By Timur Khan
In 1526, Zahiruddin Muhammad ‘Babur’ (d. 1530) established his rule over a swath of northern India and thus created what most readers will know as the Mughal dynasty, which after some early fits and starts would rule an immense, rich, and powerful empire until the 18th century, and remain the nominal rulers of most of the subcontinent until 1858.
For many historians, though, Babur has another legacy which may rival, even surpass the great empire his kingdom grew to be. That legacy is the Baburnama (‘Book of Babur’) or Tuzuk-i Baburi (literally ‘Regulations,’ ‘Charter,’ or ‘Memoir of Babur’), his autobiography. A detailed, personal and often frank account of Babur’s life and times, it is a unique work in the literature of the Islamic world in the era corresponding to late medieval or early modern European history. It was originally written in the Turkic Chaghatay language, and translated into Persian under the later Mughals and into English from the period of British colonial rule in India onwards.
The Draw of the Baburnama
Many more qualified writers than me have extolled the virtues and fascinating qualities of the Baburnama. As Wheeler Thackston, whose English translation of the text was published in 1996, writes: “Babur’s memoirs are the first – and until relatively recent times, the only – true autobiography in Islamic literature,” an “open, frank, and occasionally quite intimate” work, distinguished further by the choice of the Chaghatay language rather than Persian.
With his sharp eye and attention to detail, Babur brings much of 16th-century Central and South Asia to life vividly. He describes places, peoples, flowers and animals – and many wonderful details in between. When discussing the rhinoceros, which used to range the north-western subcontinent, he not only gives a physical description but allows us a glimpse at how people thought of these creatures. In India, Babur tells us, people spoke of the rhino being able to bring down an elephant with its horn. Babur was curious but not convinced. Later, he set an elephant against a rhino and was disappointed when the latter scampered off.
That element of curiosity in Babur brings out another important element of the Baburnama: the sense a reader gets of the author’s character. Babur’s emotions, his sense of humor and joy, his pathos and arrogance, come through the text, bringing its subject to life in a way few sources of the era do. Babur plainly criticizes those he finds unintelligent or worthless; he extols those he admires, but treats many fairly. He acknowledges his own father’s faults and defeats straightforwardly. He shares his frustration and misery at failing to take and hold Samarkand, the capital of his illustrious forefather Timur (generally known in the West as Tamerlane, d. 1405), as well as his triumph at the conquest of Delhi. These sweeping episodes of kingdom-seizing are textured by smaller, human moments. Unhappy in India, a foreign land whose climate and people Babur dislikes, he cries when receiving a melon from the city that became his home, Kabul.
For all the personality that shines through the text, the Baburnama is not a straightforward work of purely personal honesty. Different parts of the work (which has not come down to us in complete form) appear quite heavily edited, while others feel more directly taken from Babur’s journals. The book was also the biography of a great ruler, whose successors ruled an immense empire and looked back to Babur with great reverence – and our copies come from these later periods of the Mughal Empire. Babur adopted a strikingly personal style, but was also aiming for a literary quality informed by the traditions of poetry and literature he grew up with. It is tempting, in excitement over the imminent and accessible style of the text, to treat the Baburnama as a kind of modern autobiography – but this risks losing the value of his poetry and adherence to historical literary forms, and overlooking the history of the text’s composition and copying.
Afghans and the Baburnama
I want to focus on an aspect of the Baburnama which is often overlooked given all its unique qualities, and immense importance in Central Asian, South Asian, and Islamic history. I want to focus on its place in the history of the Afghans. Today, the word ‘Afghan’ refers (ideally) to citizens of Afghanistan and cuts across ethnic lines. In the premodern period its application could be flexible, but generally it meant the people we would now call Pashtuns, an ethnicity straddling Afghanistan and large parts of Pakistan.
As with so many topics covered by the Baburnama, it offers a unique and indispensable perspective on the Afghans of the 16th century. In fact it is the earliest extant and original source we have which mentions, by name, many Afghan communities which exist today. The early 16th century was a crucial time for what is now north-western Pakistan, as great migrations from the west and southwest brought in Afghan communities who still shape the human geography of those lands today. Babur is a rare and special eyewitness of this important moment in history.
But just as the Baburnama has a large role in the study of ‘medieval’ and early modern Afghan history, the Afghans themselves have a large role in the Baburnama, and were important in the creation of Babur’s kingdom. At the time that Babur came over the Hindu Kush on his way to the plains of northern India, Delhi – his ultimate prize and the center of political power – was ruled by an Afghan dynasty. The lands he first set foot in were peopled, and being further settled or conquered, by Afghans, against whom he waged many campaigns.
Babur’s successors would have to manage the Afghan nobility, whose presence in India was significant, and indeed Babur’s son Humayun (r. 1530-40, 1555-6) was expelled from India for fifteen years by Sher Shah Suri (d. 1554), an Afghan noble who founded his own empire. Throughout his adventures in India, Babur was constantly encountering Afghans of all kinds: sultans, merchants, villagers, enemies and allies, indeed one of his own wives. In the late 17th century, the Afghan chieftain and great poet of the Pashto language, Khushhal Khan Khattak (d. 1689), would write that Babur had seized his kingdom thanks to the force of Afghan arms – a self-serving boast, maybe, but one that reflects how intertwined the history of both the Mughals and Afghans was.
Through Babur’s words, we can get a sense of how and where the Afghans of this time lived, where they migrated, how they fought and how others thought of them. On that last point, it is worth being aware that Babur, for all his attention to detail and forthrightness, was no impartial narrator. More often than not, the Afghans were his enemies, and a people he seemed to look down on and find difficult to understand. “Far from sense and wisdom, shut off from judgment and counsel must people in Hindustan be, the Afghans above all; for they could not move and make stand like a foe, nor did they know ways and rules of friendliness,” he complains (this phrase taken from the famous translation of Annette Beveridge). Babur takes his place in a long line of writers and rulers, from centuries before to the present day, who viewed or view Afghans and Pashtuns as irrational, uncultured, savage and ignorant – even while waging brutal war on them.
Beyond his prejudices, Babur was primarily engaging with the Afghans politically, as a conqueror and king. His concerns were often military and political, so the image that emerges of the Afghans usually involves them waging war, negotiating, submitting, and so on. But warfare and high politics were not the totality of this period, and there is a danger of forgetting, music, poetry, farming or shepherding, friendships and marriages – all the rest of human life. Often, Babur is a good source for these things too, but for the Afghans, one has to read between the lines.
The Baburnama is therefore a standout source, and like any source, one which needs to be read with care. By taking a close look at different aspects of Babur’s encounters with and description of Afghans, I hope to explore the significance of the text for Afghan-Pashtun history, and the significance of the Afghans for Babur’s own story, in a number of separate articles. Exploring these stories allows us a rare, close look at the dynamics of politics, migration, and warfare of this region in the early 1500s.
Timur Khan is a PhD student based in Leiden, the Netherlands. His work focuses on the early modern and colonial history of Afghanistan and South Asia, particularly the 18th and 19th century Durrani empire. His work can be found on his Academia page.
The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor, translated by Wheeler Thackston (Modern Library, 2002)
The Illustrated Baburnama, translated by Som Prakash Verma (Routledge, 2019)
Top Image: Babur advancing through the mountains to Kabul, from a 16th-century copy of the Baburnama. Image: Victoria and Albert Museum IM.263-1913 / Wikimedia Commons