I decided it was time to read the Rig Veda, and now I have, sort of. I’ve read Wendy Doniger’s compilation of 108 hymns from the book– 1/10 of the total. If she had done the whole thing it would amount to over 3000 pages, so I’m not feeling too guilty.



Indra, chief of the Vedic gods


You may well be saying, the Rig what? The Rig Veda is the oldest text of Hinduism– also perhaps the oldest text still in religious use.  It dates back 3500 to 4000 years ago.  (The Old Testament is mostly under 3000 years old.)  In form, it’s a set of over a thousand hymns, which were chanted or sung at animal sacrifices. (A rig is a hymn or poem. Veda is ‘knowledge’, cognate to English wit and Latin vedere ‘see’.)

Curiously, it’s not the oldest written text; it was transmitted orally, Brahmin to Brahmin, for most of those millennia. The transmission was highly accurate– the Rig Veda was remembered the same way from Kashmir to Kerala.

Whether it was understood is another question.  It’s written in an archaic Sanskrit that can be baffling even if you understand classical Sanskrit.  Plus it describes practices that are no longer practiced and gods that are no longer worshiped.  The chief Vedic god was Indra, followed closely by Agni (fire), the Maruts (storm gods), the Ashvins (a pair of horse gods), Yama (death), and Soma (a drug, more on that below).  Over the centuries worship switched to Vishnu and Shiva, each conceived by its worshipers as the supreme and only god (the others being forms they assume).  Vishnu does get a few Vedic hymns; Shiva does not, though he’s associated with Rudra, who does. Shiva very likely originates as a Dravidian god, later adopted by the Indic peoples.

Curiously, there is evidence that Indra and crew replaced an even earlier set of gods. One of the minor Vedic gods is the sky god Dyaus. This is cognate to Zeus and Jupiter (= Dyaus father), as well as the Germanic god Tiw, the god of Tuesday. In the Vedas Dyaus is usually paired with Prithvi ‘Earth’, often addressed with her in the dual as Dyavaprithvi. And he changes sex!  Sky-and-earth are usually addressed as females.

So, what are these poems like?  Many are straightforward praise and asking of benefits, such as this hymn to Agni (1.1, the very first hymn in the Rig Veda):

I pray to Agni, the household priest who is the god of the sacrifice, the one who chants and invokes and brings most treasure.

Agni earned the prayers of the ancient sages, and of those of the present, too; he will bring the gods here.

Through Agni one may win wealth, and growth from day to day, glorious and most abounding in heroic sons.

…To you, Agni, who shine upon darkness, we come day after day, bringing our thoughts and homage to you, the king over sacrifices, the shining guardian of Order, growing in your own house.

Agni is the fire god, and thus is the fire of the animal sacrifice, which brings the sacrifice to the gods and brings blessings back. You obviously want to be on good terms with the messenger if you want your message to get through.

(The hymns tend to exaggerate the power of the god they’re dedicated to. So certain events and powers may be attributed to different gods at different times. The way you talked to gods was undoubtedly influenced by the way you talked to kings; treating them as more powerful than they were was good tactics.)

Sometimes the prayers are strange, almost opaque in their extended metaphors, as in this hymn about the sacrifice itself (1.164):

This beloved gray priest has a middle brother who is hungry and a third brother with butter on his back. In him I saw the Lord of All Tribes with his seven sons.

Seven yoke the one-wheeled chariot drawn by one horse with seven names. All these creatures rest on the ageless and unstoppable wheel with three naves.

Seven horses draw the seven who ride on this seven-wheeled chariot. Seven sisters call out to the place where the seven names of the cows are hidden.

Who saw the newborn one, the one with bones who was brought forth by the boneless one? Where was the breath and blood and soul of the earth? 

(This actually reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman, when he wants to represent spells and such. I suspect he’s done a lot of reading on folklore and borrowed the style.)

Now, a lot of this can be interpreted. E.g. Doniger tells us that the “priests” are the sacrificial fires. The middle brother is “hungry” because it’s the southern fire, seldom fed. The Lord of All Tribes is Agni; his sons are the priests.  As with any jargon, one suspects that making the material difficult was part of the point.

A hymn to creation (10.129) starts out with some confident cosmology, but ends up buried in accumulated questions and doubts.

There was neither non-existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond… There was neither death nor immortality then…

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat.

…Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers….

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced?  Whence is this creation?  The gods came afterwards, with the creation of the universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen– perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not– the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows– or perhaps he does not know.

Some of the most accessible material is not hymns to deities at all. There are conversations about sex between gods; a lament by a gambler whose life have been ruined by the dice; a benediction on arms and armor; a poem that is simultaneously about frogs and Brahmins.

