Gunpowder changed the course of history of the world, destroyed nations and heralded the rise of new empires. Such was its impact that gunpowder technology became a matter of pride for any nation. Unfortunately, it was not so for us. For us it is a matter of shame.

The second major innovation that destroyed Bharat’s independence came riding on the horseback and a cloud of acrid smoke. As incongruous as it may sound, it was the steppe warrior, the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan, riding the silk roads from China to the middle east, who carried, with him GUNPOWDER. China had invented gunpowder long before the Mongol hordes brought it to the Middle East and onward to Europe. But it found its true military use in the 1280’s. Gunpowder spread all over the islamic and western world.

The earlier the introduction of gunpowder weapons, the more the nation achieved cultural and military superiority. As uncomfortable as the previous statement may be, the fact remains that such military innovations are the marks of glory in the annals of history. While we in India remained isolated from this epochal innovation.

A simple mixture of sulphur, potassium nitrate and charcoal was the reason old empires would fall and new ones rise. For close to 500 years, this greyish black powder was the premium technology that powered emperors, despots and kings to unleash blood and mayhem in pursuits of their ambitions. With mastering of the gunpowder, man, especially the steppe warriors became deadlier were able to kill more efficiently, Old ways of waging war were dead and newer, faster and much more brutal warriors rose to conquer the world – the biggest prize of all was HINDUSTAN.

In the age of gunpowder broadly 4 empires would dominate the world –

  1. Mughal Empire
  2. Ottoman Empire
  3. Safavid Empire
  4. European Empires – The British Empire, Largest and the most brutal of them all.

They won and lost by and to the GUNPOWDER. Anyone who mastered this greyish black powder could rule the world and for sometime, they did, until someone with better guns came along.

The combination of the steppe warrior on a horse now became far more dangerous as their recurved bows were supported by warriors with guns. For the first time the steppe warriors added guns to their arsenal and started relying on combined used of gun wielding infantry and the gun and bow bearing horse rider. (Though — The bow would soon become redundant as the gun – musket, jezzail etc were better at killing) The empires created by the steppe warriors were based on a new way of fighting – The artillery. Cannons massed together to maintain a continuous destructive barrage of bombardment on the enemy.

As mentioned earlier, the first invasions into India were led by arab warriors on arabian horses and armed with the short recurved bow and a curved sword – suitable for attacking from the horseback – the curved sword (scimitar) was similar in use to a scythe, cutting humans instead of weeds. But the next wave of invasions from the steppes – led by steppe warriors commonly called the Turkics (mistakenly called the Turks) from the provinces of Ghazni and Ghor (again mistakenly called Afghan invaders). These invaders ran through defenders (Pratiharas & Chalukyas among others) with their horses. Soon a 200-year dark age commonly called the Sultanate period began.

By 1000CE the steppe warriors had mostly converted to either islam or christianity.

The mamluks (slaves) ruled over most of Bharat. We fought back and just as we were getting rid of the islamic rule, a new more brutal steppe warrior came into Bharat – Timur the Grey Wolf. and he brought with him a new weapon – used for the first time in Bharat, in combat. This new weapon destroyed the famed Elephant force of the defending Nasiruddin Tughlaq. Timur brought this new weapon in bags of a grey powder – that would be called GUNPOWDER. He tied gunpowder bags on camels and let them loose among the elephant force of the tughlaqs. After that fire arrows were fired on the camels. The gunpowder would explode creating a massive blast that killed elephants in close vicinity and panicked the others.

Timur did not stay long in Bharat and left with massive loot and artisans from Bharat. He never returned.

Next was Babur – A descendent of Timur. Babur was a “Bhagoda”. He lost his kingdom of Fargana and had to run away from his enemies. He arrived in India and just as he was again losing, he was met by his childhood friend/lover Babri. Babri had come bearing gifts in form of guns and cannons supplied by the Shia ruler of Persia. (These were supplied under the agreement that Babur would embrace Shia’ism). With these new guns & cannons he defeated the Rajputs and the Lodhis to lay a claim to the throne of Delhi. A defeated, on the run barbarian became ruler of Hindustan because of GUNS and GUN POWDER.


The history of gunpowder is the history of mistakes, errors, innovation and brilliance of human ingenuity. It was a byproduct of a search for the elixir of life – for eternal youth. Though this elixir of youth was never found, what the chinese discovered was the powder of death – a discovery that would change the world for ever and cause billions of deaths worldwide. They discovered what the west called GUNPOWDER.

The earliest writings on gunpowder date back to 840 CE, from china.

The mysterious nature of this greyish powder meant that it was 200 years more before this powder could find effective use as gunpowder.

The Chinese used gunpowder to fight the invading Mongols. They had the powder but lacked the technology to use it effectively – The Chinese lost and the Mongol hordes harnessed gunpowder for use against the Abbasid caliphate and the Persians. They took the gunpowder all the way to the west – Europe. As the Mongol hordes cut through empires and kingdoms, they spread gunpowder technology though out Asia and Europe. Innovations followed as various people tried to harness the destructive power of gunpowder.

