Long before Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his beloved, there was a Great Moghul who began it all: Babur, a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Ta...moreLong before Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his beloved, there was a Great Moghul who began it all: Babur, a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane who first established Mughal rule over India. His claim to fame rests on three things: the story of his death, the controversy over the mosque that he built, and the Baburnama, the first and only autobiography in Islamic literature until the 19th century. It is a vast, complex narrative of an extraordinarily eventful life, full of battles and conquests, as befit his status as a Timurid prince in search of a realm, but also of moonlit drinking parties filled with poetry and music. The first Mughal emperor is both a sensitive man of culture deeply versed in Persian classical literature and a ruthless Ghazi (‘Slayer of the Infidels’) who reveled in erecting towers of skulls from the severed heads of his enemies. He sees no contradiction whatsoever between these different aspects of his personality, and is disarmingly frank, even at times confessional, about his weaknesses, such as his fondness for wine and the narcotic ma’jun, which he often indulged in between bouts of hunting and military expeditions.
Born as a minor prince in what is now Uzbekistan, Babur is a scion of the Timurids, a dynasty established by Tamerlane, which had ruled over much of Central Asia since the 14th century. The Timurid princes were constantly engaged in territorial battles, and from his early teens, Babur had been embroiled in the complex, ever shifting intrigues between his blood relatives. More than once he had succeeded in holding and losing Samarkand, and on several occasions, desperately holding on to his life after being defeated by stronger rivals. Necessity turned him toward the north, to Afghanistan, which he conquered at the age of 23. Several years later, he made his first foray into Hindustan, a much larger and wealthier realm that he finally conquered more than two decades later. He famously loathed his new realm, complaining about its heat and dust, pining for his beloved Kabul, where he was eventually buried. A man of lively curiosity, he wrote about the flora and fauna of India, its landscapes and rivers, and of its native princes and their palaces and temples. He destroyed naked idols that offended his Muslim sensibility, and allegedly built a mosque in Ayodhya, which later became a bone of contention between Muslims and Hindu extremists (who believed that the mosque stood on the birthplace of Rama, an avatar of Vishnu).
He died at the age of 47, not long after conquering India. The following is Amitav Ghosh’s retelling of the legend of Babur’s death.
“Of the many stories told of Babur none is more wonderful than that of his death. In 1530 Humayun, Babur’s beloved eldest son and heir-apparent, was stricken by a fever. He was brought immediately to Babur’s court at Agra, but despite the best efforts of the royal physicians, his condition steadily worsened. Driven to despair, Babur consulted a man of religion who told him that the remedy "was to give in alms the most valuable thing one had and to seek cure from God."
Babur is said to have replied thus: "I am the most valuable thing that Humayun possesses; than me he has no better thing; I shall make myself a sacrifice for him. May God the Creator accept it." Greatly distressed, Babur’s courtiers and friends tried to explain that the sage had meant that he should give away money, or gold or a piece of property: Humayun possessed a priceless diamond, they said, which could be sold and the proceeds given to the poor...
Babur would not hear of it. "What value has worldly wealth?" Babur is quoted to have said. "And how can it be a redemption for Humayun? I myself shall be his sacrifice." He walked three times around Humayun’s bed, praying: "O God! If a life may be exchanged for a life, I who am Babur, I give my life and my being for a Humayun." A few minutes later, he cried: "We have borne it away, we have borne it away."
And sure enough, from that moment Babur began to sicken, while Humayun grew slowly well. Babur died near Agra on December 21, 1530. He left orders for his body to be buried in Kabul.”
Baburnama is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a medieval warrior and emperor, especially for those with interest in Indian history, but parts of it is also a challenging read for the general reader. As E.M. Forster observed, the greatest difficulty in reading it is not caused by the language (which had been translated into modern, even colloquial English), but is caused by the seemingly relentless onslaught of unfamiliar names of people and places. (less)
A fascinating record of a vanished world replete with details that are made even more poignant by its imminent passing: the elaborate meals, the hand-...moreA fascinating record of a vanished world replete with details that are made even more poignant by its imminent passing: the elaborate meals, the hand-embroidered imperial gowns, the oft-flogged eunuchs who were both lackeys and powers behind the throne, the dizziness-inducing kowtows, formal court ceremonies that were contests of physical endurance, the sickly Emperor and his concubines, all which were soon to be rendered obsolete by the 1912 revolution. Der Ling's account of her two years as a court lady/translator in the Empress Dowager Cixi's court had been dismissed by some, largely because of her own questionable reputation and also because of its divergence from the widely-accepted view of Cixi as the evil witch that brought down the Qing dynasty. Der Ling might have had exaggerated her importance at court, but the little details of her account ring true --- perhaps Cixi was both a monster who poisoned her nephew/Emperor and an old lady who loved gardening and Pekingese dogs. Who knows?
4 stars for the fascinating subject, 3 stars for the somewhat artless writing.(less)