The First Mughal Emperor’s Towering Account of Exile, Bloody Conquest, and the Natural World

William Dalrymple on the 16th-Century Memoir, Babur Nama

At the end of 1525, Zahiru’d-din Muhammad Babur, a Timurid poet-prince from Farghana in Central Asia, descended the Khyber Pass with a small army of hand-picked followers; with him he brought some of the first modern muskets and cannons seen in India. With these he defeated the Delhi Sultan, Ibrahim Lodhi, and established his garden-capital at Agra.

This was not Babur’s first conquest. He had spent much of his youth throneless, living with his companions from day to day, rustling sheep and stealing food. Occasionally he would capture a town—he was 14 when he first took Samarkand and held it for four months. Aged 21, he finally managed to seize and secure Kabul, and it was this Afghan base that became the springboard for his later conquest of India.

But before this he had lived for years in a tent, displaced and dispossessed, a peripatetic existence that had little appeal to him. “It passed through my mind,” he wrote, “that to wander from mountain to mountain, homeless and houseless . . . had nothing to recommend it.”

Babur died in 1530, only four years after his arrival in India, and before he could properly consolidate his new conquests. He regarded himself as a failure for having lost his family lands in Central Asia and was profoundly ashamed that his generation of Timurids, thanks to their squabbles and rivalries, had failed to defend their ancestral inheritance after holding Oxiana for more than a century. He could not have imagined that his new Indian conquests would grow to be the greatest and most populous of all Muslim-ruled empires with, by 1650, around 150 million subjects—five times the number ruled by their Ottoman rivals.

At this point, his family’s lands were producing about a quarter of all global manufacturing: the Mughal Empire had become the world’s industrial powerhouse and its greatest producer of manufactured textiles. In comparison, England then had just five percent of India’s population and was producing under three percent of the world’s manufactured goods.

A good proportion of the profits of these Indian manufactures found their way to the Mughal exchequer in Agra, making Babur’s successors, with incomes of around £100 million, by far the richest monarchs in the world.

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the great Mughal cities of Agra and Lahore are revealed to Adam after the Fall as future wonders of God’s creation. This was no understatement: by the age of Milton, Lahore had grown larger even than Constantinople, and, with its two million inhabitants, dwarfed both London and Paris. From the ramparts of the Fort, Babur’s descendants ruled over most of India, all of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and great chunks of Afghanistan.

The Babur Nama is in many ways an oddly modern text, almost Proustian in its self-awareness.

Their army was all but invincible; their palaces unparalleled; the domes of their many mosques quite literally glittered with gold. The Mughals were really rivaled only by their Ming counterparts in China. For their grubby contemporaries in the West, stumbling around in their codpieces, Babur’s descendants, dripping in jewels, were the living embodiment of wealth and power—a meaning that has remained impregnated in the word “mogul” ever since.

If the dynasty Babur founded represented Islamic rule at its most powerful and majestic, it also defined it at its most aesthetically pleasing: this was, after all, the Empire that gave the world Mughal miniatures, Mughal gardens and the spectacular architectural tradition that culminated in the Taj Mahal. The great Mughal Emperors were also, with one notable exception, tolerant, pluralistic and eclectic. Their Empire was effectively built in coalition with India’s Hindu majority, particularly the Rajputs of Rajasthan, and succeeded as much through conciliation as by war.

This was particularly true of Babur’s grandson, the Emperor Akbar (1542–1605), who issued an edict of universal religious toleration, forbade forcible conversion to Islam and married a succession of Hindu wives. At the same time that Jesuits were being hanged, drawn and quartered in London, and when much of Catholic Europe was subject to the Inquisition, in India Akbar was summoning Jesuits from Goa, as well as Sunnis and Shia Muslims, Hindus of both Shaivite and Vaishnavite persuasions, Jews from Cochin, Parsis from Gujarat and groups of Hindu atheists, to come to his palace and debate their understanding of the metaphysical, declaring that “no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.”

Babur not only established this extraordinary dynasty and set the tone for its future political, economic, aesthetic and humanistic triumphs; he also produced one of the most fascinating autobiographies ever written to record exactly how he did it. The Babur Nama does much more than merely keep the memory of his conquests alive. In its pages Babur opens his soul with a frankness and lack of inhibition comparable to Pepys.

