On April 20, 1526, immediately after the battle at Panipat, even before Ibrahim Lodi’s body was identified in the carnage, Babur sent his son Humayun and five trusted commanders, including his friend Khwaja Kalan, “to proceed swiftly and unencumbered, get hold of Agra, and confiscate the treasury.” He instructed his brother-in-law, Mahdi Khwaja, to take a few men, “separate themselves from the baggage and ride fast, enter the Delhi fortress, and guard the treasuries. The next morning we proceeded for a league [about two miles] and then, for the sake of the horses, camped beside the Jumna.” (Baburnama, f. 267b)

In Babur’s time, a scrubby, rolling plain led to Delhi, which had served as the capital for sixteen successive dynasties since 1450 BCE. Ibrahim Lodi moved his base to Agra, leaving Delhi as the necropolis for Muslim invaders from the north, where mosques and tombs were as brown as the dust that enveloped them. Babur camped along the Jumna [Yamuna] River for two nights; walked around the tomb of Nizam Awliya, the widely revered fourteenth-century Chishti saint; and arrived in Delhi on April 24. He spent the night in the Delhi fort before circling the tomb of another Sufi saint, Khwaja Qutabuddin, a native of Ferghana, Babur’s own birthplace. Then, like a modern-day tourist, the conqueror visited the Hauz Khas pool and the Qutub Minar, and twice took in Tughlaqabad. No beheading, sacking, or burning—this was not the usual arrival of a conqueror. Babur aspired to rule.

On Friday [April 27], we stayed in camp. Mawlana Mahmud, Shaykh Zayn, and some others went to perform the Friday prayer in Delhi and read the proclamation in my name. Having distributed some money to the poor and unfortunate, they returned to camp. (Baburnama, f. 268)

Thus, Babur was officially proclaimed the ruler of Delhi.

Gardens of Mughal Princesses

When our family first arrived in Delhi in 1973, the first historic site we were taken to see was Humayun’s tomb. I’d seen nineteenth-century drawings of it by British artists, produced before Lord Curzon created the Archaeological Survey of India and saved the site. In the drawings, the walls were missing, the tomb neglected and forlorn. It was the first imperial tomb known to be placed in a garden—a tradition that was gloriously extended by subsequent Mughal rulers.

Five years later, when Maura and I went to Delhi, we followed Babur’s path. We went to the dargah(tomb) of Nizam Awliya in the evening, a visit that has since become a ritual for me. In the evenings, musicians and singers sometimes gather, and the site is enveloped in a truly mystical atmosphere. Seventy years earlier, Constance Villiers Stuart visited this holy site and described the 1660 grave of Babur’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Jahanara, the favorite child of Shah Jahan. Jahanara had accompanied her father to Kabul when he made improvements to Babur’s grave garden and, as Mrs. Stuart tells us, she chose to have her grave open to the sky just like Babur’s:

The exquisite white marble grave is open to the sky; by her special request, grass alone is grown in a hollow on the top of the monument—and where in other royal tombs the white marble gleams with garlands of inlaid gems, the “humble grave” of the Lady Jahanara Begim shows, as its only ornament, a lily carved of precious jade, green as the waving grass.

When Mrs. Stuart visited the princess’s sister Roshanara’s charming villa and garden a few miles away, she found it greatly altered, ruined in fact, by an 1890s carriage drive. When I visited in the 1970s, that garden site was bare and dusty, the enclosing wall was gone, and the house abandoned. There was a plan under discussion to restore the building; however, most of the surrounding garden already had been commercially developed. Gardens circling the mosques and tombs had a better chance of surviving than those attached to a Mughal residence or pavilion.

Mrs. Stuart disclosed an important circumstance that governed the lives of these seventeenth-century Mughal princesses, the daughters of Shah Jahan:

They were both children of the celebrated Mumtaz Mahal; and, like her, famous for beauty and piety; but being royal princesses, they were not allowed to marry, no man being considered worthy of the hand of a daughter of the Great Mughal; or rather, as Bernier observes, the limitation grew out of the fear “that the husband might hereby be rendered powerful and induced perhaps to aspire to the crown.”

