Love and War in Afghanistan and Central Asia: The Life of the Emperor Babur
Date of Publication: 2002-00-00
The Babarnama, the autobiography of India's first Mughal emperor, Zahiruddin Mohammad Babar (1483 -1530), is one of the true marvels of the mediaeval world. It belongs with that tiny handful of the world's literary works that can accurately be described as unique: that is without precedent and without imitators.
In the western tradition the military memoir has a pedigree that goes back to Xenophon and Julius Caesar. Babar had no such precedents available: indeed as Wheeler M. Thackston, the Babarnama's most recent translator notes: "Babur's memoirs are the first - and until relatively recent times, the only - true autobiography in Islamic literature."
In other words, in setting out to write an autobiography, Babar did something that very few writers have ever done. He invented a form out of whole cloth: his true literary peers, in this sense, are such epochal figures as Lady Murasaki and Cervantes. Yet Babar was also the founder of a great empire: in other words he was both a Pisarro and a Cervantes.
What made him pen this immense book (382 folio pages in the original Turkish) and how on earth did he find the time? Between the moment when he gained his first kingdom, at the age of twelve, and his death thirty-five years later, there seems scarcely to have been a quiet day in Babar's life. His first kingdom was the only one he didn't have to risk his life for: he inherited it from his father, a scion of a dynasty that was far richer in aspiring rulers than in thrones.
Babar took a matter-of-fact view of his father:"He was short in stature, had a round beard and a fleshy face, and was fat... He used to drink a lot. Later in life he held drinking parties once or twice a week. He was fun to be with in a gathering and was good at reciting poetry for his companions. He grew rather fond of ma'jun (a narcotic) and under its influence would lose its head. He was of a scrappy temperament and had many scars and brands to show for it." (41,43) [i]
Although scarcely a model parent, Babar's father, Umar-Shaykh Mirza, was the very soul of docility compared to the rest of his family. More or less the first thought that occurs to Babar on hearing of his father's death is to flee to the mountains so that "at least I would not fall captive and ... go to one of my uncles." (50). Of one of his uncles Babar writes: "He never missed the five daily prayers, even when he was drinking... He was a good drinker. Once he started drinking, he drank continually for twenty or thirty days, but when he stopped he did not drink again for the same amount of time." (53) [ii]Of another: "He was addicted to vice and debauchery. He drank wine continually. He kept a lot of catamites, and in his realm wherever there was a comely, beardless youth, he did everything he could to turn him into a catamite." (60)[iii]
Predictably Babar's uncles and cousins descended upon his territories soon after he had acceded to the throne. Not to be outdone, Babar counter-attacked. At the age of thirteen he led an army to Samarkand, to join a clutch of cousins and second-cousins who were taking advantage of another relative's absence to lay seige to the fabled city.
After a siege of seven months Babar succeeded in having himself crowned the ruler of Samarkand. He was to rule the city for no more than a hundred days but in many ways this was the defining moment of Babar's life. He was to besiege, conquer and lose Samarkand many times over before he was finally and decisively driven southward. But up to the end of his life, even when he had conquered a realm far vaster, richer and more promising than those that had been taken from him, he still pined for his lost city: for Babar Samarkand was the epitome of civilisation, the centre of the world's urbanity and the fountainhead of all culture. He won a sizeable chunk of India, the land whose riches had triggered Europe's Age of Exploration. But all he really wanted was Samarkand.
Babar's link with Samarkand was, in the first instance, familial. His ancestor Amir Timur - known to the West as Tamerlane - had made Samarkand the capital of a vast empire and built it into a great centre of art and literature. For Babar, as for his innumerable Timurid uncles and cousins, to lay claim to Samarkand was to claim succession to their glorious ancestor, the guarantor of their own titles to rule.
The idea of conquering of empires was a part of Babar's family heritage: he traced his descent not just to Tamerlane, but also to Jenghis Khan. The story of his kingdom-seeking adolesence and youth has its genesis ultimately in that epochal churning of peoples and cultures that was set in motion by Jenghis Khan in the 13th century.