Also intriguing is the nature of soma– from the text, a drink pressed from plants grown in the mountains. The effects seem to be exhilarating and hallucinatory (8.48):

I have tasted the sweet drink of life, knowing that it inspires good thoughts and joyous expansiveness to the extreme, that all the gods and mortals seek it together, calling it honey.

When you penetrate inside, you will know no limits, and you will avert the wrath of the gods. Enjoying Indra’s friendship, O drop of Soma, bring riches as a docile cow brings the yoke.

We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods. What can hatred and the malice of a mortal do to us now, O immortal one?

Soma is itself addressed as a god; indeed, by bulk, he gets more hymns than anyone but Indra and Agni.

The descriptions and the effects don’t really correspond to any known plant. Soma went out of use, perhaps because it was hard to get in northern India– this rules out marijuana, which has long been known.  The Persians used a planet called haoma, a cognate, but its effects are mild. It can’t be wine or any fermented drink, because it was pressed and drunk immediately.  An attractive hypothesis is that it’s Amanita muscaria, the mushroom used by Siberian shamans, and which happens to grow all across Eurasia but not in India.

Should you run out and read it?  Well, not as your first venture into India, or Hinduism.  I would still recommend the Ramayana for that.  For ancient religious thought that’s still relevant today, try the Bhagavad-Gita. But if you’re interested in what people were doing and how they worshiped four thousand years ago, go for it.

(Doniger’s translation provides plenty of help on the obscure bits, which are many. Her book The Hindus: An alternative history would be a good book to read first.)







I was looking at the Hitopadeśa for the Sanskrit (see here and here), but now I’ve read it, in G.L. Chadiramani’s translation. The book is medieval (it’s impossible to date exactly) and it turns out to recycle a lot of material from the earlier Pañcatantra. Both works used to be very familiar to Western audiences; versions were known in Europe as early as 1252 (via Arabic), and La Fontaine borrowed some of the stories.  The Indian originals were discovered in the 1700s, and for decades the Hitopadeśa was one of the first books you learned as a Sanskritist.

The framing device is simple. A king has a problem: his sons are, in a word, nityamunmārgagāmināmanadhigataśāstrāṇām. That is, they are constantly going astray and never read books. A sage offers to take them in hand, and his infallible method is to tell them animal fables.

Sadly, this framework is never really expanded upon. We never see the sons straying or even talking back to the old sage; we don’t even learn their names. They’re trotted out at the beginning of each chapter, apparently rapt at his stories. Well, they didn’t have video games back then.

There are four chapters: acquiring friends; separating friends; war; peace. Each has its own framing story, which is far more interesting. Plus the author frequently springboards off into other stories, and everyone is constantly reciting long sets of moralistic verses.

I’ll illustrate by retelling one of the stories.

The prince Tungabala was appointed governor of a city named Virapura. He fell in love with Lavanyavati, the wife of a merchant’s son. As is explained by a verse:

Arrows in the form of glances,
By beautiful ladies having black eyelashes,
Shot after being drawn
From the bow of their eyebrows,
Extending to the region of the ears,
Pierce through the guts of a man and reach his heart.

Which is to say, she had fabulous eyebrows. Fortunately for Tungabala, she was smitten by him as well. But she was unwilling to cheat on her husband. 

Tungabala had sent a female messenger to negotiate with her.  (He probably read the Kāmasūtra, which advises just this method.) The messenger came up with a plan for him. He appointed the woman’s husband Carudatta to high office and made him his confidant.

Then he bathed, anointed himself with sandalwood perfume, and announced that he was making a special vow. He told Carudatta to bring him a different woman every night. Each night, he greeted the woman, worshipped her without touching her, and sent her away loaded with rich presents.

Carudatta became greedy, thinking that he could easily acquire these presents by bringing his own wife.  Of course his wife obeyed his request.  The moment the prince saw her, he embraced her and they made love all night.  Carudatta was extremely depressed.

This story is actually told as a teaching tale, told by a mouse to his friends in the first chapter. The connection to their predicament is quite loose: the mouse is basically saying “If you persist in your plans, you will end up sad, like the merchant’s son in this story.”


Now, I’ve just told the bare story, but this is not enough for the author. First, everything is sprinkled with illustrative verse proverbs, and not just one but several. By bulk, the book is mostly these verses. Presumably the sage’s trick is really to impart all these moralistic verses, the stories only being used to motivate the princes’ curiosity.

But also, each set of verses tends to end with an allusion to another story, and of course whoever’s listening immediately has to hear it. In the case of the above story, the female messenger, proving that Tungabala needs a trick to get what he wants, tells the story of a jackal who brings down an elephant by a trick.