Mrs. Stuart added that, like many noble women, “they were magnificent patronesses of art and letters.” We must add gardens to that list, especially for Jahanara, who helped make her father’s Shahjahanabad a magnificent garden city.

In the early sixteenth century, during Babur’s time, Timurid rule was patrilineal, and Muslim rulers and nobles often took four wives, as he did. The common practice was for women to be married to kinsmen or to secure political alliances. Aged widowed aunts and recently widowed cousins and their children became the dependents of the senior male family member, as Babur experienced in Kabul. During Akbar’s reign (1556–1605) when the Mughal dynasty achieved unchallenged control and wealth, it actually created a more luxurious but restricted lifestyle for women. The zenanas, the section of a palace housing the haram, were well secured and even included female guards. Within the confines of the zenana, each resident had her own quarters, where she lived with her young children and attendants. Many women pursued various interests such as poetry, music, textile design and fashion—as practitioners or patrons. Some pious noble women built mosques, which they were allowed to visit with supervision. Some women had charities and accepted petitions to the court. Akbar’s aunt, Babur’s daughter Gulbadan, led a large group of women on a hajj to Mecca; the royal pilgrims bade farewell to the emperor in October 1575 and returned in March 1582, delayed by many difficult adventures.

Transforming the Landscape in Hindustan

On April 26, 1526, during his tour of Delhi, Babur visited the Lodi tombs, which became neglected over time. (Centuries later, in 1958, they would be rescued by Joseph Allen Stein, a gifted American architect resident in India, who designed a beautiful park to surround them.) Less than two weeks after his victory at Panipat, Babur marched east from Delhi: “On Saturday [April 28] the army proceeded by forced march toward Agra.… [On May 10] I entered Agra and camped in Sultan Ibrahim’s quarters.” (Baburnama, ff. 268, 269)

The following year he wrote his famous “Description of Hindustan” and inserted it into his memoirs (folios 270–293b) just as he arrived in Agra. Using his remarkable powers of observation and direct style of writing, he provided original and clear descriptions of what was new to him, including exotic flora and fauna, such as buffalo and hog deer.

On May 12, 1527, unwisely but true to character, Babur began to distribute the Lodi treasure. His son Humayun and other army leaders were generously rewarded as was every soldier who fought for him, no matter his origin. (He would soon realize this was imprudent, as he did no longer had enough treasure to reward or entice followers.) Strategically, it suited Babur to make Agra his base. He had successfully won control of Lahore, the Punjab, and Panipat and now had to deal with hostile Muslim states in the east toward Bengal and militant Rajputs to the south. He controlled only a relatively small area around and between Delhi and Agra. His most immediate concern was his men; they were exhausted and debilitated by the intense heat (110 degrees) and the scorching winds that whipped up sandstorms in the pre-monsoon season.

When we came to Agra it was the hot season, and the people all fled in fear. Neither grain for ourselves nor straw for the horses was to be found.… Also, that year was extremely hot. Many began to sicken and die as though under the influence of a pestilent wind. For these reasons most of the begs and great warriors lost heart. They were unwilling to stay in Hindustan and began to leave. (Baburnama, f. 294b)

The men from the mountain areas suffered the most in the sweltering heat, and morale became a serious problem when some began to drift away. Babur appealed to them, recalling adventures in their youthful years. He eloquently persuaded most of his begs to remain with him through the coming battle with Rana Sanga, promising they could leave afterward. However, he was saddened when he failed to persuade Khwaja Kalan, perhaps his closest friend, to remain with him in Agra. Khwaja Kalan pleaded, “My constitution is not fitted for the climate of Hindustan.” Although it was a great loss, Babur sympathized, saying, “Khwaja Kalan did not have the heart to stay” (Baburnama, f. 295b). The emperor allowed his friend to leave, asking him to deliver letters and gifts to family members in Kabul. He also declared Kabul to be the crown’s land and appointed Khwaja Kalan to act for him there.

On August 28, “Khwaja Kalan was given permission to go to Kabul” (Baburnama, f. 299b). This reflects an emotional parting and is followed by one of the most frequently quoted passages in the Baburnama. Though he longed to return to Kabul, as his friend had done, Babur faced the prospect of spending years in Hindustan to stabilize it politically. He needed to establish an official base from where he could direct affairs and supervise his troops and that also could serve as his residence and satisfy his very specific needs.