Typical is his description of falling in love with an adolescent boy from the camp bazaar: “Up till then I had had no inclination for anyone, indeed of love and desire,” he wrote. “In that frothing-up of desire and passion, and under that stress of youthful folly, I used to wander bare-headed, bare-foot, through street and lane, orchard and vineyard. I shewed civility neither to friend nor stranger, took no care for myself or others.”

Throughout his memoir, we are admitted to Babur’s innermost confidence as he examines and questions the world around him. He compares the fruits and animals of India and Afghanistan with as much inquisitiveness as he records his impressions of falling for men or marrying women, or weighing up the differing pleasures of opium, hashish and alcohol.

Profoundly honest and unusually articulate, at once emotionally compelling and profoundly revealing, the Babur Nama is in many ways an oddly modern text, almost Proustian in its self-awareness. It presents the uncensored fullness of the man, a human life perfectly pinned to the page in simple, direct and unpretentious prose.

The uniqueness of the Babur Nama was immediately recognized by all Babur’s contemporaries as it was by his Mughal successors, who quickly had it translated from Babur’s colloquial Turki to literary Persian; from Persian it was first translated into English in 1826 by William Erskine and John Leyden, and became a favorite text of the Orientalists of the British Raj who had replaced the Mughals in India, and who saw many echoes of their life and thoughts in his.

According to the Victorian administrator and Persian scholar Henry Beveridge, husband of the translator of this volume, Annette Beveridge (their son, William Beveridge, was instrumental in the formation of the British Welfare State) the Babur Nama “is one of those priceless records which are for all time, and is fit to rank with the confessions of St. Augustine and Rousseau, and the memoirs of Gibbon and Newton. In Asia it stands almost alone.”

This last sentence is not quite accurate: there was in fact a wonderfully rich tradition of Islamic autobiography out of which the Babur Nama grew, and which includes such masterworks as the witty and urbane Memoirs of Usamah Ibn-Munqidh, a Syrian Arab landowner from the time of the Crusades, and the wise, measured and ironic Mirror for Princes of Kai Ka’us Qabus, an 11th-century Seljuk vassal of the Ziyarid dynasty, whose grandfather built the great Gunbad-i-Qabus tomb tower on the Caspian steppe, and had his corpse suspended halfway up in a rock crystal coffin.

What is true, however, is that the Babur Nama is the culmination and climax of that Islamic autobiographical tradition as much as the Taj Mahal is the climax of its architectural legacy.

It is not just that the book is so very long and fabulously detailed: it extends to 600 pages in the latest Turki critical edition, even with 15 Afghan years of the story now missing and lost forever. This means that Babur’s life is more fully documented than that of any figure in the entire pre- colonial Islamic world. What makes it stand out and remain relevant and moving today is its universal humanism, and its unusual honesty, sensitivity and self-understanding.

As his latest scholarly biographer, Stephen Dale puts it:

Babur transcended the narrative and historical genres of his culture to produce a retrospective self-portrait of the kind that is usually associated with the most stylishly effective European and American autobiographies. No other author in the Islamic world—or in pre-colonial India or China—offers a comparable autobiographical memoir, a seemingly ingenuous first-person narrative enlivened with self-criticism as well as self-dramatization and the evocation of universally recognizable human emotions.

Not only does Babur make himself seem engaging and personally approachable to modern readers, he also creates a three-dimensional picture of his world otherwise known mainly from traditional, stylized political narratives and dazzlingly colorful but two-dimensional miniature paintings.

The Babur Nama is also, as generations of readers from different cultures have found, an unusually charming text: a warm-hearted, romantic and deeply engaging record of a highly cultured and honestly self-critical man: “His literary work delivers to us everything,” writes Jean-Paul Roux, the French historian of the Mughals, “with his qualities and faults, especially his daily inner self, in his most casual moods, in his most profound thoughts, which often could have been our own.”

