From India to Uzbekistan


Two boys got in a fight over twelve marbles they had found perchance.
They went to Mullah Nasruddeen to settle their dispute.
“Shall I divide these by the laws of man or by the laws of Allah?” he asked.
“By the laws of Allah, of course!” said the boys in unison.
So Mullah Nasruddeen gave three marbles to one boy and nine to the other.

Part I: Beginning

There was something deliciously subversive about buying a copy of the Baburnama (of all things) in Delhi during the high summer of 2019. My family and I had made a last-minute summer vacation plan to visit Uzbekistan. Looking for travel books, it struck me that it would be interesting to dip into the Baburnama as a primer for the trip. After all, we would be going to Samarkand, the prized city where repeated defeat drove Babur, unknowingly, to a much greater destiny in Hindustan.

It amused me to think how Babur was as grudging towards India as his detractors of the day are towards him. I learnt from the Baburnama that he even detested the Mughals! Though Babur’s mother came (over a dozen generations down) from the line of Chengiz Khan of Mughalistan, he was much more closely connected on his father’s side with the lords and masters of the Mughals – the Timurid Mirzas of Samarkand and Fergana. Babur was a direct and close descendant of Amir Timur, who founded the Timurid dynasty in Samarkand.

The Mughals or “begs” were not Timuris. They had some influence and so were engaged as nobles and generals by the Timuri rulers. But the Mughals had no birthright to any Timuri throne. In fact, they were a thorn in the side of the Timuris, spending all their time in court intrigue and playing one Timuri cousin against another. Babur said of them, “Mischief and devastation must always be expected from the Mughal horde”.

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The first time Babur lost Samarkand was because his begs deserted him, missing their homes in Fergana after months of siege at Samarkand. Within weeks of acquiring Samarkand, Babur rushed to his inherited seat of Andijan in Fergana on receiving his grandmother’s urgent reports of a conspiracy by the begs there to replace him with a rival. Babur reached Andijan only to find the rival already installed. What’s more, he had also lost Samarkand which had been vulnerable already owing to the desertion of his begs.

Babar’s saga of betrayal and disappointment at the hands of the Mughals continued right until his conquest of Hindustan. Having finally won Hindustan from Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi after much bloodshed and risk, Babur had barely settled into his new throne when he found the Mughals deserting him again for the cooler climes of Kabul. One even left with this inscription on the walls of his mansion:

“If safe and sound I cross [the] Sindh,
Blacken my face before I wish for Hind.”

The desertion of the Mughals was so widespread that Babur was forced to issue a decree commanding them to stay!

So, as Dilip Hiro also points out in his Baburnama, it is a piquant irony of history that Babur came to be known as the founder of the “Mughal” empire in Hindustan. Babur was a proud Timuri sultan, the Mughals served him and he would have been quite outraged at being demoted to their ranks.

Mughal or Timuri, Babur came as a conqueror and this has created a cult of resentment among some in India. But like many other Indians, I was brought up on the romance of the Mughals. I am proud to hold them as part of my heritage. All this has been argued to death from time to time. The Babri Masjid agitation is etched in my mind as the most tortured time that I ever saw. All this was resurrected in the fraught days of this year’s general elections. So it was good to have a get-away planned to a far-off land without, or so I thought then, any connection to mine.

In fact, Uzbekistan is not so far away at all. A direct flight from Delhi gets you into Tashkent in three hours. Looking at Babur’s march into Delhi in Baburnama I saw how close all these places were. Measured between thumb and forefinger (and with apologies for my casual approximation of distances) Samarkand is about the same distance from Fergana as Fergana is from Delhi. It made sense that Babur, having failed thrice to take Samarkand, decided to try his luck in the opposite direction about the same distance away, plus-or-minus (apologies again!) the Hindu Kush and Khyber Pass.

“Feragna-Hissar-Qunduz-Kabul-Peshavar (then Parashwar)-Lahore-Sialkot-Jalandhar-Karnal-Panipat-Delhi-Agra.” Tracing Babur’s advance upon Hindustan on the map, these familiar names gave one the homely feel of planning a train journey to one’s grandparents in a neighbouring city.

This was my first sense that Uzbekistan was not such a far-away land after all. The dim outlines of a greater nation began to appear. Hardly a name had changed in five centuries; a hint of connections, dare I say kinship, stretching far back in time. I realized that this was not going to be an ordinary vacation. I was at the beginning of a journey of deep significance.

