An Imperial Autobiography: Bāburnāma of Zahīruddin Muhammad Bābur Pādshāh Ghāzi

A folio from Walters manuscript W.596, Babur and his warriors are depicted visiting the Hindu temple Gurh Kattri (Kur Katri) in Bigram.

As the list of the sources for the Akbarnama shows, our informants wrote their accounts under the following genres: tarikh, a word referring to annals, history, or chronological narrative; tazkira, written in the form of biographies and memoirs; namah, included biographies and exemplary accounts, aside from histories, epistles, and accounts of exemplary deeds; qanun, written in the mode of normative accounts or legal texts; and waqi‘at meaning a narrative of happenings, events, and occurrences. Interestingly, the genre title that Gulbadan chose was different from all of these: it was Ahwal, a word meaning conditions, state, circumstances, or situations.

Let us begin with the question: what are the records that make up the accepted archive for early Mughal India? For Babur and his period, his autobiography, the Baburnama, and the Tarikh-i Rashidi composed in 1545-46 by his cousin, Mirza Muhammad Haydar Dughlat, remain the most popular texts for scholars. Muhammad Haydar Dughlat spent most of his career in Kabul. He was in close contact with Babur during this period, and his work is valuable as it highlights the political-cultural intricacies of those parts of central Asia and Afghanistan that Babur was dealing with at the time.

Let us first begin with Baburnama. Also known as Waqā’i‘ or Tuzuk-i Baburi, it was initially compiled as a diary by Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur in Chaghtai Turki from where it was translated in Persian by ‘Abdur Rahim Khan-i Khanan during the reign of Akbar.

The Chaghtai Turki text has been edited by A.S Beveridge in 1905and then by Eiji Mano (Kyoto) in 1995. Mano collated four Turki texts, and his edition is one of the most accurate editions. The Persian text (Khan-i Khanan’s tr.) has been edited from Bombay in 1890.

The Chaghtai Turkish was spoken in Central Asia which at that time was dominated by the Chagtai Mongols. It is designated as Chaghtai Turkish to differentiate it from the Turkish spoken in Anatolia which is known as Ottoman Turkish. The Chaghtai Turkish was written down to the middle of the 15th C. in Uighur script while the Ottoman Turkish was written in the Arabic script.

By the time Babur came on the scene, the Chaghtai Turkish also came to be increasingly written in Arabic script. It was in this script that Babur penned his memoirs. A result of the change in script from Uighur to Arabic, an inclusion of Persian and Arabic vocabulary took place in the Chagtai Turki.

Babur’s style in Baburnama is simple and lucid: it is not influenced by the ornate style of the prose writing which was in vogue in the contemporary Persian literature writing. It was more in line with the direct and simple style introduced by the Mongols / Mughals in Central Asia.

Basically divided into two parts – the first section deals with Central Asia, Samarqand, Bukhara, etc.; the second is devoted to India. Babur describes the fauna, flora, cities, topography etc. Babur’s comments are quite candid. He praises the things which attract him and criticises those which are not to his liking.

There are a number of gaps in the Baburnama which create serious problems for a person studying the period. Two of these major gaps are for the period from 914 – 25 AH / 1508 – 19; then again from 926 – 32 / 1520 – 25. For these long periods we have no account. Apart from this there are a number of other minor gaps ranging from a few weeks and days to a few months.

In spite of these insufficiencies Baburmama has remained a very important document for the regions which he controlled: Central Asia, Kabul, Qandhar and North India. This is the most sought after chronicle throughout the period from the very beginning. It was translated into Persian during his own lifetime and then later on translated from Persian into Russian, Italian, French and English.

The earliest attempt at preparing a recension (summary) of Baburnama in Persian was made by Babur’s sadr us sudur Shaikh Zain Khawafi, who in fact re-produced in Persian the information which is provided in Babur’s memoirs of the emperor’s battle with Ibrahim Lodi in Panipat down to the battle of Khanwa. This is known as Tabaqat-i Baburi.

The prose style of Shaikh Zain Khwafi in Tabaqat-i Baburi is rather rhetorical. It actually comprises two documents that were composed by Shaikh Zain himself for Babur:

(1) Babur’s farman of 1527, renouncing drinking of any kind of intoxicant and also proclaiming the abolition of some of the taxes. This farman was issued by Babur on the eve of the Battle of Kanwa to win over the sympathy of the people in general as also for creating enthusiasm amongst his officials who were rather diffident in engaging the Rajputs.

