The NPC Guest List at Babur’s Last, Greatest Party

This week we return for our final intriguing moment in the autobiography of Babur (1483-1530), the founder of the Mughal Empire in India. In 1528 he threw an enormous party with an astonishing cast of characters. Having all these people – all with their own reasons to love and hate one another – in the same place at the same time makes a terrific situation in which to set an adventure. And the guest list to this party contains some really great NPCs!

This is the fifth and final post in this monthly Babur series.

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When last we left Babur, he’d just conquered the Delhi Sultanate, thereby founding what we now call the Mughal Empire. He had little time to get comfortable. Only a year later, in 1527, the powerful Indian nation of Mewar tried to oust Babur and drive him back to Afghanistan. Mewar’s leaders had little love for the Delhi Sultanate that Babur replaced, but the new emperor was clearly dangerous and had to be countered. Instead, Babur smashed Mewar’s army, making him the master of northern India. This was the first campaign that Babur, a Sunni Muslim, framed in explicitly religious terms. He put out propaganda depicting the campaign as jihad against Mewar, a Hindu state. After this victory, he declared himself a ghazi: a victor over the enemies of Islam.

Babur’s switch to a pious public persona was complicated by the fact that he was a notorious party animal. He’d long been an avid drinker, partier, and eater of opium. One memorable moment in his autobiography recounts a party he held on a very long boat. It started out with everybody drinking kumis (fermented mare’s milk). Then folks on one end of the boat started eating opium edibles. The boat was so long that the partiers at the other end didn’t know this was happening, and soon you had two parties: one drunk, one stoned. The two parties soon grated on one another (“a wine party and an opium party cannot coexist” says Babur) and had to be broken up. Alcohol is forbidden in Islam. Scholars in Babur’s time and place didn’t feel the prohibition extended to opium, which was a medicine, even when taken recreationally.

So as part of his religious revival, Babur gave up alcohol. It was a great gesture for rallying his (mostly Muslim) soldiers. He also genuinely felt bad about his wayward behavior and wanted to return to the abstemious habits of his youth. Giving up booze wasn’t easy; Babur was almost certainly an alcoholic. He did not enforce his dry habits on anyone else. He also didn’t give up opium. Indeed, he probably increased its use to compensate for losing booze. Had history turned out differently, I’d be interested to see if Babur’s sudden lurch towards religion wound up lasting. Instead, he’d die three years later at the age of 47. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1528, with two years left in his life, Babur threw a party. It was a huge deal. We don’t know the reason for it. Maybe it was to celebrate the birth of a grandson or the marriage of a son. Maybe it was to inaugurate his new empire. Regardless, Babur wanted everyone to be there. His former allies, his hated enemies, people who’d done him favors in the past, people he’d go to war with in the future – everybody was there! (With one collection of interesting exceptions we’ll talk about later.) And because the world is messy, all these guys had complicated relationships with one another. Two delegations were actively at war with one another at the time of the feast! It was almost a sort of international diplomatic conference, except it was a party. The whole thing was a powder keg waiting to explode, and I’m amazed it didn’t. We’re going to look at these delegations one by one.

Seated in the place of honor at Babur’s right hand were a group of Khwajas from Samarkand. Khwajas are Sufi teachers. Sufism is a strain of Islam found in both of the religion’s major sects (Sunni and Shia) and is focused on becoming closer to God in this life. That’s an enormous oversimplification – and outright contentious in places. Everything to do with Sufism is complicated. Babur had a great fondness for Khwajas. One had instructed him in religion as a child and was part of the council of trusted advisors that kept him alive and in power until he was old enough to play politics on his own. That these Khwajas had come all the way from far-off Samarkand is noteworthy. As a teenager, Babur had twice ruled Samarkand. At the time of the party, it was the capital of the Uzbek state: the hated enemies who had driven Babur from his homeland.

