The Moghul Empire

by George Gush

Although somewhat beyond the general geographic limits I have taken, the armies of the Moghul Emperors of India I think qualify for inclusion, belonging as they do to the Islamic world, and in many respects following the pattern of those of Persia or Turkey, though with many distinctive features of their own.
    The beginning of the Moghul Empire was in the 1520s, when one of the Mongol conqueror Tamerlaine's descendants, Babur (ruler of a part of the latter's old empire), invaded India, and after winning victories over Afghans, Rajputs and others, set up the Empire at Delhi. The large paid army we are here concerned with, however, was more the creation of a successor, Akbar, in the second half of the 16th Century.
    Babur's army was very largely of cavalry, of the Persian-Mongol type; this remained true of later Moghul armies, and Persians were often to be found serving in them, usually as officers (they claimed to be much better horsemen than Indians - but then, they claimed to be much better riders than anybody).
    However, there was soon also an infantry component, partially equipped with firearms, which at the battle of Panipat (1525) occupied a sort of wagon-laager in the usual Eastern style: 700 ox-carts, some possibly equipped with guns, were connected with bull-hide ropes and portable breastworks. Two years later, at Khanua, wagons and guns seem to have actually advanced against the enemy, under the direction of Babur's Turkish gunner, Mustafa Rumi (Rumi = Turk).
    In Akbar's day, the paid infantry and cavalry may have been roughly equal in number, at 12,000 each, but by the middle of the 17th Century the cavalry, very much the chief striking arm, outnumbered the 15,000 paid infantry and artillery by two or three to one.

The cavalry

    From Akbar's time, the bulk of the paid cavalry were provided by 'Omrahs' or 'Mansabdars', nobles or adventurers whose position was similar to that of colonels in 16th Century Europe, in that they were paid to raise and maintain a band of men; and that they used part of the money to pay their followers and kept the rest themselves - the resemblance was complete down even to 'dead pays' which were even commoner in India than in Europe.
    There were in addition troopers - 'Ahadi', 'Silhidars' - who served individually and were paid directly by the Emperor. They owned their own horses and equipment (this seems to be the significance of the term 'Silhidar') and may have formed a sort of bodyguard or Elite force.
    Some Hindu Rajahs were also paid a retainer to keep their forces at the disposal of the Emperor, and these would also include large numbers of cavalry.
    The weapons of the cavalry were, firstly, the light lance, in India made of bamboo and eight to 15 feet long. It was used over-arm as a thrusting spear rather than couched under the arm like a true lance. Secondly, the composite bow, similar to that of the Persians or Tartars, and as usual these were supplemented by a variety of other weapons. Indians used maces with bladed, globular or three-ball heads; axes, including double-bladed and crows-beak patterns; swords - in this period apparently often long and straight; and daggers of many types, mostly curved, but including the unique 'katar' or fist-dagger with its 'H'-shaped hilt. By the mid-17th Century there were even some firearms in use.
    The paid semi-regular cavalry would appear all to have been armoured, basically in Persian style with mail and char-aina, usually covered by a richly-decorated short-sleeved coat. Very baggy trousers and shawls wrapped around the waist protected the lower part of the body, though Indians often wore rather tasset-like and distinctive leg-armour. Helmets were mostly of Mongol type, differing from the later Persian styles, firstly by their frequent lack of a nasal, secondly by the single plume springing from the point of the helmet (some had a spike with a small pennon). The 'coat of a thousand eyes', a sort of studded brigantine, could also be worn, and lighter irregular cavalry were often protected by padded cotton jackets and voluminous turbans, some of their folds swathed under the chin.
    Most cavalry carried shields, either of steel, or of buffalo or rhinoceros hide with a metal boss; round and up to 24 inches in diameter, they were similar to Persian or Turkish examples.
    Horses were sometimes protected in the Persian style (or in some cases by numerous cows' tails hung all round) but often had only very richly-decorated harness. They were sometimes trained to advance on their hind legs - a tactic particularly used against elephants, for some reason.
    In battle, cavalry tactics were loose and irregular. Like most Easterners the Moghul horse were highly-skilled with their weapons but not trained, like Europeans, to act together in formation. Omrahs' and Mansabdars' bands would keep together, and there were officers referred to as chiefs of 500, 1,000, and up to 7,000 who might head larger bodies; large masses in fairly deep 'column of mob' seem to have been usual.

