One of the library's most treasured manuscripts on display in our current exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound is a late 16th century copy of the Mughal emperor Babur's autobiographical memoirs, Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī, more often referred to as his Bāburnāmah (Book of Babur).
Babur crosses the Jumna threatened by an aquatic monster while entertained by musicians. Artist Khem. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f.504v)
The emperor Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530) is most famous as the founder of the Mughal Empire in the Indian subcontinent which he conquered and ruled from 1526. Driven from Central Asia while still a youth, he took Kabul in 1504 and made it the centre of his kingdom before moving east and defeating Ibrahim Lodi, Sultan of Delhi, at Panipat in 1526 and Rana Sanga of Mewar at Khanwa in 1527.
In between intense military activities, Babur somehow managed to find time to write his memoirs (Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī). In these Babur records his ruthless victories, but at the same time writes unpretentiously of his personal feelings, revealing himself to be a scholar, a poet and a keen naturalist. Histories were already an established literary genre by this time as were encyclopedias which recorded the wonders of the universe. However this autobiographical record of Babur’s is unique with observations based largely on his own experiences.
Originally written in Chaghatai Turki, his memoirs are arranged chronologically by year and were translated several times into Persian but most famously in 1589 at the request of his grandson Akbar (r. 1556–1605) by Akbar's chief minister ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan-i khanan. The British Library is fortunate in possessing one of four known imperial copies of ʻAbd al-Rahim’s translation which were all made at the end of the 16th century and were illustrated by the most famous artists of the time. Our copy is datable to the early 1590s on stylistic grounds and presently has 143 paintings out of an original 183. Since it was possible to display only one opening in our exhibition, I have taken this opportunity to write further about Babur's section on the animals, birds and plants of Hindustan.
Elephants. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f.378r)
The elephant, Babur tells us, is native to the borders of the Kalpi country (present day Uttar Pradesh) and further east. It is a noble creature and understands what people say to it and obeys their commands. The bigger it is, the more valuable. Babur adds here that in some islands elephants are reputed to measure more than 10 gaz (‘yard’) high, but he has never seen them larger than 4 or 5. Elephants can carry immense loads, three or four can pull carts that would take four or five hundred men to pull. However, they eat a lot! One elephant eats as much as two strings of camels.
The Rhinoceros. Artist, Makar. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f.379r)
The rhinoceros (karg) is also a large animal equivalent in size to three buffaloes, but the story that it can lift an elephant on its horn is false. It has one horn on its nose and its hide is very thick. It is ferocious and unlike the elephant cannot be tamed.
Monkeys. Artist, Shyam. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f. 382v)
Babur mentions several different kinds of monkeys (maymūn “called bāndar in Hindustani”): one which is yellow with a white face and short tail, which is exported and taught to do tricks, another, (langūr) is larger with white hair, a black face. and long tail. Another comes from the islands which is coloured not exactly blue nor yellow but strangely, he writes, has a permanently erect penis which never becomes limp.
Parrots. Artist, Kesu Gujarati. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f. 384v)
Babur describes many kinds of parrots. Of one particular kind he recounts that he had formerly believed parrots could only repeat what they had been taught, but that recently one of his close attendants, Abu 'l-Qasim Jalayir, had told him that when he had covered his parrot’s cage, the parrot said “Uncover me. I can’t breathe.”
Adjutant stork. Artist, Dhanu. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or 3714, f. 389v)
One of the birds that lives in water and on the banks of rivers, the adjutant stork (ding) had the wingspan of about the size of a man and no feathers on its head or neck. Its back and breast were white. Babur had been familiar with a tamed adjutant in Kabul which would catch meat when it was thrown at it. Once it swallowed a six layered shoe, and another time a whole chicken complete with wings and feathers.
The great bat (chamgadar), is as large as an owl with a head like a puppy which hangs upside down on the branch of a tree at night. Artist, Shankar Gujarati. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f. 392v)
And finally, of alligators and crocodiles:
An alligator (literally ‘water-lion’). Artist, Dhanu. Northern India, 1590–3 (Or 3714, f. 393v)
Babur writes: “one of the aquatic creatures is the alligator (shir-i ābī ‘water-lion’) which lives in the ‘black’ waters and resembles a lizard.” In our manuscript, the artist Dhanu, who had possibly never seen an alligator or was at least unfamiliar with the Persian word for it, interprets the word literally and paints a lion attacking a bull, a familiar motif in Persian art. He was obviously puzzled, so to clarify that it was a water-lion, he added a ship in the top left corner. Babur also described dolphins, crocodiles and an especially large crocodile, the gharial, which seized three or four soldiers between Ghazipur and Benares.
The gharial. Artist, Sarwan. Northern India, 1590–3 (Or. 3714, f. 394r)
Animals: Art, Science and Sound is open at the British Libray until August 28th, with reduced ticketa available on Mondays to Wednesdays. The exhibition is also accompanied by a catalogue by curators Malini Roy, Cam Sharp Jones, and Cheryl Tipp.
An online presentation of selected pages of the Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī “Turning the Pages” Or.3714.
For a digital version of the whole manuscript see Or.3714.
Beveridge, Annette, trans. The Babur-nama in English (Memoirs of Babur); translated from the original Turki text. vols. 1 and 2. London: Luzac & Co, 1922.
Thackston, Wheeler M., trans. The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor. New York: Oxford University Press in association with the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 1996. Reprinted: Random House Publishing Group, 2007.
J.P. Losty and Malini Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, London: British Library, 2012: pp. 39-45.
Smart, Ellen, “Paintings from the Baburnama: A Study of Sixteenth-Century Mughal Historical Manuscript Illustrations.” Ph.D. diss. School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1977.