Imperial Mughal Literature: A Rich Source of Scientific Information

By Abhijit M. Bal
2022, Vol. 14 No. 02 | pg. 1/1


India was ruled by the Timurid-Mughal dynasty from 1526 to 1857. This period is mainly recognised for its art and architecture. The Timurid-Mughals also promoted knowledge and scholarship. Two of the Mughal emperors, Babur and Jahangir, wrote their memoirs. Babur’s daughter, Gulbadan Begum, composed the biography of her brother, Humayun. The imperial literature contains rich information. In this essay, I have highlighted the scientific information contained in the manuscripts. These include details of natural calamities, description of the natural world, astronomical sciences, medical sciences, and many other observations that have hitherto gone unnoticed. A careful study of Babur’s description of the earthquake of 1505 can lead to precise dating of this event. The description of syphilis in Babur’s memoirs enables us to track the spread of the disease. Jahangir independently discovered two of the comets of 1618. Jahangir also described bubonic and septicaemic plague. Systematic and constructive interrogation of Mughal literature can reveal many pieces of scientific and historical data that have been overlooked until now.


The Mughal empire was founded in the year 1526 by Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (1483-1530). Born in Akhsi in the Fergana valley, Babur traced his ancestry to Amir Timur (1336-1405) on the paternal side and Changez Khan (1162-1227) on the maternal side (Dale, 2018). Except for a brief period between 1540 and 1555 when the Afghans held power, the dynasty which Babur founded reigned uninterrupted for more than 300 years. The Mughals flourished and prospered in their new home, establishing trade links with Asia and Europe, and introducing major administrative reforms in India.

The last hundred years of the Mughal dynasty were marked by dwindling fortunes and the ever-increasing dominance of the British East India Company. Ultimately, in 1857, following the Sepoy Mutiny when Indian troops revolted against the Company, Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775-1862), the last Mughal emperor, was finally dethroned and banished to live his last years in exile in Burma (now Myanmar). Queen Victoria (1819-1901) became the Empress of India and India the jewel in the British Crown.

Despite oscillating fortunes, Babur’s successors eventually formed a stable empire. At the height of their power, Mughal presence was felt in a vast region of the South Asian subcontinent and neighbouring Central Asia. Their lasting impact is reflected in art and architecture such as the Taj Mahal in Agra and the stunning Friday mosques of Lahore and Delhi, as well as in the languages of the subcontinent.

In comparison, Mughal literature, dwarfed by the evident magnificence of the numerous Mughal forts, monuments, and tombs, suffers from neglect. Written work composed by the Mughal emperors and other members of the imperial family is even less appreciated. These intimate and personal records contain not only historic material, but also a wealth of information relating to the understanding and exploration of various sciences. This article explores the autobiographies of the Mughal emperors Babur and Jahangir (1569-1627), the biography of second Mughal emperor Humayun (1508-1556) by Humayun’s half-sister, princess Gulbadan Begum (1523-1603), as well a book of narrative history by Babur’s cousin, Mirza Muhammad Haider Dughlat (1499-1551). This paper explores the knowledge that the Mughals had acquired and how reading of their works improves our understanding of the present from the constructed narrative.


The Baburnama

Babur survived the vicissitudes of fortune before setting foot in Southeast Asian subcontinent. Babur was not merely an emperor. He was a writer and a poet, as well as a keen observer of the world around him. These traits made him both a philosopher and a naturalist. Babur’s journey began in the Fergana Valley, a region that stretches from eastern Uzbekistan into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Fergana had been enriched over millennia by the Greeks, Scythians, Kushans, Persians, and the Mongols. In the 15th century, the valley was a cradle of art, culture and architecture, whose influences would subsequently spread to the subcontinent courtesy of the Mughals. Babur understandably loved Fergana. He wrote eloquently of the delights of the cities of Samarkand and Kabul. In comparison, he expressed disappointment with “Hindustan,” the Persian name for the lands east of the River Indus that now constitute modern Pakistan and northern and central India (Thackston, 2002a). Babur could not acclimatise to Hindustan during the four years he spent in campaigns in the subcontinent even as he laid the foundations of the Mughal empire. He often lamented the lack of good melons.

Babur’s extensive memoirs include his observations and thoughts. This compilation, now known as Baburnama, has been translated from Chagatai Turkish to several languages such as Persian and English. Babur wrote his memoirs in his youth through to his middle years. He often revisited and edited his memoirs as he grew older. His detailed and vivid memoirs were highly treasured by his Mughal successors. Babur’s original diary had been written solely as a continuous text with no illustrations. Magnificent illustrations to accompany the text were subsequently added by commissioned artists during the reign of his successors. Babur’s great-grandson, the fourth Mughal emperor, Jahangir restored some parts of Baburnama on a visit to Kabul (Rogers & Beveridge, 2018a).