Jenghis Khan's descendants evidently inherited his remarkable cultural and social adaptability. In the course of his life, the old man had become increasingly Sinicised, and had developed an interest in Buddhism and Confucianism. He seems to have had little empathy for the cultures and traditions of western Asia: certainly the Muslims and Christians of those regions never encountered a more determined enemy. Yet within a generation or two Jenghis Khan's descendants took on the cultural and religious (if not linguistic) colourings of the regions they ruled. One of his grandsons, Kubilai Khan, became emperor of China and a cornerstone of the Confucian order, while another became the Sultan of Persia and a devout and fervent Muslim.
Babar traced his lineage to Jenghis Khan's second son, Chagatay. When the worlds that Jenghis Khan conquered came to be divided amongst his progeny Chagatay inherited Central Asia, a region in which Islam was the principal religion and Persian the language of cultural prestige. Chagatay's inheritance soon fragmented into a number of warring principalities, but he bequeathed his name not just to a realm but also to a lineage and a language - eastern Turkish, the tongue whose greatest literary exponent Babar was to become.
Central Asia was again briefly re-united by Amir Timur (Tamerlane), an extra-dynastic usurper who nonetheless thought it politic to lay claim to the legacy of the Great Khan by marrying a Jenghisid princess. His descendants, however, fought each other with the usual courtly relish of medieval princelings. By the time of Babar's birth the valleys and steppes of central Asia teemed with Timurid princes in search of realms to rule.
Such was the magic of the Timurid-Jenghisid pedigree, that nobody who owned it ever seems to have forfeited the right to a throne. From the age of twelve onward Babar (like his innumerable cousins and uncles) took it for granted that he was born to rule. Ruling was in a sense a job, a calling, the only thing he knew how to do and could conceive of doing. Even at times when he possessed little more than his horse and the clothes on his back, he and the members of his tiny entourage, took it for granted that a kingdom would somehow transpire, if not in this district then perhaps the next. It was thus, half-reluctantly that Babar came to be pushed into eastern Afghanistan and eventually, northern India. These were not his realms of choice, but they were better than the prospect of being an unemployed king.
The instrument of Babar's misery in his early kingdom-seeking years was a chief called Shaybani ('Wormwood') Khan, an Uzbek and a hereditary enemy. The wheel that Jenghis Khan had put in motion had now come full circle: just as the his armies had displaced other Turco-Mongol groups, pushing them further and further to the south and the west, so now Babar and his cousins found themselves facing a peoples who had decided to create their own moment of destiny. With the methodical precision of a cherry-picker, Shaybani Khan picked Babar and his fellow Timurids off, one by one, driving them steadily before him. "For nearly 140 years the capital Samarkand had been in our family," writes Babar. "Then came the Uzbeks, the foreign foe from God knows where, and took over."
Babar was too close to the events to notice of course, but there were some marvellous symmetries to these centuries-long processes of migration in Central Asia; these patterns of encroachment and displacement, of the sudden ascendancy of a nation or a dynasty, of the meteoric rise and decline of glittering cities like Bukhara and Samarkand, Ghazni and Herat. Some of these symmetries even seeped into Babar's own life. In much the same way as Shaybani Khan, the Uzbeg, was harrying Babar , Jenghis Khan had once pursued a young warrior-poet, one whose life was perhaps even more colourful than Babar’s.