From the opening page, Babur’s love of nature and the fineness of his descriptive eye are immediately apparent as he evokes his lost homeland, the Farghana Valley. Passage after passage lovingly describes the things he adored and now, writing in Indian exile, misses: spring mornings spent in hillsides dotted with wild violets, tulips and roses; cold running water, passing through “a shady and delightful clover-meadow where every passing traveler takes a rest”; “beautiful little gardens with fruit trees and almond trees in the orchards”; “pomegranates renowned for their excellence”, “good hunting and fowling”, pheasants which “grow so surprisingly fat that rumor has it four people could not finish one they were eating with its stew.”

Throughout the text, Babur’s eye is alert for natural beauty and inquisitive about its curiosities. He is, for example, delighted by the idea of the flying squirrels that he “found in these mountains, an animal larger than a bat and having a curtain, like a bat’s wing, between its arms and legs . . . it is said to fly, downward from one tree to another . . . Once we put one to a tree; it clambered up directly and got away, but, when people went after it, it spread its wings and came down, without hurt, as if it had flown.”

Babur’s first act after a conquest was to go to the library of his opponent and raid its shelves.

Paragraphs are devoted to the different varieties of many-colored tulips growing wild in the Hindu Kush or to the smell of holm oak when used as winter firewood, “blazing less than mastic but like it, making a hot fire with plenty of hot ashes, and nice smell. It has the peculiarity in burning that when its leafy branches are set alight, they fire up with amazing sound, blazing and crackling from bottom to top.”

He goes into raptures about the changing colors of a flock of geese on the horizon, “something as red as the rose of the dawn kept shewing and vanishing between the sky and the water”.Elsewhere he rhapsodizes about the brilliant colors of an Afghan autumn.

Above all, he loved books. His first act after a conquest was to go to the library of his opponent and raid its shelves. Whenever he visited a new city he would go to poetry meetings and listen to the verses being recited by its poets, joining in where appropriate, and criticizing whenever he disliked a particular couplet. Bad poets were a particular source of irritation to the connoisseur in Babur.

One uncle he admired for his table and administration—“everything of his was orderly and well-arranged”—but castigated for kidnapping beautiful boys for his bed (“that vile practice”) and even more so for his “flat and insipid” verse—“not to compose is better than to compose verse such as his”.

His sensibilities sharpened by wide reading, Babur had a great gift for producing these witty and often piquant word-portraits of his contemporaries. His own father he described as

short and stout, round-bearded and fleshy-faced . . . He used to wear his tunic so very tight that to fasten the strings he had to draw his belly in and, if he let himself out after tying them, they often tore away. He was not choice in dress or food . . . In his early days he was a great drinker, later on used to have a party once or twice a week. He was good company, on occasions reciting verses admirably . . .

The Babur Nama is an intriguingly mixed bag of such character sketches mixed with musings on a wide variety of subjects: it is at once a diary, a history, a collection of nature notes, a gazetteer, a family chronicle and book of advice of a concerned father to a slightly hopeless son.

It is divided into three parts. The first tells of his childhood and the adolescent failures that led to the loss of his patrimony. The second tells of his early twenties and his time spent homeless and wandering beyond the Oxus. This is followed by the lucky capture of Kabul, which he then uses as a base to rally his exiled and scattered Timurid relatives. The third tells the story of his final years and the conquest of India, a triumph tainted in its author’s eyes by the ever-present pain of exile and loss. History may remember him as the first Mughal Emperor, but in his own eyes he was always a refugee.

Much of the text is a record of Babur’s restless energy and ambition, his struggles in a world that is inevitably profoundly male, military and feudal: fighting, riding, polo, drinking, swimming, fishing and hawking occupy many more pages than more peaceful pursuits such as chess, painting, calligraphy, romance, versifying or love-making.

But even the most relentlessly masculine passages are redeemed by Babur’s personal modesty and his awareness of his own failures, which he depicts as leading directly to the displacement and the exile of his people. He gives as much space for battles lost as he does to battles won, and he takes full responsibility for his youthful failures: “These blunders,” he writes, “were the fruits of inexperience.”

He is also frank about his capacity for grief and depression, and open about the great tragedies of his life, and the way that they brought about his darkest moments. He writes with palpable feeling about his mother’s death from fever, and the death of his comrades-in-arms: “His death made me strangely sad,” he writes at one point, “for few men have I felt such grief; I wept unceasingly for a week or ten days.”

