Friday, May 02, 2008

Decisive Battles: Panipat 1526

Panipat (First Battle of Panipat) 21 April, 1526
Forces Engaged:
Mughal: aprox. 25,000 - 12,000 Central Asian/Afghan Muslims with 10-12,000 local north Indian allies
Delhi Sultanate: ~100,000 total (probably 30-40,000 effectives including up to 100 war elephants)

Situation: While I'm not much of a believer in the "Great Man" theory of history, the situation in north India in the early Sixteenth Century was as much a product of the personality of Babur, the Timurid leader, as anything else. Babur was something of Central Asia's stormy petrel; starting out in 1483 as the son of a local khan of Persianized Mongol descent in what is now Uzbekistan, Babur fought and intrigued his way across much of central Asia for the next forty years. At fourteen he captured Samarkand and lost it within a year. By 1504 he was hammering away in what is now Afghanistan (a "country" we'll talk more about in the next post) and by 1511, now allied with the Safavid Persian Shah Ismail I, he had taken Bokhara and retaken Samarkand. It was some time in the second decade of the Sixteenth Century that the Timurid ruler began to look south to the rich Indus plain and rub his chin...

The political authority in the north Gangetic plain at the time was the so-called Delhi Sultanate. This accretion had begun as a Persian conquest of Ghazni, Multan, Sindh, Lahore, and Delhi in the 13th Century before inculcating Turkish, Rajput, Mongol and finally Afghan influences. The Sultan in 1526 was a man named Ibrahim Lodhi, third of a family from the Gilzai tribe in Afghanistan to rule in Delhi, and not a popular or particularly effective ruler. He appears to have been such putz that even his fellow Afghans preferred a foreigner to their homeboy: they invited Babur to come take a shot at the last of the Lodhis.

One other thing should be highlighted about the situation in 1526: the technical advantage the Timurids brought with them into India. Through the Safavids, who had quicky adapted the gunpowder weapons used against them so effectively by the Ottoman Turks, Babur re-equipped his army with matchlock muskets and field artillery. This would have a critical effect on the engagement at Panipat.

The Engagement: The actual course of the battle appears fairly straightforward. Babur's troops, described as "diverse in its ethnic makeup, including Persian Tajiks, Pashtuns, Arabs, Babur's fellow Barlas and Chaghatayid Turco-Mongols from Central Asia, as well as Qizilbāš fighters, a militant religious order of Shi'a Sufis from Persia who later became one of the most influential groups in the Mughal court", were in a defensive position outside the small village of Panipat. Babur may have erected a field fortification of carts as the Ottomans did at Chaldiran, similar in function to Tokugawa's arquebus palisades at Sekigahara. The Dehli agglutination - it's hard to call the immense gaggle of bodies that Lodhi brought to the field an "army" - straggled up to this barricade in what seems to hve been a massive column. Typical of the sort of feudal "armies" seen everywhere until the Western military revolution of the industrial era, most of this mob didn't even get into the fight. Lodhi and his most loyal retainers - supposedly about 6,000 troops - managed to put in some kind of attack on the Timurid position and encountered the first gunpowder weapons they'd ever seen.

The result was predictable. The panicked Dehli troops fragmented, no doubt encouraged in this by their elephants, out of control and frantic to escape the noise and carnage. Babur is reported to have launched his cavalry in a double envelopment of the head of this column, using their mounted archery to collapse the leading element. Somewhere in this carnage the Dehli Sultan was killed. The loss of the only real reason his troops were in the field resulted in disintegration of the Delhi army. From first encounter to rout is said to have taken less than three hours; Timurid losses were in the low thousands, while as many as 20,000 Delhi troops may have been killed. Babur was in Agra and Delhi within the week. The Mughal Empire had begun - the Islamic dynasty that would rule most of India until the coming of the British two hundred years later.

Outcome: Grand strategic Mughal Victory, with geopolitical consequences.

Impact: In the short run, Panipat (and the consolidation that followed) ensured Mughal domination over much of what it today India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Mughal legacy seems to have been principally cultural. Among the impacts on Indian society the Mughals are credited with are centralising government, amalgamating Persian art and culture with native Indian styles, Mughlai cuisine, Urdu language, new styles of architecture and landscape gardening.

In the long run it's difficult to tell whether an alternate destiny would have made much of a difference to the Indian people's ability to fight off the British (we'll talk about that when we discuss the Battle of Plassey in June and the Battle of Buxar in October). Perhaps nothing any alternative history could have produced is as freakish as this image of an Indian and a Pakistani in Mughal armor facing off over cricket, the game brought by their English conquerors...
But one critical lesson that Panipat did NOT teach was the need to continue to develop gunpowder technology. The technology and, more importantly, the attitude towards the technology just didn't take hold anywhere in India. When the French showed up to provide 18th Century artillery to their Indian proxies they didn't find a cadre of professional gunners you'd expect from two hundred years of familiarity with the weapons. The result? Well, that's for the other two battles.

Touchline Tattles: Among the prizes that Babur won at Panipat, perhaps the most gaudy was the Koh-i-noor diamond, the famed "Mountain of Light", that is supposed to bring doom to male wearers and was, among other things, the object of George MacDonald Fraser's Harry Flashman's cupidity during the First Sikh War.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Tajiks, Pashtuns, Arabs, Babur's fellow Barlas and Chaghatayid Turco-Mongols from Central Asia, as well as Qizilbāš fighters, a militant religious order of Shi'a Sufis from Persia"

Quite a coalition that Babur built. It seems like he had a lot more going for him than gunpowder and the putzyness of his opponent. Too bad we have only a drunken bully Flashman in our WH (the original Flashman from Hughes novel, not the later one from Frazer).