Geographical features have played a critical role in the history of warfare in the vast subcontinent now called India.
Lower in height than the Himalayas, the Vindhya Mountains run from west to east, dividing northern India from southern India, known as the Deccan. Southern India developed a complex and unique civilization rich in art, language, literature, music, and religious traditions. Conquest of the wealthy
India’s considerable wealth was amassed through the toil of its rural and urban peoples, the fertility of its lands, the emphasis on trade, and the abundance of food from the subcontinent’s land and surrounding seas. Conquest of India or even a lucrative raid into its wealthy northern cities became a significant aspect of the military strategy of rulers in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Persia.
From early times Indians favored a remarkable tolerance of diversity and religious and cultural variety. The country became a haven for foreign refugees from persecution, who brought traditions, ideas, and skills that enhanced the economy and the way of life. The prevailing tendency was for foreigners, whether refugees or invaders, eventually to settle in after some initial upheavals and to adopt the prevailing way of life while retaining features of their own cultural traditions. The assimilation process was not always smooth, and military engagements were a common feature of the initial contact between Indians and alien invaders.
The Mughals, a Muslim people, began their Indian adventure as alien military raiders in 1526 and concluded it in 1858 as the last acknowledged Indian imperial dynasty. Their story aptly illustrates the process of assimilation. Even as they conquered India politically and militarily, they absorbed, adopted, and made Indian culture their own.
From ancient times Indians had experimented with a variety of forms of government, ranging from democratic republics to vast unifying empires. Although Indian rulers fought each other in a bewildering array of military engagements over politics, land acquisition, and personal ambition, Indian society was generally more oriented to the arts of peace than those of war. Although Indian society had a warrior class and professional soldiers, it did not glorify war as a way of life, seeing war as merely a necessity to accomplish a political end. This crucial feature of Indian development meant that alien military forces frequently had enormous tactical advantages over defending Indian armies and frequently prevailed. The defenders, raised in a relatively nonviolent environment, fought with courage and valor but were frequently no match for the raiders. Hence India fell prey to frequent invasions that caused enormous turmoil until the process of civilizing and assimilating the outsiders took over. Occasionally, as with the Mughals, the invaders successfully utilized new military weaponry and innovative battle strategies in their bids to conquer India. In the process, they helped to change the methodology of warfare in the subcontinent.
As with most Indian governments, past and present, success and survival were largely dependent on the energy, determination, and dedication of a particular leader. The early Mughals produced a few outstanding rulers, the most prominent of whom was the emperor
Pre-Mughal India consisted of a number of small states governed by a variety of Hindu and Muslim rulers. One of the most prominent of these kings was Ibrāhīm
After establishing a foothold in India in 1526, Mughal emperors continuously sought to unify the country. The conduct of warfare was regarded as the necessary business of rulers through much of the Mughal period. Where they encountered resistance to peaceful takeovers, warfare followed.
The Mughal emperors waged war against religious groups that resisted hated measures such as a tax on non-Muslims. The
As the power of the Mughal emperors declined, rebellious noblemen and governors sought to carve out their own kingdoms. Warfare was a significant element of Mughal India. The combination of ethnic wars, religious wars, dynastic wars, and civil wars ensured that there were few periods of peace during this period.
The wars of the later Mughal era were elaborate events involving thousands of soldiers, attendants, servants, camp followers, dancing girls, and vendors. The use of elephants, horses, oxen, and camels made for a uniquely Indian display of pomp and pageantry. The spectacle was enhanced with colorful costumes, decorative tents, and an impressive array of jewels and treasure chests.
A descendant of both Genghis Khan (between 1155 and 1162-1227) and Tamerlane (1336-1405),
Bābur’s military successes were the product of his own expertise in the art of organizing a compact but well-trained, highly disciplined army for warfare in the plains of India. Bābur had additional advantages: His first-rate cavalry of Turkish troops was trained for quick maneuvers and sudden sallies and charges on opposing forces. Most important, Bābur made effective use of
Although Pānīpat was a significant battle that provided Bābur with control of Delhi and Agra, Bābur had to face stiff opposition from a variety of rulers. Fortunately for the Mughals, the Indians were unable to unite to defeat the invading army. The Rajputs and Afghans were separately and decisively defeated in the Battles of Kanwa
The defending Indian forces lost because their armies were unwieldy and undisciplined. These forces ranged from cavalry to infantry, some of whom were peasants armed only with bamboo sticks. A veritable city of servants, camp followers, and attendants hindered the mobility of the defending troops, which were unable to march more than a short distance each day. The cumbersome size of this force and the absence of effective communication between different wings of the army made cohesive fighting difficult.