The Humayun-nama

In contrast to Babur, his daughter, Gulbadan Begum, wrote in her later years. Gulbadan was born to Babur when the emperor was well into middle age. As such she knew her father more from his memoirs that from any direct contact. Gulbadan Begum was perhaps the first Muslim woman in history to make a substantial contribution to historical writing. Her composition, the Humayun-nama, narrates the story of her half-brother, Humayun, as well as her father. Gulbadan Begum wrote her account on the request of her nephew, Akbar (1542-1605) (Beveridge, 1902a).

The Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri

Jahangir was the fourth Mughal emperor. Inheriting a vast and stable empire from Akbar, Jahangir had little interest in military expansion. Jahangir’s own work, the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, was a more directed effort published in two volumes. Jahangir introduces the readers to each successive year in his memoirs. The emperor had a passionate and emotional personality. Until such a time that he was still active, there is only one portion in his memoirs that he could not bring himself to write, the passing away of his little granddaughter, which was written by his father-in-law, Mirza Ghiyas Beg (d. 1622), also known as I'timad-Ud-Daulah, on the emperor’s behalf (Rogers & Beveridge, 2018b).

The Tarikh-i-Rashidi

This is a book of history whose sole intention is to document events. Its author, Mirza Muhammad Haider Dughlat, was the ruler of Kashmir and a cousin of Babur. While history is incidental to Baburnama, which is essentially an autobiography, any personal account is incidental to this textbook of narrative history.

In the following paragraphs, I discuss the academic contribution of the Mughal dynasty exploring the written material with a view to provide a context to their observations. This review focusses on the actual writing by the Mughals and not material written for them by their courtiers such as Abul Fazal (1551-1602).

The sciences

Geographical sciences

Medieval Muslim scholars had an avid interest in geography and mapmaking. In his compilation Nuzhat al-Mushtaq, Muhammad Al-Idrisi (1100-1165) had sketched Europe (Tolmacheva, 1995). Babur noted the coordinates of the city of Samarkand as having latitude 400 40’ North and a longitude 990 56’ East (Thackston, 2002b). Geographical coordinates also find a mention in Jahangir’s autobiography. Jahangir described Kashmir as being located 350 North and 1050 East (Rogers, 2020a). While latitude is a fixed entity with reference to the equator, in theory, any arbitrary vertical coordinate can be designated as the prime meridian. The Greenwich meridian was proposed as the prime meridian in the 19th century (Ellis, 1884). The meridian passes through the Royal Observatory located at Greenwich, England. With the Greenwich meridian as the reference, Samarkand is located 660 57’ East. Srinagar, the largest city of Kashmir, is located 740 83’ East. On comparing the coordinates given in the two Mughal autobiographies and the coordinates based on Greenwich meridian, both Samarkand and Srinagar have a discrepancy of around 31-330, suggesting that the prime meridian referenced by both Babur and Jahangir in their memoirs was located 31-330 west of Greenwich. Babur does not mention any such reference meridian, but Jahangir does. As per the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri the prime meridian passed through the White Islands (Rogers, 2020a), the location of which is not entirely certain but is presumed to be somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. Investigating the history of the geographical coordinates from Islamic era, Merce Comes from the University of Barcelona described the “meridian of water” to be 280 30’ west of the ancient Spanish city of Toledo, which is located 40 west of Greenwich, which totals to 320 30’ (Comes, 1994). This value is in close alignment with the discrepancy between the medieval reference to Samarkand and Srinagar (Kashmir) in the Mughal memoirs and their present coordinates based on Greenwich meridian. Toledo was the centre of science and astronomy in the Muslim world and then Christian Europe, and it is therefore possible that the Mughal meridian was ultimately derived from scientific activities carried out in Toledo (Halilovic, 2017).

Babur’s description of the major earthquake of 1505 in Afghanistan is probably the only contemporary account of this calamity. Babur states that the earthquake brought destruction to forts and garden walls, and houses were reduced to rubble leading to many casualties. In particular, the village of Paghman was badly affected. Babur describes splitting of the landscape leading to wide cracks, and dust rising from the mountain peaks. Babur’s half-brother Jahangir Mirza, who was in an apartment of one of the buildings miraculously survived. The quake was felt 33 times on the first day with daily shaking of the ground for a month. The earthquake delayed Babur’s Kandahar campaign (Thackston, 2002c). Although the exact date for this earthquake is not stated in his memoirs, it can be inferred if we follow the chain of events.

