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Baburnama

by Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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301363,627 (3.82)12
Both an official chronicle and the highly personal memoir of the emperor Babur (1483-1530), The Baburnama presents a vivid and extraordinarily detailed picture of life in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India during the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries. Babur's honest and intimate chronicle is the first autobiography in Islamic literature, written at a time when there was no historical precedent for a personal narrative--now in a sparkling new translation by Islamic scholar Wheeler Thackston. This Modern Library Paperback Classics edition includes notes, indices, maps, and illustrations.… (more)
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Wonderfully vivid personal account of the adventures of the founder of the Mogul empire ( )
  antiquary | Oct 26, 2007 |
Baburnama- The memoirs of Babur
In the province of Fergana, in the year 1494, when I was twelve year old, I became king.
Thus starts the Bāburnāma, The memoirs of Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur - poet, warrior, leader, father, chronicler, and the founder of the Mughal Empire in India.

Baburnama or Babar Nameh, literally meaning the "Book of Babur" or "Letters of Babur", is the personal diary of Babur written in Chagatai Turkish.

Babur was born in the Fergana Valley, in 1483, a descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamarlane. In the course of his life he would rule Samakhand, lose it twice, rule over Kabul in Afghanistan and then finally invade India and create the Mughal Empire.
His successors (Akbar, Shah Jahan and Humayun) would largely complete the unification of India. The legacy of the Mughals survives to this day in the LalQila, the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and sadly, the Babri Masjid(which did not survive after all).

Babur died in 1530, deeply unhappy. Though he coveted India’s wealth, he died pining for his native Samarkhand, a place that sadly even his body could not be buried in (he was later buried in Kabul).
Babur wrote incessantly, barring a 10 year break. These diaries capture a lot of fascinating detail about Babur’s daily life. What’s even more amazing is that Babur was an acute observer of the people and places around him and he chronicled these in great detail in his memoirs. Birds, animals, flowers, fruits, distances, clothing, people and their personalities – all these are keenly noted by Babur and faithfully detailed in his book

These writings show many sides of Babur. They also show glimpses of many places, especially India, that I found very fascinating. Instead of summarizing the Baburnama in a serial fashion, I have attempted to capture the large amount of information in a different form here. Babur had many facets- he was a soldier, a king, a poet, a writer and above all a father. Let’s take a look at him through each of these facets.

Babur’s background
To understand where the Mughals came from, one has to know how the word Mughal originated. Mughal is the Persian word for “Mongol”.
In the 12th and 13th centuries AD, the Mongol tribes, united under Genghis Khan, blazed out of arid Mongolia to create the world’s second largest empire (only second to the British).
In the east, the Mongols under Kublai Khan would conquer China and Korea. In the west, the Golden Hordes under Batu would ravage Russia, Hungary and Poland. In the South west under Hulegu they would extend till Baghdad. Under Genghis’ son Chagatay, the Mongols would conquer Central Asia.

Taimur:Over time, these Mongol invaders in Central Asia would settle and mingle with the local populace and dissolve into a bunch of warring fiefdoms.
In the 14th century AD, Central Asia would be reunited under a Turko-Mongol warlord Taimur-the-lame or Tamerlane. Taimur was every bit as fierce as the Mongols and forged an empire by steel and blood. Taimur sacked and destroyed Baghdad much like the Mongols before him and would even raze Delhi to the ground. It is said that an immense quantity of spoils was taken from India. This included 90 elephants just carrying stone to build a mosque in Samarkhand. Years after Taimur’s death Central Asia would be teeming with Timurid princes, princes in search of provinces. Babur was one of them.

Babur’s life:
Babur’s life story is split into 3 significant places - Fergana, Kabul (in Afghanistan) and India.

* Fergana: Babur was born in Fergana, a fertile valley that lies in the borders of present day Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan.
At age 12, he would become the king of Samarkhand. He would soon lose his kingdom. At this time, the Uzbeks under a warrior chief, Shaybani Khan, were on the ascendant. Shaybani Khan would cause Babur to evacuate from Fergana valley and move south to Kabul in Afghanistan.

* Kabul: Babur ruled over Kabul for a few years. While here, he launched several raids into India. Eventually the Uzbeks became more powerful, thus forcing Babur to move elsewhere. He chose to cross over to India/Pakistan with his army.

