Babur and sons of Babur

By Kashif-ul-Huda,

Thanks to the propaganda of the Sangh Parivar, Babur, founder of Mughal Empire has become a controversial figure in Indian history. Babur was an invader but he was also the founder of a dynasty that gave shape to an India that we are rightly proud of. Be it the architecture, arts, literature, music, or dance, it is difficult to imagine present day India without the Mughals.

When Babur invaded India, Islam in this region was already about a thousand years old. Muslim rulers were established in many parts of India. In fact most of the battles the Mughal army partook in were against Muslim kings and sultans. Deep south, in Malabar, Mapillas were locked in a bitter battle against the Portuguese invaders who were threatening their economic and social life, completely ignorant of Babur or the Mughals.

Babur is more than an invader or just a founder of the most magnificent dynasty of India. Babur maintained a meticulous diary for most of his life and a majority of it has survived. Published as Baburnama, the memoir offers a rare insight into the mind and the complex personality of Babur. Written in what can only be called a very modern style, devoid of highly ornamental language of his time, free of hyperbole and exaggerations, it is a book that can be easily read and understood by a modern reader. Babur appears a very honest writer writing in detail about his loves, sicknesses and defeats. He makes no attempt to hide his weaknesses and when he boasts about his achievements it seems he sincerely believes in his greatness too.

However, the Baburnama is not simply a memoir of an emperor or the chronicle of his life. It is the first of a kind of autobiography, a piece of travel writing, a scientist’s observations, a military document and a peek into the inner workings of one of the most brilliant minds of that time.

I started reading the Baburnama (The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor translated, edited and annotated by Wheeler M. Thackston) to find out what the driving force for Babur to come to India was. Babur made attempts on India five times. In his own words he “craved India” and felt that he had achieved a great feat when he finally succeeded, but nowhere does he give a reason why India was so important to him that he kept coming back to the land.

Writing about his conquest of India, Babur says that he is the third “padishah” after Mahmood Ghaznavi and Muhammad Ghori to conquer India, however, he quickly adds that his victory is much greater since he had almost no land of his own, and his army, which comprised of twelve thousand personnel by his own count, was much smaller than his predecessors. Also, when he arrived in India there was a well entrenched kingdom ruling a large part of India under Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi. As if humbled by his own achievement he lays all his success on God’s “generosity and favor.”

Babur had been a religious person in his youth. He was punctual about his prayers and stayed away from alcohol for a long time. But once he started drinking, there was no stopping him. In many pages he faithfully records what drinks and narcotics he consumed and where. It is not until his battle with Rana Sanga that he started talking in religious terms and that may not be because Sanga was not Muslim but because his army truly feared Rana Sanga and his men. After defeating Rana Sanga, Babur officially added the title of “Ghazi” to his name.

Though that does not mean that Babur suddenly turned religious or became a fanatic. In fact, in the whole Baburnama there is only one place where he mentions anything about destroying temples or idols. In Urwahi near Gwalior he was appalled to see Jain statues that were “shown stark naked with all their private parts exposed,” wrote Babur. He liked Urwahi but noted that “it’s one drawback was the idols, so I ordered them destroyed.” But in fact these statues continue to exist to this day.

Babur did destroy a religious building; it was the tomb of famous Sufi, Shahbaz Qalandar. His reason for destroying it was simple – “On a spur of the Maqam mountains is a rather low mountain that overlooks the whole plain; there, on an airy hill that commands superb vistas, was Shahbaz Qalandar’s tomb. I went on an excursion to examine it. It occurred to me that a heretic wandering dervish had no business having a tomb in such a pleasant spot, so I ordered it reduced to rubble.” After destroying the tomb he sat there and consumed narcotics.

The period when the Mughal army was around Ayodhya is missing from the Baburnama. Only physical evidence can tell us whether Babur indeed had a temple destroyed to construct the Babri Masjid, but if one reads his memoir it is difficult to think that he would do such a thing.

