Zahiriddin Muhammad Babur (1483-1530) The Economist and Babur, the First Moghul Emperor



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Zahiriddin Muhammad Babur (1483-1530)

The Economist and Babur, the First Moghul Emperor

The tomb of Babur, the first Moghul emperor, blasted and pock marked during the civil war of the 1990s, has been lovingly restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture

  • The tomb of Babur, the first Moghul emperor, blasted and pock marked during the civil war of the 1990s, has been lovingly restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture
  • Born far to the north of modern Afghanistan, Babur went to Kabul only because he had failed in Central Asia
  • It was Samarkand he dreamed of capturing
  • Yet when the demands of building an empire drove him south, he yearned to return to Kabul
  • For a man who achieved so much, he is strangely unknown outside Afghanistan

Not only did he create a dynasty whose empire stretched from Afghanistan to southern India and which gave the world some of its greatest cultural riches, but he also wrote an autobiography which, though half a millennium old, is a far better read than most of the political and business memoirs churned out today

  • Not only did he create a dynasty whose empire stretched from Afghanistan to southern India and which gave the world some of its greatest cultural riches, but he also wrote an autobiography which, though half a millennium old, is a far better read than most of the political and business memoirs churned out today
  • The autobiography recounts the barbarity and hardship of a princeling’s life in a chaotic world; but it is also full of delight and humanity
  • Sometimes self-aggrandizing, sometimes self-critical, Babur emerges from his autobiography as a real person, in a way no other great leader except Churchill does

Babur’s pedigree primed him for greatness

  • Babur’s pedigree primed him for greatness
  • On his father’s side he was descended from Timur-i-lang (Tamburlaine), whose empire stretched from the Caucasus to Delhi, and on his mother’s side from Genghis Khan, who conquered Asia from the Black Sea to Beijing
  • But by the time Babur was born, in 1483, the empires had crumbled and the emperors’ descendants had multiplied into a horde of princelings fighting for loot and territory

As E.M. Forster put it, “At the time that Machiavelli was collecting materials for ‘The Prince’, a robber boy, sorely in need of advice, was scuttling over the highlands of Central Asia. His problem had already engaged the attention and sympathy of the Florentine; there were too many kings about and not enough kingdoms.”

  • As E.M. Forster put it, “At the time that Machiavelli was collecting materials for ‘The Prince’, a robber boy, sorely in need of advice, was scuttling over the highlands of Central Asia. His problem had already engaged the attention and sympathy of the Florentine; there were too many kings about and not enough kingdoms.”

They got going early in those days

  • They got going early in those days
  • Babur’s father died when he was 11, while tending pigeons in an ill-constructed dovecote that toppled into the ravine below the palace, leaving his son in charge of a small province, Fergana
  • At 13, Babur headed off to capture Samarkand – the former imperial capital, a jewel built by craftsmen Timur had kidnapped from raids into India, Persia, and Arabia
  • When he got there, he found a couple of young cousins already besieging the place (though one was more interested in the daughter of a local noble than in the city)

The lover got the girl, but Babur did not get Samarkand

  • The lover got the girl, but Babur did not get Samarkand
  • He tried again the next year, succeeded briefly and was ejected three months later
  • In the meantime, a Mongol enemy put his 12-year-old brother on the throne in Fergana
  • So Babur was homeless; most of his followers had left him; treacherous relations had murdered his tutor
  • “It was very hard for me. I could not help crying a good deal.”
  • He was, after all, only 14

Babur struggled on in Central Asia for a while, but was crushed between Uzbeks, Mongols, and Timurid princes

  • Babur struggled on in Central Asia for a while, but was crushed between Uzbeks, Mongols, and Timurid princes
  • His lowest moment came when he was chased into the hills and caught by enemies, who were careful with their valuable prize
  • How he got out of that particular pickle is unclear; but soon he decided to try his luck elsewhere
  • He considered going east to the lands of his Mongol relations, but regarded them as savages (and would have been horrified to learn that the Persian word for Mongol stuck to his dynasty)