(Oh, you want to hear that story, do you?  You little scamps, all right. An elephant comes into a region inhabited by jackals, and one of them realizes that he would feed them for months. But of course he is too strong to attack directly. So he goes to the elephant and offers him the kingship of the forest, based on his obvious majesty. He throws in a set of verses on the necessity of kingship. The elephant, greedy for the kingdom, follows him into deep mud, where he gets stuck.  So the jackals eat him.)

The recursion  goes pretty deep… it wouldn’t be unusual for the book if the jackal made his point by telling yet another story.

Curiously, in the war and peace sections, the author seems to have gotten more interested in the framing story— the tale of a war between the sea birds (whose king is a swan) and the land birds (whose king is a peacock). It covers both chapters and is far more involved. You get to know the chief ministers of both kings, their spies, and the ruses they use in war.

Would you enjoy the book? I think the fables themselves are great fun, not only good stories in their own right, but a window onto premodern Indian attitudes and values. Where the verses are moralistic, the stories are often earthy— as in the above example, which doesn’t really bother to condemn the prince’s adultery, but laughs at the greedy merchant’s son.

The verses are a harder sell. There are an awful lot of them, and most are not to modern tastes.

A wicked wife, a deceitful friend,
An impertinent servant,
And staying in a house infested with serpents;
Will without doubt lead to death.

Unless you have Samuel Jackson on board, at least.

Anyway, you could skip all the verses, though that would hardly be reading the Hitopadeśa. If nothing else, they tell us something about the society. Like our own proverbs, they are often contradictory— e.g. there are verses about the treachery of strangers, and verses about the sacredness of hospitality; kings are advised to be kind, and also advised to be harsh.  But the verses in the war and peace section give a glimpse into Indian statecraft (e.g. advising against hasty moves to war, and warning about various kinds of poor advisors), and there are other interesting bits— e.g. the verses really hate misers: they praise giving away money the highest, but find enjoying it also praiseworthy.

Another advantage of the book: it doesn’t require any great knowledge of Indian history or culture, though there are allusions here and there for those who do know it. And it’s pretty short, so it’s not a major time investment, like the Mahābhārata .

I just finished The Chaos of Empire, by Jon Wilson, which is all about the British Raj. Spoiler: he’s not in favor. In fact, his thesis is that the British never really knew what they were doing; they were constantly and pointlessly nervous and paranoid about their presence there, and alternated between unnecessary violence and out-of-touch bureaucracy.

In the early days, in the 1600s, the English simply didn’t understand how business or government was done in India– which was by face-to-face negotiation.  Whether kings and lords, or nobles and peasants, or authorities and merchants, arrangements were worked out by talk. (A show of force was not incorrect– but the Mughal way was to defeat an enemy, then make accommodations to make the defeated into an ally.) The English basically made outrageous demands (e.g. they wanted to trade tax-free and wanted the EIC to have a monopoly even over other English traders) and hated to negotiate.  They were constantly worried that they would be disrespected, harassed, or overwhelmed by the Indians, and the only way they could ever think of to get their way was by force.

Their first attempt, in the late 1600s, led to a righteous drubbing by the still-powerful Mughals. They did not learn anything from this.

(Now, Wilson may overstate the harmony of Mughal society. The Mughal founder, Babur, certainly found India as alien and unpleasant as any Englishman. But of course they put down roots and adapted, and the English didn’t bother to learn South Asian protocols.)

How did the British take over?  It’s not entirely technology, since the Indians were able to buy Western arms and even Western advisors; for that matter, the French at least were keen to oppose the British takeover. As with China, we can attribute much of the problem to poor luck. When the Mughals were strong, they could hold off Europeans, but the empire crumbled after the Afghan invasion of 1739. And the French never really committed to wars in India– probably because they sensed, correctly, that it wasn’t a profitable proposition. The EIC didn’t really want to take over Bengal, and British home opinion was not really in favor of empire; Plassey was more or less Robert Clive’s mad improvised scheme to replace the hated prospect of negotiation with the more appealing direct intervention to install a supposedly friendlier ruler.

In economics there’s the concept of a Winner’s Curse: in a competition to buy something, the winner is likely to be the one who overestimates the item’s value. The Indian empire was something of a winner’s curse. Bengal provided enormous revenues, enough for the armies that slowly conquered the rest of India… but also enormous expenditures, chiefly the army needed to hold all that territory. The company constantly had to be bailed out by London, and all through the 19th century the EIC and then imperial government was most often in the red. But of course it was unthinkable to simply give up and go home.

Ironically, the one time India was valuable was during the World Wars. It provided huge armies and great masses of war materiel, and this very fact made it completely impossible to maintain as an imperial colony without native involvement. To keep the troops and goods coming, Britain had to promise representative government (in WWI) and eventual independence (in WWII).