I always thought one of the chief faults of Hindustan was that there was no running water. Everywhere that was habitable it should be possible to construct waterwheels, create running water, and make planned, geometric spaces. A few days after coming to Agra, I crossed the Jumna with this plan in mind and scouted around for places to build gardens, but everywhere I looked was so unpleasant and desolate that I crossed back in great disgust. Because the place was so ugly and disagreeable, I abandoned my dream of making a charbagh. (Baburnama, ff. 299b–300)

But he didn’t quite abandon his plan for a garden. First, Babur built a large well at the river’s edge; next came the hot bath, which he considered essential; then a large, enclosed tank, then pavilions and stone buildings and more water tanks and gardens, and on and on it grew! He was pleased by the “vast numbers of every type of craftsman and laborers of every description in Hindustan” (Baburnama, f. 292).

He created a large, walled garden along the eastern shore of the Jumna River, with baths, pavilions, and pools linking watercourses flanked by elevated walks. His quarters also included kitchens, barracks, and stables. This compound became Babur’s office, from where he issued firmans, planned military campaigns with his chief begs, and also greeted visitors and received ambassadors, who started arriving after his victory over the Rajputs.

Once his own imperial garden was well underway, he assigned land to his close circle of friends:

Khalifa, Shaykh Zayn, Yunus Ali, and all who had acquired lands on the river also built geometric and beautifully planned gardens and ponds. As is done in Lahore and Dipalpur, they made running water with waterwheels. Since the people of India had never seen such planned or regular spaces, they nicknamed the side of the Jumna on which these structures stood “Kabul.” (Baburnama, ff. 300–300b)

He’d encountered the same reaction from the locals in Panipat months earlier, when he introduced a charbagh next to the mosque, and the people named it Kabuli Bagh.

Cultural Dominance

The riverside construction was both Babur’s aesthetic solution for a practical problem and a brilliant political stroke. Throughout Ma waraʾ al-nahr (Transoxiana), beautiful tiled mosques, minarets, and tombs created by the Timurids exemplified their political dominance. Babur did not have the resources, or the inclination, to do the same. By transforming the landscape with his innovative large charbaghs, Babur made a political statement: his gardens asserted cultural dominance just like the Timurid towers in Ma waraʾ al-nahr and Khurasan. Babur’s descendants continued the tradition, and by 1650, miles of the banks on both sides of the Jumna at Agra were lined with wonderful large gardens. This includes the Taj Mahal, where the garden extends across the river to the Mehtab Bagh(fig. 1), which incorporates the remains of one of Babur’s gardens.

1. The dome of the Taj Mahal reflected in the Mehtab Bagh pool. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

Historians have slighted Babur by not recognizing the extent of his political skills. He is often only credited with introducing the paradise garden to India without acknowledgment of its political significance and effect or the importance of his decisions on establishing rule in India.

Throughout the Baburnama, particularly when he is commenting on his gardens, Babur emphasizes symmetrical, orderly, well organized spaces and straight water channels. He even straightened streams. His criticisms of Indian life focused on the lack of symmetry and the disorderly appearance and approach he observed. The transformation of the eastern bank of the Jumna must have given him genuine satisfaction and pleasure.

Gifts for Kabul

There was great excitement among the Babur’s female relatives in Kabul when Khwaja Kalan arrived to distribute Babur’s gifts; the begims were bedazzled by the bounteous, glittering jewels. Gulbadan described the scene:

Three happy days they [the begims] remained together in the Audience Hall Garden. They were uplifted by pride, and recited the Fatiha for the benediction and prosperity of his majesty and joyfully made the prostration of thanks. (From the Humayunama)

Extensive changes were made to the Audience Hall Garden, and special tents and qanats (cloth screens) were erected for the celebration. Babur’s instructions were:

To each begim is to be delivered as follows: one special dancing-girl … of Sultan Ibrahim, with one gold plate full of jewels—ruby and pearl, cornelian and diamond, emerald and turquoise, topaz and cat’s eye—and two small mother-o’-pearl trays full of ashrafis and on two other trays shahrukhis and all sorts of stuffs.… (From the Humayunama)

What a colorful scene: dozens of begims resplendent in their new Indian silks, bedecked with jewels, prostrating and murmuring their thanks amid the high summer blossoms in one of Babur’s Kabul gardens.

