The Mongol Conquest of India

Episode 33: Babur and Mughul India

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture concerns Babur, great grandson of Tamerlane who founded the Mughul Empire in India (1526-1530). Descended from Genghis Khan on his mother’s side, Babur (unlike Tamerlane) had the hereditary credentials to rule as khan in his own right. Born on the steppes in Andijan (in modern day Uzbekistan), he was governor of Fergana until he lost his throne in a civil uprising. As a cultivated man, he spoke Turkish and Persian.

After conquering Kabul (in modern day Afghanistan),* Babur became a vassal of the Shah of Iran and converted to Shi’a Islam. He then used his base in Kabul to recruit the nomadic cavalry that would conquer India. In 1526, he led his warriors into India (with the blessing of the Shah) to claim Tamerlane’s heritage in Lahore (see Prince of Destruction: How Tamerlane Changed the Landscape of the Middle East and Central Asia).

Employing knowledge gained from the Persian Army about field artillery and matchlocks (early hand held firearms), he quickly regained control of all northern India. After defeating the Rajputs in the Indus Valley, he ultimately came to control Delhi, Lahore and the entire upper Ganges.

When Babur died in 1530, his empire included Mughul India and the central steppes region that is now Afghanistan. His son Humayan lost the empire following an invasion by Aghans who had settled in Bengal. However with Persian support, he would regain the throne 15 years later.

Humayan’s son Akbar (1556-1605) transformed the Mughul empire from a nomadic military occupation to a sophisticated modern bureaucracy. Appointing 150,000 high level administrative officers (of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh* and Jak ethnicity), he won support from the majority Hindu population via a major program of public works. In addition to converting large sections of the Ganges into irrigated fields, he also introduced paper*** and block printing, as well as a new system of land measurement (and land tax) and a more regulated system of weights and measures. His tax revenues were very much dependent on the Hindus he relied on as tax collectors and scribes and the Hindus and Jains who were India’s money lenders and bankers.

Harl estimates that an administrative bureaucracy of 1.5 million Muslims were running an empire of 120 million non-Muslims. This contrasts with the Ottoman Empire, where all the initial administrators were slaves.

Over time a characteristic Indo-Muslim architecture developed best characterized by the Taj Mahal built by Akbar’s grandson.

The Mughul Empire (1658-1707) reached its maximum size under the sixth emperor Aurangzeb, covering nearly all of southeast Asia. Harl blames its downfall on Aurangzeb’s conversion to Sunni Islam and his campaign of terror against his Hindu subjects.

Following their occupation of India, the British Raj would inherit the administrative bureaucracy established by the Mughuls.


*Kabul sits at the entry to the Khyber Pass linking Central Asia to India.

**According to Harl, the Sikh religion is a monotheistic form of Hinduism which emerged after India was exposed to monotheistic Islam.

***Previously India had used extremely fragile palm leaf paper, which was totally unsuitable for maintaining good tax records.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5694984/5695057

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