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Babur Nama: Journal of Emperor Babur

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385 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0144001491, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by Laxman D. Satya

book cover for BABUR NAMA
Journal of Emperor BaburOriginally written in Turkish by Emperor Babur (1483–1530) and translated into Persian by his grandson, Emperor Akbar (1556–1605), Babur Nama, Journal of Emperor Babur is now available in English, complete with maps, tables of the family tree, glossary, list of main characters, an Islamic calendar, Babur’s daily prayer, and endnotes that are not too overbearing. Dilip Hiro has done a marvelous job of editing this classic of the autobiographical account of the founder of the Mughal Empire in India that lasted from 1526–1707. It was written in an elaborate style as a journal or daily diary and records the events in his life and times.

From page one, it is obvious that Babur was a highly cultured individual with a meticulous eye for recording details through observation. Even though he was from an elite class of rulers and sultans, in these memoirs he records the lives of ordinary folks like soldiers, acrobats, musicians, singers, wine drinkers, maajun eaters, weavers, water carriers, lamp keepers, boatmen, thieves, gatekeepers, rebels, dervishes (holy men), Sufis, scholars, youth, pastoralists, peasants, artisans, merchants, and traders. Strangely, there is very little mention of women and children other than his immediate family members—his mother, sister, aunts, or daughters—and they are always mentioned with great respect and reverence.

Babur was a religious person who meticulously observed prayers and fasting during Ramadan. He regularly donated to the poor (zakat) and for the construction of mosques. The amazing aspect of his belief was his tolerance towards Shi’a and Sufi practices. In fact, he even made an alliance with Shah Ismail Safavi of Iran in the early sixteenth century, defying the annoyance of his own Sunni Turkish and Afghan followers. He often visited the tombs of Sufi saints to pray and had conversations with Sufi dervishes and Sunni scholars. This was a reflection of the beliefs and practices of ordinary Muslims who seldom saw much difference between Sunni, Shi’i, Sufi—or any other religion, for that matter.

Babur was a lover of gardens, natural springs, fountains, and watercourses. Everywhere he went he laid out Persian and Turkish style gardens and orchards. He also commissioned the construction of many water tanks and short channels to irrigate these gardens. A great connoisseur of fruit. Babur wrote elaborate descriptions of every type of fruit in Central Asia and India, which he called Hindustan. For example, crossing the Indus, he expresses great surprise at seeing mangos and bananas for the first time, and he left a detailed account of the cultivation, physical appearance, and taste of these two primary fruit trees from India. He also records the first time he watched colorful parrots in Indian gardens. Then there is mention of watermelons, muskmelons, pomegranates, apples, peaches, and grapes from Afghanistan, Iran, and Transoxiana. Even though there is no mention of the cultivation of fruit for the market, it may very well be that Babur’s idea of growing fruit in gardens and plantations triggered commercial cultivation of fruit that later developed under the patronage of emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan in seventeenth century Mughal India.

There are elaborate descriptions of wine parties that Babur held in his garden and tent, where everyone drank heavily. In these parties, an intoxicant called maajun (a candy of crushed bhang—the leaf and flower of a female Cannabis sativa plant—milk, sugar, and spices) was also freely consumed. Interestingly, there is not much mention of feast or food consumed either at these parties or otherwise in day-to-day life. Babur was no doubt aware of the fact that the Quran forbade intoxication, especially consumption of wine and liquor. It was only in the capital city of Agra, India, later in life (1527), that he repented, stopped consuming alcohol, and issued a public renunciation throughout his Empire.

Even though Babur was a warrior and took more pride in his paternal Turkish origin than his maternal Mongol origin, there is not a shred of machismo in his attitude. Numerous entries describe how he fell sick, could not ride a horse, and had to be carried in a litter. Many illnesses and afflictions find mention in his memoirs, including fever, ague, headache, stomach trouble, earache, boils, broken bones, bodily pains, depression, nausea, and vomiting, that often knocked him out for weeks or months at a time. Nevertheless, he was a man of enormous energy for war and travel, constantly moving around Asia, from his birth in Andijan (Fergana, Uzbekistan) until his death in Agra (India).

Babur was, in modern parlance, a tourist who enjoyed sightseeing. Whenever he conquered a new territory or lost a battle (many), he made it a point to talk to the local people and see the exceptional sites of the region, even if just a visit to see an ordinary water well, a garden, an exotic tree, a beautiful flower, or a saint’s tomb with supposedly miraculous powers. His journal is full of the names and descriptions of waterways, boat rides, gardens, mountains, valleys, villages, seasons, music, dance, songs, and poems. He was a writer and a poet par excellence, a rather unique combination with his warrior way of life.

In one sense, this book is about war. There are elaborate descriptions of war plans and strategies throughout. An entire world of late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Central Asia and North India is brought to life in these pages. This is an excellent resource to study the technology of the early modern era, when gunpowder and cannons played a leading role in making medieval forts obsolete during the process of state and empire building. In this context, the development in the Indian subcontinent was significant, because Babur employed the Ottoman military tactic of mobile defense and long-range artillery that made the millennia-old elephant cavalry charge obsolete. Employed by the Delhi Sultan Ibrahim Lodi in the decisive Battle of Panipat (1526), the elephant cavalry charge led to the establishment of the Mughal Empire in India. In fact, Babur was utterly stunned, like Alexander of Macedon two millennia earlier, the first time he saw the huge Indian war elephant. This interesting story is well captured in this autobiographical journal.

On the whole, this is a lively and entertaining book. Babur was a great master in the art of writing, recording events, describing what he saw, and poetry. During one twenty-six-day bout of illness, he composed a quatrain or two thus:

Fever grows strong in my body by day,

Sleep quits my eyes as night gains;

Like my pain and my patience together weigh,

For a while one waxes and the other wanes. (303)

After handing over power to Humayun, Babur died on December 26, 1530. In mourning, Khwaja Kalan, a critical supporter of his who returned to Kabul after Babur’s conquest of Delhi and Agra, cited the following ode of the famous poet Badayuni:

Alas! That time and the changing heaven should exist

without you;

Alas! Alas! That you should be gone while time still goes on.

This book is a great source for understanding not only Asian and Islamic history, but also to place it in the context of world history. It is a first rate primary source to use with students at a variety of levels. Even though the text is over 300 pages, the style is fast paced and action oriented and firmly holds the interest of the reader.

A book report assignment on Babur Nama has the potential to generate lively discussion. One key aspect, which could be brought out very effectively, is the significant role Central Asia, India, and Islam played in the transition from the medieval to the modern period. Reading books like this help students to better understand the power and dynamism of Asia throughout much of world history, thus moving away from the Eurocentric fixation with Columbus and the Atlantic world based theories of modernity, which still poignantly pervades much of Euro-American scholarship, even though recent research has quite successfully challenged it.