Wednesday 3 February 2021

Three times when the Mughal military juggernaut ran up against the immutable force of nature

 There were two seasons the armies of the Mughal empire often dreaded: winter and monsoon.

Winters can last for years in George RR Martin’s novels A Song of Fire and Ice and the HBO blockbuster series Game of Thrones. They bring long nights, bitter cold and endless snow to the kingdom of Westeros. Winters also resurrect violent nonhuman creatures called the Others in the novels and White Walkers in the TV series. These creatures lead armies of the undead known as wights. It is the fear of the advent of such a troubling winter that is immortalised in the pronouncement “winter is coming” – now a part of pop culture.

There were no White Walkers or wights in the Mughal Empire. But winter could still strike similar fear in the hearts of the empire’s armies. Moreover, while the people of Westeros had to fear only winter, Mughal armies often dreaded a second season: monsoon. This fear of environmental forces was so fierce that at times it slowed down the military juggernaut of the empire and even jeopardised territorial expansion. In this essay, we will encounter three stories of Mughal soldiers, commanders and even a prince who refused to serve, all for fear of the environment.

Image for representation only. | Victoria and Albert Museum/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Refusals were not common in imperial ranks. The emperor was the fount of authority in the Mughal political world, and loyalty and willingness to serve were celebrated as the highest virtues. To oppose the emperor was to oppose divine will itself. Even on a more earthly level, the emperor was the supreme arbiter of all promotions and punishments. Refusing to comply with his wishes could be seen as serious insult and attract severe penalties. This is why these three refusals are particularly striking.

Prince Murad Bakhsh in Balkh

The year was 1646. The fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan dispatched a huge army under his son Prince Murad Bakhsh to conquer the Uzbek-ruled city of Balkh in what is today Afghanistan. This was supposed to be the first step in the Mughal reconquest of their ancestral lands in Central Asia, which the Uzbeks had captured from the Mughals in the days of Babur. As the army approached, the Uzbek ruler of Balkh fled the city. Prince Murad occupied the place without much difficulty.

But soon after, he started growing uneasy. He did not want to stay on in Balkh. He wrote to his father requesting a transfer of post. Shah Jahan was busy celebrating the victory in Balkh when his son’s request arrived. Annoyed, he denied the appeal and instructed Murad to remain at his station. Although Balkh had been occupied, Mughal authority over the area was yet to be established. Murad refused to obey the order. Leaving his subordinate commanders in charge, he set off on a return journey. In retaliation, Shah Jahan cancelled his son’s mansab (rank) and jagir (land assignment). But he could not reverse the prince’s refusal to serve in Balkh.

What accounts for this behaviour of the prince? Contemporary sources are unanimous: the fear of the onset of the harsh and snowy Central Asian winter. The roads in the region were often narrow and the terrain rugged. Winter snow would block the roads for several months every year, which created major logistical problems for Mughal armies. They would often get stranded for days during campaigns when excessive snowfall would make roads impassable. Workmen would have to go ahead of the main army, shovelling snow and levelling the ground. The region was also extremely arid, making it difficult for large armies to feed themselves off the land. As a result, they had to carry much of their provisions with them. This, however, slowed them down and limited their ambit of operations. Gathering enough grass and fodder for the large number of horses of the cavalry also proved to be challenging.

By the time the Mughal troops under Murad Bakhsh reached Balkh and occupied the city, they were already greatly aggravated by the environmental conditions. With the freezing winter round the corner, they were also extremely anxious about what lay ahead. The roads would get blocked once the snow started by October, making their return to Hindustan impossible until spring. This was the context of Murad Bakhsh’s petition to his father. In fact, contemporary chroniclers indicate that the prince’s reluctance to weather a winter in Balkh was shared widely by the rank and file of his army. Shah Jahan’s denial of Murad Bakhsh’s request for a transfer must have come as a shock to the prince. Much more than upcoming military challenges, it was ultimately the fear of enduring the Central Asian winter that prompted his refusal to serve in Balkh.

Mughal campaign in Kashmir

This is similar to what had happened in Kashmir some years before. The Srinagar Valley had just fallen to the empire in 1586. Yet, Muhammad Qasim Khan, the commander of the victorious army, found himself in a fix. In occupying Kashmir, he had defeated its erstwhile rulers – the Chak dynasty. But the supporters of the previous regime refused to bow down to the conquerors and put up a stiff resistance. With challenges to Mughal authority mounting, there was no respite for the imperial army stationed in Srinagar. Yet, much to the chagrin of Qasim Khan, the troops under his command simply refused to venture out of the city to engage the insurgents in battle. Left with no option, Qasim Khan had to ride out himself to face the enemies.

Once again, historical sources point to environmental challenges as the main factor behind the refusal of the Mughal troops to fight. The initial experience of Mughal armies in Kashmir had been marked by struggles to cope with freezing winters, rugged terrain and arid conditions. Akbar’s biographer Abul Fazl writes that imperial troops were “exceedingly harassed by the severe cold, the dearness of provisions, the difficult roads and the rain and snow”. The mountainous terrain proved particularly challenging round the year. In 1594, for instance, around 115 porters lost their lives in an avalanche and landslide near the Pir Panjal Pass. Supply was another issue. Cultivation was limited in Kashmir, making it difficult for large Mughal armies to sustain themselves by feeding off the land.

