Monday, February 16, 2009

Battle of Khanua

Bayana Fort

The fort of Bayana (photo from flickr) is located on a hillock 70 kilometers from Agra. From here the rise of the Central Indian Plateau tumbles down into the Gangetic plain. In the early 16th century this Bayana was an important stronghold and commanded a vast territory, while Agra which had been built recently in 1504, was its dependency. Bayana became the bone of contention between the Rajput ruler Maharana Sanga and the Mughal invader Babur in 1527....their armies met in battle near the village of Khanua, which lies midway between Agra and Bayana.

1504, the founding of Agra, was also the year Babur captured Kabul and made it the base of a new kingdom. Babur was one of the many descendants of the 14th century Turk warlord Timur and the name Mughal was applied to him because of the legacy of the Mongols in India. Apart from ceaseless quarrels with his relatives, Babur was forever under the shadow of formidable rivals like Shaibani Khan the Uzbek ruler, who dominated Central Asia in the north, and Shah Ismail the founder of the Safavid dynasty of Iran in the west.

Luckily for Babur, Shah Ismail defeated and killed Shaibani Khan. Subsequently Babur had to submit to the hated Shia; until the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 when the Ottoman Turks defeated Shah Ismail. Freed from two formidable adversaries, Babur expanded his kingdom by capturing the fort of Kandahar after a long siege in 1522. He also tightened his grip on the rebellious Afghan tribes.....aiding him in these campaigns was a new weapon. Firearms used by the Ottomans at Chaldiran had triumphed over the charges of the Qizilbash cavalry, and about five years after that battle Babur took in his service Ottoman Turks and their rudimentary matchlocks and cannon.

Propelled by good fortune, Babur was now a powerful ruler with no strong neighbors to worry about. In North India Maharana Sanga was the most powerful ruler but he still had potential rivals to contend with; the disintegration of Malwa by its Rajput nobles backed by the power of Mewar, still left a Sultan safe in his capital. And Maharana Sanga's war against the Delhi Sultanate did not bring about its demise. Rather it encouraged the fractious Afghan nobles to rise against their defeated ruler Ibrahim Lodi. Among them the Farmuli, Lohani, and Sur Afghans in the east formed a separate coalition, while the nobles between Agra and Delhi, like Nizam Khan of Bayana, looked up to the powerful Rajput ruler of Mewar. The Lodi Afghans in the Punjab turned for aid to Babur, who had been raiding that province for the past few years.

Babur consolidated his hold on Punjab after a series of campaigns. It was at this time that he received a communication from Sanga proposing that if Babur advanced on Delhi, the Rajput ruler would take Agra. Neither ruler had any intention of sharing their conquests; Sanga had calculated that if victorious Babur would either withdraw from Delhi after taking plunder, or that both the Mughals and Afghans would be left weak enough for Sanga to annihilate. The result of the Battle of Panipat (April 1526) did not even come close to either calculation; and just at that critical time Sanga had to take care of troubles in Gujarat.

Battle for Bayana

Some time after Maharana Sanga's invasion of Gujarat, a younger son of the Sultan Muzaffar II named Bahadur had come to Chittor and sought Rajput aid to seize his father's throne. In 1526 the Sultan died and insurrections broke out in Ahmadabad for several months; one of the parties sought Babur's aid in the conflict. To prevent this, Maharana Sanga helped Bahadur to secure the throne.

By this time Babur from Agra had sent a force to besiege Bayana. Nizam Khan was a vassal of Sanga but opened negotiations with Babur, while keeping his fort in a state of defence. But when he heard of the Rajput army's advance to Ranthambhor, and fearing punishment from the Maharana, he surrendered Bayana to the Mughals in exchange for an estate elsewhere. Nizam Khan and his 5000 followers later fought in Babur's left wing at the Battle of Khanua.

Early in February Maharana Sanga rapidly moved up from Ranthambhor while Babur advanced from Agra. Meanwhile Babur records in his memoirs that Mahdi Khwaja wrote to him for reinforcements: "To aid us, let a force come at once ahead of the army, to Bayana." But the Rajput army defeated the Mughal garrison as well as the reinforcements with remarkable ease. Sanga advanced up to Khanua (also spelled Khanwa and Kanwaha) where an advance body of the Rajput cavalry fell on a Mughal force under Mir Abdul Aziz and destroyed it, carrying off many prisoners. "In consequence of the bold and unexpected advance of the pagans, joined to the result of the engagement that had taken place at Bayana, aided by the praises and encomiums passed on them by Shah Mansur, Kasimi, and those who had come from Bayana, there was an evident alarm diffused among the troops; the defeat of Abdul Aziz completed this panic." News of this disaster made Babur send peace emissaries to Sanga while he tried to restore his men's morale and prevent the Afghans from joining the Rajputs.

