The man behind the mosque

Date of Publication: 2003-00-00
Language: English

In December 1992, the 16th century mosque built by the Mogul Emperor Babur was demolished by Hindu fanatics, reminding us that India, which would like to be a secular state, has always been a religious battleground. It was the most publicised victory for the new wave of Hindu fundamentalism, and history made way for myths old and new. Here's a fresh look at Babur -- poet, warrior and founder of the Mogul dynasty -- beyond the mundane realm of praise and blame The Baburnama, the autobiography of India's first Mogul emperor, Zahiruddin Mohammad Babur (1483 -1530), is one of the true marvels of the medieval world. It belongs with that tiny handful of the world's literary works that can accurately be described as unique: that is without precedent and without imitators. In the western tradition the military memoir has a pedigree that goes back to Xenophon and Julius Caesar. Babur had no such precedents available: indeed as Wheeler M. Thackston, The Baburnama's most recent translator notes: "Babur's memoirs are the first - and until relatively recent times, the only - true autobiography in Islamic literature." In other words, in setting out to write an autobiography, Babur did something that very few writers have ever done. He invented a form out of whole cloth: his true literary peers, in this sense, are such epochal figures as Lady Murasaki and Cervantes. Yet Babur was also the founder of a great empire: in other words he was both a Caesar and a Cervantes. What made him pen this immense book (382 folio pages in the original Turkish) and how on earth did he find the time? Between the moment when he gained his first kingdom at the age of 12 and his death 35 years later, there seems scarcely to have been a quiet day in Babur's life. His first kingdom was the only one he didn't have to risk his life for: he inherited it from his father, a scion of a dynasty that was far richer in aspiring rulers than in thrones. Babur took a matter-of-fact view of his father: "He was short in stature, had a round beard and a fleshy face, and was fat... He used to drink a lot. Later in life he held drinking parties once or twice a week.

He was fun to be with in a gathering and was good at reciting poetry for his companions. He grew rather fond of ma'jun (a narcotic) and under its influence would lose his head. He was of a scrappy temperament and had many scars and brands to show for it." Although scarcely a model parent, Babur's father, Umar-Shaykh Mirza, was the very soul of docility compared to the rest of his family. More or less the first thought that occurred to Babur on hearing of his father's death was to flee to the mountains so that "at least I would not fall captive... to one of my uncles." Of one of his uncles Babur writes: "He never missed the five daily prayers, even when he was drinking... He was a good drinker. Once he started drinking, he drank continually for twenty or thirty days, but when he stopped he did not drink again for the same amount of time." Of another: "He was addicted to vice and debauchery. He drank wine continually. He kept a lot of catamites, and in his realm wherever there was a comely, beardless youth, he did everything he could to turn him into a catamite." Predictably, Babur's uncles and cousins attacked his territories soon after he had acceded to the throne. Not to be outdone, Babur counter-attacked. At the age of 13 he led an army to Samarkand, to join a clutch of cousins and second-cousins who were taking advantage of another relative's absence to lay siege to the fabled city. After a siege of seven months Babur succeeded in having himself crowned the ruler of Samarkand. He was to rule the city for no more than a hundred days but in many ways this was the defining moment of Babur's life. He was to besiege, conquer and lose Samarkand many times over before he was finally and decisively driven southward. But up to the end of his life, even when he had conquered a realm far vaster, richer and more promising than those that had been taken from him, he still pined for his lost city: for Babur Samarkand was the epitome of civilisation, the centre of the world's urbanity and the fountainhead of all culture.

