BĀBARVĀṆĪ (Bābar's command or sway) is how the four hymns by Gurū Nānak alluding to the invasions by Bābar (1483-1530), the first Mughal emperor of India, are collectively known in Sikh literature. The name is derived from the use of the term in one of these hymns : "Bābarvāṇī phiri gaī kuiru na roṭī khāi-Bābar's command or sway has spread; even the princes go without food" (GG, 417). Three of these hymns are in Āsā measure at pages 360 and 417-18 of the standard recension of Gurū Granth Sāhib and the fourth is in Tilaṅg measure on pages 722-23.

        Zahīr ud-Dīn Muhammad Bābar, driven out of his ancestral principality of Farghānā in Central Asia, occupied Kābul in 1504. Having failed in his repeated attempts to reconquer the lost territory and unable to expand his new possessions in the direction of Khurāsān in the west (which had once formed part of his grandfather's dominions), he turned his eyes towards India in the east. After an exploratory expedition undertaken as early as January-May 1505, he came down better equipped in 1519 when he advanced as far as Peshāwar. The following year he crossed the Indus and, conquering Siālkoṭ without resistance, marched on Saidpur (now Eminābād, 15 km southeast of Gujrāṅwālā in Pakistan) which suffered the worst fury of the invading host. The town was taken by assault, the garrison put to the sword and the inhabitants carried into captivity. During his next invasion in 1524, Bābar ransacked Lahore. His final invasion was launched during the winter of 1525-26 and he became master of Delhi after his victory at Pānīpat on 21 April 1526.

        Gurū Nānak was an eye-witness to the havoc created during these invasions. Janam Sākhīs mention that he himself was taken captive at Saidpur. A line of his, outside of Bābarvāṇī hymns, indicates that he may have been present in Lahore when the city was given up to plunder. In six pithy words this line conveys, "For a pahar and a quarter, i. e. for nearly four hours, the city of Lahore remained subject to death and fury" (GG, 1412). The mention in one of the Bābarvāṇī hymns of the use of guns by the Mughals against the Afghān defence relying mainly upon their war-elephants may well be a reference to the historic battle of Pānīpat which sealed the fate of the Afghan king, Ibrāhīm Lodhī.

        Bābarvāṇī hymns are not a narrative of historical events like Gurū Gobind Siṅgh's Bachitra> Nāṭak, nor are they an indictment of Bābar as his Zafarnāmah was that of Auraṅgzīb. They are the outpourings of a compassionate soul touched by scenes of human misery and by the cruelty perpetrated by the invaders. The sufferings of the people are rendered here in accents of intense power and protest. The events are placed in the larger social and historical perspective. Decline in moral standards must lead to chaos. A corrupt political system must end in dissolution. Lure of power divides men and violence unresisted tends to flourish. It could not be wished away by magic or sorcery. Gurū Nānak reiterated his faith in the Almighty and in His justice. Yet so acute was his realization of the distress of the people that he could not resist making the complaint : "When there was such suffering, such killing, such shrieking in pain, didst not Thou, O God, feel pity? Creator, Thou art the same for all !" The people for him were the people as a whole, the Hindus and the Muslims, the high caste and the low caste, soldiers and civilians, men and women. These hymns are remarkable for their moral structure and poetical eloquence. Nowhere else in contemporary literature are the issues in medieval Indian situation comprehended with such clarity or presented in tones of greater urgency.

        In spite of his destructive role Bābar is seen by Gurū Nānak to have been an unwitting instrument of the divine Will. Because the Lodhīs had violated God's laws, they had to pay the penalty. Bābar descended from Kābul as God's chosen agent, demonstrating the absolute authority of God and the retribution which must follow defiance of His laws. Gurū Nānak's commentary on the events which he actually witnessed thus becomes a part of the same universal message. God is absolute and no man may disobey His commands with impunity. Obey Him and receive freedom. Disobey him and the result must inevitably be retribution, a dire reckoning which brings suffering in this present life and continued transmigration in the hereafter.

        The hymn rendered in free English verse reads:

        Lord, Thou takest Khurāsān under Thy wing, but yielded India to the invader's wrath.

        Yet thou takest no blame;

        And sendest the Mughal as the messenger of death.

        When there was such suffering, killing, such shrieking in pain,

        Didst not Thou, O God, feel pity ?

        Creator, Thou art the same for all !

        If one tyrant attacketh another, it troubleth not the heart;

        But when a lion falleth upon a herd of cattle,

        The master will be questioned for not protecting it.

        The miserable dogs (the corrupt rulers of India) have lost their priceless jewel;

        No one will remember them after they are gone.

        But mysterious are Thy ways,

        Thou alone makest and Thou alone severest.

        Whosoever arrogateth unto himself greatness tasting pleasure to satiety

        Is in the eyes of the Lord but a puny worm for all the grains he eateth.

        Saith Nānak : True achievement is his

        Who dieth unto his self

        And uttereth the holy Name.


        In a touching 8-stanza poem, Gurū Nānak portrays the tragic plight of women, both Hindu and Muslim, who lost their husbands and suffered ignominy at the hands of the invaders :

        They whose hair made them look fairer by far and who touched it lovingly with sacred vermilion,

        Have had their heads shorn with scissors, and their throats choked with dust.

        They who stirred not out of their private chambers are now denied shelter even on the roadside.