Part 2: And….we’re off!

In keeping with the spirit of the quarreling states I was reading about in the Baburnama, our flight was greatly disrupted owing to Pakistan’s airspace being closed to planes from India after the Balakot strikes. It took us six hours to get into Tahskent, double the normal time.

The airline was basic. After two uncleaned vomits by the twin babies seated behind us, it even became near-unbearable. But I didn’t mind too much, as poor services by other countries always boost my morale as an Indian.

We were greeted by the cool, sweet air of Uzbekistan as soon as we stepped out of the airport. There was a light drizzle. The slight chill was delightful after the searing heat of Delhi.

We drove though Tashkent at midnight, passing huge art deco buildings that I guessed were built by the Russians. I was misty-eyed at the thought of breathing in the same cool airs that Babur of legend was said to have pined for in India. We had not been able to include Fergana in this trip, but it still felt as though I was visiting the home of my forebearer .

The air of this land is as sweet and mellow, and as pleasing a contrast as Babur thought, to the hot and fetid winds of the dusty plains of Hindustan. It followed us from Tashkent to Bukhara to Samarkand. Though Uzbekistan is so close to India, some felicity of latitude or altitude makes its climate extremely pleasant. Its wide open turquoise skies are invariably lovely. A blessed place indeed.

The next day we began sight-seeing with a visit to Timur Square, which is a lovely park around a grand statue of Timur on a horse. As my family and I photographed ourselves walking up to the statue, I was approached by a young lady who said she was a college student doing research on the significance of Timur around the world and asked if I would agree to speak to her. I was bursting with my newly acquired “expertise” on Timur from my copy of the Baburnama and was only too happy to oblige. So right there at the foot of Timur’s statue, on my very first day in Uzbekistan, I gave an extempore declamation on Timur as the precursor of a great destiny for my nation!

My kids were very impressed, telling my husband proudly that Mama was famous and people everywhere were ‘asking for her autograph’! My son asked me if I was an actress. This was the only break my husband and I got from our kids’ non-stop whining against sight-seeing for the entire two-week holiday.

Part III: Conquest and taking back

Timur on his horse in the square looked rather European, with trimmed beard and Caucasian features. Pictures and statues of this Caucasian Timur were everywhere we visited.

The Caucasian Timur is a bit of an anomaly given that he is meant to be a symbol of a resurgent Uzbek identity after the country declared Independence in 1991 from the Russians. Or perhaps this was a way of including in the national symbolism the country’s many Russian-origin citizens who settled there since the mid-19th century, when Russia took over. Or it may be to accommodate the Russification that must inevitably have occurred over the century-and-a-half of Russian rule.

Looking at the Uzbeks around me, with their Muslim names quaintly ending in “ov” and their strikingly non-Russian features, my first reaction was rather uncharitable towards Russia. Who were they to barge in here? What could they possibly have known about these people?

Browsing through Uzbek handicrafts at museums and galleries in Tahskent; watching the hordes of tourists visiting from deep inside Uzbekistan, in their traditional outfits, I would click my tongue at the thought of the uncomprehending Russians coming here and building their art deco palaces. It got worse as we heard stories of how Islam was repressed under the Soviets. Madrassahs shut down. Mosques closed. As Indians we talk a lot about British and American imperialism. But we are unconscious of Russian imperialism.

“What about these pine trees, are they native to here or were they also brought by the Russians?” I asked a local with whom I had been tut-tutting while visiting a madrassah that had been closed under the Soviets. “I’m not sure.” But when I grimaced, the local replied, “But the Russians did a lot of good here too, you know.”

That was undeniable. The Russians had done a lot of good here, not only in the infrastructure and relatively high standard of living visible everywhere, but also in the way they had tried to preserve and uphold the culture of the land. The grand sites of Bokhara and Samarkand were in ruins and may have been lost forever had their preservation not been commenced by the Russians. One of the best museums of Uzbek arts in Tashkent grew from the collection of an early 20th Century diplomat of Imperial Russia who seems to have gone enthusiastically native. The museum was his residence. He had it ornately decorated by master artisans from all over the country. It is very much an ode to Uzbekistan, even if it may be (I do not know enough to say) as interpreted by the Russian eye. So, there is invasion, but there is also all that follows.

I looked at my children scampering around and making a nuisance of themselves as we visited this museum. “Little invaders,” I thought, recalling unwanted glimpses of my swollen beast of a body in the mirrors and shop windows as we made our tour. Once I was slim and quite comely…..Where did it all go? A question that only comes to mind on holidays. Back home I have become adept in the avoidance of mirrors. But then, the little scamps rule my heart. Invasion is bitter, but conquest can be sweet indeed.

Thoughts about conquest and restoration were a continuous accompaniment on the trip. In Bukhara, hunting for carpets: “this is a pre-Islamic design, madam,” said the store owner. I nodded noting the animals and figures depicted. ‘Pre-Islamic’ – a reminder that the Russians were not the first invaders here.

My husband said the motifs on the carpets looked Zoarashtrian. They reminded me of the dancing dolls and animals of Gujarati patan patola saris. Much of the Uzbek aesthetic is familiar to the Indian eye. I saw golden zardozi and taar-ka-kaam type embroidery on the velvet salwar suits of touring Uzbek girls. When we landed, it was the morning after Id, and some women had mehendi on their hands. I asked where I could get Uzbek mehendi put, and they would laugh and say it was from India via Chinese-made mehendi stencils!

The anar is a popular motif on the famous embroidered wall-hangings, “suzani”, of Uzbekistan. The motif of the anar is also found in India. There, as in India, the anar is a symbol of fertility. An Uzbeki development on the anar motif that I fell in love with is the bursting anar. I couldn’t get enough of the embroideries of anars exploding in a joyous spray of seeds. A suzani master craftswoman told me that this was a symbol of prosperity. Like us, the Uzbeks also have the motif of the “tree of life”. They also have their form of ikat. This is all the shared legacy of the Silk Route and exchange of craftsmen for regal projects over the centuries.

There seems to be a dialogue continuing till today between Indian and Uzbek craftsmanship. I suspect that some of it is aided by the tastes of visiting tourists. I found the peacock in the repertoire of Uzbek motifs. I do not think the peacock is indigenous to this region, so this is probably something that came from India or farther East. In one master miniaturist’s stall I saw a tree of life with flowers that looked distinctly kalamkari. When I asked, he said that it was indeed inspired by kalamkari work. He may have been having me on. Or unknowingly correct.

I attributed to this “Indo-Uzbek dialogue” the pashmina stoles and other artifacts obviously sourced from India (or China?) displayed for foreign tourists. It was fun to smile over them with the store owners. They did not even try to sell them to me!

There is also an attempt by modern Uzbek designers and enthusiasts, like their counterparts in India, to revitalise, reintroduce and reinterpret traditional crafts. I visited a gallery-cum-workshop in Tashkent whose owner reminded me of the many handicrafts gurus of India. These are the things that civilized people use to forge a national identity. If nationhood is poetry then we Asians and Central Asians have such rich material all around us. If we so choose, we could forever be drowning in wonder and ecstasy. It’s nicer than bobbing about in anger and resentment.

Walking past the shops to Bukhara’s famous Kalan Minar, you hear the guides telling tourists about how, when Chengiz Khan invaded, he razed the city but could not bring himself to touch the exquisite Kalan Minar. “All this endless burning and marauding,” I thought to myself, unexpectedly feeling the urge to giggle. I looked around the Kalan Minar complex rolling my eyes at the imagined mandatory towers of severed heads Chengiz would have set up after his sack of Bukhara.

“War is so infra dig compared with architecture, my dear,” I said to the ghost of Chengiz. But in reply I could only feel his love for Bukhara flowing timelessly from the breathtaking Kalan Minar.

When we returned to our hotel I did some research on Chengiz Khan. I was interested to learn that before they espoused Islam, the Mongols worshipped the sky as a deity. Are the blue domes of Islamic architecture a remnant of this history? Is this an example of an abandoned past sneaking into the present? What is the past and what the present? And what do we, so gripped by the present, ever really know.

Part IV: Plunder and restoration

“Just how much of this is real and how much made up?” This crucial question about Uzbekistan first occurred to me in the second half of our trip when visiting Registan Square in Samarkand. All the tourist websites rave about Registan. Built by the great Timuris, it looks superb in photos. But as I walked into the Square and got a close look at the buildings, something seemed to be off.

Registan consists of three complexes, each with a grand darwaza set around three sides of a square. It is all tiled, unlike Bukhara where you see only dashes of tile work. The darwazas are huge, three or four times higher than the darwazas that introduce the Humayun’s Tomb or the Taj Mahal. But despite the size and full tiling, something seemed amiss. Registan was huge but without the fine sense of proportion and delicate embellishments that make our massive Mughal monuments appear so ethereal and poetic.

