One of the British Library’s most treasured manuscripts on display in its current exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound is a late 16th century copy of the Mughal emperor Babur’s autobiographical memoirs, Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī, more often referred to as his Bāburnāmah (Book of Babur).
The emperor Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530) is most famous as the founder of the Mughal Empire in the Indian subcontinent which he conquered and ruled from 1526. Driven from Central Asia while still a youth, he took Kabul in 1504 and made it the centre of his kingdom before moving east and defeating Ibrahim Lodi, Sultan of Delhi, at Panipat in 1526 and Rana Sanga of Mewar at Khanwa in 1527.
In between intense military activities, Babur somehow managed to find time to write his memoirs (Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī). In these Babur records his ruthless victories, but at the same time writes unpretentiously of his personal feelings, revealing himself to be a scholar, a poet and a keen naturalist. Histories were already an established literary genre by this time as were encyclopedias which recorded the wonders of the universe. However this autobiographical record of Babur’s is unique with observations based largely on his own experiences.
Originally written in Chaghatai Turki, his memoirs are arranged chronologically by year and were translated several times into Persian but most famously in 1589 at the request of his grandson Akbar (r. 1556–1605) by Akbar’s chief minister ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan-i khanan.
The British Library is fortunate in possessing one of four known imperial copies of ʻAbd al-Rahim’s translation which were all made at the end of the 16th century and were illustrated by the most famous artists of the time. Our copy is datable to the early 1590s on stylistic grounds and presently has 143 paintings out of an original 183. Since it was possible to display only one opening in our exhibition, I have taken this opportunity to write further about Babur’s section on the animals, birds and plants of Hindustan.
The elephant, Babur tells us, is native to the borders of the Kalpi country (present-day Uttar Pradesh) and further east. It is a noble creature and understands what people say to it and obeys their commands. The bigger it is, the more valuable. Babur adds here that in some islands elephants are reputed to measure more than 10 gaz (‘yard’) high, but he has never seen them larger than 4 or 5. Elephants can carry immense loads, three or four can pull carts that would take four or five hundred men to pull. However, they eat a lot. One elephant eats as much as two strings of camels.
The rhinoceros (karg) is also a large animal equivalent in size to three buffaloes, but the story that it can lift an elephant on its horn is false. It has one horn on its nose and its hide is very thick. It is ferocious and unlike the elephant cannot be tamed.
Babur mentions several kinds of monkeys (maymūn “called bāndar in Hindustani”): one which is yellow with a white face and short tail, which is exported and taught to do tricks, another, (langūr) is larger with white hair, a black face. and long tail. Another comes from the islands which is coloured not exactly blue nor yellow but strangely, he writes, has a permanently erect penis which never becomes limp.
Babur describes many kinds of parrots. Of one particular kind he recounts that he had formerly believed parrots could only repeat what they had been taught, but that recently one of his close attendants, Abu ‘l-Qasim Jalayir, had told him that when he had covered his parrot’s cage, the parrot said “Uncover me. I can’t breathe.”
One of the birds that lives in water and on the banks of rivers, the adjutant stork (ding) had the wingspan of about the size of a man and no feathers on its head or neck. Its back and breast were white. Babur had been familiar with a tamed adjutant in Kabul which would catch meat when it was thrown at it. Once it swallowed a six layered shoe, and another time a whole chicken complete with wings and feathers.
And finally, of alligators and crocodiles:
Babur writes: “one of the aquatic creatures is the alligator (shir-i ābī ‘water-lion’) which lives in the ‘black’ waters and resembles a lizard.” In our manuscript, the artist Dhanu, who had possibly never seen an alligator or was at least unfamiliar with the Persian word for it, interprets the word literally and paints a lion attacking a bull, a familiar motif in Persian art. He was obviously puzzled, so to clarify that it was a water-lion, he added a ship in the top left corner. Babur also described dolphins, crocodiles and an especially large crocodile, the gharial, which seized three or four soldiers between Ghazipur and Benares.
This article first appeared on British Library’s Asian and African studies blog.