Reading ‘Baburnama’ in the Land of Babur

An edited version of this article was published in the Business Standard Weekend supplement on November 30, 2019

At the Babur Literary Museum in Andijan, Uzbekistan, dozens of copies of the Baburnama are arrayed in glass bookcases. There are modern editions and older versions, in Tajik, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Russian, French, English, and other translations. Some are ornately bound, perhaps gifts from visiting foreign dignitaries; others are everyday paperbacks with a degree of dereliction. A few are so large and thick, one wonders what lies within – perhaps large type with accompanying illustrations that add heft to Babur’s words. Inside my backpack resides a new-age Baburnama – a Kindle copy of the acclaimed translation by Annette Susannah Beveridge, this edition published by Rupa Publications in 2017.

Some of the editions of Baburnama at the Babur Literary Museum in Andijan

I had ordered the book in preparation for the trip to Uzbekistan, and have been reading it in bits and pieces since. It is too dense and detailed a journal to consume at one go. Also, given my aim of using it as a lens through which to view some of our time in Babur’s native land, some of its historic recounting – fascinating as it is – is not germane to its purpose.

The Baburnama is part personal journal, part historical chronicle, and part the records of an obsessive detailer of minutiae. It is unique in the annals of literature – if for nothing else, for being the first autobiography in the Islamic world. It was written in the Chagatai language, the spoken language of the Andijan-Timurids, known to Babur as ‘Turki’. But it also betrays the influence of the Persians who had ruled the region in earlier centuries, containing as it does many phrases and several small poems in that language.

It begins with a simple statement of a momentous event: “In the month of Ramadan of the year 899 and in the twelfth year of my age, I became ruler in the country of Farghana.”

Fergana, as it tends to be spelt today, is at the fag end of our itinerary, which has meandered through the ancient Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, with short transit stops in the modern-day capital, Tashkent. The Fergana Valley is a bowl surrounded by mountains – the Tian Shan range on the north and the Pamirs in the south – and the waters that flow down from them make it the foodbasket of Uzbekistan.

[Farghana] is a small country, abounding in grain and fruits. It is girt around by mountains, except on the west, that is, towards Khujand and Samarkand, and in winter an enemy can enter only on that side… [It] has seven separate townships, five on the south, and two on the north of the Saihun [river]. Of those on the south, one is Andijan. It has a central position and is capital of the Farghana country. It produces much grain, fruits in abundance, excellent grapes and melons… Better than the Andijan nashpati, there is none…

Again there is Marghinan; seven yigach [~80km] by road to the west of Andijan – a fine township full of good things. Its apricots (auruk) and pomegranates are most excellent.

Babur’s love for his country’s produce – especially the fruit of the region – finds expression throughout his memoirs. At one point late in the narrative, when he has fled the internecine wars that are ravaging the Turkestan region and set up his nascent empire in ‘Hindostan’ in the 1520s, he writes:

“How should a person forget the pleasant things of [one’s own country]?… How should he banish from his mind the permitted flavours of melons and grapes? Taking this opportunity, a melon was brought to me; to cut and eat it affected me strangely; I was all tears!

I can see his point. I am not a big fan of fruits (yes, we exist!), but in Uzbekistan, I happily gorged on their watermelons, musk melons, pomegranates, and grapes. Their sweet, voluptuous juiciness would seduce the most strident fructophobe.

Pomegranates on sale at the Siyob Dekhon Bozori (Siyob farmers’ market) in Samarkand

In Volume 3 (From Mohammedan Conquest to the Reign of Akbar the Great) of his ‘History of India’, the British scholar Stanley Lane-Poole writes about Babur: “…his Memoirs are no rough soldier’s chronicle of marches and countermarches… they contain the personal impressions and acute reflections of a cultivated man of the world, well read in Eastern literature, a close and curious observer, quick in perception, a discerning judge of persons, and a devoted lover of nature; one, moreover, who was well able to express his thoughts and observations in clear and vigorous language… The utter frankness of self-revelation, the unconscious portraiture of all his virtues and follies, his obvious truthfulness and fine sense of honour, give the Memoirs an authority which is equal to their charm.”