The relevant section of the Baburnama begins in the Islamic month of Muharram on the 4th of June 1505 (Julian calendar) when Babur’s mother Qutlugh Nigar Khanum fell ill. She remained unwell for six days before succumbing to her illness on a Saturday, as per Babur. This would correspond to the 10th of June. During the period of mourning, Babur was also informed about the death of his maternal grandmother, Ehsan Daulat Begum. Around the 40th day of mourning, Babur was joined by his maternal aunt, Mihr Nigar Khanum, who had come from Khurasan (eastern Iran). A very important entry in Babur’s memoirs is that he specifies the end of the period of mourning when he took off his black garments, black being the colour of mourning, in preparation for his Kandahar campaign. However, Babur fell ill, and it took him 4-5 days to get better. The earthquake struck at this point (Thackston, 2002c). This puts the date of the Paghman earthquake on or around the 25th of July, 45 days from the 10th of June. As per Stenz, the effects of the earthquake with its epicentre in the Paghman range in Afghanistan was felt far and wide in Northern India and Iran (Stenz, 1945).

Several decades after the event, medieval historians Abdul Qadir Badayuni (1540-1615) and Muhammad Qasim Ferishta (1560-1620) in their own historical works also described a violent earthquake in the city of Agra, India, in the year 1505 (Ranking, 1973; Briggs, 2013a). However, research has revealed that the Indian and the Paghman earthquakes were in fact two separate events. Tibetan sources clearly describe a major earthquake on the 6th or the 7th of June 1505, which would have been felt in India. Research suggests that this earthquake with its epicentre in the Himalayas in northwest Nepal (Ambraseys & Jackson, 2003) had an estimated surface wave magnitude of 8.2 and caused the rupture of the Main Frontal Thrust, which is the geological boundary between Himalayan region from the Indo-Gangetic plains (Ghazoui et al., 2019). The Paghman earthquake, estimated to be of surface wave magnitude 7.3, occurred in the northern extension of the Chaman fault line in the Hindukush range (Boyd, Mueller & Rukstales, 2007). It caused a 40 Km surface rupture of the Paghman fault (Ambraseys & Bilham, 2003).

Both Badayuni and Ferishta record the date of the Indian earthquake corresponding to the 5th of July (Ranking, 1973; Briggs, 2013a), a date that falls somewhere between the Himalayan earthquake of June (Ambraseys & Jackson, 2003) and the Paghman earthquake described by Babur (Thackston, 2002c). In another interpretation of Ferishta’s text, the date of the 15th of July has also been proposed (Jackson, 2002). It appears that Ferishta’s earthquake, whether on the 5th or the 15th of July (I suspect that the 10-day discrepancy in the dates is because of conversion from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar), was a different earthquake. Badayuni and Ferishta had access to Baburnama, and Badayuni even cites Babur’s memoirs in relation to the earthquake (Ranking, 1973).

Ambraseys & Jackson (Ambraseys & Jackson, 2003) conclude that the Paghman earthquake described by Babur was on the 6th of July (which approximates the 5th of July stated above) possibly based on the assumption that the medieval writers, Badayuni (Ranking, 1973) and Ferishta (Briggs, 2013a), got the date of the Himalayan earthquake wrong and conflated it with Babur’s description of the earthquake. However, Babur is unlikely to have miscalculated or guessed the number of days spent in mourning because the 40-day period of mourning is a cultural practice among Muslims (Jahangir & Hamid, 2020). Babur was not merely indicating “several days” or providing a rough estimate.

Thus, in my opinion, the date for the Paghman earthquake cited in literature as having occurred on 5th or the 6th of July is an error. Badayuni (Ranking, 1973) clearly assumed the 5th of July earthquake felt in Agra to be the same as the earthquake described by Babur (Thackston, 2002c). Seismologists and geophysicists distinguished between the two earthquakes from June and July but persisted with the date of the 5th or the 6th of July and ascribed it to the Paghman earthquake (Stenz, 1945; Ambraseys & Jackson, 2003). But as I have shown, there may have been three earthquakes rather than two: the Himalayan earthquake of June described in Tibetan records (Ambraseys & Jackson, 2003), the 5th of July earthquake described by Badayuni (Ranking, 1973) and Ferishta (15), which may have been an aftershock of the Himalayan earthquake, and finally the Paghman earthquake of the 25th of July described by Babur (Thackston, 2002c). However, if both Badayuni (Ranking, 1973) and Ferishta (Briggs, 2013a) got the date of the earthquake wrong, then what they refer to is the Himalayan earthquake of June and not the Paghman earthquake of the 25th of July in which case there were only two major earthquakes, one on the 6th or 7th of June in the Himalayas and one on the 25th of July in Paghman.

Babur also describes the earthquake of the 3rd of January 1519 in Jandool valley (in modern day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan) around the time he was preparing to take the fortress of Bajaur. This quake lasted for 30 minutes (Thackston, 2002d), and its moment magnitude has been estimated to be 7.5 (Bilham, 2014). The precise location remains uncertain but may have been on the Kunar fault (Ambraseys & Bilham, 2003). This earthquake has been erroneously reported as having occurred in Persia due to confusion between Bajaur in Afghanistan and Bujnurd in Iran (Wilson, 1930). Overall, there is paucity of information on the 1519 earthquake.

