Indian History Part 79 Babur – First of the Great Mughals Section II A Tiger Comes of Age

Canberra, 26 March 2020 

On 6 Muharram AH 888, 14 February AD 1483, a son was born to Omar Shaikh Mirza, the ruler of Fergana, and his wife Qutluq Nigar Khanum. He was named Zahir ud-Din Muhammad—Defender of the faith, Muhammad. Zahir was born in mid-winter in a ramshackle castle, the eldest son, although he had a sister, five years older than him. Since he was the first son of the ruling prince, chieftains of allied tribes and lords of valleys rode in to felicitate the father and feast with him. Omar Shaikh was not a pious Muslim, he drank wine and called in a soothsayer to predict his son’s future.

Omar was an ineffective ruler of the region that was his patrimony. Zahir ud-Din’s mother was a princess of a Mongol tribe and in her husband’s household was called ‘the Mogul’, the word Mongol being pronounced Mogul in the Transoxiana region. She had been married to Omar Shaikh by her father Yunus Khan who was the Mongol Khan of Tashkent at the time of her son’s birth. Qutluq Khanum could read and write, a rare feat for a women of the time, and enjoyed poetry, although being married to an impoverished Timurid prince, she did not have the leisure to enjoy any of these pursuits. She had her hands full managing the ‘royal’ household as the senior wife of a fat, impulsive prince, obsessed with pigeons, addicted to wine and with grandiose plans of conquest. In his autobiography, written at a much later stage, Zahir the young prince describes his father as a, ‘short and stout, round-bearded and fleshy-faced person’, who was powerfully built.

Yunus Khan, who had been installed in Tashkent by Omar Shaikh’s father Abu Sayyid the last real ruler of Samarkand, visited his grandson a year after his birth, arriving in great splendour as befits the ruler of a prosperous province. However, Yunus Khan, essentially of nomadic stock with no formal education, could not pronounce the given name of the child and called him Babur, Tiger. The name stuck.

The Origin of the word ‘Mughal’

By late 15th century, the word Mongol was synonymous with ‘barbarian’ and was used to denote all the wild tribes to the north and east of Transoxiana who had continued to be nomadic. In sharp contrast the Timurid court in Samarkand was relatively highly cultured and lustrous, making the ‘Turks’ believe that they had a higher perceived pedigree. Later, the word Mongol in Persian, was colloquially changed to Mughal to denote the Turko-Mongols who invaded the Indian sub-continent from Kabul.

Historians are in agreement that Babur would have been horrified if he came to know that he, and the dynasty that he founded in the Indian sub-continent, were being called ‘Mughal’, since he considered Mongols to be barbarians and the Timurid dynasty to which he belonged to be ‘Turks’. The fact remains that by the 15th century, the Turks and Mongols had been so intimately intermixed in Central Asia that separating them would be a meaningless exercise.

Timur came from a tribe called Barlas Turks, who were originally Mongols and only adopted Turkic as their language, which was also the language that Babur spoke and wrote. Further, the Barlas Turks were a sub-division of the Chagatai Turks that itself was a contradiction in nomenclature, since Chagatai was the second son the Genghis Khan the Mongol.

Despite Babur’s claims and belief to the contrary, the title ‘Mughal’ given to him seems to be justified.

Babur’s maternal grandmother, Aisan Daulat Begum, called Isan in some records, belonged to a Mongol tribe from the wild steppes and was a formidable lady. She took the young boy under her wings and it was she who later stood by him when he was struggling to establish his rule over Fergana.

Except for the Fergana valley, at Babur’s birth, the family possessed nothing else but a two-fold claim to power. From his father’s side he had descended from Timur-i-lang, known to Europeans as Tamerlane the Turkish conqueror; and from his mother’s side he was remotely descended from Genghis Khan, Master of the Ulus and briefly the ruler of most of the known world. With this pedigree, Babur’s credentials as an oriental conqueror could not be matched, although he personally was partial to his connection to Timur, whom he considered a Turk. Babur, therefore, combined the ‘sagacious savagery of the Mongol race’ and the ‘unlimited, restless energy’ of the Turks, in a forceful manner. His dual Turko-Mongol heritage was the unique product of the nomad’s remote way of life.

Early Life

When he was five years old, Babur was taken on his first trip outside Fergana, to Samarkand. The vastness of the city and its opulence overwhelmed the boy. During this trip he was betrothed to Princess Ayesha who was also five at that time. His later writings reveal that the young prince did not enjoy his time in Samarkand. Around this time Yunus Khan died and almost immediately Omar Shaikh’s three brothers conspired to oust him from his minor kingdom. Only their mutual suspicion kept them from doing so.