In many places, Babur’s turn of phrase transforms the matter-of-fact narrative into sublime poetry. His father, Umar Shaikh Mirza, died when Babur was barely eleven years old, falling from an ill-constructed dovecote in his palace into a ravine. This is how Babur describes the accident:

It has been mentioned that the fort of Akhsi is situated above a deep ravine; along this ravine stand the palace buildings, and from it, on Monday, Ramzan 4 (June 8th), Umar Shaikh Mirza flew, with his pigeons and their house, and became a falcon.

He was 39 (lunar) years old, having been born in Samarkand in 860AH (1456AD).

Samarkand, of course, finds extensive mention throughout the memoirs. It was the capital of the Timurid dynasty, and fought for by all the princes who followed the man the Uzbeks revere as Amir Timur (and whom many others, including Indians, decry as Timur the Lame, ruthless invader who put thousands to the sword). Babur took and lost Samarkand twice, before moving to Kabul in 1504, and thence to Delhi and Agra.

Few towns in the whole habitable world are so pleasant as Samarkand… In the town and suburbs of Samarkand are many fine buildings and gardens of Timur Beg and Aulugh Beg Mirza

He goes on to describe some of Timur’s monumental creations. Most of what he describes no longer exists, but there are others as imposing and dramatic. Renovation projects, begun by the Russians in the 1960s and carried forward by the governments of the independent republic since 1991 with the help of richer Islamic nations, have resulted in stunningly beautiful gates, mosques, madrassahs-turned-crafts centres, and bazaars and public spaces that are the cynosure of Uzbekistan’s touristic oeuvre.

Babur also writes of one landmark that was a personal favourite of mine – the observatory in Samarkand of Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg, under whom the arts and sciences flourished in the 15th century.

Another of Aūlūgh Beg Mīrzā’s fine buildings is an observatory, that is, an instrument for writing Astronomical Tables. This stands three storeys high, on the skirt of the Kohik upland. By its means the Mīrzā worked out the Kūrkāni Tables, now used all over the world.

The main feature of the observatory is a giant quadrant device dug into the hillside. Standing on the viewing platform at the top of it, I look at the small window in the wall opposite, now protected with an arabesque grill, but which would in Ulugh Beg’s time have been a tiny portal to let a ray of sunlight traverse the quadrant through the course of the day. I marvel at the scale and precision of it all.

The subterranean quadrant at Ulugh Beg’s observatory

Scholars at the observatory drew up the most accurate and reliable astronomical tables created till that time anywhere in the world, the Zij-i-Sultani. Their calculations of the sidereal year were more accurate than that made by Copernicus nearly a century later, and their estimation of the earth’s axial tilt agrees to several decimals with modern-day standards.

Samarkand is a wonderfully beautified town. One of its specialities, perhaps found in few other places, is that the different trades are not mixed up together in it but each has its own bāzār, a good sort of plan. Its bakers and its cooks are good. The best paper in the world is made there; the water for the paper-mortars all comes from Kān-i-gil, a meadow on the banks of the Qarā-sū (Blackwater) or Ab-i-raḥmat (Water of Mercy).

To my delight, I get to see that paper being made, at the Meros Paper Factory in Konigil. Started only recently, in 1994, it’s a tourism-oriented enterprise, so it’s difficult to tell whether the ‘traditional’ processes showcased do reflect anything age-old. But it’s still a thrill to watch the wooden wheel turned by the rushing water of a stream, in turn making large wooden beams act as pestles to pulp mulberry wood bark.

Water wheel at the Meros Paper Factory in Konigil

One can imagine that it would not have been very different in Babur’s day. There’s something otherworldly about holding that paper in one’s hand and imagining that, 500 years before, this is what Babur may have written his journal upon!

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