The Conqueror Who Longed for Melons: Babur’s Complex Legacy

The Conqueror Who Longed for Melons

The Conqueror Who Longed for Melons: Babur’s Complex Legacy

Babur, also known as Zahir al-Din Muhammad, was a fascinating and multifaceted figure of the 16th century. Born on February 14, 1483, in Andijan, a city located in present-day Uzbekistan, he was a descendant of two great conquerors, Timur (Tamerlane) and Genghis Khan, which undoubtedly influenced his ambitions and military prowess.

Babur faced numerous challenges throughout his life, including conflicts within his own family and exile from his ancestral kingdom. However, he demonstrated remarkable resilience and military genius, eventually establishing himself as a formidable leader. In 1526, he decisively defeated Ibrahim Lodi, the Sultan of Delhi, in the Battle of Panipat, which marked the beginning of the Mughal Empire in India.

While Babur was undoubtedly a skilled and ruthless warlord, known for his military conquests and the construction of towers made from the skulls of his enemies, there was more to him than his martial achievements. He had a deep appreciation for culture, poetry, and the arts. He wrote extensively on various subjects, including law and Sufi philosophy, and left behind a significant collection of poetry.

One of Babur’s most notable contributions is his memoir, known as the Baburnama. This candid and introspective account of his life provides a unique glimpse into his personal experiences, thoughts, and emotions. In the Baburnama, he reflects on his victories, defeats, joys, sorrows, and the complexities of ruling an empire. This memoir allows us to see Babur as a complex and human figure, with all his strengths and flaws.

Under Babur’s descendants, the Mughal Empire reached its zenith, becoming a center of cultural and artistic excellence. The empire flourished for over 300 years, producing renowned rulers like Akbar the Great and Shah Jahan, who commissioned iconic architectural masterpieces such as the Taj Mahal.

Overall, Babur’s legacy is a fascinating blend of military conquests, cultural patronage, and literary achievements. His ability to combine the qualities of a fierce warrior and a cultured intellectual makes him one of the most intriguing figures of the early modern era.

The Baburnama enlightens us about Babur’s familiarity with the refined language and customs of the Persian court, but paradoxically, he maintained a strong connection with nomadic peoples and advocated for the use of the Chagatai Turkic language in the arts. While he was a devout individual, he also indulged in libertine escapades, organizing extravagant parties fueled by copious amounts of wine.

However, one of the most significant and culturally influential personal aspects that Babur reveals is his discerning taste in food. He held a deep affection for the culinary delights of his homeland and harbored disdain for the cuisine he encountered upon establishing himself in India, which he viewed primarily as a temporary stop on his journey back to the melon-filled landscapes of his youth. Babur not only lamented the absence of his favorite dishes from home but actively imported and celebrated them in his new kingdom. This act laid the foundation for his successors to profoundly transform Indian cuisine, reshaping it in a manner that continues to define the culinary tradition known worldwide to this day.

The opening of the Baburnama paints a vivid picture of Ferghana, a region that now spans Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and holds the reputation of being the breadbasket of Central Asia. Given this agricultural significance, it is no surprise that Babur touches upon the topic. However, when introducing his hometown of Andijan, Babur takes particular care to emphasize the exceptional quality of its grapes and melons, placing them at the forefront before discussing the city’s layout and fortifications. He then digresses to praise the succulent game meats found there, with a special mention of the plumpness of the pheasants. According to reports, these pheasants are so rich that the broth from a single bird could satiate four individuals without them being able to finish it. Only after these mouthwatering details does he delve into the description of the local populace.

Interestingly, whenever Babur describes places from his homeland, he consistently begins with discussions of culinary delights. For instance, Margilan is renowned for its dried apricots, which are skillfully pitted and stuffed with almonds. Khojand’s pomegranates are widely acclaimed, yet they are overshadowed by the exceptional quality of Margilan’s produce. Even Kandbadam, though small and insignificant in other regards, gains recognition for cultivating the finest almonds in the region, deserving a mention in Babur’s account.