The British had no notion of developing education, civil society, industry, or self-government.  They did not seem to realize that Indians expected their rulers to respond to complaints and abuses and to provide relief in bad years.  Their idea of government was not much more than maintaining the army, a cumbersome bureaucracy, and a nice lifestyle for an upper crust of expats. Wilson shows that to the extent that civil society did develop, it was purposely done by Indians themselves away from British eyes.

At this point British readers are likely to be saying, “But we built railways, didn’t we?” But the railways were largely built to ferry troops around. They were too expensive for everyday commerce, they ran at a loss, and they did not develop Indian industry since the locomotives and rails were imported. Britain did not allow Indians to make their own steel until 1899.

As for “We taught them democracy, didn’t we?”– I’m sorry, Brits, but you get no prizes for ruling the country as an absolute monarchy for more than a century. The first elections were held in 1920; only 1/10 of the male population could vote, and for only limited domestic powers. This was three centuries after the first legislature in a British colony (Virginia, 1619).

I could go on and on, but then you could also just read the book. Although he is specifically countering old notions of Britain’s imperial glory or at least competence, it’s also a good overall look at Indian history from the mid-1600s till 1950, giving both the British and Indian sides of the story.

A sometimes endearing, sometime exasperating tendency of the British is their tolerance for constitutional muddle. The deal that gave them the administration of Bengal made them theoretical agents of the Mughal crown, and they maintained this fiction until 1857. And rather than conquering everybody, they left 500 “princely states” with various degrees of self-government. When the India-Pakistan border was drawn, hundreds of enclaves were created with tens of thousands of residents– supposedly a relic of ancient Mughal treaties.  All these eccentricities had a price in inefficiency and incompetence. In this light, Nehru’s insistence on central planning and central control start to make a lot more sense.

(This is of course research for my own book, the India Construction Kit. I’m a little over half done with it, I think.  More on that later…)

I know you were all waiting to hear what the king said. Here’s a bit more of the passage. The order of the lines is Devanāgarī, transliteration (with sandhi), pre-sandhi words, glosses, English.
एतच्चिंतयित्वा स राजा पंडितसभां कारितवान् ।

etacciṃtayitvā sa rājā paṃḍita-sabhāṃ kāritavān

etad cintayitvā sas rājā paṇḍita-sabhām kāritavān

this-s.nom.n think-gerundive that-s.nom.m wise-assembly-s.acc make-PassPart-caus-s.nom.m

Having considered these things, the King convened an assembly of wise men.

राजोवाच । भो भोः पंडिताः श्रूयतां ।

rājovāca bhobhoḥ paṃḍitāḥ śrūyatāṃ

rājā uvāca bhobhos paṇḍitās śrūyatām

The King said, “O wise men, let it be heard:
अस्ति कश्चिदेवंभूतो विद्वान्यो

asti kaś-cid-evaṃ-bhūto vidvān yo

asti kas-cid evam-bhūtas vidvān yas

be-PresPart-3s who-s.nom-ever such-s.nom.m sage-s.nom.m who-s.snom.m

Is there any sage among you who—
मम पुत्राणां

mama putrāṇāṃ

mama putrāṇām

I-gen son-p.gen

my sons


nityam unmārga-gāminām an-adhigata-śāstrāṇām idānīm

constantly wrong.way-go-gerund-p.m not-read-PassPart-book-p.m. now

being always wayward and never reading books—
नीतिशास्त्रोपदेशेन पुनर्जन्म कारयितुं समर्थः ।

nīti-śāstr-opadeśena punar-janma kārayituṃ samarthaḥ?

nīti-śāstra-upadeśena punar-janma kārayitum sam-arthas?

behavior-book-instruction-s.ins again-birth-s.acc effect-infinitive with-capable-s.nom.m

can instruct them in reading and proper behavior, [giving them] a second birth?”


This is from the prologue to the Hitopadeśa.  The king, whose name is Sudarśana, has a problem many kings have had: his sons are pretty worthless. He asks the pundits for help. (Yep, pundit is a borrowing from Sanksrit.) As he appears in a book written by a brahmin, the dude who steps up to help, one Viṣarma, believes that the answer is that they sit with a brahmin, i.e. himself, and learn moral tales.

I will report back later on the actual fables. But for now let’s look at one of the words in the text:



First, you may well ask, is that one word?  It’s written as one. And by the rules of sandhi, it’s pronounced as one. But Müller transliterates it as four words:

nityam – constantly
unmārga-gāminām – wrong-ways-going
an-adhigata-śāstrāṇām – non-reading-books
idānīm now

The first three words are a description of the unruly princes, and grammatically this can be considered a really big compound. Idānīm ‘now’ probably got dragged in only because it was too tempting to combine the initial i– with the preceding –m.

