After decades in the courts, a conclusive verdict is finally expected in the dispute over a site in Ayodhya considered by the faithful to be the birthplace of Ram. For over 450 years, a mosque stood at that location, before being razed by Hindutva activists on December 6, 1992. The argument went that the mosque had been built on the ruins of a demolished temple, although the evidence in favour of that theory is thin.

The mosque was commissioned by a general serving the first Mughal emperor, Babur, and was therefore known as the Babri Masjid. Babur has been vilified for his association with the controversy, and for being the foremost representative of a hate-figure in contemporary India: the Muslim Invader. Although he never sought a fight against a Hindu adversary in his life, spending his career battling fellow Muslim kings, Babur serves the Invader stereotype perfectly, being the only monarch, Muslim or otherwise, to have launched a successful incursion into India and then stayed on to rule the land.

If only Indians knew Babur better, those not blinded by bigotry might find a person worthy of admiration. One could say with justice of him, as of very few people, what Shakespeare’s Antony said of Brutus, namely that, “the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This was a man.’” He was brave, honest, generous, convivial, considerate to his wives, children and relatives, an acute judge of character, intellectually curious, piercingly rational, though given to bursts of endearing sentimentality, a man of letters, and a lover of nature.

Notable ancestors

Zahiruddin Muhammad Mirza, to provide his full name at birth, traced his ancestry back to two of the greatest generals the world has known. He was the son of Umar-Shaikh Mirza, son of Sultan Abusaid Mirza, son of Sultan Muhammad Mirza, son of Miranshah Mirza, son of Amir Timur, known as Timur-i-lang, meaning Timur the Lame. His mother, Qutlugh Nigar Khanum, was daughter of Yunus Khan, son of Ways Khan, son of Sher-Ali Oghlan, son of Muhammad Khan, son of Khizr Khwaja Khan, son of Tughlaq Timur Khan, son of Esan Buqa Khan, son of Dua Khan, son of Baraq Khan, son of Yasuntoa, son of Moatukan, son of Chaghatai Khan, son of Chingis Khan, whose conquests created the Mongol nation and the largest contiguous empire in history.

He gained the name Babur because his rustic maternal uncles couldn’t pronounce “Zahiruddin Muhammad”. It was once assumed that “Babur’’ was derived from the Persian babr, meaning tiger. Current thinking leans towards the Turki baboor, or beaver, which is unfortunate, because Babur the Beaver doesn’t have the same ring as Babur the Tiger.

We don’t know when or why Babur chose to begin writing his memoirs. No autobiography composed by a Muslim before it has survived; maybe none was written. He kept a diary from his early adulthood, and put the notes together in a coherent form near the end of his life. Many of the pages were lost during his final campaigns in India. More vanished in the course of his son Humayun’s wanderings. By the time his grandson Akbar established a secure kingdom, and commissioned a translation of the Baburnama from Turki to Persian, several years of his grandfather’s life had disappeared.

Writing the truth

The closest Babur comes to expressing a credo is in a passage from the year 1507. Having listed betrayals he has encountered from family members, he justifies himself: “I have not written all this to complain: I have simply written the truth. I do not intend, by what I have written, to compliment myself: I have simply set down exactly what happened. Since I have made it a point in this history to write the truth of every matter and to set down no more than the reality of every event, as a consequence I have reported every good and evil I have seen of father and brother and set down the actuality of every fault and virtue of relative and stranger. May the reader excuse me; may the listener not take me to task.”

If Babur is critical of those near and dear to him, he is no less harsh on himself. The Baburnama’s early chapters delve into the author’s failures and shortcomings. After his father falls to his death from a dovecote, the 11-year-old Zahiruddin Muhammad is raised to the throne of Ferghana which lies “on the edge of civilisation”.

In 1497, at the age of 14, he gains the prize city of Samarkand for the first time. But he falls seriously ill, and courtiers place his younger brother Jehangir on the throne of his home province. Once his health improves, he sets out to recover Ferghana, but ends up losing Samarkand without gaining his original kingdom.

Years of attrition follow. Babur and Jehangir are used as puppets by nobles, and toyed with by their uncles who repeatedly make promises and go back on them. Meanwhile, a powerful force of Uzbeks, “the foreign foe from god knows where”, invades and takes Samarkand. The Uzbeks are led by Shaibani Khan, who is to become the nemesis of Timur’s heirs. As expected of a nomad, Shaibani camps outside the city, deputing a few guards to protect it.

One night, Babur and a band of followers audaciously scale the city walls near Lover’s Cave and put these guards to the sword. Having captured the city, they are heartened to find Timurid forces trickling in, ready to fight the Uzbeks. But Babur chooses to mount an attack prematurely, with reinforcements only a day’s march away, bowing to astrological signs: it is deemed lucky to have the Pleiades behind your own lines when fighting, and that cluster of stars is poised to move over to the enemy’s side.

“Such considerations were futile and I hastened the battle for naught,” he will write with the wisdom of hindsight. His soldiers are outflanked by the Uzbeks, and the young prince flees back to the city. A siege follows and, with no assistance now forthcoming, people begin to starve in Samarkand. He is forced to accept humiliating terms and depart with a bedraggled bunch of followers.