Omar did not have any wealth, in fact by princely standards of the time he was poor, and he did not possess an army of any significance. However, his valley was fertile and well-peopled and young Babur fell in love with it. Omar Shaikh Mirza was an easy-going but a truthful and benign ruler and also extraordinarily generous. There are many stories that are told of his generosity and honesty. However he was no strategist and did not even attempt to have his capital fortified against external attacks.

Omar Shaikh insisted on Babur being well-educated and accordingly he was instructed by an array of tutors from an early age in mathematics, astrology, and Islamic religion and its history. The young prince was also well-informed regarding his genealogy, reaching back to Timur and Chagatai Khan. At an early age itself Babur had mastered the old Turkish language spoken in the countryside, the Persian dialect common to the streets of the town and the fine Persian and Arabic of the learned men. From this fairy well-rounded education Babur developed a taste and appreciation for the eloquence of poets and seems to have been fascinated by the poems of the Sufi seer Rumi.

Early in life Babur realised the impoverished state of his father’s kingdom and also that the state of affairs in his uncles’ kingdoms were also not much different. However, Omar Shaikh, who was an innate waster, was also a dreamer and confided in his eldest son his dreams of conquest—of claiming the throne of Samarkand and capturing Tashkent. He lit the embers of ambition in the young prince’s heart, which was to propel Babur forward throughout his life. Soon after his circumcision in 1483, the ten-year old Babur was officially appointed the Governor of Fergana, a sort of an heir apparent position.

Even though Omar Shaikh was not a warrior, he was a poor shot and a clumsy rider, he understood the importance of a king being a competent and brave warrior. Therefore, he insisted in Babur being trained in arms and the art of warfare from his tenth birthday. Skilled warriors of the household took over the prince’s education, although Babur continued his tryst with his books and poetry whenever time permitted. Training in wielding arms was concentrated on horse-back riding and fighting while riding with sword and bow, without ever dismounting—for, ‘a man dismounted was a man lost’. The warrior training was conducted at all times of the day and night and during the constant hunts that the nobles undertook. Two fundamental tenets accepted by the Turko-Mongol fighting fraternity were repeatedly emphasised. One, that strife or danger was not confined to ranged-battles and the battlefield and a good warrior must anticipate it at any time and place, particularly at inconvenient times. Two, that it was best to ensure a disabling initial blow to the adversary, which could be the first step to victory, in other words, the strategic impact of a pre-emptive strike.

Kasim, a senior noble and the master of the royal household, warned Omar Shaikh and Babur that Sultan Ahmed Omar’s eldest brother, and Yunus Khan’s son now ruling Tashkent, were on the march to invade Fergana. Omar dismissed the idea as hearsay and went off to the dilapidated cliff fort at Akhsi to inspect a dovecote that he had created there for his pigeons. The dovecote was built on the edge of a ravine and tumbled into the ravine in a landslide, taking the unfortunate Omar Shaikh Mirza with it to his death.

Being summer, Babur was encamped outside the capital Andizhan when the news of his father’s demise reached him. As the eldest son, the throne was his by right, but in the Central Asia of that time such rights had to be enforced by the sword. Fearful of the future, he rushed back to the capital and was crowned as king, in haste. The memoirs, autography, of Zahir ud-Din Babur, Babur Nama, starts with a first-hand reference to this incident, ‘In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. In the month of Ramadan AH 899 [June AD 1494] and in the twelfth year of my age, I became ruler of the Domain of Fergana’. It was Tuesday, 9 June 1494.

Babur – A King With and Without Kingdoms

The throne of Fergana was shaky, the king a mere boy. Two uncles, one paternal and the other maternal, were attacking Fergana as warned by Kasim—since Omar Shaikh was dead and the new king was a mere boy, Fergana was considered fair game. Internally, a rebel group of amirs, nobles, were plotting to place Babur’s younger brother Jahangir on the throne. The situation was precarious for the young boy-king. At this stage his grandmother, the dowager widow of Yunus Khan, took matters in her hands. By sheer force of will and some amount of persuasion she brought the troubles to an end and triumphed over the adversaries. Finally Babur’s throne was secure.

During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, fratricidal wars were a routine rite of passage in Central Asia and a ruler could only redeem himself by the sword. The region, divided into small principalities, was mountainous, stretching from the Aral Sea to the Hindu Kush mountain ranges and was ruled by a horde of Timur’s descendants—the Timurid princes. They were all related to Babur in some way or the other, some of them even close cousins. The region was also in a state of turbulence, with the princes engaging in incessant conflicts with each other. These Timurid princes who ruled the region in small, and at time unviable, principalities were united only in their strong belief and conviction that each of the thrones must always be occupied by a Timurid prince. Otherwise, they fought each other almost on a daily basis.

With the throne of Fergana secure, Babur’s eyes turned to Samarkand, the fabled capital of Timur. Although the city was not as grandiose as it used to be in its heydays, the seeds planted in his young mind by his father’s dreams would have been a factor that made Babur contemplate capturing Samarkand. In fact he became obsessed with gaining the Samarkand throne. Already there was conflict going on for control of Samarkand between few Timurid princes and in 1496, Babur joined the fray. However, the setting in of winter made him withdraw. The next year he besieged the city and after a seven-month siege, in November 1497, he seized the city—he was 15 years old.

In his young mind, Babur had achieved his life’s ambition of sitting on Timur’s throne, and may have remained satisfied with this achievement. However, the triumph in Samarkand was short-lived, since he held the city only for a 100 days. His followers, found almost no reward in Samarkand, a city ravaged by war for a number of years. They started to drift away, much to his chagrin, and leaving him with no strong following and support. This was a common phenomenon amongst the Turko-Mongol groups—a leader had to continually demonstrate his prowess and also provide his followers with the opportunity to loot and plunder if they were to stay loyal. A leader who failed in this onerous duty would invariably see his entourage moving away and professing loyalty to another more successful warlord. The Turko-Mongol princes and kings of the time in Central Asia were merely successful warlords and nothing more. A Timur was a rarity.

Two other events added to Babur’s discomfiture. One, he fell sick in Samarkand and two, his younger brother Jahangir was raised to the throne of Fergana by the group of rebel nobles who had earlier supported such a move. Babur was thus forced to march out to reclaim his throne in Fergana, upon which another cousin claimed the Samarkand throne. Although Babur managed to reclaim both the thrones, by now the powerful Uzbek chief, Shaibani Khan, had moved south and was able to capture both Samarkand and Fergana. Shaibani Khan was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan and had apparently vowed to put an end to Timurid control of Central Asia. The Uzbek strength was such that even though he lost both his thrones to them, Babur avoided any further contact with Shaibani Khan, staying as far away as possible from Uzbek strongholds.

Babur was now a king without a kingdom, at times even without a home. He wandered the mountains of Central Asia with a small band of ragtag followers. Finally, with no possible end to this strife in sight, he took refuge with his maternal uncle, the Mongol chief in Tashkent. This was the low point in his life, as he graphically describes his time in Tashkent in the Babur Nama, where he was also subject to ridicule and was at times made the butt of cruel jokes. He wrote, ‘During my stay in Tashkent, I endured much poverty and humiliation. No country, or hope of one’!

This reduced state of a king who had at one time ruled two kingdoms simultaneously was not a strange situation for the time. Babur and the other Timurid princes still lived a semi-nomadic life; a world in which fortunes could change greatly and with surprising rapidity. As was this case, it was not uncommon for a prince to have been king one day and a homeless wandering warlord the next. There was acceptance that fortunes were made and lost by the sword, supported or otherwise by the fickle loyalties of one’s followers. Within this nomadic philosophical framework, the two extremes were neither incompatible nor inconceivable.

The King of Kabul

In 1504 when he was 22 years old, fate intervened, this time in Babur’s favour. Kabul, like the other ‘kingdoms’ of the region, was ruled by Ulugh Beg Mirza, a relative of Babur. Ulugh died leaving only an infant son as the heir and the kingdom lapsed into chaos as was usual under these circumstances. Babur now saw an opportunity to grab a safe haven for himself, across a mountain range and far away from Shaibani Khan who had by now entrenched himself in Fergana and was making further inroads southwards. He did not hesitate. He force-marched to Kabul with his followers, overran Kabul and enthroned himself as king. Babur once again had a power base and immediately his future prospects improved. As Babur writes in his memoirs, ‘It was in the last ten days of Rabia [October AD 1504] that without a fight, without an effort, by Almighty God’s bounty and mercy, I obtained and made subject to me Kabul and Ghazni and their dependent districts—the Domain of Kabul’.

‘Adversity made him wise, not cynical; it taught him what he needed to learn to merit what he had to achieve. There was a natural candour about Babur, a warmth and openness that endeared him to his men, with whom he shared all dangers and all hardships, always leading them from the front. “This prince was adorned with many virtues,” writes his cousin Mirza Haidar, “above all of which bravery and humanity had the ascendant.” Intelligence, compassion, energy, ambition, steadfastness, and, equally, the sheer joy of life—these are the traits we see in Babur in Kabul.’

—Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p.8

Babur was a restless person, the impact of his nomadic genes. While not overtly found of worldly possessions, he sought self-fulfilment. For an ambitious, would-be emperor, self-fulfilment meant becoming a monarch—Kabul provided the stepping stone to realise that ambition.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2020]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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