Not for decades, since the loss of Samarkand and Herat, had such splendid gifts even been imagined by the refugee relatives who flocked to Babur in Kabul. Along with Shaykh Zayn’s letter of victory and the treasures he sent to his family, Babur sent gifts to relatives in Samarkand and Khurasan, including a few holy men. He exhausted the treasury in Agra. “There was a shahrukhi of largesse for every soul, male and female, bondsman and free, adult and child alike, in the province of Kabul …” (Baburnama, f. 294).

Unlike Timur and other Muslim invaders from the north, Babur was not on a raiding mission. He was not there to plunder and leave; he needed Hindustan’s wealth in a continuous stream. To secure it, he had to establish rule, which meant remaining there for the foreseeable future. Pacifying such a large area with so few men was challenging. He appointed his own men to key forts but accepted some of Ibrahim Lodi’s followers; if they submitted quickly, he even reappointed Lodi commanders to large parganas. Some of those begs supported him in the battle against Rana Sanga, but others abandoned him. The constant political shifting and uncertainty added to the poor morale of his worn army.

Sisters, Mothers, and Wives

In December 1526, Babur narrowly escaped death when Ibrahim Lodi’s embittered mother almost succeeded in a scheme to poison him. He had always been exceptionally strong, healthy, and resilient, but he was badly shaken by this attack on his life. He had treated the defeated Lodi family with respect, and his angry, deadly reaction to this assassination attempt reflected his shock. He wrote a detailed account of the incident and his illness and sent it off to his family in Kabul. Such a letter would have alarmed that large group of strong, competitive women and set off waves of apprehension. His elder sister Khanzada had assumed the role of senior woman, but his wives, aunts, cousins and dependent Mongol relatives all had sons or male relatives they hoped might succeed him. That Babur understood the “the unsettled state of Kabul” and the effect his letter would have was confirmed by a later letter (dated February 10, 1529) to Khwaja Kalan, his representative in Kabul:

… If there are seven or eight rulers in one province, how can things be in order or under control? For this reason, I have summoned my sister and wives to Hindustan. I have made all of Kabul Province and appertaining villages royal demesne … as soon as this letter arrives, send out my sister [Khanzada Begim] and wives right away and accompany them as far as Nilab. It is absolutely imperative that, however much they may tarry, as soon as this letter arrives they set out within the week … (Baburnama, ff. 360–360b)

Undoubtedly, Babur’s wife Mahïm and the other women were concerned when he described the poisoning attempt as “a momentous event,” but still they delayed their journey to Agra. Through their male relatives, who were serving with the emperor, they may have heard about the unsettled state of affairs, complaints about the weather, and the upcoming confrontation with the Rajputs.

But in February 1527, while he was still recuperating from the poisoning and less than one year after his Panipat victory, Babur began fortifying an encampment for the battle against the Rajput confederation. In the previous six months, he had become familiar with the area southwest of Agra near Sikri, a village built on a high red sandstone ridge that runs sixty miles east to the Chambal River. He established his camp beside the lake below the Sikri ridge.

It was a perilous time for Babur; the Rajput forces were much larger than he had estimated and, unlike the weak and ineffective Lodi, the Rajput leader of Mewar State in Rajasthan, Rana Sanga, was admired by his followers and regarded by all as a fearless warrior. The recently recruited Hindustani begs soon defected from Babur’s forces: “Every day bad news came from every side.” (Baburnama, f. 315; translated by Beveridge, p. 557)

One evening as he examined the likely battleground near Khanua, he had an inspiration; he would make a solemn pledge and renounce wine. When he made this dramatic gesture with a rousing speech in front of his troops, it restored their confidence and generated just the response he needed to face the Rajputs. He was joined in the act of repentance by more than three hundred followers as the gold and silver wine vessels were broken up and the pieces distributed. For many years Babur had considered renouncing wine; it was not merely a gesture before the battle. He kept to this pledge with some difficulty until his death.

