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Babur portrait
Birth name: Zāhir ud-Dīn Mohammad
Family name: Timurid
Title: Emperor of Mughal Empire
Birth: February 14, 1483
Death: December 26, 1530
Succeeded by: Humayun
  • Ayisheh Sultan Begum
  • Bibi Mubarika Yusufzay
  • Dildar Begum
  • Gulnar Agacheh
  • Gulrukh Begum
  • Maham Begum
  • Masumeh Begum
  • Nargul Agacheh
  • Sayyida Afaq
  • Zainab Sultan Begum
  • Humayun, son
  • Kamran Mirza, son
  • Askari Mirza, son
  • Hindal Mirza, son
  • Gulbadan Begum, daughter
  • Fakhr-un-nisa, daughter

Zāhir ud-Dīn Mohammad, commonly known as Bābur ( February 14, 1483 – December 26, 1530) ( Chaghatay/ Persian: ظﮩیرالدین محمد بابر گوركاني‎, also spelled Zahiruddin, Zahiriddin, Muhammad, Bobur, Baber, Babar, etc.), was a Muslim Emperor from Central Asia who founded the Mughal dynasty of India. He was a direct descendant of Timur, and believed himself to be a descendant also of Genghis Khan through his mother. Following a series of set-backs he succeeded in laying the basis for one of the most important empires in Indian history, the Mughal dynasty.


Zahiruddin Muhammad was born on February 14, 1483 in the town of Andijan, in the Fergana Valley which is in modern Uzbekistan. He was the eldest son of Omar Sheikh Mirza, ruler of the Fergana Valley, who he described as "short and stout, round-bearded and fleshy faced", and his wife Qutlugh Nigar Khanum. Although Babur hailed from the Barlas tribe which was of Mongol origin, his tribe had embraced Turkic and Persian culture (see Turco-Mongol, Turco-Persian), converted to Islam and resided in Turkestan and Khorasan. His mother tongue was the Chaghatai language (known to Babur as Tōrkī, "Turkish") and he was equally at home in Persian, the lingua franca of the Timurid elite; he wrote his famous memoirs, the Baburnama, in the former language, that of his birthplace.

Andijanis are all Turks; everyone in town or bazar knows Turki. The speech of the people resembles the literary language; hence the writings of Mir 'Ali-sher Nawa'i, though he was bred and grew up in Hin (Herat), are one with their dialect. Good looks are common amongst them. The famous musician, Khwaja Yusuf, was an Andijani.

Hence Babur, though nominally a Mongol (or Mughal in Persian), drew much of his support from the Turkic and Iranian peoples of Central Asia, and his army was diverse in its ethnic makeup, including Persians ( Tajiks or Sarts, as they were called by Babur), Pashtuns, and Arabs as well as Barlas and Chaghatayid Turco-Mongols from Central Asia. Babur's army also included Kizilbash fighters, a militant religious order of Shi'a Sufis from Persia who later became one of the most influential groups in the Mughal court.

Babur is said to have been extremely strong and physically fit. Allegedly, he could carry two men, one on each of his shoulders, and then climb slopes on the run, just for exercise. Legend holds that Babur swam across every major river he encountered, including twice across the Ganges River in North India.

A scene from the Baburnama The image above is a candidate for speedy deletion. It will be deleted on 2006-11-21.
A scene from the Baburnama

The image above is a candidate for speedy deletion. It will be deleted on 2006- 11-21.

Babur's name

The name "Babur" is a nickname, derived from the Indo-European word for beaver. Babur's cousin, Mirza Muhammad Haydar, wrote:

At that time the Chaghatai (Mongol tribes descended from Genghis Khan's second son, Chagatai Khan) were very rude and uncultured, and not refined as they are now; thus they found (his given name) Zahir-ud-din Muhammad difficult to pronounce, and for this reason gave him the name of (Babur).

Military career

In 1494, with only twelve years of age, Babur obtained his first power position, succeeding his father as ruler of Fergana, in present-day Uzbekistan. His uncles were relentless in their attempts to dislodge him from this position as well as many of his other territorial possessions to come. Thus, Babur spent a large portion of his life shelterless and in exile, aided only by friends and peasants. In 1497, Babur attacked the Uzbek city of Samarkand and after seven months succeeded in capturing the city. Meanwhile, a rebellion amongst nobles back home approximately 350 kilometers (200 miles) away robbed him of Fergana. As he was marching to recover it, Babur's troops deserted in Samarkand, leaving him with neither Samarkand nor Fergana.