Instrumental determination of the magnitude of earthquakes was developed in the 19th century. For historical earthquakes prior to the availability of instruments, macroseismic data such as loss of lives, effect on built structures, and description of the natural calamity provide an indication of the magnitude (Cecic & Musson, 2004). When carefully analysed, macroseismic estimation can closely align with instrumental data (Cara, Alasset, & Sira 2008). Babur’s contemporary records have helped in estimation of the magnitude of the earthquakes.


Eclipses, meteors, and comets all find mention in Mughal literature. During his campaign in Chausa (a town in the Indian state of Bihar), Babur mentions the solar eclipse of the 10th of May 1528 (Thackston, 2002e). Jahangir mentions the solar eclipses of December 1610 and March 1615 (Rogers & Beveridge, 2018c; Rogers & Beveridge, 2018d) as well as the lunar eclipses of 1609 and 1620 (Rogers, 2020a; Rogers & Beveridge, 2018e) but his most striking astral observation is from 1618. The year 1618 was remarkable as three comets made their appearance. Jahangir was an independent discoverer of two of these comets that appeared in November of 1618. These were the second and the third comets. At that time, the royal camp was on the move from the town of Dahod in the province of Gujarat to the imperial capital Agra. Jahangir mentions the birth of his grandson, the future Aurangzeb (1618-1707), son of Khurram (regnal name Shah Jahan, 1592-1666), in Dahod on what corresponds to the 3rd of November. A week later, what would be the 10th of November, the royal camp arrived at a place called Ramgarh (a village by such a name is located approximately 50 miles northeast of Dahod in Jhabua district in India) and it is at this point in his memoirs that the comets are described. However, the comet had appeared a few nights before as per Jahangir and so the precise date of the appearance of the comet cannot be ascertained from his memoirs (Rogers, 2020b). Physicist Razaullah Ansari proposes 26th of October as the date when the comet was first visualised in India (Ansari, 2014). Jahangir elaborates on the characteristics of the comet of the 10th of November. Shaped like a pillar, the comet first appeared three “gharis” (an Indian unit of time) i.e., 72 minutes before sunrise (1 ghari equals 24 minutes), and it rose somewhat earlier each successive night taking the shape of a sickle facing north. Jahangir then records another luminous object that appeared 16 days after his record from the 10th of November. This new object in the night sky whose head was much brighter than the tail was observed for at least eight days. In modern astronomy, these two comets are designated C/1618 V1 and C/1618 W1. Several hundred miles away south in Goa, the Jesuit missionary, Wenceslas Pantaleon Kirwitzer (1588-1626), who had only just arrived in India, independently noted the same comets with his record also dating from the 10th of November. Father Antonius Rubinus in Kochi (now a major city in the southern Indian state of Kerela) also recorded the comets (Kapoor, 2016).

Astronomers of the 19th century had believed that as many as six comets appeared in 1618 but further investigations cut the number down to three. The first comet of 1618 was observed in the month of August in Hungary and was subsequently recorded in Linz in Austria by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). This comet was visible until the end of September. The second comet was recorded in Rome on the 11th of November, a day after Jahangir’s entry in his diary. Kepler last recorded the sighting of the second comet on the 29th of November which meant that the comet was visible from the earth for at least 20 days (i.e., from the 10th to the 29th of November). The third and the last comet appeared towards the end of November as per calculations made by the French astronomer Alexandre Guy Pingre (1711-1796) in the 18th century. Jahangir’s record about the third and the last comet appearing 16 days after the previous sighting agrees with Pingre’s dates (Anon., 1878). The third comet was visible from earth until the 21st of January 1619. Jahangir did not comment on the first comet of August-September 1618. This may have been because he was occupied by a range of other activities as the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri has many entries for the month of September.

In 1621, on the 10th of April, a meteor strike occurred in the locality of Jalandhar in Punjab. In his vivid description, Jahangir recorded the description of light falling from the eastern sky accompanied by a noise so loud that the villagers were terrified. A scorched piece of land was dug up and hot metal weighing close to 2 Kgs was recovered. This metal was mixed with iron in a 3:1 ratio and two swords and a dagger and a knife were made from the amalgamate (Rogers, 2020c). The fact that serious damage occurred to the land and the material that was dug up was hot as a furnace point towards a credible meteor strike. Blochmann suggested that the malleability of the meteorite makes it less likely that it comprised of true iron but rather it was more likely to be a siderolite (Anon., 1935).