“Right, these Timuris only learnt to build in India,” I thought to myself. Then we went inside and behind the souvenir stalls I saw black and white photos of the historic sites of Bukhara and Samarkand as the Russians had found them. I discovered that by the late 19th century, age had left nothing but a few yawning arches and stubs of minarets and domes. This threw me. All the sites we had seen so far, and were going to see, were quite new!

As I dug around for more information, I learnt about the controversial restoration of Registan and other historical sites in Uzbekistan. Some of it had been done by the Soviets, some rushed through just after Independence by Uzbekistan’s first government under their late founding President, Islam Karimov to celebrate the 660th birth anniversary of Timur in 1996. More work was done in the 2000s, critics say in a misconceived bid to attract more tourists.

The results of Soviet and Karimovite restoration in Registan were very clumsy indeed. They should have known better. Just like in India, the quality of the workmanship has declined greatly with time. Also, materials change and techniques are forgotten. You cannot really replicate what once was. Looking at the reckless whole-hog re-building of Registan Square, I understood the reservations some experts had expressed years ago at the restoration efforts on the Red Fort and Humanyun’s Tomb in Delhi.

By being careless about proportion and balance, the restoration of Registan completely lost the point. It got better at other sites – Bukhara looked like a delicate dream to my lay eyes. The overall effect at Timur’s maqbara in Samarkand is also lovely, if you’re not being a purist.

But there is really no such thing as “restoration”. You can restore ideas and sentiments but you cannot bring back the tangible heritage of the past. Rebuilt work should not be presented as the original. It is not fair to present as Timuri or Mughal that which is the hand of another age.

The hash of restoration in some places made by the Soviets and the Uzbeks alike brings one to the inescapable conclusion that cultural despoiling can happen at the hands of the native as much as of the outsider. Also, veneration can be as destructive as contempt. Nadir Shah desecrated Timur’s tomb in Samarkand out of too keen a fascination for him. Timur lies under a green jade stone in a mausoleum in Samarkand. Centuries after his death, his great admirer Nadir Shah asked to have the tombstone brought to him. It cracked en route. Luckily the breakage shamed Nadir Shah into realizing what he had done; he sent it back and had it reinstated.

But Timur, famously restless in life, was not to be left to rest in peace. In 1941 the Russians decided to exhume his remains. Anthropologists wanted to recreate his image from his bones. Can you imagine! The story goes that the old folk of Samarkand warned the Russians not to disturb Timur’s grave. But they went ahead regardless and lifted his remains. Two days later Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Russia. This has since gone down in Uzbek lore as the Revenge of Timur’s Ghost. And so in the act of desecration, the Russians brought the might of Timur alive once more in the hearts and minds of his people. What is laid waste and what made whole by the same act. That is history. Or should be.

Part V: Mahabharata

We touched down in Delhi just as Babur had finally, after five failed attempts, managed to wrest Hindustan from Ibrahim Lodhi. As we unpacked and proudly spread out our carpets, suzanis and artifacts, I kept on reading the end of my copy of the Baburnama.

Lots of towers of severed heads and rebels skinned alive. All the litany of horrors of the way of kings, relieved by hilarious accounts of the insubordination of the begs.

Babur’s final battle with Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi reads like nothing less than the devastation at the end of the Mahabharata: “Five or six thousand men were killed in one place close to Ibrahim Lodhi. Our estimate of the other dead, lying all over the field, was 15,000 to 16,000. But it came to be known later in Agra from the statements of Hindustanis that 40,000 to 50,000 died in that battle.”

All this destruction merely because Andijan was too small a place to contain the ambitions of the son of Timur and Chengiz. As Asterix says, “These Romans are crazy!”

On one excursion, Babur casually describes the desecration of a Jain temple thus: “..people had sculpted idol statues, large and small, one large statue on the south side being perhaps twenty yards tall. These idols were shown quite naked without any covering on their private parts…..[It] was not a bad place. The idols were its defect. I destroyed them.” And so, cutting off nose and breast, Babur would have made Surpanakhas of our idols.

There is a tendency among some to be dismissive of notions of Rajput valour. Not so for Babur and his men: “Owing to the Rajput Rana Sangha’s rapid advance, the fighting prowess in Bayana and the praise of the Rajputs made by Shah Mansour, Qismati Mirza and the rest from Bayana, soldiers in my army showed sign of lack of heart.”