Sanskrit is extremely fond of these combined words, and this is by no means on the longer end of the possibilities— you can easily have compounds with 20 or 30 roots.

Now, you can certainly do this in English:

“Can anyone instruct my undirected, non-book-reading sons by reading-conduct-instruction?”

But we usually consider this sort of thing inelegant; it reminds of bureaucratic language: “You must submit the project extension protocol revision form to the acting assistant operations and processes group manager.” We’d be more likely to use subclauses:

“My sons are constantly going the wrong way and never read books; can anyone teach them to value good conduct and literature?”

You only have to inflect the last member of a compound, so possibly the compounds were easier than regular clauses. Or perhaps they were embraced for their difficulty. After all, when the Hitopadeśa was written, the spoken language was already very different. A.L. Basham describes classical Sanskrit as one of the most “ornate and artificial” languages in the world. He also suggests that these compounds may be influenced by Tamil, which also encourages concatenations without explicit connectors or inflections.




If someone has gone through and transliterated it and done a word-for-word gloss. But I have worked through the grammar enough that I can at least follow that.

Let’s work through an example. We start, as Westerners have for more than a century, with the Hitopadeśa, a medieval book of sagely advice told through animal stories. I start with Max Müller’s 1864 edition.  Here’s a sample line.

राजोवाच । भो भोः पंडिताः श्रूयतां ।

râjâ   -jan,  The King
uvâcha:  vach,  said:
bho  Ind.  O
bhos  Ind.  ye
paṇḍitâs  -ta,  wise,
śrûyatâm  śru, 3 sg. Imp. Pass.   be it heard

Now, Devanāgarī is not hard to read. It’s an abugida, meaning that the basic grapheme is a single consonant with an inherent vowel. E.g. it starts with क = ka. Diacritics modify it to change the vowel: कि ki, कु ku, का , and so on. If you really want a naked k, perhaps at the end of a word, you write क्.

If you actually transliterate Müller’s Devanāgarī, syllable by syllable, you get this:

rā-jo-vā-ca bho bhoḥ paṃ-ḍi-tāḥ śrū-ya-tāṃ

Which, if you look carefully, isn’t what Müller provides.  What happened?

Sandhi happened. All languages have processes of assimilation and relaxation that happen as words are uttered in context. Occasionally these become noticeable to people and they attempt to write them down— e.g. someone is represented as saying “I hafta go” for “I have to go”.  Sometimes the assimilations are lexicalized, which is why we write assimilation and not adsimilation.

Well, in Sanskrit there are a lot of such adaptations, and you have to write them all. So for instance the vowels ā + u combine into o: rājā uvāca > rājovāca. (Müller’s â / ch are older transliterations; we now use ā / c.)  The –s at the end of paṇḍitās changes to ḥ before the following  ś, while the final in the last word changes to ṃ, which in this case indicates nasalization. Before a stop, it’s pronounced as a homorganic stop, which is why paṇ- changed to paṃ-.

There are special diacritics for these last two letters: e.g. kaṃ would be कं, and kaḥ would be कः.

So, Müller is providing the pre-sandhi versions of the words, which makes them easier to look up in a dictionary.

(A complication for the actual book I’m writing: It turns out that Word and Illustrator don’t properly handle Devanāgarī. They can’t do the combinations– e.g. nra should be written न्र, but they turn that into न् र, like barbarians. So I won’t be able to use a lot of Devanāgarī except as, shudder, bitmaps.)

Next we need to translate his glosses to a briefer and more modern convention:

king-s.nom say-perf.part.-3s oh wise-p.voc.m hear-imper.pass.-3s

Müller glosses bho bhos as “O ye”, but this is a bit confusing— bhos is not a pronoun. An online dictionary suggests that it’s an interjection often used in addressing people: oh! hello!  indeed!   And it seems that we’re actually dealing with a reduplicated form here, bhobhos.

Finally we can provide the translation:

The king said: O wise men, let it be heard…

That’s enough for today, but on request I’ll tell you what the king wanted heard. And you should request it, because then I can talk about Sanskrit’s insane mega-compounds.

By the way, classical Sanskrit wasn’t written in Devanāgarī— it was written in the local, contemporary script. All modern Indian scripts, and Southeast Asian ones as well, ultimately derive from Brāhmī, which is what Aśoka knew. If you write your vernacular in Devanāgarī, as of course Hindi speakers do, then you write your Sanskrit in Devanāgarī; but if you speak Tamil you use Tamil script, and so on.