The natural world

Babur was a naturalist, and he described the flora and fauna of the South Asian subcontinent with an obvious interest. Babur correctly guessed that the closest relative of the rhinoceros is the horse (Thackston, 2002a). If Babur dedicated a section of his memoirs methodically describing the natural world, Jahangir demonstrated a frequent but sporadic interest even though in curiosity and passion he surpassed his great-grandfather. Jahangir described animal dissection on at least three occasions to ascertain the anatomical positions of the liver, gall bladder, and intestines. He took particular interest in animals and birds not native to the land. One such animal was a monkey like creature from Ceylon (Rogers & Beveridge, 2018f). Jahangir commissioned his artists to sketch a likeness of the animal. Artists were also asked to sketch a peacock-like bird from Goa. Jahangir understood the significance of the artwork. Jahangir noted that although his great-grandfather provided a detailed account of animals and birds, illustrations were missing from the original Baburnama. The fourth Mughal emperor carefully investigated the gestation period of elephants (Rogers & Beveridge, 2018g). Albinism in animals also finds a mention in the Tuzuk. Description of the albino animals include that of a white cheetah with blue spots, albino antelopes and squirrels, and several birds including albino hawks, falcons, sparrows, crows, and peacocks (Rogers & Beveridge, 2018f). Jahangir elaborately described the courtship of the turkey cock (an illustration of this bird by his artist Mansur is preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK) and according to Peter Jarman, Jahangir may have been the first to provide a description of the Madagascar lemur (a miniature painting of this animal from the time is available at the Rampur Raza library, Rampur, India). Jarman identified them as a species of bamboo or brown lemurs. This exotic wildlife was purchased from the Portuguese in Goa by his courtier Muqarrab Khan. Contemporaneous description of lemurs is also found in the records of Samuel Purchas (1577-1626) of Essex, England, but only in 1625, 13 years after Jahangir’s description (Jarman, 2020).


Babur found India fascinating but it also posed many challenges. While in India, Babur was constantly on the move winning territories and consolidating his empire. By the time he was in his forties, he had suffered from several ailments. He experienced nagging injuries, mild infections, and at least on one occasion, he survived an attempted poisoning (Thackston, 2002f). Medieval warriors were no strangers to physical trauma. In one instance, following an injury from an arrow, Babur sought assistance of a surgeon called Atika Bakshi. The surgeon was renowned for his ability to heal wounds. Babur describes the use of “animal hoof” to promote wound healing (Thackston, 2002g). While the details are not stated by Babur, the surgeon may possibly have used slices from animal hooves. Animal hoof is rich in keratin (Feroz et al., 2020), which promotes wound healing, and its application has been described in hard-to-treat vascular wounds (Than et al., 2012). A novel method of obtaining keratin from animal hooves has also recently been described (Rouse & van Dyke, 2010). Medicines derived from animal parts have been used in other systems of medicine including Ayurveda, Chinese, and South American medicine (Alves & Rosa, 2005).

Bone trauma was described by Gulbadan Begum. The princess herself suffered a shoulder dislocation sometime in 1529. The narrative in Humayun-nama allows for reconstruction of the timeline to Gulbadan’s shoulder dislocation. We know that Gulbadan Begum was six when she arrived in India along with her stepmother Maham Begum (d. 1534), Babur’s consort. Gulbadan Begum met Babur on the 28th of June 1529 (Beveridge, 1902b). Years later, the old princess had an emotional recollection of this event, for her father had taken her in his arms. For at least three months after this union, Gulbadan Begum was in the city of Agra after which the family went to Dholpur (now in the state of Rajasthan in India 35 miles south of Agra) before reaching Sikri (approximately 20 miles west of Agra). The shoulder dislocation which was promptly fixed by the royal physician seems to have occurred sometime after the royal entourage arrived in Sikri (Beveridge, 1902c). The management of dislocated shoulder was probably well known at the time. Miniature illustrations of the medieval Turkish surgeon Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu (1385-1468) demonstrating the technique of fixing dislocated joints might have been found their way into Central Asia (Kesgin, 2017).Gulbadan Begum has a unique place in Mughal history. A daughter of Babur, she lived through the turbulent times of her brother Humayun and witnessed the expansion of the empire by her nephew Akbar. Gulbadan Begum died in 1603 when her grand-nephew Jahangir was in his thirties and his son Khurram was a young boy of 11. Assuming she saw Khurram, the future Shah Jahan, Gulbadan Begum has the unique distinction of having personally known five of the six great Mughal emperors. This was made possible because she was one of Babur’s younger children and had a fortunately long life dying in her ninth decade.

