Categories Medieval India



  • Throughout Indian history, events and developments in Central Asia had a deep and abiding impact on India. During the 10th and the 12th centuries, developments in Central Asia led to the advent of the Ghaznavids, and then of the Ghurids into India.
  • Similarly, developments in Central Asia  during the 15th and early 16th centuries, led to a new Turkish incursion into India, this time in the shape of Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur.
  • The rapid rise and decline of the Mongols, and their mutual squabbles created the climate for the emergence of a new Central Asian empire during the 14th century. The founder of this empire, Timur, belonged to the Barlas clan of Turks who had been owners of land in Transoxiana, and had freely intermarried with the Mongols. Even Timur claimed descent from Chingiz Khan by virtue of his marrying a daughter of the Mongol Khan, Qazan Khan, who was a descendant of Chingiz.
  • However, in Asia, Chingiz Khan’s career gave birth to a new concept  of imperium which certainly captured men’s imagination, although at first the predominant sentiment was one of terror after the fall of the Mongol empire every princely in Central Asia sought, if he could, to legitimize his rule by claiming descent from Chingiz Khan.
  • Timur launched upon a career of conquest which lasted almost a quarter of a century till his death in 1404-05. He over-ran Khurasan (eastern Iran), Iran, Georgia, Iraq and the Ottoman empire in Syria and Anatolia (Turkey).
  • He also led a series of campaigns against the Mongol ulus called the Golden Horde, which controlled Southern Russia and parts of modern Sinkiang and Siberia. However, he made no attempt to incorporate them in his empire.(
  • He sacked Delhi, and laid a vague claim over the Punjab. He was planning an invasion of China at the time of his death.
  • Timur has been called “one of the boldest and most destructive conquerors in human history.”
  • Like  Chingiz earlier, he used terror as an instrument of war. He ruthlessly sacked cities which offered resistance to him, slaughtering and enslaving large numbers and carrying off artisans, craftsmen and scholars to his capital, Samarqand.
  • He followed this policy in Khurasan and Iran, and in India when he sacked Delhi.

  • Timur did not leave any lasting institutions, and his empire disintegrated rapidly after his death. However, the state he created, and the new cultural values and norms it generated, influenced not only the Mughals in India, but also the other states which arose in the area—the Uzbeks, the Safavids, and the Ottomans.
  • Although the Mongols had embraced Islam like the Turks earlier, they had continued many Mongol practices and rituals, including the regulations or yassa (a secret written code of law created by Mongols.The word Yassa translates into “order” or “decree”. It was the de facto law of the Mongol Empire even though the “law” was kept secret and never made public) laid down by Chingiz.
  • Timur claimed to be a pious Muslim. However, according to a contemporary observer, Ibn Arab Shah, the yassa of Chingiz and the traditions of the Mongols were fundamental to Timur’s character and policy. He argues that the Quran and the sharia did not matter to Timur except as external forms. While many of  the successors of Timur tried to pose as orthodox Muslims, and gave patronage to the Muslim religious classes, made provision for religious endowment, and built shrines, mosques and madrasas, they never repudiated the yassa.
  • This willingness to treat the yassa as a supplement to the sharia, and to issue royal edicts (yarligh) to modify the sharia whenever it suited them, gave a broader, more liberal character to the Timurid state than the states which had preceded.
  • The Timurid rulers also gave support to the new liberal stream of thought, based on Ibn Arabi’s philosophy of wahdat-al-wajud, or unity of God and the created world, which was given popular expression by a new breed of poets. Thus, Jami, one of the most popular poets, was patronized by Timur’s successor, Shah Rukh, at Herat.
  • The Timurids presided over what has been called “the last great age of Persian literature.” They also encouraged the development of Chaghtai Turkish as a literary language.
  • Another successor of Timur, Sultan Husain Baiqara, set up a new school of painting at Herat under the master painter, Bihzad.
  • Thus, the times and the efforts of Timur, and his successors led to the rise of a liberal Muslim state which did not exclude anyone on the basis of their faiths. Thus, Christians and other non-Muslims were included in Timur’s armies. The state was also to be a champion and promoter of a broad liberal school of culture. No other dynasty in Central Asia left behind it such a legacy.(
  • Another Mongol tradition which the Timurids inherited was of giving total loyalty and support to the chief, called Qa-an, or the great chief by the Mongols. Chingiz, and following him, the Timurids claimed the divine right to rule. No ordinary noble or military leader could, therefore, dream of displacing them. In fact they were content to be called their servants (nokar). It were these traditions which gave greater stability and longevity to the great empires which arose in the region during the post-Mongol period—the Mughal, the Safavid, the Uzbek, the Ottoman etc., as compared to the pre-Mongol states. It also helped to shape the Mughal state and culture in India.