The name of the Great Khan's prey was Jalal ad-din, and he was the heir presumptive of the great kingdom of Khwarizm, centred in the region between the Caspian and the Aral seas. Jenghis Khan had a special grudge against the king of Khwarizm and after seizing the kingdom, he sent a detachment of his swiftest riders to hunt down its ruling family. In what must count as one of the most amazing escapes in history, the fourteen year-old Jalal al-din rode without a break for forty days, circling through the deserts, steppes and mountains of Iran and Afghanistan, managing somehow to stay ahead of the great Mongol general, Jebe - known even among his fast-riding peoples as 'The Arrow'. Jenghis Khan finally hunted Jalal al-din to a place from which no escape seemed possible: a gorge above the upper Indus. But here again Jalal-al din succeeded in evading the Khan: he spurred his horse over the cliff and into the river, more than a hundred feet below. Legend has it that in calling off the chase, Jenghis Khan summoned his entourage and pointed to the young prince swimming in the torrent below.
'There' said Jenghis Khan, who knew about these things, 'goes a brave man.'
He would have said no less for his own descendant: Babar was nothing if not brave. On one occasion in TB, he takes on a hundred men more or less single-handed. "Sultan-Ahmad Tambal was standing, maintaining his position with around a hundred men... shouting, "Strike! Strike!"... At that point three men were left with me... I shot an arrow I had in my thumb ring... When I had another arrow on the string, I went forward. The other three remained behind." (144)[iv]
There are times when he glimpses the end of the road. Led into a trap by an old retainer, he writes: "Suddenly I felt odd. There is nothing worse in the world than fear for one's life... I felt I could endure no more. I rose and went to a corner of the orchard. I thought to myself that whether one lived to a hundred or a thousand in the end one had to die... I readied myself for death."(156) [v] Minutes later, help arrives.
Often he is in despair. His nineteenth year proves to be a hard one: "During this period in Tashkent I endured much hardship and misery. I had no realm - and no hope of any realm - to rule. Most of my liege men had departed. The few who were left were too wretched to move about with me.... Finally I had had all I could take of homelessness and alienation. 'With such difficulties,' I said to myself, 'it would be better to go off on my own so long as I am alive, and with such deprivation and wretchedness it would be better for me to go off to wherever my feet will carry me, even to the ends of the earth.'"
But in the end, stoically, he resigns himself to the difficult business of finding a realm: "When one has pretensions to rule and a desire for conquest, one cannot sit back and just watch if events don't go right once or twice."(93).[vi]
Eventually his preseverance pays off. In 1504, 'at the beginning of my twenty-third year (when) I first put a razor to my face' (161), moving ever southward, staying one step ahead of the Uzbeks, he stumbles upon the kingdom of Kabul. Encountering very little resistance, he decides to seize it for himself.
His new realm was full of surprises: 'Eleven or twelve dialects are spoken in Kabul Province: Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Mongolian, Hindi... It is not known if there are so many different peoples and languages in any other province'.
Slowly, inevitably, his attention is drawn to the vast sub-continent on the far side of the mountains. "Four roads lead (to Kabul) from Hindusthan", he observes speculatively.
But for a while he is content to enjoy his new realm: for the first time in a decade he settles down.
Through all his adventures, Babar kept writing, mainly poetry. Even as he flees from the Uzbeks, he finds time to carve a verse on rock beside a spring.
"Like us many have spoken over this spring, but they were gone in the twinkling of an eye,
We conquered the world with bravey and might, but we did not take it with us to the grave."
It is a commentary on our times, that to us it seems if not odd, then certainly unexpected that a warrior and statesman should devote his attention to intricate questions of scansion and metrics. But Babar came from a long line of literary rulers : some of the greatest works of Persian literature were composed in the court of his great-grandfather, Amir Timur. But his ancestors' literary ambitions usually stopped at conoissership, patronage and upon occasion, the composing of a divan - the collection of poems that was expected of every man of good breeding. Babar did indeed compose several collections of poems, but he was the only man of his lines to embark on a work of extended prose. In addition, he did it not in the literary language of his court, Persian, but in the domestic demotic of his family, Chagatay Turkish.
To read The Babarnama is constantly to ask oneself what could possibly have prompted a man in Babar's position to write his memoirs. Historically autobiography was not a form that flourished in Asia, certainly not in Central Asia where Babar's roots lay. As for the Indian sub-continent, I know of only one autobiography written there before the 19th century: a brief account of the life of a merchant.