The infantry

    Those in the pay of the Emperor in the 16th Century were probably about two-thirds archers, one-third firearm men. As time passed, the proportion of the latter grew, but there were many men with composite bows until long after our period. In the second half of the 16th Century there were two sizes of matchlock firearm, corresponding to the European musket and caliver. The former were described in the mid-17th Century as small but well-finished; they were often inlaid and otherwise decorated, and were kept in scarlet or green cloth covers when not in use. They had wooden forks or rests, which seem to have been hinged to the gun itself, and were perhaps rather short, as Indian musketeers sometimes sat or squatted to fire.
    The infantry were far inferior in status and morale to the cavalry, and spent much of their time on the more menial duties of sentry-go and baggage-guard. In battle, like the cavalry, they kept no order, and either skirmished or were found defending laagers or field-fortifications.
    The firearm men did not use the European bandolier, but wore waist-belts, often decorated, from which hung match, flint and steel, bullet pouches, powder flask and priming-horn.
In addition to the firearms mentioned, there were also heavier 'jezails' like the wall-pieces used in Europe; they were indeed often so mounted in fortresses, but were also taken into the field on camel mountings. In the mid-17th Century the army included 300 camels so equipped.
    Apart from the paid infantry and cavalry mentioned, Moghul armies normally contained vast hordes of local levies and militia, hired tribesmen, followers of local Rajahs and so forth. These would provide, chiefly, light cavalry and infantry, the latter being armed with bamboo spears, sword and shield, sling or bow. (Some tribesmen still used bamboo longbows as in Alexander's day.)
    Such troops largely served to satisfy the Indian passion for numbers, and were normally useless, or even harmful, to their own side, both in battle and on the march, when, together with the invariable vast crowds of camp-followers and massive paraphernalia of the Emperor's camp and elephant-borne harem, they helped to slow down the army to the crawling pace which so irritated contemporary European observers like Sir Thomas Roe.


    The guns in use in the 16th Century were ponderous pieces, drawn by oxen - some required a team of 120 - and assisted over difficult going by elephants trained to push from the rear with their leather-padded foreheads. They seem to have been rigidly mounted on solid-wheeled carriages even into the 17th Century. The size of some siege guns was very great - in the 1630s, Shah Jehan had a pair of 17 foot 90 pounders known as 'Blessed Victory' and 'World Conqueror'; the weight of such weapons was probably the final factor in replacing Mongol mobility by Indian slowness.
    By the mid-17th Century, however, a lighter and more mobile artillery force had been added to the heavy pieces, then 70 in number. This was the 'Artillery of the Stirrup' (so-called because in constant attendance upon the Emperor's person), and consisted of 50 or 60 small bronze field pieces, drawn, not by oxen, but by a pair of horses to each gun, and 'each well mounted on a painted carriage' with two ammunition chests, one before and one behind. They were ornamented with red streamers, and, to judge by later examples, one likely type of painted decoration would be a pattern of red hands.
    The artillery, though important in sieges, played a secondary part in battle, and were usually placed in front of the army centre, where they could only fire before the main forces joined battle. Like the Turks, the Moghuls often chained their guns together or used natural cover or field defences to protect them from light cavalry, and they also used the Turkish trick of lining up the guns behind a first fine of skirmishers, so as to provide a sort of ambush for enemy cavalry breaking through.
    An interesting addition to the Moghul artillery was the rocket corps or 'Banandaz'. Rockets seem to have been already in use in India in the mid-16th Century. Consisting of an iron tube up to three inches diameter and about a foot long, tied with rawhide to a six to 12 foot bamboo, the rocket could carry an explosive head or sword blade up to 1,000 yards. While highly erratic and unreliable, rockets could be effective against large bodies of troops, especially cavalry, or for setting fire to buildings, and were much easier to transport than artillery. A camel-mounted rocketman, for instance, could carry ten, and although there may have been some launching-tripods, similar to those used in later British service, the standard method of launching required no apparatus at all, being simply to fight the fuse and then throw the rocket in the right direction! Rocket sticks were often decorated with a small pennant while being carried.


