Someone should have been stationed at the bridge, but we had not done it. All these things happened through inexperience. At dawn, Tambal came with two [hundred] to three hundred men, crossed the bridge, and entered the citadel. (Baburnama, f. 111)
Tambal, Babur’s arch enemy, was a ruthless, rogue Mongol bent on taking all the Timurid holdings. Babur had to scramble to evade capture and fight lane by lane to reach the gate to the citadel and escape. His brother was captured, and most of his men were unhorsed; only seven escaped and fled with Babur, riding hard through a valley until their horses collapsed. By day’s end Babur was alone, and two of Tambal’s horsemen were still tracking him. All through the night and the next day he pushed on, seeking a path to a mountain pass and safety.
The next night found him in the most perilous situation—horseless, worn out, and hungry in an old orchard, cornered by three scoundrels: “Suddenly I felt odd. There is nothing worse in the world than fear for one’s life.”He understood that he could not trust the treacherous Mongols who had trapped him: “I felt that I could endure no more. I rose and went to a corner of the orchard. I thought to myself that whether one lived to a hundred or a thousand, in the end one had to die.” (Baburnama, f. 118)
There, the narrative breaks off for sixteen months! The reader is left in that cold, withered garden with that captive, exhausted boy, wondering what happened next. We never learn how he escaped or was rescued. I found it maddening not to know the details. Drawing on other sources, Baburnamatranslator Annette Susannah Beveridge explained that Babur had been fighting alongside his uncles, the khans, when they were taken by the Uzbeks. He’d avoided capture in that dramatic orchard scene, but when the narrative resumes we find him destitute, hiding out with a few followers among poor hill folk in remote villages.
“A Foretaste of Hell”
The winter of 1504 was the lowest point in Babur’s life. Left without any resources, he was powerless to challenge the ongoing, swift rise of the Uzbeks. Accompanied by a small group of loyal followers, he decided to move south, cross the Amu Darya River (the Oxus), and look for other opportunities. Forced to live off the land, this ragged company was like a band of highwaymen as they considered which road south offered the best possibilities.
As they headed toward Khurasan, an unexpected change occurred. In the unsettled times following the defeat and capture of the khans, groups of Mongol horsemen had shifted their loyalty to other begs (commanders). Now, however, they shifted their allegiance again and joined Babur. In a short time, the number of his followers swelled to thousands.
This change of allegiance in such numbers demonstrates the power of dynastic legitimacy and its strength in steppe culture, which was still dominated by descendants of Genghis Khan (circa 1162–1227) and Timur (died 1405). Babur had dozens of male cousins, a few who claimed a Turkic-Mongol legitimacy equal to his, and the rivalry within the group was intense and unceasing. In that Central Asian world, it was almost unheard of for low-born men, even if they were talented, to become leaders. Timur had been the great exception; he became the unrivaled leader by taking a descendant of Genghis Khan as a wife and ruling through nobles he’d appointed.
Babur had something else working for him; since his twelfth year, when his father died, he had spent his life as a Timurid warrior, so he was well known by the various factions. He suffered major defeats—losing Ferghana, his inherited fiefdom, then taking and losing Samarkand twice—but he was admired for being personally brave, unusually strong, and energetic—uncommon traits among the ruling class. Reputation counted for much in that inconstant world, and he was also considered fair, loyal, and just.
As they moved south, one of Babur’s powerful new followers encouraged him to take Kabul, the most distant area still held by Timurids. Babur’s paternal uncle, Ulugh Beg Mirza, had ruled Kabul for years, but when he died in 1449, he had no eligible sons who could take over, leaving only his son-in-law to try to establish rule. As the ranking Timurid prince, Babur seized the opportunity and led his growing army south to the Hupian Pass.
We know from the Tarikh-i-rashidi, a history of the Mughals of Central Asia written by Babur’s cousin, Haydar Mirza Dughlat, that Babur was leading twenty thousand men when he reached Kabul. Haydar Mirza also claimed Babur’s march south fulfilled the Prophet’s remark: “Travel is a foretaste of hell.”
As they crossed the Hindu Kush, a small event with gigantic consequences took place. It marked a turning point in Babur’s life. Here is his wonderful entry in the Baburnama:
… we set out in the afternoon and rode hard for several days, passing through the Hupian Pass at dawn.