The Timurid-Uzbek and the Uzbek-Iranian Conflict and Babur

  • Following the disintegration of the Timurid empire during the second half of the fifteenth century, three powerful empires arose in Central and West Asia.
  • The Uzbek empire dominated Transoxiana, the Safavid empire comprised Iran, and the Ottoman empire was based on Anatolia (modern Turkey) and Syria which extended to Eastern Europe and dominated the Mediterranean Sea.

  • The Ottomans were the only Asian power which had a large navy. It clashed with the Safavids for the control of Baghdad, South-Western Iran and Azarbaijan (see locations in above figures).
  • The Safavids, who claimed descent from an old order of saints, established themselves towards the beginning of the sixteenth century. They were fiercely Shi-ite, and persecuted the Sunnis, including the theologians, in Iran. They also tried to propagate Shiism in Syria and Anatolia.
  • The Ottomans were staunch Sunnis and retaliated by persecuting Shi-ites in Syria and Anatolia. Thus, sectarian conflict made the political rivalry between the two more bitter and intense.(
  • The Uzbeks who were the main rivals of the Timurids, consisted of nomadic Turkish and Mongol tribes speaking Turkish, living in what is modern Kazakhstan. They had established an Uzbek khanate in the area during the middle of the fifteenth century. However, this khanate had been destroyed, and the Uzbek empire was virtually rebuilt by Muhammad Shaibani Khan.
  • Starting life as a free-booter and a mercenary, Shaibani Khan served for some time under the Mongol Khan of Mughalistan, but soon struck out on his own, basing himself on Uzbek and Mongol soldiers of fortune.
  • The great prize before all the contenders was Transoxiana which was then fragmented among a series of Timurid princelings. Each Timurid prince always on the look out to seize the territory of a neighbour—brother,cousin, uncle or nephew. Nor did any of them hesitate in employing Uzbek or Mongol mercenaries, or calling in outside powers to intervene in their internal struggles. In such a situation, only a bold and unscrupulous person could hope to succeed. While none of the begs (nobles, leaders of soldiers) could be relied upon, the worst were the Mongol mercenaries. Years later, Babur, while forced to employ Mongol mercenaries, wrote: “If they win, they grab at booty; if they lose, they unhorse and pilfer their own side”(
  • Apart from the Uzbeks, the Mongol Khans whose kingdoms were in the modern Sinkiang area or Mughalistan but had a toe hold in Transoxiana, were also on the look-out to expand their dominions there. The two Khans, Muhammad Khan and Ahmad Khan, were maternal uncles of Babur. They helped Babur on occasions, but could not hold back their own ambitions. The third party to this conflict was the Timurid Sultan, Husain Baiqara who controlled Khurasan (eastern Iran). He was always prepared to nibble at Transoxiana.
  • The centre point of the struggle for Transoxiana was the control over Samarqand. Samarqand had immense prestige value because it had been the capital of the Timurids for almost 140 years. It was also the centre of a rich and prosperous tract. Years later Babur was to say that “Few towns in the whole habitable world are so pleasant as Samarqand.” He dwells on its magnificent buildings and gardens, its trade and manufactures, the excellent meadows around it, and its fruits and wine.
  • This is the background against which Babur was born, and in which he spent his early years. Babur ascended the small principality of Farghana in 1494 at the age of twelve, following the death of his father, Umar Shaikh. At the time Farghana was being attacked from all quarters, but mainly, by his paternal uncle, Sultan Ahmad Mirza, aided by his maternal uncle, Sultan Mahmud Khan. With luck, firmness, and the loyalty of his subjects, Babur was able to stand up to these attacks, and forced his attackers to make peace with him.(
  • During the next ten years, Babur twice conquered Samarqand to lose it again after a short spell. The first time, in 1497, when Babur was barely fifteen, he conquered Samarqand after a siege of seven months. He was aided in the enterprise by a split in the camp of the Timurid ruler of Samarqand, Baisanghar Mirza, whose brother was with Babur. Baisangar sent repeated appeals to Shaibani Khan for help. Shaibani advanced but found Babur’s defence to be too strong, and retreated.
