Review: Akbar of Hindustan by Parvati Sharma - Hindustan Times

Review: Akbar of Hindustan by Parvati Sharma

ByLamat R Hasan
Oct 13, 2022 01:18 PM IST

A richly detailed portrait of the most popular Mughal ruler,that brings alive the sounds and sights of the Akbarid era

In the recent attempts to rewrite India’s history, or rather its Islamic past, the vilification of Mughals, who ruled Hindustan from 1526 to 1761, has been unceasing. There has been no escape for even Emperor Akbar, the best known and loved Mughal, hailed for his liberal and secular values, and for his encouragement of art and architecture.

Fatehpur Sikri, the spectacular city that Akbar built. (Shutterstock)
Fatehpur Sikri, the spectacular city that Akbar built. (Shutterstock)

Author Parvati Sharma’s stunning portrait of Akbar is rich in detail, bringing alive the sounds and sights of the Akbarid era (1556-1605). She relies on historical texts written on the life and times of the emperor by people close to him, especially two noble courtiers, Abul Fazl and Abdul Qadir Badauni, who joined the court in 1574. While the former was the official biographer and the monarch’s biggest admirer, the latter was his bitterest critic, who recorded his views secretly. Sharma carefully navigates around both their accounts, trying to decode the legend who was brilliant yet flawed, extraordinary yet complicated, empathetic yet mysterious.

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386pp, ₹799; Juggernaut
386pp, ₹799; Juggernaut

Sharma praises Abul Fazl’s painstaking research to record Akbar’s early and rather traumatic childhood in the voluminous Akbarnama. However, she laments his “enthusiasm for myth-making” and his inability to present Akbar as a real person – the dyslexic, unlettered 13-year-old child-king, who preferred taming musth elephants and chasing cheetahs to focussing on his education.

There’s never a dull moment in the nearly 380 pages, given Sharma’s sharp eye and subtle wit. When Akbar decides to host a parade of 5,000 elephants draped in European velvet, Turkish brocade, and silver and gold chains to impress his estranged uncle Mirza Sulaiman, Sharma writes: “…for what use is all the world’s success (the glamour, the pageantry), if it cannot be flaunted to family?”

So who was Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar – a brilliant warrior, a great administrator, a visionary ruler, or a megalomaniac? Akbar’s father Humayun – a defeated and lonely man more interested in the movement of celestial objects than the affairs of his human subjects – had a vision of begetting a son, a “niru’un” (born of light), who would “grab the world by the scruff of its neck and claim it as his own”, like his ancestors Chinghis Khan, and Timur the Lame had in the past. Akbar’s 15-year-old mother Hamida’s pregnancy was, therefore, not surprisingly, loaded with good omens: she exuded divine light, so much so that it was impossible to behold her face.

These good omens, call them miracles or sheer luck, held Akbar in good stead throughout his lifetime – from surviving a harrowing childhood to his first lucky win as a child-king in a battle against the powerful Hemu of Rewari, at a time when North India was battling a famine so intense that people ate each other.

READ MORE: Excerpt: Akbar of Hindustan by Parvati Sharma

Sharma sums it up: “No one can doubt that Akbar was lucky. It was a chance arrow that blinded Hemu and allowed Akbar the Delhi throne; it was an accident that tripped Ikhtiyar-ul-Mulk’s horse and saved the exhausted Mughals from a second battle outside Ahmedabad; and it must have been good fortune that made it rain just as the delegation of farmers pleaded with Akbar in Jaunpur.”

As Akbar’s empire expanded, he dropped his veil of disinterestedness and changed almost overnight from being the child-king who couldn’t bring himself to behead Hemu or stand up to his regent Bairam Khan even when he punished the emperor by gifting away his favourite elephants, to the all-powerful ruler.

Akbar changed his franchise model of empire-building by undertaking long journeys to expand his territory, keep his commanders in check, and make sure his treasury was never empty. He bolted at the speed of light, uncaring of the seasons, covering up to 500 km in two weeks, trampling rebels under musth elephants as “Hindustan would have one lord, and one lord alone: the padishah himself”.