Indian armies relied on the use of war
Although the Rajput
Bābur’s strategy at the Battle of Pānīpat became a model followed by his descendants in numerous battles throughout Indian history. Bābur’s strategy in this battle was to provide as much protection to his forces as possible while allowing them the opportunity to act swiftly to take advantage of enemy weaknesses as the battle advanced. Bābur utilized ditches and jungle foliage to guard his left flank, protecting his right with control of houses in Pānīpat. The front of his force was shielded by 700 baggage carts tied together with ropes and interspersed with a screen of shields behind which he stationed the squadrons armed with new matchlock rifles to fire at the Indian troops. The use of this new weapon was decisive and successful against the densely packed ranks of defending forces.
One tactical technique Bābur utilized was the
Pānīpat heralded a new age of
Bābur’s son and successor
Bābur barely had the opportunity to consolidate his Indian kingdom before his death in 1530. His son, Humāyūn, inherited the new empire but lacked his father’s dedication and military genius. Humāyūn conquered important regions such as Malwa and Gujerat in 1535 but could not retain control. He had to contend with the determination of Afghani soldier Shīr
Shīr Shāh, as much of a military genius as Bābur, consolidated his empire with a series of military victories, dying in 1545 during a siege. Humāyūn eventually reconquered part of his empire in 1555 but died the following year, leaving the country to his son Akbar.
The Mughal Empire in the Seventeenth Century
The consolidation of his empire and expanding personal ambitions continually drove Akbar to warfare and conquest. His Rajput opponents had not, in those early stages, acquired the use of firearms. With these weapons and with the Turkish tactic of using archers on horseback, the Mughals were largely successful. At the Battle of
Akbar, the greatest Mughal emperor, was continually driven to expand his empire through warfare and conquest.
Akbar eventually conquered most of northern and eastern India, Afghanistan, and Baluchistan and then turned his attention southward, fighting his final campaigns in Ahmadnagar (1600) and Khandesh (1601). He is now regarded as one of India’s greatest emperors, not so much for his military prowess as for his policies of religious tolerance and deliberate assimilation of ethnic groups and his careful administrative methods. Nationalist Indians have gone so far as to portray Akbar as the founder of Indian national consciousness, and this label reflects the admiration with which he is perceived.
Fratricidal conflict became a marked feature of Mughal political and military history with the rebellion from 1601 to 1604 of Prince Salīm (1569-1627), son and eventual successor of Akbar. Renamed
Jahāngīr’s failure to appreciate the importance of modernization had devastating consequences for India, which eventually succumbed to the military might of the British and did not regain its independence until 1947. An absence of imperial concentration on Western military techniques, technology, and strategy resulted in long-term adverse political and economic consequences for India.
The fifth Mughal emperor, Shāh
ՙĀlamgīr emerged the victor, becoming India’s sixth Mughal emperor and ruling until his own death in 1707. Elephants were used with great effectiveness in this succession struggle. At the Battle of Khajwa
ՙĀlamgīr expanded the Mughal Empire to its greatest extent, east to Assam, south to the land of the Marāṭhās, and beyond to Thanjavur and Tiruchchirappalli. The territorial expansion of the empire proved to be the undoing of the dynasty. Government at this time was personality-oriented, relying heavily for stability and prosperity on the energy and initiative of the emperor. India needed a ruler dedicated to the administration and government of its varied peoples. The fervently religious ՙĀlamgīr, however, was determined to convert India to the Muslim
The Hindu Marāṭhās
Religious oppression also roused the Rajputs, the Sikhs, and the Jats against the increasingly unwieldy Mughal Empire. Rebellion flared up in various states such as Assam, Bundelkhand, Malwa, and Patiala. ՙĀlamgīr’s success in ruthlessly suppressing these revolts generated widespread hostility to Mughal rule throughout India. Between 1681 and 1707, ՙĀlamgīr also fought a financially expensive war to subdue the Deccan, which drained the empire’s once-wealthy treasuries.