Babur singled out two of the teachers for the greatest honor. Khwaja Adbush-Shahid and Khwaja Kalan were the nephew and grandson of one Khwaja Yahya, a loyal supporter of Babur’s who was murdered by Uzbeks in the chaos of their conquests. Shaybani, the then-king of the Uzbeks, executed the aristocrat whom Yahya was serving as a personal pastor and dismissed Yahya. A few Uzbek soldiers followed the teacher down the road and killed him. Khwaja Adbush-Shahid and Khwaja Kalan were noteworthy largely for their ancestry, not for anything in particular they’d done for Babur. But Babur held them in very high esteem. Khwaja Kalan would later request and receive a copy of Babur’s autobiography. At your table, these holy men inherited the family business and everyone thinks they’re amazing because of who they’re descended from. One believes his own hype and is kind of a jerk. The other disagrees, and is thus praised even more for his humility.

Seated among the Khwajas – but not one of them – was Tukhta-Bugha, the black sheep of Babur’s family. He was the son of Babur’s mother’s brother (one of the relatives who’d betrayed Babur in the past). He only arrived at Babur’s court a year before the party. Babur doesn’t reveal what he’d been up to before then. He might have been a homeless wanderer, a mercenary, or even a hostage held by the Uzbeks in exchange for the good behavior of some surviving branch of the family. Babur suspected Tukhta-Bugha was a sorcerer. That’s really bad, but in the absence of hard evidence, Babur couldn’t turn family away from his court or from his party. At your table, Tukhta-Bugha is a sorcerer with a dark past he keeps secret. He nurses many resentments that may explode outwards at dramatically-appropriate moments.

On Babur’s left hand there were a whole bunch of people, most notably Muhammad-i-Zaman Mirza: the white sheep of an inauspicious family. He was the grandson and last surviving heir of the king of Herat killed by the Uzbeks two posts ago. That king had 14 sons and who knows how many grandsons, but only Muhammad-i-Zaman survived. Babur paints the man’s dead kin as feckless, focused on vice and pleasure over rulership. But Muhammad-i-Zaman was a warrior-aristocrat in Babur’s mold. After the fall of Herat, Muhammad-i-Zaman and his soldiers became great wanderers. He intended they should join Babur at Kabul and sent word to that effect, but one of his traveling companions changed his mind. Babur was insulted and rode out to capture him and forced him to join the court. Babur integrated the kidnapped Herati into his family by giving him his daughter in marriage. Muhammad-i-Zaman fought in Babur’s armies on numerous occasions, and was given honor, incomes, and land. Alone of Babur’s chiefs, he was permitted to sit beneath a special umbrella that signified his sovereignty and status. After Babur’s death, he rebelled against Babur’s son and successor. At your table, this guy’s a counterpoint to your analogue of the brooding Tukhta-Bugha: a hero (whatever that means in your fictional setting) sometimes misled into bad decisions.

Amid all these kings and princelings, one group of honored guests stood out: a bunch of peasants and small landowners from Central Asia. All these people had, at various points in Babur’s tumultuous life, given him help when he was landless and homeless. Babur doesn’t name any of these people or what exactly they did for him, but some almost certainly gave him food, a place to sleep, or valuable supplies in one of the many times he desperately needed it. To these people, Babur gave gifts of gold and silver, jackets, silk dresses of honor, and hard goods. At your table, these guys are salt-of-the-earth types, totally out of place rubbing shoulders with aristocrats at a fancy party. They all have interesting stories about hiding the fleeing boy-king so long ago and about their travel to the party: messengers with fine horses arriving unexpectedly at their doorsteps to announce they would be conveyed in luxury a month away to be honored in a place they might not even have heard of.

Farther from Babur, on his right side, there was a pavilion beneath which sat envoys from Persia. That made matters complicated. Savafid Persia was a lion. It burst into Central Asia about the same time Babur was getting established in Kabul. For a while, Babur had even positioned himself as a Persian client. For this, the Savafids loaned him an army he used against the Uzbeks to some success. But the price was high. The Savafids were Shia Muslims, while Babur’s entire world was Sunni. And the Savafids were serious about Shiism. In exchange for his loaned army, Babur had to govern his kingdom in a way that signaled Shiite allegiances. There were phrases to use, rituals to perform, changes to make, even hats to wear, all of which said to his subjects “This is a Shia kingdom.” The Savafids didn’t care what Babur did in private, but in public he had to send the right messages. This pissed off a lot of Babur’s retainers, subjects, and allies. Ultimately he decided the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. He gave back the army and returned to being publicly Sunni. One doesn’t have to try hard to imagine there might be some resentment in the Savafid court over Babur’s change of heart.

