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 â€œMemoirs of Zehir-Ed-Din Muhammad Baber, Emperor of Hindustan, written by himself, in the Jaghatai Turkiâ€. It was translated into English by John Leyden and William Erskine, contains a â€œMap of the Countries Between The Oxus and Jaxartesâ€, 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 â€œraceâ€ as this book refers to them, the tongue of â€œKashgar, 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 Tartaryâ€. The language of Baburâ€™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 â€œclearness, simplicity, and forceâ€, far less adorned than Persian â€œand as free from metaphor and hyperbole as that of a good English or French historianâ€ bearing â€œmuch more resemblance to the good sense of Europe than to the rhetorical parade of Asiaâ€. 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 â€œaversion 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.â€ The Persian influence had begun to take root five hundred years before Babar so that by his time, a daily â€œand regular intercourse with a more refined people in the common business of lifeâ€ 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 â€œMap of the Countries of Ferghana & Bokhara chiefly constructed from original routes and Other Documentsâ€ with the note that the â€œcountry south of Bokhara and Samarkand is â€œlaid down with several alterations from the map of Lieut. Macartney corrected by the Hon. M. Elphinstoneâ€. 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 â€œhe 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 Russiaâ€. Another source for the construction of this map was the â€œcurious journalâ€ of Syed Izzet-Ulla, who had been sent by Elphinstone (who ended his career as Governor of Bombay) from the â€œSind 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.â€ 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 â€œPunditsâ€ 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 â€œthe pastoral and civilized nationsâ€ of Asia, this belt beginning with the Himalayas rising from the Assam-Burma border, proceeding westward toward Kashmir and thence to the â€œnorth 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 Minorâ€. It is this immense range that divides Hindustan, Afghanistan, Persia and a part of Turkey from the â€œcountry of the Moghul and Turki tribesâ€ and separating â€œnations of comparative civilizations from uncivilized tribesâ€. 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 â€œarts and refinementsâ€, with â€œno small share of the higher treasures of cultivated judgment and imaginationâ€, as for instance â€œIndian philosophy and science, a drama so polished as Sakontala, a poet like Ferdousi, or a moralist like Sadiâ€. To the north of these ranges are tribes whose â€œflocks are still their wealth, their camp their cityâ€. 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 â€œthe seat of considerable empireâ€. The subject of our study, Babur, was of course, descended â€œfrom one of the tribes that inhabited to the north of this rangeâ€.
By virtue of descent, Babur was connected to both the Turks and the Mongols- on his fatherâ€™s side â€œin a direct lineâ€ from Taimur (Timur) Beg or the famous Tamerlane, and on his motherâ€™s side from Genghis Khan, although his affections apparently were with the Turks and he spoke of the Mongols â€œwith a mingled sentiment of hatred and contemptâ€. He ascended the throne of Ferghana â€œabout two years after the discovery of America by Columbus, and four years before Vasco da Gama reached Indiaâ€, that is in 1494 CE. In Baburâ€™s words, â€œthe country of Ferghanaâ€ is situated â€œon the extreme boundary of the habitable worldâ€- on the east it has Kashgar, in Chinese Turkestan or Xinjiang, on the west, Samarkand in Uzbekistan, and on the south, â€œthe hill country on the confines of Badakshshanâ€. 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, â€œtulips and roses blow in great profusionâ€. He refers to Seikkhani whose inhabitants are great boxers (what we call the â€œpehalwansâ€), â€œnoisy and turbulentâ€ and â€œcelebrated bulliesâ€. 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 Baburâ€™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 â€œa confined countryâ€, to be governed â€œby the sword, not the penâ€ (Seifi, not qalmi). From there, in January 1505, Babur resolved to make an â€œirruptionâ€ (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 â€œcut offâ€ the heads of â€œrefractory Afghansâ€ and erecting in each case of such mass beheadings, â€œa minaret of headsâ€.
