All About Babur, Founder of the Mughal Empire

A Central Asian Prince Who Conquered Northern India

Emperor Babur Portrait in black and white

Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images

When Babur swept down out of the valleys of Central Asia to conquer India, he was only one of a long line of such conquerors through history. However, his descendants, the Mughal emperors, built a long-lasting empire that ruled much of the subcontinent until 1868, and that continues to impact the culture of India to this day.

It seems appropriate that the founder of such a mighty dynasty would himself be descended from great bloodlines. Babur's pedigree seems to have been specifically designed for the job. On his father's side, he was a Timurid, a Persianized Turk descended from Timur the Lame. On his mother's side, Babur was descended from Genghis Khan.

Childhood of Babur

Zahir-ud-din Muhammad, nicknamed "Babur" or "Lion," was born into the Timurid royal family in Andijan, now in Uzbekistan, on February 23, 1483. His father, Umar Sheikh Mirza, was the Emir of Ferghana; his mother, Qutlaq Nigar Khanum, was the Moghuli king Yunus Khan's daughter.

By the time of Babur's birth, the remaining Mongol descendants in western Central Asia had intermarried with Turkic and Persian peoples, and assimilated into local culture. They were strongly influenced by Persia (using Farsi as their official court language), and they had converted to Islam. Most favored the mystic Sufism-infused style of Sunni Islam.

Babur Takes the Throne

In 1494, the Emir of Ferghana died suddenly, and 11-year-old Babur ascended his father's throne. His seat was anything but secure, however, with numerous uncles and cousins plotting to replace him.

Evidently aware that a good offense is the best defense, the young emir set out to expand his holdings. By 1497, he had conquered the famous Silk Road oasis city of Samarkand. While he was thus engaged, however, his uncles and other nobles rose in rebellion back in Andijan. When Babur turned to defend his base, he once again lost control of Samarkand.

The determined young emir had regained both cities by 1501, but the Uzbek ruler Shaibani Khan challenged him over Samarkand, and dealt Babur's forces a crushing defeat. This marked the end of Babur's rule in what is now Uzbekistan.

Exile in Afghanistan

For three years, the homeless prince wandered Central Asia, trying to attract followers to help him retake his father's throne. Finally, in 1504, he and his small army looked to the southeast instead, marching over the snow-bound Hindu Kush mountains into Afghanistan. Babur, now 21 years old, besieged and conquered Kabul, creating a base for his new kingdom.

Ever optimistic, Babur would ally himself with the rulers of Herat and Persia, and try to take back Fergana in 1510 to 1511. Once more, however, the Uzbeks utterly defeated the Moghul army, driving them back to Afghanistan. Thwarted, Babur began to look south once more.

Invitation to Replace Lodi

In 1521, a perfect opportunity for southern expansion presented itself to Babur. The sultan of the Delhi Sultanate, Ibrahim Lodi, was hated and reviled by his ordinary citizens and the nobility alike. He had shaken up the military and court ranks, installing his own followers in place of the old guard, and ruled the lower classes with an arbitrary and tyrannical style. After just four years of Lodi's rule, the Afghan nobility were so fed up with him that they invited the Timurid Babur to come to the Delhi Sultanate and depose Ibrahim Lodi.

Naturally, Babur was quite happy to comply. He gathered an army and launched a siege on Kandahar. The Kandahar Citadel, however, held out for much longer than Babur had anticipated. As the siege dragged on, however, important nobles and military men from the Delhi Sultanate such as Ibrahim Lodi's uncle, Alam Khan, and the governor of Punjab allied themselves with Babur.

First Battle of Panipat

Five years after his initial invitation into the subcontinent, Babur finally launched an all-out assault on the Delhi Sultanate and Ibrahim Lodi in April of 1526. On the plains of Punjab, Babur's army of 24,000, mostly horse cavalry, rode out against Sultan Ibrahim, who had 100,000 men and 1,000 war-elephants. Although Babur appeared to be terribly outmatched, he had a far more cohesive command - and guns. Ibrahim Lodi had none.

The battle that followed, now called the First Battle of Panipat, marked the fall of the Delhi Sultanate. With superior tactics and firepower, Babur crushed Lodi's army, killing the sultan and 20,000 of his men. Lodi's fall signaled the beginning of the Mughal Empire (also known as the Timurid Empire) in India.

Rajput Wars

Babur had overcome his fellow Muslims in the Delhi Sultanate (and of course, most were happy to acknowledge his rule), but the mainly-Hindu Rajput princes were not so easily conquered. Unlike his ancestor, Timur, Babur was dedicated to the idea of building a permanent empire in India - he was no mere raider. He decided to build his capital at Agra. The Rajputs, however, put up a spirited defense against this new, Muslim, would-be overlord from the north.

Knowing that the Mughal army was weakened after the Battle of Panipat, the princes of Rajputana gathered an army even larger than Lodi's had been and went to war behind Rana Sangam of Mewar. In March of 1527, at the Battle of Khanwa, Babur's army managed to deal the Rajputs a huge defeat. The Rajputs were undaunted, however, and battles and skirmishes continued all over the northern and eastern sections of Babur's empire for the next several years.

Death of Babur

In the autumn of 1530, Babur fell ill. His brother-in-law conspired with some of the Mughal court nobles to seize the throne after Babur's death, by-passing Humayun, Babur's eldest son and appointed heir. Humayun hurried to Agra to defend his claim to the throne but soon fell gravely ill himself. According to legend, Babur cried out to God to spare Humayun's life, offering his own in return. Soon, the emperor once more grew weak.

On January 5, 1531, Babur died at the age of just 47. Humayun, 22 years old, inherited a rickety empire, beset by internal and external enemies. Like his father, Humayun would lose power and be forced into exile, only to return and stake his claim to India. By the end of his life, he had consolidated and expanded the empire, which would reach its height under his son, Akbar the Great.

Babur lived a difficult life, always battling to make a place for himself. In the end, however, he planted the seed on one of the world's great empires. Himself a devotee of poetry and gardens, Babur's descendants would raise all kinds of arts to their apogee during their long reign. The Mughal Empire lasted until 1868, when it fell to the colonial British Raj.