* India: At that time, North India around Delhi was ruled by the Muslim ruler Daulat Ibrahim Lodi. Of course, he didn’t exactly welcome this Turko-Mongol raider with open arms. So he faced Babur in Panipat with a huge army that vastly outnumbered Babur’s. Except for one small detail. Babur had guns. And it was using these that the Moghuls became one of the greatest of the gunpowder empires.

Ibrahim Lodi’s army was much larger, possibly 10 times larger. Yet Babur’s army faced it with flints and cannons and blew it apart. Ibrahim Lodi was killed in the battle and Delhi belonged to the Moghuls.

Still, the conquest was not over. Rana Sangha of Mewar now collected a huge army and marched out to meet Babur. In the big battle at Khanwa, Shiladitya, a general of Sangha, defected with his army over to Babur. The artillery and guns did the rest of the damage to Rana Sangha’s army. The battle was lost and Sangha died soon after of injuries sustained. Babur became the Padishah of India.
Towards the last years of his life, Babur cemented his rule in India, but yearned and pined for his native Samarkhand. For all its wealth, India was still something he was forced to settle for.
He died in India, pledging his life to God in return for Humayun’s life. Humayun at that time was seriously ill and on the verge of death. But after that incident, Humayun recovered rapidly while Babur slowly fell sick and died. Later his body was cremated in Kabul. The Mughal Empire lasted for a few hundred years after Babur’s death and reached its zenith under Akbar, Shah Jahan and Jahangir.

Babur the writer
Babur had a remarkably photographic memory. He observed things and people around him shrewdly and recounted every detail vividly. When he starts talking about a particular chieftain, Babur details the person, his father, the tens of liege men around him, his province and its roads, his battles, his strengths and his weaknesses. All this information about a single individual runs for pages. And there are many such people that Babur talks about.

This detailed observation is not limited to people alone, but extends to places, their climate, flora and fauna too. When describing a region, he dutifully mentions everything that grows in it- the fruits and their tastes, the flowers and their smell and colour and also the animals and birds. He is aware of the weather patterns and water sources, the crop growth, how many men a land can support, how much wealth is generated in a year and so on.
In short the man is a “wikipedia on a horse”.
The Persian-style nobility of that time prided itself on its poetry and erudition. So, composing poems was something all educated princes did for sure. Babur was no different- he spins couplets so naturally that one wonders whether this is the same person who just described a massacre of an entire village a few pages ago.

Babur the youth
As a youth, Babur was a shy and diffident young man. As a young boy he was infatuated with another man he spied on the streets of Samarkhand. Deeply affected, Babur wandered the streets of the city, barefoot and dazed. When he married early, he stayed away from his new wife for weeks and met her only when commanded by his aunt to do so. He never talks about his lover or wife after that.

Babur the warrior
Babur was probably born with his backside welded to the saddle. He is continually on the horse and is continually fighting since he is in his early teens. All around him, you see only men who are his commanders, chieftains and warriors. In between fighting, pillaging and raiding, they mostly have maj'un (a drug) and drink. There seems to be no other life.

The early days of fighting in Samarkhand are mostly skirmishes and cavalry raids. Fighting tactics are mostly hit and run. Small bands of light cavalry gather together and then attack. When a reasonably strong force opposes them, they scatter to the mountains.
No one seems to die as everyone is either raiding or running away. Castles, forts and people change sides every day. The bands look like a bunch of militia more than an army.

As Babur grows older and is in Kabul, we see a sudden change in the tactics he uses. Muskets, gunpowder, cannons and artillery become more common. Siege tactics are very sophisticated. In Afghanistan, Babur casually recounts a dozen sieges, each of which goes something like this “Saw enemy on mountain hideout, seized it, piled a mountain of skulls after destroying fort”.
All in a day’s work!
By the time he invades India, Babur’s army is a professional sophisticated army which has become quite adept in use of gunpowder technology in its tactics. His empire is one of the three formidable gunpowder empires of the 15th century, the other two being the Ottoman Empire in Turkey and the Savvafid Empire in Iran.
In the Indian invasion, Babur uses an innovative technique earlier used by the Ottomans, which he calls the “Anatolian method”. He basically uses about 700 carts tied together with ox-harness and ropes. He also uses pylons with shields. These form a sort of mobile fortification. Behind this fortification he stations his shooters. At periodic gaps in the fortification, space is left for 150-200 cavalry to emerge and attack.
This defensive-offensive strategy was stunningly effective against the more numerous but conventional armies in India. In each battle, though heavily outnumbered, Babur destroys the forces of Ibrahim Lodi and Rana Sangha.

