Snippets from the Battles of Panipat
© 2021 Mohammed M Masood
Panipat which today is a small town in Haryana located about 75-80kms north west of Delhi witnessed three historic battles between rulers of different dynasties which changed and shaped the history of India. These battles also offer not only important lessons but are also filled with numerous interesting facts and insights that are often overlooked, various details about the different contestants, their background as well the causes that led to these battles. Let us read about a few of these amusing details as we look at these battles succinctly.
The first battle of Panipat took place between Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur the founder of the illustrious Mughal Empire in India and Ibrahim Lodhi the last king of the Lodhi dynasty which also happened to be the fifth and the last dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate in the April 1526. The Lodhis were basically Afghans and it was for the first time that an Afghan dynasty had established their rule over India (1).
Whereas on the other side was Babur who was a Chagatai Turko-Mongal from Central Asia - a descendent of both great as well as brutal conquerors Temujin or popularly known as Genghis Khan and Timur popularly known as Tamerlane (2).
Alauddin Khilji of the Khilji dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate had not only successfully defended against the Mongols but even defeated them in 1200’s thus saving his population from the great massacre for which the Mongols were famous for (3). However, his progenitor Timur was successful in invading India in 1398 and ransacking Delhi and defeating its ruler Nasir-ud-din Mahmud Tughluq of the Tughluq dynasty (4).
Img: Depiction of Nasir ud din Mahmud Tuglaq (in white robes, bowed head and arms across) in front of Timur (seated) , painting by a Mughal artist. Img courtsey : Indian Portrait ( http://www.theindianportrait.com/ )
Timur did to Delhi what Mongols had earlier done to Baghdad, where they had massacred the population of the city of Baghdad and also had its ruler who was also happened to be the Muslim Caliph (similar to Christian Pope) of the Islamic world stamped to death under the hooves of their horses (5) – interestingly Nasir ud Din Tughluq was spared perhaps because the Mongols had now been converted to Islam and Timur un-like his great ancestors shared the common faith with the Delhi ruler however this did not stop him from humiliating and plundering the kingdom of his adversary. The invasion had broken the back of the Tughluq dynasty which ended shortly after the invasion.
Getting back, Babur a ruler of a small principality known as Ferghana in modern day Uzbekistan had lost both Ferghana and his ancestor’s magnificent capital of Samarqand which came under his rule for a very short period of time to ascendants Uzbeks and was wandering in the hills and valleys of Central Asia for several years before crossing over the Hindukush mountains and capturing Kabul. With Kabul as his base, he wanted to capture his ancestor lands of Samarqand and Ferghana and he did it as well with the help of the Safavids but lost it again shortly.
While at Kabul deliberating his next move, he was invited to invade India by the sacked governor of Punjab and the uncle of Ibrahim Lodhi (6).
Babur finally in 1526 decided to bid for Delhi and with his small force numbering around 8000-10,000 men arrived at the battlefield of Panipat to face the Delhi Sultan who came up with his enormous army of 100,000 into the battlefield in spite of the superior numbers Ibrahim Lodhi fell on the battlefield of Panipat trying to defend his kingdom. Babur outwit his enemy by use of superior military strategy, he also used artillery and cannons which the Lodhis had never faced before and which scared the elephants in Lodhi’s army that turned back and trampled his own men. The new weapon proved decisive that day (7) .
Img: Depiction of First Battle of Panipat. Img courtesy: Wikipedia
Babur unlike his ancestors did not ransack Delhi, he was here to stay and founded a new dynasty which the world would know as Mughals, simply Persian translation for Mongals. No doubt Babur was a pure Mongol from Central Asia and he did not like India or Indians very much as can be seen in his writings however down the line his descendants though knowns as Mughals were anything but that as they had not only made India their permanent abode but also assimilated and even adopted the culture of India, most of the Great Mughals married Rajput women and were also the children of these women for instance as Richard Eaton points out that “Shah Jahan was three quarters Rajput” as his mother was Jagat Gosain Begum, daughter of Udai Singh of Jaipur. His father “Jahangir was half Rajput”, Jahangir’s grandfather on his father’s side was Humayun but on the mother’s side was Raja Bharmal (8). The Mughals were smart to use Rajputs as a check against not only the Afghans but also their own disillusioned Turko-Mongal tribe of Timurids at the court.
Moving to the Second battle of Panipat which was fought between one the greatest Mughal Emperors - Jalal-ud-din Mohammad Akbar and Hemu Vikramaditya in November 1556.
