In the month of Ramadan in the year 899 [June 1494], in the province of Fergana, in my twelfth year I became king.
This is the opening line of a handsome new English version of the autobiography of Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, translated from the original Chaghatay Turkish by Wheeler M. Thackston, professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. Thackston and his assisting editors have embellished the narrative with apposite black and white photographs and a careful selection of miniature paintings that are roughly contemporary with Babur himself, chosen in preference to paintings from the many sumptuous Baburnamas produced by later Mughalartists and reflecting figures and settings Babur never knew.
By the time Babur was twenty, his kingship had evaporated and, he writes, "I rode out of Fergana for Khurasan in search of a quest wherever the opportunity might present itself." Propelled southward by the onslaught from the north of Shaybani Khan and his Uzbek tribes men, Babur and his followers captured Kabul and established there the beginnings of a new realm.
In 1506 he went west to visit his royal cousins in the Timurid capital of Herat. He arrived with impeccable royal credentials of his own, being descended from both Timur and Genghis Khan. Sultan Hussein Baiqara, the ruler of Herat's golden age, had, however, recently died, and Babur found his successors debauched and sadly irresolute in the face of the looming Uzbek threat. After a round of official entertainments, which he engagingly describes, and some serious sightseeing among the wonders of the doomed capital, Babur marched back through the snows of central Afghanistan to consolidate his position in Kabul. Herat fell to Shaybani Khan within the year.
Kabul was the base from which Babur went on to establish the magnificent Mughal Empire in Delhi. Some of his descendants are perhaps better known than he-Akbar, Jahangir or Shah Jahan-but, like Shah Jarum, builder of the Taj Mahal, Babur created in the Baburnama a monument that is unique and unforgettable.
This carefully annotated and nicely illustrated edition makes the autobiography available in English in an attractive modem format. Those who already know the Baburnama will most likely have read it in the translation by Annette Beveridge, published in London in 1921 and occasionally reprinted since. Other versions, based in part or wholly on Persian translations, had appeared previously. Mrs. Beveridge was able to work from what is still the most complete Chaghatay text, discovered by her orientalist husband, Henry Beveridge, in Hyderabad, Deccan, in 1900.
Mr. Thackston is not particularly gracious about the job done by Mrs. Beveridge, who did, after all, diligently produce a readable, annotated English translation that has been our main source on Babur for 75 years. In fact, her work is superior to the new volume in one respect: It follows the earlier literary custom of providing chapter highlights in the Table of Contents, which make it easy for the reader to "skip and skim at will" as Mr. Thackston himself recommends. In particular, Mr. Thackston faults Mrs. Beveridge for being "timid in her approach, opting for a literal almost word for word rendering of the Chaghatay."
Noting that "Babur's Chaghatay is fluid, idiomatic and colloquial," Thackston describes the different approach he has followed:
In the present translation every effort has been made...to preserve the flavor of the original but to couch it in modern English, without straying across the thin line that separates a nonliteral translation from one that has abandoned the original in favor of a free rendering, bearing in mind that it is impossible to reproduce in English, with its centuries of literature, the ambiance of a book written in a language with few, if any literary antecedents, like Chaghatay.
This points up the doubly remarkable nature of the Baburnama: In those days in that culture, one did not write as one spoke (or often in the language one spoke) what's more, one did not write an autobiography.
Instead, royal lives were dressed up in suitably ornate Persian by historians retained by the court. Babur ignored the tradition. His description of his father early in the book is illustrative:
He was a middling shot. He packed quite a punch, however, and no one was ever hit by him who did not bite the dust. On account of his urge to expand his territory he turned many a truce into battle and many a friend into a foe.
He used to drink a lot. Later in life he held drinking parties once or twice a week. He was fun to be with in a gathering and was good at reciting poetry for his companions. He grew rather fond of maajun and under its influence would lose his head. He was of a scrappy temperament and had many scars and brands to show for it. He played backgammon a lot and occasionally gambled.
Prodigious drinking parties, faithfully described, played a big role in the son's life as well. There is also poetry, his own and that of others. A good part of the book is inevitably taken up by the military campaigns that eventually led to the establishment of Babur's empire and by attention to the merits and demerits, and often the foibles, of the various personalities who figure in his adventures. Interspersed with the business of conquest, however, there are detailed observations on the country-side through which lie and his troops pass, the people, and the fauna and flora.
Babur's preference is obviously for the highlands surrounding Kabul, whereby his choice he is buried. He lovingly describes the village of Istalif and its streams and trees and picnic spots. In Nangarhar province he reports,
I had constructed a charbagh garden called Bagh-I-Wafa on a rise to the south of the Adinapur fortress. It overlooks the river, which flows between the fortress and the garden. It yields many oranges, citrons, and pomegranates. The year I conquered...Lahore....I had a banana tree brought and planted. It thrived....In the southwest portion of the garden is a ten-by-ten pool surrounded by orange trees and some pomegranate trees. All around the pool is a clover meadow. The best place in the garden is there. When the oranges tum yellow it is a beautiful sight-really handsomely laid out.
India on the other hand inspires a quite different reaction: Hindustan is a place of little charm. There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility or manliness. The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry. There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no madrasas. There are no candles, torches or candlesticks.
But Babur does devote considerable informed attention to the animals, birds and flowers of Hindustan. Among the "marvelous flowers" he finds is the hibiscus, which is "not a shrub but a tree with stems," and when it blossoms, "from the middle of the petals yet another slender stalk is formed, as long as a finger, from which still more hibiscus petals open. The result is a double, fairly amazing flower."
If there is one villain in the autobiography, it is clearly the Uzbek Shaybani Khan. At one point in the narrative, Babur stops referring to him by his name and, without explanation, calls him thereafter Shaibaq Khan, which Thackston renders as Worm wood Khan, suggesting Babur's attitude towards the Uzbek leader. (It is puzzling that Thackston, an otherwise assiduous annotator, does not annotate this shift, as Beveridge did in her version, nor does he choose to explain his colorful translation.) Babur takes obvious pleasure in relaying tales of how Wormwood Khan behaved when he took Herat:
His illiteracy notwithstanding, he presumed to give lessons in Koranic interpretation to [two of] Herat's renowned and talented mullahs. To the calligraphy of Sultan Ali Mashadi and the painting of Bihzad he took his pen and made corrections.
To the cultivated Babur this last was Philistinism of the most egregious kind. The missing portions of the Chaghatar manuscript deny us the pleasure of reading Babur's reaction to Wormwood Khan’s comeuppance, which included the loss of his head at the hands of the future Safavid shah, Talimasp, in 1510 in a battle between Persians and Uzbeks in northern Khurasan. Thackston has included a full-page, less than flattering contemporary portrait of an Uzbek prince, which probably reflects the attitude of the Turco-Mongol aristocracy of the time towards the uncouth tribesmen invading from the north.
But, the facts on the ground were that, by the time of Babur's death in 1530, much of the Muslim world was ruled by Turks-Ottomans, Safavids, Uzbeks and Mughals-who nevertheless conducted most of their affairs of state in the Persian language. Babur, who flouted tradition and wrote a charming autobiography in Chaghatay Turkish, stands out as being, then and now, one of a kind.