Babur doesn’t name the envoy Persia sent to the party. He just calls him “the younger brother of Hasan Chalabi”. The Chalabi name indicates this guy was some sort of royal – but he may have been as unimportant a royal as the Savafids could send without causing insult. Hasan Chalabi himself showed up at Babur’s court about a month later. It’s not clear why he was late (or even if he was), but we can imagine his younger brother being surprised that Hasan himself didn’t make it to the party. Now the younger brother has to represent the Savafid court all by himself, something he wasn’t expecting and might not have been properly equipped to do. At your table, this guy’s unimportance is great because it means he’s not important enough to solve problems, but he is important enough to accidentally create them. If he’s wronged or if he accidentally wrongs someone else, his presence as a royal lends the matter serious weight. Plus, your fictional version of the younger brother is definitely nursing a grudge against your Babur-analogue. If there’s not a former-vassal thing going on, there’s some other wound he’s nursing.

There was another prominent Shiite at the party, though he was not seated with the Persian delegation. Sayyid Shah Tahir Deccani was an apostle of Shia Islam to India. He was a descendant of Muhammad (that’s what ‘Sayyid’ means in this context) and came from Persia. The Savafids, newly come to power, were leery of Shah Tahir’s popularity with the small Ismaili sect of Shiism. The Savafids, like most Iranians today, were Twelver Shia, and thus disagreed with Ismaili Shia on several points. Persia’s rulers felt Shah Tahir might be a threat to their authority. He escaped to southern India one step ahead of the Savafid execution order. There he worked as a missionary, spreading his version of Shia Islam. He was the only named guest at this party that I could identify as having traveled there from southern India. At your table, this cheeky missionary will delight in tweaking the noses of his former persecutors, and may drive them into an international incident. He’s also one of the best-traveled people at this party and can probably explain some of the finer points of what’s going on to confused PCs.

There was another pavilion at the party, this one on Babur’s left side: that of the Uzbeks. Yes, the Uzbeks! The nation that – while doing nothing the other nations here didn’t also do – were the hated mutual enemies of most of the people at this party. At that very moment, there were very real concerns that the Uzbek state was preparing to seize Badakhshan in eastern Afghanistan from Babur. And the Persian shah was also at that very moment waging an important war against the Uzbeks. But Babur wanted everybody to be at his party, and ‘everybody’ is a category that included the Uzbeks, so here they were.

The Uzbek delegation was not united the way the Persian one was. A man named Amin Mirza was the personal envoy of Kuchum, the new Uzbek king. A man named Mullah Taghai represented one of King Kuchum’s sons, and there were servants there representing another of the king’s sons. None of these guys are described in the autobiography. But at your table, these envoys are probably trying to enjoy the free party while keeping their heads attached to their necks. Amin Mirza has the most to fear, as King Kuchum was probably married to one of Babur’s half-sisters, captured on one of the many occasions where the Uzbeks defeated Babur in war. My wife joked that ‘Amin Mirza’ must translate as ‘short straw’. In your fictional setting, these envoys are going to be checking behind every curtain for assassins and eating only from dishes other people have touched first – all while desperately trying not to make it seem like that’s what they’re doing, lest they insult the hospitality of their host and thereby give him a reason to get mad.

Babur also used the party to honor men in his army and his household who’d performed exceptional service. In his autobiography, he calls out several. Mir Muhammad was a raftsman who built an excellent bridge over the Ganges River in an earlier campaign. Haji Muhammad and Buhlul were the best of the matchlock-men who’d proven so useful when taking India. And we don’t know what he did, but “Wali the cheetah-keeper” is an NPC I’d build an entire adventure around.