I had never seen the star Canopus. As we went through the pass we noticed a brilliant star low on the southern horizon. “Is this not Canopus?” I asked. They replied that it was. [Babur’s advisor] Baqi Chaghaniani recited the line:
“Canopus, how far do you shine and when do you rise? / You are a sign of fortune to all upon whom your eye lights.”
The sun had risen a spear length when we stopped at the foot of Sinjit Valley.
(Baburnama, f. 125)
Instantly, word would have flashed along the line that Babur had been the first to see the star. Interpretations of celestial bodies were held in high regard by his Central Asian followers; though unfamiliar with Canopus, they would have been excited and inspired by such an auspicious sign.
While the column was camped in meadows north of Kabul, somehow, Babur’s mother, the resolute Qutlugh Nigar Khanïm, managed to rejoin him. She was accompanied by the family members of some of his commanders who had been captured by brigands but managed to escape. As the daughter of the khan, his mother reassured the unreliable Mongol begs about Babur’s dynastic legitimacy. The growing number of his followers was decisive and enabled Babur to negotiate the taking of Kabul without a battle.
Ritual and Responsibility
In 1978, when my daughter Maura and I returned to Kabul (fig. 1) from Uzbekistan, I wished we could have gone to the Hupian Pass at dawn. I wanted to track Babur’s route to India, but it wasn’t possible. We arrived in Kabul on an Afghan Airlines flight from Tashkent after witnessing a tense drama on board. Our takeoff had been delayed for hours, but shortly after we were airborne the pilot announced we might have to return to Tashkent. The cabin erupted in protest. In that Cold War era—just weeks before the assassination of the Afghan prime minister and a year before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan—the passengers vigorously and successfully insisted that the damaged plane fly over the Hindu Kush rather than return to Soviet Tashkent.
It had been Babur’s wish to be buried in his Kabul garden. But when he died in India in 1530, he was temporarily buried in Agra, near his son and successor Humayun’s mosque, where Zain Khan and other friends from Kabul were buried after his death. Things did not go well for Humayun (1508–1556); he was defeated in major battles and driven into exile in Persia. Because of the political turmoil, we do not know the exact date Babur’s remains were transferred to Afghanistan from India, but it was after 1539. The general belief is that Sultan Sher Shah, who defeated Humayun, allowed Babur’s Afghan wife, Bibi Mubarika, to take his remains to Kabul in 1542. It was definitely before 1545, when Humayun visited his father’s grave after he returned from exile in Iran.
Babur had married Bibi Mubarika to seal an alliance with the Yusufzai after he failed to subdue the tribe. Historically death rituals are important among the Yusufzai women, so it is not surprising that she undertook the responsibility of accompanying Babur’s body to Kabul. Perhaps future research will confirm this remarkable incident. In 1983 I visited the Swat Valley in Pakistan to see Yusufzai women; there was a mourning ceremony, so they were all gathered in one compound. It was a very emotional scene, which this outsider could not observe but was able to hear.
Bibi Mubarika’s father had been the leader of the powerful Yusufzai tribe in the mountainous region now severed by the Durand Line that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan. The mountains of Tora Bora were as difficult for Babur to penetrate as they have been for NATO forces in recent years. Reading about Babur’s encounters with the Pashtun tribes is like reading newspapers for the last ten years. Kandahar, one of many sites Alexander the Great called Alexandria, has been historically difficult for aggressors to take and equally difficult to hold.
The most reliable source of information about Babur’s family is the memoir of his daughter, Gulbadan, written at the request of her nephew, Emperor Akbar. Following his 1582 visit to Babur’s tomb in Kabul, Akbar had ordered the Baburnama to be translated from Babur’s original Turki into Persian and directed those in his court who knew his grandfather to record their memories of him. Gulbadan’s memoir is lively and crammed with fascinating facts about women. She always referred to Bibi Mubarika fondly as “Afghani aghacha”and gave the impression that they were close friends.Bibi Mubarika was childless, but in Mughal histories she is mentioned with affection and respect. After completing the unusual and difficult task of taking Babur’s remains to his Kabul garden, she built her own garden, which the emperor Jahangir (1569–1627) visited in 1607.