        Praise, praise be unto Thee, O Lord!

        We understand not Thy ways;

        Everything is in Thy power and

        Thou seest Thyself in diverse forms at Thy Will.

        When they were married, their handsome bridegrooms added to their splendour;

        They came seated in palanquins with ivory bangles asport on their arms;

        They were awaited with ceremonial pitchers full of water and with fans arabesqued in glass.

        Gifts of money were showered on them as they sat, and gifts of money showered as they stood:

        They were given coconut and dates to eat, and they joyed on the bridal bed.

        Halters are now around their necks, and broken are their strings of pearls.

        Riches, youth and beauty they formerly relished have turned into their enemies;

        Minions at the conqueror's behest drag them to dishonour.

        The Lord, if it pleaseth Him, bestoweth

        greatness, and sendeth chastisement if He so desireth.

        Had they contemplated in advance, they might have escaped punishment,

        But the rulers had lost their sense in their fondness for levity and frivolity;

        [now that ] Bābar's sway hath spread; even the princes go without bread.

        Some, the Muslims, miss the timings of namāz, others, the Hindus, of their pūjā;

        Hindu ladies, without their ritually cleansed cooking-squares, go about without a vermilion mark on their foreheads;

        They never remembered 'Rāma' heretofore, and are allowed to utter even 'Allah' no more.


        Some, after the carnage, have returned home and are enquiring about the well-being of their kin;

        Others, in whose destiny it was so recorded, sit wailing over their sufferings.

        Saith Nānak: what He desireth shall happen; who is man Him to question?

        In another hymn in the series, Gurū Nānak describes the desolation which followed Bābar's invasion ending in the battle of Pānīpat :

        Where is that sport now, where those stables and steeds, and where are the drums and where the flutes?

        Where are the sword-belts and where the chariots; and where are those scarlet uniforms?

        Where are those finger-rings studded with mirrors; and where are those handsome faces?

        This world is Thine, Thou art its Master, O Lord!

        In one moment Thou settleth and in another unsettleth.

        The lure of gold sunders brother from brother.

        Where are those houses, those mansions and palaces; and where are those elegant-looking serāis?

        Where are those snug couches and where those beautiful brides a sight of whom made one lose one's sleep?

        Where is the chewing-leaf, where the leafsellers and where those who patronized them?

        All have vanished like a shadow.

        For this gold many were led astray; many suffered ignominy for it.

        Without sinning one doth not gather it, and it doth not go with one in the end.

        Whomsoever the Creator would confound, He first forfeiteth his virtue.

        Countless pīrstried their miraculous powers to halt the Mīr (Bābar) as they heard of his approach.

        He burned ancient seats and houses strongly built and cast into dust princes after severing their heads.

        Yet no Mughal became blind and no magic of the pīrs worked.

        The Mughals and the Paṭhāns were locked in battle, and they wielded their swords relentlessly,

        They fired their guns; they attacked with their elephants.

        They whose writ is torn in the Lord's court must perish, my brethren.

        Of the wives of Hindus, of Turks, of Bhaṭṭīs and of Ṭhākur Rājpūts-

        Some had their veils torn from head to foot, others lay heaped up in cemeteries;

        How did they pass their nights whose husbands returned not home?


        The fourth Bābarvāṇī hymn is probably addressed to Bhāī Lālo, one of Gurū Nānak's devotees living at Saidpur itself. It ends on a prophetic note, alluding perhaps to the rise of Sher Khān, an Afghān of Sūr clan, who had already captured Bengal and Bihār, defeated Bābar's son and successor, Humāyūṅ, at Chausā on the Gaṅgā in June 1539 (during the lifetime of Gurū Nānak), and who finally drove the Mughal king out of India in the following year. The hymn in Tilaṅg measure is, like the other three, an expression of Gurū Nānak's feeling of distress at the moral degradation of the people at the imposition by the mighty. It is a statement also of his belief in God's justice and in the ultimate victory of good over evil. In an English rendering :

        As descendeth the Lord's word to me, so do I deliver it unto you, O Lālo:

        [Bābar] leading a wedding-array of sin hath descendeth from Kābul and demanded by force the bride, O Lālo.

        Decency and righteousness have vanished, and falsehood struts abroad, O Lālo.

        Gone are the days of Qāzīs and Brāhmaṇs, Satan now conducts the nuptials, O Lālo.

        The Muslim women recite the Qur'ān and in distress remember their God, O Lālo.

        Similar is the fate of Hindu women of castes high and low, O Lālo.

        They sing paeans of blood, O Nānak, and by blood, not saffron, ointment is made, O Lālo.

        In this city of corpses, Nānak proclaimeth God's praises, and uttereth this true saying :

        The Lord who created men and put them to their tasks watcheth them from His seclusion.

        True is that Lord, true His verdict, and true is the justice He dealeth.

        As her body's vesture is torn to shreds, India shall remember my words.

        In seventy eight they come, in ninety-seven shall depart; another man of destiny shall arise.

        Nānak pronounceth words of truth, Truth he uttereth; truth the time calls for.


        The words "seventy-eight" and "ninety-seven" in the penultimate line are interpreted as 1578 and 1597 of the Indian calendar, corresponding respectively with 1521 and 1540 which are the dates of Bābar's invasion and Humāyūṅ's dethronement by Sher Khān/Shāh.

Sāhib Siṅgh Seṭhī