He won a sizeable chunk of India, the land whose riches had triggered Europe's Age of Exploration. But to the end of his life all he really wanted was Samarkand. Babur's link with Samarkand was, in the first instance, familial. His ancestor Timur Lang ( Tamerlane 1336-1404) had made Samarkand the capital of a vast empire and built it into a great centre of art and literature. For Babur, as for his innumerable Timurid uncles and cousins, to rule Samarkand was to claim succession to their glorious ancestor, the guarantor of their own titles to rule. The idea of conquering empires was a part of Babur's family heritage: he traced his descent not just to Timur Lang, but also to Genghis Khan (1167-1227). The story of his kingdom-seeking adolescence and youth has its genesis ultimately in that epochal churning of peoples and cultures that was set in motion by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Genghis Khan's descendants evidently inherited his remarkable cultural and social adaptability. In the course of his life, the old man had become increasingly Sinicised and seems to have had little empathy for the cultures and traditions of western Asia: certainly the Muslims and Christians of those regions never encountered a more determined enemy. Yet within a generation or two Genghis Khan's descendants took on the cultural and religious (if not linguistic) colourings of the regions they ruled. One of his grandsons, Kubilai Khan, became emperor of China and a cornerstone of the Confucian order, while another became the Sultan of Persia and a devout and fervent Muslim. Babur traced his lineage to Genghis Khan's second son, Chagatay. When the worlds that Genghis Khan had conquered came to be divided amongst his progeny Chagatay inherited Central Asia, a region in which Islam was the principal religion and Persian the language of cultural prestige. Chagatay's inheritance soon fragmented into a number of warring principalities, but he bequeathed his name not just to a realm but also to a lineage and a language - eastern Turkish, the tongue whose greatest literary exponent Babur was to become. Central Asia was again briefly re-united by Timur Lang, an extra-dynastic usurper who nonetheless thought it politic to lay claim to the legacy of the Great Khan by marrying a Genghisid princess. His descendants, however, fought each other with the usual courtly relish of medieval princelings. By the time of Babur's birth the valleys and steppes of central Asia teemed with Timurid princes in search of realms to rule. It was a time, as E.M. Forster observed, when 'one could scarcely travel two miles without being held up by an Emperor'. Such was the magic of the Timurid pedigree that nobody who owned it ever seems to have forfeited the right to a throne. From the age of 12 onward Babur (like his innumerable cousins and uncles) took it for granted that he was born to rule. Ruling was in a sense a job, a calling, the only thing he knew how to do and could conceive of doing.

Even at times when he possessed little more than his horse and the clothes on his back, he and the members of his tiny entourage took it for granted that a kingdom would somehow transpire, if not in this district then perhaps the next. It was thus, half-reluctantly, that Babur came to be pushed into eastern Afghanistan and eventually northern India. These were not realms of his choice, but they were better than the prospect of unpensioned retirement. The instrument of Babur's misery in his early kingdom-seeking years was a chief called Shaybani ('Wormwood') Khan (1451-1510), an Uzbek and a hereditary enemy. The wheel that Genghis Khan had put in motion had now come full circle: just as his armies had displaced other Turco-Mongol groups, pushing them further and further to the south and the west, so now Babur and his cousins found themselves facing a people who had decided to create their own moment of destiny. With the methodical precision of a cherry-picker, Shaybani Khan picked Babur and his fellow Timurids off, one by one, driving them steadily before him. "For nearly 140 years the capital Samarkand had been in our family," writes Babur. "Then came the Uzbeks, the foreign foe from God knows where, and took over." Babur was too close to the events to notice, of course, but there were some marvelous symmetries to these centuries-long processes of displacement in Central Asia; these patterns of encroachment and migration, of the sudden ascendancy of a nation or a dynasty, of the meteoric rise and decline of glittering cities like Bukhara and Samarkand, Ghazni and Herat. Some of these symmetries even seeped into Babur's own life. In much the same way as Shaybani Khan the Uzbek was harrying Babur, Genghis Khan had once pursued a young warrior-poet, one whose life was perhaps even more colourful than Babur's. The name of the Great Khan's prey was Jalal al-din, and he was the heir presumptive of the great kingdom of Khwarizm, centred in the region between the Caspian and the Aral seas. Genghis Khan had a special grudge against the king of Khwarizm and after seizing the kingdom, in 1220, he sent a detachment of his swiftest riders to hunt down its ruling family. In what must count as one of the most amazing escapes in history, the 14-year-old Jalal al-din rode without a break for 40 days, circling through the deserts, steppes and mountains of Iran and Afghanistan, managing somehow to stay ahead of the great Mongol general, Jebe - known even among his fast-riding peoples as 'The Arrow'. Genghis Khan finally hunted Jalal al-din to a place from which no escape seemed possible: a gorge above the upper Indus. But here again Jalal-al din succeeded in evading the Khan: he spurred his horse over the cliff and into the river, more than a hundred feet below. Legend has it that after calling off the chase, Genghis Khan summoned his entourage and pointed to the young prince swimming in the torrent below. "There," said Genghis Khan, who knew about these things, "goes a brave man." He would have said no less for his own descendant: Babur was nothing if not brave.

