The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor

By Jewett, Iran B | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor


Jewett, Iran B, The Middle East Journal


The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor, tr., ed. and annotated by Wheeler M. Thackston. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996. 447 pages. Chron. to p. 450. Select. Gloss. to p. 454. Refs. to p. 459. Indices to p. 472. $39.95.

Reviewed by Iran B. Jewett

The memoirs of Babur Padisha (1483-1530), founder of the Moghal empire in India, need no introduction. Almost everyone interested in the history and literature of India has heard of or read a translation of the autobiography of this remarkable man.

Descended from Amir Temur on his father's side and from Ghengis Khan on his mother's side, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur became the ruler of the small kingdom of Fergana in 1494 at the age of 12. The throne he inherited was not a secure one, and he soon found himself defending his domain from relatives as well as strangers. He suffered many defeats and triumphs and at one time found himself without a kingdom or even a home. But fortune smiled on him, and he was on his way to conquest and fame.

Babur's memoirs are unique in many ways. Rulers, especially conquerors, are not given to introspection, and one does not expect them to write about themselves as frankly as Babur does. He is not ashamed to reveal his tender side and describes the occasions when he broke down and cried. One wonders at his prodigious memory for places and people; he names every meadow, village and town he ever visited and recalls the names of even the lowliest functionaries he encountered. His life seems to have been a series of battles and hairbreadth escapes from death, and he narrates these incidents with equanimity and an occasional flash of humor. His uncles on his mother's side seem to have fascinated him with their rough manners. They came to Babur's aid on several occasions with their Moghul soldiers but their help was a mixed blessing. The Moghal soldiers were always looking for booty; if they were winning, they looted the enemy, and if they were losing, they plundered their own allies.

Though Babur had studied Persian literature and composed poetry in both Persian and Turkish, he wrote his memoirs in what is now called Chaghatay Turkish, the language which he spoke from childhood. He chose a simple and direct style which was quite different from the ornate prose in fashion at the time, and these characteristics are evident even in translation.

Wheeler M. Thackston's English translation is based on the original Chaghatay text, and it is a worthy tribute to the royal author of the memoirs. …

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