Posted on: 21 May 2021

Rare Book Review:
Out of Ferghana and Bokhara
The First Mughal
By Nirupama Menon Rao
Former Foreign Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India and Former Ambassador to China and USA
Published on May 15, 2021

Memoirs of Zehir-Ed-Din Muhammad Baber - Emperor of Hindustan
Written by himself, in the Jaghatai Turki
Translated by John Leyden and William Erskine
Published by Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, London - 1826

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Welcome back, dear reader. The book I am going to feature this time is an autobiographical memoir of the first Mughal, founder of the dynasty of the same name, Zahiruddin Babur, adventurer-prince of Turkic origins, who fought his way into India in the early part of the sixteenth century. The lofty title of the book is “Memoirs of Zehir-Ed-Din Muhammad Baber, Emperor of Hindustan, written by himself, in the Jaghatai Turki”. It was translated into English by John Leyden and William Erskine, contains a “Map of the Countries Between The Oxus and Jaxartes”, and was published in 1826. It is inscribed with the name of one Mitchell King whose signature bears the date of 1848. Mr. King you will notice has, a sense of humor and writes his name in a way that you would read the title as the Memoirs of Mitchell King:))

Babur who crowned himself as Emperor of Hindustan upon his conquest of a good part of northern India, was a Chaghatai Turki from Ferghana in eastern Uzbekistan, near the border with Kyrgyzstan. Chaghatai is a name derived from Chaghatai Khan, the son of Chenghiz or Genghis Khan, the celebrated Mongol conqueror. The language Chaghatai or Jaghatai Turki in which this memoir was written, is really a derivation of Turki, the language of the Turkic “race” as this book refers to them, the tongue of “Kashgar, of Crimea, of Samarkand and Bokhara, of Constantinople, and the greater part of Turkey, of the principal wandering tribes of Persia, and, indeed, of one half of the population of that country, of the Turkomans of Asia Minor, as well as those east of the Euxine (the Black Sea), of the Uzbeks, the Kirghiz, the Kalzaks (Kazakhs), the Bashkirs, and numerous other tribes of Tartary”. The language of Babur’s memoir, Chaghatai Turki contained a very strong infusion of Arabic and Persian words, while at the same time being a language distinguished for its “clearness, simplicity, and force”, far less adorned than Persian “and as free from metaphor and hyperbole as that of a good English or French historian” bearing “much more resemblance to the good sense of Europe than to the rhetorical parade of Asia”. Having been aware through my life of the beauty of Persian and Hindustani poetry, one would discount the references to a rhetorical parade. A thing of beauty is a thing of beauty, and its joys are forever.

Persian words flowed into the Turki language over the centuries, and the cities of Samarkand, Bokhara, Andijan and Tashkent had a significant number of Persian or Iranian inhabitants and were greatly influenced by the culture of Persia since the Turks had an “aversion to the life of a town, and refusing to submit to the drudgery of agriculture for the sake of supporting themselves on the top of a weed, as they call wheat in derision.” The Persian influence had begun to take root five hundred years before Babar so that by his time, a daily “and regular intercourse with a more refined people in the common business of life” had begun to have its impact on the Turki inhabitants of this region.

The map in the book is an interesting delineation of the country of origin of Babar. It is called the “Map of the Countries of Ferghana & Bokhara chiefly constructed from original routes and Other Documents” with the note that the “country south of Bokhara and Samarkand is “laid down with several alterations from the map of Lieut. Macartney corrected by the Hon. M. Elphinstone”. The map was drawn by Charles Waddington of the Bombay Engineers in 1816. Much of the information of the terrain of this region was drawn from Montstuart Elphinstone (1779-1859) during his Embassy to Kabul (1808) when “he exerted himself to procure, from merchants and travelers, such accounts as were to be had, of all the range of country as far as the borders of Russia”. Another source for the construction of this map was the “curious journal” of Syed Izzet-Ulla, who had been sent by Elphinstone (who ended his career as Governor of Bombay) from the “Sind to Kashmir, thence across the hills to Ly (Leh) or Ladak, from thence to Yarkand and Kashgar, whence he returned by Ush, Khojend, Uratippa, Samarkand, Bokhara, and the Afghan country.” Sending Indians into uncharted and often hostile territory in order to gain topographical and other information was a frequent practice of the British in India. Often in disguise, these individuals would not attract the attention that a Caucasian entrant into these regions would immediately acquire. The story of the native “Pundits” who travelled into Tibet on similar missions is well known1.

