See biographies by F. Grenard (tr. 1930, repr. 1971) and M. Hasan (1986); study by R. D. Palsokar (1971).
The Chaghatai were Mongol tribes descended from Genghis Khan's second son, Chagatai Khan.
According to Stephen Frederic Dale, the name Babur is derived from the Persian word babr, meaning "leopard" or "tiger", a word that repeatedly appears in Firdawsī's Shāhnāma and had also been borrowed by the Turkic languages of Central Asia. It is ultimately derived from the Indo-Iranian Sanskrit word vyagr. This theses is supported by the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, explaining that the Turko-Mongol name Timur underwent a similar evolution, from the Sanskrit word cimara ("iron") via a modified version *čimr to the final Turkicized version timür, with -ür replacing -r due to the Turkish vocalic harmony (hence babr → babür).
Contradicting these views, W.M. Thackston argues that the name cannot be taken from babr and instead must be derived from a word that has evolved out of the Indo-European word for beaver, pointing to the fact that the name is pronounced bāh-bor in both Persian and Turkic (similar to the Russian word for beaver, бобр, bobr).
He wrote the Bāburnāma in Chaghatai Turkic, his mother-tongue, though his prose was highly Persianized in its sentence structure, morphology, and vocabulary. The work gives a valuable impression of Babur's surrounding environment:
Babur was born on February 14th, 1483 in the town of Andijan, in the Fergana Valley which is in modern Uzbekistan. He was the eldest son of ʿOmar Sheykh Mirzā, ruler of the Fergana Valley, and his wife Qutluq Negār Khānum, daughter of Yonus Khān, the ruler of Moghulistan.
Although Babur hailed from the Barlas tribe which was of Mongol origin, his tribe had embraced Turkic and Persian culture, converted to Islam and resided in Turkestan and Khorasan. His mother tongue was the Chaghatai language (known to Babur as Turkī, "Turkic") and he was equally at home in Persian, the lingua franca of the Timurid elite.
Hence Babur, though nominally a Mongol (or Moghul 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 Qizilbāsh 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. He could allegedly 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.
His passions could be equally strong. In his first marriage he was "bashful" towards ʿĀʾisha Ṣultān Begum, later losing his affection for her.
Babur was an orthodox Sunni Muslim and occasionally voiced distaste at the "deviations" of Shia Muslims. Though religion had a central place in his life, Babur and his fellow princes wore their Islam lightly. He approvingly quotes a line of poetry by one of his contemporaries: "I am drunk, officer. Punish me when I am sober." They imbibed wine copiously, fell in love with young boys and could be violent and tyrannical. Babur related that one of his uncles "was addicted to vice and debauchery. He kept a lot of catamites. In his realm, wherever there was a comely, beardless youth, he did everything he could to turn him into one. During his time this vice was so widespread, that to keep catamites was considered a virtue."
He gave up drinking alcohol two years before his death, and demanded that his court do the same. But he did not stop chewing narcotic preparations, and did not lose his sense of irony. He wrote:
By 1501, he was ready 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 from the Arghunids, who were forced to retreat to Kandahar. With this move, he gained a wealthy new kingdom and re-established his fortunes and assumed the title of Badshah. 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 before 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 Uzbek 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, 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 territory 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 needed. In October 1511 Babur made a triumphant re-entry into Samarkand, ending a ten year absence. Bazaars were draped 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.
Babur claimed to be the true and rightful Monarch of the lands of the Sayyid dynasty. He 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 — a strategic city if he was to fight off attacks on Kabul from the west while he was occupied in India - from the Arghunids. 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. During this series of skirmishes and battles an opportunity for a more extended expedition presented itself.
Upon entering the Punjab plains, Babur's chief allies, namely Langar Khan Niazi advised Babur to engage the powerful Janjua Rajputs to join his conquest. The tribe's rebellious stance to the throne of Delhi was well known. Upon meeting their chiefs, Malik Hast (Asad) and Raja Sanghar Khan, Babur made mention of the Janjua's popularity as traditional rulers of their kingdom and their ancestral support for his patriarch Amir Timur during his conquest of Hind. Babur aided them in defeating their enemies, the Gakhars in 1521, thus cementing their alliance. Babur employed them as Generals in his campaign for Delhi, the conquer of Rana Sanga and the conquest of India.
The section of Babur's memoirs covering the period between 1508 and 1519 is missing. During these years Shah Ismail I suffered a 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.
Ibrahim was widely detested, even amongst his nobles, and 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 that "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 to Agra (Ibrahim's former capital) and secure its national treasures and resources from looting. Humayun found the family of the Raja of Gwalior there — 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 their safety was guaranteed they gave Humayun their family's most valuable jewel, a very large diamond, which some believe to be the diamond which came to be called the Koh-i-Noor or "Mountain of Light'. It is thought that they did this to retain their Kingdom. Whether it was because of the gift or not, the family remained the rulers of Gwalior, though now under their new rulers the Timurids.
Babur, meanwhile, marched onward to Delhi 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, a sign of the assumption of sovereignty. He then marched to Agra to join Humayun. Upon arrival Babur was presented with the fabulous diamond, and Babur reports that "I just gave it back to him", adding, "an expert in jewels said its value would provide two and a half days food for the whole world." For the next 200 years the stone was known as 'Babur's Diamond'.
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 Rajput lords 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 as well as fortified dominions in other parts of northern India. 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. According to Babur's own writing; "Rana Sanga the Pagan... Satan-like he threw back his head and collected an army of accursed heretics" - "Ten powerful chiefs, each the leader of a pagan host, uprose in rebellion, as smoke rises, and linked themselves, as though enchained, to that perverse one".
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. They hoped to bring it back into Hindu Rajput hands for the first time in almost three hundred and fifty years since Sultan Shah-al Din 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.According to Babur's own calculations the potential strength of the Rajput army was much larger than that deployed by the Lodis at Panipat. 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 defeat 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, to the extent of taking a vow to abstain from drinking (a common fraction among his people) for the rest of his life to win divine favour, and declared the war against, Rana Sanga as a Jihad. To unleash the martial fury of his men, he had them 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 .
With the exception of Rajputana which would only be pacified in the reign of his grandson, Akbar, 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 he appointed was granted leave to set up his own army. 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, with the aide of Ustad Ali continuously used new technology to improve his army. 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.
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. He was known to cough up blood, had numerous boils on his person, suffered from Sciatica and also bled fluid from his ears. He was a heavy drinker and took hashish, perhaps as a means of alleviating the various illnesses he suffered from. These substances were strictly forbidden by the orthodox doctrines of Islam, although in the Baburnama 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). The evening before the battle of Khanwua, he smashed his drinking cups vowing never to drink again - a vow he kept.
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 Ghaghra, thus crushing the last remnant of Lodhi resistance in North India.
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 rather sudden. His last words apparently being to his son, Humayun, "Do nothing against your brothers, even though they may deserve it."
He died at the age of 47 on 26 December 1530, 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 the capital city of Agra. Roughly nine years later his wishes were fulfilled by Sher Shah Suri and Babur was buried in a beautiful garden Bagh-e Babur in Kabul, now in Afghanistan. The inscription on his tomb reads (in Persian):
Babur's legacy was a mixed one. He is considered a national hero in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. However, 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 some further Sikh texts mention that Babur was blessed by Guru Nanak.. 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 dictated 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 and the Pearl Mosque.
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, disgusted 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 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.