Ẓahīr al-Dīn Muḥammad (Andijan, 14 February 1483 – Agra, 26 December 1530) was the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India. Direct descendant of Tamerlane, he succeeded with a long series of military successes to found one of the most important and powerful empires in the history of India.

Ẓahīr al-Dīn Muḥammad – known as Bābur (in Persian بابُر) – was born on February 14, 1483, in the city of Andijān, an important stop on a branch of the Silk Road, between Kashgar (in present-day Chinese Xinjiang), Osh (in present-day Kyrgyzstan), and Kokand (in the western part of the Fergana Valley, in present-day Uzbekistan). He was the eldest son of the Timurid lord of the Fergana Valley, ʿUmar Shaykh Mīrzā, and his wife, the noble Ṭughlāq Nigār Khānūm, a direct descendant of Genghis Khan.Although he belonged to the nomadic Mongol Barlas tribe, his family embraced the culture of the Turkic and Persian peoples and converted to the Islamic religion.

His mother tongue was the Chagatai Mongolian (which he called Tōrki, or Turki) but he was perfectly at ease with Persian, considered the vehicular language of Islamic culture and lingua franca of all the elite of the Timurid dynasty. His autobiography, the Bāburnāme or The Book of Bābur, was written by him anyway in Chagatai language, and in it we read:

Thus Bābur, although formally Mongol (or Mogol, in Persian), drew much of his support from the Turkic and Iranian populations of Central Asia; consequently, his army was of varied ethnic composition, including Persians (Tajiks or sart, as he called them), Pashtuns, and Arabs, as well as Turkic-Mongolian barlas and ciagatai (the lineage of Ciagatai, son of Genghis Khan). There was also a component of Kizilbaş (Red Heads) fighters: a military religious order transfuged from Turkish Sunnism and switched to Persian Shiism; later this component would become of great importance in the Mughal court.

Tradition has it that Bābur was very strong and physically powerful, so much so that he was able to load a man on each of his shoulders, and that he loved to swim across every river he encountered on his path, including twice the Ganges.

The name

Ẓahīr al-Dīn is more commonly known as Bābur, a word of Indo-European origin that would mean “leopard,” “panther,” or “tiger” (Persian: babr). Bābur”s cousin, Mīrzā Muḥammad Ḥaydar, wrote in fact:

In 1494 at only twelve years of age, Bābur obtained his first prestigious role, taking his father”s place as governor of the city of Fergana in what is now eastern Uzbekistan. However, his uncles tried relentlessly to deprive him of this position, and as a result Bābur spent much of his youth without a real home and often in forced exile (not infrequently to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, where one can still visit the crumbling remains of his presumed home), aided only by friends and peasants. In 1497 he attacked the Uzbek Samarkand and after seven months of siege succeeded in conquering it. During this period, a rebellion broke out among the nobles of his governorate and deprived him of Fergana. Along the march towards the city, of which he intended to regain possession, B Babur suffered the defection of most of his soldiers who remained in Samarkand, thus losing both cities.

In 1501, he succeeded in reconquering Samarkand, which, however, he lost almost immediately, defeated by his most bitter enemy, the Uzbek khan Muḥammad Shaybānī. He then fled from Fergana and hid in exile. Bābur spent the next three years gathering a powerful army, recruiting men mainly from among the Tajiks of the Badakhshan region. It was thus that in 1504 he crossed the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush and took Kabul, conquering with a bold and risky tactic a new and very rich kingdom and assuming the ambitious title of Padishāh (King of kings).

In 1505 Bābur allied himself with the ruler of Herāt, Ḥusayn Bāyqarā, also a member of the Timurid dynasty and his distant relative; together, Bābur and Ḥusayn Bāyqarā prepared to fight the usurper. The unexpected death of his ally in 1506 forced Bābur to delay the venture, attempting in the meantime to settle in Herāt, but eventually having to give it up for lack of resources and supplies. However, he was extraordinarily impressed by the cultural and intellectual richness of Herāt, and especially by the ethnic Uighur poet Mīr ʿAlī Shīr Navāʾī, who encouraged the use of Chagatai as a literary language. It was perhaps for this reason that Bābur himself made use of it in the writing of his memoirs.

