Memoirs of Babur
Memoirs of Babur
British Library Or. 3714, ff.6v-7
Copyright © The British Library Board
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This is the personal journal of Emperor Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty. It records the events of his remarkable life from the age of 12 until his death in 1530. His grandson Akbar had the memoirs translated into Persian from their original Chaghatay Turkish so his grandfather’s achievements might be more widely known. This is the largest of four major illustrated copies made during Akbar’s reign. Written and illustrated around 1590, it contains 141 paintings by many different artists.
Who was Babur?
Babur was the founder of the Mughal Dynasty, which ruled the north and central Indian subcontinent from 1526 until its colonisation by the British, after which the Mughal Emperors ruled in name alone. Descended on his father’s side from the Turkish conqueror Timur, Babur also claimed Kenghis Khan as a maternal ancestor.
His first exercise of military and political power came with his claiming the throne of Samarkand, in modern-day Uzbekistan, and taking control of the region around the fertile Fergana Valley. It was at this time that Babur began his memoirs – among the first autobiographies in Islamic literature. In June 1494 AD, he wrote the opening lines, “In the name of God, the All-Merciful, the Compassionate. In the month of Ramadan of the year 899 and in the 12th year of my age, I became ruler in the land of Fergana.”
Seven years later Babur was driven out of Samarkand, but he had more far-reaching ambitions. From his new powerbase at Kabul in modern-day Afghanistan, he set out to conquer the Sultanate of Delhi. In 1526 he defeated Sultan Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat and founded the Mughal dynasty. Babur first established his capital at Agra, which became the cultural and intellectual focus of one of the greatest empires of the late-medieval world.
Though a hardened warrior, Babur was far from a barbarous, ignorant soldier. He was a cultured and pious man who wrote fine poetry and schooled himself in the culture, natural history and geography of Central Asia and India. His inquiring and observant mind and literary skill add a higher dimension to the battles and body counts of his memoirs.
Who translated Babur’s memoirs?
The translation was ordered by Babur’s grandson, the Emperor Akbar, who ruled the Mughal Empire from 1556 to 1605. He had amasses a graet library devoted to subjects such as history, classical Persian literature and translations of Sanskrit texts. Akbar entrusted the work of translating Babur’s memoirs into Persian to an army general and close friend called Abd al-Rahim, who enjoyed the title Khan-i khanan, meaning ‘commander of commaders’
In the Mughal world, conquest and culture went hand in hand. The Khan-i khanan was not only one of Akbar’s greatest army commanders; he was also known for his poetry and his writings on astrology. His combination of military experience and literary discernment made him ideal for the job. The two men had known each other since their youth: Abd al-Rahim’s father, Bayram Khan, had served as Akbar’s mentor in his early years.
Do we know who made this manuscript copy?
This copy of the ‘Memoirs of Babur’ was made around 1590. The Persian text is written in the flowing ‘nasta‘liq’ script, sometimes also known as the ‘bride of scripts’ because it was created by combining two earlier scripts: ‘naskhi’ and ‘ta‘liq’. From the 15th century on, naskhi continued to be used for Islamic religious writings, while nasta‘liq came into its own for secular literature, especially poetry. Good nasta‘liq is distinguished by its more horizontal and cursive appearance, and by subtle transition and contrast between thick and thin lines.
The elegant calligraphy is richly complemented by miniatures and decorative borders of outstanding quality painted by a team of at least 54 artists drawn from over two hundred employed in Akbar’s studio in Lahore. Of its 141 pictures, 68 are whole-page illustrations of Babur’s narrative. Akbar insisted on the highest standards from his artists.
Though Akbar was a Muslim, his Hindu subjects were allowed to rise to high office. Most of the miniatures in this manuscript carry Hindu names. Four among them, Kisu, Sanwala, Jagannath and Mahesh are noted elsewhere as being master-painters in the royal studio. Fewer in number, the Muslim artists include Mansur, Ibrahim Qahhar and Farrukh.
What do these two pages show?
This opening comes from a passage in which Babur describes the country around the Fergana Valley. The right-hand page, painted by Bhavani, shows the almond harvest in Kand-i Badam, whose name means ‘almond town’. Babur writes: “Kand-i Badam is a dependency of Khujand; although it is not a fully-fledged township, it is close to one. Its almonds are excellent, hence its name; they are all exported to Hormuz or Hindustan. It is 18 miles east of Khujand.”
The left-hand picture was painted by Thirpal and illustrates a story about the windy wasteland between Kand-i Badam and Khujand. “Its violent, whirling winds continually strike Marghilan to the east and Khujand on its west,” Babur notes, adding “People say some dervishes, encountering a whirlwind in this desert, lost one another and kept shouting out, ‘Hay Darvesh! Hay Darvesh!’ until all had perished, and that the waste has been called Ha Darvesh ever since.” Dervishes were mostly members of Sufi religious orders; some were homeless wanderers who depended on alms for their living.
Why are the ‘Memoirs of Babur’ important?
Covering some 36 years in the life of one of Central Asia and India’s most powerful figures, Babur’s detailed and insightful autobiography presents vivid picture of his life and times, the peoples he ruled, and the lands they inhabited. For example, we read in his own words the story of events leading up to the defeat of Sultan Ibrahim Lodi and fall of Delhi:
“During the seven or eight days we lay in Panipat, our men went close to Ibrahim’s camp a few at a time, rained arrows down on the ranks of his troops, cut off and brought back their heads. Still he made no move, nor did his troops venture out. At length, we acted on the advice of some Hindustani well-wishers and sent four or five thousand men to deliver a night attack on his camp. It being dark, they were unable to act well together and, having dispersed, could achieve nothing on arrival. They stayed near Ibrahim’s camp until dawn, when nagarets [kettle drums] sounded and his troops came forth in force with elephants…”
Alongside accounts of military conflicts and strategies, there are well-observed descriptions of landscapes and cities, local economies and customs, plants and animals. Subjects discussed by the Emperor Babur and illustrated in this manuscript include Hindu ascetics at Bagram (today in Afghanistan); the elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo; the peacock, parrot, and stork; the water-hog, and crocodile; trees and shrubs such as the plantain, tamarind, and oleander; and the author supervising work on his own gardens in Kabul. Babur also provides what is probably the first reliable record of the famous diamond known as Koh-i-Noor, the ‘Mountain of Light’.
Selected links to other relevant websites
- Find out more about the Mughal Emperors at this Australian National University website.