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the foldâ€¦
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. â€œThe grass was different, the trees different, the wild animals of a different sort, the birds of a different plumageâ€. He was â€œstruck with astonishment, and indeed there was room for wonderâ€. 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 â€œspear-highâ€ at the onset of battle, and the combat lasting until mid-day â€œwhen the enemy were completely broken and routed, and my friends victorious and exultingâ€. 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 â€˜presentedâ€™ to Baburâ€™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 â€œone famous diamondâ€, â€œso valuable, that a judge of diamonds valued it at half of the daily expense of the whole world.â€2 He was now â€œthe master and conqueror of the powerful empire of Hindustanâ€. Babur saw Ibrahim who he had vanquished, as a formidable opponent, and his success on the battle field he saw as flowing â€œfrom the fountain of the favour and mercy of Godâ€. He was one of â€œthree foreign kingsâ€ as he called them, who had subdued and â€œacquired the sovereignty of Hindustanâ€ - 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 â€œempire of Hindustanâ€ which was in the hands of the Afghans - that is, Sultan Ibrahim, â€œthe lord of numerous armies, and emperor of extensive territories.â€ 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, Baburâ€™s focus was on converting â€œmansion(s) of hostilityâ€ into â€œmansion(s) of faithâ€; he cites the example of the fortress of Chanderi in central India which he took â€œby stormâ€ also in 1526, putting its Hindu commanders and soldiers to the sword.
He was drawn to Hindustan. â€œIt is a remarkably fine countryâ€, â€œquite a different worldâ€. Crossing the Indus, he was in a new world, the country, the trees, the â€œstones, the wandering tribesâ€, 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 â€œchief excellencyâ€. There was an abundance of â€œworkmen of every profession and tradeâ€ - â€œmen of every trade and occupation are numberless and without stint in Hindustanâ€. Huge amounts of â€˜treasureâ€™ (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 â€œelegant and regularly planned pleasure-ground(s)â€. There was a â€œwant of beautyâ€ in what he saw and he resolved to change that. Baths were the means of removing the chief three â€œinconveniencesâ€ of Hindustan: the heat, the strong winds and the dust. The gardens were a priority: in â€œevery corner, I planted suitable gardens; in every garden I sowed roses and narcissuses regularly, and in beds corresponding to each otherâ€, producing â€œedifices and gardens which possessed considerable regularityâ€ .
But if he was a builder of pleasure gardens, he also saw himself as a warrior of Islam. The Hindus were â€œpagansâ€ in his description of them and their kings would face the sword in a â€˜holy warâ€™. Here is a passage from the memoir: â€œThe 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 wineâ€. Babur now self-styled himself as â€œZehireddin Muhammed Baber Ghaziâ€ - the title â€˜Ghaziâ€™ signified one who is â€œvictorious over the Heathenâ€. But he was also acknowledging of the â€œunbounded praiseâ€ that some of his lieutenants bestowed on the â€œcourage and hardihoodâ€ of the armies of Hindu rulers like Rana Sanka. These battles of his â€œArmy of the Faithâ€ mainly against Hindu princes, also coincided with the decision by Babur to renounce â€œforbidden worksâ€ - mainly the imbibing of liquor, in order to â€˜purifyâ€™ 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 â€œamong Derwishes and the poorâ€.
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, â€œthe Almighty had sometimes vouchsafed to receive the most valuable thing possessed by one friend, as an offering in exchange for the life of another.â€ Babur exclaimed that â€œof all things, his life was dearest to Humaiun, as Humaiunâ€™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 sonâ€™s.â€ He walked three times around the dying prince , â€œa solemnity similar to that used in sacrificesâ€ and retiring, â€œprayed earnestly to Godâ€. Humayun began to recover instantly, and â€œin proportion as he recovered, the health and strengthâ€ of Babur visibly declined, according to the historians of his court. He died on 26 December 1530 and was succeeded by Humayun as â€œSupreme Emperorâ€.
These memoirs conclude with a summing-up of the character of Babur, as one who â€œhad 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.â€ He was ambitious and fond of conquest and of glory â€œin all its shapesâ€. He was essentially a bold adventurer, with an â€œelastic mindâ€ 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, â€œhis activity of mindâ€and â€œthe gay equanimity and unbroken spirit with which he bore the extremes of good and bad fortuneâ€ . 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 â€œscattered abroad like teazed wool, and broken like bubbles on wine.â€ This is an unquiet history, it does not cease to speak in different voices to the people of India, and Baburâ€™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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