Portrait of Muhammad Shaybani, who defeated Babur in Samarkand in 1501
Portrait of Muhammad Shaybani, who defeated Babur in Samarkand in 1501

By 1501, he was again to regain control of Samarkand, but was shortly thereafter defeated by his most formidable enemy, Muhammad Shaybani, khan of the Uzbeks. Samarkand, his lifelong obsession, was lost again. Escaping with a small band of followers from Fergana, for three years Babur concentrated on building up a strong army, recruiting widely amongst the Tajiks of Badakhshan in particular. In 1504, he was able to cross the snowy Hindu Kush mountains and capture Kabul. With this move, he gained a wealthy new kingdom and re-established his fortunes and assumed the title of padshah. In the following year, Babur united with Husayn Bayqarah of Herat, a fellow Timurid and distant relative, against the usurper Muhammad Shaybani. However, the death of Husayn Bayqarah in 1506 delayed that venture. Babur instead occupied his allies' city of Herat, spending just two months there befor being forced to leave due to diminishing resources. Nevertheless, he marvelled at the intellectual abundance in Herat, which he stated was "filled with learned and matched men.", and became acquainted with the work of the Uyghur poet Mir Ali Shir Nava'i, who encouraged the use of Chagatai as a literary language. Nava'i's profiency with the language, which he is credited with founding, may have influenced Babur in his decision to use it for his memoirs, The Baburnama.

A brewing rebellion finally induced him to return to Kabul from Herat. He prevailed on that occasion, but two years later a revolt among some of his leading generals drove him out of Kabul. Escaping with very few companions, Babur soon returned to the city, capturing Kabul again and regaining the allegiance of the rebels. Muhammad Shaybani was defeated and killed by Ismail I, Safavid ruler of Persia, in 1510, and Babur used this opportunity to attempt to reconquer his ancestral Timurid territories. Over the following few years, Babur and Shah Ismail I would form a partnership in an attempt to take over parts of Central Asia. In return for Ismail's assistance, Babur permitted the Safavids to act as a suzerain over him and his followers. Conversely, Shah Ismail reunited Babur with his sister Khānzāda, who had been imprisoned by and forced to marry the recently-deceased Shaybani. Ismail also provided Babur with a large wealth of luxury goods and military assistance, for which Babur reciprocated by adopting the dress and outward customs of the Shi'a Muslims. The Shah's Persia had become the bastion of Shia Islam, and he claimed descent from Imam Musa al-kazim, the seventh Shia Imam. Coins were to be struck in Ismail's name, and the Khutba at the Mosque was also to be read in his name. In effect, Babur was supposed to be holding Samarkand as a vassal territority for the Persian Shah, though in Kabul, coins and the Khutba would remain in Babur's name.

With this assistance, Babur marched on Bukhara, where his army were apparently treated as liberators, Babur having greater legitimacy as a Timurid, unlike the Uzbegs. Towns and villages are said to have emptied in order to greet him, and aid and feed his army. At this point Babur dismissed his Persian aide, believing them no longer required. In October 1511 Babur made a triumphant re-entry into Samarkand, his ten year absence ended. Bazaars were drapped in gold, and again villages and towns emptied to greet the liberator. Dressed as a Shia, Babur stood out starkly amongst the masses of Sunnis who had thronged to greet him. The original belief was that this show of Shi'ism was a ploy to garner Persian help which would soon be dropped. While it was indeed a ploy, Babur did not think it wise to drop the charade. His cousin, Haidar, wrote that Babur was still too fearful of the Uzbegs to dismiss the Persian aid. Though Babur did not persecute the Sunni community, to please the Persian Shah, he did not drop the show of collaboration with the Shia either, resulting in popular disapproval and the re-conquering of the city by the Uzbegs eight months later.

Conquest of northern India

Writing in retrospect, Babur suggested his failure in attaining Samarkand was the greatest gift Allah bestowed him. Babur had now resigned all hopes of recovering Fergana, and although he dreaded an invasion from the Uzbeks to his West, his attention increasingly turned towards India and its lands in the east.

Babur claimed to be the true and rightful Monarch of the lands of the Sayyid dynasty. Babur believed himself the rightful heir to the throne of Timur, and it was Timur who had originally left Khizr Khan in charge of his vassal in the Punjab, who became the leader, or Sultan, of the Delhi Sultanate, founding the Sayyid dynasty. The Sayyid dynasty, however, had been ousted by Ibrahim Lodhi, a Ghilzai Afghan, and Babur wanted it returned to the Timurids. Indeed, while actively building up the troop numbers for an invasion of the Punjab he sent a request to Ibrahim; "I sent him a goshawk and asked for the countries which from old had depended on the Turk," the 'countries' referred to were the lands of the Delhi Sultanate.