On one occasion in The Baburnama, he takes on a hundred men more or less single-handed. "Sultan-Ahmad Tambal was standing, maintaining his position with around a hundred men... shouting, 'Strike! Strike!'... At that point three men were left with me... I shot an arrow I had in my thumb ring... When I had another arrow on the string, I went forward. The other three remained behind." There are times when he glimpses the end of the road. Led into a trap by an old retainer, he writes: "Suddenly I felt odd. There is nothing worse in the world than fear for one's life... I felt I could endure no more. I rose and went to a corner of the orchard. I thought to myself that whether one lived to a hundred or a thousand in the end one had to die... I readied myself for death." Minutes later, help arrives. Often he is in despair. His nineteenth year proves to be a hard one: "During this period in Tashkent I endured much hardship and misery. I had no realm - and no hope of any realm - to rule. Most of my liege men had departed. The few who were left were too wretched to move about with me... Finally I had had all I could take of homelessness and alienation. 'With such difficulties,' I said to myself, 'it would be better to go off on my own so long as I am alive, and with such deprivation and wretchedness it would be better for me to go off to wherever my feet will carry me, even to the ends of the earth.'" But in the end, stoically, he resigns himself to the difficult business of finding a realm: "When one has pretensions to rule and a desire for conquest, one cannot sit back and just watch if events don't go right once or twice." Eventually his perseverance paid off. In 1504, 'at the beginning of my twenty-third year (when) I first put a razor to my face', moving ever southward, staying one step ahead of the Uzbeks, he stumbles upon the kingdom of Kabul and decides to seize it for himself. His new realm was full of surprises: 'Eleven or twelve dialects are spoken in Kabul Province: Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Mongolian, Hindi... It is not known if there are so many different peoples and languages in any other province'. Slowly, inevitably, his attention is drawn to the vast sub-continent on the far side of the mountains. He observes speculatively: "Four roads lead (to Kabul) from Hindusthan". But his principal ambitions are still directed towards the north and Samarkand. He even succeeds in taking the city of his dreams, only to find himself expelled from it once again shortly afterwards. With his northern options closed, he turns to the south. Through all his adventures, Babur kept writing, mainly poetry. Even while fleeing from the Uzbeks, he found time to carve a verse on a rock beside a spring. "Like us many have spoken over this spring, but they were gone in the twinkling of an eye,/We conquered the world with bravery and might, but we did not take it with us to the grave." It is a commentary on our times, that to us it seems if not odd, then certainly unexpected that a warrior and statesman should devote his attention to intricate questions of scansion and metrics.

But Babur came from a long line of literary rulers: some of the greatest works of Persian literature were composed in the court of his great-grandfather, Timur Lang. But his ancestors' literary ambitions usually stopped at connoisseurship, patronage and upon occasion, the composing of a divan - the collection of poems that was expected of every man of good breeding. Babur did indeed compose collections of poems, but he was the only man of his lines to embark on a work of extended prose. He did it moreover, not in the literary language of his court, Persian, but in the domestic demotic of his family, Chagatay Turkish. To read The Baburnama is constantly to ask oneself what could possibly have prompted a man in Babur's position to write his memoirs. Historically, autobiography was not a form that flourished in Asia, certainly not in Central Asia, where Babur's roots lay. As for the Indian sub-continent, I know of only one autobiography written there before the 19th century: a brief account of the life of a merchant. The closest Babur comes to explaining his motives is this: "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 take me not to task." But he may have come closer to the truth in his first poem, a ghazal, written at the age of 18: "Other than my own soul I never found a faithful friend/ Other than my own heart I never found a confidant." It was possibly a sense of loneliness - or rather apartness - that compelled Babur to set down these reflections on his life; it was probably the intimacy of that endeavor that led him to choose Turkish - his domestic language - rather than the courtly Persian that was generally used in his circle. Whatever the reason, the result was a memoir that was anything but a judicious chronicle of affairs of state. Written centuries before the discovery of the Self, The Baburnama is still, astonishingly, a narrative of self-discovery. Its tone is disarmingly open and trusting, and in self-revelation it yields nothing to the confessional memoir of the 1990s. Babur does not, for instance, neglect to record the sexual hesitancies of his first marriage ("since it was my first marriage I was bashful, I went to her only once every 10, 15 or 20 days"); he writes lyrically about an adolescent infatuation with a boy ("before this experience I had never felt a desire for anyone, nor did I listen to talk of love and affection or speak of such things"). His estimations of his relatives and contemporaries are so frank and unguarded as to suggest that he did not expect his memoirs to be widely circulated.