Babur on alcohol
Babur does not drink during his youth. Quite surprising considering that everyone drinks like a fish around him. Sample what he says about one of his uncles:
"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.

The reason he gives for his abstaining is
"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.

Much later in his life when he visits Herat, Babur decides to drink for the first time. After this, he drinks quite frequently during parties. He also uses the narcotic “maj’un”- something that even his father was addicted to. Babur mentions taking maj’un quite frequently, almost like drinking water or eating food. Sample this,
"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."
That’s Babur the party animal!

But Babur does give up alcohol, He does this to inspire his men before the decisive Battle of Khanwa when he meets Rana Sangha. This is something else he regrets throughout his life. He even spins a sad couplet on it

I am distraught to have given up wine
I do not now what to do and am perplexed
Everybody regrets drinking and then takes the oath
But I have taken the oath and now regret it.

Babur on India
Funny thing, Babur hates India. Well, not everything about India. He loves the wealth but finds little that pleases him. Sample this

“Hindustan is a place of little charm. There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding no etiquette, nobility or manliness. The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry. There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food, or bread in the markets. There are no baths or madrasas. There are no candles, torches or candle sticks.”
…“the cities and provinces of Hindustan are unpleasant. All cities, all locales look alike. The gardens have no walls and most places are flat as boards”

Ouch. Pretty damning.
He does have some interesting snippets on India.

On Fruits: “the Jackfruit is unbelievably ugly and bad tasting. It looks exactly like sheep intestines turned inside out.
Come on, that’s a bit too much isn’t it?

“The mango is the best fruit of Hindustan”
Ok, something I would agree on too.

On flowers: “There are marvelous flowers in Hindustan; one is the hibiscus which some Hindustanis call gudhal”.
See, not everything can be that bad.

Notice his keen eye on water systems in India.
“So many cities and so many provinces- yet there is no running water anywhere. Even in cities that have the capability of digging channels for running water, they do not do so. This may be for several reasons. One is that agriculture and orchards have no need for water. Fall crops are watered by monsoon rains and strangely the spring crops come even if there are no rains”.

And this is Babur the destroyer speaking:
“In Hindustan, the destruction and building of villages and hamlets, even cities can be accomplished in an instant. Such large cities in which people have lived for years, if they are going to be abandoned can be left in a day, so that no sign or trace remains. If they have a mind to build a city, there is no necessity for digging irrigation canals or building dams. Their crops are all unirrigated. There is no limit to the people. A group gets together, makes a pond or digs a well. There is no making of houses or raising of walls. They simply make huts from the plentiful straw and innumerable trees and instantly a village or city is born.

So, does he hate everything about it? Well, no there are things he likes. What would that be? Let’s hear the man in his own words.
The one nice aspect of Hindustan is that it is a large country with a lot of gold and money…Another nice thing is the unlimited number of craftsmen and practitioners of every trade.

Aaaaah.. There had to be some reason why he ran here all the way from Tajikistan.

But mostly Babur dies pining for his homeland. This is what he writes in one instance
"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."

He does make it to Kabul finally, after his death though. He was buried there as per his wishes.

Babur the Father:
Babur seems to love his son Humayun. Though not much mention is given of Humayun growing up, Babur writes to him frequently. Not all of these letters are about happy things. Babur admonishes Humayun on not writing a single letter in a few months or sending any contact. He reproaches Humayun’s leadership qualities when Humayun mentions how he finds leadership lonely.
Ultimately, in India, Humayun falls seriously ill. When a distraught Babur sees a holy man for a remedy, he is told “"to give in alms the most valuable thing one had and to seek cure from God."”.
Babur declares that it is himself who is most valuable to Humayun and that his life be taken in return for Humayun’s. Appalled at this, a lot of his close friends ask him to reconsider. Babur refuses obstinately. His prayers are answered, Humayun recovers while Babur succumbs to sickness and dies.