After Babur his son Humayun became the king of the newly founded Mughal dynasty in early 1531 , however Humanyun’s rule was quiet tumultuous filled with rebellions from their arch rivals Afghans to his own siblings and in this mayhem a freelance Afghan soldier know as Farid Khan from the Sur tribe rose and defeated Humayun in 1540 to become another great often less recognized illustrious king known as Sher Shah Suri who brought about many reforms from the reformation of the currency system – introduction of the rupee, building of the grand Trunk road that connects Kabul to Delhi, administrative and land reforms, postal service, construction of public buildings, overhaul of the revenue system, etc. Most of the reforms that were introduced by Sher Shah were carried forward by all the later Mughal rulers (9).
Humayun finally with the help of the Safavid ruler managed to get his kingdom back from the descendants of the now late Sher Shah Suri in 1555. However, his success was short-lived as in 1556 he died falling from the staircase of his library at the Purana Kila in Delhi.
Akbar thirteen then became the king in 1556 however Hemu who had served under the Suris and was the Chief Minister of Adil Shah Suri and had won many battles for him, sensing the demise of Humayun and absence of Akbar at Delhi who was at Punjab quickly marched and captured both Agra and Delhi. The force defending the Mughals which was led by Tardi Beg, lost to Hemu. Hemu though was acting on behalf of the Suris however after the capture of the Mughal capital decided to throw away their yoke and crowned himself as an independent King and titled himself as Raja Vikramaditya. The takeover of the imperial capital augmented his financial and military resources as well (10).
Bairam Khan the commander of army acting against the advisers of retreating to Kabul choose to contest and made an inspiring speech to his army that they live or perish for the crown of Hindustan – Hemu had far superior numbers with him in 30,000 cavalry composed of Afghans and Rajputs , compared to 20,000 cavalry of the Mughals and just 200 war elephants plus Hemu was also an experienced general in the battlefield and it looked like the Mughal empire would end that end when an arrow stuck Hemu in the eye and he fell in his elephant howdah – the army sensing their leader had died lost confidence and started to flee which changed the course of the battle in the favor of the Mughals (11).
Img: Hemu who lost the 2nd battle of Panipat. Img courtesy: ( https://knappily.com/ )
Hemu was later captured and beheaded later. It is interesting to note here that the loyal Bairam Khan never allowed Akbar to participate in this war keeping him safe away from the battlelines under guard and Akbar 4 years late in 1560 dismissed Bairam Khan on the pretext of sending him to Mecca to perform the pilgrimage (12).
Thus ended the 2nd battle of Panipat which would cement the Mughals a permanent place in India and allow Akbar to rule for the next 50 years as an undisputed Emperor of India where he would extend Mughal boundaries across North (Rajputana) West (Gujarat Sultanate), Central (Malwa) and East (Bengal Sultanate) India.
The 3rd battle of Panipat fought between Ahmed Shah Abdali of Afghanistan against the rising Maratha Empire in 1761, this was the most significant, brutal, greatest longest and bloodiest of all the 3 battles fought at Panipat. As Uday Kulkarni aptly puts it across “this was arguably the largest battle fought anywhere in the world in the eighteenth century.” (13)
Ahmed Shah Abdali an Afghan like Babur was invited to invade India by fellow Afghan dynasty of Rohillas who ruled a small principality in Norther India. They feared that the Marathas would dominate all other kingdoms and who wanted themselves to be kingmakers and counter the Marathas at the Delhi court of the Mughals (14).
The Marathas rose to prominence in India after the death of Aurangzeb who in his long reign of 50 years had almost consolidated the entire Indian subcontinent except the southern most part of India and his kingdom for the first time extended from Kabul in Afghanistan to Mysore in Southern India (15) – he had even defeated the southern Deccan Sultanates and even conquered the impregnable fort of Golconda in modern day Hyderabad. However, after his death in 1707 his successors proved weak and feeble who could not keep intact this large empire.
Img: India under the rule of Aurangzeb. Img courtesy: Stanford University Press (https://www.sup.org)
The death knell of the once mighty Mughal Empire was sounded by Nadir Shah of Persia who invaded Delhi in 1739 and occupied the Red Fort and thoroughly humiliated the Mughal Emperor Mohammed Shah Rangeela. The Emperor had to literally bow down and beg Nadir Shah to stop the massacre and plunder of Delhi – it was here that the magnificent Peacock throne and Koh-I-Noor was taken away from the Mughals by Nadir Shah. It was an utter humiliation for the Mughals. Their might had been broken by Nadir Shah who grew up as a poor shepherd. The Mughal empire now lay exposed (16).
It was against this background than the Marathas rose to prominence in India to fill the vacuum created by the sudden collapse of the mighty Mughals. Ahmed Shah was a general under Nadir Shah. After the assassination of Nadir Shah, Ahmed Shah founded the Durrani Empire in Afghanistan.