Babur writes no less trenchantly about women than men: as friends or adversaries they were evidently a formidable force in his life. The women of The Baburnama are strong-willed and independent, and they declare their own agency without hesitation, in matters political and personal. We see him going into the women's quarters to ask advice at critical moments; we read about the delinquency of a widowed aunt who gives away her son's kingdom to none other than the dreaded Uzbek, Shaybani Khan, in the hope of winning his love ("in her lust to get a husband, that wretched, feebleminded woman brought destruction on her son"); and about the sorry end of yet another aunt who was so domineering that her husband dared not "go to any of his other wives"; we hear of powerful princes being swiftly dispatched by ambitious concubines; we even learn of women who take the initiative in courting Babur. The Muslim fundamentalists of contemporary Afghanistan would do well to read The Baburnama: they would find that the past they want to return to is not quite what they imagine it to be. Babur is at his most self-revelatory in his description of his drinking life. Although he came from a hard-drinking line, Babur was 29 before he touched his first drink: "In my childhood I had no desire for wine, for I was unaware of the enjoyment of it. Occasionally my father had offered me some, but I had made excuses. After my father's death I was abstinent... Later, with the desires of young manhood and the promptings of the carnal soul, when I had an inclination for wine, nobody offered - no one even knew that I was interested." Then, at a party in the city of Herat, in south-western Afghanistan, his nobles arranged a party for him and offered him wine. "It crossed my mind," writes Babur, "that since they were making such proposals, and here we had come to a fabulous city like Herat, where all the implements of pleasure and revelry were present, and all the devices of entertainment and enjoyment were close at hand, if I didn't drink now, when would I? Deliberating thus with myself, I resolved to make the leap." This was the beginning of a decades-long love affair with wine: Babur seems to have dedicated much of his time in Afghanistan to the pursuit of wine and ma'jun. So much for Afghan fundamentalism. Babur provides us with meticulous descriptions of the parties of his Kabul years. "At midday we rode off on an excursion, got on a boat, and drank spirits... We drank on the boat until late that night, left the boat roaring drunk, and got on our horses. I took a torch in my hand and, reeling to one side and then the other, let the horse gallop free-reined along the riverbank all the way to the camp. I must have been really drunk. The next morning they told me that I had come galloping into camp holding a torch. I didn't remember a thing, except that when I got to my tent I vomited a lot." And so things went, until he led his fifth and final expedition into India. In 1527, shortly before a decisive battle, Babur made a spectacular gesture: he took a public oath of temperance. The cellars in his camp were emptied into the sand and he personally broke his sumptuous gold and silver wineglasses and goblets and distributed the pieces to the poor. A few weeks later he led his army into battle at Khanua, against a massive force assembled by Rana Sangram Singh, the most powerful Rajput ruler in North India. Babur prevailed. Babur did not find temperance easy, even though he consoled himself liberally with ma’jun. "Everybody regrets drinking and then takes the oath," he wrote, "But I have taken the oath and now regret it." But Babur was true to his word: he never drank again. In the course of the two decades he spent in Kabul, Babur led four expeditions into India. His fifth and final campaign was launched in October 1525. It had a characteristically light-hearted beginning: "We mostly drank and had morning draughts on drinking days". Between marches Babur and his nobles wrote poetry, collected obscene jokes, and gave chase to the occasional rhinoceros.

