Trumpeting, their eyes wide with panic, the elephants turned back and charged into their own troops, crushing scores of men underfoot. Their opponents had brought a terrifying new technology to bear - something the elephants likely had never heard before...
Background to the First Battle of Panipat
His father died in 1494, and the 11-year-old Babur became the ruler of Farghana (Fergana), in what is now the border area between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. However, his uncles and cousins fought Babur for the throne, forcing him to abdicate twice. Unable to hold on to Farghana or take Samarkand, the young prince gave up on the family seat, turning south to capture Kabul instead in 1504.
Babur was not satisfied for long with ruling over Kabul and the surrounding districts alone, however. Throughout the early sixteenth century, he made several incursions northward into his ancestral lands, but never was able to hold them for long. Discouraged, by 1521, he had set his sights on lands further to the south instead: Hindustan (India), which was under the rule of the Delhi Sultanate and Sultan Ibrahim Lodi.
The Lodi dynasty was actually the fifth and final of the Delhi Sultanate's ruling families during the late medieval period. The Lodi family were ethnic Pashtuns who took control over a large section of northern India in 1451, reunifying the area after Timur's devastating invasion in 1398.
Ibrahim Lodi was a weak and tyrannical ruler, disliked by the nobility and commoners alike. In fact, the noble families of the Delhi Sultanante despised him to such a degree that they actually invited Babur to invade! The Lodi ruler would have trouble preventing his troops from defecting to Babur's side during the fighting, as well.
Battle Forces and Tactics
Babur's Mughal forces consisted of between 13,000 and 15,000 men, mostly horse cavalry. His secret weapon was 20 to 24 pieces of field artillery, a relatively recent innovation in warfare.
Arrayed against the Mughals were Ibrahim Lodi's 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers, plus tens of thousands of camp followers. Lodi's primary weapon of shock and awe was his troop of war elephants - numbering anywhere from 100 to 1,000 trained and battle-hardened pachyderms, according to different sources.
Ibrahim Lodi was no tactician - his army simply marched out in a disorganized block, relying on sheer numbers and the aforementioned elephants to overwhelm the enemy. Babur, however, employed two tactics unfamiliar to Lodi, which turned the tide of the battle.
The first was tulughma, dividing a smaller force into forward left, rear left, forward right, rear right, and center divisions. The highly mobile right and left divisions peeled out and surrounded the larger enemy force, driving them towards the center. At the center, Babur arrayed his cannons. The second tactical innovation was Babur's use of carts, called araba. His artillery forces were shielded behind a row of carts which were tide together with leather ropes, to prevent the enemy from getting between them and attacking the artillerymen. This tactic was borrowed from the Ottoman Turks.
The Battle of Panipat
After conquering the Punjab region (which today is divided between northern India and Pakistan), Babur drove on toward Delhi. Early on the morning of April 21, 1526, his army met the Delhi sultan's at Panipat, now in Haryana State, about 90 kilometers north of Delhi.
Using his tulughma formation, Babur trapped the Lodi army in a pincher motion. He then used his cannons to great effect; the Delhi war elephants had never heard such a loud and terrible noise, and the spooked animals turned around and ran through their own lines, crushing Lodi's soldiers as they ran. Despite these advantages, the battle was a close contest given the Delhi Sultanate's overwhelming numerical superiority.
As the bloody encounter dragged on toward midday, however, more and more of Lodi's soldiers defected to Babur's side. Finally, the tyrannical sultan of Delhi was abandoned by his surviving officers, and left to die on the battlefield from his wounds. The Mughal upstart from Kabul had prevailed.
The Aftermath of the Battle
According to the Baburnama, Emperor Babur's autobiography, the Mughals killed 15,000 to 16,000 of the Delhi soldiers. Other local accounts put the total losses at closer to 40,000 or 50,000. Of Babur's own troops, some 4,000 were killed in the battle. There is no record of the elephants' fate.
The First Battle of Panipat is a crucial turning point in the history of India. Although it would take time for Babur and his successors to consolidate control over the country, the defeat of the Delhi Sultanate was a major step towards the establishment of the Mughal Empire, which would rule India until it was defeated in turn by the British Raj in 1868.
The Mughal path to empire was not smooth. Indeed, Babur's son Humayan lost the entire kingdom during his reign, but was able to regain some territory before his death. The empire was truly solidified by Babur's grandson, Akbar the Great; later successors included the ruthless Aurangzeb and Shah Jahan, the creator of the Taj Mahal.
Babur, Emperor of Hindustan, trans. Wheeler M. Thackston. The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor, New York: Random House, 2002.
Davis, Paul K. 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Roy, Kaushik. India's Historic Battles: From Alexander the Great to Kargil, Hyderabad: Orient Black Swan Publishing, 2004.