He sets out at the beginning that he intends to hide nothing, however badly it may reflect on him, and he remains strikingly true to this undertaking: “In this History,” he writes, “I have held firmly to it that the truth should be reached in every matter, and that every act should be recorded precisely as it occurred.”

Partly as a result of this, the Babur Nama also records much that is to our eyes unflattering. In this way it provides evidence for those in India, particularly from the Hindu Right, who today look on Babur as a barbarous and bloodthirsty jihadi invader.

For all the examples of his intense sensitivity towards botany, his love of poetry and calligraphy and painting, he also records himself ordering the slaughter of captives, the bloody torture and impaling of rebels and the enslavement of the women and children of his enemies. He even records building pyramids of skulls. These were, after all, extremely violent times.

Babur, in short, was at once the most refined of aesthetes, personally warm and loyal, with a sophisticated and sensitive mind; and also what we today might regard as a war criminal.

Like Alexander the Great, Rajaraja Chola, a Florentine prince of the age of Machiavelli, or an Elizabethan poet-privateer contemporary of Sidney or Drake, Babur was a man of ruthless, even pitiless action as well as one of extraordinary sensitivity. As Stephen Dale puts it, Babur shares with his Renaissance contemporaries,  “the cultivation and refinement of aesthetic sensibility amidst a brutal life of constant political and social violence”.

The parallel with the Italian Renaissance also struck Salman Rushdie. “The Western thinker whom Babur most resembles is his contemporary, the Florentine Niccolò Machiavelli,” he wrote in his brilliant essay on the Babur Nama:

In both men, a cold appreciation of the necessities of power, of what would today be called realpolitik, is combined with a deeply cultured and literary nature, not to mention the love, often to excess, of wine and women.

Of course, Babur was an actual prince, not simply the author of The Prince, and could practice what he preached; while Machiavelli, the natural republican, the survivor of torture, was by far the more troubled spirit of the pair. Yet both of these unwilling exiles were, as writers, blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a clear-sightedness that looks amoral; as truth often does.

Babur, in short, was at once the most refined of aesthetes, personally warm and loyal, with a sophisticated and sensitive mind; and also what we today might regard as a war criminal: casually violent and quite capable, when necessary, of overseeing acts of mass murder. As Rushdie concludes, “Who then was Babur—scholar or barbarian, nature-loving poet or terror-inspiring warlord? The answer is to be found in the Baburnama, and it’s an uncomfortable one: he was both.”

Amid so much in his memoir that is deeply human and which speaks to us with so much immediacy, it is this interplay of the sophisticated and warmly familiar with the alarmingly foreign and brutal that, more than anything else, gives the Babur Nama its compelling complexity.

For although the Babur Nama records extraordinary, world-changing events, today, as in previous ages, it is still read for its humanity. As much as any pre-modern text it is a reminder that while some things change from age to age, much remains universal.

To read Babur waxing on the beauty of a spring-time garden, or the perils of mixing drink and drugs, is still as resonant and pleasurable in the 21st century as it was in the early 20th, when this translation was produced, or in the 16th, when it was first written.

It is remarkable above all for the picture it provides of an extraordinary man, one of the very few in history who combined dexterity with both sword and pen. It remains, without doubt, one of the greatest memoirs, in any language and of any age, and presents us with one of the most complex, complete and satisfying self-portraits in world literature.

__________________________________

Excerpted from The Babur Nama by Babur. Used with the permission of the publisher, Everyman’s Library, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Introduction copyright © 2020 by William Dalrymple. Translation copyright © 2020 by Annette Susannah Beveridge.

William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple is the bestselling author of In Xanadu, City of Djinns, From the Holy Mountain, The Age of Kali, White Mughals, The Last Mughal and, most recently, Nine Lives. He has won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award, the Ryszard Kapuscinski Award for Literary Reportage, the Hemingway Prize, the French Prix d'Astrolabe, the Wolfson Prize for History, the Scottish Book of the Year Award, the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, the Asia House Award for Asian Literature, the Vodafone Crossword Award and has three times been longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. In 2012 he was appointed Whitney J. Oates Visiting Fellow in Humanities at Princeton University. He lives with his wife and three children on a farm outside Delhi.





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