First Battle of Panipat (1526)

The First Battle of Panipat was fought between the invading forces of Babur and the Lodi Empire, which took place on 21 April 1526 in North India. It marked the beginning of the Mughal Empire. This was one of the earliest battles involving gunpowderfirearms and field artillery.


In 1526, the Mughal forces of Babur, the Timurid ruler of Kabulistan, defeated the much larger ruling army of Ibrahim Lodi,Sultan of Delhi. The battle was fought on 21 April near the small village of Panipat, in the present day Indian state of Haryana, an area that has been the site of a number of decisive battles for the control of Northern India since the twelfth century.

It is estimated that Babur’s forces numbered around 15,000 men and had between 20 to 24 pieces of field artillery. Babur estimated Lodi had around 100,000 men, though that number included camp followers, while the fighting force was around 30,000 to 40,000 men in total, along with at least 1000 war elephants.

Advantage of Cannons in the Battle

It is generally held that Babur’s guns proved decisive in battle, firstly because Ibrahim Lodi lacked any field artillery, but also because the sound of the cannon frightened Lodi’s elephants, causing them to trample Lodi’s own men. However a reading of the contemporary sources show that more than the gun, it was the tactics which helped in winning the day. The new war tactics introduced by Babur were the tulughma and the araba. Tulughma meant dividing the whole army into various units, viz. the Left, the Right and the Centre. The Left and Right divisions were further subdivided into Forward and Rear divisions. Through this a small army could be used to surround the enemy from all the sides. the Centre Forward division was then provided with carts (araba) which were placed in rows facing the enemy and tied to each other with animal hide ropes. Behind them were placed cannons protected and supported by mantelets which could be used to easily manoeuvre the canons. These two tactics made Babur’s artillery lethal. The guns and cannons could be fired without any fear of being hit as they were shielded by the bullock carts which were held in place due to the hide ropes holding them together. the nozzle of the heavy cannons could also be easily changed as they could be manoeuvered by the mantelets which were provided with wheels.

Ibrahim Lodi died on the field of battle, abandoned by his feudatories and generals (many of whom were mercenaries). Most of them changed their allegiance to the new master of Delhi. However had Sultan Ibrahim survived another hour of fighting he would have won, as Babur had no reserves and his troops were rapidly tiring.

Whenever there is a reference to the first battle of Panipat it is a common practice to talk of the blood of Timur and Genghis Khan in Babar’s veins. Further, the use of light cannons and guns shielded by a barricade of carts and the flanking maneuvers deployed by Babar are considered as the decisive factor in his victory at Panipat(1). However, there is a serious need to cross check these factors.

It is often ignored that Babar’s career in Central Asia is one of frequent defeats and not of glorious success. He captured and lost Samarqand in 1497 and again in 1501-02. Babar also failed to hold his ancestoral kingdom of Farghana. In utter despair and he left for Tashkant which was held by his maternal uncle. In his account of 908 (A.H.) July 7th 1502 to June 26th 1503(C.E.) Babar writes :

“During my stay at Tashkint I endured poverty and humiliation. No country or hope of one! If l went to my Khan dada’s gate, went sometimes with one man, some times with two….., I used to go to Shah Begim, entering her house, bareheaded and barefoot, just as if it were my own(2) .”

Babar has also described how in the region of Akshi, which was once a part of his own kingdom, he was forced to flee in front of Tamble’s men though they did not number more than 20-25 on one occasion and 100 on the other(3).

  1. Catherine B. Asher and Synthia Talbot, India before Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2007, P.116

  2. Babur-Nama, translated from the original Turki text of Zahirud-din Muhammad Babur Padshad Ghazi, by A.S. Beveridge, (first pub. 1922) oriental books Reprint, 1970, Vol. I, P.157

  3. Ibid, P.177

Babar obtained Kabul and Ghazni in Oct. 1504. “Without a fight, without an effort.” in view of the internal disorder there. He also conquered Kandhar, only to lose it within a few weeks. In 1511 Babar with the help of Shah Ismail Safavi of lran recovered Samarqand and also occupied Bukhara and Khurasan. As a price for Shah’s help, Babar even embraced Shiaism and agreed to accept Shah’s suzerainty, a step which Humanyun had to repeat during his exile in Iran. This also created lots of problems for all subsequent Mughal rulers as the Shah of Iran continued to claimed suzerainty over the Mughal empire. However, Babar was defeated in May 1512 by Ubaid Ullah Khan at Kul-I Malik and was eventually forced to abandon the entire Trans-oxiana. Thus ended in smoke his dreams in Central Asia and was forced to think of India.

Ibrahim Lodi had ascended the throne of Delhi in 1517. A headstrong prince, he failed to carry most of his nobles along. Many of the top ranking Lodi, Lohani, Farmuli and Niyazi Afghans revolted and the Sultan had to resort to force to suppress their rebellions. Alam Khan Lodi, an uncle of the Sultan, claimed the throne of Delhi for himself and was supported by some disaffected nobles. Daulat Khan Lodi,the governor of Punjab, behaved like a defacto ruler. When sultan tried to contain Daulat Khan he went to the extent of joining hands with Babar. The sultan imprisioned Dilawar Khan, Daulat Khan’s son, but he managed to escape.

Ibrahim Lodi sent a army to Punjab and was able to defeat Daulat Khan. At this point of time Babar led his fourth expedition to India, captured Punjab and divided it among Daulat Khan, Dilawar Khan and Alam Khan.

Soon after Babar’s return to Kabul Alam Khan tried to capture Delhi. He succeeded in gathering an army of 30 to 40 thousand men and his game plan was to attack Delhi at night so that taking advantage of the dark and without a loss of face, the disaffected Afghan nobles could cross over to his side. Ibrahim also feared this development and stayed inside his tent till dawn when the invaders were attacked and repulsed.

However, this raid made it clear that Ibrahim was not in a position to fully trust his own men, particularly if the battle was fought at night.

Babar reached Panipat on April 12, 1526 and feared an immediate attack by Ibrahim. However, this did not happen. Ibrahim fully understood his advantage, had no intention to attack. His plan was to force Babar to face the Indian summer and cut off his supplies. Certainly the Indian summer could have done the same thing to Babar as the North Indian winter did to Marathas in 1761. It was for this reason that Ibrahim refused to be provoked by raids of Babar during the next seven days. This made Babar desperate. His army was on the verge of loosing heart as he himself admits. On the advice of his”Hindustani well wishers” he sent a raiding party of four to five thousand men against Ibrahim on the night of 18th-19th April. The raid failed but was enough to scare Ibrahim who wanted to avoid a night battle for fear of internal sabotage These were the circumstances which made Ibrahim change his well thought out plan and accept the risk of an offensive, which led to his defeat.

Had Ibrahim been sure of the loyality of his own men, he would have struck to his original plan and forced Babar to retreat. It also makes clear that the mutual distrust of the Afghans played as big a role in their defeat at Panipat as the guns and Tulghama of Babar. There is every reason to believe that the event could have taken the opposite tum had the Afghans not been a house divided against themselves. Alam Khan who worked against the Afghan cause was ignored after Panipat and Dilawar Khan subsequently died in the prision of Shershah, who expelled from India Humayun, the son and successor of Babar.

Professor G. Khurana

Who can see longest into a country’s past can see farther into its future.
– Churchill