My take on Babur: No doubt Babur is an able commander and a good leader but he has no notion of any administration. The fact that he could lose Samarkhand but still gain Kabul and Delhi and also establish the Mughal Empire speaks volumes for his skills. Yet all he seems to do is raid, plunder, ransack, anoint himself ruler and divvy up the spoils. All this is interspersed with heavy doses of maj'un.
There is no word on administration of any kind. The only things he mentions building are fortresses and gardens. Also, in spite of being a keen observer of places, flora, fauna & customs, Babur does not seem to or want to understand anything about Hindu culture. To him, they are all Kafirs.

But then again, I am judging him by today’s standards.

These qualities that I find absent in Babur are shown in abundance two generations later by Akbar. Akbar was a man who married many Hindu wives, built temples and allowed Vaishnavism to flourish. He even synthesized the essence of all religions into a new one called Din-i-illahi. This seems to be a general trend. Even Genghis Khan was not particularly interested in the subjects he conquered except for their plunder. But his successors gradually immersed themselves in the culture of the populace and became efficient administrators.

The thing that strikes me about Babur is his memory and his lack of a big ego. He never aggrandizes himself in any way. At every point of time you see a humble man making observations. Even during the decisive Battle of Khanwa against Sangha he writes glowingly about how his army withstood waves of attacks. He gives more credit to God and his army than he gives himself. He is also a good father, an able commander and a pious man.

And of course, the thing that amazes me about Babur is his great patience. How many people in thse days wrote so prolifically without a laptop or a word-processor? He seems to have remembered the smallest of details, which probably means that he wrote daily- while raiding, leading troops, braving winters in the mountains of Afghanistan or summers in the plains of Hindustan. That is amazing in itself.

Sample this piece from the BaburNama.
"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."

Mughals after Babur:
After Akbar came Jahangir (the one involved with Anarkali) and then Shah Jahan (the creator of Taj Mahal). The Empire reached its peak under these men.
Aurangazeb succeeded Shah Jahan and from here it was downhill for the Mughals. Aurangazeb undid all the overtures that Akbar and his predecessors had made to the non-Muslims in India. He also embarked on a series of wars to subjugate the southern states, ruining the empire by imperial overstretch. Post-Aurangazeb the Mughals gradually weakened until they were mopped up by the British.

Thus ended the empire built by a man from Fergana. His life and those of many warlords can be summarised in his own words. A young Babur carved this couplet on a rock as he was fleeing the Uzbeks from Fergana.

"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." ( )
  r_nareshkumar | Oct 9, 2006 |
Interesting as a glimpse into the mind of a warrior king, it doesn't quite read like a novel, but it is very readable anyway. I would recommend it if you have even a mild interest. There are moments of humor that would probably come across better in the original language but are still quite funny, and Babur's description of the lands he travels through are very thorough and engaging. Bouts of hard drinking, battles, towers of skulls, intrigue, this book has it all, written in a matter-of-fact, modest fashion that really illuminates Babur's (to a modern person) ambivlant character (after all, *he* was erecting the towers of skulls!). I especially liked the letter that he writes to his son about the duties of kingship. It's fascinating to think a pre-modern ruler just sat down and decided to write his memoirs. I don't know more of the background, maybe this wasn't so unusual, still it seems so. ( )
  puabi | Jun 8, 2006 |
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My teacher put me on hapara highlights
added by BillyBobThe3rd | editThe New York Times, Billy Heller
 

» Add other authors (16 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Babur, Zahir-ud-din Muhammadprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Beveridge, Annette SusannahTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hiro, DilipEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rushdie, SalmanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thackston, Wheeler M.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Both an official chronicle and the highly personal memoir of the emperor Babur (1483-1530), The Baburnama presents a vivid and extraordinarily detailed picture of life in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India during the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries. Babur's honest and intimate chronicle is the first autobiography in Islamic literature, written at a time when there was no historical precedent for a personal narrative--now in a sparkling new translation by Islamic scholar Wheeler Thackston. This Modern Library Paperback Classics edition includes notes, indices, maps, and illustrations.

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