Babar conquers Kabul

Chapter 3

 Babar conquers Kabul

At this period the kingdom of Kabul comprehended solely the provinces of Kabul and Ghazni, the territory which we should call Eastern Afghanistan. Herat was the capital of an independent empire, at this time the greatest in Central Asia; and Kandahar, Bajaur, Swat, and Peshawar, were ruled by chiefs who had no connection with Kabul. The tribes of the plains and outlying valleys alone acknowledged the authority of the King of that country. The clans of the mountains were as independent and refractory as their descendants were up to a recent period. Kabul at this time was in a state bordering upon anarchy. The late King, Abdul-rizak, a grandson of the Abusaid referred to in the preceding chapter, had been surprised in, and driven from, the city, by Muhammad Mokim, a son of the ruler of Kandahar, and that prince, taking no thought of the morrow, was reigning as though all the world were at peace, and he at least were free from danger.

Babar, I have said, tired of his wandering life, had resolved to march on Khorasan. He crossed the Oxus, therefore, and joined by Bald, the son of Sultan Khusrou, ruler of the country, marched on Ajer, remained there a few days; then, hearing that the Mughals in Khusrou’s service had revolted, he marched towards Talikan, so as to be able to take advantage of the situation. Between the two places he was joined by the Mughals in question, and learnt that Sultan Khusrou, with the remainder of his troops, was on his way to Kabul. The two armies were so close to one another, that an interview took place between the leaders, which resulted in the complete submission of Khusrou, whose troops came over in crowds to Babar. Thus strengthened, Babar marched upon Kabul, besieged it, and took it (October, 1504). By this sudden change of fortune, he found himself all at once King of Kabul and Ghazni, a kingdom far more powerful than the Ferghana, which he had inherited and lost.

Babar had but just begin to feel his seat in his new kingdom when he received an invitation to invade a district called Bhera, south of the river Jehlam, and therefore within the borders of India. The invitation was too agreeable to his wishes to be refused, and he accordingly set out for Jalalabad. The time was January, 1505. The Sultan – for so he was styled – records in his journals the impression produced upon him by the first sight of that favoured part of Asia, an impression shared, doubtless, by his successors in the path of invasion, and which may well account for their determination to push on. ‘I had never before,’ he wrote, ‘seen warm countries nor the country of Hindustan. On reaching them, I all at once saw a new world; the vegetables, the plants, the trees, the wild animals, all were different. I was struck with astonishment, and indeed there was room for wonder.’ He then proceeded by the Khaibar Pass to Peshawar, and, not crossing the Indus, marched by Kohat, Bangash, Banu, and Desht Daman, to Multan. Thence he followed the course of the Indus for a few days, then turned westward, and returned to Kabul by way of Chotiali and Ghazni. The expedition has been called Babar’s first invasion of India, but as he only touched the fringes of the country, it took rather the character of a reconnoitring movement. Such as it was, it filled him with an earnest desire to take an early opportunity to see more.

But, like every other conqueror who has been attracted by India, he deemed it of vital importance to secure himself in the first place of Kandahar. Internal troubles for a time delayed the expedition. Then, when these had been appeased, external events came to demand his attention. His old enemy, Shaibani, was once more ruling at Samarkand, and, after some lesser conquests, had come to lay siege to Balkh. Sultan Husen Mirza, of Herat, alarmed at his progress, sent at once a messenger to Babar to aid him in an attack on the invader. Babar at once responded, and setting out from Kabul in June, 1506, reached Kahmerd, and halted there to collect and store supplies. He was engaged in this work when the information was brought him by a messenger that Sultan Husen Mirza was dead. He at once pushed on, and after a march of eight hundred miles joined the sons of the late Sultan and their army on the river Murghab.

Two of the sons of the Sultan had succeeded him as joint-rulers. Babar found them elegant, accomplished, and intelligent, but effeminate, devoted to pleasure, and utterly incapable of making head against the hardy Shaibani. Whilst they were pleasuring in camp, the latter had taken Balkh. After some discussion, the two kings decided to break up, their army and recommence in the spring. Winter was now coming on, and Babar was persuaded, against his better judgment, to visit his two hosts at Herat. His description of that royal city takes up pages of his autobiography.2 For twenty days he visited every day fresh places; nor was it till the 24th of December that he decided to march homewards.

Our countrymen who served in Afghanistan during the war of 1879–81 can realise what that march must have been; how trying, how difficult, how all but impossible. The distance was twenty days’ journey in summer. The road across the mountains, though not very difficult in summer, was especially trying in the depth of winter, and it was at that season, the snow falling around him, that Babar undertook it. He himself showed the way, and with incredible exertion led the army, exhausted and reckless, to the foot of the Zirin Pass. There the situation seemed hopeless. The storm was violent; the snow was deep; and the Pass was so narrow that but one person could pass at a time. Still Babar pushed on, and at nightfall reached a cave large enough to admit a few persons. With the generosity which was a marked feature of his character he made his men enter it, whilst, shovel in hand, he dug for himself a hole in the snow, near its mouth. Meanwhile those within the cave had discovered that its proportions increased as they went further in, and that it could give shelter to fifty or sixty persons. On this Babar entered, and shared with his men their scanty store of provisions. Next morning, the snow and tempest ceased, and the army pushed on. At length, towards the end of February, he approached Kabul, only, however, to learn that a revolt had taken place in the city, and that although his garrison was faithful, the situation was critical. Akbar was equal to the occasion. Opening communication with his partisans, by a well-executed surprise he regained the place. His treatment of the rebels was merciful in the extreme.

