Archive for July 6th, 2013

Babur – The Journal Of Babur (Babur Nama)

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

Among the most interesting autobiographies are those written by rulers of the distant past. These are so interesting because there are so few. In most cases we have to deal with biographies, often written after the ruler has died. One of the most famous autobiographies, although most people will never have heard of it, is the Babur Nama (1530), which can be translated by The Journal Of Babur, written by Babur, the founder of the powerful Mughal Empire in India.

The journal itself is not exactly a diary. Babur wrote since an early age but later on in life he started to combine them, leading him to add comments and reflections. He was barely coming into majority when he succeeded his father, one of many noblemen in Central Asia, so one can assume these early writings did not contain the rich knowledge and experience of old age.

The noblemen in Central Asia were often semi-independent rulers. They ruled as they pleased and fought wars where they choose but accepted guardianship of one or more of their more powerful relatives. Almost any nobleman of stature was related to all others because they married their sisters or daughters to each other.

I mention this fact because it is a central motive in most of the early parts of the Babur Nama. The power of these noblemen was often fickle. The allegiance of their vassals depended on providing an image of strength and action. A ruler could not sit at home and govern his domain but had to go on campaign to fight an enemy with the hope of gaining booty or lands which he would share with his vassals. If they didn’t profit they would rebel or give their allegiance to a nearby ruler, often urging that ruler to attack their weak former ruler. The campaigns themselves were usually of a demure nature. The ruler tried to find easy opportunities for gains, rarely gave it his all and if chances were not so good he quickly gave up. Actual fighting was limited. At least he had shown he was willing and his vassals also didn’t really want to risk their lives, so both were satisfied this way.

Actual victories did often not last. Conquering another great city meant giving less attention to your home city or giving its ruler to someone else while one hadn’t set up a powerbase in the new city, making one weak for usurpation or reconquest.

The early years of Babur’s life were a continuous string of minor victories and losses, going back and forth to recover what he had lost. One peculiarity in all these events were the marriage relationships. Because all the rulers were related to each other, they could all set a claim for each other’s domain. However, their kinship was also important to them. Killing the former ruler was rarely done unless they fell in a direct battle. They usually let him go to another domain which meant he could come back to recover his loss.

The reason why I am explaining this is because the events in the first part of the Babur Name are of a chaotic nature and continuous mild violence. One would think it very surprising that these rulers often managed to live so long. That is why I explained the issue of kinship.

Of course one does not become the founder of an empire if one stays in such an unstable environment. Babur got tired of it and moved south when he saw an opportunity and when more joined him than he could have expected he managed to break the circle and rise.

However, it took quite some time before he finally decided to make a real grab for the power in India. It did provide him with a secure powerbase which allowed him to sustain his own domain and the new.

I will not tell more about the journal. I just wanted to add my own reflections of what I have read. There is no plot or story development, so I have to write about something of the content.

What about the journal itself? I read an abridged translation. This mean some parts are left out. It is impossible for me to know what I missed. Most of the journal is about the campaigns Babur undertook. Vassals betraying him and coming back are treated leniently. It was part of the daily affairs. One takes what one can get. Real loyalty is appreciated but in contrast less loyal vassals have to be appeased much more and thus get the greater gifts. Babur is very honest in this and simply states his losses how they happened, trying not to make judgments.

There are some sections describing the lands he has ruled, either short or long. Only at a later age Babur tells more about his daily affairs outside the campaign. In here we get to know a bit of his personal feelings. There is much poetry in the journal itself, either quotes from others or lines he wrote himself. He is also honest about his failings, how he tries to redeem himself but not succeeding to do so. These are actually the more enlightening parts of the journal where you gain some insight in those times and locations.

Over the years I have read quite a few (auto)biographies. As they are written during the same period the central character has lived in everything is told from a perspective in which what happens is natural for that time. So a reader has to read between the lines and recognize what is not told or told in such a usual matter that you don’t notice it as peculiar. It are these things which make me enjoy such works as just reading a history will miss most of these peculiarities which provide a greater insight and understanding.