How, you may wonder, does this compare to learning wényán for my China book? The script is way easier, of course. But sandhi is a nightmare, and the grammar is far less accessible. You can boldly translate wényán poems knowing little but the glosses, but I don’t think I’ll be doing my own translations of Sanskrit poetry.

I just read the Baburnama, which is Babur’s autobiography.  No, not the elephant, you big wag, the Moghul emperor.


Babur (R) with his son Humayun

Doing the Mughals


A little refresher, for those who are shaky on their Mughals. This is the big late-medieval Indian empire; Babur founded it in 1526; his last descendant was knocked off the throne in 1858 by the British. The height of the empire was under the tolerant, inquisitive Akbar, Babur’s grandson, and it’s generally considered to have gone to hell under and after the unpleasant and zealous Aurangzeb. The Taj Mahal is the tomb of a Mughal empress (Mumtaz, wife of Akbar’s grandson Shah Jehan).

The Brits arrived when the empire was just a shell, the emperor in control of little more than Delhi. The East India Company used a strange little dodge to conquer India: it supported a claimant to the throne of Bengal, who granted it the government of the province in the name of the Mughal emperor.  It used the treasury and troops of Bengal to conquer the rest of India, under the legal fiction that it was operating under Mughal authority. I’m not sure if this really fooled anyone.

Oh, fun fact: Mughal is a form of Mongol, because of the Genghis connection. The Mughals didn’t actually call themselves that; they used Gurkani, after the title Gurkan ‘son-in-law’ Timur acquired by marrying into Genghis’s line.

Babur’s life

Babur was a descendant of Timur, known to the west as Tamerlane, a particularly brutal conqueror of Central Asia and Persia.  He lived in Chaghadai’s section of the Mongol Empire, which by his time spoke Turkish and accepted Islam.  He could not claim descent from Genghis Khan himself, but he married into the family, so his sons could.  He died in 1405 while planning the conquest of China.

During and after his reign the administrative and literary language of Central Asia was Persian. There was a rough division of nomadic Turks (the bulk of the army) and sedentary Persians (the administrators). Babur made the unusual choice of writing his autobiography in his native language, Chaghadai Turkish, though he was also fluent in Persian.  The Mughals in India continued to use Persian till the end, though they did forget Turkish.  (Fortunately, the Baburnama was translated into Persian for them.)

Babur was born in 1483, and Timur’s empire had collapsed into a scrim of usually warring emirates.  His father died when he was 10, and he was plunged immediately into a lifestyle of war and migration that would last till the end of his life.  His early conflicts were with the rising power of the Uzbeks, who were slowly taking out the remaining Timurids.

Babur’s early years remind me of the story of Liu Bei in Three Kingdoms. He has a way of getting a kingdom, making a move on another, and losing everything, but you just could not put that boy down; he counted his few remaining followers and was back on the board in a few months.  He gained and lost Samarkand (Timur’s capital) three times.

Finally he’s forced out of Central Asia entirely, but he regroups in Kabul.  He takes the city without a fight in 1504, and he’s a little vague on how this happened; Wikipedia fills in the key detail that he took over from a usurper who had displaced an infant ruler. He was still only 21.

He spends most of his life in Afghanistan, and it’s obviously his favorite place, the one he thinks of as his.  (He is buried there.)  For a time things looked up: he found new allies in another Turkish dynasty, the Safavids, who had just taken over Persia; they defeat the Uzbeks and he briefly holds Samarkand.  The Uzbeks then regroup the next year and decisively defeat both the Safavids and Babur.

With progress in that direction halted, Babur simply turned the other direction.  He had already raided Hindustan; now he turned to conquest.  He had an excuse at hand– Muslims had already conquered northern India a couple centuries before, and there were quarrels to take advantage of.  He defeated Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526 and took over in Delhi and Agra; the next year he defeated a Rajput (Hindu) army.

By his own account his army was no more than 12,000 or so, and Lodi’s was over 100,000. But in general Indian armies (no matter who was leading them) were never a good match for nomad-based armies from the northwest; by this time Babur was also skillfully using cannons and matchlocks.

He spent some time consolidating his conquest, and died in 1530.  He was succeeded by his son Humayun, who promptly lost everything.  But he got it back, with Safavid help, some years later.

The book

Should you run out and get it? Well, if you like history, sure. Not many emperors have written down what they thought they were doing. I’ll warn you, though: he tends to concentrate on what is least interesting to us: genealogies, long lists of who supported who, detailed accounts of long journeys, where the army camped each night, how they got across the rivers, when and where they stopped to drink or get stoned.  A lot of what we’d consider the good stuff is asides in the story he wants to tell.

(I should also warn you that he piles on the names. Honestly I skimmed over most of them.)

