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  The man behind the mosque — 2  

  Vol I : issue 2

  Noam Chomsky
  Amitav Ghosh
  Nirmal Verma
  MT Vasudevan Nair
Mrinal Sen
  Urvashi Butalia

Sunil Gangopadhyay
  Only in Print

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Amitav Ghosh

Babur's descent from Timur, gouache
and gold on paper, c.1630

And so things went, until he led his fifth and final expedition into India. In 1527, shortly before a decisive battle, Babur 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.

A few weeks later he led his army into battle at Khanua, against a massive force assembled by Rana Sangram Singh, the most powerful Rajput ruler in North India. Babur prevailed.

Babur did not find temperance easy, even though he consoled himself liberally with ma’jun. "Everybody regrets drinking and then takes the oath," he wrote, "But I have taken the oath and now regret it." But Babur was true to his word: 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 Babur 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 did a great deal to enrich the architectural heritage of the city that was to become India’s capital. Despite internal dissensions the Lodis managed to field an army of 100,000 men and 1,000 elephants against Babur’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, Babur routed the Lodi Sultan and took possession of Delhi.

With the defeat of Rana Sangram Singh’s Rajput coalition the following year, Babur secured his hold on northern India. There were skirmishes and minor battles to be fought but for the most part, Babur was content to occupy himself in distributing the spoils to his followers and retainers and in making detailed observations of his new kingdom. With his usual curiosity, 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 Babur 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 Afghans, Shias, Uzbeks, Indians and others who fell outside that circle he reserved an overarching and curiously unprejudiced dislike.

A strain of deep melancholy runs through the last pages of the The Baburnama, as though Babur 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."

His Indian victories seem to have left Babur 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 Babur none is more wonderful than that of his death. In 1530 Humayun, Babur’s beloved eldest son and heir-apparent, was stricken by a fever. He was brought immediately to Babur’s court at Agra, but despite the best efforts of the royal physicians, his condition

steadily worsened. Driven to despair, Babur 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."

Babur 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."

Greatly distressed, Babur’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...

Babur would not hear of it. "What value has worldly wealth?" Babur 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 Babur began to sicken, while Humayun grew slowly well. Babur died near Agra on December 21, 1530. He left orders for his body to be buried in Kabul.

As a writer, intellectual and soldier Babur stood very far above the men of his time: as a ruler, on the other hand, his ideas never extended 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 had learnt in his early youth, 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. Nine years after 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 five years, but on his death in 1545 he left behind a sound administrative infrastructure.

Ten years later Humayun invaded northern India and conquered Delhi once again from Sher Shah’s unworthy heirs. It was probably fortunate for the Mogul dynasty that Humayun 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 Babur’s grandson Akbar, then a boy of 13, to take the throne.

Akbar (1542-1605) proved to be one of the greatest rulers in the history of the Indian subcontinent. He 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 traditions 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 almost half a century and the aura of legitimacy he left behind was to sustain Mogul rule for generations afterwards.

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 Mogul 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 the first Mogul, 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 to Lord Ram, 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.

The text of The Baburnama leaves no doubt that its writer was a devout Muslim. Babur took great pride for example, in the title of ‘Ghazi’ – ‘Slayer of Infidels’ - which he assumed after the battle of Khanua. In his autobiography Babur 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, Babur’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.

Yet, despite Babur’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 Mogul state in the 17th century - have long cherished a story, preserved in their scriptural tradition, about an encounter between Babur and the founder of their faith, Guru Nanak. In the process of sacking a town in the Punjab, Babur’s soldiers are said to have imprisoned Guru Nanak and one of his disciples. Learning of a miracle performed by the Guru, Babur visited him in prison. Such was the presence of the Guru that Babur is said to have fallen at his feet, with the cry: "On the face of this faqir one sees God himself."

In any event, it is beyond dispute that Babur’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 Mogul rule, often with the active participation and support of the rulers and their officials and feudatories. The Ramcharitmanas, for example, the version of the Ramayana that was to be canonised as the central text of north Indian devotional practice, was composed in Akbar’s reign by the great saint-poet Tulsidas. The early years of Mogul rule also coincided with a great renaissance in the theology of Krishna. It was in this period that Rupa Goswami and other disciples of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu rediscovered and mapped out the sacred geography of the Krishna legend.

Brajbhumi - the region that is most sacred to Krishna bhakti - lies between Agra and Delhi, the two principal centres of Mogul power in the 16th century. The road connecting these two imperial cities runs right past the sacred sites of Braj. It is self-evident that if the Moguls had wished to persecute Vaishnavites they could easily have done so. But far from suppressing the burgeoning activity in this 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 encouragement. Akbar was personally responsible for sustaining some of these temples: he granted land and revenue in perpetuity to no less than 35 of them.

Hinduism would scarcely be recognisable today if Vaishnavism had been actively suppressed in the 16th century: other devotional forms may have taken its place, but we cannot know what those would have been. It is a simple fact that contemporary Hinduism as a living practice would not be what it is if it were not for the devotional practices initiated under Mogul rule. The sad irony of the assault on the Babri mosque is that the Hindu fanatics who attacked it destroyed a symbol of the very accommodations that made their own beliefs possible.

W.M. Thackston’s translation of The Baburnama 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 The Baburnama, after Erskine’s 1826 version, and the famous Annette Beveridge edition, published between 1912 and 1921. 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 criticising 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 Babur himself, to tilt so blithely at a work that earned the admiration of no less a writer than E.M. Forster. Having myself first encountered The Baburnama 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, I know of no rule that says that Babur must sound more like an Edwardian gentleman than a Massachusetts mallrat.