The fermenting of a revolt subsequently induced him to return to Kabul from Herāt. There, he succeeded in imposing himself by force of arms, but two years later a revolt among some of his leading generals drove him from the city. Escaping with very few companions, Bābur was back after a short time, retaking Kabul and obtaining the rebels” act of submission. In 1510 shortly before the death in battle of the Uzbek Muḥammad Shaybānī Khān Özbeg (917-1512) at the hands of the Safavid Shāh of Persia Ismāʿīl I, Bābur seized the opportunity to set out to reconquer his ancestral Timurid territories.In the years immediately following, Bābur and Shah Ismāʿīl formed an alliance to try to conquer parts of Central Asia. In exchange for Ismāʿīl”s assistance, Bābur agreed to become a vassal of the Safavids. As a reward, Ismāʿīl returned to Bābur his sister Khānzāda, who had been imprisoned and forced to marry the late Muḥammad Shaybānī. Having also obtained many rich and luxurious gifts, as well as military assistance, Bābur reciprocated by adopting the clothing and customs of the Shiite Muslims, of whom the Shah of Persia had become the supreme champion.

With Persian assistance, Bābur marched on Bukhara, where his army was apparently welcomed as liberators. As a Timurid, Bābur appeared more legitimate than the Uzbeks. In October 1511 he made a triumphant return to Samarkand after a ten-year absence. Dressed in Shiite fashion, he towered rigidly over the Sunni crowds gathered to welcome him in triumph. All this was done to please the Persians, whom Bābur was aware he still needed, still fearing the Uzbeks (as his cousin Haydar wrote). This turned the Sunni component of his new subjects against him and ended up leading to the return of the Uzbeks eight months later.

However, the Safavids were defeated at the Battle of Ghujduwān and Bābur lost Samarkand and had to return in 1512 to Kābul.

Writing about it in retrospect, Bābur said that he had failed to conquer Samarkand, which was the greatest of gifts Allah could bestow upon him. He had now given up all hope of regaining his lordship of Fergana, and, although he feared terribly an Uzbek aggression from the west, his attention turned more and more toward India.

In fact, he claimed to be the true and legitimate monarch of the lands of the Sayyid dynasty, as he considered himself the legitimate heir to the throne of Tamerlane. It had been precisely Tamerlane to have originally left Khiżr Khān as his vassal in the Punjab, and the latter had become lord (sultan) of the Delhi sultanate, founding the aforementioned dynasty. However, the Sayyid dynasty had been dislodged by Ibrāhīm Lōdī (or Lōdhī), an Afghan of the Ghilzai, and Bābur demanded that the territory be returned to him. Therefore, while actively gathering the military force necessary for the invasion of the Punjab, he sent a request to Ibrāhīm Lōdī, claiming “the countries that anciently depended on the Turks,” namely the lands of the Delhi Sultanate.

Given Ibrāhīm Lōdī”s obvious unwillingness to accept the terms of the request, and though in no hurry to carry out a full-fledged invasion, Bābur proceeded to make several preliminary raids, in the course of which he took Kandahār, a strategic place to repel possible attacks on Kabul while he was occupied in India. The siege, however, lasted much longer than expected, and only three years later Kandahār and its formidable citadel were taken. From that moment they resumed raids in India, but it was in their course that the opportunity for a far more ambitious expedition arose: namely, an attack on Parwala, stronghold of the Gakhar (1521), which led to the end of the empire of Ibrāhīm Lōdī.

The part of Bābur”s memoirs referring to the period between 1508 and 1519 is missing. During those years the Safavid Shah Ismāʿīl I suffered a major defeat when his large cavalry-based army was annihilated at the Battle of Cialdiran by the Ottoman Empire”s new weapon, the fuse musket. It appears, however, that both he and Bābur had quickly procured this technology in their turn. Bābur also hired an Ottoman, Ustad ʿAli, to train his troops.

The battle against Ibrāhīm Lōdī

While the Timurids were united, the armies of the Lōdī (or Lōdhī) dynasty were far from it. Ibrāhīm was widely detested, even among his nobles, and it was several of his Afghan nobles who called for Bābur”s intervention, who gathered an army of 12,000 men and entered India. The number gradually swelled as the advance progressed, as many men from the local populations joined the invading army. The first major clash between the two forces occurred at the end of February 1526. Bābur”s favorite son, Humāyūn (then seventeen years old), led the Timurid army into battle against Ibrāhīm”s early vanguards. His victory cost more effort than the earlier skirmishes, but it was a decisive victory. More than one hundred prisoners were taken, along with eight elephants. However, unlike in the past, these prisoners were not chained or freed, but by Humāyūn”s orders were shot. In his memoirs Bābur reported, “Ustad ʿAli-quli and the musketeers were ordered to shoot the prisoners by way of example; it had been Humāyūn”s first feat, his first experience of combat, it was an excellent omen.” This is perhaps the earliest example of the use of a firing squad.