  • Babur was warmly welcomed by the citizens of Samarqand. However, he had to vacate it soon because the city lacked both supplies and money which Babur could not provide. There was little to plunder, and soon the Mongol mercenaries of Babur deserted. Many of Babur’s own begs left him, and returned to the comforts of Farghana.(
  • Babur’s serious illness, and a conspiracy against him in his own dominions worsened Babur’s position and forced him to leave Samarqand. Meanwhile, some of his begs had installed his younger half-brother, Jahangir Mirza, at Farghana, while some portions of the kingdom were seized by his maternal uncle, Mahmud Khan.
  • Thus, Babur lost both Samarqand and his own kingdom. In great distress, Babur repaired for help to his maternal uncles who fobbed him off with promises.
  • While Babur was grappling with his internal problems, Shaibani Khan was invited by the Uzbek mother of the Timurid Sultan to occupy Samarqand in return for marrying her. This was a golden opportunity which Shaibani Khan seized. He soon made himself the virtual master of Mawara-un-Nahar, and also captured Bukhara.
  • In an effort not to allow Shaibani Khan to consolidate his position any further, Babur advanced on Samarqand with a small force, and captured it with the help of the Samarqandis (1501). Babur says that the Uzbeks were very unpopular for Samarqandis. But the support of the citizens alone was of little avail for Babur. His plea to the other Timurids to rally against the Uzbeks fell on deaf ears.The help sent by Babur’s maternal uncles, the Mongol Khans, was too small.
  • It is clear that without resources of his own backed by a kingdom, which would have attracted other adventurers to his side, Babur had little chance of success against the Uzbeks who had an able and experienced leader in the person of Shaibani Khan. Babur did not fully understood the real weakness of his position. Shaibani Khan counter-attacked from Bukhara. In a bold effort, Babur came out from the city in the open to face him. However, in Sar-i-Pul Shaibani Khan inflicted a sharp defeat on Babur (1502). It was in this battle that Shaibani Khan used the wheeling tactics or tulghuma, a well known Uzbek devise which Babur was to use against Ibrahim Lodi twenty-five years later.
  • Babur retreated into Samarqand, but seeing no help from any quarter, and with starvation beginning in the town, and his own begs slipping away, Babur had no option but to make, what he says, “a sort of peace” with Shaibani Khan. One of the terms of the peace was the marriage of Babur’s elder sister, Khanazad Begum, to Shaibani Khan. But this marriage hardly healed the breach between Shaibani Khan and Babur, or with the Timurids. In fact, Shaibani Khan applied continuous pressure against the remaining Timurid states in the region.
  • Babur was again without a kingdom. In the process, he had to suffer, as he says, “great poverty and humiliation“.
  • It was now that the Mongol Khans finally awoke to the danger posed to them by the growing Uzbek power. Hence, with a large army they marched from Tashkend towards Farghana to counter Shaibani Khan. Like Babur earlier, the Mongol Khans had hoped that the Timurid princes would help them to deal with the rising Uzbek danger. Moving quickly to forestall any such combination of forces, Shaibani Khan met the Khans near Archian. In one of the greatest battles ever fought between the Mongols and the Turks, the Mongol forces were utterly routed (1503), and both the Mongol Khans taken captive. Shaibani Khan now played a master stroke. He spared the lives of the Khans, and legitimized his position by entering into matrimonial relations with them. Simultaneously, he admitted about Mongols into the Uzbek army. (
  • The victories of Sar-i-Pul and Archian established the Uzbek supremacy in Transoxiana against both the Timurids and the Mongols.
  • Babur also realized that his position in the region was now impossible. Hence, in a bold move, crossing the Hindukush mountains in winter, Babur attacked and conquered Kabul (1504) and Ghazni. The importance of Kabul was fully understood by Babur and his kinsmen and begs who now rallied to him in large numbers. Kabul not only provided Babur with a breathing space from Uzbek attacks. As master of that country he could turn his eyes west to Samarqand, or east to Hindustan.
  • In his Memoirs Babur says,”Kabul is the intermediate point between Hindustan and Khurasan”. In 1506, he journeyed to Herat at the invitation of his uncle, Sultan Husain Baiqara, who wanted him to join in a joint expedition against the Uzbeks, the latter having occupied Khawarazm, a possession of Sultan Husain Baiqara. But the Sultan died just then, and Babur returned to Kabul, realizing that the sons of Sultan Hussain were both incompetent and not serious in fighting the Uzbeks. As it was, Shaibani Khan also realized this. He soon over-ran Herat, thus extinguishing the last Timurid kingdom in the area.