Spring Ahead

[March 16, 1527] The dust that gathered over the battlefield was traversed by the lightning flashes of the sword; the sun’s face was shorn of light as is a mirror’s back; the striker and the struck, the victor and the vanquished were commingled, all distinction between them lost. (Baburnama, f. 323; translated by Beveridge, p. 571)

Though his army was greatly outnumbered, Babur achieved a decisive victory in Hindustan; his weary but experienced troops had prevailed over the eighty-thousand-strong Rajput cavalry. After a long, hard engagement, the injured Rana Sanga withdrew to Chitor, where he died, and his defeated army was dispersed.

[March 17, 1527] When the army was camped at Koh Bachcha, they were ordered to erect a tower of infidel skulls on top of the mountain. (Baburnama, f. 325b)

In the weeks that followed, Babur spent most of his time assigning men to their posts, parting with those bound for Kabul and the north, and occupying the forts of defeated rebels. All this had to be settled before the summer monsoon rains began. He was on the move all the time, but for a few nostalgic days he and a weary group of old friends spent a few days as they had back in Kabul. Babur sounds like his old self as he describes this excursion and comments on unusual features in the landscape:

Great things had been heard of the spring at Firozpur and the big tank at Kotlah.… The whole valley into which the spring water flowed was full of oleanders in bloom. It was not a bad spot, even if it did not measure up to expectation. At one place in the valley, where the stream was a bit wider, I ordered stones cut to make a pool. That night, I stayed in the valley, and the next morning rode out to inspect the tank at Kotlah.… The Manasni River spills into the lake, which is huge—the far shore could scarcely be seen from this side. In the middle of the lake is a rise; all around the edges are small boats the village people on the shore use to save themselves when there is trouble. When we arrived a few of them got into their boats and went out into the lake. (Baburnama, f. 327b)

2. The Jai Mahal Garden in Jaipur. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

When Pat and I drove from Delhi to Jaipur in 1989 to dedicate the Jai Mahal Garden (fig. 2) to Babur, we went by way of Firozpur. Using Babur’s quotes and some old maps, I identified this spring and photographed it from the hillside overlooking the valley. We then drove to and photographed Kotlah Lake; it is now a vast mustard field, but the rising ground in the center still exists.

[Babur and his men] stopped once for the night, at a spring located on an outcropping of a mountain between Bhasawar and Chausa. Here we had canopies erected, and indulged in some maʿjun. Turdï Beg Khaksar had praised this spring when the army had passed through, and this time we passed by on horseback and inspected it. It was perfect. What more could one want in Hindustan, where there is never any flowing water? Where the rare springs are, the water only oozes out of the ground—it does not gush as it does in our country. The water of this spring, however, was nearly equivalent to a half-mill stream and came rushing out from the skirt of the mountain. All the ground was meadow—it was very nice. Above the spring I ordered an octagonal pool made of hewn stone. Seated next to the spring, Turdï Beg, high on maʿjun, kept repeating, “Since I like this place, it has to be given a name.” Abdullah said, “It will have to be called the Imperial Spring-That-Turdï-Beg-Liked.” This made us all laugh. (Baburnama, f. 328)

In 1990, I was able to identify and photograph this spring as well. The meadow was then a construction site, a dam was being completed, and the water was just beginning to rise and cover the Babur’s octagonal stone enclosure. Since that time, I have requested photographs of the site before construction began, figuring there had to be engineering studies for such a large project. But none have been forthcoming.

Garden of Victory

Babur and his men rode on to Sikri, where he spent two days inspecting a garden he was building. Now, in a happy, victorious mood, he named this garden the Bagh-i-Fath, Garden of Victory. In 1569, following his own major military victory, Babur’s grandson Akbar would build his new capital at Sikri on this same sandstone ridge, and, following his grandfather’s example, name it Fatehpur Sikri. This was noted by Gulbadan in the record about Babur she wrote for Akbar: “His Majesty arrayed battle against Rana Sanga on the skirts of the hill of Sikri, where now Fatehpur has been built and peopled” (from the Humayanama).

When Babur returned to Agra in victory, he immediately became immersed in administrative decisions. He faced a new problem: he was running out of money.

Next: VIII. Agra to Dholpur »