battle-hardened warriors who had taken part in several military campaigns (though none as big as this) in the past—gathered near Panipat.
Babur’s military tactics proved far superior. He also had in his arsenal some two dozen pieces of field artillery, a technological innovation in warfare that his enemy, which still relied on elephants, lacked.
Babur’s men used the gunpowder effectively against Lodi’s army, with the help of two experienced Ottoman gunners specially brought for the purpose. Then, taking Lodi by surprise, two wings of Babur’s army attacked from the rear and side. It was a grim affair. Thousands died on both sides. In less than three hours, Ibrahim Lodi was killed and the Delhi Sultanate was history.
The victory at Panipat, significant as it was, did not allow Babur the luxury to sit back and savour the moment for long. For there were other foes — such as Rana Sanga, the powerful ruler of Mewar — to be subdued in this new and strange land called Hindustan. After capturing Delhi, Babur lived for only four more years. His son Humayun and grandson Akbar continued the consolidation of Mughal power after his death.
Mughal influence reached its political peak during Akbar’s time. But the foundation was laid by Akbar’s grandfather. As Satish Chandra writes in ‘History of Medieval India’: “In north India, Babur smashed the power of the Lodis and the Rajput confederacy led by Rana Sanga. Thereby, he destroyed the balance of power in the area. This was a long step towards the establishment of an all-India empire”
Also on this day:
1924 — Maharaja Karni Singh, the last ruler of Bikaner State, was born
1950 — Shivaji Satam, Indian television and film actor, was born
- History of Medieval India by Satish Chandra
- The Baburnama (translation by Wheeler M. Thackston)