First Battle of Panipat

On this day in 1526, Turkic-Mongol Muslim conqueror Babur routed the Lodi dynasty in North India in the First Battle of Panipat, marking the beginning of the Mughal Empire. It was one of the first uses of gunpowder firearms and field artillery in battle.

A descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan, Babur war born with military might and conquering zeal. Unable to conquer his ancestral lands in Central Asia and unsatisfied with ruling only Kabul, Afghanistan, Babur set his sights to the south, where Delhi Sultanate Sultan Ibrahim Lodi controlled present-day India. Lodi was weak and tyrannical, disliked by nobility and commoners, making him a perfect target for Babur’s forces. Babur gathered forces of some 13,000 to 15,000 men and scores of cannons and field artillery and prepared to march south. Lodi assembled a colossal army of some 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers, tens of thousands of camp followers, and his secret weapon, a troop of war elephants.

After conquering the Punjab region, Babur’s forces poured into Panipat, in Haryana State some 90 kilometres north of Delhi, on the morning of 21 April 1526. Though he had far fewer men than Lodi’s massive army, Babur was a skilled tactician and surprised the Delhi sultan with his clever tactics. The first was called tulughma, a tactic in which Babur divided his force into forward left, rear left, forward right, rear right, and center divisions. Once the fighting began, the right and left flanks broke away and surrounded Lodi’s army, forcing them towards the center. That’s where Babur’s second tactic came into play.

Arrayed at the center were Babur’s cannons, operated by artillerymen shielded behind a row of protective carts called araba. The carts were tied together with leather rope to prevent Lodi’s men from getting in between and attacking the artillerymen. Perhaps Babur’s most successful tactic, however, was his use of field artillery and cannons, a relatively recent innovation at the time. Battle-ready as his grand war elephants were, Lodi’s pachyderms had never heard the booming sound of a cannon. When Babur’s men launched the cannon, the spooked animals turned and stampeded, crushing their own ranks as they ran.

As the bloody battle waged on, more and more of Lodi’s soldiers defected to Babur’s side until finally, at midday, the tyrannical sultan was abandoned by his surviving officers and left to die on the battlefield. In a matter of hours, Babur had won the First Battle of Panipat. The battle was a turning point in India’s history, marking the end of the Delhi Sultanate and the beginning of the storied Mughal Empire. For centuries, that great empire would grow under Mughal rulers like Akbar the Great, Aurangzeb, and Shah Jahan, until its ultimate demise at the hands of the British Raj in 1868.