According to Fabrizio Foschini’s analysis of Afghanistani melons in 2011, the early sections of the Baburnama read like a detailed guide to the fruit markets of Central Asia, emphasizing Babur’s keen interest in the region’s culinary treasures.

Even amidst the captivating war narratives, Babur’s attention to food remains unwavering. He interrupts one of his accounts to highlight a distinct melon variety found in the vicinity of a recently besieged castle. This melon stands out with its puckered yellow skin, apple-like seeds, and pulp of remarkable thickness, measuring as much as four fingers.

While the Baburnama encompasses more than just culinary anecdotes, the majority of its contents meticulously document lineages, rivalries, and Babur’s musings on various seemingly arbitrary details that intrigued him, such as a courtier’s talent for leapfrog. Since we lack similar candid accounts from his contemporaries, it is challenging to determine whether Babur’s epicurean interests were unusual.

Considering the tumultuous environment in which he grew up, it is astounding that Babur found any room in his thoughts for food. Assuming power at the tender age of 11 in 1494, amidst the fierce struggles among his Timurid relatives, who vied for regional dominance in Central Asia, Babur became an active participant in this intricate game of thrones. His relentless pursuit was the cultural capital of Samarkand, a city he was fixated on capturing. Although he briefly succeeded in 1497, he swiftly lost control of both Samarkand and Ferghana. To summarize a complex series of events, Babur spent his teenage years in a cycle of reclaiming and losing territories, seeking refuge with distant nomadic tribes, and attempting to win over new followers to regain his power. While he never ceased his efforts to reclaim Samarkand and his homeland, by the age of 21 in 1504, he had effectively been expelled from the region for the remainder of his life.

In that particular year, Babur accomplished a remarkable feat of strategic maneuvering as a warlord, effectively turning the forces of a rival into his own and launching a march towards the vulnerable city of Kabul, which had recently experienced its own internal power struggle. Babur successfully seized control of the city and naturally directed his attention towards developing its agricultural landscape. In and around Kabul, he initiated the construction of at least ten grand gardens, featuring an array of fruit-bearing plants.

While Babur’s writings indicate a personal preoccupation with food, it is challenging to separate this fascination from his deep yearning for his homeland. Additionally, there were political motivations behind his keen interest in cuisine. As a Timurid prince, Babur utilized his discerning taste in food as a means to establish his status and assert his elite credentials in the new territory he found himself in. Richard Foltz, a historian specializing in Central Asia, explains that the Timurids, despite their Turkic ethnicity, derived much of their legitimacy from being patrons of the Persianate “high” culture, which encompassed refined culinary preferences.

However, Kabul proved inadequate for launching a successful campaign back to Ferghana, prompting Babur to shift his attention towards neighboring India. His fortunes turned when a new king, who exhibited incompetence and faced internal dissent and rebellion, ascended the throne in the northern Sultanate of Delhi. Babur seized upon this vulnerability and initiated a series of invasions throughout the early 1520s. Despite facing overwhelming odds, with his opponents potentially outnumbering him five-to-one in their final confrontation, Babur triumphantly usurped the throne in 1526.

According to Central Asian historian Richard Foltz, the people of Central Asia generally held a disdainful view of Indians, considering them to be neither Muslims nor part of the Persianate culture. In addition, Babur, as noted by his biographer Stephen Dale, was still profoundly homesick. These factors, along with potentially personal preferences, contributed to his dismissal of his new territory, particularly its cuisine. Babur expressed his dissatisfaction, stating that Hindustan, the land of India, offered few pleasures, lacking good meat, grapes, muskmelons, fruits, ice or cold water, and quality bread or food in its markets.

Despite the demands of his military campaigns and the consolidation of his power during the last four years of his life in India, Babur remained deeply nostalgic. In 1530, at the age of 48, he passed away in Agra, the northern Indian city where his great-great grandson Shah Jahan (1592–1666) would later construct the Taj Mahal. However, during this period, Babur corresponded through letters expressing his yearning to return home or, at the very least, relish the taste of grapes and melons from his homeland. He recounted an emotional experience of receiving a melon from Kabul and shedding tears as he savored it. Babur went on to introduce Central Asian grapevines and melons to India, which brought him a sense of joy. He even sought out local chefs to prepare Persianate cuisine for him, although one of them attempted to poison him.