Battle of Khanua

Ibrahim Lodi's brother Mahmud had already joined the Rajput army at Chittor, asking for Sanga's aid in expelling the Turk invaders. Meanwhile other Afghan and Indian Muslim nobles like Hassan Khan of Mewat joined the Maharana and espoused the cause of Mahmud. The fort of Gwalior was besieged by its previous Tomar Rajput rulers.

Despite the Rajput successes there was no battle for a whole month. There is a tradition that the former Malwa chieftain, Silhadi of Raisen, negotiated with Babur on behalf of Sanga. The Mughal invader promised to give up his claim on Bayana, withdraw from Agra, and pay annual tribute on condition of being left Delhi and its dependencies. Another reason for the delay were the conflicting aims of the Rajputs and Muslims; the latter hoped to regain what they had lost to Babur. But this would only be possible if they submitted and paid tribute to Sanga. It must have taken all of the Maharana's diplomatic skills to manage his growing army.

Babur's description of Maharana Sanga's power reeks of bigotry and hatred: "Now the sway of the accursed Pagan, May the Almighty consign him to perdition at the day of judgement, was so extensive in the country of Hind, that before the rising of the sun of the imperial dominion, and before our attaining the Khilafat and empire yet the standards of the heathen streamed in two hundred cities inhabited by people of the faith; where­by the destruction of mosques and holy places had ensued, and the women and children of the Musulmans of these towns and cities have been made captives."

Babur had inspired his soldiers to fight a jihad, given up drinking wine, and distributed the fragments of the gold and silver vessels among his soldiers. He had also received reinforcements from Kabul and had additional guns cast by his Ottoman officers while at Agra. On the failure of the negotiations he advanced to give battle on the 17th of March 1527. On the chosen field, about four kilometers from the Rajput camp, he had trenches dug to stop the charge of cavalry. Breastworks on wheels moved up to position behind the trenches, sheltering cannons, carts, archers and matchlockmen. Babur writes, "According to my instructions Nizām ud dīn Ali Khalīfah, carrying out the practice that is in vogue among the Western Turks, fastened the gun carriages together by means of chains to form a barrier where the matchlock men and gunners, who were posted in the front line of the army, might take cover."

mughal matchlocks

Babur's army resembled a square, with the flanks and the rear protected by heavy cavalry. There were gaps in the breastworks for the horsemen to deliver charges when ordered by Babur. This formation was more defensive than the one at Panipat because of the expected fury of the Rajput cavalry charge. But first the elephants were sent by Sanga to crush what appeared to him from a distance to be a wooden barrier. The Ottoman cannons shocked and badly wounded the elephants and sent them flying.

But the Rajput cavalry charged and pushed back Babur's center and right wing. They were stopped by a hail of bullets and arrows; and the cannons reloaded and shot straight into their dense masses. As these men fell, more cavalry appeared from behind and continued the conflict which had started at 9:30 in the morning. They beat back the exultant Mughal cavalry which had emerged from behind the defence-works. Then once again the guns, matchlocks, and archers plied into the Rajputs.

Babur records that the battle lasted ten hours. Twice he ordered his entire line to move forward and rout the enemy, but each time saw them beaten and pushed back. By evening an arrow struck Maharana Sanga's forehead causing him to faint; as he was carried away to safety and his place taken by a Mewar noble, many of Sanga's allies began leaving the field. But the Mewar army stood fast and continued their futile charges even as clouds of dust enveloped them. Babur writes, "The enemy having resolved to sacrifice their lives dearly, made a desperate attack on our right and left wings and nearly reached the spot where I was stationed." By this time the Mughal cavalry protecting the flanks had begun to surround them, while the main army was ordered forward.

At this all resistance ended, the last of the Rajputs stranded on foot died fighting, while most of their horsemen broke through the encirclement and escaped. Babur's cavalry gave chase and he advanced to reach the Rajput camp when darkness had fallen. In contrast to the Panipat battle no prisoners were taken at Khanua; Babur ordered his men to make a ghoulish pyramid of the heads from the dead warriors on the ground. Out of the dead the Chauhan brothers Manik Chand and Chandrabhan, Ratan Singh Chundawat, Raj Rana Ajja, Rao Ramdas, and Gokaldas Parmar, were all Mewar nobles. From the allies of Sanga the dead were: Rai Mal Rathor a Jodhpur prince, Rawal Udai Singh of Dungarpur, Ratan Singh of Merta, and Hassan Khan of Mewat.


