The land of Babur

Print edition : January 24, 2014

The Babur Park in Andijon, one of the many places and monuments that commemorate Uzbekistan’s most famous son.

The iconic Kalyan Minaret and Mosque in Bukhara.

The magnificent Khazrat-e-Emam mosque in Tashkent.

In Andijon, the house in which Babur was born. It is now a museum.

The citadel of Khodyar Khan in Kokand, the last of the independent Khanates before it was brought under the Russian Empire in 1876.

Spice vendors in Tashkent.

Women in a Tashkent suburb.

Registan Square, in Samarkand, marked by a perfectly balanced ensemble of exquisite Timurid architecture.

The entrance to the Gur Emir, Samarkand.

A view of the site where the town of Afrasiob, in ancient Samarkand, was founded by Iranian immigrants in the 7th century B.C. and which Genghis Khan destroyed in the 13th century A.D.

The roof design inside Timur's tomb, Gur Emir, in Samarkand.

The sextant in the Ulug Beg Observatory in Samarkand.

A quiet street in Bukhara, an enchanting desert town with labrynthine alleys.

A close-up of the Kalyan Minaret.

The statue of the father of modern algebra, Mohammed Ibn Musa, al the Ichan Kala, or Royal Court, in Khiva.

Khiva, the ancient capital of the Khorazem province. Considered an important centre of Islam, it has 94 mosques and 63 madrassas.

The ICAF delegates at Shastri Park in Tashkent on October 2, Lal Bahadur Shastri's birth anniversary.

AFTER the severe steppes of Kazakhstan and the stark mountains of the Kyrgyz Republic, the India-Central Asia Foundation (ICAF) expedition through Central Asia entered Uzbekistan on the last leg of its journey. This republic came across as a stark contrast to the lands we had crossed so far, not only for its varied landscape, vibrant people, colourful culture and chequered history but also for the thoroughness of the Uzbek immigration and customs officials at the land border. Our luggage was rummaged through meticulously, even our laptops were opened and files scrutinised. The procedure took a long time, but all the while we were entertained by the immigration officials who spotted resemblances to Bollywood stars in the facial features of the three young women in our team.

Professor P.L. Dash of Bombay University, who is currently the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) India Chair at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent, the Uzkek capital, had come all the way to the border to receive and accompany the delegation. A new set of vehicles had been arranged to take the team through the next 1,500 kilometres of Uzbek territory. The Cyrillic script gives way to Latin and the Russian language makes way for Uzbek. Yet, all the towns of the Ferghana Valley—Andijon, Ferghana, Rishton, Namangan, Kokand—still bear the unmistakable imprint of Soviet influence, with their broad, tree-lined avenues and clean streets.

The legendary fertility of the Ferghana Valley is much in evidence. Both sides of the highway have burst into a profusion of blinding white flashes as far as the eye can see. This is cotton country. September is also the fruiting season, and in villages and towns, every home is fronted with trellises, all laden with luscious grapes. Throughout the countryside, there are melons, watermelons, apples, apricots, quinces, persimmons and many other fruits that we do not even recognise. In parks, public spaces, cafes, restaurants and streets, there are fruit trees and the sidewalks are stained with fruit juice. No wonder, Babur spoke so nostalgically of the sweetness of the melons of his homeland.

Babur’s land

Ferghana today is just as nostalgic for Zahiruddin Mohammad Babur, its most illustrious son. The legendary Uzbek boy who went on to shape the destiny of Hindustan for the next 300 years dominates the psyche and public spaces of Ferghana. Besides Babur’s rather modest home in Andijon, now turned into a museum, there is a Babur Park, a Babur Monument, a Babur International Foundation and several other institutions devoted to the study of Babur’s life and times.

The son of a modest chieftain, Babur traces his lineage to the legendary Timur on his father’s side and to the fearsome Mongol warrior Genghis Khan on his mother’s. After suffering reverses in his own homeland, Babur was forced to seek his fortunes in neighbouring Afghanistan and, eventually, India, where he founded the Mughal empire. Historians have it that Babur was a military adventurer of genius and an empire builder of good fortune. Babur was also a gifted Turki poet and a lover of nature who built lavish gardens. Baburnama, his memoirs in the Chagatai language, portray a ruler unusually magnanimous for his age, cultured, witty and displaying an adventurous spirit.

We drove from Andijon to Ferghana town, where we halted for the night. The following day, we visited Kokand, the region’s last flourishing and independent Khanate that was crushed by Tsarist soldiers and brought under the Russian empire in 1876. The citadel of Khodayar Khan, the last Khan of this region, still stands, albeit a little damaged. It has since been converted into a delightful museum. Ferghana is also known for its silk weaving and ceramics, besides other handicrafts. We make a brief stopover at Rishton, known for its signature pottery.

Ferghana, of course, has moved on. It now has a Chevrolet plant. Cars manufactured here will have to travel all the way across the giant mountains before they can reach their showrooms in Tashkent and the rest of the country.

We met Dinesh Prabu, a textile engineer from Tirumangalam in Tamil Nadu, who, along with his colleagues, was setting up the machinery at the Indorama textile plant in Kokand.

