Akbar's Armies


Please treat this note simply as a very preliminary attempt to make a first sketch of the Mughul armies. As yet there is no in-depth research in this section.




Understandably, the Mughals are better known to history for

their magnificent architecture and art, and the incredible wealth they accumulated. We know the 180-year reign of the six Great Mughals saw a progressive expansion of empire to encompass all of India. What is less well known, however, is the high caliber of their armies, which formed the basis of their power. The armies were large for Akbar to send 10,000 cavalry and 50,000 infantry for a single campaign while he fought others was no inconvenience. They were led by very experienced generals and officers who had years of tough campaigning behind them, and in the main composed of professional soldiers.


Equally important, when Akbar sent an army against an adversary, it fought as a unified force. The Indian armies that opposed the Mughals came from hastily formed coalitions, each member of which could not afford the size, equipment, and training of a Mughals army. The whole was weaker than the sum of its parts because of endless petty rivalry that would continue even in the midst of fighting.


Last, the Mughals had something no army in India had: the utter, unshakable courage that comes from a habit of winning and a belief God was on their side and would give them victory regardless of circumstances.


Incidentally, we should remember that sizeable contingents in the Mughul armies were composed of Hindustanis, generally by kings who had sworn loyalty to the Emperor either after defeat or after negotiation. It would appear these troops functioned as well as the Muslim troops at least as of now, we have seen nothing in any source to indicate otherwise. This would imply that Hindustani troops needed nothing more than good leadership. Three centuries after the last Great Mughul, Aurangzeb, the British were to decisively prove this. The East India Company assigned just 3-4 white officers to lead each native regiment or battalion, and the troops proved impossible to defeat.


Manning Akbar's Armies


Sources include R.C. Majumdar.


The Imperial Bodyguard/Household Troops


These were cavalry and composed of the gentleman of the court.


Feudatory Contingents


These consisted of contingents promised in advanced by vassal states.


Mansubedar Contingents


These were contingents brought to service in return for fiefs granted by the king.


In practice, the distinction between the feudatory and Mansubedar contingents often blurred because the Mansubedar might also be the feudatory head of a state.


In Jehangir's time, contingents were divided into three parts: the largest was for campaigning in the north; then came troops that had to be committed for duty in Central and South India; last and smallest in numbers were the troops for duty outside India.


No standing army as such existed. A diligent king, however, called out feudatory and mansubedar contingents for regular inspections to ensure the readiness of the soldiers.


Akbar systemized his armies to such an extent that he required every horse to be inspected and double branded: once with its owner's brand, and once with the imperial brand. This ensured that inferior horses were not substituted for promised ones. Records of all soldiers in a contingent had to be kept, and Akbar was careful to ensure that the soldiers were of required physique.


The soldiers of the contingents could expect to be called out for duty in  the year, and whether the contingent had standing forces as opposed to the "reserves" was something the feudatory or mansubedar decided.



The Combat Arms


Numerically the infantry was the largest part of the army. In terms of effectives, however, only the musketeers mattered. Their firepower far exceeded that of other infantry. Readers will see the term "matchlock men" used all the way to the 1857 mutiny, by which time first-class armies such as those of the East India Company were equipped with rifles, and the matchlock men were likely to be in the service of less well-equipped armies.


The cavalry was the core of the army. At this time we are not clear on the nature of the cavalry in Akbar's time: was it a combination of light and heavy?


The "super-heavy armor" was provided by war elephants, which even the Mughals, initially derisive of the slow, lumbering beasts, came to use as an integral part of their armies.


The number of cavalry and elephants determined the status and strength of the army.


In modern terms, artillery is considered a combat support arm because it is rarely direct on the battlefield. Well into the 19th Century, however, because of range limitations the artillery was well up and within easy reach of determined cavalry. So it seems only fair to count it as a combat arm.


Logistic Support


This is where Indian armies differed from their European counterparts of the time, and this is where major problems arose.


"Logistic support" meant vast contingents of servants and wives who traveled, bag-and-baggage with the main force. This traveling circus slowed armies to a typical speed of march of 8-kilometers a day. Given the distances in India, this was an incredibly slow march. Delhi to what became Calcutta was 1500 kilometers; Delhi to the Deccan 800-km; Lahore to Delhi almost 500-kms.


Needless to say, an army on the march was as a ravening locust horde which caused enormous destruction to the environment, the fields, and villages unfortunate enough to be in the way. Wood for fires, fodder for horses, food and water for the men were critical requirements, and when these ran short, were simply taken by force. Which is not to say at times the army did not pay for appropriated supplies, but that was the exception rather than the rule.


Aside from the simple lack of space and speed, the logistic support had a bad effect: officers and generals lived lavishly on the march, and the attraction of the train sapped their energy and toughness. Prithviraj Chauhan III between First and Second Tarain is only one of the more egregious examples of sloth, indulgence, and luxury leading to the deterioration of the fighting force.


Both to and from the target of the campaign, the army, when faced with opposition, would fight, and acquire captives and booty which also had to be protected.


If we consider the above, it becomes obvious how Shivaji straightaway gained the advantage even before contact. His soldiers rode light - no servants except perhaps for a few for the highest ranking, no tents, no baggage. Not only was Shivaji able to travel fast, his miniscule logistic requirements made it simpler for him to live off the land, and could seem to appear out of nowhere because he moved faster than even the spies and reconnaissance elements of his adversary, and concealment was easy. Like Napoleon,  Shivaji understood the "force multiplier" of traveling fast and light, and thus he revolutionized Indian warfare. It is no coincidence that looting his adversary's logistic train was a favorite activity of Shivaji, and nothing is so liable to irk an army as, when morning dawns, a stream of men appear before the commander to say: "M'Lord, the infidel attacked at night and made off with your second favorite group of women, besides seizing arms and supplies, and destroying transport; and by the way, M'Lord, your supply of prized wine is gone."


When we consider the history of the British conquest of India, one thing above all stands out: the dogged determination of the British to push forward, no matter what the terrain and weather conditions. As with Shivaji, the speed of the attack more than made up for lack of numbers, and the German panzers were only the latest exponent of what the Americans termed: Getting thar furstist with the mostest.


Thus, while Mazumdar is correct in saying the Mughul armies were slow-moving, he is comparing them only to Shivaji's forces. As guerrilla bands, they did not need the logistic train required by heavier armies.




Majumdar makes a significant point when he criticizes the Mughul system of officering: all men within a formation, say that of a Teen Hazari (3,000 troops, equal to a brigade) reported to one person, their leader. There were very few, if any, line or staff officers. This meant that should the leader be incapacitated, there was no one to take charge and the men tended to immediately panic and disperse. This organization cannot be easily comprehended: a brigade today would have a minimum of 100 officers - to say nothing of several radio-nets for control and communication.


At the same time, however, this failing was common to all South Asian armies. The armies were feudal, not national.