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
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
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
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
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
"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?