Secrets of the gunpowder were closely guarded by the Chinese but the Mongols after their conquest of china helped gunpowder makes its way into the world as a tool of destruction.

Hassan al Rammah, Arabic scholar writes (1240-80) about purification and manufacture of gunpowder. His writings are the earliest works in Arabian Peninsula.

Hand guns, cannons and even the first rudimentary grenades and missiles were invented in China under Qings & the Mongols. By 1300’s the technology had spread into Europe. Here, the next wave of innovations took place and make the white man master of the world.

In May 1453, the impossible happened. Following a 6-week siege, Constantinople fell, shocking the Christian world, as it was common knowledge that the double walled castle was impregnable, having repulsed dozens of sieges in its history. Gunpowder was changing the world!

The gun and cannon technology developed almost simultaneously in Europe and Asia But by the 17th century west had raced ahead of the Asian powers like the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals – The islamic gunpowder empires. Religious fundamentalism discouraged innovation and the clergy looked at science as essentially disruptionist. No new innovations in gunpowder technology were seen in Asia after the 18th century. By this time the European powers had developed not only better guns and better gunpowder, they had also developed newer and better ways of fighting with guns. The horseman was no longer the premier predator. It was gunpowder.


By the time guns arrived in Bharat in the 16th century, the nation was already under the yoke of invading hordes of the central asian barbarians – (even arabia was under the yoke of the turkics). In spite of back breaking loot and barbarism of the invaders, Bharat was still the economic powerhouse of the world. Babar, a descendent of Timur and Genghis brought guns into Bharat and used them in the first Battle of Panipat against the last king of the Lodi Dynasty, Ibrahim Lodi.

21st April 1526, is the date that marks the entry of guns into Bharat. It was this day that a rag tag refugee army of Babur defeated the Lodi army of over a Lakh well provisioned and armed men in the plains of Panipat. The booming of guns, gifted by the Shah of Iran, marked the end of what is called the Sultanate Period and the beginning of the end of our ancient civilization that had endured for millennias. With a handful of cannons and a contingent of trained Irani (Safavid) Topchis Babur routed the Lodi army. The much vaunted war elephants were left bloodied and dead along with the Lodi cavalry.

The next battle that marked the end of organized Rajput opposition to the Mughals was the Battle of Khanwa, 16th March 1527.

As prelude to the battle, Babur had sent advance guards against Rana’s Mewar. Devoid of his guns, the Rajputs defeated and destroyed the Mughals. Babur realized that he could not win in a full frontal war with the Rajputs so he used deceit. He courted and turned Siladitya, a trusted advisor to Rana Sanga. Promising him the throne of Mewar, Babur ensured that Siladitya was his mole in Rana’s camp. On the fateful day, Rana Sanga and his warriors faced off against Babur and his cannons. At the crucial moment Siladitya left the field with his 40,000 warriors and defected to Babur’s side. Even before Rana and his men could understand what had happened, Babur let loose his cannons on the massed Rajput cavalry, destroying them and ending the war even before it began. The Rajputs fought bravely but it was futile against the roaring Iranian guns wielded by Babur.

After his victory, Babur put to death Siladitya too.

After the Mughals came the Afsars – Nadir Shah & the Afghans – Abdali. They came and wrecked havoc destroying our temples and cities. The Marathas fought back but as a force were unable to stop them. Fighting these invaders, the Marathas rose to power as the pre eminent power of Bharat. Just as the Marathas were ending the last vestiges of Mughals, we had to face a new way of fighting – The “thin red line” and the British artillery. They used infantry and artillery in tandem. Though this was not unique but what made them unique was their technology and the “old-new” way of using infantry.

They drew inspiration from the roman “phlanx”. A square formation with riflemen on all sides and the center of the phalanx stood the war store & medical support. Another new innovation was their famed “Thin Red Line”. The infantry would move ahead in a long line – one man deep. To the enemy, they would present a horizon of British soldiers in “red uniforms”, as soon as one soldier fell the line would adjust to fill the gap. The advance would be supported by a continuous artillery barrage from behind. The line being only one soldier deep made the enemy artillery attack ineffective.

Another innovation was the gunpowder they used in their cannons. It was different & better gunpowder, instead of the commonly used rice gunpowder in the islamic world. The Bhartiya ironmongers under the Mughals, made the best cannons in the world but no new innovations were made in the quality of the gunpowder.

Even the Ottoman’s (Sultan Mehmet II) had to rely on Hungarian named Urban to manufacture their gunpowder and cannons.

Technology of gunpowder won the Europeans the world (35% of the known world). Firepower won over bravery. And it continues to win. Gunpowder provided the invading armies with a weapon that enabled them to kill more efficiently and quickly than ever before. By the time we mastered the horse we had to face the fury of the gunpowder. By the time we came to terms with gunpowder, the European had won everything that was there to win.


A TALE OF BLOOD & TEARS – I : The Invaders


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