In his useful and informative introduction Dr Thackston informs us that ‘Mogul’ is a misnomer for the dynasty that Babur founded. Babur and his descendants identified themselves as ‘Gurkani’ (sons-in-law), the Timurids being in-laws of the line of Genghis Khan. To Babur the word ‘Mogul’ denoted various "quasi-Buddhistic, quasi-shamanistic" groups and tribes in the remoter parts of central Asia. His loathing of Moguls surpassed even his detestation of Uzbeks, Shias, Afghans and assorted infidels. "Havoc and destruction," writes Babur, "have always emanated from the Mogul 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."

It is probably too late to entertain objections to the Mogul title, no matter how well founded. Are we likely ever to speak of Steven Spielberg or Subhash Ghai as movie Gurkanis? I don’t think so.

The British had a particular affection for Babur in whom they imagined themselves to have discovered a precursor for their hard-drinking, free-living imperialist pioneers. Colonial historiography actively promoted a view of the Raj as a successor state to an earlier imperial regime, also established by ‘foreign conquerors’. This last especially was a recurrent theme in the British discourse on the Moguls [I was recently reminded by Agha Ashraf Ali, the Kashmiri educationist and scholar, that Vincent Smith’s life of Akbar begins with the line: ‘Akbar was a foreigner...’].

In the British view the Mogul period was iconic of India itself: a period of unequalled magnificence, the defining moment of Indian history. Given the general effectiveness of British historical propaganda these views had an enormous impact and continued to be in general circulation until well after Independence. It is only in the last 10 to 15 years that alternative views have begun to gain currency.

Thus, for the better part of a century official histories, both British and Indian, contrived to make the Mogul period a paradigm of Indian statehood. The governments of post-Independence India and Pakistan, like the British colonial regime before them, strove to appropriate aspects of Mogul symbolism (it is surely no co-incidence that to this day, India’s Prime Ministers deliver their annual Independence Day speeches from the ramparts of Shah Jahan’s Red Fort in Delhi).

The Moguls have not been well-served by this disproportionate official attention, at home and abroad. Having been credited with the most important artistic and political 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 official 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.

The Moguls are today in the unenviable position of having to carry the blame for several subsequent appropriations of their reputation. Is it really surprising that so much anger has come to be focused on official historical paradigms of the Indian state, especially those that stress grandeur, monumentality and territorial expansion to the exclusion of all else? These readings of Indian history choose to glorify everything that contemporary Indians are justly suspicious of: grand imperial states, entrenched bureaucracies, centralism, dynastic rule... There is little here that could appeal to people of democratic or secular inclination - and it is a sad irony that it is exactly such people who now find themselves compelled to swallow this bitter pill. The attempt to combat the quasi-fascistic ideology of the RSS and other Hindu revivalist organisations by defending the ‘secularism’ of the Moguls, is to my mind ultimately self-defeating, although undoubtedly well-meant: we would do better to restore the balance by paying closer attention to the many competing local traditions - Hindu, Muslim, Adivasi, Christian, Jain, Buddhist and so on - that make up the history of the living constellation of India. South Asian history has an enormous wealth of traditions that are anarchic, millenarian, ecstatic, egalitarian and syncretistic: why then should we allow our view of the past to be pegged to a certain kind of hieratic statism?

The fact is that the Mogul period is no more iconic of India than any other moment in the subcontinent’s history. To treat it as such is to do it a profound disservice, in the sense that it is to burden it with more than its fair share of the discontents of the present. The simple truth is that in its most brilliant period the Mogul empire had barely a toehold in the Deccan peninsula. Through much of this period the kingdom of Vijaynagar far outshone its northern rival. The later Moguls tried hard to extend their domains but their southern border tended to snap like a rubber band every time they took a finger off its edge. Aurangzeb, the last of the six great Moguls, effectively doomed the empire by over-extending it in the south.

In the long view, the Mogul 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 Babur 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. For the Indian subcontinent as a whole the decisive military engagement of the 16th century was not Babur’s victory at Panipat (as I was taught in school and college) but rather the naval battle of Diu, fought in 1509, when a Portuguese fleet attacked and defeated the combined naval forces of the Muslim ruler of Gujarat, the Hindu king of Calicut and the Sultan of Egypt. After Diu the control of the Indian Ocean passed decisively into European hands, never to be recovered. On the occasion of this victory Dom Francisco de Almeida, the Portuguese viceroy, pointed to the moral of his victory: "As long as you may be powerful at sea you will hold India as yours; and if you do not possess this power, little will avail you a fortress on shore." He could not have been more prescient. The task of tending the ‘fortress on shore’ fell to the Moguls and a sorry hash they made of it.

Astonishingly for a man of such intelligence and curiosity, Babur either had no knowledge of the Portuguese presence in western India or else thought it beneath notice. He never so much as mentions the Portuguese, even though, by the time he was seated on the throne of Delhi, they had already founded 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.

Babur’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 - so much so that 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 a dynasty that would be called upon to defend its realm in an age of maritime power.

For me the saddest aspect of Babur’s brief Indian sojourn is that he died without setting eyes on the most splendid sight the subcontinent could have offered him: the open ocean. What would he have made of it, this endlessly questing, insatiably curious man of the steppes? We can only wonder.


The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor, translated, edited and annotated by Wheeler M. Thackston, Freer Gallery of Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Oxford University Press; New York, Oxford, 1996.


p. 1 p. 2

Amitav Ghosh is one of the most respected names in contemporary Indian literature.
Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award and the prestigious Prix Medicis Etrangere
of France, he writes in English and lives in New York