For instance, he makes side comments about mistakes he made, errors in strategy, who was a good or poor warrior.  Not surprisingly, he values loyal and brave supporters, but by his own account it was awfully difficult for a beg (lord) to resist the temptation to go off on their own, or to support a rival.  In these circumstances, the only sure way to keep your forces loyal and happy was to keep them with you, and to keep coming up with loot. (The first time he conquered Samarkand, the city was so impoverished that he couldn’t reward his allies: big mistake.)

From digressions and side comments, we also learn what he was interested in besides war. He’s very fond of poetry; when he gives a portrait of someone, he sometimes rather charmingly quotes a line of their poetry. He tells you where the best fruit and wine comes from all over Central Asia.  He really likes gardens, and he’s always constructing or reconstructing one, or introducing the custom of building them into India.  (The Persians always loved a walled garden– in fact, pairidaēza  ‘enclosed park’ in Avestan is where we got the word ‘paradise’.)  In the Afghan years he is constantly having drinking parties, or for a change he and his pals eat ma’jun, a mild chewable narcotic.  (Later on he abstains from alcohol… but sees no need to give up ma’jun.)

There’s not much about sex, though the most intimate detail is rather surprising: as a young man, he had a deep crush on a younger boy. He describes himself as so shy that he didn’t really do anything about it, but it’s interesting that he has no compunctions about putting this in the royal memoirs.  (Which doesn’t prevent him from condemning “pederasty” in others. Still, I gather that it’s like drinking: he only really disapproves of it when it goes beyond some ill-defined level from excusability into excess.)  He does enter into a love match with one of his wives, but he never says much about this.

He loves Kabul, but he has a poor opinion of India:

Hindustan is a place of little charm. There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility, or manliness. The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry.  There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no madrasas. There are no candles, torches, or candlesticks.

What he does like about India is pretty simple and direct: it’s fabulously rich.

He mentions the language barrier, but doesn’t seem to realize how deeply it affects his judgments.  He has a long section in praise of the cultural splendor of Herat (in Afghanistan), showing that he has a great appreciation for poetry, the Persian epics, calligraphy, painting, Sufiism, and Islamic law. His description of India talks only about the physical aspects of the place– especially its plants and animals. He doesn’t mention a thing about Indian literature, culture, or religion.

Babur is a pious Muslim– he always approves of someone saying their daily prayers, he gives alms, he undertakes fasts (sometimes while he was still drinking)– but doesn’t seem zealous, until he fights with the Rajputs.  Then he is suddenly conscious of fighting the Infidels.  As he’s spent his entire life fighting other Muslims, it is hard to take this temporary zeal very seriously.  He does destroy the idols in a particular location, but mostly because he wanted to make it into a garden.

His memoirs are often described as frank or honest; of course we don’t really know if they are or not.  I understand that other sources, such as they are, don’t contradict him. But I don’t think his self-presentation is entirely artless.  E.g., he describes taking action even when he’s ten or twelve, and even when he refers to his elders taking him in hand (e.g. to protect him from his rivals). His image of himself is always of a generous and loyal king, though occasionally mistaken or unlucky in strategy. And probably he was, most of the time. He has a detailed description of a campaign in India, where he is constantly reassigning fiefs, sending letters back to Kabul, playing a game of negotiation-or-war with the frenemy of the moment, the Bengalis.  By this time, in his forties, he had evident skill not only in war, but in the all-important people skills of keeping begs happy and rivals intimidated. His one great mistake was to die too early, leaving Humayun in charge at too early an age.

I should add, there’s a famous story about his death, which for obvious reasons isn’t in the autobiography: His son Humayun was sick, and the doctors despaired for his life. Babur prayed that the illness would take him instead. And indeed, his son recovered and Babur died.

If you do read it, I recommend Wheeler Thackston’s translation, which is not only lively and readable, but complemented by helpful maps and genealogical tables.

So your theater group or class needs a play to put on. What should it be: Cats, Hamilton, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Uncle Vanya?  Well, how about Kālidāsa‘s  The Recognition of Śakuntalā? Or अभिज्ञानशकुन्तलम्, if you’re more familiar with that name.


Kālidāsa is considered the greatest of the Sanskrit playwrights; he lived around 400, perhaps under the Guptas (the greatest of the medieval empires). He’s often compared to Shakespeare, but a better comparison, based on style and theme, would be to Molière.

The story

King Duṣyanta, back in epic times, goes hunting. He and his charioteer chase a deer into the hermitage of the sage Kaṇva; the ascetics ask him not to kill the deer in the sacred grounds. He agrees and enters the hermitage. Kaṇva is not there, but his foster-daughter Śakuntalā greets him instead. The two are immediately smitten with each other.

