Sunday, May 1, 2011

The First Mogul


Babur:  Detail from unidentified Mogul miniature painting.

        Judged by human standards, it was humanism within limits.  The Timurid Renaescence, like ours, took place in the fifteenth century, owed its course to the patronage of princes, and preceded the emergence of nationalist states.  But in some respect the two movements differed.  While the European was largely a reaction against faith in favour of reason, the Timurid coincided with a new consolidation of the power of faith.  The Turks of Central Asia had already lost contact with Chinese materialism; and it was Timur who led them to the acceptance of Islam, not merely as a religion, for that was already accomplished, but as a basis of social institutions.  Turks, in any case, are not much given to intellectual speculation.   

       Timur’s descendants, in diverting the flow of Persian culture to their own enjoyment, were concerned with the pleasures of this world, not of the next.  The purpose of life they left to the saints and theologians, whom they endowed in life and commemorated in death. But the practice of it, inside the Mohammedan framework, they conducted according to their own common sense without prejudice or sentiment except in favour of rational intelligence.

Rear view of Babri Mosque, Ayodhya, India.  Built by Babur in 1527 and destroyed in a riot in 1992.

        The quality of mind thus fostered is preserved in the Memoirs of Babur, which were written in Turki at the beginning of the sixteenth century and have been twice translated into English.  They show a man concerned with day-to-day amenities, conversation, clothes, faces, parties, music, houses and gardens, as with the loss of a princedom in Oxiana and the acquisition of an empire in India; as interested in the natural world as the political, and so remarking such facts as the distance swum by Indian frogs; and as honest about himself as others, so that in this picture of himself – so real that even in translation one can almost hear him speak – he has left a picture of his whole line.  Born in the sixth generation after Timur, it was not until the end of his life that he conquered India and became the first Mogul.  Even that was only second-best, after he had spent thirty years trying to re-establish himself in Oxiana.   

A miniature painting from the Babur-nama (The Memoirs of Babur)

        But as a man of taste he did what he could to make life possible in so odious a country, and his comments on it show the standards he aspired to.  He thought the Indians ugly, their conversation a bore, their fruit tasteless and their animals ill-bred; “in handicraft and work there is no form or symmetry, method or quality . . . for their buildings they study neither elegance nor climate, appearance nor regularity.”  He denounces their habits as Macaulay denounced their learning, or as Gibbon denounced the Byzantines, by the light of a classical tradition.  

       And since that tradition, after the Uzbeg conquest of Oxiana and Heart, was extinguished elsewhere, he set about planting it anew.  He and his successors changed the face of India.  They gave it a lingua franca, a new school of painting and a new architecture. They revived again that theory of Indian unity which was to become the basis of British rule.  Their last emperor died in exile at Rangoon in 1862, to make way for Queen Victoria. And the posterity of Timur survives to this day, in poverty and pride, among the labyrinths of Delhi.

Farrukh Beg, A drunken Babur returns to camp at night, 1589

Reader Note:   Recent re-reading of Robert Byron's The Road To Oxiana (London, Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1937), the source of the preceding text, has prompted all sorts of memories of my original exploration of Islamic art, which began in high school after learning about Sufi mystical traditions and continued through college and graduate school, finally culminating in writing a Qualifying Paper concerning the Mughal painter Manohar that was accepted toward the awarding of an M.A. degree at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, where I was fortunate enough to study under Dr. Richard Ettinghausen near the end of his long, illustrious career.  One can only sketch a fragment and open up a small glimpse into Mughal genius here, but for those living near big cities with fine museums, consulting primary sources -- the paintings themselves -- first always provides the best introduction, which can then be supplemented by reading history, viewing photographs, and possibly even researching the opinions of bloggers.

Babur, the first Mogul, was born in 1483 and died in 1531.  As Byron notes, we know a great deal about the remarkable events of his life from his autobiography, The Baburnama or Memoirs of Babur, which are considered the first true autobiography in Islamic literature.  

From Wikipedia: "Babur is said to have been extremely strong and physically fit. He could allegedly carry two men, one on each of his shoulders, and then climb slopes on the run, just for exercise. Legend holds that Babur swam across every major river he encountered, including twice across the Ganges River in North India. His passions could be equally strong. In his first marriage he was "bashful" towards ʿĀʾisha Ṣultān Begum, later losing his affection for her.  Babur also had a great passion to kill people, cut heads of people and create pillars out of cut head. He claimed to have created several such pillars in his autobiography. 

He gave up drinking alcohol only two years before his death for health reasons, and demanded that his court do the same. But he did not stop chewing narcotic preparations, and did not lose his sense of irony. He wrote:
Everyone regrets drinking and swears an oath [of abstinence]; I swore the oath and regret that."

Miniature painting showing First Battle of Panipat, 1598

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