Have you noticed who isn’t present at this party thrown by a new Indian emperor? Indians. The closest thing there to a representative from India outside the Mughal Empire was Shah Tahir, the Shia missionary – and he was Persian by birth. You might chalk this up to Babur only wanting Muslims at his party. But much of India was ruled by Muslims. Sure, Muslim Bengal might not be invited – or might refuse an invitation – since they were preparing for a war against Babur. And mighty Vijayanagara, center of culture and richest nation in India, might have failed to receive an invitation or refused to accept it because their rulers were Hindu. Poor Mewar, so recently defeated in war, is weird to see omitted but not shocking, given how Babur vilified them. Still, their attendance would have been a good way for him to reinforce their subordinate status. It would have been bold for them to receive an invite and not attend, but I don’t know.

But what of the Deccan states, most notably Bijapur? They were ruled by Shiites. And they were flourishing. The Mughal Empire was a cultural and economic backwater compared to them. They’re an obvious omission. Could they have sent representatives who weren’t mentioned by Babur? Might they have politely declined an invitation to a party thrown by this weird foreigner? Or might Babur have still been so focused on Central Asia that he failed to recognize that his empire was fundamentally Indian? The latter reading is consistent with the feelings Babur presents in his autobiography. He seemed to view himself as a Central Asian (Timurid) king whose kingdom lay mostly outside Central Asia due more to happenstance than intention.

At your table, this blind spot – that this is a booze-fueled international summit hosted by an Indian nation but without any Indian envoys – creates a tension that’s screaming to be used. PCs might be bodyguards, guests, or entertainers. I would love to see them as gate-crashers sent by your fictional analogue of Bengal or Bijapur (“We’re Muslims! Why weren’t we invited?”) or Vijayanagara (“You’re a bunch of backwater yokels, and we’re going to remind you of it.”). There are opportunities for espionage, poisoning, and politics. Guests who hate one another can be provoked into creating offense. Everyone can be put to everyone else’s throat, and the whole political order of your fictional setting can be made to tumble down. Of, if your players prefer, dissidents at the party may be trying to cause the trouble I just described, and the PCs have to catch them and smooth everything over. Mysterious warrior-sorcerer Tukhta-Bugha is the clear choice for a villain.

This party is a lot less specific to this time and place than you might expect. All you really need is an upstart kingdom newly arrived on the scene and a few differences of opinion. In this historical context, the differences are about religion and the lingering wounds of the Uzbek conquest. But at your table they can be absolutely anything – adjust it to fit your fictional setting.

This illustration from a 16th-century copy of Babur’s autobiography shows Babur visiting a Hindu temple. The Hindus are in gray.

I can’t leave without briefly describing the course of events at this feast. The guests all brought gifts for Babur, and Babur had them piled on a carpet in the middle of the festivities: cloth in red, white, and black; gold and silver bullion; purses full of money. While the gifts were coming out, Babur had camels, rams, and elephants released on an island in easy viewing distance. The animals had been drugged so they would fight one another for the amusement of the crowd. Then some wrestlers grappled and the food started to come out. Wine was almost certainly present, though Babur was no longer drinking. As the food came out, the four most prominent people there were given fine clothes to wear and big piles of gold and silver: the two Khwajas, the Persian envoy, and the envoy of the Uzbek king. It seems they were all given their gifts simultaneously so as not to show favoritism. Then everyone else at the party got gifts appropriate to their station and accomplishments.

The party continued all night. Indian acrobats performed wonderful spectacles, including one where a small acrobat stood atop the head of a larger one while they both continued to move and perform their tricks. More gifts were thrown out, and the guests – by now quite drunk – pushed and shoved one another aside to get them. At about 9 A.M., Babur still hadn’t gone to bed. He ended the festivities by going out onto a boat and eating some opium.

This concludes my five-part Babur series. Thanks for sticking around! Next week I’m going to add a little coda to it with an incident involving hidden treasure from the life of Babur’s son and successor, Humayun. Then it’s back to the regular thing where every week it’s something different!

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