The pathetic state of how history is taught in India is apparent when we notice the absence of gunpowder in the modern Indian’s knowledge about the country’s history. This is a lamentable state of affairs that has endured for a long time, and considering the state of historical awareness among the population is likely to last for quite some time more.
Contrary to popular idea that it was Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire, who introduced gunpowder to India, gunpowder and gunpowder weaponry were known to Indians long before. As early as the 13th century Amir Khusrau describes the usage of rockets by the Delhi Sultanate.
Similar devices are described as having been common among Rajputs, such as those at Ranthambore whose siege was described by contemporary Muslim commentators in detail. By the late 14th century, the Bahmani Sultanate and the Vijayanagara Empire were maintaining rockets and hand-cannon squadrons in their respective militaries.
By the 15th century, the Gajapati Empire of Cuttack under Emperor Kapilendradeva Routray was producing new explosive compounds and fuses of its own – which allowed it to gain ascendancy over all of eastern and central India. These advancements are clearly outlined in texts such as the ‘Kautuka Chinatamani’, which describes different types of timed fuses, mines and even rudimentary grenades to be used by the Gajapati forces. We find the first mention of cannon usage aboard Indian ships during this time, when the Hindu naval powers of the Konkan and Malabar faced off against the navies of Sultan Mahmud Begarha.
While several areas in the sub-continent remained ignorant of specific inventions, it is clear that most of the major powers in the region were well aware of the potential and usage of gunpowder.
So, why is it commonly claimed that Babur introduced gunpowder to India?
The simple answer is: pure ignorance.
It can be, however, argued that there might be a more subtle truth lying underneath the ignorance. Babur was arguably the first to introduce a cohesive gunpowder doctrine to India. While earlier Indian states such as the Gajapati Empire and the Gujarat Sultanate appear to have had similar ideas, Babur’s interpretation of the Saffavid gunpowder doctrine arguably ranks among the most significant medieval military innovations of India. By using light artillery intermixed with infantry, Babur pre-empted the 17th century Swedish military reforms by almost 200 years.
The corresponding increase in logistical efficiency and battlefield flexibility was enough for Babur to overthrow a tottering and tiny Delhi Sultanate that barely controlled anything larger than modern Haryana. But here we must mark that Babur’s victories, either against the Lodhis or Rana Sanga or the feudal lords of northern India, were primarily due to diplomacy and cunning rather than military skill. For example, against Rana Sanga, Babur won primarily owing to the religious conversion and treachery of over a sixth of Rana Sanga’s forces.
Interestingly, the gunpowder doctrine of the Mughal Empire had almost nothing to do with Babur.
Over the next 50 years the Babur doctrine was forgotten, mostly replaced by the one laid down by Sultan Islam Shah – Sher Shah’s successor. Light artillery gave way to heavy mortars and massed fire.
Under Akbar, we observe a remarkable flourish in gun development. Abu’l Fazl describes the development of a device which resembles a Wheellock musket – a musket that could be fired without the use of matches to light the gunpowder, something that Europeans won’t create till at least the next 50 years. The ‘Ain-i-Top’ also describes the creation of a collapsible cannon for easy transportation and an organ gun. Light cannons had become common even among the usually orthodox cavalry.
The effects were significant. Within a mere 30 years under Akbar, the Mughal Empire exploded in size taking State after State that had once held out against invaders for centuries. Odisha which had defied Islamic incursions for over 500 years was overrun by Mughals in the late 16th century. The Maratha and southern kingdoms which had successfully repulsed Sultanate invasions fell apart. Even the entrenched states of central India were brought down.
It was at this point that Abu’l Fazl would claim that among all the States of the world, no power except the Ottoman Empire could hope to match the Mughal Empire in terms of gunpowder warfare.
