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|Babur in Kabul: AD 1504-1525 |
| Babur, founder of the Moghul dynasty in India, is one of history's more endearing conquerors. In his youth he is one among many impoverished princes, all descended from Timur, who fight among themselves for possession of some small part of the great man's fragmented empire. Babur even captures Samarkand itself on three separate occasions, each for only a few months. The first time he achieves this he is only fourteen. |
What distinguishes Babur from other brawling princes is that he is a keen oberver of life and keeps a diary. In it he vividly describes his triumphs and sorrows, whether riding out with friends at night to attack a walled village or mooning around for unrequited love of a beautiful boy.
|Babur's 'throneless times', as he later describes these early years, come to an end in 1504 when he captures Kabul. Here, at the age of twenty-one, he is able to establish a settled court and to enjoy the delights of gardening, art and architecture in the Timurid tradition of his family. |
With a powerful new Persian dynasty to the west (under Ismail I) and an aggressive Uzbek presence to the north (under Shaibani Khan), Babur's Kabul becomes the main surviving centre of the Timurid tradition. But these same pressures mean that his only chance of expanding is eastwards - into India.
|Babur feels that he has an inherited claim upon northern India, deriving from Timur's capture of Delhi in 1398, and he makes several profitable raids through the mountain passes into the Punjab. But his first serious expedition is launched in October 1525. |
Some forty years later (but not sooner than that) it is evident that Babur's descendants are a new and established dynasty in northern India. Babur thinks of himself as a Turk, but he is descended from Genghis Khan as well as from Timur. The Persians refer to his dynasty as mughal, meaning Mongol. And it is as the Moghul emperors of India that they become known to history.
|Babur in India: AD 1526-1530 |
| By the early 16th century the Muslim sultans of Delhi (an Afghan dynasty known as Lodi) are much weakened by threats from rebel Muslim principalities and from a Hindu coalition of Rajput rulers. When Babur leads an army through the mountain passes, from his stronghold at Kabul, he at first meets little opposition in the plains of north India. |
The decisive battle against Ibrahim, the Lodi sultan, comes on the plain of Panipat in April 1526. Babur is heavily outnumbered (with perhaps 25,000 troops in the field against 100,000 men and 1000 elephants), but his tactics win the day.
|Babur digs into a prepared position, copied (he says) from the Turks - from whom the use of guns has spread to the Persians and now to Babur. As yet the Indians of Delhi have no artillery or muskets. Babur has only a few, but he uses them to great advantage. He collects 700 carts to form a barricade (a device pioneered by the Hussites of Bohemia a century earlier). |
Sheltered behind the carts, Babur's gunners can go through the laborious business of firing their matchlocks - but only at an enemy charging their position. It takes Babur some days to tempt the Indians into doing this. When they do so, they succumb to slow gunfire from the front and to a hail of arrows from Babur's cavalry charging on each flank.
|Victory at Panipat brings Babur the cities of Delhi and Agra, with much booty in treasure and jewels. But he faces a stronger challenge from the confederation of Rajputs who had themselves been on the verge of attacking Ibrahim Lodi. |
The armies meet at Khanua in March 1527 and again, using similar tactics, Babur wins. For the next three years Babur roams around with his army, extending his territory to cover most of north India - and all the while recording in his diary his fascination with this exotic world which he has conquered.
|Humayun: AD 1530-1556 |
|Babur's control is still superficial when he dies in 1530, after just three years in India. His son Humayun keeps a tentative hold on the family's new possessions. But in 1543 he is driven west into Afghanistan by a forceful Muslim rebel, Sher Shah. |
Twelve years later, renewed civil war within India gives Humayun a chance to slip back almost unopposed. One victory, at Sirhind in 1555, is enough to recover him his throne. But six months later Humayun is killed in an accidental fall down a stone staircase. His 13-year-old son Akbar, inheriting in 1556, would seem to have little chance of holding on to India. Yet it is he who establishes the mighty Moghul empire.
|Akbar: AD 1556-1605 |
|In the early years of Akbar's reign, his fragile inheritance is skilfully held together by an able chief minister, Bairam Khan. But from 1561 the 19-year-old emperor is very much his own man. An early act demonstrates that he intends to rule the two religious communities of India, Muslim and Hindu, in a new way - by consensus and cooperation, rather than alienation of the Hindu majority. |
In 1562 he marries a Rajput princess, daughter of the Raja of Amber (now Jaipur). She becomes one of his senior wives and the mother of his heir, Jahangir. Her male relations in Amber join Akbar's council and merge their armies with his.
|This policy is very far from conventional Muslim hostility to worshippers of idols. And Akbar carries it further, down to a level affecting every Hindu. In 1563 he abolishes a tax levied on pilgrims to Hindu shrines. In 1564 he puts an end to a much more hallowed source of revenue - the jizya, or annual tax on unbelievers which the Qur'an stipulates shall be levied in return for Muslim protection. |
At the same time Akbar steadily extends the boundaries of the territory which he has inherited.
|Akbar's normal way of life is to move around with a large army, holding court in a splendid camp laid out like a capital city but composed entirely of tents. His biographer, Abul Fazl, describes this royal progress as being 'for political reasons, and for subduing oppressors, under the veil of indulging in hunting'. |
A great deal of hunting does occur (a favourite version uses trained cheetahs to pursue deer) while the underlying political purpose - of warfare, treaties, marriages - is carried on.
|Warfare brings its own booty. Signing a treaty with Akbar, or presenting a wife to his harem (his collection eventually numbers about 300 - see Harems), involves a contribution to the exchequer. As his realm increases, so does his revenue. And Akbar proves himself an inspired adminstrator. |
The empire's growing number of provinces are governed by officials appointed only for a limited term, thus avoiding the emergence of regional warlords. And steps are taken to ensure that the tax on peasants varies with local circumstances, instead of a fixed proportion of their produce being automatically levied.
|At the end of Akbar's reign of nearly half a century, his empire is larger than any in India since the time of Asoka. Its outer limits are Kandahar in the west, Kashmir in the north, Bengal in the east and in the south a line across the subcontinent at the level of Aurangabad. Yet this ruler who achieves so much is illiterate. An idle schoolboy, Akbar finds in later life no need for reading. He prefers to listen to the arguments before taking his decisions (perhaps a factor in his skill as a leader). |
Akbar is original, quirky, wilful. His complex character is vividly suggested in the strange palace which he builds, and almost immediately abandons, at Fatehpur Sikri.
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