Hearing that Kabul was vulnerable, he set off southwards

  • Hearing that Kabul was vulnerable, he set off southwards
  • Though homeless, he was not alone
  • In this formerly nomadic society, which had only recently acquired the habit of settlement, princes moved around with soldiers, retainers, and relations
  • But Babur’s entourage was not grand
  • He had 200-300 people with him and two tents, one of which his mother occupied
  • Then, in an astonishing reversal of fortune inconceivable in the modern world but commonplace in those uncertain times, Babur gained an army

It happened because of the collapse of a noble, who, amid tough competition, was an outstandingly nasty man

  • It happened because of the collapse of a noble, who, amid tough competition, was an outstandingly nasty man
  • Khusrau Shah, formerly a retainer of one of Babur’s relations, had taken Kunduz, murdered one of Babur’s cousins, and blinded another
  • He was unpopular, even among his own people, many thousands of whom, faced with sustained attacks from Uzbeks, defected from him to an ambitious princeling with a decent reputation and a lineage that gave him a certain claim to Kabul
  • Khusrau Shah was beheaded by the Uzbeks; Babur, with his new following in tow, virtually walked into Kabul

He was not impressed by his new dominion

  • He was not impressed by his new dominion
  • It was, he said, a “trifling place”; but, with Uzbeks and Timurids threatening all around, it had its advantages
  • Surrounded by mountains that were impassable for most of the year, it was “a fastness hard for a foreign foe to make his way into.”
  • To cement his power, Babur needed to see off rivals
  • He attacked Kandahar, where Kabul’s previous occupants hailed from, and beat them soundly
  • He also needed to give his subjects security – especially from his own troops

When one of the defectors from Khusrau Shah – an undisciplined lot – stole some cooking oil from a local, he had the man beaten to death

  • When one of the defectors from Khusrau Shah – an undisciplined lot – stole some cooking oil from a local, he had the man beaten to death
  • But early on he made a serious mistake
  • To feed and reward his huge retinue, he took 30,000 donkey-loads of grain from Kabul and Ghazni
  • He soon regretted it
  • “The tax was excessive, and under it the country suffered very badly.”
  • That a new ruler bled the land he had conquered was not surprising; that he had the honesty to admit it, and the wit to learn from it, is

Though Kabul was not rich in grain, it was a cosmopolitan city – Babur reckoned that 11 or 12 languages were spoken – on the trade route between Central Asia and India

  • Though Kabul was not rich in grain, it was a cosmopolitan city – Babur reckoned that 11 or 12 languages were spoken – on the trade route between Central Asia and India
  • Historians reckon that merchants provided most of the revenues for Babur’s remarkably sophisticated taxation system
  • Merchants were taxed at 5% on gold coins and 2.5% on silver
  • There was also a tariff on foreign trade (of 5% or 10%, depending on whether the merchants were Muslims or not) an income tax on harvests (a third to a half) and a progressive wealth tax on flocks (one sheep from a herd of 40 -120, and two from herds of 120 and up)

But Babur’s orderly state-building could not solve a problem that has troubled Afghanistan’s rulers through the ages; the tribes

  • But Babur’s orderly state-building could not solve a problem that has troubled Afghanistan’s rulers through the ages; the tribes
  • They not only failed to pay taxes, but also, by holding up caravans, threatened the prosperity of the merchants who did
  • And the mountains that protected Babur from foreign invaders also protected the tribes from Babur
  • He had no sympathy for them
  • Although he had spent much of his youth wandering around Central Asia with a tent, he was at heart a city boy

He prized the civilized pursuits – literature, science, and music – that flourished in an urban environment and regarded tribesmen as “stupid peasants”

  • He prized the civilized pursuits – literature, science, and music – that flourished in an urban environment and regarded tribesmen as “stupid peasants”
  • Babur’s approach to the problem was not constrained by modern notions of human rights
  • Shortly after his arrival in Kabul, he attacked Kohat and killed hundreds of tribesmen
  • Some of the survivors put grass into their mouths – a way, locals explained to him, of saying “I am your cow.”
  • But he had them killed anyway, and a tower built of the victims’ heads

Many similar raids followed, and similar towers were built, to encourage submission to Babur’s authority

  • Many similar raids followed, and similar towers were built, to encourage submission to Babur’s authority
  • But it was not all fiscal policy and decapitation
  • Babur enjoyed himself too
  • He loved nature, and describes the local flora and fauna in exquisite detail

He developed a lifelong passion for gardening

  • He developed a lifelong passion for gardening
  • Unlike the despised Mongols, the Timurids were cultured
  • Babur longed to be a great poet
  • His poems are not, unfortunately, much good, but his advice on prose style is
  • In a letter to his son Humayun, he complains about the obscurity of the young man’s vocabulary: “In future write without elaboration; use plain, clear words. It will be less trouble for you and for the reader.”