Following the unsurprising reluctance of Ibrahim to accept the terms of this "offer," and though in no hurry to launch an actual invasion, Babur made several preliminary incursions and also seized Kandahar - an essential strategic city if he was to fight off attacks on Kabul from the West while he was occupied in India. The siege of Kandahar, however, lasted far longer than anticipated, and it was only almost three years later that Kandahar, and its Citadel (backed by enormous natural features) were taken, and that minor assaults in India recommenced. However, during this series of skirmishes and battles an opportunity for a more extended expedition presented itself. It was an attack on the Gakhar stronghold of Pharwala in 1521 that led to the beginning of the end for Ibrahim Lodhi.

The section of Babur's memiors covering the period between 1508 and 1519 is missing; during these years Shah Ismail I suffered a reasonably large defeat when his large cavalry-based army was obliterated at the Battle of Chaldiran by the Ottoman Empire's new weapon, the matchlock musket. Both Shah Ismail and Babur, it appears, were swift in acquiring this new technology for themselves. Somewhere during these years Babur introduced matchlocks into his army, and allowed an Ottoman, Ustad Ali, to train his troops, who were then known as Matchlockmen, in their use. Babur's memoirs give accounts of battles where the opposition forces mocked his troops, never having seen a gun before, because of the noise they made and the way no arrows, spears, etc appeared to come from the weapon when fired.

These guns allowed small armies to make large gains on enemy territory. Small parties of skirmishers who had been dispatched simply to test enemy positions and tactics were making inroads into India. Babur, however, had survived two revolts, one in Kandahar and another in Kabul, and was careful to pacify the local population after victories, following local traditions and aiding widows and orphans.

The battle with Ibrahim Lodhi

However, while the Timurids were united, the Lodhi armies were far from unified.

Ibrahim was widely detested, even amongst his nobles, and indeed it was several of his Afghan nobles who were to invite Babur's intervention. Babur assembled a 12,000-man army, and advanced into India. This number actually increased as Babur advanced as members of the local population joined the invading army. The first major clash between the two sides was fought in late February 1526. Babur's son, Humayun (then aged 17), led the Timurid army into battle against the first of Ibrahim's advance parties. Humayun's victory was harder fought than the previous skirmishes, but it was still a decisive victory. Over one hundred prisoners of war were captured along with around eight war elephants. However, unlike after previous battles, these prisoners were not bonded or freed; by decree from Humayun, they were shot. In His memoirs Babur recorded the incident thusly: "Ustad Ali-quli and the matchlockmen were ordered to shoot all the prisoners, by way of example; this had been Humayun's first affair, his first experience of battle; it was an excellent omen!". This is, perhaps, the earliest example of execution by firing squad.

Ibrahim Lodhi advanced against him with 100,000 soldiers and 100 elephants; and though Babur's army had grown, it was still less than half the size of his opponents, possibly as few as 25,000 men. This was to be their main engagement, the First battle of Panipat, and was fought on April 21, 1526. Ibrahim Lodhi was slain and his army was routed; Babur quickly took possession of both Delhi and Agra - That very day Babur ordered Humayun to ride forward to Agra (Ibrahim's former capital) and secure its national treasures and resources from looting. Here Humayun found the family of the Raja of Gwalior, the Raja himself having died at Panipat, sheltering from the invaders, fearing the dreadful nature of the 'Mongols' from the stories that preceded their arrival. After guaranteeing their safety they gave their new ruler a famous jewel, then the largest known diamond in the world - the Koh-i-Noor or 'Mountain of Light'. This was presented in hopes that the family would remain a part of Indian nobility, and whether it was because of the gift or not, the family did remain a noble family, though now serving the Timurids.

Babur, meanwhile, marched onward to Delhi itself, reaching it three days after the battle. He celebrated his arrival with a festival on the river Jumna, and remained there at least until Friday ( Jum'ah), when Muslim congregational prayers were said and he heard the Khutba, (sermon), read in his name in the Jama Masjid of that time, a sign of the assumption of sovereignty. He then marched on to Agra to rejoin Humayun. Upon arrival Babur was presented with the Koh-i-Noor, and Babur reports that "I just gave it back to him", adding, "its value would provide two and a half days' food for the whole world".