Ibrāhīm Lōdī advanced with 100,000 soldiers and 100 elephants, while Bābur”s army, though increased in strength, numbered half as many, perhaps as few as 25,000 men. At the battle of Pānīpat (April 21, 1526) Ibrāhīm Lōdī”s throat was slit and his army routed, after which Bābur quickly took possession of both Delhi and Āgrā. On the same day Bābur had in fact ordered Humāyūn to advance to the latter (formerly the capital of Ibrāhīm) in order to secure its treasures and resources from plunder. There Humāyūn found the relatives of the Rāja of Gwalior (who had died at Panipat), who were seeking refuge from the invaders, terrified by what they had heard about the Mongols. Having obtained the assurance of salvation, they gave their new lord a famous jewel, the diamond that was long the largest in the world, the Koh-i-Noor, the “Mountain of Light.”

Battles with the Rajputs

Although by now lord of Delhi and Agra, Bābur reports in his memoirs that he spent sleepless nights due to the constant worries caused him by Rana Sanga, Rajput lord of Mewar. Prior to Bābur”s intervention, the Rajputs had conquered part of the sultanate”s territories and ruled a large area to the southwest of its new possessions, commonly known as Rajputana. This was not a United Kingdom, however, but rather a confederation of lordships under the informal sovereignty of Rana Sanga.

The Rajputs had probably heard of the heavy losses inflicted by Ibrāhīm Lōdī on Bābur”s forces, so they were convinced that they could conquer Delhi and perhaps even all of Hindustan, hoping to bring it back into Rajput-Indu hands for the first time in 330 years, that is, since Muḥammad of Ghor had defeated Prithviraj III, Chauan king of the Rajputs (1192).

In addition, the Rajputs were aware that there were disagreements among the ranks of Bābur”s army. The very hot Indian summer had descended upon them, and most of the troops wanted to return home to the cooler climes of Central Asia. The Rajputs” reputation for valor had preceded them, and their numerical superiority intimidated Bābur”s forces. Instead, Bābur had decided to turn the favorable situation into a broader conquest and push further into the interior of India, into territories never before claimed by the Timurids. So he needed his own troops to defeat the Rajputs. Despite the army”s resistance to engage in further warfare, Bābur was convinced that he could prevail over the Rajputs and gain complete control of Hindustan. Therefore he propagated widely the fact that for the first time he would have to fight against non-Muslims, i.e. kāfirs (infidels). After that, he ordered his men to line up and swear on the Koran that none of them would “think of turning their backs on the enemy or of withdrawing from this mortal combat until life is snatched from their bodies.” At that point he began to give himself the name of Ghazi, or Warrior for the Islamic cause, a title already used by Tamerlane when he fought in India.

The two armies clashed at Khanwa, 40 miles west of Agra. At first victorious, Sanga died within a year, perhaps poisoned by one of his own ministers. In this way one of Bābur”s main opponents disappeared. In exchange for the payment of a regular tribute, the new lord allowed the Rajput princes to maintain control of their principalities, as well as their customs and traditions.

Bābur was now the undisputed ruler of Hindustan (an expression that once denoted northwestern India and the Ganges plain) and began a period of further expansion. Each of the nobles or ʿumarāʾ he appointed was allowed to form his own army. And, in order to further the imperial expansionist aims, many were assigned as jaghirs lands yet to be conquered, thus freeing Bābur from many of the problems associated with recruiting troops. At the same time he assigned to his sons the provinces farthest from his new center of operations: Kamran was assigned the control of Kandahar, Askari that of Bengal and Humāyūn the government of Badakshān, perhaps the most remote province of the expanding empire.

With the help of Ustad ʿAli, moreover, Bābur continued to use new technologies to improve his army. In addition to firearms, the two tried new types of siege weaponry, such as cannons, which Bābur recalls being capable of firing a large stone at a distance of nearly a mile (although, he adds, the initial test left nine innocent bystanders dead on the ground). In addition to these, they experimented with bombs that exploded on impact. Finally, the strictest discipline was maintained in the organization of the army, with regular inspections.

