Book Review – Empire of the Moghul: Raiders from the North by Alex Rutherford

The Book at Hand:

One cannot judge a book by its cover, but one sure can get fascinated enough to buy it from the stores. That’s how I came across Alex Rutherford’s Empire of the Moghul: Raiders from the North. The royal battle-axe with intricate design on a dark bloody crimson cover was just the kind of thing I was looking for. A quick skim through the first chapter at the store was enough to promise a good reading experience, tempting me to put the softcover edition into my cart. To be completely frank, I had started to expect something from the book that my school textbooks did not provide; the book did not disappoint. The first in the quintet, this book did leave me with a craving for the rest of the series.

The Story in Essence:

Beginning in 1494 when 12-year-old Prince Babur was unceremoniously rendered fatherless due a tragic accident in the royal dovecote, the story takes us through the troubled times in Babur’s life. With a court full of treacherous councilors, Babur had only the women of his family, his mother Kutlugh Nigar, the strong and astute grandmother Esan Dawlat and sister Khanzada, for support. The only other truly loyal friend was his mentor and the late king’s chief of bodyguard and milk-brother Wazir Khan. Quickly and secretly, following a public attempt at his life, the young prince was read the khutba in the mosque to pronounce him Lord of Ferghana. The new King began his reign by personally beheading his ambitiously treacherous vizier and sending the message that young as he is, he will fulfill his destiny as the descendant of Timur-i-Lang and Genghis Khan.

The story then reels through his occasional strokes of fortune by which he comes in possession of the grand capital of Timur’s kingdom, Samarkand, following the death of its king, his paternal uncle.With Timur’s capital came his most sought after insignia, his ruling ring. The ring on his finger, Babur begins one of the most thrilling journeys in the history of man, with ebbs and flows, gain and loss of kingdoms, fortunate victories and humiliating defeats. Captured in four parts and twenty-seven chapters, the story of Babur in Ferghana and Samarkand, in his throneless days, in his hardships across the Hindu Kush to take charge of Kabul, and finally in his capture of Hindustan, is one story that is truly of historic proportions.

Babur as Protagonist:

We see Babur grow from a young and naive king to a powerful emperor of Kabul and Hindustan. What truly changed his fate was the unconditional loyalty of his comrades, Wazir Khan, Baisanghar and Baburi, and his undying will to be worthy of Timur’s blood. We see him showing great courage during his throneless days, when “even a bowl of soup brought a smile to [his] face.” His leadership abilities are commendable as he was able to muster enough men to his cause even when he had nothing much to offer to them in return, except for promises of glory and uncertain booty. He is also one with several flaws. He is usually rash and naive when it comes to holding Samarkand. As a result he loses it every time within weeks. In his youth, he is scolded by his grandmother for reveling in brothels around Ferghana, foregoing his duties towards his men. Through merciful in general, he is prone to playing polo with the heads of his recently vanquished enemies or constructing towers of them to strike fear in the hearts of anyone else who plans to rally against him.

Yet he is one who leads his men like a Timurid. His skills at battle struck fear in his enemies hearts; his tactics and battle plans reflect his understanding of human nature, laying traps for the susceptible traits of his enemies mind. He rewards the loyalties of his men amply and punishes their treachery with death. His love for his citizens and his desire for their prosperity is depicted in his generous distributions of grains and royal coffers. He is merciful to the women and children, which is a virtue hard to come by in those times; the men, mostly his enemies, are shown to treat women as no more than sexual toys and children as a profitable exchange at the slave market. He proves himself a dutiful son, a loving brother and a proud father.

Characterisation:

The author uses a variety of characters, some true, some fictitious and many loosely drawn from history, to bring life to the story. The women of Babur’s family are drawn directly from history and depicted in quite the same light as Babur shows them in his memoirs, Baburnama. Kutlugh Nigar’s patience and moral strength gave Babur the psychological support to launch himself to the world. Much praise is attributed to the shrewd grandmother Esan Dawlat, who understood men and their loyalties like the back of her hand, and ably guided her grandson through thick and thin, often pulling by the ear. She was a proud and astute Khanim (Descendant of Ghenghis Khan) and always reminded Babur of his Mongol ancestor. Khanzada, Babur’s sister is shown to grow to be a Khanim, wise and shrewd as her grandmother. Babur regards her support above all else and entrusts her the task of advising his sons after him.