The Marathas were led by Sadashiv Rao a brave commander of the Maratha army and nephew of the Peshwa Bajirao, on the field was also Viswas Rao - the son of the Peshwa along with Ibrahim Khan Gardi - an artillery expert who was initially under the service of the Nizam but had joined the Marathas. On the Afghan side was Ahmed Shah Abdali along with Najib-ud-Daulah - the Rohilla Afghan chief, Shuja ud Daula the Nawab of Oudh. Both sides had the same number of fighting forces but the Maratha army appeared bigger because they had many non-combatants in their camp.
Img: Sadashiv Rao and Ibrahim Khan Gardi, both were slain in the battle. Img: 18th century, Maratha School.
The battle lasted for several days and it is not possible to get into its details as people have written several books and volumes describing this historic battle and it would be a great injustice to try and cover this in a short para or two. Cutting a long story short the Marathas went up north to face Abdali for the battle and captured Delhi – the Mughal capital and then Kunjpura which was held by the Afghans and had the garrison slaughtered including the trusted general of Abdali, this enraged Abdali who asked his forces to cross the swelling Yamuna to confront his enemy and cut off their escape route till which time both the armies were on opposite sides of the river. The skirmishes lasted for several days but on the decisive day of the battle when the armies clashed it was a bad day for the Marathas – their army was totally routed by the Afghans and like all the battles of Panipat the losing side lost its primary commander/general/king – in this 3rd war of Panipat it was not just Sadashiv Rao but also Vishwas Rao as well as Ibrahim Khan Gardi along with many other leading Maratha commanders– all lay down their lives fighting courageously on the battlefield. Abdali like his former master Nadir Shah wasn’t interested in ruling India and went back to Afghanistan a little later. (17) (18).
It was a big blow to the Marathas, it had not only weakened them but also paved the way for European Powers in India to become dominant and enslave the country, only less than 4 years back Robert Clive had defeated the Nawab of Bengal Siraj ud-Duala and had secured Bengal for the British in India. With the Marathas weakened, it was only a matter of time now and India was getting ready to have a new Empire however a very unique one that it had never witnessed in its long history - a Colonial Empire.
© 2021 Mohammed M Masood
Notes & References:
1. Shakeel Anwar, Delhi Sultanate under Lodhi Dynasty: A Complete Overview [ https://www.jagranjosh.com/general-knowledge/delhi-sultanate-under-lodhi-dynasty-a-complete-overview-1490962660-1 ,last accessed on 09-05-2021 ]
3. Seshadri Kumar, India Should Be Grateful to Alauddin Khilji for Thwarting the Mongol Invasions [ https://thewire.in/history/india-grateful-alauddin-khilji-thwarting-mongol-invasions , last accessed on 09-05-2021]
4. Editor, The Indian Portrait [ http://www.theindianportrait.com/artwork/timur-lang-captures-nasir-ud-din-mahmud-tughluq/ , last accessed on 09-05-2021]
5. Azeem Beg Chughtai , The Fall of Baghdad
6. Archana Subramanian , Rise of an Empire [ https://www.thehindu.com/children/rise-of-an-empire/article18178670.ece , last accessed on 09-05-2021]
7. Dr. Khalid Bashir , Conquest of India by Babur [Scholarly Research Journal for Interdisciplinary Studies]
8. Richard M. Eaton, India in the Persianate Age , pg 259
9. Shakeel Anwar, Administration of Sher Shah Suri: A detailed Summary [ https://www.jagranjosh.com/general-knowledge/administration-of-sher-shah-suri-a-detailed-summary-1513057888-1 , last accessed on 09-05-2021 ]
10. Vincent A. Smith, Akbar The Great Mogul
13. Uday S. Kulkarni, Solstice at Panipat
14. Ajay Singh, Remembering Panipat: Blackest day in Indian history and what we can learn from it [ https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2020/01/14/remembering-panipat-blackest-day-in-indian-history-and-what-we-can-learn-from-it.html , last accessed on 09-05-2021]
15. AUDREY TRUSCHKE, Aurangzeb The Life and Legacy of India's Most Controversial King
16. Editor, Your Dictionary - Nadir Shah [ https://biography.yourdictionary.com/nadir-shah, last accessed on 09-05-2021 ]
17. Ajay Singh, Remembering Panipat: Blackest day in Indian history and what we can learn from it [ https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2020/01/14/remembering-panipat-blackest-day-in-indian-history-and-what-we-can-learn-from-it.html , last accessed on 09-05-2021]
18. Sunidhi T, The Third Battle of Panipat (1761 A.D.) [ https://www.historydiscussion.net/history-of-india/battle-of-panipat/the-third-battle-of-panipat-1761-a-d-india-maratha-empire/6618 , last accessed on 09-05-2021]