Ferghana’s fecundity and the consequent prosperity seem to be its undoing. Coveted by all the three countries abutting it and settled by people from all over Central Asia, the region is an ethnic soup. Its economy relies heavily on trade, and that is the challenge for Uzbekistan, which is doubly landlocked. In fact, almost all the cotton grown in Ferghana is exported as raw material. Besides, the country also produces substantial quantities of gold, uranium and copper, all of which have to cross the Chaktal range that stands between Ferghana and Tashkent before they are exported.

There used to be a railway line between Ferghana and Tashkent, but that ran through Tajik territory. Services have been suspended since 2005. The Uzbeks are now building another railway line through the mountains with Chinese help. The new line will bypass Tajik territory and run through a series of tunnels. For now, all commodities move by road through mountain passes that abut Tajikistan. Every tunnel and bridge on the Uzbek side is heavily guarded. After all, there is just one 400-kilometre road that connects Ferghana Valley with Tashkent and if that is cut off, the Uzbeks will lose control over their part of the valley.

Indology in Tashkent

In Tashkent, the ICAF delegation held extensive discussions with a distinguished panel of Indologists from the University of World Economy and Diplomacy. Speeches were made in chaste Hindi by our hosts and we discussed the role of Uzbekistan in the region and the threats to its stability from the rise of Islamist fundamentalism, especially after the withdrawal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops from Afghanistan in 2014. A visit to the Mahatma Gandhi Indology Centre gave us an indication of Uzbek interest in the study of India and Indian languages. However, the faculty lamented New Delhi’s lackadaisical approach to fostering Indology studies, contrasting it with the proactive interest the Chinese have shown in promoting the Chinese language and culture in Uzbekistan.

In Tashkent, we participated in a solemn ceremony held by the Indian embassy to commemorate the birth anniversary of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. A small group of Indians had gathered in Shastri Park to remember the beloved leader who breathed his last on this soil. At the Al-Beruni Institute of Oriental Studies, we were shown a treasure house of 40,000 rare manuscripts, most of which are yet to be deciphered. One of our team members, Ramakant Dwivedi, is an alumnus of this institute.

Samarkand: past and present

Samarkand, the next stopover on our itinerary, is indeed the magnet of Central Asia and a prominent town on the ancient Silk Road. Today, it is largely known for its Timurid legacy, its Registan and other glittering monuments built in the 14th and 15th centuries. However, Samarkand’s glory predates Islam.

Founded in the 7th century B.C. as Afrasiob, this region was the heart of Sogdiana. The ethnically Iranian Sogdians who lived in Samarkand played a key role in the commerce along the Silk Road even though they never established a single strong state. Located in a large oasis in the valley of the Zerafshan river in the north-eastern region of Uzbekistan, Afrasiob reigned supreme at the crossroads of world cultures, until Genghis Khan destroyed it in the 13th century. However, it bounced back to prominence once again as Samarkand during the Timurid period.

Archaeological excavations of Afrasiob have revealed an ancient citadel and fortifications, the palace of the ruler with its wall paintings still intact, and its residential and craft quarters. There is considerable evidence in the paintings, archaeological material and written sources to show that several religions were practised in Afrasiob. The excavations have revealed fire altars from private homes and fragments of ossuaries, pointing to the importance of Zoroastrianism. Xuanzang’s biographer reports that during the monk’s visit in 631, Zoroastrian priests chased away two of his Buddhist followers.

Sogdians, however, were among the translators of Buddhist scriptures in China, presumably because they had the linguistic skills, honed by life at the crossroads of major trade routes connecting China with India via Central Asia. Today, little of the Buddhist heritage survives in Sogdiana, much to the chagrin of Sunita Dwivedi, author of three books on the Buddhist heritage of Central Asia and a member of our team. There is also evidence of Hindu influence in nearby Panjakent, not to mention the remnants of Nestorian Christian artefacts.

Today, Samarkand seems to have shrugged off its past grandeur and moved on. Its splendid Islamic monuments merely form a backdrop for a modern city bustling with fashionable avenues and shopping malls. The city’s central attraction is Registan Square, a perfectly balanced ensemble of exquisite Timurid architecture. It is certainly one of the most beautiful city squares in the world, comparable to Imam Square in Esfahan (See “An architectural symphony”, Frontline, September 24, 2004).

The city’s myriad monuments were painstakingly restored during the Soviet rule, and the modern-day visitor can hardly tell the difference between the ancient structure and the restored version. Gur Emir, Timur’s flamboyant tomb, is an ode to symmetry and extravagance befitting his personality, while the Bibi Khanum mosque, built for his favourite Mongol wife, is a structure of immense grace and beauty. We also visited Ulugh Beg’s Observatory to admire the marble sextant built by Timur’s astronomer grandson.