Delhi was then in the control of the Lodi Sultans, a dynasty of Afghan Muslim rulers who did a great deal to enrich the architectural heritage of the city that was to become India's capital. Despite internal dissensions the Lodis managed to field an army of 100,000 men and 1,000 elephants against Babur's paltry force of 12,000. The armies met on April 20, 1526, at the historic battlefield of Panipat a few miles north of Delhi. Despite the odds, Babur routed the Lodi Sultan and took possession of Delhi. With the defeat of Rana Sangram Singh's Rajput coalition the following year, Babur secured his hold on northern India. There were skirmishes and minor battles to be fought but for the most part, Babur was content to occupy himself in distributing the spoils to his followers and retainers and in making detailed observations of his new kingdom. With his usual curiosity, he made extensive inquiries about the natural history of northern India, and on the beliefs and customs of its inhabitants. It is clear from his notes that he found much that did not please him: the climate was too hot, its fruit unfamiliar, its peoples bafflingly unlike any he had ever known. But then Babur was never very easy to please, especially where people were concerned: his was a tribal world, and his loyalties and pride were largely invested in his kinsmen and lineage. For Afghans, Shias, Uzbeks, Indians and others who fell outside that circle he reserved an overarching and curiously unprejudiced dislike. A strain of deep melancholy runs through the last pages of the The Baburnama, as though Babur had come to realise that ruling his new kingdom would entail permanent exile from the landscapes of his childhood. "Our concern for going thence (to Kabul) is limitless and overwhelming," he wrote to a friend, the year before his death. "How can one forget the pleasures of that country? Especially when abstaining from drinking, how can one forget a licit pleasure like melons and grapes? Recently a melon was brought and as I cut it and ate it I was oddly affected. I wept the whole time I was eating it." His Indian victories seem to have left Babur with the feeling that his life's work was over: homesickness, nostalgia and abstinence evidently combined to rob him of his will to live. Of the many stories told of Babur none is more wonderful than that of his death. In 1530 Humayun, Babur's beloved eldest son and heir-apparent, was stricken by a fever. He was brought immediately to Babur's court at Agra, but despite the best efforts of the royal physicians, his condition steadily worsened. Driven to despair, Babur consulted a man of religion who told him that the remedy "was to give in alms the most valuable thing one had and to seek cure from God." Babur is said to have replied thus: "I am the most valuable thing that Humayun possesses; than me he has no better thing; I shall make myself a sacrifice for him. May God the Creator accept it." Greatly distressed, Babur's courtiers and friends tried to explain that the sage had meant that he should give away money, or gold or a piece of property: Humayun possessed a priceless diamond, they said, which could be sold and the proceeds given to the poor... Babur would not hear of it. "What value has worldly wealth?" Babur is quoted to have said. "And how can it be a redemption for Humayun? I myself shall be his sacrifice." He walked three times around Humayun’s bed, praying: "O God! If a life may be exchanged for a life, I who am Babur, I give my life and my being for a Humayun." A few minutes later, he cried: "We have borne it away, we have borne it away." And sure enough, from that moment Babur began to sicken, while Humayun grew slowly well. Babur died near Agra on December 21, 1530. He left orders for his body to be buried in Kabul. As a writer, intellectual and soldier Babur stood very far above the men of his time: as a ruler, on the other hand, his ideas never extended beyond those he had absorbed from his cousins and uncles in his kingdom-seeking days in the steppes.

