Illustration sourced: Babur and Humayun.

Medieval Beliefs: Transfer of illness.

In the medieval era it was widely believed a malady or illness could be transferred from one person to another or to an inanimate object on the strength of prayers and donations. Perhaps one of the most powerful evidence the rite actually existed, lies in the heart touching story of Gurkhani emperor Babur and his beloved son Humayun – a pair of father and son regents who lived and died in the 15th century.

Upon his return from Badakshan in Afghanistan and grant of the fief of Sambhal (present day state of Uttar Pradesh) in India as Humayun within six months of his stay in the hot and humid climate of the sub continent had been taken gravely ill with a mysterious fever that refused to subside inspite the court physicians best efforts, chronicles of the era reveal the royal practitioners left with no alternate course had appealed to his deeply distressed father, Babur, to participate in a rite that in medieval times was undertaken in extreme cases when all possible medical aid had failed to find a cure, and was commonly accepted as a rite that allowed for an illness to be transferred with heaven’s intervention.

Though the hakim’s suggested choice is widely known to have been the Kohinoor diamond (which was gifted to Humayun by the family of the king of Gwalior, Bikaramjit, in gratitude for sparing their lives), the deverish Babur considering the now world famous diamond to be unequal to the prince’s life, and rightly considering himself to the cherished object of his son’s affections, had instead decided to stake his own life in exchange.

Remembers the Humayun-Nama (penned by Babur’s youngest daughter Gulbadan Begum during the reign of the emperor Akbar) in extreme hot weather and with his own internal organs burning from a prolonged illness, a much weakened and inflamed Babur had circled the bed of his dying son, Humayun, three times, praying out loud – if a life can be exchanged for a life, I who am Babur give my own life and being in exchange for my son.

While the prince’s health is recorded to have gradually improved and Babur’s had deteriorated for the worse, leading to his death within the next few months (26th of December, 1530), the miracle that was the transfer of illness has long been undermined by historians on medical grounds as the real cause of the older regent’s departure from the earthly world.

Babur had been ailing for a long while from a discomfort of the intestines (stated by his court physicians as an after effect of poisoning, administered to him by the mother of his rival Ibrahim Lodi, the Afghan king who he had vanquished at the battle of Panipat), and Humayun’s illness had been high fever.

The poignant real life episode, however, has come down the ages, as a profound testament of a father’s love for his children, and the distance a distressed parent can go for the well being of an offspring. Babur, though a very tolerant Sunni, had prayed to Hazart Ali, a prophet of Islam, a Sunni Muslim generally does not pick and even in his weakened condition, fasted for many days for his prayer to be answered.

File Fact: Hazrat Ali or Ali was the son-in-law of Muhammad, the founder of the religion of Islam, and one among the four early Khalifas (successors of Muhammad) who went on to be the first Imam of the Shia denomination –  in present times he is revered and held in high esteem by both sects.


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