(2) The other document which was composed by Shaikh Zain in Persian and included in his Tabaqat was the Fathnama issued after Babur’s victory in the Battle of Kanwa in 1527. The fathnama is a longish account written in an ornate and rhetoric style. It appears that both these documents in their original form were included by Babur in his memoir. In the fathnama the political situation is characterized by Shaikh Zain some what communally vitiated. Basing on these documents the historians tend to paint the battle between Rana Sanga and Babur as one between Islam and Hinduism and Babur as a crusader and Sanga as the hero who wanted to throw out Islam from India: the fight was seen as a Jihad and Babur as Ghazi!

Another two attempts were made during the reign of Akbar to translate the memoirs of Babur. The first translation on Akbar’s orders was the one that was completed by Painda Hasan in 1583. The Ms of this translation entitled Waqi’at-i Baburi is preserved in the Bodleian collection in Oxford University. This translation is actually a summary translation of the Baburnama. Sometimes it tends to give the impression that it is an adaptation in the form of a new chronicle and not a translation. It is rather fragmentary and doesn’t help us to grasp the nature of information given by Babur.

The next attempt was made by ‘Abdur Rahim Khan-i Khanan who again prepared a new translation into Persian in 1589 on the orders of Akbar. This is a literal translation and is very close sentence by sentence. It is very important as in many cases a number of technical terms in Turkish with which we are not familiar are interpreted in Persian on his own knowledge.

This translation by Khan-i Khanan is a very useful translation – more so as it had a very great impact on the study of history of Babur’s period and the socio-economic history of the regions. For a long time it was the only version of Baburnama which was Available: a large number of its mss survive from the beginning of 17th C onwards. The Turkish text became untraceable to a large extent.

The Latin translation of the Baburnama contains a letter written to Mirza Kamran which was present in the Russian translation which based on a Turkish text which is now extinct.

Contents and Structure

Now let us come to the information contained in the Baburnama. As pointed out earlier it is a memoir-cum-diary. If it is accepted as a memoir, then the information contained therein will have one kind of significance. If it is a diary, it will have another kind of significance.

What is the structure of this book?

We find the account covering the period from 1494 – 1526 is by and large in the nature of a memoir which is presented by Babur in the form of a diary. The second part of the Baburnama is an independent Treatise on Hindustan in general. There is no attempt to give it the form of a diary. It is a description of Hindustan as witnessed and understood by Babur after he established his control over Agra. The third part is actually that part which was not written by Babur and not in Chagtai Turki but written in Persian by Shaikh Zain (the two documents mentioned earlier). Lastly is the account covering the period of Babur’s stay in Hindustan from 1526 down to September 1529, i.e 3½ yrs which is certainly in the form of a diary: a day to day account.

Thus Baburnama is a collection of 4 types of work of which 3 are by Babur and one by Shaikh Zain. One part is in the nature of a diary par excellence, the others written in the form of diary but actually a memoir after his victory over Rana Sanga.

This division is borne out by examples and subsequent developments found in the text of Baburnama. For example referring to Mirza Haidar Dughlat in the account of AH 899 / 1493-94, Babur says this man ‘was with me, but later on in 1512 he went to Kashghar…’

Similarly in the account of AH 910 / 1505-04 he mentions:

‘In winter, however, people ford the Sind water at [Hāru] above its junction with Kabul River, and ford this also. In most of my expeditions into Hidustan, I crossed those fords, but the last time [i.e. 1525-26] when I came and defeated Sultan Ibrahim and conquered the country, I crossed by boat at Nilab…’

The significance is that it was in 1505 he is writing of something which happened in 1525-26. Thus this portion which he wrote in the form of diary for 1505 was actually written in 1525-26.

Again in AH 910 he writes about the laying out of gardens in AH 914.

Similalarly in an account of the same year (1505-04) while referring to Sultan Mahmud Ghazni’s tomb, he says: ‘There is hope that it may become of use again by means of the money which was sent in Khwaja Kalan’s hands…’ We know Khwaja Kalan was sent with funds by Babur sometime in March 1527. This portion was thus written after 1527 and not in 1504-5!  Thus this earlier account is in the form of a memoir and not a diary.

Now about the second portion it would suffice to say that Babur simply wrote it in the form of a narrative and treatise. It is the description of Hindustan. He describes the geographical features of the country, the forms of the society, the social conditions, buildings, houses etc. Thus at one place he mentions that the towns and country of Hindustan are greatly wanting in charm and its towns and lands are of one sort.

