This article was pubished in Dawn, The Review, sometime in August 2000.


He was raised like an orphan. Not that his parents were dead, but his father was in exile and the little infant was in the custody of its uncle. A merciless uncle he was, for he had wrung the infant, barely a few months old, from the hands of its parents in the hour of their misfortune.

For an infant, Akbar had a remarkable memory. In his later years he used to recount incidents from the days when he was fifteen months old. His father Humayun had lost an empire out of sheer lethargy, and was now a refugee at the court of the Persian Emperor. Humayun’s brothers, especially Askari and Kamran, had always been envious of him since the days when their father, Emperor Babur, chose him over them.

That must have seemed unfair to them. The law of succession in the House of Taimur didn’t require the eldest son to inherit the throne, and both Askari and Kamran must have thought themselves entitled to the crown. Their brother Humayun, after all, was an outright dreamer – more interested in his books of astrology and opium than the affairs of the state. All this, and much more, must have been drilled into the mind of Akbar as a young child by his uncle Askari who was now his guardian.

Akbar was never sent to school nor was a teacher ever appointed to teach him the alphabet. The devious minds of Askari and Kamran must have found solace in the fact that the son of Humayun, the most accomplished scholar among the Mughals, and the grandson of Babur, the finest writer in all Turkish literature, was being raised up as an illiterate!

Humayun returned for a brief period when Akbar was a few years old. Ironically, he was just the reverse of whatever Akbar might have heard about him. The dreamer in him had gone on a vacation and he looked like someone woken up to the depth of his soul. The only thing he had to do with dreams now was his will to make them come true. He had fought the demons in himself, and now he was prepared to fight the ones standing before him: his brothers. All efforts to patch-up failed. Humayun was willing to forgive them, but they were interested only in his destruction, and quite prepared to bring their own in the process if need be. When Askari was finally outnumbered by Humayun, he sent away Akbar to Kamran in Kabul rather than returning him to his father. Humayun was forced to storm Kabul, the city of his father’s dreams. At this point, Kamran came out with cruelties that might have ashamed their great-grandfathers Changez and Taimur together. Kamran found out that many of Humayun’s supporters had their families living inside the walled city of Kabul. He slaughtered the children and showered down their limbs from the fortress wall. Then he ordered the women to be ravished and tied with their breasts until they die. The final step was taken when Akbar, less than five-year old, was placed on a tower facing the fire of Humayun’s canons.

Humayun captured Kabul, nevertheless. The magnificent energies that had remained scattered all his life in one thousand and one different interests were now focused on one single ambition: the restoration of his father’s empire. Kamran was no match, and was blinded after his arrest – standard Mughal punishment for rebels within the family, but far too light for a monster like Mirza Kamran.

Akbar, finally united with his father, was given in the tutelage of the most able general Bairam Khan. The young prince didn’t look like the product of a deprived childhood at all. He was most princely in his manners except that he had no capacity for reading or writing. This shortcoming he more than compensated with his acumen for physical resilience. He was a born sportsman and an expert hunter.

After wresting Delhi and Agra from the hands of his Afghan enemies, Humayun sent Akbar as his viceroy to Lahore. The most influential person in that vicinity was Abul Muali, a member of the royal clan who was in the habit of taking lightly anything that was related to Humayun. He was shocked to find out that Akbar was a necessary exception. In Akbar’s court, Abul Muali was offered a seat that was just according to his status. “The King himself never made me sit at such a distance,” Abul Muali complained. The eleven year old Akbar responded to this with a composure of mind that was to remain his characteristic for the rest of his life: “The etiquette of love is not the etiquette of the court!” Akbar said.

Akbar was merely thirteen, and away in Punjab, when Humayun fell from the staircase and died. The immediate threat came from Hemu Baqqal [Hemu Vikramaditya], the Prime Minister of the former Afghan king of Delhi. With little difficulty Hemu captured Delhi and Agra and then marched towards Akbar. Akbar met him at Panipat, in the second historic battle fought on that ground, and, entirely through Bairam Khan’s superior military genius, defeated the enemy. Thus he was established firmly on the throne of Delhi.

Much has been written about the political and administrative aspects of the forty-nine years of Akbar’s rule. Most high school students in India and Pakistan have a vague idea that within twenty years of his accession, Akbar had brought a large part of India under his sway. What remained kept coming in piecemeal till the last years of his life. He also engineered an administrative setup that survived the lethargy of Jahangir, the extravagance of Shahjahan and the obstinacy of Aurangzeb. However, what has been missed out is the human factor. Other Mughal rulers stand out as figures of human interest because of their eccentricities but Akbar, since he appears so immovable, is one historical figure whose human side has escaped even the most sentimental historian (with the notable exception of Muhammad Husain Azad). In the more recent period the entire radius of the study of Akbar has somehow narrowed down to whether he was a heretic or not, and whether or not he treated the Hindus more generously than he should have done. But what is missed out in such debates is the soul of an emperor who carved out an empire out of thin air. The greatness of a heart that remained free of bitterness in the face of complex human dilemmas. And the strength of a man who increased his influence through a judicious balance between power and love until he became probably the single most powerful man on earth.