The Kashmiri aristocracy often exploited these environmental conditions to resist the invaders – they would, for instance, attack imperial forces in difficult and narrow mountain passes. This made life extremely difficult for the Mughal soldiers. Most of them were used to warmer conditions and level ground. Noting this problem, Abul Fazl writes sarcastically: “Apparently these delicate men of hot countries were averse to campaigning in a cold country and did not like to traverse defiles.” It is in this context that we have to understand the refusal of Qasim Khan’s soldiers to venture out of Srinagar and face the Kashmiri resistance.

Mughal advance in Assam

As mentioned earlier, monsoon was another season that could jeopardise Mughal campaigns. This was, in fact, a regular affair in the eastern reaches of the empire. This is what our final story is about.

In 1662, an army under emperor Aurangzeb’s trusted general Mir Jumla invaded the Brahmaputra Valley. It ran over Assam rather swiftly without much resistance. After some initial engagements, the Ahoms withdrew to the hills and forests, leaving most of Assam to Mir Jumla’s forces. By early 1663, the operation culminated in a treaty between the Mughals and the Ahoms. 

Murad Bakhsh. Credit: Columbia University/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Towards the end of the campaign, Aurangzeb sent a farman (royal decree) to appoint two officers from the Assam campaign to the positions of subadar (governor) of Assam and faujdar (military commander) of Kamrup respectively. The emperor’s emissaries travelled all the way from North India to Assam, where they presented the farmans to an assembly of Mughal officers. To the shock of everyone present, both the commanders promptly refused to accept their new appointments. No amount of persuasion could change their mind.

Here too, the decisions of these commanders can be traced to the troubles the army had faced in negotiating Assam’s environment. 

Soon after the Mughal army occupied the region, heavy monsoon rain had caused widespread floods. This threw the invading army into utter disarray. Describing the horrors of the monsoon, one chronicler, Khafi Khan, writes: “… [A]rmies of clouds, moving like elephants, appeared from the side of every mountain; arrows of raindrops caused the nalas and the rivers to swell; and the latter, putting on helmets of waves over their heads, raised noise and tumult in all directions.”

The Ahoms took advantage of this situation. They came out of their refuge, mounted their boats, and attacked the invaders. Mughal soldiers, in contrast, had become marooned at different stations because of the floods. Unable to come to each other’s aid, they became easy targets for the Ahoms. The Ahoms exploited this situation, repeatedly leading devastating attacks, especially at night. Mughal troops found themselves helpless.

To make matters worse, the rain and the flood snapped Mughal communications with their base in Bengal. This resulted in a breakdown of the supply line and created widespread shortage of food grains. Various epidemics broke out in the Mughal camp, leading to heavy casualties. Ultimately, the imperial army barely managed to strike a settlement with the Ahom kingdom and rush out of Assam. It was this traumatic experience of the campaign that prompted the two Mughal commanders to refuse their new appointments. Accepting the appointments would have meant serving in Assam and reliving the horrors they had just experienced.

Vagaries of nature

In all three cases, there were other factors besides climate, terrain and ecology. Significant military challenges, to name one. In Balkh, Uzbek mounted archers attacked Mughal armies on the march relentlessly. In Kashmir, the ousted aristocracy put up a resilient fight even after the imperial occupation of Srinagar. Finally, in Assam, Mughal forces struggled against determined night-time attacks carried out by the Ahoms.

However, in all three cases, military challenges became more difficult to handle because of the way the adversaries exploited environmental conditions to their advantage. This was made possible by their greater familiarity with local conditions.

Supply was also a problem in these cases. In most of South Asia, Mughal armies relied on itinerant grain merchants, called the Banjara, for food. However, they did not operate in any of these three regions. Once again, these logistical difficulties were amplified by the aridity of Balkh and Kashmir as well as by the floods and disease ecology of Assam.

These stories offer us a window into the complex interactions of the Mughal empire with the natural environment. Warfare was a domain in which many of these interactions played out. Mughal capacity to make war was based on its ability to harness and use environmental resources like animals, crops, firewood, and water. In course of military campaigns, armies also sought to tame the environment by cutting down forests, levelling the ground, removing snow and bridging rivers. At the same time, environmental factors like climate, ecology and terrain shaped the conduct of campaigns. They decided military tactics, strategy, logistics and deployment of technology. And in the case of the Mughals, they sometimes derailed the course of imperial expansion in more than one way.

Today, we live in a world where a killer pandemic has brought human civilisation down to its knees. Global environmental catastrophe seemed like a rather distant and vague possibility even ten years ago. Now it is staring us in the face. In order to understand how we got here, it is important to study the dynamics of human-environment relationships in the past. This is where environmental history becomes important.

In case of South Asia, this field has flourished mainly in the context of the colonial period. We know far less about human-environment dynamics during the pre-colonial times. By focusing of the interactions of the Mughal Empire with the natural environment, we are offered a glimpse into these relatively unexplored histories.

Pratyay Nath is Associate Dean, AshokaX, and Assistant Professor of History, Ashoka University. He is the author of Climate of Conquest: War, Environment, and Empire in Mughal North India (Oxford University Press, 2019). His ongoing research projects explore the concept of “early modernity” in history-writing, empire-environment relationship in the early modern world, and history of the horse in South Asia.

(Source: Scroll)

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