Branford P. Millar Library, room 160, 1875 SW Park Avenue
Free & open to the public
This illustrated talk discussed the Central Asian and Afghan origins of the Mughal Empire of India (1526-1739/1858) as revealed in the Turki or Chaghatai Turkish autobiography of the founder of the Empire, Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530). Babur's autobiography is one of the most important historical sources for the Timurids, the fifteenth century descendants of Timur, and a major literary monument of Turki, the literary language of Babur and Timur's other progeny.
‘Barbur is not the elephant from the children’s story,’ joked Stephen Dale as he took the podium. Founder of the Mughal Empire, Barbur was descended from Timur on his father’s side, and on his mother’s side from Chingis Khan: an unbeatable lineage. Barbur commissioned the production of a remarkable autobiographical text that long preceded any noteworthy European biographical texts, and could be considered one of the most impressive biographies ever produced by a monarch of any historical era.
Dale framed his discussion of Barbur’s autobiography by posing two overarching questions: what did Mughal culture represent at the time of the Mughal invasion of India (1526); and how did Barbur consider himself and his culture distinct from the Hindu Rajput empire that sat alongside his own?
Barbur was born in the Farghana valley, the Silk Road stop where the Chinese acquired the fine horses typically represented in Chinese manuscripts and paintings. He later lived in Samarkand, then moved down to Kabul and Herat, and towards the end of his life successfully conquested northern India and established his capital in Agra, fifteen miles north of Delhi. With the aid of a mix of photos and anecdotes and illustrated folios from Barbur’s autobiography, Dale immersed his audience in the rich and diverse world of 16th century Central Asia, highlighting the complex interplay of various cultures, trade routes, and dynasties of the time. Despite the Mongol influence on the area and his Mongol lineage, Barbur did not speak Mongol and was most certainly not a man of the steppe; his autobiography depicts a highly sophisticated, urban lifestyle involving a great deal of beautiful gardens, wine and poetry.
Gardens, according to Timurid court culture, should involve strict geometric planning and flowing water. Barbur describes his visit to a village called Istalif, north of Kabul, and declares ‘I ordered this meandering stream to be made straight’ and ‘after I did that, the garden became good.’ Dale pointed out the Greek terminology used by Barbur to describe the geometric qualities of the gardens. He also highlighted the frequent mingling of Turkish and Persian in Barbur's mileu: an urban Turk who mostly spoke Persian was called a sart and one anecdote of the time called upon such a character to drink extra!
At long parties called sefid where women also drank, attendees would compose poetry, sing, discuss politics and military campaigns, and exchange satirical banter. Such parties were the social focus of the courtly lifestyle, and seemed to have been fairly inclusive and laid-back affairs. During the daytime, Barbur would have sometimes ridden twenty miles into the mountains to take in the scenery of changing leaves. Dale pointed out that, despite Barbur’s adherence to Islam, the mosque was clearly not the central focus of Timurid court culture. The autobiography does not once mention his attendance of a Friday prayer.
Barbur’s impressions of India highlight cultural differences between Central Asia and the subcontinent. He found India chaotic and immediately set about commissioning carefully designed gardens. His aesthetic snobbery may have been a bit superficial, but his criticism of the caste system came from the heart. The epic gatherings he was accustomed to having in Samarkand or Herat - laissez-faire parties involving much ‘coming and going’- were curtailed by the hegemony of the caste system which dictated that only certain people socialize under certain circumstances.
In the question and answer session following the lecture, one audience member inquired about the Sufi scene of the era, and if Barbur may have participated. Dale described the importance of the Nakshabandi order that Barbur was born into: at the time, this was a prevalent, fairly conservative order whose leader was the single largest land owner in Central Asia upon his death in 1490. Land came to the order through various channels, including by way of poor peasants who were seeking to retain use of their land and prevent it from confiscation by government or tax collectors. As a Sufi, Barbur would have likely dismounted and made prayers at various local shrines, and this practice may have been more socially, spiritually, and regionally significant for him than standard Friday prayers.
This rapporteur's summary was prepared by Sara Swetzoff.
Stephen F. Dale is an Islamic historian who specializes in and teaches courses on the history of the eastern Islamic world, specifically India, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia. He took his undergraduate degree from Carleton College and both of his graduate degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, and previously taught at the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota.
Professor Dale has conducted research on one of the oldest Muslim communities in the Indian subcontinent, the Mappilas of Malabar or Kerala in southwestern India, and on Indian merchants who conducted trade in Iran, Central Asia and Russia in the early modern era. He is currently at work on a biography of Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur, the founder, in 1526, of the Mughal (Mughul) empire of India; a project that involves research in most of the areas of Professor Dale's interests. His most recent publication dealing with Babur's life was an article in the August 1996 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies entitled, "Poetry and Autobiography in the Babur-nama."
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Co-sponsored by the Portland State University Department of History and presented by the Portland State University Library and Middle East Studies Center with support from the U.S. Institute of Peace Public Education for Peacebuilding Support initiative and featuring some of the resources in the Bridging Cultures Bookshelf: Muslim Journeys, a project of the National Endowment for the Humanities, conducted in cooperation with the American Library Association. Support was provided by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Additional support for the arts and media components was provided by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.
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