The first challenge was the pressure of gratitude. The young Akbar was heavily indebted to two people for their exceptional loyalty. One was Bairam Khan, and the other was Maham Atka, the governess who had saved Akbar from the wrath of his uncles when he was a mere child. She had even risked her life once by staying at Akbar’s side during the storming of Kabul. For a while Akbar left the affairs of the state in the hands of Bairam Khan, while Mahum Atka and her son Mirza Adham enjoyed power through their own intricate web of palace connections. Bairam Khan subsequently made himself unpopular with the nobles and Akbar was quick to draw the limit. The old mentor was politely told to retire.

Maham Atka was a lot more complicated issue. Her affection for Akbar not withstanding she had a cruel bent of mind and her son had inherited his due share from her nature. On one occasion he kidnapped two women from Akbar’s harem and brought them to his own palace. When they were about to be discovered, Maham Atka killed both the women to save her son. This was a time when Akbar was expanding his empire, and Mirza Adham’s cruelty towards the conquered people was running contrary to Akbar’s plans of creating a peaceful empire. The lines were drawn when Adham hatched a conspiracy to kill the emperor. Akbar had him thrown down the walls of his royal palace, and that was also the end of Maham’s influence over Akbar and his court.

Once on his own, Akbar adopted a policy of “general tolerance” with the Hindus of the land. He married the daughters of Rajput rulers, imposed restrictions of the slaughter of the cow and abolished conventional Muslim taxes levied on Hindus and non-Muslims. All Muslim kings before Akbar, including his own father and grandfather, had depended upon their own nobles for political support. Akbar was probably the first Mughal emperor who developed a following among the local Hindu population, thus creating an endless resource of power in case his own nobles betray him as they had betrayed his father.

Contrary to the impressions of the modern reader, the cultural policies of Akbar or his treatment of the Hindus didn’t raise any objection from the Ulema. He was, however, declared a non-believer as soon as he questioned the ulema’s power over the political affairs of the country.

Akbar started as a devout follower of Islam in the traditional sense. As a young man he would sweep the floor of the mosque and sometimes would even call the azan. His quest for truth, however, didn’t stop there. In 1575 he built an “ibadat khaneh” in his new capital Fatehpur Sikri. This building was devoted to religious discussions. Starting with the various sects of Islam, the emperor then invited scholars of other religions, especially Hindus and the Portuguese Jesuit fathers. It seems that they failed to touch his heart. The one scholar who eventually came close to Akbar’s own wavelength was the young Abul Fazl, the son of the controversial Shiekh Mubarak. Abul Fazl was free thinker who could take the wind out of heated religious debates by throwing in a subtle remark or half a sentence from his fabulous wit. Akbar’s meeting with Abul Fazl started a liberal phase in Akbar’s own spiritual progress, and this came to a head-on clash with the ulema when Akbar asked them to sign the document that is commonly known as the Declaration of 1579. It gave Akbar the power of final authority to decide “if a religious question came up regarding which the opinions of the Mujtahids are at variance, and His Majesty, in his penetrating understanding and clear wisdom, be inclined to adopt, for the benefit of the nation, and as a political expedient, any of the conflicting opinions.” He was declared kafir soon afterwards, and faced several mutinies in the next two years.

Much has been said about the so-called “Din-i-Ilahi,” and it is generally believed that Akbar started a new religion. Interestingly, the name “Din-e-Ilahi” doesn’t appear in any of the major contemporary sources. What Akbar started was a new spiritual order giving himself the place of a spiritual mentor. Some of the rituals of this order were borrowed from other religions or local customs, which gave rise to a general outcry. However, it is remarkable that Akbar never used his political power to coerce people into becoming his “disciples.” He once invited Raja Man Singh, a loyal vessel, to join the new order. The Raja declined frankly and the emperor didn’t pursue it further.

The spiritual interests of Akbar did have a political side though. This was quite natural in a setup where all political power was vested in the person of the king. Akbar’s spiritual experiments created a halo around him, especially for the Hindu population. The king became a father figure and that tradition lived on even after the glory of the Mughals faded away. Akbar was the prototype of the Mughal emperor, and the unique blend of power, authority, spirituality and kindness that came out from the depth of his soul were to remain the emblem of all his descendants – including the staunch Aurangzeb no matter how much he disliked his great-grandfather.

It is said that Akbar retracted from his liberal views about religion after a horrible fire at Lahore Fort in 1597. Since we don’t have much information about his religious life after that period, it is difficult to say whether he retracted or whether he wandered away in some new direction. In any case, the last years of his life appear to be marked with an awesome silence. There was much to strain his nerves, and to remind him that the human actions have their own limitations. Fundamentalist groups had sprung up throughout his empire as a reaction to his liberal policies. They had found a dubious supporter in Prince Salim [later Emperor Jahangir], the heir apparent, who had proved himself innately incapable in the eyes of the nobles and was now in need of any support he could muster from any corner. The lessons Akbar must have learnt from the dilemmas of his last days are lost to the history. All we know is that he died of dysentery on 27 October, 1605, leaving behind him an empire that was to last a hundred years in its full glory and a notion of greatness that was to survive long after the empire would be gone.