The Great Moghuls Babar The Adventurer

A.D. 1483 TO A.D. 1514

Born on St Valentine's Day, A.D. 1483, the boy-baby, who was hereafter

to be called Zahir-ud-din Mahomed, and nicknamed Babar, must have been

plentifully supplied with fairy godmothers, for he was gifted with

almost every possible gift.

To begin with, he had good looks, even judging by the curious

portraits of those days. Then, there can be no question of
his ability

as a soldier, while intellectually he would have been remarkable in

any age. Besides this, he was possessed of the true artistic

temperament to a quite unusual degree; he was painter, poet, author,

and in the smallest thing that he wrote showed unerring literary skill

and taste.

Beyond, and above all, however, he had that nameless charm which makes

him, surely, the most delightful personality known to history.

Given such a man, it would be sheer perversity to treat of him solely

in reference to the part he played in India, as this would be to

deprive ourselves of no less than thirty-six years of the very best of


So let us begin at the very beginning. It is possible to do this with

an accuracy unobtainable with any other Indian king--or, indeed, with

any king of any clime--because Babar left to the ages an autobiography

of himself, his thoughts, his acts, his failures, his successes, which

is, truly, a quite extraordinary record. Between the covers lies a

whole, real, live, human being.

It opens, however, with these words, "In the year 1494, and in the

twelfth year of my age, I became King of Ferghana." We have therefore

to go back eleven years for the birth of Babar. Before doing this, a

glance round the world will give us the milieu in which our hero was

to play his part.

Briefly, then, Vasco da Gama had but just discovered India, Henry VII.

was King of England. Michelangelo was revolutionising the world of

art, Copernicus creating that of science. For the rest, a hundred

years had passed since Timur the "Earth Trembler" had shaken literally

the whole world; for his grip on it had reached West to Moscow and

East to China. Yet a hundred years further back again Chengiz Khan had

swept over the same ground like a devastating flame.

Babar had both these unamiable ruffians as ancestors, but, apparently,

was by no means proud of his Mongal or Moghul descent. He called

himself a Turk, and wrote hardly of the race whose name, by the irony

of fate, was to be attached to the dynasty he founded.

"If the Moghul race had an angel's birth,

It still would be made of the basest earth;

Were the Moghul name writ in thrice-fired gold,

It would ring as false as it did of old;

From a Moghul's harvest sow never a seed

For the seed of a Moghul is false indeed!"

Babar was the son of Omar-Shaikh, King of Ferghana, or as it is now

called, Khokand. At his birth a courier was sent post-haste to inform

his maternal grandfather, the Khan of the Mongols, who, despite his

seventy years, came back post-haste to join in the festivities,

and--his uncouth, Mongolian tongue trippling over the polished Persian

name Zahir-ud-din (the Evidence of Faith)--to dub the child Babar, or

"the tiger," a nickname which stuck to him for life. A fine old man

this grandfather of Babar's, and a fine old woman his grandmother must

have been. A woman not to be trifled with, to judge by her action when

one Jaimul-Khan, having for a time defeated her husband, seized her

and made her over to one of his officers.

Isa-Begum raised no puerile objections. She received her new master

quite affably, but once he was within her chamber door she locked it,

bade her maids stab him to death, fling the body to the street, and

send this message to Shaikh-Jaimul: "I am the wife of Yunas. Contrary

to law, you gave me to another man, so I slew him. Come and slay me if

you choose."

The erring Jaimul must have had good in him, for, struck by her

courage, he restored her honourably to her husband.

At the age of five Babar was betrothed to his cousin Ayesha, and the

next six years must have been spent at the millstone of education,

since this was all the schooling Fate granted him, and he emerged from

it with two languages at his fingers' end, and an amount of literary

skill and general knowledge which was fairly surprising. His father,

still in the prime of life, was killed by an accident while away from

his capital, and the incident is thus described by the boy-king, who,

36 miles away, "immediately mounted in the greatest haste, and, taking

such followers as were at hand, set out to secure my throne."

"The river flows under the walls of the castle, which is situated on

the very edge of a high precipice, so that it serves as a moat. And

some of the ravines down to it being scarped to support the castle, in

all Ferghana stands no stronger fortress. Thus one of the walls giving

way, my father, feeding his pigeons, was, with the pigeons and the

pigeon-house, precipitated from the top of the steep, and so himself

took flight to another world."