The closest Babar comes to explaining his motives is this: "I have simply written the truth. I do not intend by what I have written to compliment myself: I have simply set down exactly what happened. Since I have made it a point in this history to write the truth of every matter and to set down no more than the reality of every even, as a consequence I have reported every good and evil I have seen of father and brother and set down the actuality of every fault and virtue of relative and stranger. May the reader excuse me; may the listener take me not to task."[vii]
But he may have come closer to the truth in his first poem, a ghazal, written at the age of eighteen: Other than my own soul I never found a faithful friend/ Other than my own heart I never found a confidant
It was possibly a sense of loneliness, or rather apartness, that compelled Babar to set down these reflections on his life; it was probably the intimacy of that endeavour that led him to choose Turkish - his domestic language - rather than the courtly Persian that was generally used in his circle. The memoir he produced, as a result, was anything but the usual courtly chronicle of affairs of state and battles lost and won: written centuries before the discovery of the Self, TB is still astonishingly, a narrative of self-dsicovery. It s tone is a disarmingly trusting, confiding one, and in self-revelation it yields nothing to the confessional memoir of the 1990s.
Babar does not neglect to record the sexual hesitancies of his first marriage ('since it was my first marriage I was bashful, I went to her only once every ten fifteen or twenty days'); he writes lyrically about an adolescent infatuation with a boy ('before this experience I had never felt a desire for anyone, nor did I listen to talk of love and affection or speak of such things').
His estimations of his relatives and contemporaries are so frank and unguarded as to suggest that he did not expect his memoirs to be widely circulated. He writes no less trenchantly about women than men: as friends or adversaries they were evidently a formidable force in his life.
The women of TB are strong-willed and independant, and they declare their own agency without hesitation, in matters political and personal. We see him going into the women's quarters to ask advice at critical moments; we read about the delinquency of a widowed aunt who gives away her son's kingdom to none other than the dreaded Uzbek, Shaybani Khan, in the hope of winning his love ('in her lust to get a husband, that wretched, feebleminded woman brought destruction on her son'); and about another aunt who liked to drinking and was so domineering that her husband dared not 'go to any of his other wives'; we hear of powerful princes being swiftly dispatched by ambitious concubines; we even learn of women who take the initiative in courting Babar. The contemporary Muslim fundamentalists who would take Afghanistan back to an idealised past in which women never stepped out of the house, would do well to read TB: they would find that the Middle Ages were not quite what they imagine them to be.
Babar is at his most self-revelatory in his description of his drinking life. Although he came from a hard-drinking line, Babar was twenty-nine before he touched his first drink: "In my childhood I had no desire for wine, for I was unaware of the enjoyment of it. Occasionally my father had offered me some, but I had made excuses. After my father's death I was abstinent... Later, with the desires of young manhood and the promptings of the carnal soul, when I had an inclination for wine, nobody offered - no one even knew that I was interested."
Then, at a party in the city of Herat, in south-western Afghanistan, his nobles arranged a party for him and offered him wine. "It crossed my mind," writes Babar, "that since they were making such proposals, and here we had come to a fabulous city like Herat, where all the implements of pleasure and revelry were present, and all the devices of entertainment and enjoyment were close at hand, if I didn't drink now, when would I? Deliberating thus with myself, I resolved to make the leap."
This was the beginning of a twenty -year love affair with wine: Babar seems to have dedicated much of his time in Afghanistan to the pursuit of wine and ma'ajun. So much for Afghan fundamentalism.
