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Studying Mughal Warfare under Babur

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

The creation of the Mughal empire was more than a political transition, rather it was the start of an era that changed the nature of warfare in South Asia. The Mughal empire laid its claims in present-day Indian territory in 1526, when the Battle of Panipat took place between the Timurid, Zahiruddin Babur, and the last ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, Ibrahim Lodi, who was a Sultan, not liked by many. When we talk of warfare, we often talk about the size of the armies and how a larger army is always the dominant one, but this was one of the first times when a smaller army was the more dominant one, with the Mughal army relatively smaller in size but still emerging as the victorious one. The Mughals were led into this battle under the expertise of Ustad Ali Quli Khan, who introduced gunpowder in the Mughal camp. The Mughals fought this battle with the famous Tulughma battle plan, which led them to victory. The Battle of Panipat showed how the Mughals had advanced techniques which made them levels above the common traditions of warfare. Under them, a new style of combat built around gunpowder, infantry, and combined arms tactics replaced an old system of warhorses and elephants. This transformation in battle tactics carried on until the 17th century when the Mughal empire arguably became one of the most powerful states- guarding borders from central Asia to the southernmost tip of India.

As Babur assumed control, he greatly accelerated the pace of innovation by combining the traditional central Asian way of war with new technology and tactics from the West. Babur, who was introduced to the battlefield at the tender age of 12, fought as a mounted archer, with the central feature in his army being the horse archers on the traditional steppe model. The cavalry performed several crucial roles such as exploiting breakthroughs, scouting, screening, and even encircling. Scholars have noted the supremacy of cavalrymen over infantrymen under Babur, and have noted that a Mughal soldier without a horse is an honor-less figure. On the other hand, some historians are of the view that even though the cavalry was important, the infantry had its stern position; as the Baburnama talks about the use of infantry for defense purposes. The most important addition to Babur’s arsenal was “gunpowder”. One does not know the exact timeframe when Babur used gunpowder or from where he sourced it, as there is a large space of time missing in the Baburnama, in addition to the text being culturally facilitated and having exquisite details about Babur’s personal experiences rather than military tactics and battles.

Babur’s artillery was of two basic types: The Kazan and the Zarb Zan. The Kazan was a heavy cannon that fired heavy cannonballs. The Kazan was very useful against fortified positions, but a major drawback was its weight and the ability to transport this weapon. The Zarb Zan, was a more flexible option as it was the lighter cannon built in a very European style, and could be moved from one place to another. Another, less common type of artillery was the firing or the Frankish cannon, whose design was probably based on a European light naval gun. The rarest class of artillery that was available was the Kazan-i-Bozorg, which fired projectiles of over 100 pounds, which was five times that of the Kazan. The standard small arm in Babur’s army was the tufting, or the matchlock musket, which was very similar to the arms used in the Ottoman Empire. The muskets were also useful for display and intimidation, especially against enemies who had little experience in firearms.

Babur built and improved upon the model of the classic Central Asian Cavalry army. Even during his later campaigns, he used tactics that were passed on to him by his forefathers and other generational techniques that made the Timurids renowned. He did not seek to immediately overpower the enemy but rather used a counter-punching technique. His tactics were a variant of an old steppe ploy, where weakness was displayed to lure the opponent to be offensive. Babur’s growth as a commander and a conqueror can be traced to the Baburnama. His innovations were not a sudden burst of genius—they emerged gradually over a series of campaigns and battles. As time passed, he was called upon to master armies and implements of increasing size and complexity. The lessons learned were often difficult, including defeats as well as victories.

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