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Amitav Ghosh

Caricature by GOPI GAJWANI

In December 1992, the 16th century mosque built by the Mogul Emperor Babur was demolished by Hindu fanatics, reminding us that India, which would like to be a secular state, has always been a religious battleground. It was the most publicised victory for the new wave of Hindu fundamentalism, and history made way for myths old and new. Here’s a fresh look at Babur -- poet, warrior and founder of the Mogul dynasty -- beyond the mundane realm of praise and blame


The Baburnama, the autobiography of India’s first Mogul emperor, Zahiruddin Mohammad Babur (1483 -1530), is one of the true marvels of the medieval 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. Babur had no such precedents available: indeed as Wheeler M. Thackston, The Baburnama’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, Babur 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 Babur was also the founder of a great empire: in other words he was both a Caesar 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 12 and his death 35 years later, there seems scarcely to have been a quiet day in Babur’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.

Babur 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 his head. He was of a scrappy temperament and had many scars and brands to show for it."

Although scarcely a model parent, Babur’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 occurred to Babur on hearing of his father’s death was to flee to the mountains so that "at least I would not fall captive... to one of my uncles." Of one of his uncles Babur 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." 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."

Predictably, Babur’s uncles and cousins attacked his territories soon after he had acceded to the throne. Not to be outdone, Babur counter-attacked. At the age of 13 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 siege to the fabled city.

After a siege of seven months Babur 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 Babur’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 Babur 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 to the end of his life all he really wanted was Samarkand.

Babur’s link with Samarkand was, in the first instance, familial. His ancestor Timur Lang ( Tamerlane 1336-1404) had made Samarkand the capital of a vast empire and built it into a great centre of art and literature. For Babur, as for his innumerable Timurid uncles and cousins, to rule Samarkand was to claim succession to their glorious ancestor, the guarantor of their own titles to rule.

The idea of conquering empires was a part of Babur’s family heritage: he traced his descent not just to Timur Lang, but also to Genghis Khan (1167-1227). The story of his kingdom-seeking adolescence and youth has its genesis ultimately in that epochal churning of peoples and cultures that was set in motion by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

Genghis 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 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 Genghis 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.

Babur traced his lineage to Genghis Khan’s second son, Chagatay. When the worlds that Genghis Khan had 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 Babur was to become.

Central Asia was again briefly re-united by Timur Lang, an extra-dynastic usurper who nonetheless thought it politic to lay claim to the legacy of the Great Khan by marrying a Genghisid princess. His descendants, however, fought each other with the usual courtly relish of medieval princelings. By the time of Babur’s birth the valleys and steppes of central Asia teemed with Timurid princes in search of realms to rule. It was a time, as E.M. Forster observed, when ‘one could scarcely travel two miles without being held up by an Emperor’.

Such was the magic of the Timurid pedigree that nobody who owned it ever seems to have forfeited the right to a throne. From the age of 12 onward Babur (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 Babur came to be pushed into eastern Afghanistan and eventually northern India. These were not realms of his choice, but they were better than the prospect of unpensioned retirement.

The instrument of Babur’s misery in his early kingdom-seeking years was a chief called Shaybani (‘Wormwood’) Khan (1451-1510), an Uzbek and a hereditary enemy. The wheel that Genghis Khan had put in motion had now come full circle: just as his armies had displaced other Turco-Mongol groups, pushing them further and further to the south and the west, so now Babur and his cousins found themselves facing a people who had decided to create their own moment of destiny. With the methodical precision of a cherry-picker, Shaybani Khan picked Babur 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 Babur. "Then came the Uzbeks, the foreign foe from God knows where, and took over."

Babur was too close to the events to notice, of course, but there were some marvelous symmetries to these centuries-long processes of displacement in Central Asia; these patterns of encroachment and migration, 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 Babur’s own life. In much the same way as Shaybani Khan the Uzbek was harrying Babur, Genghis Khan had once pursued a young warrior-poet, one whose life was perhaps even more colourful than Babur’s.

The name of the Great Khan’s prey was Jalal al-din, and he was the heir presumptive of the great kingdom of Khwarizm, centred in the region between the Caspian and the Aral seas. Genghis Khan had a special grudge against the king of Khwarizm and after seizing the kingdom, in 1220, 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 14-year-old Jalal al-din rode without a break for 40 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’.

Genghis 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 after calling off the chase, Genghis Khan summoned his entourage and pointed to the young prince swimming in the torrent below. "There," said Genghis Khan, who knew about these things, "goes a brave man."

He would have said no less for his own descendant: Babur was nothing if not brave. On one occasion in The Baburnama, 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."

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." 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."

Eventually his perseverance paid off. In 1504, ‘at the beginning of my twenty-third year (when) I first put a razor to my face’, moving ever southward, staying one step ahead of the Uzbeks, he stumbles upon the kingdom of Kabul and 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. He observes speculatively: "Four roads lead (to Kabul) from Hindusthan". But his principal ambitions are still directed towards the north and Samarkand. He even succeeds in taking the city of his dreams, only to find himself expelled from it once again shortly afterwards.

With his northern options closed, he turns to the south.

Through all his adventures, Babur kept writing, mainly poetry. Even while fleeing from the Uzbeks, he found time to carve a verse on a 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 bravery 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 Babur 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, Timur Lang. But his ancestors’ literary ambitions usually stopped at connoisseurship, patronage and upon occasion, the composing of a divan - the collection of poems that was expected of every man of good breeding. Babur did indeed compose collections of poems, but he was the only man of his lines to embark on a work of extended prose. He did it moreover, not in the literary language of his court, Persian, but in the domestic demotic of his family, Chagatay Turkish.

To read The Baburnama is constantly to ask oneself what could possibly have prompted a man in Babur’s position to write his memoirs. Historically, autobiography was not a form that flourished in Asia, certainly not in Central Asia, where Babur’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 Babur 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 event, 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."

But he may have come closer to the truth in his first poem, a ghazal, written at the age of 18: "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 Babur to set down these reflections on his life; it was probably the intimacy of that endeavor that led him to choose Turkish - his domestic language - rather than the courtly Persian that was generally used in his circle. Whatever the reason, the result was a memoir that was anything but a judicious chronicle of affairs of state. Written centuries before the discovery of the Self, The Baburnama is still, astonishingly, a narrative of self-discovery. Its tone is disarmingly open and trusting, and in self-revelation it yields nothing to the confessional memoir of the 1990s.

Babur does not, for instance, 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 10, 15 or 20 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.

Babur writes no less trenchantly about women than men: as friends or adversaries they were evidently a formidable force in his life. The women of The Baburnama are strong-willed and independent, 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 the sorry end of yet another aunt who 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 Babur. The Muslim fundamentalists of contemporary Afghanistan would do well to read The Baburnama: they would find that the past they want to return to is not quite what they imagine it to be.

Babur is at his most self-revelatory in his description of his drinking life. Although he came from a hard-drinking line, Babur was 29 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 Babur, "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 decades-long love affair with wine: Babur seems to have dedicated much of his time in Afghanistan to the pursuit of wine and ma’jun. So much for Afghan fundamentalism.

Babur provides us with meticulous descriptions 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."


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