Through the characters of Wazir Khan, Baisanghar and Baburi, the author lets us judge Babur’s role as an apprentice, a commander and a friend respectively. Wazir Khan, mentor and chief of Babur’s bodyguard was his father’s milk-brother and hence his loyalty to Babur was above question. He mentored Babur right from the age of six and was always by his side till he fell in war, saving Babur even in his last breath. It was primarily due to his support that Babur ever became king and lived beyond his twelfth birthday. Baisanghar was a noble warrior, loyal to the Timurid bloodline. Immediately following the death of Samarkand’s king, he supported Babur to keep the final request of his late king. Through the years, he served as Babur’s commander-in-chief to later become his grand vizier and also father-in-law. The most fictitious of all characters, Baburi, is introduced as a market boy who risks his life to save a baby girl from being trampled by one of Babur’s soldiers. Babur takes great liking in this youth and employs him in his cavalry. As they grow older together, the two come very close. Babur even considered him his brother. Baburi’s common sense and his direct, blunt way of dealing with Babur, made him the king’s favorite. The two are shown to exchange fists and draw each others blood, all in brotherly stubbornness. It is Baburi, who is given credit for changing Babur’s fate by introducing the Turkish cannon and muskets in Babur’s Army.

The characters shown in the negative light are just as important to the story as are Babur’s aides. His primary enemy in Central Asia, the Uzbek Lord Shaibani Khan, troubled Babur until the former fell to the Shah of Persia. Bent on relieving the earth of the Timurid bloodline, Shaibani Khan steadily crushed all opposition, leaving Babur as the last standing Timurid. He caused Babur much anguish by snatching away Samarkand from his hands and forcing him to submit Khanzada to him as a wife, in replacement for the lives of his family and men. With his fall, Babur soon came in conflict with the Shah of Persia over the issues of vassalship and converting to the Shiite faith. The people of Samarkand rejected Babur as one who had tried to strike an alliance with the Kizil-Bashi, the red-hat Shiites. Other men in the way of Babur’s rise were Ibrahim Lodi, the Sultan of Hindustan and Rana Sanga of Mewar, both of whom were no match for Babur’s Turkish artillery despite the huge armies they commanded.

The Final Word:

Author Alex Rutherford has put in much effort to bring the historic figure of Babur to life. Using all the necessary elements of a successful drama, the author has put in a strong foot in the world of historical fiction. Keeping the sanctity of history, he hasn’t tampered with the facts that are available to the historian today and has utilised fiction only to build on those facts with a stronger hold on the readers. Beautifully describing the environment and elaborately picturing the battle scenes, the author paints a a very lively portrait of Central Asian history. Though there is always the clinch about the use of the word Moghul instead of Mughal, one has to agree that Moghul, the Persian corruption of the word Mongol, is the word the Shah of Persia could have used in an attempt to humiliate Babur’s ancestry. Moghul got corrupted in Hindustan as Mughal. Here again, we see the author’s insistence on sticking to history as closely as possible.

The first part of the quintet, this books comes about as a cool getaway from the historically accurate and awfully boring paragraphs in NCERT textbooks. The amount of effort put into learning the various documents and traveling along the paths of Babur through the physically challenging terrains of Central Asia calls for strong appreciation for the author. Though he has revealed very little about himself in the book, much has already been discussed about Alex Rutherford in the various forums spread across the internet. I will not reveal the true identity of the author here, respecting his own choice to keep it a secret, but anyone who wishes to know has only to search “alex rutherford” on any search engine.

I will say that this book is far better than the average page-turner and is meant for anyone who seeks the knowledge of medieval history of Central Asia and India or is just looking for a book to spend the weekend purposefully. On a scale of 5, I rate this book at a 4.0 and eagerly wait for the upcoming books in this series. One thing is certain: the author has set the bar high for the following parts.


Originally published on an earlier blog of mine on 23 July, 2010