Open to the Sky
Babur’s posthumous title, used by his descendants, was Firdaws-Makani, meaning Dweller in Paradise. Several family members are buried near to him, including Hindal, his youngest and possibly favorite son, and his older sister Khanzada Begim—greatly respected as a peacemaker during the familial infighting that followed Babur’s death. In that role, while rushing between nephews from Kandahar to Kabul, she suddenly became ill and died. After temporary burial at a remote site, she was reburied near Babur on the fourteenth terrace of the Bagh-i-Babur in December 1545, the fifteenth anniversary of her brother’s death.
Just as he’d wished, Babur has no grand tomb, just a simple slab. His descendants honored his wishes and left his grave open to the sky (fig. 2). During his lengthy visit to Kabul in 1607, Jahangir ordered an inscribed marble headstone installed; its last line is “Paradise is forever Babur Padshah’s abode.” Jahangir’s son Shah Jahan (1592–1666) built a lovely mosque on the terrace just below Babur’s; its small scale is sensitive to the site, and it has been well maintained. A compulsive builder and gifted designer, Shah Jahan also added water channels and pools the length of the long sloping garden. During the twentieth century, in a severely misguided attempt to protect Babur’s tomb, an ugly modern roof, appropriate to a bus stop, was erected over it.
The 1978 trip was like a pilgrimage for me. Appropriately, when Maura and I arrived in Kabul, we went to the Bagh-i-Babur, Babur’s gravesite (fig. 3). It was a great disappointment. In 1978, the large Bagh-i-Babur was not only neglected—except for the top terraces devoted to Babur—it had lost its identity. It looked like a park in a Central European capital; it did not impart any sense of Central Asia. Picturesque drawings of the Bagh-i-Babur made in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries depict the central axis as a narrow water channel dropping down a series of shallow terraces, with turbaned men engaged in conversation as they walk, sit, or lounge on the broad paths bordering the watercourse. These activities all take place beneath a dense canopy of Oriental plane, walnut, and cypress trees. By 1978, the trees were gone, the watercourse was dry and radically changed, and the terraces were empty. One ancient chinar, allegedly planted by Babur (fig. 4), was treated like a shrine, and indeed, it was amazing. It had once been enormous but was so hollowed out by age, it appeared that only the bark remained.
In 1972 Maria Teresa Shephard Parpagliolo had produced a report called “Kabul: The Bagh-i-Babur: A Project and Research into the Possibilities of Complete Restoration” for ISMEO (the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East). It is an excellent historical and practical study. Only after the Aga Khan Trust for Culture intervened in 2001–5 did the actual restoration of the grave begin. The AKTC’s high standards are an example and a challenge to conservators. The garden had been totally denuded, but the historic landscape is now being restored with fruit orchards and the walnut and plane trees Babur admired. The AKTC has carefully restored the grave, and it is once again as Babur wished. Since 2002, the German Archaeological Institute has also conducted an extensive archaeological investigation.
The Crossroads of Asia
On our return from Tashkent, Maura and I were invited to stay with the US ambassador Ted Elliott and his wife, Patricia, whom we knew through mutual friends in Washington, DC (fig. 5). A dedicated foreign service officer, Ted spoke Farsi well enough to address Afghans on television. Pat assisted my efforts to explain a reference to clover as ground cover in Babur’s gardens by putting me in touch with Eleesa Aimaq, an expert on native plants in Kabul.
On February 14, 1978 (Babur’s birthday), Eleesa sent me this note:
The common clover here is called Nasturang. It does not have thorns, nor do any of the other clovers. However, the native single-flowered white rose of tremendous vigor is called Nasturan. There is only a “G” reference, and this rose is most definitely thorned. Thus I offer that it is not clover in question but a rose. This rose was here in those days. It is a native [plant], not a later introduction. The pronunciation of one “G” means nothing to Farsi speakers [in an area where] one village has difficulty understanding its neighbor.
However, I was disappointed that she seemed so disinterested in what may have been planted in the historic Timurid gardens.