    Another step in the Indianisation of the invading armies, elephants were not present in Babur's army but were used by his successors, their number probably at a peak in the late 16th Century. Jahangir, in the early 17th Century, used at least 300 elephants, but their numbers seem to have declined later, perhaps because of the intelligent elephant's detestation of loud bangs. Moghul war-elephants were trained with fireworks to accustom them to the sound of firearms, and some paintings show musketeers actually firing from elephant-howdahs, but artillery was another matter - in the early 18th Century Nizam ul Mulk lined up 225 elephants in front of his guns, as a test - after one volley (presumably of blank) most of them ran for miles, trampling 306 unfortunate infantrymen in the rush. Elephant crews were sometimes mail-clad, and could be armed with lances, bows, swords and shields, as well as firearms. A war-elephant carried a box or turret-shaped howdah with three men in it; those of Jahangir had yellow banners at each corner, and at the front a 'sling . . . that carried a bullett as bigg as a great tennis ball' - presumably a catapult of some sort. The elephant itself could also be armed, wielding, according to some accounts, a sword or ball-and-chain in its trunk. This rather falls into the 'I don't know what effect they have on the enemy but, by God, they frighten me!' category of weapon, enhancing the already considerable danger to its own side presented by a panicking elephant.
    It was de rigeur for army commanders in India to be mounted on elephants; while largely for prestige reasons, this also made the general visible to his troops, made a good vantage-point for signalling, and tended to raise the great man above the vulgar brawl going on below. Unfortunately, the commander was also a very good target for the enemy, and for this reason was some-times provided with a seat with armoured sides three feet high and a scarlet canopy - a sort of 'armoured command vehicle'.
    Battles were often settled by making a dead set at the opposing commander's elephant. One precaution against this was to provide a number of elephant-mounted 'Monty's doubles', but this rather tended to defeat the original purpose of the exercise!
    Elephants could also be provided with laminated steel armour of their own as shown, and might be provided with a metal head-plate to protect them from spikes when pushing down fortress doors, which also formed a frequent part of their duties.

Flags and costume

    The Emperors had various personal or palace guards, and these seem to have included 'Surkh-posh' - 'wearers of red', presumably uniformed, from a fairly early date. Otherwise there was no uniformity. Infantry wore their normal dress, usually a loose tunic and baggy trousers; white would probably be usual, though contemporary paintings show a wide range of colours. The paid infantry may have worn red turbans - these were supposed to be worn by all in the emperor's employ, and were a common 'uniform' of Indian foot-soldiers in the early 16th Century, before the Moghul invasion.
    The cavalry were more elaborately clad, and were very colourful, surcoats and horse-bardings being often of cloth with flow6r patterns, or gold-embroidered. The bands of 'Omrahs' or 'Mansabdars' were usually drawn from a particular racial or religious group - Afghans, Rajputs, Moghuls and so on - and would perhaps be distinguished to some extent by ethnic styles of dress.
    The Moghuls retained the traditional horsetail standards shown, and the army standard was a 'Tuman-tug' of three horse or yak tails hanging from a crossbar on a pole. Like many Hindu rulers, the Emperor had a State Umbrella and such things, at least in the early part of our period, could be carried in war as a sort of standard.
    'Mansabdars' could be awarded distinctions from the standards normally carried before the Emperor, and it seems likely that these could serve as unit standards - a 'leader of a thousand' or above could receive an 'Alam', a triangular flag of red or green with a gold image (such as a lion, or a face with rays), and a gold fringe.
    Large iron or copper kettledrums were also awarded to high officers, and, like the ten foot trumpets often carried, could probably serve for signalling purposes.


Moghul cavalry and firearm infantry (The British Library).

Moghul elephants, heavy cavalry, firearm infantry and camel-mounted band (on right) (The British Museum).

Moghuls. Shows heavy cavalry, elephants (note armour, including upstanding 'ears' to protect driver) (The British Library).

Elephant armour - later than the period covered in this book, but probably similar to some earlier ones (Department of the Environment).

Indian camel gun, probably 18th Century, but earlier ones would be similar (Tower of London).

Indian reinforced mail, 17th Century. (In this case even the helmet is of small plates joined by mail.)

a Indian musketeer of early 17th Century. Red and white turban, green coat, brown trousers, black slippers, checked sash at waist with knot and long ends at front, with match and pouch, also dagger. This particular man has a sort of blanket roll over his shoulder (white). b A noble moghul cavalryman in gold helmet with black plume, gilt armour on chest and arms, silver aventail of mail, grey tassets with gilt knee-pieces. Green jacket with black and gold decorations and white fringes, blue breeches with gold spots, red leggings with gold trim, and black boots. Black and white waist sash through gilt decorations, red sword suspension, black scabbard, gilt trim.
c Moghul heavy cavalryman on barded horse covered with gaily patterned cloth. Small red pennon on helmet. In general almost exactly similar to Persian cavalry.
d Moghul light horseman. Similarly dressed and armed to heavy, with exception of turban and lack of armour. Very puffed-out breeches could also be worn by armoured cavalryman. e Heavy siege gun on typical mounting. f the gunner holds a type of port-fire, and shelters behind a small bamboo screen which seems to have been standard equipment for Indian gunners. (As it certainly would not stop bullets - or fragments of the gun - it is hard to see its purpose.) He has a 'katar' or fist-dagger in his waist-sash.

g Two standards, both with gilt and red tops. The right has a black and white horsetail and a red cover (or possibly flag) with gold trim round the staff; the left a white horsetail and a black staff.

Renaissance Warfare by George Gush

Moghul Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers