Akbar The Great
A.D. 1556 TO A.D. 1605
Here is a subject indeed!
Considering the time--a time when Elizabeth of England found that
England ready to support her in beheading her woman-cousin, when
Charles IX. of France idly gave the order on St Bartholomew's Eve,
and Pope Urban VIII., representing the highest majesty of the
Christian religion, forced the tortured, seventy-year-old Galileo to
his knees, there to abjure by oath what he knew to be God's truth:
considering the country--a country to this day counted uncivilised by
Europe--there is small wonder that the record of Akbar seems
incredible even to the owner of the hand which here attempts to
epitomise that record.
And yet it is a true one. Discounting to the full the open flattery of
Abul-fazl's Akbarnamah, the source from which most information is
derived, giving good measure to Budaoni's grudging criticisms, the
unbiassed readers of Akbar's life cannot avoid the conviction that in
dealing with him, they are dealing with a man of imagination, of
Between the lines, as it were, of bare fact, the unconventional, the
unexpected crops up perpetually, making the mind start and wonder. As
an instance, let us take the account of the great hunt at Bhera, near
the river Jhelum, and let us take it in the very words of the
"The Emperor gave orders for a gamargha hunt, and that the nobles
and officers should according to excellent methods enclose the wild
beasts.... But, when it had almost come about that the two sides were
come together, suddenly, all at once a strange state and strong frenzy
came upon the Emperor ... to such an extent as cannot be accounted
for. And every one attributed it to some cause or other ... some
thought that the beasts of the forest had with a tongueless tongue
unfurled divine secrets to him. At this time he ordered the hunting to
be abandoned. Active men made every endeavour that no one should even
touch the feather of a finch."
Now whether the legend which lingers in India be true or not, that it
was the sight of a chinkara fawn which brought about the Emperor's
swift change of front, we have here baldly set down certain events
which apparently were incomprehensible and but vaguely praiseworthy,
even to Abul-fazl's keen eye for virtue in his master. Viewed,
however, by the wider sympathies of to-day, the fact stands forth
indubitably that the "extraordinary access of rage such as none had
ever seen the like in him before" with which Akbar was seized, was no
mere fit of epilepsy, such as the rival historian Budaoni counts it to
have been, but a sudden overmastering perception of the relations
between God's creatures, the swift realisation of the Unity which
binds the whole world together; for it seems certain that he never
again countenanced a battue.
Now Akbar's life was full of such sudden insights. We see the effect
of them in his swift actions; actions so swift, so unerring, that they
startle the dull world around him. He was that rare thing--a dreamer
who was also a man of action.
That he was full of faults none can deny, but, judging him by the
highest canon, one feels bound to place him amongst those few names,
such as Shakspeare, Michelangelo, Beethoven and Caesar, who seem to
have had equal control over their physical and their subliminal
consciousness; and so, inevitably, head the lists of leaders amongst
Of Akbar's early years enough has been said. From his birth in the
sand-swept desert, to the day on which, a lad-ling of eight, he
finally escaped the clutches of his uncle Kamran, and rode into his
father's camp before Kabul at the head of a faithful contingent, he
had suffered such constant vicissitudes of fortune that there can be
no surprise at the belief, which grew up later, that he bore a charmed
Of the next three years until, at the age of twelve, he marched with
his father on India, and brought success by, with youthful energy,
precipitating a decisive battle, nothing is known, save that he was
married with much pomp to his cousin Razia-Khanum, daughter of his
dead uncle Hindal, a woman many years his senior.
Akbar, then, was thirteen years and four months old when at Hariana, a
town in the Jullunder district, he received the news of his father's
accident, and almost at the same time those of his death. He, together
with his governor, tutor, or, as it is called in Persian, atalik,
Byram-Khan, was engaged in pursuing Sikundah-Shah, the last scion of
the House of Sur, and it seemed to them best, ere returning to Delhi,
to secure the Punjab by securing Sikundah. But their decision proved
of doubtful wisdom; for Kabul instantly revolted, and Hemu, the
shopkeeper-prime-minister of the third Suri king, with an army of
fifty thousand men and five hundred elephants, marched on Delhi,
flushed by his victories, to restore the late dynasty, and took the
In this predicament, Akbar's counsellors advised retreat to Kabul. Its
recovery seemed certain, and he could there await future developments.