The model of governance he brought to his Indian empire was essentially that which he had learnt in his early youth, where the business of ruling entailed little more than knocking a rival off his perch and taking his place. He had little interest in creating instruments of government and as a result he left behind a throne that stood on very weak supports. Nine years after his death, his son Humayun was driven out of India by Sher Shah Suri, a soldier of extraordinary talent and vision. Born in the eastern province of Bihar, into a relatively humble Muslim family, Sher Shah created a bureaucratic and administrative machine of extraordinary complexity. He was to rule in Delhi for only five years, but on his death in 1545 he left behind a sound administrative infrastructure. Ten years later Humayun invaded northern India and conquered Delhi once again from Sher Shah's unworthy heirs. It was probably fortunate for the Mogul dynasty that Humayun didn't linger long on his throne. He died within a few months of entering Delhi, stumbling down a steep staircase, while under the influence. It fell to Babur's grandson Akbar, then a boy of 13, to take the throne. Akbar (1542-1605) proved to be one of the greatest rulers in the history of the Indian subcontinent. He had a profound understanding of Indian institutions of kingship and particularly of the concept of the 'universal ruler'. He proved adept at incorporating the many different religious, linguistic and dynastic traditions of his empire into the culture of his court. He even synthesised various Muslim and Hindu traditions into a religion of his own devising - the Din-i-Ilahi: a creed that was, not unpredictably, centred on himself. Although the new religion never quite caught on, Akbar still enjoyed an exceptionally long reign. He ruled for almost half a century and the aura of legitimacy he left behind was to sustain Mogul rule for generations afterwards. History, notoriously, is not about the past. In recent years, extremist Hindus in India have succeeded in creating a fire-storm of political controversy by exhuming aspects of Mogul history.

In 1992, in a matter of hours, a well-organised Hindu mob tore down a 16th century mosque in the city of Ayodhya, creating one of the most serious crises in the history of the Indian Republic. Named after the first Mogul, the mosque was known as the Babri Masjid: it was the Hindu zealots' contention that the mosque stood upon the site of a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ram, the divine hero of the Ramayana epic. A political (and archaeological) controversy over the site still rages, with politicians, academics and experts weighing in on both sides. The text of The Baburnama leaves no doubt that its writer was a devout Muslim. Babur took great pride for example, in the title of 'Ghazi' - 'Slayer of Infidels' - which he assumed after the battle of Khanua. In his autobiography Babur repeatedly announces his intention of destroying Hindu temples and images. These declarations were clearly intended, in part, to garner support among local Indian Muslims. So far as actually building mosques and demolishing temples is concerned, Babur's declarations were almost certainly greatly in excess of his real intentions. However, had he indeed erected mosques on the sites of temples (and there is no clear evidence that he did) he would have done no more than Hindu rulers had themselves done, centuries earlier. Archaeological evidence indicates that many important Hindu temples are built upon earlier Buddhist sites: the great Krishna temple of Mathura, for example, stands on what was probably a Buddhist monastery. Yet, despite Babur's protestations of religious zeal, it is clear from the pages of his autobiography that he was no bigot. Hindus evidently frequented his court and many entered his service. The Sikhs - who were to become dedicated adversaries of the Mogul state in the 17th century - have long cherished a story, preserved in their scriptural tradition, about an encounter between Babur and the founder of their faith, Guru Nanak. In the process of sacking a town in the Punjab, Babur's soldiers are said to have imprisoned Guru Nanak and one of his disciples.

