About the Book
A stirring account of one of the world's greatest empires. In December 1525, Zahir-ud-din Babur, descended from Chengiz khan and Timur Lenk, crossed the Indus river into the Punjab with a modest army and some cannon. At Panipat, five months later, he routed the mammoth army of Sultan Ibrahim Lodi, the Afghan ruler of Hindustan. Mughal rule in India had begun. It was to continue for over Afgan ruler of Hindustan. Mughal rule in India for all time.
In this definitive biography of the great Mughals, Abraham Eraly presents history as a chronicle of flesh-and-blood people. Bringing to his task both scholarship and the imagination of a master storyteller, he recreates the lives of Babur, the intrepid pioneer; the dreamer Humayun: Akbar, the greatest and most enigmatic of the Mughals; the aesthetes Jehangir and Shah Jahan; and the dour and determined Aurangzeb.
About the Author
Born in Kerala, and educated there and in Chennai, Eraly has taught Indian history in colleges in India and the United States, and was the editor of a current affairs magazine for several years.
He now lives in Chennai, and is working on a study of classical Indian civilization.
I have in my study, on the old, worm-hole pitted teak desk at which I work, an antique stone head of Buddha, less than a foot high, which I had picked up many years ago in Madras from a pavement junkwallah. It is a fine piece, its chiselled features perfect, head slightly bent sideways, as if trying to anchor a memory or a dream, eyes half-closed meditatively. A thick patina of grime tinges the handsome, serene face with a peculiar sadness, the anguish of a compassionate outsider, concerned with the human predicament, but not involved with it.
Over the years, as I laboured on this book, the dispassionate compassion of Buddha had seemed to me the perfect ideal for students of history, though of course we would all fail disgracefully to live up to it, as the passions of our lives and the furies of our age knead and rework us continually on the slow wheel of time.
As time reworks us, we rework history. "All works of history are interim reports," says American historian John Noble Wilford. "What people did in the past is not preserved in amber , . . immutable through the ages. Each generation looks back and, drawing from its own experience, presumes to find patterns that illuminate both past and present."
Nothing ever quite dies. The past is nearly as alive as the present, and it changes as the present changes, the historical past as much as our personal past. The bare facts of history do not of course change, except for occasional emendations, but the way facts interlock and change colour to make patterns is unique to each generation, indeed to each historian. No particular representation of the past has therefore any absolute validity, and the value of any historical work depends largely on the felicitous catalysis of the personal vision into a universal vision. It is essentially a triumph of art.
The mutability of human perceptions apart, there are other obstacles to a definitive. understanding of the historical processes. Man cannot, as Albert Camus says in Tile Rebel, grasp the totality of history "since he lives In the midst of this totality. History, as an entirety, 'could exist only in the eyes of an observer outside it and outside the world." It is in fact impossible for man to know the final truth even about any particular event in history, however trivial it might be, for he, himself swirling in time, does not have the perspective to see all its relevant connections and discern where it would ultimately lead, as its consequences, intersecting with the consequences of myriad other events, proliferate endlessly into the future. "Historical reason will never be fulfilled and will never have its full meaning or value until the end of history," argues Camus. "The purely historical absolute is not even conceivable.
When we consider these all too evident limitations of writing history, it seems amazing that academic historians in modem times have generally laid claim to scientific precision for their methodology, and objective validity for their theories. Historical investigation has of course become more sophisticated lately, especially in the evaluation of archaeological and philological data. But this has come about mainly because of advances in science and technology, and not because of any radical change in the methodology of history. The character of history has not changed.
But the garb of historians has changed, for they have suited up for their new role as social scientists. Unfortunately, many historians, in their excitement at being recognized as social scientists, overlooked the fact that while scientific discoveries are sequential and mark a linear progress-with new discoveries displacing or modifying old theories- new interpretations of history seldom displace old interpretations, for they are only tenets, at best philosophies, not discoveries. The unpredictability of human affairs makes historical analysis, for all its vaunted scientific methodology, essentially an act of faith. What we find depends a lot on what we are.
There were other complications too. Observes Harvard professor Simon Schama: "As historians institutionalized themselves into an academic profession," they turned away from "historical realities" to "historiographical obsessions". Their focus then shifted from persons and events, the flesh and blood of history, to abstract structures of their own construction. This pursuit trapped historians in a maze of sophistry, the sterile, self-abusive game of thought, involving over-elaborations and supersubtleties which made little sense.