Poetry went with another taste Babur developed in Kabul: for wine

  • Poetry went with another taste Babur developed in Kabul: for wine
  • As a young man, he did not drink
  • When on a visit to Herat his cosmopolitan cousins encouraged him to
  • He would have tried it, but his prime minister, who was travelling with him, told the cousins to lay off
  • During an 11-year gap in the narrative, he took to the bottle with an enthusiasm that in the modern age would have seen him shipped off to rehab

Babur’s life became a long series of parties interspersed with brief interludes of warfare and administration

  • Babur’s life became a long series of parties interspersed with brief interludes of warfare and administration
  • There was music, poetry, beauty – and vast quantities of alcohol
  • Babur struggled with his habit – though not very hard
  • He wrote that he was planning to give up in his 40th year, so “I was drinking to excess, now that there was less than a year left.”

At one party Babur saw a very surprising sight: a woman drinking

  • At one party Babur saw a very surprising sight: a woman drinking
  • She made a pass at him
  • “I got rid of her by pretending to be drunk”
  • Babur was not much interested in women
  • He explains that he had married early, and neglected the girl
  • He uses that to introduce the subject of his passion for a boy called Baburi whom he sees in the bazaar
  • But shyness prevents him from approaching the boy
  • Still poetry and parties were not enough

Babur was ambitious, and his dominion in Kabul was limited by the Afghan’s insubordination

  • Babur was ambitious, and his dominion in Kabul was limited by the Afghan’s insubordination
  • He needed to expand elsewhere
  • He tried again to take Samarkand, and was again beaten back
  • So he raided what is now Pakistan, found the people of the plains easier meat than the mountain tribes, and by 1523 pretty much controlled Lahore
  • Delhi was in his sights
  • Because it had been part of Timur’s domains, Babur maintained that it was legitimately his, and wrote to the ruler to stake his claim

Sultan Ibrahim, understandably, ignored him, so Babur marched south and defeated him at the battle of Panipat

  • Sultan Ibrahim, understandably, ignored him, so Babur marched south and defeated him at the battle of Panipat
  • The sultan was killed, along with 15,000-16,000 of his troops

Babur stayed in Delhi to consolidate his power, but he hated India

  • Babur stayed in Delhi to consolidate his power, but he hated India
  • The only things Babur liked about India were the abundance of gold and silver and the weather after the monsoon

He built gardens to remind him of Kabul, but flowers do not do as well in India as in the crisp Afghan air

  • He built gardens to remind him of Kabul, but flowers do not do as well in India as in the crisp Afghan air
  • His friends could not stand the heat, and went back to Kabul
  • As ruler, he was stuck there, pining for the jollity of the old days
  • In 1528, he wrote to one of his oldest friends, Khwajah Kalan, “With whom do you spend time? With whom do you drink wine?”

It was not just the friends that Babur missed

  • It was not just the friends that Babur missed
  • He had given up drinking because of his health
  • The knowledge that wine was forbidden sharpened his yearning for “the permitted flavors of melons and grapes” that flourished in Kabul
  • When he cut open a melon, he wept

“How can one forget the pleasures of those lands?”

  • “How can one forget the pleasures of those lands?”
  • Once he had got his affairs sorted in India, he wrote, he would “set out immediately.”

He never did

  • He never did
  • His health failed, and two years later he was dead, at 47
  • He was buried at Agra, disinterred sometimes between 1539 and 1544 and buried again on a green hillside with a stream running through it

An inscription placed there by his great-great-grandson Shah Jahan, creator of the Taj Mahal, describes it as “this light garden of an angel king”

  • An inscription placed there by his great-great-grandson Shah Jahan, creator of the Taj Mahal, describes it as “this light garden of an angel king”

And his grandson Akbar had his favorite place north of Kabul illustrated for his autobiography

  • And his grandson Akbar had his favorite place north of Kabul illustrated for his autobiography
  • For Akbar may have established an empire in India, but he longed for Afghanistan

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