One aspect of Babur that has not been given due attention is that he recorded the flora and fauna of all the places he visited. His observations are like a scientist. This shows in the very accurate descriptions of his observations and the inclusion of full measurements. He mentions distances and also gives us a method on how he calculated the distance. The Baburnama is also a good source of knowing measurements prevalent in India during medieval times. He gives us units of measures for weights, distance, time, and numbering; when there are several units for the same type of measurement, he gives us information on conversions. I call him a scientist because he not only observed and accurately documented but also suggested ways to improve the existing system. He made suggestions that improved the Indian system of time announcements through ghariyals.

Babur was a good commander that lived with his people, treated his subordinates well and proved himself to be a leader. Whenever his army wavered he brought back their confidence with inspiring speeches. He was an excellent military strategist and never went into a battle without adequate preparation.

Why would a figure like Babur become a symbol and tool for the Sangh Parivar to beat down the Muslims of India with? One, because the now destroyed masjid was named after him and two, he is the founder of a dynasty that made the syncretic tradition of India very strong. By attacking Babur they show that Mughals were foreigners and invaders thereby rejecting all their rich contributions to the Indian culture. By calling all Muslims “Sons of Babur” they remind everyone that just like Babur, Muslims do not belong to India.

Babur died in Agra but is buried in Kabul. The dynasty that he founded lasted for over 300 years and it ended in 1857 when the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was dethroned by the British and sent off to Yangon in present day Myanmar. Like the founder of the dynasty, the last Mughal Emperor, Zafar, is also buried outside the political boundaries of present day India.

Sons of Babur by Salman Khurshid

Babur, born and buried in a foreign land was indeed a foreigner, but what about his descendants that the world remembers as the Mighty Mughals or Magnificent Mughals. Salman Khurshid, present day Minister of India responsible for Minority Affairs and Corporate Affairs, wrote a play called Sons of Babur (Babur ki Aulad, translated in Urdu by Ather Farouqui) to explore the “Indian-ness” of the Mughal dynasty.

The play uses a very creative way to bring to life famous Mughal emperors in order to explore major incidents of their lives and also to give the present day reader or viewer a perspective on the lives of these historical figures. Suddenly, these characters that have so far been hidden behind stacks of books become human and we can ask them uncomfortable questions like why were Mughal princesses given in marriage to Rajputs? Was the Mughal rule religious in nature? Did Mughals truly consider themselves Indian?

Searching for answers will help us understand why the Mughals were always accepted by the Indian population as their rightful rulers. How else can it be explained that the Indian soldiers of the East India army raised the banner of revolt and right after headed directly to the Red Fort in Delhi to proclaim their loyalty to Zafar? Why did the Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs jointly fight for the restoration of the Mughal rule? How can Aurangzeb’s land grants to temples be explained? The friendship of Rajputs and Mughals that started during the reign of Akbar continued through Aurangzeb’s reign and the Rajput remained loyal till the end.

Salman Khurshid, though an active politician, does not hold back his pen as a writer. The book asks uncomfortable questions and passes remarks on politicians, intellectuals, and historians alike for their failure in portraying history as accurately as possible.

The fall of the Mughal Empire was lamented by both Hindus and Muslims and even now Indians remember the era of the culture and times of the Mughals, fondly. We take pride in the architectural marvels that they created. Simple but elegant mixtures of Indian and Islamic traditions. We savour the dishes perfected in Mughal kitchens that now sell all over the world as Indian cuisine. We enjoy ghazals and Bollywood songs written in Urdu, a language that became literary under the Mughal patronage. We also enjoy the music and dance that reached its pinnacle due to the works of Mughal artists. We can’t imagine an India without any of these elements and we can thank Babur for trying his luck for the fifth time.


The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor
Translated, edited, and annotated by Wheeler M. Thackston.
The Modern Library. New York. 2002.

Babur ki Aulad
By Salman Khurshid. Translation by Ather Farouqui.
Rupa. Delhi. 2008