Now at last historians are beginning to grope their way out of the maze. And gradually, renouncing the conceits of the recent past, they are returning to their primary function, to resuscitate the past and release it into the present. That is what history is all about. Herodotus, the fifth century Be Greek father of history, has said it all in the opening sentence of his book: "This is a publication of the researches of Herodotus Halicamassus, in order that the actions of men may not be effaced by time." The historian's profession, as the nineteenth- century French scholar Jules Michelet stated, is to bring "things back to life". Says Schama: "I have tried to bring a world to life rather than entomb it in erudite discourse."
In this role, the historian does not merely log and interpret data; he portrays life and tells a story. Meticulous research is essential, and so is vivid writing, to enable readers to vicariously experience life in other times, other places. When history is yoked to theories and formulas, its sap dries up. Then it neither enlightens nor sensitizes.
The sloughing off of the ill-fitting vestments of science by historians does not make history worthless, but it does change the nature of its worth. Sensitizing the present to the past is not a value neutral process. Every retelling of history, if it is anything more than just a banal catalogue of events, involves ideation, if only because, even at the primary level, a process of selection and evaluation of data, a pattern- making, is involved. The historian might not be overtly judgmental, but judgment is implicit in the very telling of. the story. Facts speak for themselves, and when vividly presented, speak loud and clear.
The historian is not a moral eunuch. In fact, it is his moral voice that gives his work its unique timbre-not to raise the moral voice is to treat history like paleobotany, with bland detachment. So, even while the historian acknowledges the provisional nature of all historical perceptions, he, like the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, affirms his subjective certainty in the world of objective uncertainties. He might not have any cosmic conclusions to offer, but he does take positions that are appropriate and necessary to his time and place.
The essential corollaries of this relativistic attitude are moderation and tolerance. The historian affirms his views, but humbly, conscious that there are no absolutes. As the saying goes, the white heron in the snow has a different colour. All perceptions, all truth, are relative. As Vedantists would say, all are maya, mental constructs. The eye looks, the mind sees.
To acknowledge the subjective and provisional nature of historical perceptions is not to abandon the process of fair and unbiased collection and evaluation of data. To adapt Tom Wolfe's dictum, the historian sees with an impersonal eye, but speaks with a personal voice. The ideal of historical objectivity has been set down by several Mughal writers. "It is the duty of an historian to be faithful, to have no hope of profit, no fear of injury, to show no partiality on one side, or animosity on the other, to know no difference between friend and stranger, and to write nothing but with sincerity," says Khafi Khan, courtier historian of Emperor Aurangzeb. "In this history I have held firmly to it that the truth should be .reached in every matter, and that every act should be recorded precisely as it occurred," writes Emperor Babur in his memoirs. Uncompromising exploration, clear, unbiased perception, candid presentation-these were Babur's ideals. There are no better precepts for historians.
Candour is a major charm of Babur's autobiography, and so is its richness of detail. Fine detail-nuance-is the life-blood of history, as of literature. Says Francois Bernier, a seventeenth-century French traveller in his report on Mughal India: "I agree with Plutarch that trifling incidents ought not be concealed, and that they often enable us to form more accurate opinions of the manners and genius of a people than events of great importance." Major events shape the contours of history, but it is the particulars that 'breathe life into it.
To give completeness to history and to establish the total context of life, it is as essential to examine the details of everyday life, as of political, economic and socio-cultural developments. In this, the historian of Mughal India is fortunate, for his sources are numerous and varied, and are rich in detail about every facet of life. And I have quoted extensively from them, somewhat in the manner of a reporter quoting eyewitnesses, to give immediacy and authenticity to the narrative, and to let the reader see Mughal life through the eyes of those who saw it directly.
