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Love poems, memoirs and massacres 26 mars 2007

Posted by Acturca in Art-Culture, Books / Livres, Central Asia / Asie Centrale, History / Histoire.
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The Daily Telegraph (UK), March 24, 2007 Saturday, Pg. 11

Dilip Hiro *

The emperor Babur was a statesman, a general – and a literary master in two languages, says Dilip Hiro

In the pantheon of personalities of the past ages, where should the following man be placed? He was a descendant of Genghis Khan, who captured the largest territory in history, and of Tamerlane, the second mightiest conqueror. He was the first ruler to write an autobiography – and in his own handwriting. He composed poetry that resonates today, and was as adept at describing monuments, flora and fauna, wine parties and battle strategy as he was at expressing his inner feelings. He founded an empire to rival the Ottoman Turks’ and the Persian Safavids’; it lasted more than three centuries. Zahir Uddin Muhammad Babur, who was born in Andijan, Uzbekistan in 1483 and died in Agra, India in 1530, should be in the front row.

Those familiar with the history of the Indian sub-continent will know that Babur (meaning lion) was a restless man of vaulting ambition, a brilliant general who defeated Sultan Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526 and established the Mughal dynasty which ruled most of the sub-continent until the mid-19th century. But he was also an outstanding man of letters, at home with prose and poetry in Turkish, his mother tongue, and Persian, the language of literature and administration.

Babur started a journal when he became the governor of Andijan, following his father Omar Shaikh Mirza’s accidental death at the age of 10. He continued the practice until the last year of his life. The Babur Nama is a rich compendium. It describes his domains and the way they were administered, the battles and the territories he won and lost, the outbreak of rebellions and their suppression, the rise and fall of his adversaries and allies, his marriages and children, his banishment to a hill tract and near-death, and the biographies of his parents and close relatives. It also includes his judgments of the men of various ranks he dealt with as a fugitive, a ruler and a general – and as a poet and connoisseur. He was endowed with curiosity, an eye for detail, self-knowledge, logic, and a candour that is both disarming and moving.

Throughout his often tumultuous life, he meticulously preserved his voluminous text. Babur was conscious of the value of his chronicle as well as the importance of being objective. « I do not write this in order to make complaint; I have written the plain truth, » he asserts. « I do not set these matters down in order to make known my own deserts; I have set down exactly what has happened. »

There is much personal detail in the memoir, including a description of Babur getting his head shaved after four months and the loss of a loose half-tooth while eating. His descriptions of personal experiences are remarkable as much for their lack of self-aggrandisement as for their vividness and precision. « A man took aim at Ibrahim Beg, » Babur writes. « But then Ibrahim Beg yelled, ‘Hai! Hai!’; and he let him pass, and by mistake shot me in an armpit from as near as a man on guard at the Gate stands from another. Two plates of my armour cracked. I shot at a man running away along the ramparts, adjusting his cap against the battlements. He abandoned his cap, nailed to the wall and went off, gathering his turban sash together in his hand. »

He writes simply and logically, and every so often introduces a figure of speech evocative of the agrarian society in which he was raised. « Banana is another [Indian fruit], » he writes. « Its tree is not very tall. Indeed it is not tall enough to be called a tree. Its leaf is a little like that of the aman qara (peace under shade), but grows about two yards long and one yard broad. Out of the middle of its leaves rises, heart-like, a bud which resembles a sheep’s heart. »

He writes too, and in a different register, about love. « Until then I had no inclination of love and desire for anyone, by hearsay or experience, » Babur wrote when he was 17.

At that time I composed Persian couplets, one or two at a time. This is one of them:

May none be as I, humbled and wretched and lovelorn;

Not beloved as you are to me, you cruel being, full of scorn.

In that maelstrom of desire and passion, and under the stress of youthful folly, I used to wander, bareheaded and barefoot, through streets and lanes, orchards and vineyards… Sometimes, like mad men I used to wander alone over hill and plain; sometimes I wandered in gardens and suburbs, lane after lane. My roaming was not of my choice; nor could I decide whether to go or stay.

Nor power to stay was mine,

nor strength to part;

I became what you made of me, oh thief of my heart.

Anybody who has been in love could identify with such writing.

Like other rulers and generals, Babur did not shirk from ordering massacres. Where he stands apart is in the careful accuracy with which he can describe them. « Faced with our encircling attack, the Afghans could not fight, » he writes. « One to two hundred of them were captured to be slaughtered. Some were produced alive before us, but in most cases only their heads were brought to us. Those Afghans who had been brought to us as prisoners were ordered to be beheaded. Later a pillar of their heads was erected in our camp. »

The inhabitants of Baijur (in present-day Pakistan) were butchered mercilessly. « As the Bajauris were rebels… the men were subjected to a general massacre and their wives and children were made captive, » Babur writes. « At a guess, more than 3,000 men met their death. We entered the fort and inspected it. On the walls, in houses, streets and alleys, the dead lay, in what numbers! Those walking around had to jump over the corpses. »

Babur’s death was as extraordinary as his life. In 1530, his eldest son, Humayun, contracted a mysterious disease. Rejecting the advice to offer up the Koh-i-noor diamond to gain Humayun’s health, Babur chose to make an intercession through a revered saint. He circumambulated the sickbed three times, praying: « O God! If a life be exchanged for a life, I, Babur, hereby offer my life for Humayun’s. » Then he cried: « I have taken up the burden! » Humayun recovered. Babur soon fell ill, and died within months. He was 47.

During the rule of his grandson, Akbar, the Babur Nama was translated from Turkish into Persian. What survived into the early 20th century was a manuscript covering half the original period. That was the version that Annette Beveridge, a British orientalist based in Calcutta, translated from Turkish into English and published in 1921. It is the version that survives to this day.

* D Dilip Hiro is the editor of ‘Babur Nama: Journal of Emperor Babur’, published this month by Penguin at pounds 12.99 (pbk)

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