At the National Museum in Kabul, which was open only by appointment, we were taken through by a young Afghan who was working there while he wrote his art history dissertation for a Danish university. Friendly and helpful, he had remarkably brilliant blue eyes and henna-colored hair and knew the history of every piece in the collection. We saw an exhibition on Kushan art that would have been a blockbuster in a Western museum (fig. 6). It included the unique bronze Serapis Hercules (Heracles crowned as Osiris). The exhibition marked the optimistic reactivation of the International Center for Kushan Studies.
In the early 1970s, while living in New Delhi, I had become interested in Gandharan art, which flourished in Afghan centers like Hadda, the Greco-Buddhist city excavated in the early twentieth century. It is said that the Buddha visited and preached at Hadda, which once had over a thousand stupas. Alexander the Great built cities in Afghanistan and Bactria; after his withdrawal from the region in 326 BCE, his satraps governed from ancient Kapisha, now known as Begram, which became the capital of the Kushan kings.
It would have taken days to just see, not study, the coins in the museum’s collection, and the ivories were extraordinary. The collection was made up of rare pieces; all were treasures. In 1980 there were rumors that the Russians looted the museum in Kabul—load up trucks and drive north across the border. There was a great deal of concern throughout the world when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas in Bamiyan in 2001, but limited awareness of the looting of the National Museum or the bombing of Hadda during the Russian occupation (1979–89).
Known as the Crossroads of Asia, Afghanistan has a rich history. More than two thousand years ago there was a high civilization, an important satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire under Darius. As the power of the once great Kushan dynasty waned, the area suffered under the rule of weak vassals of distant strongmen. Repeatedly invaded by the hordes of Asia, then grabbed by the rulers in Tehran, it was a constant battleground. Islam became the dominant religion; add loyalty to family and tribe, and these remain the prevailing values among Afghans today. During the Mughal era, Babur’s descendants fought the Persians to maintain control of Afghanistan and protect their Indian domain. During their colonial rule in India, the British adopted that same policy toward Afghanistan, which they viewed as a shield to protect the subcontinent.
Driving through Kabul, we saw that remnants of Afghan folk culture were still alive, and, on that day, surviving the weather as well as the years. In what looked like a construction site, a group of men and lively boys had cleared the ground and were getting ready for a Buzkashi game. That evening we accompanied the Elliotts to a recently opened restaurant in the residential area near the embassy. On our walk home, Maura began singing Bollywood songs—the favorite music of Afghan youth. By the time we reached the embassy, there was a small group of shy Kabul teens dancing us along the road and humming the tunes.
The Garden of Fidelity
Though Babur spent much of the twenty-two years he ruled fighting with intransigent tribes, he loved Kabul and his life there. He described the natural world in great detail and made it clear he derived great pleasure in creating his gardens. Of all his creations, his most famous is the Bagh-i-Wafa, the Garden of Fidelity. He left a lyrical description of it:
In 914 [1508–9], I had constructed a charbagh garden called Bagh-i-Wafa on a rise to the south of the Adinapur fortress. It overlooks the river, which flows between the fortress and the garden. It yields many oranges, citrons, and pomegranates. [In 1524], the year I defeated Pahar Khan and conquered Lahore and Dipalpur, I had a banana tree brought and planted. It thrived. The year before that, sugarcane had been planted, some of which was being sent to Badakhshan and Bukhara. The ground is high, with constant running water, and the weather is mild in winter. In the middle of the garden is a small hill from which a one-mill stream always flows through the garden. The charchaman [plot of grass surrounding a pool] in the middle of the garden is situated atop the hill. In the southwest portion of the garden is a ten-by-ten pool surrounded by orange trees and some pomegranate trees. All around the pool is a clover meadow. The best place in the garden is there. When the oranges turn yellow it is a beautiful sight—really handsomely laid out. (Baburnama, ff. 132–132b)
Babur frequently referred to passing through the garden or staying there several days at a time with his friends, enjoying its beauty and distributing its fruit. The Bagh-i-Wafa became a favorite subject of the painters who illuminated the sixteenth-century Baburnama manuscripts. In September 1607, returning south after spending some months in Kabul, Babur’s great-grandson Jahangir set up his imperial camp in the Bagh-i-Wafa for almost two weeks: “Camp was made in Wafa Garden, and the solar weighing ceremony was held.” This may have been the weighing of sixteen-year-old Prince Khurram, the future Shah Jahan; what a splendid occasion to be held in his revered great-great-grandfather’s garden.