But Akbar's instincts were for empire, and Byram-Khan, the old
Turkoman soldier, was with him.
Delhi must be won back at all hazards; so, not without trepidation,
the old man and the boy crossed the river Sutlej, and were joined at
Sirhind by Tardi-Beg, and the forces which had fled from Delhi. Now
Tardi-Beg was a nobleman of the House of Chagatai (which also claimed
the young king as its most distinguished scion), and between him and
Byraem-Khan there had ever been enmity. The latter, therefore, taking
as his excuse the over-haste of Tardi-Beg's retirement from Delhi,
called him to his tent, and without referring to their youthful
master, had him assassinated. The event, common enough in Indian
history, is noteworthy, because it caused the first rift in the
confidence between Byram and Akbar, who, boy as he was, showed his
displeasure, and refused to accept the rough soldier's excuse that
violence was necessary to assert power.
The next breach was of the same kind. Passing by our old friend, the
fort of Bhattinda, Akbar gave battle to Hemu on the old field at
Paniput, where, thirty years before, his grandfather, Babar, had
decided his fate.
No doubt the thought of this had something to do with the renewed
victory which left Hemu, sorely wounded, a prisoner in Byram's hands.
Not satisfied with this, the savage old Tartar general brought him
into Akbar's tent, and, presenting the boy with a sword, said: "This
is your first war, my king. Prove your sword upon this infidel." But
Akbar drew back indignantly. "How can I strike one who is no better
than a dead man?" he replied hotly. "It is on strength and sense that
a king's sword is tried." Whereupon Byram, incensed, no doubt, by the
proud refusal, instantly cut down Hemu himself.
They say the boy-king wept; certain it is that he never forgot, never
quite forgave, the incident. Next day, marching 53 miles without a
halt, Akbar entered Delhi, the acknowledged Emperor of India.
What that India was, we know. On all sides was despotism; good or bad
government being the result of the personal equation of the despot.
Akbar was to change much of this by wise, unalterable, and beneficent
laws during the nine-and-forty years of his reign; for the present,
however, he was under tutelage, and the first four years after his
accession passed without the young king's showing any of the
markedly-original tendencies which characterised him in after life.
But during those four years he was learning to recognise what he
liked, what he disliked. Amongst the latter was the arbitrary exercise
of Byram's power. This became more and more galling as the years sped
by, and the boy, now growing to manhood, began to realise himself,
began to dream dreams, began to see realities with a clearness and
insight far beyond those of his tutor. But he had a generous, an
affectionate heart. He hestitated long to throw off the yoke of
tutelage and proclaim his determination to rule in his own way; and
despite the efforts of Byram's enemies--and he had many--added to the
persuasions of Maham-Anagah (Akbar's foster-mother, who all his life,
from the day when, a yearling babe, he was left in her charge while
his father and mother fled for their lives across the Persian
frontier, had been his chief adviser), it was not till A.D. 1560 that
Akbar made up his mind to action. Then, leaving Byram engaged in a
hunting expedition, he returned, on pretext of his mother's sudden
illness, to Delhi and issued a proclamation announcing to his people
that he had taken the sole management of affairs into his own hands,
and that no orders, except those given under his own seal, should in
future be obeyed. At the same time he sent a dignified message to
Byram-Khan to this effect:--
"Till now our mind has been taken up with our education and by the
amusements of youth, and it was our royal will that you should
regulate the affairs of our empire. But, it being our intention
henceforward to govern our people by our own judgment, let our
well-wisher withdraw from all worldly concerns, and taking the
pilgrimage to Mecca on which he has for so long been intent, spend the
rest of his days in prayer far removed from the toils of public life."