Babar provides us with a meticulous record of the parties of his Kabul years. "At midday we rode off on an excursion, got on a boat, and drank spirits... We drank on the boat until late that night, left the boat roaring drunk, and got on our horses. I took a torch in my hand and, reeling to one side and then the other, let the horse gallop free-reined along the riverbank all the way to the camp. I must have been really drunk. The next morning they told me that I had come galloping into camp holding a torch. I didn't remember a thing, except that when I got to my tent I vomited a lot."(281)
And if so things went, until he led his fifth, and final, expedition into India. In 15.. shortly before a decisive battle, Babar made a spectacular gesture: he took a public oath of temperance. The cellars in his camp were emptied into the sand and he personally broke his sumptuous gold and silver wineglasses and goblets and distributed the pieces to the poor.
Three weeks later he led his army into battle against a massive force assembled by Rana Sangram Singh, the then most powerful Rajput ruler in North India. Babar prevailed.
Babar did not find temperance easy, even though he consoled himself liberally with ma'ajun. "Everybody regrets drinking and then takes the oath," he wrote, "But I have taken the oath and now regret it."
But Babar was true to his oath: he never drank again.
In the course of the two decades he spent in Kabul, Babur led four expeditions into India . His fifth and final campaign was launched in October 1525: it had a characteristically light-hearted beginning: "We mostly drank and had morning draughts on drinking days". Between marches Babar and his nobles wrote poetry, collected obscene jokes, and gave chase to the occasional rhinoceros.
Delhi was then in the control of the Lodi Sultans, a dynasty of Afghan Muslim rulers who had done a great deal to enrich the architectural heritage of the capital. Their memory is enshrined today in New Delhi's Lodi Gardens, one of the world's loveliest urban parks.
Despite internal dissensions the Lodis managed to field an army of 100,000 men and 1,000 elephants against Babar's paltry force of 12,000. The armies met on April 20, 1526, at the historic battlefield of Panipat a few miles north of Delhi. Despite the odds, Babar routed the Lodi Sultan and took possession of Delhi.
With the defeat of Rana Sanga's Rajput coalition, the next year, Babar secured his hold on northern India. There were skirmishes and minor battles to be fought, but for the most part, Babar busied himself in distributing the spoils to his followers and retainers and in making detailed observations of his new kingdom. With his usual curiousity, he made extensive inquiries about the natural history of northern India, and on the beliefs and customs of its inhabitants. It is clear from his notes that he found much that did not please him: the climate was too hot, its fruit unfamiliar, its peoples bafflingly unlike any he had ever known. But then Babar was never very easy to please, especially where people were concerned: his was a tribal world, and his loyalties and pride were largely invested in his kinsmen and lineage. For most of those who fell outside that circle - Afghans, Shias, Uzbeks, Indians and so on - he reserved an unprejudiced detestation.
A strain of deep melancholy runs through the last pages of the TB, as though he had come to realise that ruling his new kingdom would entail permanent exile from the landscapes of his childhood. "Our concern for going thence (to Kabul) is limitless and overwhelming," he wrote to a friend, the year before his death. "How can one forget the pleasures of that country? Especially when abstaining from drinking, how can one forget a licit pleasure like melons and grapes? Recently a melon was brought and as I cut it and ate it I was oddly affected. I wept the whole time I was eating it." (423)
His Indian victories seem to have left Babar with the feeling that his life's work was over: homesickness, nostalgia and abstinence evidently combined to rob him of his will to live.
Of the many stories told of Babar none is more wonderful than that of his death.
In 1530 Humayun, Babar's beloved eldest son and heir-apparent, was stricken by a fever. He was brought to immediately to Babar's court at Agra, but despite the best efforts of the royal physicians, his condition steadily worsened. Driven to despair, Babar consulted a man of religion who told him that the remedy 'was to give in alms the most valuable thing one had and to seek cure from God.'
Babar is said to have replied thus: "I am the most valuable thing that Humayun possesses; than me he has no better thing; I shall make myself a sacrifice for him. May God the Creator accept it."(Hasan:150)
Greatly distressed, Babar's courtiers and friends tried to explain that the sage had meant that he should give away money, or gold or a piece of property: Humayun possessed a priceless diamond, they said, which could be sold and the proceeds given to the poor...