Jahangir was passionately fond of hunting, as was his spirited and beautiful wife Nur Jahan, and they held several great hunts using the Bagh-i-Wafa as a base. On a beautiful site first spotted by Akbar, Jahangir is said to have laid out the huge garden Nimla for Nur Jahan, using the Bagh-i-Wafa as his model. It appears in the journal of his 1607 visit to Kabul:
… a hunt was held between Wafa Garden and Nimla. Around forty red antelopes were killed. A female leopard was captured in this hunting ground. The zamindars of the vicinity … came and said, “For the last hundred or hundred and twenty years neither do we remember nor have we heard from our fathers that a leopard has been seen in these parts.” (Jahangirnama, f. 50b)
Some years later, writing about another hunt, Jahangir, boasted about Nur Jahan’s marksmanship:
… in the twinkling of an eye the four lions were deprived of life with six shots. Until now such marksmanship had not been seen—from atop an elephant and from inside a howdah she had fired six shots, not one of which missed, and four such adversaries had not even had a chance to budge. As a reward for such marksmanship I scattered a thousand ashrafis [gold coins] over her head and gave her a pair of pearls and a diamond worth a lac of [100,000] rupees. (Jahangirnama, f. 148a)
Nur Jahan earned those pearls! Shooting from a howdah could not have been easy, and she must have been sheathed in veils so the hundreds of attendants and beaters at work wouldn’t see her.
The actual location of the Bagh-i-Wafa has been lost; we know only that it was not far from Nimla. Its location was uncertain before traveler and adventurer Charles Masson (1800–1853) saw Nimla in the nineteenth century. Masson, the pseudonym of a deserter from the British army, published his fascinating travel journals in 1844, including this view of Nimla: “the garden appears very advantageously with its tall cypress trees. It is famed for narcissuses, posies of which are sent as presents to Kabul.”
In November 1525 as he assembled an army for his fifth and final incursion into Hindustan, Babur camped in his beloved garden.
On Saturday we reached the Bagh-i-Wafa, where we waited a few days for Humayun Mirza and the army from the other side of the Hindu Kush. The Bagh-i-Wafa has been mentioned several times in this history for its extent, pleasure, and delight. It is really charmingly situated. (Baburnama, f. 252)
My plan had been to start from the Bagh-i-Wafa and follow Babur’s route from Kabul to Delhi. As no trace of the Bagh-i-Wafa was known, however, we could not start from there, but we could start from Nimla. Ted and Pat Elliott were planning to drive from Kabul down to Jalalabad and Peshawar and offered to take us along. How the world has changed. In 1978, there was no security, no escort. Ted drove the jeep, Patricia navigated, and Maura and I bounced along in the back, marveling at the dramatic scenery.
Gateway to Another World
Throughout our stay in Afghanistan, we found the landscape’s most impressive and surprising characteristic was its scale. We were amazed by the sheer size of the mountains, range after range; the depth of the valleys, which stretch as far as the eye can see; and the way the valleys differed—from barren semi-deserts to lush meadows or rough scree.
On our drive down to Nimla along the long and winding Kabul River Gorge brought to mind tales of the British retreat of 1841, during the First Anglo-Afghan War, which haunts the gorge and gives it an ominous atmosphere. In the words of the retreat’s lone British survivor, “The heights were in possession of the enemy, who poured down an incessant fire on our column.” He made it through, despite his wounds, but to the frightened lookout at the garrison in Jalalabad, he seemed to be “the angel of death.”
When you emerge from the gorge, you enter another world, just as Babur said: “In Nangahar, another world came into view—other grasses, other trees, other animals, other birds, and other manners and customs of clan and horde.
The best description of the Bagh-i-Wafa and Nimla can be found in the Shahjahanama of ‘Inayat Khan, edited and completed by W. E. Begley and Z. A. Desai in 1990. It is the abridged history of Shah Jahan’s reign compiled by his royal librarian. Writing about Shah Jahan’s imperial journey from Kabul to Lahore on September 29, 1646, the librarian tells us:
A sublime farman [firman]was issued for the planting of a new garden at locality Nimla, which is a most charming spot; and for the construction of a canal four yards wide, by which the stream near that town could be made to flow through the grounds and summer houses.
