An emperor with foibles

Dilip Hiro’s Babur Nama describes the emperor as a man of many shades

February 15, 2014 12:52 pm | Updated May 18, 2016 08:25 am IST

The other day, during the course of a casual conversation at the India International Centre in New Delhi, an LGBT activist mentioned the name of Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, in defence of homosexual relations in the country. I had heard that earlier too from a prominent author. This time I decided to do the best thing possible to clear the mystery around Babur, a man with multiple wives, many off-springs, could he be homosexual or bisexual? And promptly went to a library to read Annette Beveridge’s work on him. However, Beveridge’s translation of the Babur Nama is a voluminous exercise with some 300,000 words. It requires time and patience to read through. I had neither. So I did the next best thing. I picked up a copy of Dilip Hiro’s Babur Nama, which is kind of an abridged version. I came back not just with the answer to my question but a more rounded view of Babur. The founder of the Mughal dynasty rose in my esteem. He could read, he could write, he could love, he could lust. And could he fight!

At one level, it lifted the lid off Babur’s love for young boys. Babur wrote candidly in his memoirs — he was at ease with his mother tongue Turkish as also Persian, the language of intellectual discourse at that time. By his own admission, he was infatuated with Baburi, a teenage boy, on seeing whom Babur composed a couple of couplets. “Nor power to stay was mine, nor strength to part; I became what you made of me, oh thief of my heart.” Indeed Babur pined for the love of Baburi even after he had acquired several wives and sired many children.

That probably explains the unbounded enthusiasm of many to use his name in their argument against Section 377. Babur is not the only one quoted, merely the most conspicuous. However, a reading of Babur Nama proved a useful exercise in many other ways. It is such a beautifully written account of the era, its nobles, its people. It is both lucid and illuminating. And the Mughal emperor, the butt of some ridicule and lots of unprovoked criticism during the Babri Masjid controversy, covers himself with grace. Such is his mastery over the written word that at one time he admonishes his son, Humayun, for being too verbose in his letters. “Although your letter can be read if every sort of pains be taken, yet it cannot be quite understood because of that obscure wording of yours. In future write without elaboration. Use plain, clear words,” he says.

The brevity of expression is endearing and led me on to discover the Mughal founder anew. And as I discovered, he was not quite a Mughal! He in fact held the Mughals in low esteem, reserving similar scorn for the Uzbeks. “Mischief and devastation must always be expected from the Mughal horde,” he observes. Incidentally, his mother was a Chaghatai Mughal while his father belonged to the lineage of Timur. Babur happily called himself Timuri Turk and if he had his way, he would have called his dynasty Timuri, not Mughal. The surprises do not end here. For all his hatred of the Uzbeks, who often kept him at bay, modern Uzbekistan has a museum dedicated to him at his birthplace of Andijan. Even a public square is named after him! Why go all the way to Uzbekistan to discover paradoxes surrounding Babur? Don’t we call him the founder of the Mughal dynasty?

The ironies continue as I discover more facets of Babur’s personality through Hiro’s book that was released more than half a decade ago. Hiro calls him a man of piety and principle who had transcribed the holy Quran. Yet the same man used to host parties where wine flowed like water. And he consulted astrologers too — both the actions are prohibited in Islam.

So what does one make of Babur? A learned scholar of Islam? A talented and honest historian? A debauched man given to a life of pleasure? Or, maybe, an emperor with some rare gifts and some very human foibles. That may just be Zahir Uddin Muhammad Babur.

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