William Erskine, who took upon himself the task of completing the translation of this work after the death of John Leyden, speaks of the belt of mountains that form the boundary between “the pastoral and civilized nations” of Asia, this belt beginning with the Himalayas rising from the Assam-Burma border, proceeding westward toward Kashmir and thence to the “north of Peshawar and Kabul, after which it appears to break into a variety of smaller ranges of hills that proceed in a westerly and south-westerly direction, sinking away near Herat in Afghanistan and then rising again near Meshhed, and running to the south of the Caspian Sea, towards Armenia and thence into Asia Minor”. It is this immense range that divides Hindustan, Afghanistan, Persia and a part of Turkey from the “country of the Moghul and Turki tribes” and separating “nations of comparative civilizations from uncivilized tribes”. Afghanistan is seen as a part of the range itself rather than south of it, but it is in the south of these mountain ranges that there are nations of “arts and refinements”, with “no small share of the higher treasures of cultivated judgment and imagination”, as for instance “Indian philosophy and science, a drama so polished as Sakontala, a poet like Ferdousi, or a moralist like Sadi”. To the north of these ranges are tribes whose “flocks are still their wealth, their camp their city”. Their inhabitants are jealous of their independence, although even in these mountains there are places like Kashmir, rich in soil and happy climate, that are centers of art and literature and were once “the seat of considerable empire”. The subject of our study, Babur, was of course, descended “from one of the tribes that inhabited to the north of this range”.

By virtue of descent, Babur was connected to both the Turks and the Mongols- on his father’s side “in a direct line” from Taimur (Timur) Beg or the famous Tamerlane, and on his mother’s side from Genghis Khan, although his affections apparently were with the Turks and he spoke of the Mongols “with a mingled sentiment of hatred and contempt”. He ascended the throne of Ferghana “about two years after the discovery of America by Columbus, and four years before Vasco da Gama reached India”, that is in 1494 CE. In Babur’s words, “the country of Ferghana” is situated “on the extreme boundary of the habitable world”- on the east it has Kashgar, in Chinese Turkestan or Xinjiang, on the west, Samarkand in Uzbekistan, and on the south, “the hill country on the confines of Badakshshan”. He speaks of Ferghana as abounding in grain and fruits- the melons excellent and plentiful, and as a place of gardens and streams of running water, where in spring, “tulips and roses blow in great profusion”. He refers to Seikkhani whose inhabitants are great boxers (what we call the “pehalwans”), “noisy and turbulent” and “celebrated bullies”. Indian linkages with Central Asia come alive when Babur speaks of these features of his place of birth.

Ferghana provided no taste of empire and Babur wanted more. For men of ambition, reach exceeds grasp. The urge to raid, to capture, to invade, to conquer was Babur’s inheritance - this was after all a precedent established by his grandfather, Tamerlane. Afghanistan became the stage from which he would move to Hindustan. There, in the East, for Babur, lay India. He did not have kind words for Kabul - the Afghan territory - which was for him “a confined country”, to be governed “by the sword, not the pen” (Seifi, not qalmi). From there, in January 1505, Babur resolved to make an “irruption” (a violent incursion/invasion) into India. But he did not cross the Indus into India, spending the next few years plundering and raiding different parts of Afghanistan, and showing little mercy for Afghans captured in battle- a frequent practice being to “cut off” the heads of “refractory Afghans” and erecting in each case of such mass beheadings, “a minaret of heads”.

The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold…

In the November of 1525, Babur finally set out to invade India. It was his fifth attempt to conquer the country.

The land that he encountered was a different universe, and not easy to comprehend. He had never been in the Germail (countries with a warm temperature) before, and India, Hindustan, was one of these. He was beholding a new world, in his own words. “The grass was different, the trees different, the wild animals of a different sort, the birds of a different plumage”. He was “struck with astonishment, and indeed there was room for wonder”. By the summer of 1526, his troops had fought and defeated those of his main opponent, Ibrahim Lodi. On the day of battle on the field of Panipat near Delhi, 21 April, he describes the sun as having mounted “spear-high” at the onset of battle, and the combat lasting until mid-day “when the enemy were completely broken and routed, and my friends victorious and exulting”. For the victor, Babur, the riches of Hindustan, were there for the taking, and take, he did. He describes one instance of a cache of jewels and precious stones ‘presented’ to Babur’s son, Humayun, by the family of the slain Raja of the kingdom of Gwalior, Bikramjit who fought on the side of the defeated Ibrahim Lodi. Among these was “one famous diamond”, “so valuable, that a judge of diamonds valued it at half of the daily expense of the whole world.”2 He was now “the master and conqueror of the powerful empire of Hindustan”. Babur saw Ibrahim who he had vanquished, as a formidable opponent, and his success on the battle field he saw as flowing “from the fountain of the favour and mercy of God”. He was one of “three foreign kings” as he called them, who had subdued and “acquired the sovereignty of Hindustan” - the 10th century Sultan Mahmud Ghazi (of Ghazni)3, the 12th century Sultan Shehabeddin Ghuri (Ghor/Ghauri)4and himself, the third. But he saw his achievement in defeating Ibrahim Lodi as being on a different level from the conquests of his two predecessor conquerors. They had dealt with a country divided among different kings and princes, while he, Babur was dealing with a whole “empire of Hindustan” which was in the hands of the Afghans - that is, Sultan Ibrahim, “the lord of numerous armies, and emperor of extensive territories.” Babur was in a self-congratulatory mood; he clearly saw his victory in Panipat as eclipsing that of preceding invaders who had stormed Hindustan. Again, as in the past, northern India had succumbed to pillage, the cycle of conquest had repeated itself. Every such battle brought death and destruction, an inheritance of sorrow and suffering. As a Muslim ruler, Babur’s focus was on converting “mansion(s) of hostility” into “mansion(s) of faith”; he cites the example of the fortress of Chanderi in central India which he took “by storm” also in 1526, putting its Hindu commanders and soldiers to the sword.

He was drawn to Hindustan. “It is a remarkably fine country”, “quite a different world”. Crossing the Indus, he was in a new world, the country, the trees, the “stones, the wandering tribes”, the manners and customs of the people suggested that. He devotes a lot of space in his memoir to describing the animals of the country, the elephant in particular and the rhinoceros. Interestingly, the latter animal abounded in the jungles of Peshawar (now in Pakistan) and near the river Indus, a fact difficult to fathom today. The peacock was another object of fascination. Among fruits, he was drawn to the mango about which he cites this verse:

My mango (my fair) is the embellisher of the garden,

The most lovely fruit of Hindustan

It was a country abounding in gold and silver, which pleased Babur as its “chief excellency”. There was an abundance of “workmen of every profession and trade” - “men of every trade and occupation are numberless and without stint in Hindustan”. Huge amounts of ‘treasure’ (really battlefield plunder) were distributed by Babur to all who had accompanied him to India.

Babur was not impressed by the people of the country or their dwellings. He obviously had little knowledge of the culture and civilizational achievements of India and had formed hasty first impressions of Indian society. He wanted to build gardens and water-courses, to lay out “elegant and regularly planned pleasure-ground(s)”. There was a “want of beauty” in what he saw and he resolved to change that. Baths were the means of removing the chief three “inconveniences” of Hindustan: the heat, the strong winds and the dust. The gardens were a priority: in “every corner, I planted suitable gardens; in every garden I sowed roses and narcissuses regularly, and in beds corresponding to each other”, producing “edifices and gardens which possessed considerable regularity” .

But if he was a builder of pleasure gardens, he also saw himself as a warrior of Islam. The Hindus were “pagans” in his description of them and their kings would face the sword in a ‘holy war’. Here is a passage from the memoir: “The mistress Victory, whose world-adorning countenance decked with waving ringlets, and with God will aid you with mighty aid, had been hid behind a veil, as the ornamented Bride of Futurity, now gave her aid and came to greet the Present; the vain Hindus discovering their dangerous state, were scattered abroad like teazed wool, and broken like bubbles on wine”. Babur now self-styled himself as “Zehireddin Muhammed Baber Ghazi” - the title ‘Ghazi’ signified one who is “victorious over the Heathen”. But he was also acknowledging of the “unbounded praise” that some of his lieutenants bestowed on the “courage and hardihood” of the armies of Hindu rulers like Rana Sanka. These battles of his “Army of the Faith” mainly against Hindu princes, also coincided with the decision by Babur to renounce “forbidden works” - mainly the imbibing of liquor, in order to ‘purify’ the mind. He directed that the gold and silver goblets and cups used for the purpose be broken, with the fragments of these vessels and utensils being distributed “among Derwishes and the poor”.

He was now the ruler of all he surveyed throughout much of Northern India. He had been the quintessential wanderer throughout his life, and the succession of incessant military campaigns had taken their toll on his health which had begun to decline. By early 1529, his memoir had ceased to be updated. There is one story that is told of his last days, when his son and heir Humayun (spelt Humaiun in this memoir) fell dangerously ill and Babur, on the advice of one of his close advisers, was told that in such cases, “the Almighty had sometimes vouchsafed to receive the most valuable thing possessed by one friend, as an offering in exchange for the life of another.” Babur exclaimed that “of all things, his life was dearest to Humaiun, as Humaiun’s was to him, and that, next to the life of Humaiun, his own was what he most valued, devoted his life to Heaven as a sacrifice for his son’s.” He walked three times around the dying prince , “a solemnity similar to that used in sacrifices” and retiring, “prayed earnestly to God”. Humayun began to recover instantly, and “in proportion as he recovered, the health and strength” of Babur visibly declined, according to the historians of his court. He died on 26 December 1530 and was succeeded by Humayun as “Supreme Emperor”.

These memoirs conclude with a summing-up of the character of Babur, as one who “had been alternatively hailed and obeyed as a conqueror and deliverer by rich and extensive kingdoms, and forced to lurk in the deserts and mountains of his own native kingdom as a house less wanderer.” He was ambitious and fond of conquest and of glory “in all its shapes”. He was essentially a bold adventurer, with an “elastic mind” and while not of refined character, a lover and no mean writer, of poetry. The translator of these memoirs is fulsome in praise for Babur, “his activity of mind”and “the gay equanimity and unbroken spirit with which he bore the extremes of good and bad fortune” . The record of his conquests marks his place in history, together with his establishment of the rule of his family and successors over Hindustan. The path to his success was violent, brutal and bloody, but history loves the victor over the vanquished, regardless of those “scattered abroad like teazed wool, and broken like bubbles on wine.” This is an unquiet history, it does not cease to speak in different voices to the people of India, and Babur’s blood-drenched battles are yet to be interred with the bones of their commanders, being reprised in infinite ways. These are the second acts in many of our lives as inhabitants of this storied, ancient land.

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