There was the blood of conquerors in his veins. On his mother’s side, he was descended from the great Genghis Khan. On his father’s side, the man who took on the Mongols and founded his own empire, Timurlane. It made sense that this young man would found an empire of his own. However, he was born far from it.
Zahir al-Din Muhammad was born February 15, 1483 in the principality of Fergana, what is now Uzbekistan. Umar Shaykh Mīrzā,his father, was the ruler of Fergana, but died early when his young son was only eleven. His death was reported as happening “”while tending pigeons in an ill-constructed dovecote that toppled into the ravine below the palace”. This seems fishy, but there is no other mention of foul play. His tribe was the Barlas, which had Mongol origin but members of the tribe considered themselves Turks in language and custom. Thus young Zahir could claim both ethnicities. Perhaps because of this, Zahir had a great obsession with conquering Samarkand. At 15, he besieged Samarkand and held it for 100 days before he had to return to Fergana to put down rebellion. In the end he lost Fergana to his brother and Samarkand to Muḥammad Shaybānī. The loss of Samarkand is something he never got over.
Now the young man was living more like a bandit than a prince with a band of followers who attacked the fortified towns in the region and stole cattle and other goods. Zahir describes in his diaries how he and his followers would place their ladders against the village walls under cover of darkness. Sometimes they were spotted and had to ride away, but sometimes they got in and fought through the narrow lanes to take what they wanted. Zahir was based out of Tashkent, which was ruled by his maternal uncle. He later wrote of this time by saying, “During my stay in Tashkent, I endured much poverty and humiliation. No country, or hope of one!” By 1504, he had seized the city of Kabul and made it his capital. Somewhere during this time he acquired a nickname of Babur. Many people believe this was because his Turco-Mongol army had a difficult time pronouncing his given name. Babur is thought to have come from “babr”, the Persian word for tiger. The cultural influence in Kabul was Persian, and Babur took to the poetry and lifestyle and eventually introduced this to India.
Kabul was located on the Khyber Pass and to the east through the pass was northern India. At that time, northern India was ruled by a confederation of independent princes of the Rajput kings headed by Rana Sanga, ruler of the state of Mewar of Rajasthan. He made his first raid into Punjab region in 1519. The governor of the province, Dawlat Khan Lodī, resented his Rajput overlords and invited Babur in to fight them. Babur did not need to be asked in twice, and invaded. He ended up invading three times, but was unable to get a clear foothold. As part of his manipulations in Punjab, the Sultan in charge there sent him the legendary kohinoor diamond. It was described as being worth half-day production costs of the world. However, there was a curse on the diamond. “He who owns this diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes. Only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity.” This diamond is now part of the British crown jewels.
In April 1526 at Panipat, Babur’s army of 12,000 defeated an army of the Rajput of 100,000 troops and 100 elephants. Even though they were outnumbered, their use of cavalry tactics and new technology acquired from the Ottoman Turks- artillery. Three days after his victory, he occupied Delhi and took Agra a few weeks later.
Rana Sanga thought Babur would leave like Timurlane before him, but Babur kept his army in the field despite the oppressive heat. They were 800 miles from their home in Kabul and surrounded by enemies, but Babur describes in his diaries how he keep his followers in place with threats, scoldings, promises and appeals. Rana Sanga eventually advanced with 100,0000 horses and 500 elephants. However, Babur’s artillery won the day at the battle of Khanua, stampeding the elephants and breaking the cavalry.
Before India was secure, Babur had to face an enemy behind him. Another Sultan took Lucknow in the east while he was dealing with Rana Sanga. He crossed the Ganges and retook Lucknow then had another great victory at Ghaghara. Again the artillery won the day along with skillful handling of boats on the river. By 1529, Babur’s empire was secure. His empire included Central Asian territories, Kabul, the Punjab, Delhi, and other parts of North India as far south as Gwalior and as far east as the Bihar. All of this would be passed on to his son, Humayun in what would become known as the Mughal Empire. Mughal was a corruption of Mongol by later European visitors.
In 1530, Humayun became gravely ill, and was thought to be at death’s door. Legend said Babur made a vow to God to exchange his life for his son. He walked seven times around his son’s sickbed to seal the vow. Humayan recovered and Babur died the same year. Apart from being a military genius, Babur was a gifted poet and left a wealth of information in his memoirs, the Babur-nameh. This has been translated into many languages and reveal him to be an cultured, witty man with an eye for beauty as well as conquest.
Sources available on request