Memoirs of Babur : Baburnama

History Contributor

“In the month of Ramadan of the year 899 [1494] and in the twelfth year of my age, I became ruler in the country of Farghana.” With these words begins a remarkable book. A book that is a testimony to the beginning of the longest and the most fruitful dynastic reign of medieval India: The Mughal era. Baburnama, The Memoirs of Babur.

Beginning of Mughal rule

Baburnama, however, is remarkable for many other reasons as well. Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (1483 – 1530), the founder of the Mughal dynasty, which lasted for 300 hundred years and took India to such heights in many aspects, that by the middle of the 18th century the country had become the most sought-after destination of all European colonial powers. Over the next several pieces we will explore the unique achievements of the Mughal era, its economy, administration, society and every field of the arts. Here we restrict ourselves to this book, which marks the beginning of such a rule.

Babur himself has been little admired in India, because of his own observations, which were often unflattering, about the country. Clearly, he had seen little of India, and wrote from his very limited experiences. This, however, takes nothing away from the merit of the book.

Scholarly views

First, its merit as a memoir has been extolled by scholars across the ages. According to Stanley Lane-Pool, a renowned scholar and orientalist of the 19th and early 20th century, “His autobiography is one of those priceless records which are for all time, and is fit to rank with the confessions of St. Augustine and Rousseau, and the memoirs of Gibbon and Newton. In Asia it stands almost alone.”

And in more recent times the book’s latest translator Wheeler M. Thackstone comments, “Babur’s memoirs are the first–and until relatively recent times, the only–true autobiography in Islamic literature.”

Indeed, the scope of Memoirs of Babur is astonishingly wide. It includes the writer’s observations about, to quote Babur himself, “a new world – different plants, different trees, different animals and birds, different tribes and people, different manners and customs. It was astonishing, truly astonishing.”

Only land of gold and money?

The book also describes the new land’s geography, astronomy, statecraft, paintings, poetry and music. And it would be amiss to say that Babur had only unflattering criticism for India. For one, he acknowledges that India was ‘a large land, with lots of gold and money’. Then again, he openly expresses his admiration about many practices he found new in Hindustan: the method in which time was calculated, the system of weights and measures, and particularly the numerical system.

Its language is straightforward, lucid, and liberally spiced with humour. “If ever there were a case when the testimony of a single historical document, unsupported by other evidence, should be accepted as sufficient proof, it is the case with Babur’s memoirs,” writes Lane-Pool.

Babur’s own observations apart, the book Memoirs of Babur, as it survives today, in parts, in several museums across the world, is also an elegant example of illustrated book-production during the Mughal era. His great grandson, Jalauddin Muhammad Akbar, made four illustrated copies of the book, with exquisite miniature paintings that have been hailed to be among the among the greatest artistic achievements of the Islamic world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

 

(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)