In another episode, after intense fighting, Babur’s men finally managed to scale the ramparts of the fort of Rajput Mindi Rao. The Rajputs withdrew into the fort. Then: “In a little while, though, they emerged again, quite naked, and renewed the battle. They put many of our soldiers to flight, forcing them to fly over the ramparts. Some they cut down and killed.

Why our enemies had so suddenly acted like this was that they had taken the resolve of those who had abandoned the place as lost. They put all their ladies and beauties to death [by fire] and then, ready to die, came out naked to battle.

Our men attacked them from the walls forcing 200 to 300 of them into Mindi Rao’s house. There they killed one another in this way: one man taking a stand with his sword while the rest stretched out their necks for his strike.” Babur’s narrative sweeps on to other matters. The vanquished are nothing. The winner takes all. Conquest is terrible.

But conquest can be terrible for the victorious as well. I got curious about Islam Karimov after visiting the Timur Museum in Tashkent. His passionate efforts to forge a proud new Uzbek nation come through strongly in his evocation of Timur and Timuri connections to the lands to which his descendants went. For example, there is a model of the Taj Mahal proudly displayed in the Timur Museum as though to put on show the Timuri gifts to the world.

There is a big chart in the museum of the descendants of Timur. In it, after some straining of neck and eye, you find the names “Nosiriddin Humoyun Podshah”, “Jalaliddin Akbarshoh”, “Jahongirshoh (Salim)”, “Shoh Jahon (Hurram)”, “Muhiddin Avrangzeb Olamgir” and the Badshah who (alas and alack!) might have been: “Sahzoda Doro Shukuh”. The cult of Dara Shuko has traveled all the way to Uzbekistan. The museum has the print of a miniature of the “Marriage of Dara Shuko”.

A plaque quotes Islam Karimov thus: “If someone wants to understand who the Uzbeks are, if somebody wants to comprehend all the power, might, justice and unlimited abilities of the Uzbek people, their contribution to global development, their belief in the future, he should recall the image of Amir Temur.” This touched me as an Indian. We are also an ancient and diverse people, just emerged from colonialism and trying to form ourselves into a modern nation. Islam Karimov had his own grave built in Samarkand, not far from Timur’s. So he has clearly staked claim to the legacy he wanted. History will decide.

Clearly though, self-rule and the re-assertion of the “native” does not automatically restore the moral order of things. It was sobering to learn about the government that was formed under Karimov. There are reports (though mostly Western and so who knows where the truth lies) of a paranoid and ferociously dictatorial regime. Rumors (again we only have the voice of the West on this) of dissidents being boiled alive in Uzbek prisons. Once, when elections were called after sharp international (that is to say, Western) criticism, Karimov’s chief rival declared that he would be casting his vote for Karimov!

God knows how difficult it is for Uzbekistan to keep the Russians at bay. Its closeness to Afghanistan possibly damns Uzbekistan to be forever caught up in the great games of modern imperialism. The Americans have also clearly played their part. There are Chevrolets everywhere, as my husband pointed out.

So “achhe din” lie not in victory but in what is made of it. Inevitably, my mind would return to India, the place that I never really left. Who is the invader and who the vanquished is nothing more than the turning of the wheel of history. Our great insight as a nation under Mahatma Gandhi was that not one of us should be ground under its revolutions. Despite the turbulent times, I am sure that the rare wisdom that grew from this soil will not be destroyed. This will be the one place on earth where Mullah Nasruddeen’s twelve marbles will eventually be divided six by six. Or, even better, they will be cast into the sea, so that all of humanity can move on to more edifying pre-occupations.

Dear reader, I thank you for staying with me this long. There is always more to say. I will leave my pictures to say the rest.

Before I end, I must add that this essay goes out with apologies to all Uzbek and Russian friends. There are few things as annoying as a foreigner commenting on one’s country. And for a mere tourist to make so much of the impressions of ten days is an absolute outrage. What is more, I have never even been to Russia. But Uzbekistan gave me too irresistible a metaphor in which to speak of things that have suddenly become unspeakable in my land. Please forgive my trespasses as your affectionate sister.

All quotes are from Dilip Hiro’s “Baburnama”, Penguin Classics, 2017 (traslated, edited and abridged from the Turki version). This essay, and indeed the writer’s trip to Uzbekistan, owes a great deal to Dilip Hiro’s wonderful and readable rendition of the Baburnama.

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