Bābur traveled the country, admiring much of its terrain and vistas, and initiated the construction of a series of structures in which the pre-existing Hindu swirls of carved details mingled with the traditional Muslim designs peculiar to Persians and Turks. He himself wrote with reverent wonder of the buildings at Chanderi, a village carved out of rock, and of the palace of Rāja Man Singh at Gwalior, reporting them in the terms of “marvelous palaces, entirely carved out of rock.” He was infuriated, however, by the Jain idols carved into the surface of the rock beneath the fortress at Gwalior. “These idols are shown completely naked, without even covering their private parts…. I ordered their destruction.” Fortunately, the statues were not completely destroyed, but their genitals and faces were removed (the latter later restored by modern sculptors).

To remind himself of the lands he had left behind, Bābur began the creation of delightful gardens throughout his palaces and provinces, where he used to sit to find shade from the fierce Indian sun. He tried as much as possible to recreate those in Kabul, which he considered the most beautiful in the world and in one of which he eventually wanted to be buried (the Bāgh-e Bābur, or Bābur Garden). “In that Hindustan devoid of charm and order, gardens were created without order and symmetry.” Nearly thirty pages of his memoirs are taken up with descriptions of the fauna and flora of that Hindustan.

At the end of 1528 Bābur celebrated a great feast, or tamasha. All the nobles from the different regions of his empire were gathered, along with any nobleman who harbored a descent from Tamerlane or Genghis Khan. It was a celebration of his Chinggiskhanid lineage, and when the guests were all seated in a semicircle (with him in the center), the one farthest from Bābur was over 100 meters away. The immense banquet was accompanied by gifts and performances of animal fighting, wrestling, dancing, and acrobatics. The guests offered the emperor tributes in gold and silver and received in turn sword belts and cloaks of honor (khalat). Among the guests were several Uzbeks (those who had driven the Timurids out of Central Asia and were occupying Samarkand at that time), and a group of peasants from Transoxiana, who were rewarded for being friendly to Bābur and helping him when he was not yet a powerful lord.

Once the feast was over, many of the gifts offered to him were sent to Kabul “to adorn the ladies” of his family. Bābur was excessively generous with regard to wealth, so much so that at the time of his death the empire”s coffers were almost empty: the troops were even ordered to return one third of their income to the treasury. The extravagance of the emperor did not go unnoticed. He was a heavy drinker and consumer of hashish, perhaps as a means to alleviate the various ailments from which he suffered: he notoriously spat blood and had several pustules on his body, suffered from sciatica and more blood dripped from his ears. The above mentioned substances were strictly forbidden by the orthodox doctrines of Islam, but in the Bābur-nāme he himself writes without censorship of his relatives in Fergana who consumed strong liquors in abundance. So, he, a “Warrior of Faith,” indulged in the forbidden (ḥaram).

On May 6, 1529 Bābur defeated Maḥmūd Lodī, brother of Ibrāhīm. With the battle of Ghagra the last remnants of resistance in northern India were thus crushed.

When Babur fell seriously ill, Humayun was told of a plot by the senior nobles to put aside his sons and appoint Mahdi Khwaja, husband of the emperor”s sister, to succeed him. The young prince rushed to Agra, noting however upon his arrival that his father had recovered, although Mahdi Khwaja had lost all hope of becoming his successor after behaving with an arrogance that exceeded his authority during the lord”s illness. But once he reached Agra it was Humayun himself who fell ill, coming close to death.

Bābur himself is said to have circled his sick son”s bed, crying out to God to take his life instead of his son”s. And according to later traditions, he did indeed fall ill, while conversely Humayun recovered. This does not seem accurate, however, since several months elapsed between Humayun”s recovery and his father”s death, and Bābur”s illness was a rather sudden affair. The emperor”s last words seem to be addressed to his favorite son, Humayun: “Do nothing against your brothers, even if they might deserve it.”

Bābur died at the age of 48, and, as expected, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Humayun. He would have liked to be buried in his favorite garden, in Kabul, a city he had always loved, but he was first buried in a mausoleum in Agra, his capital. About nine years later, however, his wishes were granted by Sher Sha, and he was buried in a beautiful garden, the Bagh-e Babur in Kabul, now in Afghanistan. The inscription on his tomb reads (in Persian):


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