During the spring of that year, 1507, Shaibani Khan, the Uzbek chief, who had formerly driven Babar from Samarkand, had attacked and taken Balkh; then invaded Khorasan and occupied Herat. Kandahar, which had been to a certain extent a dependency of the rulers of Herat, had been seized by the sons of Mir Zulnun Beg, who had been its Governor under Sultan Husen Mirza, and these had invoked the assistance of Babar against Shaibani. Babar, accordingly, marched for Kandahar. On his way thither, he was joined by many of the flying adherents of the expelled House of Sultan Husen. But, before he could reach Kandahar, Shaibani Khan had put pressure on the sons of Zulnun, and these had accepted his sovereignty. They notified this act to Babar in a manner not to be mistaken. The latter, therefore, prepared to make good his claims by force of arms.

His army was not numerous, but he had confidence in it and in himself. From Kilat-i-Ghilzai, where he first scented the change of front at Kandahar, he had marched to the ford across the Tarnak. Thence, confirmed in his ideas, he moved in order of battle, along the course of the stream, to Baba Wall, five or six miles to the north of Kandahar, and had occupied the hill of Kalishad. Here he intended to rest, and sent out his foragers to collect supplies. But, soon after these had quitted the camp, he beheld the enemy’s army, to the number of five thousand, move from the city towards him. He had but a thousand men under arms, the remainder being engaged in foraging, but he saw it was not a time to hesitate. Ranging his men in defensive order, he awaited the attack. That attack was led in person by the sons of Zulnun with great gallantry; but Akbar not only repulsed it, and forced the assailants to flee, but, in his pursuit, he cut them off from the city, which surrendered to him with all its treasures. The spoils of the place were magnificently rich. Babar did not, however, remain in Kandahar. Leaving his brother, Nasir Mirza, to defend it, he returned to Kabul, and arrived there at the end of July (1507), as he writes, with much plunder and great reputation.’

Hardly had he arrived when he learned that Shaibani Khan had arrived before Kandahar and was besieging his brother there. He was puzzled how to act, for he was not strong enough to meet Shaibani in the field. A strategist by nature, he recognised at the moment that the most effective mode open to him would be to make an offensive demonstration. He doubted only whether such a demonstration should be directed against Badakshan, whence he could threaten Samarkand, or against India. Finally he decided in favour of the latter course, and, as prompt in action as he was quick in decision, he set out for the Indus, marching down the Kabul river. When, however, he had been a few days at Jalalabad, he heard that Kandahar had surrendered to Shaibani. Upon this, the object of the expedition having vanished, he returned to Kabul.

I must pass lightly over the proceedings of the next seven years, eventful though they were. In those years, from 1507 to 1514, Babar marching northwards, recovered Ferghana, defeated the Uzbeks, and took Bokhara and Samarkand. But the Uzbeks, returning, defeated Babar at Kulmalik, and forced him to abandon those two cities. Attempting to recover them, he was defeated again at Ghajdewan and driven back to Hisar.3 Finding, after a time, his chances there desperate, he returned to Kabul. This happened in the early months of 1514.

Again there was an interval of eight years, also to be passed lightly over. During that period Babar chastised the Afghans of the mountains, took Swat, and finally acquired Kandahar by right of treaty (1522). He took possession of, and incorporated in his dominions, that city and its dependencies, including parts of the lowlands lying chiefly along the lower course of the Helmand.

Meanwhile Shah Beg, the eldest son of the Zulnun, who had formerly ruled in Kandahar, had marched upon and had conquered Sind, and had made Bukkur the capital. He died in June, 1524. As soon as this intelligence reached the Governor of Narsapur, Shah Hasan, that nobleman, a devoted adherent of the family of Taimur, proclaimed Babar ruler of the country, and caused the Khatba, or prayer for the sovereign, to be read in his name throughout Sind. There was considerable opposition, but Shah Hasan conquered the whole province, and governed it, acknowledging Mar as his suzerain. At length, in 1525, he was invited to Multan. He marched against the fortress, and, after a protracted siege, took it by storm (August or September, 1526). Meanwhile, great events had happened in India. On the 29th of April, of the same year, the battle of Panipat had delivered India into the hands of Babar. Before proceeding to narrate his invasion of that country it is necessary that I should describe, very briefly, the condition of its actual rulers at the time.


  1. Memoirs of Babar, translated by Leyden and Erskine, pp. 203–208.

  2. There are two other Hisars famous in Eastern history: the one in India about a hundred miles north of Delhi: the other in the province of Azarbijan, in Persia, thirty-two miles from the Takht-i-Sulaiman. The Hisar referred to in the text is a city on an affluent of the Oxus, a hundred and thirty miles north-east of Balkh.

Categories: CIVIL