Babar would not hear of it. "What value has worldly wealth," Babar is quoted to have said. "And how can it be a redemption for Humayun? I myself shall be his sacrifice."
He walked three times around Humayun's bed, praying: "O God! If a life may be exchanged for a life, I who am Babur, I give my life and my being for a Humayun." A few minutes later, he cried: "We have borne it away, we have borne it away."
And sure enough, from that moment Babar began to sicken, while Humayun grew slowly well.
Babar died near Agra on December 21, 1530.
As a writer, intellectual and soldier Babar stood very far above the men of his time: as a ruler on the other hand, his ideas never extended much beyond those he had absorbed from his cousins and uncles in his kingdom-seeking days in the steppes. The model of governance he brought to his Indian empire was essentially that which he learnt in his early youth on the steppe, where the business of ruling entailed little more than knocking a rival off his perch and taking his place. He had little interest in creating instruments of government and as a result he left behind a throne that stood on very weak supports. Within ten years of his death, his son Humayun was driven out of India by Sher Shah Suri a soldier of extraordinary talent and vision. Born in the eastern province of Bihar, into a relatively humble Muslim family, Sher Shah created a bureaucratic and administrative machine of extraordinary complexity. He was to rule in Delhi for only four years, but on his death he left behind a sound administrative infrastructure.
In 1555 Humayun invaded northern India with the help of the Shah of Persia, and conquered Delhi once again from Sher Shah's unworthy heirs. It was probably fortunate for the Mughal dynasty that he didn't linger long on his throne. He died within a few months of entering Delhi, stumbling down a steep staircase, while under the influence. It fell to Babar's grandson Akbar, then a boy of ..., to take the throne.
Akbar proved to be one of the greatest rulers in the history of the Indian subcontinent. Born of a Rajput Hindu mother, Akbar appears to have had a profound understanding of Indian institutions of kingship and particularly of the concept of the 'universal ruler'. He proved adept at incorporating the many different religious, linguistic and dynastic traditons of his empire into the culture of his court. He even synthesised various Muslim and Hindu traditions into a religion of his own devising - the Din-i-Ilahi: a creed that was not unpredictably, centred on himself. Although the new religion never quite caught on, Akbar still enjoyed an exceptionally long reign. He ruled for .... years and the aura of legitimacy he left behind was to sustain Mughal rule for more than a century.
History, notoriously, is not about the past. In recent years, extremist Hindus in India have succeeded in creating a fire-storm of political controversy by exhuming aspects of Mughal history. In 1992, in a matter of hours, a well-organised Hindu mob tore down a 16th century mosque in the city of Ayodhya, creating one of the most serious crises in the history of the Indian Republic. Named after Babar, the mosque was known as the Babri Masjid: it was the Hindu zealots' contention that the mosque stood upon the site of a Hindu temple dedicated Lord Rama, the divine hero of the Ramayana epic. A political (and archaeological) controversy over the site still rages, with politicians, academics and experts weighing in on both sides.