Babur reached Bayana after almost three days! Here a council of war opposed any further campaign against Sanga, or an invasion of Mewar, and the Mughals retreated to Agra. Later that year Babur resolved to attack the members of Sanga's army who were defiant in their strongholds. The first was Chanderi held by Medini Rai; here also artillery helped Babur gain the fort but not before the defenders fought ferociously to the death.

Sanga then in Ranthambhor, heard of Babur's advance and himself moved on Irij to cut-off Babur from Agra. But he could not take that fort and died, some say by poison, soon after. Babur's aim of picking off individual Rajput states and strongholds one-by-one was abandoned following a renewed conflict with the eastern Afghan confederacy. This aim was not completed either by his son Humayun, or by the Afghan usurper Sher Shah. It was left to Akbar to fight, conciliate, and diplomatically handle the multiple clans through his mansabdari system.
Mewar map under Maharanas

Chaldiran Panipat Khanua

Ultimately the use of a surprise weapon, namely artillery and matchlocks sheltered behind defence works, gave victory in these three battles fought within a space of 13 years. Historians in India usually overlook the Battle of Chaldiran, but it gave Babur breathing space against the Persians, and allowed him to obtain the new weapons and hire their manufacturers. The same was not possible for either the Afghans at Panipat or the Rajputs at Khanua. Babur took nearly five years to make contact with the Ottoman gunners and take them in his service. Guns could not be manufactured by just anybody; in India the Portuguese gunners were hired by the kingdoms with whom they came in contact, like Vijaynagar and Bengal.

Maharana Sanga had little time, barely a few months, after Panipat to prepare for the conflict with Babur. In this time he also had to tackle the problem of Gujarat. There was thus no time for him to make contact with or hire gun manufacturers, either Portuguese or Ottomans.

The disparity of numbers at Panipat, 120,000 Afghans against 12,000 Mughals, was not present at Khanua. During Maharana Sanga's invasion of Gujarat his army, including allies from Jodhpur, Dungarpur, and Merta, numbered 40,000. The rulers of Jodhpur and Merta were related by marriage to Sanga, while Dungarpur was ruled by his clan-brothers. At Khanua small contingents from lesser Rajput states like Bikaner and Amber were also present, although this is not certain from different Rajput traditions. The actual strength of the Mewar army itself is revealed during Sanga's war against the Delhi Sultanate, when Hussain Khan taunts the defeated Delhi army: "It is a hundred pities that 30,000 horsemen should have been defeated by so few Hindus."

Therefore the Mewar army must have numbered between 20,000 to 25,000, to which all the Rajput allies combined would have raised the total numbers to 35,000 or 40,000 at most. Although most of the Delhi Sultanate nobles broke out in revolt when they heard of the advance of the Rajputs, and of their victory at Bayana, the only ones present in the battle were Hussain Khan of Mewat and Mahmud Lodi. Their additions to the allied army would have taken its total to 60,000 at the most. The British historians who translated Babur's memoirs (Baburnama) inflated this number to 80,000 to take it closer to Babur's hyperbolic estimate of 200,000!

Thus the Mewar army at its core did not form more than 30,000 horse while Babur's followers, including the Afghan chieftains like Nizam Khan of Bayana, Alam Khan Lodi, Dilawar Khan Lodi, Jalal Khan and Kamal Khan, may have numbered 20,000. Added to which were the matchlockmen and archers on foot. Compared to his sober description of the Battle of Panipat, Babur is strangely sketchy about the details of the Battle of Khanua and fills up the text with empty bombast and poetic flourishes tinged with bigotry and hatred.

Neither does he explain why there was no fighting for almost a month? Obviously this was due to negotiations, which are described in Rajput tradition. However the other story of Rao Silhadi's desertion to Babur during the battle is difficult to believe because of the defensive arrangement of Babur's army. Secondly the Tomar chief loyally aided Maharana Sanga's son and successor Ratan Singh; this would not have been possible if the story of his desertion had been true. It seems that Silhadi, like other chieftains, left the field when all hope of victory was gone.

Panipat was an offensive battle, where Babur's cavalry freely operated against Ibrahim Lodi's army, which was beaten in a short time. In all previous skirmishes Babur's men were victorious over the Afghans. Khanua by contrast was an entirely defensive battle, which lasted throughout the day, and ended with no prisoners taken. In all fighting and skirmishes in the open the Rajput cavalry defeated the Mughals.

Note: The fort at Bayana was originally called Vijaygarh and was built by the Jadon Rajputs.
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