Battles with Rajputs

Babur as Emperor, receiving a courtier
Babur as Emperor, receiving a courtier

Although master of Delhi and Agra, Babur records in his memoirs that he had sleepless nights because of continuing worries over Rana Sanga, the Rajput ruler of Mewar. The Rajputs had, prior to Babur's intervention, succeeded in conquering some of the Sultanate's territory. They ruled an area directly to the southwest of Babur's new dominions, commonly known as " Rajputana". It was not a unified kingdom, but rather a confederacy of principalities, under the informal suzerainty of Rana Sanga, head of the senior Rajput dynasty.

The Rajputs had possibly heard word of the heavy casualties inflicted by Lodhi on Babur's forces, and believed that they could capture Delhi, and possibly all Hindustan, bringing it back into Hindu Rajput hands for the first time in almost three hundred and fifty years when Muhammad of Ghor defeated the Rajput Chauhan King Prithviraj III in 1192.

Furthermore, the Rajputs were well aware that there was dissent within the ranks of Babur's army. The hot Indian summer was upon them, and many troops wanted to return home to the cooler climes of Central Asia. The Rajputs' reputation for valour preceded them, and their superior numbers no doubt further contributed to the desire of Babur's army to retreat. Babur resolved to make this an extended battle, and decided to push further into India, into lands never previously claimed by the Timurids. He needed his troops to take the battle to the Rajputs.

Despite the unwillingness of his troops to engage in further warfare, Babur was convinced he could overcome the Rajputs and gain complete control over Hindustan. He made great propaganda of the fact that for the first time he was to battle non-Muslims, the Kafir. He had his men line up and swear on the Qur'an that none would "think of turning his face from his foe, or withdraw from this deadly encounter so long as life is not rent from his body". He also began to refer to himself as a Ghazi, or "Holy Warrior," a title used by Timur when he fought in India.

The two armies fought each other forty miles west of Agra at Khanwa. In a possibly apocryphal tale referred to in Tod's Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, Babur is supposed to have sent about 1,500 choice cavalry as an advance guard to attack Sanga. These were heavily defeated by Sanga's Rajputs. Babur then wanted to discuss peace terms. Sanga sent his general Silhadi (Shiladitya) to the parley. Babur is said to have won over this general by promising him an independent kingdom. Silhadi came back and reported that Babur did not want peace and preferred to fight. The Battle of Khanwa began on March 17, 1527 and, as Tod puts it, "While the issue was still doubtful" Silhadi and his army left the field. Whatever the truth of this tale, it seems plausible that a treacherous Tomara who led the vanguard of Sanga's army at Khanwa went over to Babur, causing Sanga to retreat and costing him a likely victory. Within a year he was dead, probably poisoned by one of his own ministers, and a major rival to Babur had been removed . In return for the payment of regular tribute Babur allowed the Rajput princes to remain in control over their principalities, and maintain their customs and traditions.


Babur was now the undisputed ruler of Hindustan (a term which at that time referred to northwestern India and the Gangetic Plain), and he began a period of further expansion. Each of the nobles or Umarah whom he appointed was granted leave to set up his own army, or militia, and, to facilitate Babur's expansionist aims, many were granted lands yet to be conquered as jaghirs, freeing Babur from many of the problems involved in raising troops. Meanwhile he granted his own sons the provinces furthest away from his new centre of operations: Kamran was given control over Kandahar, Askari was to control Bengal and Humayun was to govern Badakhshan, perhaps the most remote province of Babur's expanding empire.

Babur also continuously used new technology to improve his army, with the help of Ustad Ali. In addition to guns, Babur and Ali tested new types of Siege weaponry, such as cannons, which Babur recalls as being capable of firing a large rock almost a mile (although, he records, its initial test did leave eight innocent bystanders dead). Alongside this, they developed Shells which exploded on impact. The army's organisation was also maintained with great discipline, and according to Babur it received regular inspections.

Impact on Architecture

A view of the Babri Mosque, pre-1992. The Mosque is believed to have been commissioned by Babur
A view of the Babri Mosque, pre-1992. The Mosque is believed to have been commissioned by Babur

Babur travelled the country, taking in much of the land and its scenery, and began building a series of structures which mixed the pre-existing Hindu intricacies of carved detail with the traditional Muslim designs used by Persians and Turks. He described with awe the buildings in Chanderi, a village carved from rock, and the palace of Raja Man Singh in Gwalior describing them as "wonderful buildings, entirely hewn from stone". He, was, however, digusted by the Jain "idols" carved into the rock face below the fortress at Gwalior. "These idols are shown quite naked without even covering for the privities... I ordered them to be destroyed". Fortunately, the statues were not destroyed entirely, rather the faces and genitalia of the offending pieces were removed. (Modern sculptors have restored the faces).