TB leaves no doubt that its writer was, in his own distinctive way, a devout Muslim. He took great pride for example, in the title of 'Ghazi' - 'Slayer of Infidels' - which he assumed after the battle of Khanua. In his autobiography Babar repeatedly announces his intention of destroying Hindu temples and images. These declarations were clearly intended, in part, to garner support among local Indian Muslims. So far as actually building mosques and demolishing temples is concerned Babar's declarations were almost certainly greatly in excess of his real intentions. However, had he indeed erected mosques on the sites of temples (and there is no clear evidence that he did) he would have done no more than Hindu rulers had themselves done, centuries earlier. Archaeological evidence indicates that many important Hindu temples are built upon earlier Buddhist sites: the great Krishna temple of Mathura for example, stands on what was probably a Buddhist monastery.[viii]
Yet, despite Babar's protestations of religious zeal, it is clear from the pages of his autobiography that he was no bigot. Hindus evidently frequented his court and many entered his service. The Sikhs - who were to become dedicated adversaries of the Mughal state in the 17th century - have long cherished a story, preserved in their scriptural tradition, about an encounter between Babar and the founder of their faith, Guru Nanak. In the process of sacking a town in the Punjab, Babar's soldiers are said to have imprisoned Guru Nanak and one of his disciples. Learning of a miracle performed by the Guru, Babar visited him in prison. Such was the presence of the Guru that Babar is said to have fallen at his feet, with the cry: 'On the face of this faqir one sees God himself.' [ix]
In any event, it is beyond dispute that Babar's descendants presided over a virtually unprecedented efflorescence in Hindu religious activity. Hinduism as we know it today - especially the Hinduism of north India - was essentially shaped under Mughal rule, often with the active participation and support of the rulers and their officials and feudatories. For instance, the Ramcharitmanas (begun c.1574)[x], the version of the Ramayana that was to be canonised as the central text of north Indian devotional practice, was composed in Akbar'reign by the great saint-poet Tulsidas. Mughal rule also co-incided with a great renaissance in Krishnaite theology. It was in this period that Rupa Goswami and other disciples of the Bengali mystic, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, rediscovered and mapped out the sacred geography of the Krishna legend.
The region consecrated to Krishna lies between Agra and Delhi: the two principal centres of Mughal power in the 16th century. The road connecting these two imperial cities runs right past the sacred sites of this area. It has frequently been observed that had the Mughals wished to persecute the Hindu saints and pilgrims who were then engaged in rediscovering those sites they could easily have done so. But far from suppressing the burgeoning activity in that area, Akbar and his nobles actively supported it. The Hindu generals and officials of his court built several of the most important temples in this area, with Akbar's active encouragement. Akbar was personally responsible for sustaining some of these temples: he granted land and revenue in perpetuity to no less than thirty-five of them.
Hinduism would scarcely be recognisable today if Krishnaite theology and Krishna-devotion had been actively suppressed in the 16th century: other forms would probably have taken their place, but we cannot know what those would have been. As a living practice contemporary Hinduism would not be what it is if it were not for the practices initiated under Mughal rule. The sad irony is that the Hindu fanatics who destroyed the Babari Mosque were attacking a symbol of the very accomodations that made their own beliefs possible.
The last ruler in Babar's dynastic line was the tragic Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was crowned in Delhi at a time when the British had already taken control of most of northern India. The last emperor ruled over little more than his own palace, yet it was in his name that millions of people across India rose in a desperate, failed bid to expel the British, in 1857. In the bloody aftermath, Bahadur Shah was exiled to Rangoon, where he died in 1862.
On a visit to Rangoon earlier this year, I learnt that the current Indian Ambassador to Burma, a Christian career diplomat from the north-eastern state of Mizoram, had taken the initiative to restore and refurbish Bahadur Shah's modest burial-place. I can think of no more appropriate tribute to the imaginative power of the Mughal umbrella.
W.M.Thackston's translation of TB is splendidly illustrated with reproductions of photographs and paintings from the collections of the Freer and Arthur M. Sackler galleries in Washington. This is the third English translation of TB, the first having appeared in 18.. and the second, the famous Annette Beveridge version in .... For all her literary talents, Annette Beveridge was not a professional scholar and W.M.Thackston, who is Professor of Near Eastern Languages at Harvard, does not mince his words in his criticism of her translation: "(it) reads like a student's effort - all the words have been looked up in the dictionary and put together".