Many serious human infections such as plague (Rogers, 2020b) and smallpox have been described in Mughal works. Babur’s wife Zainab (d. 1506 or 1507) (Thackston, 2002h) and Jahangir’s grand-daughter Chamani Begum (d. 1616) (Rogers & Beveridge, 2018b) both had succumbed to smallpox. Epizootic illness of horses also find mention in Mughal literature (Thackston, 2002i, Denison Ross & Elilias, 2008a). Babur appears to have been familiar with the concept of sexually transmitted diseases. However, to establish whether the symptoms he ascribes to Khwaja Abdullah Murvari, the finance minister of the Sultan of Herat, Husain Mirza (1438-1506), were indeed that of syphilis would require detailed analytical work (Thackston, 2002c). The origin of syphilis has been a subject of debate. First, I discuss the symptoms the Khwaja suffered from. Babur described the Khwaja as a man of loose morals because of which, he suffered from pox and dysfunction of his hands and feet which ultimately caused his death. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted illness which evolves in three stages - primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary syphilis presents with a painless genital ulcer known as chancre. Secondary syphilis which develops 2-8 weeks following the primary infection is characterised by a generalised rash, which may have been the pox that Babur mentions, along with fever and joint aches. Syphilis then enters a stage of latency. Signs of late syphilis are evident several years following the primary infection. Late syphilis mainly involves two organ systems: heart and central nervous system (neurosyphilis). Loss of function of the lower extremities is a well-known manifestation of neurosyphilis and this condition is medically called tabes dorsalis. Tabes dorsalis, a late feature of syphilis that occurs 10-20 years after the primary infection, is characterised by nerve degeneration. It primarily affects the lower limbs leading to a typical wide-based gait, foot slap, foot ulcers, shooting pain in the lower limbs, and loss of position and vibration sense. Loss of sensation can lead to traumatic ulceration and eventual loss of limb function. Advanced disease can lead to dysfunctional joints (Charcot’s joint) (Ghanem, 2010). The most widely accepted theory of the origin of syphilis in the new world is related to the voyage of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) which led to the first cases in Spain in the year 1493. Although it has been speculated that the disease was present in the old world before Columbus’s voyage, there is no firm evidence for the pre-Columbian hypothesis. Syphilis caused a major outbreak in 1495 in Naples, Italy, which at the time was besieged by the French troops of Charles VIII (1470-1498) (Tampa et al., 2014). Over the next 30 years, it spread rapidly in Europe and even reached as far as India in the early part of the 16th century or even before, in 1498, by the sea route, following Vasco da Gama’s (1469-1524) arrival. Possibly the earliest reference to syphilis outside Europe is from 1497 by Ibn Iyas (1448-1522) of Egypt who described it as “Al-Habb al-Ifranji” or the “Frankish chancre.” Syphilis was introduced into Arabia possibly by Egyptian merchants across the Red Sea (Serjeant, 1965). It may have later spread to Persia and Central Asia. In his treatise, Khulasat al-Tajarib (The Summary of Experience), Baha’ al-Dawlah Nurbakhshi Razi, in the year 1501, mentions syphilis (Soleymani et al., 2020). Thus, it is possible that the explosive nature of the epidemic led to a very rapid dissemination in Europe and the neighbouring Asian landmass. Clearly, Babur thought that the illness in the Khwaja was related to his character, but he may have formed this opinion when the knowledge in relation to syphilis became more widespread. In Babur’s memoirs, the description of Husain Mirza and his associates pertains to the period 1505-1506. Here it should be noted that although the description of the Khwaja pertains to the early 16th century, Babur must have edited this part of the text later as the Khwaja’s death took place in 1525. If syphilis had spread rapidly from Europe to Central Asia from 1493 onwards, it is possible for the Khwaja to have developed signs of late syphilis by 1525 if he got infected soon after the appearance of this new infection. Moreover, syphilis was a virulent and rapidly progressive condition when it first appeared than it is at present. Thus, Khwaja Abdullah Murvari may even be the first named and identified Asian person in history to have suffered from syphilis. Still, the symptoms in the Khwaja may also represent other conditions. Importantly, Babur mentions loss of hands as one of the symptoms suffered by the Khwaja. Upper limb dysfunction is less common in syphilis because of the pattern of loss of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. However, syphilis may involve the upper limbs also e.g., hand tremors that occur in general paresis (Ghanem, 2010). Loss of hands and feet also occur in leprosy. Leprosy was often confused with syphilis in the medieval era and indeed, sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the two even in modern times (Fernandez-Nieto et al., 2019). It is also possible for both infections to coexist. Leprosy was thought to be sexually transmitted in the medieval era (Gilman, 1999). This confusion probably arose because subclinical leprosy in women often becomes apparent during pregnancy because of hormonal changes, which may have given rise to the belief that certain sexual practices were linked to the condition (Zias, 1989). The other serious consideration is that material available in various translated texts are not always identical. For example, the term “pox” which would signify rash is found in Thackston’s recent translation of the Baburnama (Thackston, 2002c) but not in Beveridge’s translation from the early 20th century although Beveridge had also considered syphilis citing Sam Mirza (Beveridge, 1922). Erskine translates the text as “boils all over the body” which would also signify a widespread rash (Leyden & Erskine 1826). These minor discrepancies are crucial when interpreting symptoms of a disease. The drawbacks when relying on translated material has been highlighted (Dale, 2007).