We come to know from Babur’s account the Persian Wheel was very much in vogue in Rajasthan but not beyond Delhi and Agra where Babur introduced it and was taken as an innovation of his. Describing the use of Persian wheel Babur writes:

‘In Lahore, Dipalpur and those parts, people lift water by means of a wheel. They make two circles of ropes; long enough to suite the depth of the well, fix strips of wood between them and on these fasten pitchers…

As distinct is the third part of the Baburnama. It comprises the two documents of Shaikh Zain which depict Babur as Ghazi. A thorough study of these documents reveals a different kind of information. For example Rushbrooke Williams says that the struggle between Rana Sanga and Babur was a fight against Islam. He suggests this basing on Shaikh Zain’s observation that 10 confederations were made by the Kafir chiefs. But such deduction by Rushbrooke is rather uncritical reading of the sources. The list of these ten chiefs is given by Babur as well and amongst them we find the name of Hasan Khan Mewat and his troops as well as one of the Lodi princes commanding the Afghan troops with Rana Sanga.

The author of Wāqi’āt-i Mushtāqi clearly says that the initiative to oppose Babur was taken by Hasan Khan Mewati and not Rana Sanga. Thus it cannot be said the the engagement between the Mughal and the Rana was a jihad par excellence. The language of the two documents of Shaikh Zain verbatim incorporated in the Baburnama and the term ghazi was merely to glorify Babur in the eyes of his reluctant officers who were feeling homesick.

The fourth part of the Baburnama, i.e. from 1526 to October 1529 is diary par excellence. Here we have passages like: [26th May] ‘I crossed water on early morning’ or for e.g. on 28th the Saturday ‘Today Kohi is joining Baqi’ etc.

The Gaps and Mutilated Portions:

The next problem is of the gaps in the Baburnama. Some of these are gaps of few weeks or days. But two major breaks are encountered in the first part, i.e. the memoirs:

There is a gap for the period 914 – 25 AH / 1508 – 19. This is when Babur after the defeat at the hands of Uzbeks had to seek help from Shah Ismail of Persia. It was a period when Babur had to suffer hardships after being expelled from Samarqand. Some Persian accounts tell us that in order to seek help from Shah Ismail, Babur had promised to be converted to Shi’ism. All this period finds no mention in the Baburnama. The details of this period are found in the Persian sources and in the words of Khwandamir as well as Mirza Haider Dughlat’s Tarikh-i Rashidi.

The second phase when a major gap occurs is from 926 – 39 AH / 1520 – 25. This is the period when Babur was concentrating on establishing his foothold in NW India for over-running the Delhi Empire. Babar has made some references in subsequent parts about the moves he made during this period. For example he makes a reference to his expedition in Punjab in the first half of 1525 as well as the fact that he received Rana Sanga’s envoys at Kabul inviting him to invade Hindustan and the Rana’s assurance of co-operation. He makes these references in the account of July 1526 while complaining against the Rana’s attitude. But we don’t have any account of the actual period to know what Babur felt at that particular time.

Now the question which arises: what is the nature of these breaks? Were they originally there in the original or were they a result of damage later on after the completion of the book?

According to Beveridge the gaps were very much there when Babur completed the book. Erskine and Dawson on the other hand hold that this doesn’t seem to be plausible.

We find not only these two gaps but the account is so manipulated in places that it is difficult to believe that Babur left it as such. In Beveridge’s edition one finds a half finished sentence on p.182. This kind of break is inexplicable.

It also looks odd that the Baburnama begins without any formal introductory remarks. It suddenly begins: ‘In the month of Ramazan in the year 899 [June 1494], in the province of Ferghana, in my twelfth year I became King’.

It ends also in an abrupt manner on 7 Sept. 1529-30 with the information that two nobles were sent to Gwalior.  This gives the impression that it is not a proper end.

Abul Fazl in his Akbarnama says that Babur was engaged in writing his memoir till the time of his death: ‘He also wrote his waqi’at from the beginning of his reign to the time of departure (inteqal) faithfully, in a lucid and elegant style.’

But in the surviving Baburnama we find the end on 7th September 1529 and for the rest of the 14 months of Babur’s life we have no account. What happened to this part? This remains unanswered. But then on the other side there are strong evidences.

Firstly all those mutilations and breaks which are there in the Khan-i Khanan’s Persian translation, according to Beveridge are there in the autographed Turki text. This means that the copy of the Turki text now preserved in the Royal Library as early as 1587 had same kind of mutilation as we have today.