A quaint description, giving a picture which lingers in the mind's

eye. The fortress hanging over the abyss, the king, in Eastern

fashion, making his pigeons tumble for their corn. Then the sudden

slip, and a startled soul among the startled white wings on its way to

another world. Even the body which the soul had left remains alive for

ever in Babar's words:--

"My father was of lowish stature, had a short, bushy beard, and was

fat. He used to wear his tunic very tight, and as he drew himself in

when he put it on, when he let himself out the strings often burst. He

plaited his turban without folds, and let the end hang down. He was

but a middling shot with the bow, but had such uncommon force with his

fists that he never hit a man but he knocked him down. His generosity

was large, and so was his whole nature. He was a humane king, and

played a great deal at backgammon."

Peace be to thine ashes, oh, Omar-Shaikh! Even after all the centuries

we seem to know the man himself, as we read the words in which his son

has pictured him.

So, let us hark back to Ferghana, the little kingdom watered by the

river Jaxartes, and give one more extract from Babar's journal to show

what manner of place it seemed to the eleven-year-old king.

"Ferghana is situate on the extreme boundary of the habitable world.

It is a valley clipped by snowy mountains on all sides but the west,

whither the river flows, and on which side alone it can be entered by

foreign enemies. It is of small extent, but abounds in grain and

fruits. Its melons are excellent and plentiful. There are no better

pears in the world. Its pheasants are so fat that four persons may

dine on the stew of one and not finish it. Its violets are

particularly elegant, and it abounds in streams of running water. In

the spring its tulips and roses blow in great profusion, and there are

mines of turquoise in the mountains, while in the valley the people

make velvet of a crimson colour."

Surely this description is sufficient, not only to show us Ferghana,

but also to give us a clear idea of the boy who saw it thus. Truly the

temptation to quote from this delightful record is well nigh

irresistible, but space forbids, for there is much to say of Babar as

poet, painter, musician, astronomer, knight-errant, soldier-lover,

king, and bon vivant. He was all of these in turn; and in addition,

kindly, valorous, courteous. A real paladin if ever there was one.

From the very first he gripped the reins of kingship with a firm hand.

And it was no easy task to guide the little kingdom through the

dangers which beset it; but he succeeded "through the distinguished

valour of my young soldiers" (he himself being but twelve!) in besting

his uncles the Kings of Samarkhund and Tashkund, so holding his own.

Shortly after this the young king nearly fell a victim to conspiracy,

owing to his confidence in one Hassan-Yukub, "the best player of

leap-frog I have known." From this infatuation he was rescued by his

shrewd old grandmother, of whom Babar speaks with sneaking awe: "She

was uncommonly far-sighted; few of her sex equalled her in sagacity."

This incident evidently sobered him, for he "began to abstain from

forbidden meats, and seldom omitted midnight prayers."

For there is always something absolutely translucent in Babar's

accounts of himself, and of everything which he heard and saw.

It is impossible even for a moment to doubt their accuracy. His

self-revelation is frankness itself, and his views of men and manners

bring conviction with them.

Ambition seems to have seized on him early, for ere he was fifteen,

his uncle the king having died, he marched on Samarkhund to make a bid

for the throne. And he succeeded. He was Emperor of Samarkhund, as his

ancestor Timur had been, for exactly one hundred days, during which he

appears to have enjoyed himself hugely. One is apt to think of these

Eastern cities beyond the verge, as they are now--half-ruined, dreary,

dead-alive. But in those days they were centres of commerce, learning,

and art. To Samarkhund Timur had brought the untold riches of India,

her clever craftsmen, her skilled artisans. It was a beautiful, a

cultured city, and Babar came to the conclusion "that in the whole

habitable world there are few places so pleasantly situated."

His dream of success lasted but those hundred days; then evil news of

rebellion at Ferghana and an appeal for help came from his mother. "I

was ill," he writes, "but had not the heart to delay an instant, so

being unable to nurse myself, I had a relapse."

He came so near death, indeed, that some of his followers, despairing

of life, shifted for themselves, and brought the news of his demise to

Ferghana. Thus when the young king came back to consciousness, it was

to find himself without a kingdom; for his friends, believing him

dead, had surrendered.

"Thus for the sake of Ferghana I had given up Samarkhund, and now

found I had lost the one without securing the other."

Such is his philosophical comment. But Babar's remarks are always

inimitable. When they hanged his envoy over the gate of the citadel,

he sets down his instant belief that "without doubt Khwaja Kazi was a

saint: he was a wonderfully brave man--which is no mean proof of

saintship. Other men, brave as they may be, have some nervousness or

trepidation in them. The Kazi hadn't a particle of either."

This reverse necessitated two years of wandering in the hills. He took

his mother with him and his old grandmother, giving them the best

shelter he could find. And wherever he wandered, he himself was always

cheerful, always kindly, always ready to enjoy the beauties and the

gifts of Nature; especially "a wonderful delicate and toothsome melon,

with a mottled skin like shagreen."

Until one day, just as the sun was setting, a solitary horseman

bearing a message sped up the valley towards his mountain fastness,

and in less than half an hour Babar was up and away through the

deepening night in response to those who loved him; and there were

many of them. Indeed his capacity for winning over most men to his

side is one of his most salient characteristics. He was bon camarade

with half his world.

An eventful ride this over hill and dale, through darkness and through

light. "We had passed three days and three nights without rest,

neither man nor horse had strength left," when, hanging on the edge of

a hill, the city of his hope showed rose-red in the dawn. Then for the

first time fear came. Had he been over-hasty? What if this were a

trick to decoy him and his handful of followers to their death?

But "there was no possibility of retreat, no refuge even to which we

could retreat. So, having come so far, on we must go. (Nothing happens

but by God's will.)"

The trite little sentence of consolation was justified. Babar found

himself once more King of Ferghana; but he promptly lost his kingdom

again by attempting to make his ill-disciplined Mongolian troops make

restitution to the peasantry of the loot they had taken from them.

He admits his error frankly.

"It was a senseless thing to exasperate so many men with arms in their

hands. In war and in statecraft a thing may seem reasonable at first

sight, but it needs to be weighed and considered in a hundred lights

before it is finally decided upon. This ill-judged order of mine was,

in fact, the ultimate cause of my second expulsion."

This was in A.D. 1500, when he was seventeen years old. Still his

buoyancy remained, despite his evil fortune, and for the next few

months his itinerary is full of the joys of "a capital hunting-ground,

with good covers for game," in which he coursed, and shot, and hawked,

to his heart's content.

Not for long, however. Samarkhund tempted him again in the summer; but

he had to retire and seek shelter in the hills once more,

"by dangerous tracks among the rocks. In the steep and narrow ways and

gorges which we had to climb, many a horse and camel dropped and fell

out. After four or five days we came to the col of Sir-i-Tuk. This

is a pass! Never did I see one so narrow and steep, or follow paths

more toilsome and strait. We pressed on, nevertheless, with incredible

labour, through fearful gorges and by tremendous precipices, until,

after a hundred agonies and losses, at last we topped those murderous

steep defiles and came down on the borders of Kan, with its lovely

expanse of lake."

When eighteen he finally managed to conquer Samarkhund, and in the

same year his first child, a daughter, was born; for he had wedded his

cousin Ayesha while in hiding in the hills. He called the baby "The

Glory of Womanhood," and chronicles regretfully that "in a month or

forty days she went to partake of the Mercy of God."

Marriage, however, appears to have roused him to no emotion, for he

admits first that he had "never conceived a passion for any woman, and

indeed had never been so placed as even to hear or witness words of

love or amorous discourse"; secondly, that in the beginning of his

wedded life, shyness almost overcame affection; "and afterwards," he

adds quaintly, "as my affection decreased my shyness increased."

A curious record of clean-living this for an Eastern king in the very

hey-day of youth.

Babar's success did not last for long. Two years after he was once

more a fugitive, and this time he did not succeed in saving all his

womenkind. His favourite sister, older than he was by some years,

remained behind, part of the price paid for bare freedom, and entered

his victorious enemy's harem. This was a bitter pill to swallow, and

Babar never forgot it. This sister figures in the Memoirs of Babar's

daughter, Gulbadan, as "Dearest Lady." She seems to have kept her

brother's deep devotion to the last.

So for three long years Babar wandered once more. This is perhaps the

most exciting portion of his Autobiography. It is absolutely packed

full with hair's-breadth escapes, crowded in each word with human

interest. We see the young king, now in the very prime of his manhood,

standing stripped for his bathe in "a stream that was frozen at the

banks, but not in the middle, by reason of its swift current." We

watch him "plunge in and dive sixteen times, but the biting chill of

the water cut through me." We follow breathlessly the vain endeavour

made by him and three trusted friends to induce his frightened troops

to rally: "I was constantly turning with my three companions to keep

the enemy in check, and bring them up short with our arrows; but we

could not make the men stand anyhow." We mourn with him on another

occasion his ignorance that "the horsemen who followed were not above

twenty or twenty-five, while we were eight." We agree with him that

had he "but known their number at first, he would 'have given them

warm work.'" We share his faith in his own nimbleness in climbing a

hill as the only escape from the arrows of bowmen, and we positively

hold our breath in the amazing story of the Garden at Tambal, where he

waited for Death, and found Life, and friends, and new hope.

This was the capture of Kabul. The kingly blood in him craved a

kingdom. He felt he must have one if he died for it.