The very dignity of this was, however, irritating, and Byram, after a
brief feint of obedience, broke out into open revolt.
It needed Akbar himself to reduce his disloyalty by a display of
clemency which must have convinced the old Tartar that he had here to
do with some one, with something, the like of which he had never seen
before. For when, driven to bay, in utmost distress he sent in an
almost hopeless appeal for pardon, Akbar's reply was the despatching
of a guard of honour equal to his own to bring the unfortunate man to
his presence with every mark of distinction. It was too much for the
old soldier. His pride broke down, he flung himself at his young
master's feet in a passion of tears. Akbar's reply was to raise him by
the hand, order a robe of honour to be flung round him, and to place
him in his old seat by the king's side above all the other nobles.
So in "the very loud voice," and with "the very elegant and pleasant
manner of speech" for which the young king was famous, he addressed
"If Byram-Khan loves a military life, the governorship of Kalpe offers
field for his ambition. If he prefers to remain at court, our favour
will never be wanting to the benefactor of our family. But if he
choose devotion, he shall be escorted to Mecca with all the honour due
to his rank, and receive a pension of 50,000 rupees annually."
Byram chose the last, and from that time Akbar reigned alone; and, to
his credit be it said, except in his disastrous leniency towards his
sons, there is scarcely a mistake to be laid to his charge. Before,
however, embarking on what must necessarily be a very inadequate
sketch of this remarkable man, a few words as to his personality and
his looks may not be amiss. He was "inclined to be tall, sinewy,
strong, with an open forehead and chest and long arms. He had most
captivating manners and an agreeable expression." According to his
son, "his manners and habits were quite different from those of other
persons, and his visage was full of a godly dignity." For the rest, he
was a great athlete, the best polo-player and shot at court, and ready
for any exploit that required strength and skill.
His mind followed suit with his body, though he was absolutely unlike
his grandfather Babar in versatility. Yet he had had, apparently, much
the same opportunity of education. In both, the four years from eight
to twelve were all that Fate gave them for schooling; but Babar
emerged from his, a writer, a poet, a painter, a musician. Akbar,
strange to say, could neither read nor write, but he was counted the
first musician of his day.
Such was the man who at eighteen started to rule India on new lines,
whose head held a new idea concerning kingship. The king according to
this, should be the connecting link between his subjects. He should
rule not for one but for all. Just as Asoka, nigh on two thousand
years before, had protested that conquest by the sword was not worth
calling conquest, so Akbar, whose soul in many ways followed close in
thought to that of the old Buddhist king, felt, vaguely at first,
afterwards more clearly, more concisely, that the king should be, as
it were, the solvent in which caste and creed, even race, should
disappear, leaving behind them nothing but equal rights, equal
justice, equal law. To secure this, it was necessary to make all men
It was a big idea, and to carry it through in the face of a society
which deemed kingship a personal pleasure to be gained by a long purse
or a stout arm, needed a strong will.
But Akbar was young, and vital to his finger-tips. The first thing to
be accomplished was to annex all India--as bloodlessly as he could.
That is the first thing to be noticed in Akbar's rule. War, even from
the beginning, was never to him anything but the lesser of two evils;
the other being disunion, decentralisation, consequent misgovernment.
