Zoya Ansari takes a look at the most formidable pillar of the Mughal rule
In its heyday the Mughal army was a formidable force not seen by the subcontinent before. The Mughal army kept up-to-date the essential advantage it had when the Mughals conquered India and till the end of the influence of the empire it retained its superiority and was awe-inspiring. Three factors, mounted archery, artillery, and the alliance with the Rajputs – made the Mughals prevail in the second half of the sixteenth century. None of these was entirely new for the Mughal dynasty in India. Mounted archery and artillery had been brought to the subcontinent by Babur. Despite its obvious advantage of artillery, the key to Mughal military success on the battlefield was to be found in the use of cavalry, more specifically the mounted archers, who were recruited from the same geographical regions as the nobility but in much larger numbers. It should also be taken into consideration that the Mughals controlled the regular supply of superior Turki warhorses from the steppe lands and that this was an advantage they held over all Indian rulers.
The central importance of mounted archery in Mughal warfare was in evidence from the beginning as after Humayun’s return to India from exile in Persia his first victory of over Afghans was entirely gained by mounted archers. The mounted archers remained the main asset of the Mughal military expanding in total numbers from about 12,000 in the mid-sixteenth century to 100,000 and more in the late seventeenth. Most of these came from Iran and Central Asia and often, though not necessarily, had a nomadic background. The Mughals preferred to recruit their cavalry in these regions outside the subcontinent because they produced the best-trained military men, mounted on the best warhorses, and, moreover, the recruits from these regions could be expected to remain relatively detached from Indian society as they had no roots in the soil.
Interestingly, the Mughals were not in favour of carrying forward the policy of using military slaves as the rulers of Delhi Sultanate did. They did however maintained a category of mounted archers particularly in the personal control of the emperor though they were technically not his salves. The Mughals recruited them in the way mercenaries are normally recruited as that is to say as bands already formed, led by their own commanders who had put them together, often from their own homelands and they were paid in cash while the commanders themselves were known as Mansabdars in Mughal hierarchical order that was interpreted as the nobility of the Mughal monarchical system.
This order remained dominant throughout the existence and the entire Mughal army was under the command of a few hundred of such high-ranking Mansabdars. With the passage of time they put their roots in the subcontinent though they were not allowed to retain the landholdings given to them by the emperor who reserved the right to dislocate them from their positions arbitrarily. They and their retinue were rotated throughout the empire often given non-contiguous revenue yielding assignments having no official authority there. This system kept them under the obligation of the ruler and they were bound to keep their loyalty to him intact.
The most innovative of Akbar’s policies was that of allying himself with the major Rajput princes. The alliance with these princes was perhaps Akbar’s most important political achievement but it did not come about without the prior application of force. Akbar’s conquest of the pre-eminent Rajput dynasty’s legendary stronghold of Chitor in 1567 was especially bloody and brutal. Many of the other Rajputs were sufficiently intimidated by it to enter Akbar’s service voluntarily and start paying him tribute in exchange for administrative autonomy within their clannish realms. It was perhaps more through the political agency than the sheer military might of the infidel Rajput princes that Akbar increased his dominion in the greater part of Hindustan.
Akbar thereby added a crucial segment to the military composition by patronising the Hindu warrior caste of Rajputs and this prove highly beneficial as their fighting method was gradually transformed by Akbar so that it conformed to the new style of cavalry warfare adopted by the Mughals. This took some time because it required a profound transformation of earlier Rajput military practices and the entire ethos that went with it. Akbar immediately set out to change the traditional pattern of Rajput warfare when he co-opted the leading Rajput warlords in his imperial service. Like the foreign Muslim commanders, the Rajput warlords then began to employ their own kinsmen as well as non-kin retainers and, with better horses, organised them into cavalry units that, already under Akbar, played a secondary but important role in Mughal warfare.
The Mughal cavalry under Akbar, however, itself represented the culmination of a revolution in warfare which had begun, centuries earlier, under his Indo-Muslim predecessors and which had been responsible for increasingly driving out Indian peasant armies, the disorderly infantries of hundreds of thousands, as well as the related, logistically complex elephant warfare of medieval times throughout the subcontinent. Mughals downplayed heavy reliance on cumbersome elephant warfare and mostly employed the large animals to strengthen their logistics. The reliance on cavalry was understandable because the Mughal cavalry maneuvered with great ease, even though it was clad in iron armour and discharged its arrows with astonishing speed. Mughal horsemen could shoot arrows six times in the time it took musketeers to fire twice.
The Mughal cavalry always preserved excellent order and kept together in a compact body, especially when charging the enemy. Among the soldiers of the adversaries the fear of the Mughal cavalry was such that forty thousand of them would not stand against two thousand horsemen. Moreover, the northern areas of the subcontinent had experienced warfare since centuries and they were known to possess a military ethos with the inhabitants greatly valuing military profession. The Mughals co-opted these peasant soldiers and slowly these contingents became a reliable part of Mughal infantry.
In addition to their access to warhorses the Mughals proved to be formidable opponents owing to their gunpowder weapons though they were relatively new in the subcontinent. The skills and technology of gunpowder weapons were essentially passed on to the Mughals by the Ottoman-Turkish rulers of Rum i.e. Constantinople as well as by the Europeans. Akbar himself was trained in artillery shooting by a Rumi Turk and these experts remained much in demand for their brilliant pyrotechnic skills throughout the sixteenth century and the early decades of the seventeenth. The groups of such gunners proved to be major factor in Akbar’s military reforms. At first the artillery was still virtually immobile and mostly used in defence. Spurred on by opponents like Sher Shah, as well as the latter’s descendants, the Mughals appear to have lost no time in building up their artillery park. In Akbar’s time, these field guns were typically grouped together in front of the camp, opposite the entrance of the royal quarters, and in the broadest part of the open ground. They were never out of the emperor’s sight not even when he was searching for hunting grounds off the main road, or traveling along difficult passes or crossing bridges of boats. The Weekender