Surely never was claimant for royalty worse fitted out for the quest

than was Babar! Even Prince Charlie, with his head in Flora

Macdonald's lap, does not come up in forlornness with Zahir-ud-din

Mahomed Babar, who gave his only tent to his mother, and whose

followers, "great and small, were more than two hundred and less than

three. Most on foot with brogues to their feet, clubs in their hands,

and tattered cloaks over their shoulders." Yet a short time afterwards

he finds himself, "to my own great surprise," at the head of quite a

respectable army.

A short time, again, and he is King of Kabul; such are the amazing ups

and downs of this most unfortunate, most fortunate of princes.

By this time his wife, Ayesha, had left him, giving as her reason the

perfectly true plaint that he did not love her. He had, however,

fallen in love with some one else; the woman who was to be the mother

of his son Humayon, and of his three daughters, who were named by

Babar's express wish, "Rose-face, Rose-blush, Rose-body." It was at

Kabul that Humayon was born. At Kabul, also, Babar lost his mother,

whom he helped to carry shoulder high to her grave in the Garden of

the New Year, outside the city, "the sweetest spot in all the


He remained King of Kabul until he made his first expedition to India

in 1514. He gives us detailed accounts of his new kingdom. He seems to

know everything that is to be known about it. The names and habits of

every animal, bird, and beast, even to the fact that in stormy weather

the migratory birds are stopped by the everlasting snows of the

Hindu-Kush hills, and so are taken in hundreds by the bird-fowlers. He

knows the place where the rarest tulips are to be found, and is

unceasing in his praise of three-and-thirty different kinds, one

"yellow, double, scented like a rose." Doubtless, the parents of that

favourite in modern gardens, "Yellow Rose."

He knows also of the different clans and people of Kabul, their past

history, their present languages. In fact, he knows all things that

are possible to vivid vitality, all things that are given to friendly

hand and seeing eye.

It was from Kabul that he went on a visit to his cousins, the Princes

of Herat. Here, for the first time, he learnt what luxury meant, for

Herat was the home of culture and of ease. At first he is somewhat

shocked. There are so many things "contrary to the institutions of

Chengiz Khan"--that sacred rule from which his family never deviated.

Then he began to meditate that after all "Chengiz had no divine

authority," and that if a "father has done wrong, the son should

change it for what is right."

From this to doing at Rome what Rome did is but a step; and yet it

seems as if he had kept his vow of drinking no wine sacred while at

Herat. Pity he did not keep it so always.

It was in returning to Kabul by the mountains from his twenty days'

visit to the most charming "city in the whole habitable world," that

Babar met with the following adventure which shows him at his best. He

and his army were lost in the snow, and "met with such suffering and

hardship, as I have scarcely endured at any other time of my life."

The poem about it which he sat down to write has not survived, but

Babar's prose is sufficient for most things.

"For about a week we went on trampling down the snow. I helped with

Kasim Beg, and his sons, and a few servants. Each step we sank to the

waist, or the breast; but still we went on. After a few paces a man

became exhausted, and another took his place. Then we dragged forward

a horse without a rider. The horse sank to the stirrups and girths,

and after advancing ten or fifteen paces, was worn out and replaced by

another. It was no time for using authority. Every one who has spirit

does his best at such times, and those who have none are not worth

thinking about.

"In three or four days we reached a cave at the foot of the Yerrin

pass. That day the storm was terrible, and the snow fell so heavily,

we all expected to die together. When we reached the cave the storm

was at its worst. We halted at the mouth. It seemed small, so I took a

hoe and, clearing away the snow, made a resting-place for myself about

as big as a prayer-carpet, and found a shelter from the wind in it.

Some were for my going into the cave, but I would not. I felt that for

me to be within in comparative comfort while my soldiers were in snow

and drift would be inconsistent with that fellowship and suffering

which was their due. So, remembering the proverb, 'Death in the

company of friends is a feast,' I continued to sit in the drift. By

bedtime prayers 4 inches of snow had settled on my head and lips and


The description is excellent, and gives a delightful background to the

quaint comment with which it finishes: "N.B.--That night I caught a

cold in my ear."

Then once again the haunting dream of Samarkhund, the desire to

possess the throne of his ancestor Timur, came to obsess him, and

bring disaster. He gained the throne once more, only yet once more to

lose it. Whether by his own fault, or because Fortune's wheel had

turned for the time, we know not. The Autobiography is silent.

All we know is that in A.D. 1519--that is, when he was thirty-six

years of age--he finally gave up the thought of Samarkhund, and turned

his eyes to India.

Timur had conquered it; why should not he?