To remind himself of the lands he had left behind Babur began a process of creating exquisite gardens in every palace and province, where he would often sit shaded from the fierce Indian sun. He tried as far as was possible to recreate the gardens of Kabul, which he believed were the most beautiful in the world, and in one of which he would eventually be buried. "In that charmless and disorderly Hindustan, plots of garden were laid out with order and symmetry." Almost thirty pages of Babur's memoirs are taken up describing the Fauna and Flora of his Hindustan.

Lavish lifestyle and final major battle

Late in 1528 Babur celebrated a great festival, or tamasha. All nobles from the different regions of his empire were gathered, along with any noble who claimed descent from Timur or Genghis Khan. This was a celebration of his Khanal, Chingissid lineage, and when guests were sat in a semi-circle the farthest from Babur (who was, naturally, at the centre) was seated over 100 metres from him. The huge banquet involved giving presents and watching animal fights, wrestling, dancing and acrobatics. Guests presented Babur with tribute of gold and silver, and were in turn presented with sword-Belts and cloaks of honour ( khalats). The guests even included Uzbegs, (who under Shaybani Khan had ousted the Timurids from Central Asia and were now the occupiers of Samarkand), and a group of peasants from Transoxiana who were now being rewarded for befriending and aiding Babur before he was a leader.

After the Festival, many of the other gifts given to Babur were sent to Kabul, "to adorn the ladies" of his family. Babur was far too generous concerning wealth, and by the time of his death the Empire's coffers were almost empty; troops were even ordered to return a third of their income back to the treasury. Baburs extravagance did not go unnoticed. He was a heavy drinker and took hashish, perhaps as a means of alleviating the various illnesses he suffered from; he was known to cough up blood, he had numerous boils on his person, suffered from Sciatica and also bled fluid from his ears. These substances were supposedly strictly forbidden by the orthodox doctrines of Islam, although in the Babur-nama Babur does write without censure of relatives in Ferghana who indulged in strong liquor. Nevertheless, Babur, who had fought as a warrior for Islam was now indulging in the forbidden ( Haraam).

On May 6, 1529, Babur defeated Mahmud Lodhi, Ibrahim's brother, who led an army of those disaffected with his rule, at the Battle of Ghagra, thus crushing the last remnant of resistance in North India.

Last days

After Babur fell seriously ill, Humayun was told of a plot by the senior nobles of Babur's court to bypass the leader's sons and appoint Mahdi Khwaja, Babur's sister's husband, as his successor. He rushed to Agra and arrived there to see his father was well enough again, although Mahdi Khwaja had lost all hope of becoming ruler after arrogantly exceeding his authority during Babur's illness. Upon his arrival in Agra it was Humayun himself who fell ill, and was close to dying.

Babur is said to have circled the sick-bed, crying to God to take his life and not his son's. The traditions that follow this tell that Babur soon fell ill with a fever and Humayun began to get better again. This is not accurate, as there are months separating the recovery of Humayun and the death of Babur, and Babur's final illness was a rather sudden affair. His last words apparently being to his Humayun; "Do nothing against your brothers, even though they may deserve it."

He died at the age of 48, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Humayun. Though he wished to be buried in his favourite garden in Kabul, a city he had always loved, he was first buried in a Mausoleum in his capital of Agra. Roughly nine years later his wishes were fulfilled by Sher Shah and Babur was buried in a beautiful garden Bagh-e Babur in Kabul, now in Afghanistan. The inscription on his tomb reads (in Persian):

If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!

Babur's legacy was a mixed one. The Sikh Guru, Nanak, wrote a series of complaints against Babur in the Guru Granth Sahib, claiming Babur "terrified Hindustan" and was a "messenger of death". He also claimed that women with braided hair "were shaved with scissors, and their throats were choked with dust" and that "the order was given to the soldiers, who dishonored them, and carried them away." However, by contemporary standards he was particularly liberal, allowing freedom of religion and not interfering with local customs. Indeed further Sikh texts mention that Babur was blessed by Guru Nanak Dev Ji. His conciliation of enemies instead of outright destruction may have allowed them to regroup and re-attack, but it was far-sighted and allowed him to rule a large empire without too much social upheaval. He also wrote or dicated his extraordinary memoirs, one of the great monuments of Chaghatai literature, and oversaw the beginnings of an artistic and architectural legacy which fused indigenous traditions with those from Iran and Central Asia (such as the domed tomb, the original model for which was the Gur-e Amir in Samarkand). Ultimately this would result in the Mughal empire leaving India with some of the most breathtaking architecture in the world, including Humayun's Tomb, the Taj Mahal, the Pearl Mosque, and many other buildings.

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