In search of a kingdom

He leaves his homeland in 1504 headed for Khurasan, a king in search of a kingdom, and experiences an incredibly rapid change of fortune. The province of Hissar, north of the Amu Darya is controlled by a nobleman named Khusrawshah. Seeing a Mirza in the domain, one of proven valour but young enough to be manipulated, disenchanted soldiers go over to Babur’s side.

The exodus snowballs, until Khusrawshah himself has to come up to Babur’s tattered tent and offer homage: “A man who had 20,000 to 30,000 liege men had been, without battle or raid, so humiliated and disgraced in half a day in front of 200, 250 wretched, ragtag, men like us, that he retained no power over his servants, his possessions, his life.” Khusrawshah loads his gold and silver onto camels and leaves the province, while Babur moves on to Kabul, which falls after some fighting.

Kabul is Babur’s first stable kingdom; he will retain it for the rest of his life. But his hold seems shaky when he takes over, with Shaibani Khan determined to conquer all of Timur’s dominions and slay every living Mirza. The largest Timurid kingdom, Khurasan, ruled for 50 years by Sultan Husayn Mirza, who has turned the capital Herat into the Islamic world’s most cultured city, has been lackadaisical in responding to the Uzbek threat.

Sultan Husayn finally decides to engage Shaibani, but dies just as his troops set out to attack. His two eldest sons take over as joint rulers of the kingdom, a strange compromise that has Babur quoting a line from Sadi’s Gulistan: “Ten dervishes may share one blanket, but two kings cannot abide within a single clime.”

Feeling like a yokel

The news of Sultan Husayn’s death reaches Babur while he is on his way to bolster the Timurid forces. The plan to confront the Uzbeks being aborted, he travels to Herat with his royal cousins. The crowds, the buildings, the artistic achievement visible in the city of Jami and Bihzad are stunning. He is already a well-read man, a connoisseur of poetry at home in Persian as well as Turki, but in Herat he feels like a yokel.

At one party a roast goose is placed before him as a mark of honour, and he has no clue how to carve it. At another, a member of his brother Jehangir’s entourage sings in a coarse, high-pitched voice and Babur notices that a few Heratis stop their ears. He has never drunk wine, and wishes to join his cousins in their revelry, but first shyness and subsequently a series of comical problems with protocol prevent him from enjoying his first taste of liquor.

Though Herat is captivating, Babur foresees its doom: “Although these Mirzas were outstanding in the social graces, they were strangers to the reality of military command and the rough and tumble of battle.”

He departs for his own kingdom, under the excuse it has been left unguarded for too long.

The battle for Kandahar.

Winter has set in, and snow covers the mountains between Herat and Kabul, yet the retinue decides to take the high route, and gets trapped. For days Babur takes turns with his followers in tramping down thigh-high snow to make it passable for ponies. Many in the company die of frostbite before they manage to make it to the haven of Kabul.

Turning to Hindustan

A year later Shaibani Khan’s army overruns Herat and Kandahar. Babur is now the only surviving Timurid ruler. The dynasty that has dominated Transoxania and Khurasan for a 150 years hangs by a slim thread. He decides to raid Hindustan, as a pretext to stay clear of Shaibani. At this point, soon after the birth of his first son Humayun, the Baburnama breaks off in the middle of a sentence.

When the memoirs resume in 1519, after an 11-year hiatus, we meet a changed king. His days of being exploited are over, and he is in complete charge. Still possessed only of Kabul and a few surrounding provinces, he appears capable of achieving by himself objectives hitherto gained only by accepting the overlordship of his Mongol uncles or the Shah of Persia. This Babur is a hard drinker and is just beginning to ingest the narcotics on which he will grow increasingly dependent in the years ahead: “Shah Mansur Yusufzai brought some delicious and intoxicating kamali. We divided it into three pieces and I had one. It was fantastic. That evening, when the begs gathered for council, I was unable to come out. Nowadays, if I were to eat a whole kamali, I don’t know if it would produce half the high.”

These are months of continual raids against recalcitrant Afghan tribes and of parties marked by witty conversation, extempore versification, lewd humour and general drunkenness. He sometimes rides alone to one of his gardens for a draught, but prefers to drink in company. Location matters: partying in unsightly places or ill-designed buildings is anathema to him.

There’s another large gap spanning the years between 1520 and 1525. The narrative recommences just as Babur is preparing for the greatest conquest of his life, one that will transform him from a marginal figure in Timurid history to an emperor who founds a great dynasty. The campaign will involve unlikely victories against armies which vastly outnumber his own forces. He is now a little over 40 At a similar age, Chingis and Timur completed the consolidation of their power and launched their first attacks against neighbouring empires. Unlike his two forefathers, each of whom survived past 60, he has just five years to live.

He will spend those years fighting in India.

Also read:

Babur in India: An emperor who loved the monsoon breeze but wasn’t impressed by the melons or grapes