Exactly a year later on September 10, 1647, ‘Inayat Khan wrote that Shah Jahan visited the recently completed Nimla and renamed it Bagh-i-Farah Afza. On September 11,
His Majesty alighted at the Bagh-i-Wafa founded by the late Emperor Babur, during whose reign most of the fragrant shrubs and fruit trees had been planted; and in which a pleasant summer house had been erected by the sublime command. On the 14th of Sha’ban 1057 [September 14, 1647], a halt was made at the Bagh-i-Safa [Garden of Purity], also founded by the same monarch, in which three small villas had been constructed by the imperial mandate with a canal four yards wide flowing through them. The seedless pomegranates in both gardens were beautifully ripe and exceedingly sweet and luscious. Otherwise pomegranates are not usually good in the imperial dominions, except at Jalalabad and Thatta; and although they abound in the gardens of Jalalabad yet they do not possess the exquisite flavor of those produced in the Bagh-i-Wafa and the Bagh-i-Safa.
Heading for Nimla, we crossed a fertile valley with a few fortified Pathan farms, then in the distance dense trees emerged above high mud walls—the tall cypress for which Nimla was famous. Even before we passed inside the walls, we were enveloped by the fragrance of narcissus; carried along on the delicious scent, we hurried inside. The garden was divided into large square beds with rows of dense shaggy cypress trees looming over plots carpeted with masses of the irresistible blossoms. The scent reminded me that Babur once mentioned that when he was suffering with a fever for twelve days he was given “narcissus mixed with wine, I drank it once or twice; even that did no good.”
We moved through the large grid-like spaces, grove after grove of orange trees. Nimla was much as Babur described the Bagh-i-Wafa:
It was a time of beauty in the Bagh-i-Wafa. The open spaces were full of clover, and the pomegranate trees had turned a beautiful autumnal bright yellow. The fruit on the trees was bright red, and the orange trees were green and fresh, filled with innumerable oranges, although they were less yellow than one might wish. The pomegranates were quite good, but not so good as the best ones of our country. This was one time we really enjoyed the Bagh-i-Wafa. The three or four days we were in the garden the soldiers ate pomegranates to excess. (Baburnama, f. 245)
Nimla was a stark contrast to the Mughal gardens I’d visited in India and Pakistan in 1973–74; here, the original planting scheme had survived, but the stone elements throughout the garden were gone. Previously, I’d found the reverse; most of the plant material in the gardens on the plains had been changed, but usually the stonework, such as watercourses, remained. The great trees and water channels in the Kashmiri gardens survived but, even there, flowers were no longer planted in the Mughal style.
Historian Stephen F. Dale, translator of Babur’s lyric poetry, made a significant observation about Babur’s writing and gardens:
Babur’s conception of the relationship between his prose narrative and his lyric poems seem to have been analogous to the relationship between his prose descriptions of natural beauty and the construction of formal Persian-style gardens in Afghanistan and India. He vividly and accurately described the countryside of Kabul and the mountain slopes of Gulbahar and Istalif in the Baburnama as they actually appeared.… Whereas the Bagh-i-Wafa, “the Garden of Fidelity,” that he ordered built in 1508–9 represented an ideal, abstracted version of nature, a metaphor of eternity, of paradise, itself the Persian word for Iranian formal gardens.
—Stephen F. Dale, The Garden of Eight Paradises: Bābur and the Culture of Empire in Central Asia, Afghanistan and India (1483–1530) (Leiden: Brill, 2004), p. 289.
When we reached Jalalabad, the city was like an orchard with orange trees everywhere, and the atmosphere was that of a resort town. Then everything turned gray as we neared the Khyber Pass, which itself was a darker, drearier shade of gray. We were thankful for a chance to stretch and get a wider look when we stopped at the immigration booth with its very British cottage garden. Along the route we saw two different worlds, the motorized traffic moving east, high on the road, and the caravans with strings of camels, mules, and donkeys slowly moving westward along the bottom of the gorge.
We parted from the Elliotts at Dean’s Hotel in Peshawar, where we were to meet my husband’s old navy friend John Cool. We looked forward to visiting his family in Islamabad, where he directed the Ford Foundation in Pakistan, and then he planned to take us to the confluence of the Kabul and the Indus Rivers.