  • Babur was now afraid of an Uzbek attack on Kabul itself. To raise the morale of his followers, in 1506 he decided that all his followers call him ‘Padshah‘. This was also to demonstrate that the Timurid dynasty was not dead, thereby claiming the allegiance of all those Chaghtai and Mughal tribesmen, princes and begs who felt a sense of loyalty to the Timurids. However, this was not such an innovative step as it has been made out to be. The use of the word “Padshah” was common currency in Central Asia at the time. In his Memoirs, Babur himself shows that in the period following his conquest  of Samarqand, on many occasions his followers called him “Padshah.”
  • It was at this time that the Uzbeks suffered their first serious reverse. Conscious that the Uzbek conquest of Khurasan would pose a danger to the position of the Safavids in Iran, Shah Ismail Safavi marched against Shaibani Khan. In the battle near Merv (1508), the Uzbek forces were routed, and Shaibani Khan himself was found dead.
  • It was this debacle of the Uzbeks which tempted Babur once again to try his luck at Samarqand. Arriving at the Amu-Darya (Oxus), Babur defeated the Uzbeks in a sharp encounter, but felt that he was still not strong enough to expel them from Transoxiana. He, therefore, sent an embassy to Shah Ismail. The Shah had already shown his good-will by escorting back with honour Babur’s sister, Khanazad Begum who, after the death of Shaibani Khan and her second husband, had fallen into the hands of the Persians.
  • Although the Shah had earlier entered into an agreement with the Uzbeks by which the river Oxus was fixed as the boundary between them, he had no qualms in assisting the Timurids in expelling the Uzbeks from Transoxiana. Apparently, he hoped that in this way any potential threat from the side of the Uzbeks would be effectively removed. As a price of his assistance, he demanded that Babur substitute the Shah’s name in the khutba, stamp coins in the Shah’s name, and propagate Shii-ite doctrines in his dominions. These, however, were to be applied only in the territories conquered with the help of the Persian, for Babur was permitted to issue coins (sikka) in his own name in Afghanistan, and in his hereditary dominion, Farghana.
  • Babur accepted these conditions. With the help of a Persian army, he conquered Bukhara and then Samarqand where he was welcomed by the begs and the people. In order to assert his independence, after the fall of Bukhara, Babur sent back the Persian army. However, the Persian ruler was determined to treat Babur as a subordinate ruler. Babur chafed at the intervention of the Persian agent at Samarqand in day to day affairs. Both the Persian rulers and the local population were convinced that at the first suitable opportunity, Babur would repudiate the khutba and sikka demanded by the Shah, and declare himself independent. Conscious of the Uzbek danger, Babur tried to maintain friendship with the Shah for the time being by wearing the Persian dress of the Kizilbash, much to the annoyance of the local population. However, he refused to permit the persecution of the Sunni theologians for their beliefs.
  • Muhammad Jan Ishaq, the Shah’s chamberlain, who was the Iranian agent at Samarqand, secretly informed the Shah that Babur was contemplating rebellion. In anger, the Shah sent a Persian army to punish him. But before the Persian army could reach Samarqand, the Uzbeks rallied, captured Bukhara, and defeated Babur in a sharp battle fought near it. Faced with a sullen population, Babur had to abandon Samarqand, and fall back on Hisar on the Amu Darya. The exulting Uzbeks now encountered and defeated the advancing Persian army which had been sent to punish Babur. Babur was with the Persian forces, but seems to have stood aloof. Thus, the Amu Darya once again became the boundary between Persia and the Uzbeks.
  • Babur had no option but to withdraw from Transoxiana, and he returned to Kabul.
  • The third and last foray of Babur into Samarqand hardly gives him any credit. Babur grossly overestimated his own strength and ability to retain Samarqand, much less conquer the rest of Transoxiana without the active aid and support of the Persian armies. In the process, he compromised his principles, and saddled himself with a treaty which he could neither implement nor repudiate.
  • Similarly, the Persians grossly underestimated the strength of the Uzbeks, and their capacity to recoup. It was this which made Shah Ismail treat Babur as a cat’s paw against the Uzbeks who could be easily removed once he had served the purpose of dislodging the Uzbeks from Transoxiana. It were these wrong perceptions and contradictions on both the sides, rather than the Shia-Sunni strife (which was real, but was a subordinate factor), which foredoomed Babur’s last Samarqand enterprise.
  • The outcome of the expedition was that Babur was finally forced to turn his attention to India. Second, that it laid the foundation of Timurid-Safavids cooperation against the Uzbeks, disregarding sectarian differences.