His first annexation was Malwa, where the governor, hard-pressed,
"sought a refuge from the frowns of fortune" in Akbar's clemency. As a
result of which he lived, and fought, and died, long years afterwards,
in the service of the king, feeling his honour in no way impaired by
Immediately after this, Akbar had to choose between personal affection
and abstract justice. His foster-brother, Adham-Khan, son to that
Maham-Anagah whose kindly, capable breast had been the young king's
refuge for so many years, began to give trouble. Lawless, dissolute,
he presumed on the king's love for his former playfellow in a thousand
ways. It was he who was chief actor in the tragedy of Rup-mati, the
beautiful dancing-girl with whom Baz-Bahadur of Malwa lived for "seven
long happy years, while she sang to him of love," and who killed
herself sooner than submit to Adham-Khan's desires. This brought down
on him the king's anger, but he defied it still more by assassinating
the prime minister as he sate at prayers in Akbar's antechamber on the
roof. Some say, and this is probably true, that the king, hearing the
old man's cry, came out sword in hand to avenge him, but, restraining
his wrath, ordered the murderer to be instantly thrown over the
battlements. The story, however, is also told that the young Akbar,
coming out from his sleeping-chamber, himself gripped the offender in
his strong arms, and forcing him backward to the edge, paused for a
last kiss of farewell ere he sent the sin-stained soul to its account.
It is, at least, more dramatic.
But either tale ends with the greatest of tragedies for the young
king. Maham-Anagah, his more than mother, died of grief within forty
The task of consolidating his empire occupied Akbar for the next two
years. It would be idle to attempt to follow him from the Nerbudda to
the Indus, from Allahabad to Guzerat. One incident will give an idea
of his swiftness, his extraordinary dash and courage.
Returned from a long campaign on the north-western hills against his
young brother, Mahomed Hakim, Akbar heard of renewed trouble with the
Usbeks in Oude. Though it was then the height of the rainy season, he
made a forced march over a flooded country, and arriving at the Ganges
at nightfall, swam its swollen stream with his advanced guard, and
after lying concealed till daybreak, sounded the attack.
"The enemy, who had passed the night in festivity, little supposing
the king would attempt to cross the river without his army, could
hardly believe their senses when they heard the royal kettledrums."
Needless to say, the rebels, surprised, were defeated, and, as usual,
pardoned. This was Akbar's policy. To punish swiftly, then to forgive.
Thus he bound men to him by ties of fear and love. Already he had
conceived and carried out the almost inconceivable project of allying
himself in honourable and peaceful marriage with the Rajputs. Behari
Mull, Rajah of Amber (or Jeypore), had given the king his daughter,
while his son Bhagwan-das, and his nephew Man-Singh, were amongst
Akbar's most trusted friends, and held high posts in the imperial
army. Toleration was beginning to bear fruit; but Chitore, the Sacred
City, held out alike against annexation or cajolery. So it could not
be allowed to remain a centre of independence, of revolt. It was in
A.D. 1568 that Akbar began its siege. Udai-Singh, the Fat King, had
fled to the mountains, being but a bastard Rajput in courage, leaving
one Jaimul in charge of the sanctuary of Rajput chivalry.
It was a long business. Once an accident in the mines which Akbar was
pushing with the utmost care, brought about disaster, and the siege
had practically to be begun again. In the end, it was a chance shot
which brought success. Alone, unattended, in darkness, Akbar was in
the habit of wandering round his guards at night, marking the work
done in the trenches, dreaming over the next day's plans. So occupied
in a close-pushed bastion, he saw by the flare of a torch on the
rampart of the city some Rajput generals also going their rounds. To
snatch a matchlock from the sentry and fire was Akbar's quick impulse.
It won him Chitore; for the man who fell, shot through the head, was
Jaimul himself. Next morning, Akbar went through scenes which he never
forgot. He saw, as his grandfather had done, the great war-sacrifice
of the Rajputs; but, unlike Babar, he did not view it contemptuously.
It made an indelible mark upon his soul. The story goes, that two
thousand of the Rajput warriors escaped the general slaughter by the
"stratagem of binding the hands of their women and children, and
marching with them through the imperial troops as if they were a
detachment of the besiegers in charge of prisoners."
If this extraordinary tale be true, the explanation of it surely lies
in Akbar's admiration; an admiration which led him on his return to
Delhi to order two huge stone elephants, formed of immense blocks of
red sandstone, to be built at the gateway of his palace. And on the
necks of these elephants he placed two gigantic stone figures
representing Jaimul and Punnu, the two Rajput generals who had so
bravely defended Chitore.