The starkness of Bukhara

Bukhara, unlike Samarkand, is a quintessential desert town, an oasis stopover for weary traders embarking upon the punishing wilderness of the Kyzilkum and Karakum deserts, which they must cross to reach the markets in Byzantine. Bukhara’s architecture is stark, mostly unglazed and unembellished, emphasising its burnished brown rawness and aesthetics. The iconic Kalyan Minaret and Mosque dominate the skyline. Originally built as a beacon to guide travellers, the minaret’s unrivalled elegance belies its bloody past. Successive emirs used the top of the minaret to fling convicts down to their death in an age when cruelty was celebrated as the mark of manhood. We wandered through Bukhara’s labyrinthine alleys and climbed to the top of the Ark citadel to have a bird’s-eye view of this enchanting town.

(For a more detailed account of Samarkand and Bukhara by the same author, see “Central Asian splendour”, Frontline,February 13, 2004.)

The very last leg of our journey took us through the Kyzilkum desert. Karakalpakistan, named after the black caps worn by its inhabitants, is an autonomous province of Uzbekistan populated by Kazakh people and is located on the road from Bukhara to Urgench, the main town in the Khorazem province. The rivers Amu Dharya and Syr Dharya, mighty when they start their course from the highlands of Tajikistan, dwindle to mere streams as they reach the end of their journey in the desert. The Kyzilkum desert, stretching for several hundred kilometres, has a world-class road slicing through it but no villages. Not long ago, there was no road through this desert and camel caravans had to brave the searing heat and venomous vermin. If they survived both, they still had to negotiate stretches infested with brigands and wild tribesmen. Today, travellers can cruise in air-conditioned comfort and stop at a midway eatery and refuel their vehicles, too. No wonder many choose to do so. We found the eatery crammed with motorbikes and sports-utility vehicles of two groups on expedition, one from Malaysia—all men, on bikes —and the other, a group of Europeans.

Khiva and algebra

The end of the desert stretch brought us to Khiva, a town much like Bukhara in its infamy as also in its architecture. It was the ancient capital of the Khorazem province. According to archaeological evidence, the city existed in as early as the 6th century, but it was first recorded in the 10th century by two Arabian travellers. In the 16th century, it became the capital of the Khanate of Khiva. By the 17th century, the city began to develop as a slave market. During the first half of the 19th century alone, some one million Persians as well as an unknown number of Russians were enslaved and transported there before being sold. Many of them were sent to work on the construction of buildings in the walled Ichan Kala (Royal Court), which is the most striking feature of the historic city. Slavery was abolished only after the October Revolution in 1917.

Khiva has 94 mosques and 63 madrassas and is considered an important centre of Islam. In 1990, Ichan Kala was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), paving the way for its preservation as a museum city. Spotlessly clean, the town, however, seems to lack the vibrancy of a quintessential caravan city of yore. Today, all we have are camera-wielding tourists haggling for trinkets with local craftswomen.

We wandered through the maze of masjids, museums, maqbaras, and madrassas. There is a gorgeous unfinished minaret in the heart of Ichan Kala. Legend has it that the Khan who began its construction died before its completion and his successor decided not to finish the structure, since a full-size minaret would have given the muezzin unhindered view of the emir’s harem.

Despite its unsavoury history, Khiva was not without distinction. In its precincts lived the father of modern algebra and trigonometry in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. Mohammed Ibn Musa al-Khorezmi’s systematic approach to solving linear and quadratic equations led to algebra, a word derived from the title of his book on the subject, The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing.

According to Wikipedia, Al-Khorezmi systematised and corrected Ptolemy’s data for Africa and West Asia, presented the coordinates of places based on those in the Geography of Ptolemy but with improved values for the Mediterranean Sea, Asia, and Africa, and wrote on mechanical devices such as the astrolabe and the sundial. He assisted in a project to determine the circumference of the earth and in making a world map for Al-Ma’mun, the caliph, overseeing 70 geographers. Al-Khorezmi’s statue dominates the square in Ichan Kala.

At the Mamun Institute in Khiva, originally set up by Alberuni himself more than 1,500 years ago and functioning almost continuously except for a break of about 150 years, there is a museum that gives us a crash course on Uzbek history from the prehistoric times to the present. Al-Khorezmi occupies pride of place in the museum alongside Ibn Sina, the African physician who came to Khiva to heal and cure.

Climate change and the Aral Sea

At Urgench State University, the ICAF delegation was briefed about the concerns of the region, mainly relating to climate change. The Aral Sea, not far from here, is drying up, raising the salinity of the already unyielding land. The population here is dependent mostly on agriculture, and if this trend continues, the people of this region may have to move to cities to find other employment. Upstream states such as Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic have been building dams and hydel projects, hastening the demise of the Aral Sea.

The ICAF delegation wrapped up its historical journey through Central Asia at Urgench from where it flew back to Delhi.

The journey took us over 5,000 kilometres of the most challenging terrain on the earth. It straddled some spectacular mountain ranges, teetering passes, withering wilderness, vast steppes, fertile valleys and river basins, and seemingly interminable stretches of barren desert. We passed through three national capitals and numerous historic towns and villages en route. We met with officials, politicians, academics and ordinary people to exchange views and perspectives and to rediscover our common heritage.

The journey gave us valuable insights into the heroic efforts being made by the three Central Asian Republics to break free of the shackles of history and geography to find their rightful place in today’s world.

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