Babur’s Advance Towards India

  • The dream of conquering India had never been far from Babur’s mind. While he was wandering in Transoxiana without a kingdom, his imagination had been fired by hearing tales about Timur’s exploits in India, and he had decided to recover the areas in the Punjab ceded to Timur and held by his descendants for long.
  • Babur says that from the time he conquered Kabul (1504), to his victory at Panipat, “I had never ceased to think of the conquest of Hindustan.” He says that almost immediately after his conquest of Kabul, in 1505, he made a move on Hindustan, reaching the district of Ningnahar (modern Jalalabad), and made another expedition the following year. These, however, were more in the nature of forays to extract revenue from the outlying Afghan tribes, and to assert Babur’s control over them, rather than preparations for the invasion of India.
  • Till the failure of his third and last expedition to Samarqand (1514), Babur was more concerned with Central Asia than India. His statement that he could not undertake the conquest of India earlier, “hindered as I was sometimes by the apprehensions of my begs, sometimes by the disagreements between my brothers and myself,” is only a partial explanation. Babur’s moves against Punjab and India after his Samarqand misadventure were also prompted by changes in the political situation in India, the revival of the power of the Uzbeks, and Babur’s growing financial difficulties. The income from Kabul had never been sufficient to meet the requirements of Babur’s begs and kinsmen. The main income from Kabul was the tamgha or cess on imports and exports. Most of the countryside was ruined, and the only way to get anything from the war-like tribes was to carry out plundering expeditions against them to which Babur had to resort to. (
  • The situation was worsened by the fact that after Babur’s expulsion from Transoxiana, many Turkish and Mongol tribes (aimaq) had crossed over and sought service under Babur. Babur could not afford to turn them away, because in 1514, Shah Ismail Safavi had suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Ottoman ruler. This had emboldened the Uzbeks to renew their incursions into Khurasan. Afraid of a renewed Uzbek threat to Kabul, Babur conquered Qandahar (1522). He also established his control over Badakhshan. But all these required the maintenance of a large army. His financial plight is brought out by the historian, Abul Fazl, who says: “He (Babur) ruled over Badakhshan, Qandahar and Kabul which did not yield sufficient income for the requirements of the army.”
  • In 1518, Babur had invested and conquered the fortress of Bajaur, and then gone on to capture Bhira which was on the river Jhelum, a little beyond the Salt Ranges. After the river Indus, these formed traditionally the defensive frontier of India. Babur claimed these areas as his own because they had been a part of Timur’s empire. Hence, “picturing as our own the countries once occupied by the Turks“, he ordered that “there was to be no over-running or plundering “. This applied only to areas which did not offer resistance, because earlier, at Bajaur, where the Afghan tribesmen had resisted, he had ordered a general massacre, with their women and children being made captive.
  • The Bajaur expedition marks the beginning of Babur’s efforts to conquer Punjab, or India if the opportunity offered. Babur himself says, “From this time to 925H (1526), I was always actively concerned in the affairs of Hindustan. I went there in person at the head of an army, five times in the course of seven or eight years,” The fifth was the expedition against Ibrahim Lodi.
  • Although Babur asserts that from the beginning his desire was to conquer India, it is apparent that his ambitions expanded gradually. At first, his objective was merely to conquer those parts of the Punjab to which he laid a hereditary claim. Thus, after the Bhira expedition, he sent an envoy to Ibrahim Lodi asking him to cede to him the areas which had belonged to Timur. There was little chance of Ibrahim Lodi accepting such a proposal. As it was, the governor of Lahore, Daulat Khan Lodi, whose jurisdiction included Bajaur and Bhira, did not allow Babur’s envoy to proceed to Delhi but detained him at Lahore. (
  • As soon as Babur returned to Kabul, Daulat Khan Lodi proceeded to expel Hindu Beg and the other officers whom Babur had appointed over the areas he claimed.In the following years, Babur made several incursions into the tribal areas of the North-West, and the Punjab. In 1520, he recaptured Bhira and advanced upto Sialkot, but had to return to Kabul following an attack from the Arghun rulers of Qandahar who were allied with Iran. He captured Qandahar and Badakhshan in the following years.
  • By 1524, he had consolidated his position in Afghanistan quite firmly. He was now ready to engage in the struggle for the mastery of Punjab, even if it meant a struggle with Ibrahim Lodi, the ruler at Delhi. Thus, the stakes had risen higher, and it seemed that the stage had been set for a struggle not only for the Punjab, but for the mastery of north India.


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