Babur died in the fifth year of his reign in India. An account of Babur’s death is described by Gulbadan Begum. In fact, Gulbadan Begum’s account is the only account by a person who was witness to Babur’s death. It is narrated that Babur’s son, Humayun, was very ill, and it appeared he may not survive. Babur is reported to have prayed to the Almighty seeking his own death in return for the sparing of Humayun’s life. His prayers were answered. Humayun recovered while Babur succumbed. The first Mughal emperor died on the 26th of December 1530. Although it is uncertain exactly how long Humayun’s illness lasted, Babur’s illness appears to have lasted for several weeks. In the Humayun-nama, Gulbadan Begum states that ‘the weather was extremely hot’ when Babur said his prayers for Humayun. As December is unlikely to be hot season in Northern India, the days were still warm, perhaps in October of 1530. Babur’s initial illness may have been followed by slow progression culminating in his death in December. Indeed, the princess states that the emperor was ill, and bed bound for 2-3 months (Beveridge, 1902d). The exact cause of Babur’s death is not known. As per Gulbadan Begum’s writings, Babur seems to have come down with a sudden episode of high fever for Humayun himself cared for Babur by wet sponging his forehead on the very day he fell ill. As his illness became progressive, Babur grew weaker, and suffered from bowel ailment. Fever may result from a myriad conditions but an infectious aetiology which was also contagious seems certain if Humayun indeed passed on his illness to his father. Given Babur’s emotional attachment to Humayun, it is possible that he spent a significant amount of time with his ailing son, which would increase the chances of catching infection. Infections usually amplify in secondary cases as microbes with enhanced biological fitness are more easily transmitted which might explain why Humayun survived but Babur succumbed, but Babur’s age may also be a factor. Later in the course of his illness, physicians also suspected poisoning as Babur’s symptoms matched with a previous episode of poisoning. Following a review of Gulbadan Begum’s account and those of Abul Fazal, Ferishta, Nizamuddin, and Badayuni, historian Sri Ram Sharma concluded that poisoning was the likely cause of Babur’s death (Sharma, 1926).

Babur’s own memoirs describe the effects of a poison that was administered to him as part of a conspiracy by Ibrahim Lodi’s (1480-1526) mother on the 21st of December 1526, the year in which he had defeated the Sultan at the battle of Panipat. Babur felt unwell while he was dining. He had stomach cramps, vomiting, and later also wrote about passing black coloured stools, which is indicative of upper gastrointestinal bleeding. Babur got better from the effects of the poison on the 25th of December and so the symptoms had resolved quickly. He had taken opium as antidote (Thackston, 2002f). The acute onset of the symptoms mentioned above would be consistent with arsenic poisoning (Ratnaike, 2003). Arsenic causes diarrhea which Babur does not specifically mention but opium might have masked this symptom. Mixed with food, arsenic is tasteless and odourless (Karamanou et al., 2018). Babur specifically mentions that the poisoned food did not taste bad (Thackston, 2002f). The lethal dose of arsenic is 100-300 mg (Ratnaike, 2003). Symptoms of arsenic poisoning can manifest within 30 minutes of exposure (Xu et al., 2008) consistent with the fact that Babur had the first symptoms while at the dinner table. Arsenic was a well know poison in medieval age.

Jahangir’s memoirs also contain interesting information about various medical conditions. At least one possible case of cardiac arrest is described, though not recognised as such (Rogers & Beveridge, 2018c). Jahangir also mentions conjoined twins although historical records from much earlier also exist. Epidemics of plague also find mention in the Tuzuk (Rogers, 2020b). At least two great plague pandemics had already occurred by the 17th century - the Justinian plague of 541 and the Black Death of 1347. Plague struck India several times during Jahangir’s reign with the first such description from the 12th year of his reign in the year 1617. It struck again the following year and it is the description of the illness in 1618 that merits discussion. Rodents are the natural reservoirs of the plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis (under the microscope, this bacterium looks like a safety pin), first described by the French microbiologist, Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943) in 1894. Plague bacilli jump from rodents to humans by the bite of the rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis. Following the bite which usually is on the legs, lymph node swelling appears in the inguinal area. These enlarged glands are known as buboes. Bacteria multiply in these buboes leading to a second phase of dissemination via the bloodstream into various organs of the body but the most critically affected organ is the lungs. Pneumonic plague causes bloody cough and patients can transmit the infection via droplets. Those who catch the contaminated droplets can get plague directly into the lungs without the initial buboes, or indeed without any flea bite. Most historical descriptions of plague, particularly from the 14th century, have been in relation to buboes as ultimately, sustained transmission requires a rodent population to maintain the cycle. Pneumonic plague is less transmissible compared to flea-bite related transmission even though transmission does happen (Prentice & Rahalison, 2007). Jahangir records the bubonic and non-bubonic forms of plague, first, in a girl who developed buboes and who later transmitted the illness to her family members, who subsequently died without buboes (Rogers, 2020b), probably a result of septicaemic plague (Prentice & Rahalison, 2007). In passing, Jahangir describes the rare ‘cat plague’ when closely observing the symptoms in a cat that had devoured an infected rat. The cat became ill soon after and suffered from black tongue but eventually recovered (Rogers, 2020b). Cat plague has the same mode of acquisition as human plague i.e., following the bite of the rat flea. Jahangir also calculated the incubation period (35-65 days) of rabies in elephants and described the clinical features characterised by trembling, frothing, and distress, with the illness lasting for 8 days before death ensued (Rogers & Beveridge, 2018h).