He leaves to go back to his camp, but can’t stop thinking of her. Fortunately, he gets the opportunity to go back: with the sage absent, demons are bothering the ascetics, and they ask the king to chase them off. He does, and spends some time with Śakuntalā. He convinces her to marry him.  (A love match was acceptable for kṣatriyas, less so for brahmins. Fortunately for the king, Śakuntalā’s father, though a sage, was also a kṣatriya. That’s a story in itself, told in the Rāmāyaṇa.)

Duṣyanta gives Śakuntalā his ring and returns to his capital with a promise to send an army to fetch her. But while he is away, another sage, Durvāsas, comes to the hermitage but is ignored by the lovesick Śakuntalā. He immediately curses her to be forgotten by the king. The only mitigation is that he will remember her again if he sees the ring.

(In the script this scene is quite abrupt— Durvāsas barely gives anyone time to react. I’m guessing the ignoring was communicated through staging.  Also of note: Hindu myth and legend is full of these very specific and powerful curses. One reason never to piss off a brahmin.)

Kaṇva is happy to marry his already pregnant ward to the king; he sends her to the capital with a small entourage. But the king doesn’t recognize her, and indeed berates her as a liar and a wanton. She searches for her ring— but it’s fallen off, back when she was bathing in the river. The king won’t take her, and the ascetics won’t bring her back to Kaṇva. All she can do is appeal to her nymph mother Menakā, who whisks her off to heaven.

The ring is found in the mouth of a fish, and the king recovers his memory— and his shame. He lounges sadly around the palace, painting a picture of her.  Before he can do anything more, however, Indra appears and asks him to help fight demons. When he’s finally done with this (apparently it takes a few years), he stops by a celestial hermitage and finds a strapping young boy who reminds him of himself. It turns out this is his son Bharata. He soon finds Śakuntalā, all is forgiven (the curse is explained by the gods) and all ends well.

The son, by the way, is the ancestor of both sides in the Mahābhārata and is the source of the Hindī name for India, Bhārat.

The Sanskrit theater

Sanskrit plays were explicitly designed to evoke emotion (rasa); the recognized types were love, laughter, sorrow, energy, anger, fear, disgust, and amazement. Śakuntalā falls into the erotic category, evoking love.

A curiosity about the Sanskrit plays is that only male, upper-class characters actually speak Sanskrit. Women and low-class men speak one of the Prākrits— later vernacular forms of the language. There was also a convention to have a buffoon, always a brahmin but also speaking Prākrit. In Śakuntalā it’s the king’s friend, a fat and cowardly figure. (The Prākrits developed into the modern Indic languages, though only a thousand years later.)

The plays were performed on a bare stage, and props (such as the king’s chariot) and changes of location were mimed. However, costumes were elaborate.

The text, by the way, describes Śakuntalā as wearing a dress made of bark (valkala).In the epics, this is described as the characteristic attire of ascetics, but the play describes the garment as flexible (indeed, it makes a point of saying that her breasts push it out) and tied by a knot, which rule out anything like, say, chunks of oak bark. An online article suggests that valkala means bast fiber— that is, a rough fabric made from plant stems, like hemp. (Paintings invariably depict her in something silky, but they also derive from at least a thousand years after the play.)

So how is it?

The plot and situations are engaging enough.  The dramatic high point is Duṣyanta’s cruel rejection of Śakuntalā at the palace.  Śakuntalā is justifiably angry:

Yes, I deserve it— I deserve to be called a self-willed wanton, since I put my trust in the Puru dynasty, and gave myself to a man with honey in his mouth but poison in his heart!

The translation I read, by W.J. Johnson, also gives the original story of Śakuntalā from the Mahābhārata. Curiously, Śakuntalā there is given a lot more to say, and far more biting.

The play is mostly prose, but with frequent short bursts of poetry. I am not a great judge of poetry, but I have to say Johnson’s versions don’t do much for me. E.g., the king’s description of Śakuntalā tired from carrying a watering pot:

From heaving up the pot, her palms are raw,
Her shoulders stoop,
Her breath is labored and her bosom shakes,
All sifted strength.
On filmy sweat the mimosa’s bloom
Slides from ear to cheek,
And as her hairband slips, those cobalt locks
Flow round her submerged hand
Like water round a rock.

Here he addresses the fateful ring:

Ring, if your reward
is anything to go by
Your good deeds
are as evanescent as mine,
For though you earned a place
on her matchless, translucent fingers,
You lacked the merit to stick there
and you fell.

Still, it’s interesting stuff, and the great advantage of reading plays to get into Indian literature is that they’re short.  (The Mahābhārata, by contrast, is about ten fat books long.)


Next Page »