Akbar’s gunpowder doctrine was significantly different from his grandfather’s. His Mughal Army depended heavily on heavy bombardment of enemy positions followed by heavy cavalry advances under a rolling barrage with musketeers only used to break up key points of defence. As military tactical doctrine, it was efficient – primarily due to the vast numbers the Mughals could bring to bear upon the battlefield – until the rise of Maratha light cavalry tactics in the late 17th century.
As it turned out, military tactics were the least of the concerns of the Mughals.
Guns, as has been noted earlier, were significant in centralizing authority. However, they also serve as a great equalizer of power. Akbar’s great innovation in military strategy was to standardize feudalism – allocating military rights and salaries to powerful warlords to both reduce costs and control dissent. The expansion of the Mughal Empire promoted unrest and anger among the people, which was held in check by such measures.
This was important, since the Mughals, at no point of time had an administration which could equal the efficiency of contemporary European powers or even that of the Arya states of nearly a millennium ago.
In pursuit of stability and reduced costs of operations, Akbar also committed the mistake of restricting military authority. The Indian tradition of rocketry was continued but development was almost stalled. The training and hiring of musketeers were frozen. Between 1530s and 1540s, the official musketeer strength in India grew from a mere 1500 odd to over 30,000. By the 1590s – the zenith of Akbar’s power – the number had only grown to 40,000. As a result, Mughal power depended heavily on public content, especially among the Hindu populations.
By the time of Shah Jehan, the Mughal Empire had dispensed with such minor things such as ‘not persecuting Hindus’ and ‘not restricting costs’.
Absurd taxes, the destruction of temples, and imperial waste became the norm during Shah Jahan. The justice system collapsed. North India almost became a wasteland, controlled by local feudal powers. While places such as the Jat territories or the principality of Lucknow remained somewhat safe, vast areas were devastated by wars sparked off by Rohilla Afghans or the rebellious nawabs.
While Hindu lords and government employees were mostly left untouched, Hindu peasant rebellions became the norm. While earlier rebellions were easily put down by Mughals’ firepower – such as Yusuf Mirak’s description of a mere 80 Mughal dragoons defeating over 800 infantry and 200 cavalry – the modern rebellions were different. Gunpowder usage had spread everywhere in India. According to Abu’l Fazl, a musket cost four times less than even the cheapest horse, and unlike archers, a musketeer needed little training to become an expert.
As a result, it wasn’t uncommon to find hundreds, even thousands, of muskets in peasant hands. Even though Aurangzeb expanded the military exponentially and wiped out entire cities, revolts and battles rapidly bled his Empire into nothingness.
The ‘Akhbarata-i-darbar-i-mu’alla’ describes the confiscation of nearly 200 muskets from a single Haryana village. The Faujdar of Cuttack, Mir Abul Hasan, had so many troops killed by local Oriya musketeers that he declared the possession of guns itself to be illegal. He also threatened Oriya fighters with death and selling of their wives and daughters to brothels if they did not comply. By the early 18th century, the Jats – long suffering under Aurangzeb’s anti-Hindu policies – were so well-armed that they were effectively independent.
The familiarity of the peasantry with guns can be easily marked from this observation by the traveller and diarist Manucci:
“…These villagers hide in the thorny shrubs or retire behind the slight walls of their villages… When the husband has shot the musket, the wife handed him the lance while she reloaded the musket. This did they defend themselves…”
The Mughal system of persecuting Hindus, freezing military development and restricting economic reform slowly began to dismantle its military efficiency. By the time of Aurangzeb, few of the higher military jagirdars were Hindus. Hindu government officials were persecuted and driven out of service. Hindu administrators such as Raja Todar Mal – who laid down the maintenance rules for guns – or Raja Birbal were never to be seen again in Mughal courts. And since administration, finance and military development depended so heavily on Hindus, these sections of the governance came to a grinding halt as well.
As late as the 18th century, Indian states were using the same brass cannons that Europe had phased out over a century earlier. The military innovations once so ubiquitous had vanished. India as a nation was tired, battered and tottering.
It was this point that the Marathas rose to prominence. And the Mughal Empire fell.