The basic concern of the historian is, I believe, similar to that of any serious artist or creative writer-to share experience and to elucidate the human condition. The historian too uses imagination and insight, to visualize what happened in history and present a coherent picture, though he, unlike the creative writer, has to work strictly within the boundaries of known facts, and is not free to invent even the minutest detail. What Richard Feynrnan said of physicists applies to historians too: "Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there." Imagination, says American historian Barbara Tuchman, enables the historian "to understand the evidence he has accumulated. Imagination stretches the available facts . the artist's eye: It leads you to the right thing." Methodical research builds the ship, imagination sails it. This volume on late medieval Indian history, from 1526 to 1707, is part of a four-volume study titled India Retold, that would, when completed, cover the history of India from the beginning up to 1858; chronologically, this is the third volume in the proposed series, though the first to be ready.
My focus in this volume is on the Mughal empire; I have dealt with regional histories only in their links with Mughal history. Regional histories-indeed, even studies of sub-regions and towns-are valuable, but impractical for the general historian. I have therefore stayed close to the dominant theme of the period, and have tried to deal with it exhaustively, bearing in mind Thomas Mann's dictum that "only the exhaustive is truly interesting". But the exhaustiveness I have attempted is in presenting life in its fullness, not in cataloguing events. I have not, for instance, listed many of the battles, but have, on the other hand, described a couple of battles in great detail, to show how the Mughals fought. I have also dealt with everyday life-of the people as well as of the rulers-at great length, as my objective is to portray life rather than merely to chronicle history.
If history is the mirror in which we recognize ourselves as a people, then modern Indians can hardly recognize themselves in the mirror that is conventionally held up to them. Or, alternately, they imagine themselves to be something they are not, as distortions in the mirror distort their self-perceptions. This is a modern predicament, a consequence of the psychic morphing of India, induced initially by British imperial prejudice, then by European romanticism, and finally by indian nationalism.
These distortions prevail even today, though times have changed.
During the British rule, Indians, as a subject people, needed the comfort and strength of a presumed golden past to mould the nationalist sentiment and energize the freedom struggle. But now, half a century after independence, India cannot still subsist on the mindset of adolescent nationalism, chewing the cud of romantic fancy. To move on, it is imperative today to lift the veils of bias, romance and myth that obscure india's image, and look truth in the eye. The alternative is to remain snared in self-delusions, fighting quixotic battles with the spectres of the past-the unforgiven colonial rule, or (for some) the even more unforgiven Muslim invasion of India one thousand years ago.
Tradition, however glorious, is what a people have to grow out of. The future is not a replica Of the past, but its fulfilment. In every other major civilization, the past has died so the future could be born; but India seems to be killing the future so the past can live on. India's lofty boast is that its is the oldest living civilization, but is that anything to be proud of? That India has not evolved? There is something very wrong with a people who consider that the greatest that would ever be has already been, and that the best they can do is to duplicate the past.
There is of course much in the Indian heritage to be proud of, but there is also' much to be ashamed of, and both have to be examined with candour. Not to do so would be irresponsible. It is possible that such candour would be controversial in a socio-political environment in which expedient myths tyrannize reality. As a Chinese saying has it, when the finger points to the moon, the idiot would look at the finger. That cannot be helped. The historian is not concerned with political correctness.
Chapter One: The Mughal Advent
Like a King on a Chessboard
"If Fame Be Mine ."
Black Fell the Day
Chapter Two: The Struggle for Survival
The Dreamer Cometh
"The Feast Is Over . "
"What Is to Be Done?"
Chapter Three: The Afghan Interlude
Man of Destiny
Chapter Four: The Mughal Restoration
Humayun in Exile
The Reluctant Boy King
Behind the Veil
ChapterFive: The Empire Takes Hold
Person and Persona
Chapter Six: An Experiment in Synthesis
"My Mind Is Not at Ease ..."
"Reason, Not Tradition .. "
Tyranny Is Unlawful
The Long Farewell
Chapter Seven: The Middle Empire
His Father's Son
Sons and Rebels
Another Son, Another Rebel
Light of the World
An English Aristocrat in the Mughal Court
Chapter Eight: The Paradise on Earth
The Man Behind the Mask
"Ya Takht, Ya Tabut!"
"For the Sake of the True Faith"
Dara's Last Stand
Chapter Nine: Over the Top
God's Elected Custodian
"Fear the Sighs of the Oppressed"
Born to Trouble Others
"The More One Drinks . "
"Now That the Shadows Fall .
ChapterTen: The Maratha Nemesis
Lord of the Umbrella
"Of the Future There Is No Hope . "
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