ՙĀlamgīr’s use of the Mughal army and his country’s wealth to pursue a policy aimed at converting all of India to Islam was in stark contrast to the more pragmatic, self-interested liberal tolerance practiced by Akbar. India resisted the intolerant Mughals with determination, and the consequent warfare created dynastic insecurity, political instability, and a power vacuum that was energetically exploited by British adventurers seeking to expand the British Empire into the subcontinent.
ՙĀlamgīr was so obsessed with his persecution of the Hindu majority that he failed to grasp the significance of the European military threat and did not comprehend the need to build a strong Indian navy to match those of England and France. European nations controlled the oceans and this would be a fatal weakness for India.
This tactical error contributed to the loss of Indian independence, to its political takeover, and to its economic and financial degradation during European colonial rule. Unlike earlier invaders and conquerors, the
Indian warriors did not readily adopt the use of firearms during warfare. The Rajput ruler Maharaja Jaswant
During the Mughal era, the efficiency and range of
Although Bābur took over India with a brilliant combination of strategy, tactics, discipline, and innovative weaponry, his successors had to fight continuously to consolidate the empire he had founded. Constant warfare became a fixed feature of Mughal history, and there was accordingly a great emphasis on the organization of the military. Bābur’s contribution to military organization lay in his introducing India to a new type of warfare that included significant reliance upon firearms. His emphasis on a highly mobile cavalry ensured victories in every major battle. His determination to protect his forces while enabling them to fight ensured that his archers and matchlock soldiers inflicted enormous casualties from behind the defensive positions erected for them. His army, however, lived largely off the land in those early years of plunder and pillage.
Later emperors required a more constant and less controversial method of funding their military ventures. The six years of interlude in Mughal rule when Shīr Shāh governed India ironically provided the administrative foundations for the Mughal Empire. Now regarded as a genius in administration, Shīr Shāh divided the Indian Empire into districts for revenue purposes, established a sound currency, encouraged trade and commerce, constructed highways and ensured their safety with an elaborate police system, reformed the criminal justice system, and instituted direct recruitment of and regular payment to young men who joined the imperial army, thereby decreasing reliance on the cumbersome system of seeking military assistance from regional lords. Clearly, such reforms facilitated the recruitment, payment, and utilization of imperial armies to their maximum potential, a fact not lost on Akbar, who adopted many of these ideas.
Akbar is also credited with the mansabdari organization of the
During the early phase of this empire, the battle strategies of most Mughal engagements were quite similar. A strong, disciplined, well-equipped force handled the artillery. Archery from horseback created confusion and havoc in enemy ranks. The main army usually consisted of left, center, and right wings. The commander controlled the center. At the rear were commando-style reserve forces utilized to defend any wing that came under excessive pressure. Following initial resort to artillery, most of the engagement was by hand-to-hand combat.
The Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-1849) ended with British control of the Punjab and India’s northwestern regions. Late Mughal intolerance of religious minorities, including the Hindus and Sikhs, deflected attention from the real threat: British colonialism.
The organizational methodology of the Mughals was borrowed from the Turks and was adapted to the prevailing situation of terrain, weather, and size of opposing forces in India. However, the sheer wealth of the Indian Empire and the complex diversity of its people eventually necessitated the creation of a vast military bureaucracy with noncombatants outnumbering soldiers ten to one. Although the Mughals had conquered India with compact, highly mobile, well-equipped, and well-armed troops, as they settled in to govern India, each military action involved the transportation to the field of a growing retinue of baggage, suppliers, messengers, servants, dancing girls, clerks, spies, shopkeepers, money-lenders, and camp followers along with the soldiers who did the actual fighting.
A century after Bābur seized India, the Mughal army of combatants had grown sixfold. This enormous increase in size was partly a result of Akbar’s policy. The growth in numbers of combatants required a corresponding increase in the number of servicing staff for the armed forces. However, what the Indian army gained in bureaucratic organization, it lost in maneuverability and the ability to strike suddenly at an unprepared opponent. So vast a crowd could not move more than a few miles per day.
Bābur used Asiatic Muslims and Persians to fire his large guns. Employment of European and Indo-European mercenaries to handle the gunnery work during battle became a significant feature of Mughal military tactics during Akbar’s reign. No longer were Persians and Asiatic Muslims utilized as much. Hence the Mughals relied on outsiders in a critical aspect of their strategy. Although there were many European and Central Asian adventurers eager to work for the Mughal government, these
British India at the End of the Nineteenth Century
The spate of revolts fired by ethnic, religious, and other forms of oppression adversely affected state revenues by increasing the number of wars that had to be fought at the very moment when Indians were no longer contributing as generously to the Mughal treasury. As the empire declined, soldiers were not paid regularly and often revolted because they were hungry and their families were starving. The Mughals had retained the inherently
The Persian invasion of India by Nādir
Early Mughal leaders were committed to warfare as a means of conquering India and regarded the exercise of war as a normal activity of kings. Later Mughals did not match their doctrinal dedication to war with any great emphasis on ensuring that the army remained a tough, well-disciplined fighting force. The Mughal
Although most Mughal battles were fought on land and consisted of a variety of strategies and tactics suited to the particular terrain of the battlefield, the imperial fleet was occasionally utilized, as in the Battle of Daulambapur
Warfare played a crucial role throughout the long history of Mughal India. It was the method by which the Mughals gained India and ironically it was their incompetence in warfare that cost them their empire. The Mughals were the product of a military tradition and utilized India’s vast wealth to further their imperial ambitions to conquer the whole subcontinent. Their rule brought greatness to India politically and militarily and may have created a latent Indian consciousness among the hordes of Turkish, Afghani, Persian, Rajput, Sikh, Marāṭhā, and numerous other groups that had made India their homeland. In the end, the failure of Mughal rulers such as ՙĀlamgīr to appreciate the value of this cultural and religious pluralism doomed the Mughal Empire. The nascent national outlook fostered by Akbar would have to wait a few hundred years for Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) to create a nation from the descendants of the Mughals and all the other peoples who came to India.
The Bābur-nāmeh (early sixteenth century; Memoirs of Bābur, 1921-1922), the memoirs of the first Mughal emperor Bābur, are available in translation and provide a firsthand account of his perceptions. Additionally, numerous contemporaries of the Mughals wrote detailed accounts of the battles in both the Persian and Indian languages. Some of these records of military engagements have been translated or summarized into English and provide a vivid first-person view of warfare during this era.
Bidwell, S. Swords for Hire. London: John Murray, 1971. Eraly, Abraham. The Mughal World: India’s Tainted Paradise. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007. Gascoigne, B. The Great Moghuls. London: Jonathan Cape, 1971. Gommans, Jos J. L. Mughal Warfare: Indian Frontiers and Highroads to Empire, 1500-1700. New York: Routledge, 2002. Hallissey, R. C. The Rajput Rebellion Against Aurangzeb. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1977. Kulkarni, G. T. The Mughal-Maratha Relations: Twenty-five Fateful Years, 1682-1707. Pune, India: Deccan College Post-Graduate Research Institute, 1983. Nicolle, David. Mughul India, 1504-1761. Illustrated by Angus McBride. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1993. Raj Kumar, ed. Military System of the Mughals. New Delhi, India: Ajay Verma for Commonwealth Publishers, 2004. Reid, Stuart. Armies of the East India Company, 1750-1850. Illustrated by Gerry Embleton. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2009. Sabahuddin, Abdul, and Rajshree Shukla. The Mughal Strategy of War. Delhi: Global Vision, 2003. Sarkar, J. N. The Art of War in Medieval India. New Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1984. _______. Military History of India. Calcutta, India: M. C. Sarkar, 1960. Wolpert, Stanley A. A New History of India. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Warrior Empire: The Mughals. Documentary. History Channel, 2006.
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