Interesting information pertaining to medicine is also available in another piece of Mughal literature, the Tarikh-i-Rashidi. This historical work is attributed to Mirza Muhammad Haider Dughlat, son of Khub Nigar Khanum, the younger sister of Qutlugh Nigar Khanum, Babur’s mother. The Mirza, Babur’s maternal cousin, provides a detailed account of altitude sickness on his visit to Tibet (Denison Ross & Elilias, 2008b). Altitude sickness caused by rapid ascent to higher altitudes occurs because of fall in oxygen concentration in blood due to decreased partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere. Reduced oxygen delivery to the lungs causes constriction of pulmonary vessels and an increase in pulmonary artery pressure with leakage of fluid causing acute pulmonary oedema. Oxygen deprivation is fatal (Luks, Swenson, & Bartsch, 2017). Mirza Dughlat describes the effect of “dam-giri” or shortness of breath namely exhaustion, difficulty in sleeping, tightness of chest, swelling of hands and feet, and confusion. The author noted that patients often died between dawn and breakfast time (Denison Ross & Elilias, 2008b). This is a remarkable observation for which there is a possible explanation. It is known that acute mountain sickness worsens during sleep because of lying flat, which aggravates congestion of blood in the lungs causing leakage of fluid into the lungs (Wickramasinghe & Anholm, 1999). This can further compromise oxygenation of blood and any activity after waking up from sleep may aggravate breathlessness leading to an increased demand for oxygen, which might explain death around breakfast time. Although the cause of the illness was not known at the time, the author noted that the illness only affected those new to the region. This is correct from a scientific perspective because inhabitants of regions significantly elevated above the sea level ordinarily do not suffer from the consequences of hypoxia as they are genetically adapted to the effect of low oxygen concentration in the inspired air (Scheinfeldt & Tishkoff, 2010). Mirza Dughlat also wrote an account of altitude sickness in horses (Denison Ross & Elilias, 2008b).


The world of Mughals of India has been called a tainted paradise (Early, 2007). The era of Mughals saw significant changes in their empire and their subjects with a co-existence of different cultures under the umbrella of a dynasty that traced its roots to modern day Uzbekistan but in course of time became quintessentially Indian. The art and architecture of the Mughal monuments have become the lasting symbol of the empire. However, there are many other Mughal accomplishments that have not received due recognition. Mughals were lover of books and promoted scholarship. Babur laments the loss of some section of his memoirs during a storm (Thackston, 2002e). Humayun shared the passion for the written material. Akbar, though illiterate, had books read out to him (Reeve, 2012). Jahangir wrote his extensive memoirs. His son, Shah Jahan, treasured the written work of his royal predecessors. He put his personal seal on his great-grandaunt Gulbadan Begum’s biography of Humayun. Humayun’s personal attendant, Jauhar, also left an account of the emperor’s reign and exile (Stewart, 2013). Scholars were also recognised and valued for their excellence. Jahangir expressed grief over the death of a renowned physician by the name Hakim Ali (Rogers & Beveridge, 2018e).

These historical texts taken together fill important gaps in our knowledge. There are other rich sources of information from India’s Islamic age prior to the Mughal era. Among several interesting accounts from the period of Delhi Sultanate, Ferishta describes the finding of forearm bones that were 5 feet in length, which might have been the bones of extinct dinosaurs, during a construction activity undertaken in the reign of Feroz Shah Tuglaq (r. 1351-1388) (Briggs, 2013b). There is a need to research the books pertaining to the Delhi Sultanate also. Correlating the material with other sources of information can fill several gaps in the historical jigsaw. One example is the work on the track of the Koh-i-Nur diamond, which was thought to have been mentioned in the Baburnama, but a recent report has cast reasonable doubts (Malecka, 2020). Renewed attempts at research on these valuable texts may reveal interesting facts that have been overlooked for centuries.


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