Learning of a miracle performed by the Guru, Babur visited him in prison. Such was the presence of the Guru that Babur is said to have fallen at his feet, with the cry: "On the face of this faqir one sees God himself." In any event, it is beyond dispute that Babur's descendants presided over a virtually unprecedented efflorescence in Hindu religious activity. Hinduism as we know it today - especially the Hinduism of north India - was essentially shaped under Mogul rule, often with the active participation and support of the rulers and their officials and feudatories. The Ramcharitmanas, for example, the version of the Ramayana that was to be canonised as the central text of north Indian devotional practice, was composed in Akbar's reign by the great saint-poet Tulsidas. The early years of Mogul rule also coincided with a great renaissance in the theology of Krishna. It was in this period that Rupa Goswami and other disciples of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu rediscovered and mapped out the sacred geography of the Krishna legend. Brajbhumi - the region that is most sacred to Krishna bhakti - lies between Agra and Delhi, the two principal centres of Mogul power in the 16th century. The road connecting these two imperial cities runs right past the sacred sites of Braj. It is self-evident that if the Moguls had wished to persecute Vaishnavites they could easily have done so. But far from suppressing the burgeoning activity in this area, Akbar and his nobles actively supported it. The Hindu generals and officials of his court built several of the most important temples in this area, with Akbar's encouragement. Akbar was personally responsible for sustaining some of these temples: he granted land and revenue in perpetuity to no less than 35 of them. Hinduism would scarcely be recognisable today if Vaishnavism had been actively suppressed in the 16th century: other devotional forms may have taken its place, but we cannot know what those would have been. It is a simple fact that contemporary Hinduism as a living practice would not be what it is if it were not for the devotional practices initiated under Mogul rule. The sad irony of the assault on the Babri mosque is that the Hindu fanatics who attacked it destroyed a symbol of the very accommodations that made their own beliefs possible. W.M. Thackston's translation of The Baburnama is splendidly illustrated with reproductions of photographs and paintings from the collections of the Freer and Arthur M. Sackler galleries in Washington. This is the third English translation of The Baburnama, after Erskine's 1826 version, and the famous Annette Beveridge edition, published between 1912 and 1921. For all her literary talents, Annette Beveridge was not a professional scholar and W.M. Thackston, who is Professor of Near Eastern Languages at Harvard, does not mince his words in criticising her translation: "(it) reads like a student's effort - all the words have been looked up in the dictionary and put together".

Clearly Dr Thackston is something of a Babur himself, to tilt so blithely at a work that earned the admiration of no less a writer than E.M. Forster. Having myself first encountered The Baburnama in the Beveridge translation, as a schoolboy, I was initially outraged at his easy dismissal of his predecessor. But on comparing key passages, I found that Dr Thackston had on the whole fulfilled his promise of a more "fluent, idiomatic and colloquial" rendition: too much so if anything. A sentence that Mrs Beveridge renders as "Stay here while I look along the Gava road", becomes in Dr Thackston’s translation: "You stay here... I'll go check out the Gava road". But then, I know of no rule that says that Babur must sound more like an Edwardian gentleman than a Massachusetts mallrat. In his useful and informative introduction Dr Thackston informs us that 'Mogul' is a misnomer for the dynasty that Babur founded. Babur and his descendants identified themselves as 'Gurkani' (sons-in-law), the Timurids being in-laws of the line of Genghis Khan. To Babur the word 'Mogul' denoted various "quasi-Buddhistic, quasi-shamanistic" groups and tribes in the remoter parts of central Asia. His loathing of Moguls surpassed even his detestation of Uzbeks, Shias, Afghans and assorted infidels. "Havoc and destruction," writes Babur, "have always emanated from the Mogul nation. Up to the present date they have rebelled against me five times - not from any particular impropriety on my part, for they have often done the same with their own khans." It is probably too late to entertain objections to the Mogul title, no matter how well founded. Are we likely ever to speak of Steven Spielberg or Subhash Ghai as movie Gurkanis? I don't think so. The British had a particular affection for Babur in whom they imagined themselves to have discovered a precursor for their hard-drinking, free-living imperialist pioneers. Colonial historiography actively promoted a view of the Raj as a successor state to an earlier imperial regime, also established by 'foreign conquerors'.

This last especially was a recurrent theme in the British discourse on the Moguls [I was recently reminded by Agha Ashraf Ali, the Kashmiri educationist and scholar, that Vincent Smith's life of Akbar begins with the line: 'Akbar was a foreigner...']. In the British view the Mogul period was iconic of India itself: a period of unequalled magnificence, the defining moment of Indian history. Given the general effectiveness of British historical propaganda these views had an enormous impact and continued to be in general circulation until well after Independence. It is only in the last 10 to 15 years that alternative views have begun to gain currency. Thus, for the better part of a century official histories, both British and Indian, contrived to make the Mogul period a paradigm of Indian statehood. The governments of post-Independence India and Pakistan, like the British colonial regime before them, strove to appropriate aspects of Mogul symbolism (it is surely no co-incidence that to this day, India's Prime Ministers deliver their annual Independence Day speeches from the ramparts of Shah Jahan's Red Fort in Delhi). The Moguls have not been well-served by this disproportionate official attention, at home and abroad. Having been credited with the most important artistic and political achievements of 'medieval India', they now tend also to attract more than their share of the blame for the perceived failures of that time. It is in the nature of symbols of official grandeur that they sometimes become the focus of frustrations that ought properly to be directed elsewhere: this was quite possibly one of the elements that contributed to the escalation of the Babri Mosque controversy. The Moguls are today in the unenviable position of having to carry the blame for several subsequent appropriations of their reputation. Is it really surprising that so much anger has come to be focused on official historical paradigms of the Indian state, especially those that stress grandeur, monumentality and territorial expansion to the exclusion of all else?