Secondly according to Abdul Hamid Lahori’s Badshahnama, the history of Shahjahan’s period written on official orders, the copy of the Baburnama that he consulted was an autographed copy. The Mss in the Royal Library appears to be the same autographed copy as it contains all the autographs from Babur to Shahjahan. And as pointed out it has all the mutilations.

One might suggest that Babur may have completed but towards the close of his reign it was damaged beyond repair or he had no time to repair it.

In this connection one interesting passage is to be seen which suggests that in the last years there did take place an accident which might be held responsible.

‘This same evening after taravih, it was the fifth ghari of the first watch when the monsoon clouds appeared, and within an instant such a storm brewed and fierce wind arose that few were the tents that did not blow down. I was in my audience tent writing. There was no time to gather my papers and notebooks. The wind brought down the tent and its peshgah (porch) on my head. The smoke vent broke into pieces. God kept me safe, and no harm was done, but my books and papers (juz wa kitab) were drenched. We gathered them together with difficulty, wrapped them up in a woollen bedspread, and put them under the cot and spread kilims on top. After two gharis the wind died down. We had the toshakkhana tent erected, lit a candle, and with great difficulty got a fire going and then got busy drying out the papers and notebooks until dawn with no sleep.’

Babur’s Pavilion besides the Lake of Fathpur Sikri

English Translations:

The history of the English translation is again quite interesting. The first attempt at English translation was made in 1811 at a time when the Turkish text was still untraceable or un-accessible. This translation was by John Leyden, but unfortunately it could not be completed and could never be published. It is preserved in the British Museum.

According to Ansaritdin Ibragimov’s monograph “Baburname – is the Great Work”, he wrote that the translator William Erskine, who lived between 1773 – 1856, started to translate “Baburname” into the English language and finished it in 1810. However, William Erskine did not hurry to publish his own translation and waited for John Leyden’s tranlation version. The reason was that he wanted to compare with his work who began simultaneously Babuname’s translation and he knew that Leyden was interpreting “Baburname” from original Turkic language. John Leyden was unable to complete his translation due to his untimely death.

William Erskine succeeded in finding John Leyden’s translation of “Baburname” and clarified, after that he published in 1826, under the title “Memoirs Of Zheir-Ed-Din Muhammed Baber: Emperor of Hindustan and John Leyden”.

William Erskine undertook the translation of the text of Khan-i Khanan’s Persian translation. Erskine’s translation was undertaken in 1826 and he had to confine himself only to the Persian text: the Turkish text was non-accessible. Thus from 1826 onwards for the English reading public, the standard version was this translation of the Persian text by Erskine.


In 1909 F.G.Talbot also published the English translation of the “Baburname”. There are number of publications have been published based on this translation. In 1845 R.Caldicot published a shortened version of the John Leyden and William Erskine’s translated book. In 1879, the Orientalist, scientist F.Talbot published the second version of this adapted edition.


In 1921, Lucas King published another translation of “Baburname” completed with the important scientific facts. His publication restored the events of “Baburname”, interrupted years in it from other sources.

But in 1899 Mrs. A.S. Beveridge discovered the Turkish Mss in a private collection at Hyderabad and started translating it into English. This translation was completed in 1920 and published by Royal Asiatic Society in 1921.

According to professor N.Otajonov’s point of view the English translators were the keen to preserve the calorie and originality of the work. He also wrote about the language of translations: “In Leyden- Erskine’s interpretaion, the translation method seems to have been deliberately chosen by the English reader. On the contrary S.Beveridge’s translation is written in a very simple way more than scientific style.

“According to Wh.Thackston’s point of view, S.Beveridge’s translation is the equivalent of students’ work, all the words of “Baburname” are closely the same in dictionary, she tried to match Turkish (Uzbek) and English words in it. Professor Wh.Thackston published “Baburname”’s English translation in 1996. It was the third completed variant of the work, however this publication enriched the investigations of life, creativity and times of Babur. Though, his attempts was successful to achieve the adequacy of translation of “Baburname”, but some proverbs contradicted to the original content. Translator lost the meaning of some proverbs, focusing on original style and tone of the proverb in it.

On many points of details as well as the interpretation of text and technical terms, there is a difference between the two translations: the tr. of Beveridge is good but one would fall in fault if we depend on her interpretation of the technical terms which are better in the Erskine translation as it depends on the Persian text of Khan-i Khanan.

The most recent translation of the Baburnama into English is by Wheeler Thackston in 1996. Some find that Wheeler Thackston was able to translate the work both in terms of content and in its artistic aesthetics and national cultural identity. In my considered opinion the translation done by Beveridge is still the best and dependable.

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi