Sunday, April 8, 2012

Empire of the Moghul Raiders From the North - Alex Rutherford

This book published by Headline Review and Hachette India (priced at Rs. 350, historical fiction), is the story of Babur (1484-1530), or Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, the foremost of the Moghuls and the one who set up the formidable Moghul empire in India. Told in a story form with lots of dialogue and interesting descriptions and characters, Rutherford, takes us through the life of Babur from the time he becomes the King of a small province called Ferghana (in Uzbekistan) after the untimely death of his father at the tender age of twelve. Babur belongs to the lineage of Timur (a Timurid) from his father's side and Chengiz Khan the Mongol from his grandmother's side. He is always made aware of that by his grandmother Esan Dawlat, a women of great strength and inspiration to young Babur.

The novel starts dramatically with the accidental fall of Babur's father in a collapse of the dovecote in which he is standing, in his palace. The small kingdom is seized in intrigue as the vizier tries to usurp power in view of the fact that Babur is but a child. But he is negated by the King's faithful commander-in-chief Wazir Khan (fictitious) and Esan Dawlat. Babur is proclaimed the King of Ferghana in the mosque in a well orchestrated move. The vizier is outwitted but Babur's uncle who rules Samarkhand, Timur's capital, decides to take over the weakened Ferghana. More intrigue as the uncle is ambushed by the bloodthirsty Uzbek Shaibani Singh and killed even as he is on his way to Ferghana. The news is bought to Babur by Baisanghar, a warrior with Samarkhand (fictitious) who later becomes Baur's trusted aide. The danger is avoided for a while but now Babur wishes to take over Samarkand which he believes is rightfully his, as he is the rightful heir of Timur. Samarkand, meanwhile, is taken over by its vizier.

Babur attacked and captured Samarkand and enjoyed the great city that lies on the Silk Route between China and the West. But soon he gets information that his half-brother, Jehangir, the son of a concubine of his father's, had usurped the throne of Ferghana in his absence. As Babur leaves for Ferghana fearing for the lives of his mother, sister and grandmother, his cousin Mahmud Khan, smitten by the Vizier's daughter takes over Samarkhand. Before long the Uzbeks led by Shaibani Khan  take over Samarkand from Mahmud (and Shaibani makes a drum of Mahmud's skin). Left with no land to rule Babur hides in the mountains with his men, taking over small tribes and increasing his force. Jehangir sends him his mother, grandmother and sister and an offer for peace. Smarting at his inadequacy Babur once again tries to take Samarkhand and succeeds as well, when Shaibani Khan's forces go North. But Shaibani Khan lays siege to the city and after three months allows Babur safe passage is he leaves the city, and his sister, for him. Left with no choice Babur leaves his sister whom he loves so dearly, Khanzada, to the barbaric Uzbec. In one of those battles with Shaibani, he loses his faithful Wazir Khan.

More years in exile, a marriage with a chieftains daughter, the finding of a friend his age, Baburi (fictitious) and Babur is growing older and a lot more wiser. He hears of tales of Timur's acquisition of Delhi from an old woman. He takes his eyes off Samarkand and acquires Kabul and Khandahar in Afghanistan. He travels as far as Just as he is planning to attack Shaibani Khan, the King of Persia sends him a cup made from Shaibani Khan's skull, and Babur's sister, Khanzada as a gift. The King of Persia also pledges his support to Babur in taking over Samarkand. Baburi leaves Babur, his close friend, as he thinks that his infatuation with Samarkand is making him lose sight that he would become a vassal to the King of Persia. Babur soon realises that the King of Persia, a Shia, wants to convert the people of Samarkand, Sunnis. The alliance breaks. Babur forgets Samarkand and expands his kingdom eastwards with his capital as Kabul. He begets four sons from different wives - Humayun, Kamran, Askari and Hindal. Just as he is wondering how to leave an empire to his sons comes Baburi with his new find - cannons and gunpowder and muskets. With these, Babur is now confident of launching an attack on Delhi which is ruled by Sultan Ibrahim Lodi.

Babur raises his armies and travels to Hindustan which they all know is famed for its wealth and different customs. Babur also believes that Hindustan and Delhi are rightfully his because Timur had conquered Delhi - and after having appointed a vassal in Punjab, left for Samarkand again. The vassal formed the Sayyid dynasty from whom Lodi, of Afghanistan, took over Delhi. Babur's armies, led by himself and Humayun, vastly outnumbered, brave the terrain, the fierce Hindustani warriors and finally vanquish Lodi's armies (which numbered at 1,00,000)  at Panipat, outside Delhi. However Baburi dies in that battle of Panipat leaving Babur distraught (fictitious part). They acquire the Kohinoor diamond of Golconda from the Lodi's vassal the King of Gwalior and set up base in Agra. Babur survives attempts n his life and vanquishes Rana Sanga, the Rajput warrior before dying of illness in 1530. Before dying he makes Humayun the heir to the vast Moghul kingdom (the dynasty named as Moghul by Babur, which is Persian for Mongol) that sprawled from Kabul to Delhi. Babur's was finally buried in Kabul where his tomb still remains.

It is an fascinating insight into the times of the Moghuls and how they came and acclimatised to strange people, strange ways and hostile weather. Babur lost so many kingdoms, battles and yet persisted which is a great tribute to his persistence, to his pride as a Timurid. The barbarism of the people, the warriors strikes you in the punishments meted out to traitors. Timur was not one who showed any mercy and Babur was also known to be merciless. People hacked limb to limb, thrown down headfirst on to rocks, intestines being pulled out, heads being hung on trees or poles, are common. In battles the Moghuls used a tactic to scare opposition - they would neatly pile up the severed heads of the warriors they had slain in battle in neat piles - to scare off any further attacks. Babur claimed to have built many such pillars in his lifetime. He is also supposedly an immensely strong man who would run up hills for exercise with two men on his shoulders. Babur is also known to have swum across every single major river he came across - including the Ganges. These details are missing in the book though. Understandably, Babur, who led a strife-ridden life, consumed opium and wine and enjoyed the same. He gave up drinking wine publicly before the war against Rana Sanga, exhorting his fellow Muslim soldiers to be a true Muslim and to wage jihad or the holy war against the infidel Rajput king. Babur apparently regretted this move to give up wine.

Another interesting feature was Babur's love to be the King of Samarkand which to him represented the seat of Timur.  But despite gaining Samarkand thrice, he lost it thrice. All his life he pined for Samarkand. It wa only much later, when like Steve Jobs said he 'connected the dots' and said that not getting Samarkand was the best thing that happened to him because he set his eyes on Delhi.

The more one reads of the world and how it progressed the more one is convinced that people by nature are violent. If one does not have he gumption to fight, one way or another, one is as good as dead.

I would have preferred the book to be slightly shorter than its 493 pages, maybe at 400 it would have been a tight read. Some parts appeared to drag to me and I wished they were tighter. Most accounts are historically accurate as claimed by the author himself. Babur himself wrote a detailed diary 'the Baburnama' which contained detailed facts, figures and descriptions. Rutherford also claims to have visited almost all places mentioned in the book. Thoroughly enjoyable stuff though. I am disappointed that Hachette though - pages 245-276 are missing in an otherwise well produced book.

No comments: