The Baburnama:
Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor

Zahiruddin Babur

translated from the Chaghatay Turkish by Wheeler M. Thackston
Oxford University Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
In 1494, aged twelve, Babur acceded to an uncertain position as a minor ruler in Fergana, in Central Asia; at his death in 1530 he controlled much of northern India, having founded what would become the "Mughal" empire. As well as covering key historical events, his life story, the Baburnama, offers a fascinating picture of ordinary (aristocratic) life in Islamic Central and South Asia around 1500. It may not be the best starting point for the newcomer to the period, but it shouldn't be restricted to academia.

Babur begins by describing the geography of Fergana and giving some background history. He then recounts his part in the internecine conflicts between the Timurids (descendants of Temür/Tamerlane) over Khurasan, Transoxiana, and Fergana and their loss to the Uzbeks under Shaybani. Initially a puppet of others, used for Timurid legitimacy, Babur gradually became a real leader. His fluctuating fortunes saw him take and lose Samarkand twice; eventually he was forced into a kind of "guerilla" existence in the mountains. In 1504 he left Transoxiana with a few hundred companions, acquired the discontented followers of a regional leader in Badakhshan, and took Kabul. From there he began carving out a domain for himself, in a process combining pillage and state-building.

The story breaks in 1508, with a large lacuna in our manuscripts; it resumes in 1519, when we find Babur solidly established in Kabul and campaigning in and around what is now Pakistan. Matchlocks (not mentioned at all previously) are now in regular use, though restricted to the elite. A more personal change is Babur's fondness for riotous parties and use of both alcohol and the narcotic ma'jun, contrasting with a teetotal youth. After another lacuna the work finishes with the years 1525 to 1529, covering the battle of Panipat, the conquest of Delhi, and the defeat of a Rajput coalition at the battle of Khanua (in which battles artillery played a key role). India was only a consolation prize for Babur, however — he always compares it unfavourably with Kabul and his beloved Samarkand.

Though Thackston claims it is "the first real autobiography in Islamic literature", the Baburnama contains little personal reflection. Babur is frank and open, but tends to describe actions rather than motivations. The Baburnama does, however, extend far beyond the military and political history summarised above. Babur includes descriptions of many of the places he visits and is interested in flora and fauna and techniques of hunting, fishing, and agriculture; there are also set-piece geographical overviews of Fergana, Transoxiana, and the area around Kabul, as well as a twenty page description of Hindustan. And on a few occasions he describes events at a distance, outside his own direct experience (for example battles between the Persians and the Uzbeks).

A notable feature of the Baburnama is the sheer number of names that appear in it: Babur writes extensively about people, including personal followers he wants to honour as well as more prominent figures. The death of each Timurid sultan, for example, is followed by an obituary covering not just their battles and the events of their reign but their wives, concubines, and children, their leading followers, and the scholars and artists whom they patronised (or just ruled over). Poets and poetry are particularly highly respected: Babur quotes his own and others' verses, and among his youthful exploits he is as proud of a poetic exchange with Mulla Banna'i as of a successful surprise attack that took Samarkand.

This edition of the Baburnama has an attractive selection of colour plates and black and white halftones, mostly from paintings of Babur's time. Thackston's introduction provides some useful background history and context, as well as describing the history of the manuscripts and Western interest in the Baburnama. And his translation is readable and accessible, with notes on linguistic and textual issues and explanations of background information conveniently located in the margins.

July 2001

External links:
- buy from or
- review and links at the Complete Review
Related reviews:
- books about Central Asia + Mongolia
- books about India + Indian history
- more South Asian literature
- more Turkish literature
- more diaries + autobiography
- more medieval literature
- books published by Oxford University Press
%T The Baburnama
%S Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor
%A Babur, Zahiruddin
%M Chaghatay Turkish
%F Thackston, Wheeler M.
%I Oxford University Press
%D 1996
%O hardcover, glossary, index
%G ISBN 0195096711
%P 472pp