Babur’s establishment of supply chains to bring his native agriculture and cuisine to the region left a lasting legacy. Elizabeth Collingham, a food historian who explored Babur’s life and influence in her book on the history of curries, suggests that he likely played a role in introducing Central Asian influences into the elite and courtly Indian lifestyle.

Indeed, Babur was not the first Central Asian ruler to establish a presence in what is now India. Prior to his time, five Central Asian dynasties had reigned over Delhi from 1206. These earlier rulers also imported their native foods, prepared familiar dishes, and even experimented with fusion cuisine. The exchange of trade and migration between the regions had facilitated cultural interactions, including culinary influences. Early mentions of samosas in written records of feasts hosted by those medieval sultans offer glimpses of this cultural fusion.

However, according to Rukhsana Iftikhar, a historian specializing in the social life of the Mughals, the Persian-influenced Central Asian cuisine that Babur favored differed in style and flavor from many of the dishes introduced by these earlier dynasties. It is likely that these culinary offerings had not yet gained widespread popularity among the general Indian population at the time of Babur’s arrival, and today, they may not sound familiar to enthusiasts of global Indian cuisine.

Historians such as Stephen Dale and Richard Foltz attribute this disparity to the fact that the previous dynasties, although exerting some cultural influence, predominantly viewed India as a source of wealth. They exhibited little inclination to engage with the local elite, and their culture lacked the grandeur and stability necessary to inspire imitation and adaptation.

In contrast to being a mere raider, Babur possessed a statesman-like demeanor. His distinguished lineage and close ties to Iran granted him and his descendants significant cultural influence, enabling them to integrate more readily with the local population. Even after Babur’s passing, Mughal rulers continued to extol the same foods he praised and ensured a steady supply of Central Asian fruits and nuts through their caravans. Babur’s successor, Humayun, brought Persian chefs to Delhi, while his son, Akbar, displayed cosmopolitan curiosity in the culinary realm. Although later generations of Babur’s descendants were less invested in Persianate culture and the foods of Ferghana, they maintained the culinary trajectory established by Babur, either to showcase their wealth or to assert the superiority of their heritage.

Babur’s successors also devoted considerable resources to their kitchens, elevating food to a symbol of status. However, unlike Babur, they actively sought out chefs from various regions within their Indian domains, promoting culinary fusion. The opulence and longevity of their courts, as argued by Collingham, inspired local elites to adopt Persianate and Central Asian influences, thereby enhancing their own culinary practices. This parallel fusion of culinary styles took place in regions such as Hyderabad, Kashmir, and Lucknow. Over time, these innovations converged into Mughlai cuisine, a distinct culinary tradition that, by the early 20th century, had become prevalent in northern India, although not universally.

Mughlai cuisine, characterized by aromatic and creamy curries often incorporating the nuts and dried fruits cherished by Babur, introduced several dishes that are now familiar to Western diners. Examples include Korma, which blends Central Asian nuts and dairy with Persian and Indian spices, and Rogan Josh, a slow-cooked meat dish that originated in Persia but underwent spicing adaptations in the kitchens of Kashmir. The Mughals also made significant contributions to tandoori grilling, refining grills and enhancing marinades and spicing techniques.

According to Collingham, these dishes became widespread in the West because accomplished Indian chefs regarded Mughlai cooking in the same light as Western chefs viewed Le Cordon Bleu. Indian restaurateurs who established themselves abroad adopted Mughlai cuisine as the archetype of Indian food in the United States and the United Kingdom, much to the disappointment of Indians who grew up with a rich variety of regional cuisines that remain challenging to find outside their home countries.

None of this culinary influence was a deliberate endeavor for Babur. However, by establishing his presence in Agra and Delhi, he set in motion a wave that profoundly impacted the foundations of India, both in the culinary realm and beyond. His personal preferences indirectly fueled over 300 years of kitchen innovation. It was not merely a Central Asian dynasty of skulls and melons but rather something more extensive and enduring, even if it may have been unexpected or unwanted.