Clearly Dr. Thackston is something of a Babar himself to tilt so blithely at a work that earned the admiration of E.M.Forster's generation. Having myself first encountered TB in the Beveridge translation, as a schoolboy, I was initially outraged at his easy dismissal of his predecessor. But on comparing key passages, I found that Dr Thackston had on the whole fulfilled his promise of a more 'fluent, idiomatic and colloquial' rendition: too much so if anything. A sentence that Mrs Beveridge renders as 'Stay here while I look along the Gava road', becomes in Dr Thackston's translation: 'You stay here... I'll go check out the Gava road'. But then, there is no rule to say that Babar sounded more like an Edwardian gentleman than a Connecticut mallrat.
In his useful and informative introduction Dr Thackston informs us that 'Mughal' is a misnomer for the dynasty that Babar founded. Babar and his descendants identified themselves as 'Gurkani' (sons-in-law), the Timurids being in-laws of the line of Genghis Khan. To Babar the word 'Mughal' denoted various 'quasi-Buddhistic, quasi-shamanistic' groups and tribes in the remoter parts of central Asia. His loathing of Mughals surpassed even his detestation of Uzbeks, Shias, Afghans and assorted infidels. "Havoc and destruction", writes Babar, "have always emanated from the Mughal nation. Up to the present date they have rebelled against me five times - not from any particular impropriety on my part, for they have often done the same with their own khans" (102).
It is probably too late to entertain objections to the Moghul title, no matter how well founded. Are we likely ever to open The New York Times and find Messrs Turner or Murdoch referred to as Gurkanis? I suspect not.
Misnamed or not, Babar's dynasty became a synonym for magnificence. Indeed for over a century, official histories, both British and Indian, have contrived to make the Mughal period a paradigm of Indian statehood. The governments of post-Independance India and Pakistan, like the British colonial regime before them, have striven to appropriate aspects of Mughal symbolism. To this day, the President of India delivers his annual Republic Day address from the ramparts of Shah Jahan's Red Fort in Delhi.
The Mughals have not been well-served by this disproportionate official attention, at home or abroad. Having been credited with all the artistic and cultural achievements of 'medieval India', they now tend also to attract more than their share of the blame for the perceived failures of that time. It is in the nature of symbols of offical grandeur that they sometimes become the focus of frustrations that ought properly to be directed elsewhere: this was quite possibly one of the elements that contributed to the escalation of the Babri Mosque controversy.In fact, the Mughal empire never covered the whole of the Indian subcontinent. In its most brilliant period it had barely a toehold in the Deccan peninsula. The later Mughals tried hard to extend their domains but their southern border tended to snap up like a rubber band every time they took a finger off its edge. Aurangzeb, the last of the six great Mughals, effectively doomed the empire by over-extending it in the south.
In the long view, the Mughal period was really nothing more than a lucky time-out, a magnificent hallucination whose end had been conceived even before it was born. For the truth is that while Babar was fighting his epic battles in the Indo-Gangetic plain, the future of the sub-continent was being decided in a series of much smaller engagements on the west coast, where various kings and rulers were fighting the Portuguese. For the Indian subcontinent as a whole the decisive battle of the 16th century was probably not Babar's engagement at Panipat (as I was taught in school and college) but rather the battle of Diu,
Astonishingly for a man of such intelligence and curiosity, Babar either had no knowledge of the Portuguese presence in western India or else thought them beneath notice. He never so much as mentions them, even though, by the time he was seated on the throne of Delhi, they had already founded a major settlement on the west coast, Goa. He remained to the end, a child of the steppes: having never seen the sea, he could scarcely be expected to possess an appreciation of naval power.
Babar's descendants had the advantage of him: they extended their domains all the way to both coasts. Yet they too, to a degree that is quite baffling, in retrospect, had their gaze turned resolutely inland. Their emissaries to Persia generally took the difficult and dangerous overland route rather than much easier sea-going one.
It is hard to imagine a greater handicap for rulers who would have to contend with an age of maritime power.
For me the saddest aspect of Babar's brief Indian sojourn is that he died without seeing the greatest gift that the subcontinent could have given him: the open ocean. What would he have made of it, this endlessly questing, insatiably curious man of the steppes? We can only wonder.
November 21, 1996