5 Battles That Changed Indian History Forever
India’s history is characterized by a long list of battles as native and foreign powers sought to conquer and gain access to the wealth of the subcontinent. Here, I have decided to shed some light on the five battles that changed Indian history forever, focusing on more recent battles. They are as follows:
The Battle of Panipat took place took place at a town northwest of Delhi in 1526 and lead to the establishment of the Mughal Empire. Panipat was directly on the invasion path to Delhi.
The founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur, is a remarkable figure because of the adventures of his youth, which he spent wandering around Central Asia, winning and losing kingdoms. He documented his life in a lifelong journal, giving us rare insights into a ruler’s inner thoughts. Babur became ruler of Kabul in 1504. In 1526, much of north India was ruled by Ibrahim Lodi of the Delhi Sultanate. Many of Lodi’s nobles were dissatisfied with him and invited Babur to rule over them instead. Babur knew a deal when he saw one. Writing in his journal, he noted “the one nice aspect of Hindustan is that it is a large country with lots of gold and money.”
Babur promptly invaded. His force of about 15,000 men was outnumbered by 30,000-40,000 soldiers under Lodi. However, unlike Lodi, Babur had a secret weapon—24 pieces of artillery—and put his men behind carts during the battle, allowing him to kill Lodi and most of Lodi’s forces. Thus was the Mughal Empire, South Asia’s dominant player for the next three hundred years, established.
The same Delhi Sultanate that Babur defeated was itself a failing empire prone to breakaway states and bad relations with Hindus. In the 14th century, the sultanate’s attempted expansion into south India quickly faltered, but not before it lead to the rise of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire and the breakaway Bahmani Sultanate, which later splintered into five warring Deccan sultanates.
Vijayanagara was the largest, most well-organized, and most militaristic Hindu state in southern India yet, formed in direct response to Islamic incursions deep into India. Its existence preserved the political independence of south India for two hundred years. Yet its strength threatened its northern neighbors, the Deccan sultanates and made a reconquista seem likely. The normally feuding Deccan sultanates thus went to war against Vijayanagara. Although it seemed like Vijayanagara had a decisive advantage in numbers, it suffered a humiliating defeat on January 26, 1565 at Talikota near its capital (also called Vijayanagara) due to the death of the main Vijayanagaran general in the course of the battle.
The net result of the battle was that it weakened southern India and allowed it to be progressively integrated into Mughal Empire. South India’s distinct political and cultural autonomy ended and Islamic states became politically dominant across most of South Asia.
The Battle of Karnal fatally weakened the all-powerful Mughal Empire. Both the Mughal Empire and the neighboring Safavid Empire of Persia went into decline at the start of the 18th century for different reasons: constant Hindu Maratha raids and civil war in the Mughal Empire and an Afghan rebellion for the Safavids. Out of this chaos arose a warlord turned emperor, Nader Shah.
Nader Shah stabilized Persia and ended the chaos that had enveloped that state for two decades. However, his dynasty was new, and needed legitimacy and wealth. In the meantime, the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah was incompetent. Using a minor pretext, Nader Shah invaded the Mughal Empire in 1738, seized its western territories (Kabul, Peshawar, Lahore, etc.) and met Mughal forces at Karnal near Delhi on February 24, 1739. Both sides had guns and artillery, but the Mughal force was bigger. The larger Indian force suffered from disorganization, while the smaller invading force used tactics more effectively to win the battle.
Nader Shah allowed Muhammad Shah to retain his throne and most of his empire so long as he paid a heavy sum—including most Mughal crown jewels—and ceded the lands west of the Indus river. The Mughal Empire disintegrated gradually after this, with many regions breaking off under all-but-independent governors, and only acknowledging the emperor in name, and the emperors themselves became puppets of the Marathas and then the British.