Sharma quotes Abul Fazl: The monarch travelled as fast as “patience departs from lovers”. He would hunt for signs of victory, setting a trained cheetah after a deer, declaring that if the predator struck and killed so would the padishah.

The expansion of his territory, and the accumulation of power, was accompanied by diverse welfare measures for his subjects. Akbar was a just ruler, who wanted to keep the farmers happy at all cost; any damage caused to their fields was instantly compensated. He also promoted carpet weaving and other cottage industries to bolster the economy. One of his greatest projects was the extensive reassessment of cultivated land. Sharma notes that even his severest critic Badauni admits grudgingly that common people loved their emperor.

In 1575, Akbar started hosting theological debates in his Ibaadat Khana (house of worship), and floated the concept of “Suhl-i Kul” or peace for all, which many see as the panacea for our times too. Three years later, the hall was opened to every faith and philosophy in the land. Akbar favoured debates based on reason and not blind tradition, debates that aroused his intelligence. Soon enough there was a clash of the titans, and as Badauni remarks, the Ibadat Khana became a home for not debate, but war.

By 1582, Akbar had dropped all pretence of being a devout Sunni Muslim and introduced a system of discipleship – “Silsilah-i-Murdian”, circle of disciples, as opposed to “Din-i-Ilahi”, divine faith. He also started his grand and public prostrations to the sun and fire and switched to a vegetarian diet. Avoiding death became an obsession.

He took over as the religious head of his empire, and projected himself as the last Mahdi, a spiritual leader, who, according to Muslim belief, will rule before the end of the world. This sparked a mutiny in Bengal. Akbar was seen as an apostate from Islam in his court too. Several of his favourite courtiers refused his discipleship, a cult following that he introduced. This included Badauni, and some of his close Rajput relatives.

Author Parvati Sharma (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Parvati Sharma (Courtesy the publisher)

Sharma dwells on Akbar’s love life too, or the lack of it. She points out that his first Rajput wife was Harkha, often misidentified as Jodha Bai. The intelligent and ambitious Harkha swayed Akbar’s thoughts on religion, policy, even diet, and the emperor abolished the jiziya tax after marrying her – yet there is no mention of his love life in his voluminous biography.

“…there is something stark about the utter lack of documented romance in Akbar’s life… It wasn’t just Humayun who fell madly in love with Hamida, but Babur with Baburi, Jahangir with Nurjahan, Shahjahan with Mumtaz…” writes Sharma, adding “…all that the records contain of Akbar’s feelings for his wives is a lament by the emperor: ‘Had I been wise earlier I would have taken no woman from my own kingdom into my seraglio, for my subjects are like my children’.”

Akbar’s relationship with women was marked with respect and tenderness but it was not without contradictions. He loved his mother and foster mothers dearly, paid great care and attention to the education of the princesses and prepared them for public life, yet tucked them away in the harem, away from the public glare. He was against child marriage, and while his administration did not ban sati, it tried to save unwilling satis. He also questioned the custom of Jauhar.

LISTEN: Parvati Sharma talks about her book, Akbar of Hindustan, on the Books & Authors podcast.

Sharma presents her facts well, mostly through anecdotes, leaving the reader to make up their minds about how perfect or imperfect Akbar was. The truth lies somewhere in between Abul Fazl’s unadulterated adulation and Badauni’s incessant hate and cynicism.

That said, it won’t be easy for the reader to decipher the phenomenon called Akbar. He wasn’t a religious bigot as Aurangzeb is popularly believed to be and, therefore, easy to bracket. Yet, he fancied himself as Insan-i-kamil (the perfect man) and the last Mahdi, tried to create a cult following, encouraged the chanting of Allah-o-Akbar, a spin on God-is-Great, and reimposed the jiziya (tax) to prove his Islamic credentials.

Following her biographies of Mughal Emperors Babur and Jehangir, Sharma, a self-confessed non-historian, found Project Akbar daunting. It was a mountain she wasn’t ready to climb. Nonetheless, as Akbar’s rather reluctant biographer, she has done incredibly well with this timely, comprehensive, well-researched, and almost lyrical account of the greatest Mughal whose reign lasted a spectacular 50 years.

Lamat Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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