These readings of Indian history choose to glorify everything that contemporary Indians are justly suspicious of: grand imperial states, entrenched bureaucracies, centralism, dynastic rule... There is little here that could appeal to people of democratic or secular inclination - and it is a sad irony that it is exactly such people who now find themselves compelled to swallow this bitter pill. The attempt to combat the quasi-fascistic ideology of the RSS and other Hindu revivalist organisations by defending the 'secularism' of the Moguls, is to my mind ultimately self-defeating, although undoubtedly well-meant: we would do better to restore the balance by paying closer attention to the many competing local traditions - Hindu, Muslim, Adivasi, Christian, Jain, Buddhist and so on - that make up the history of the living constellation of India. South Asian history has an enormous wealth of traditions that are anarchic, millenarian, ecstatic, egalitarian and syncretistic: why then should we allow our view of the past to be pegged to a certain kind of hieratic statism?

The fact is that the Mogul period is no more iconic of India than any other moment in the subcontinent's history. To treat it as such is to do it a profound disservice, in the sense that it is to burden it with more than its fair share of the discontents of the present. The simple truth is that in its most brilliant period the Mogul empire had barely a toehold in the Deccan peninsula. Through much of this period the kingdom of Vijaynagar far outshone its northern rival. The later Moguls tried hard to extend their domains but their southern border tended to snap like a rubber band every time they took a finger off its edge. Aurangzeb, the last of the six great Moguls, effectively doomed the empire by over-extending it in the south. In the long view, the Mogul period was really nothing more than a lucky time-out, a magnificent hallucination whose end had been conceived even before it was born. For the truth is that while Babur was fighting his epic battles in the Indo-Gangetic plain, the future of the sub-continent was being decided in a series of much smaller engagements on the west coast. For the Indian subcontinent as a whole the decisive military engagement of the 16th century was not Babur's victory at Panipat (as I was taught in school and college) but rather the naval battle of Diu, fought in 1509, when a Portuguese fleet attacked and defeated the combined naval forces of the Muslim ruler of Gujarat, the Hindu king of Calicut and the Sultan of Egypt. After Diu the control of the Indian Ocean passed decisively into European hands, never to be recovered. On the occasion of this victory Dom Francisco de Almeida, the Portuguese viceroy, pointed to the moral of his victory: "As long as you may be powerful at sea you will hold India as yours; and if you do not possess this power, little will avail you a fortress on shore." He could not have been more prescient. The task of tending the 'fortress on shore' fell to the Moguls and a sorry hash they made of it.

Astonishingly for a man of such intelligence and curiosity, Babur either had no knowledge of the Portuguese presence in western India or else thought it beneath notice. He never so much as mentions the Portuguese, even though, by the time he was seated on the throne of Delhi, they had already founded Goa. He remained to the end a child of the steppes: having never seen the sea, he could scarcely be expected to possess an appreciation of naval power. Babur's descendants had the advantage of him: they extended their domains all the way to both coasts. Yet they too, to a degree that is quite baffling, in retrospect, had their gaze turned resolutely inland - so much so that their emissaries to Persia generally took the difficult and dangerous overland route rather than much easier sea-going one. It is hard to imagine a greater handicap for a dynasty that would be called upon to defend its realm in an age of maritime power. For me the saddest aspect of Babur's brief Indian sojourn is that he died without setting eyes on the most splendid sight the subcontinent could have offered him: the open ocean. What would he have made of it, this endlessly questing, insatiably curious man of the steppes? We can only wonder.