It was during this siege that Akbar's friendship with the poet Faizi
commenced. Five years younger than the young king, who was then but
six-and-twenty years of age, Faizi, or Abul-faiz, as he is rightly
named, was by profession a physician, by temperament an artist in the
highest sense. Charmed by his varied talents, fascinated by his
goodness, Akbar kept him by his side until he died nineteen years
afterwards, when it is recorded that the king wept inconsolably. One
thing they had in common--an unusual thing in those days--they were
both extraordinarily fond of animals, especially of dogs.
This friendship, bringing about as it did the introduction to Akbar of
Abul-faiz's younger brother, Abul-fazl, marks an important change in
the king's mental development.
Hitherto he had been strictly orthodox. In a way, he had set aside the
problems of life in favour of his self-imposed task; henceforward his
mind was to be as keen, as swift to gain spiritual mastery, as his
body was to gain the physical mastery of his world. Possibly he may
have been led to thought by the death in this year of his twin sons;
apparently these were the only children which had as yet been born to
him, and at twenty-seven it is time that an Eastern potentate had
sons. With him, too, the very idea of empire must have been bound up
with that of an heir to empire. So it is no wonder that we find him
overwhelmed with joy at the birth, in 1569, of Prince Salim. Yet his
sons (he had three of them in Fate's good time) were to be the great
tragedy of Akbar's life. Long years afterwards, when the baby Salim,
whom he had welcomed verily as a gift from God, had grown to be a man,
a cruel man, who ordered an offender to be flayed alive, Akbar, with a
shiver of disgust, asked bitterly "how the son of a man who could not
see a dead beast flayed without pain, could be guilty of such
barbarity to a human being?"
How indeed? Were they really his sons, these hard-drinking,
hard-living young princes, who had no thought beyond the princelings
of their age?
This resentment, this disgust, however, was not to be for many years.
Meanwhile, Akbar, having built the fort at Agra, that splendid
building whose every foundation finds water, whose every stone is
fitted to the next and chained to it by iron rings, began on his City
of Victory, Fatehpur Sikri.
And wherefore not, since sons had been born to his empire? It was wide
by this time, but Guzerat was still independent and had to be brought
within the net.
It was in this campaign that Akbar nearly met his end in the narrow
cactus lane at Sarsa, when he and the two Rajput chieftains,
Bhagwan-das and Man-Singh, fought their way through their enemies,
each guarding the other's head.
Akbar's life is full of such reckless bravery, such
wonderful escapes; in this, at least, he was true grandson to
It was in the following year that the famous ride from Agra to
Ahmedabad in nine days was made; and, after all, somewhat uselessly
made, since the emperor was too chivalrous to take his enemy unawares,
and, finding him asleep, ordered the royal trumpeters to sound a
reveillee before, after giving him plenty of time, the imperial
party "charged like a fierce tiger." It is good reading all this,
overburdened though the pages of the Akbarnamah-Abul-fazl's great
History of his Master--may be with flatteries and digressions.
But it is not in all this that Akbar's glory lies. It is in the
far-reaching justice of his legal and administrative reforms, above
all, in the reasons he gives for these reforms, that he stands unique
amongst all Indian kings. We have, however, still to record his
conquest of Bengal (where, it may be noted, he swam his rivers on
horseback at the head of every detachment for pursuit, every advance
guard), still to tell the tale of the Fat King Udai-Singh's son, Rajah
Pertap, before at Fatehpur Sikri, in the twentieth year of his reign,
and the thirty-third of his life, we can find pause to consider
Akbar's principles and practice. Bengal, then, was added to empire
with the usual rapidity. Then arose trouble in Mewar. Udai-Singh was
dead, still defying from a distance Akbar's power, still scorning the
alliance by marriage which had brought his neighbours revenue and
renown; but his son Pertap lived--Pertap, who was to the sixteenth
century what Prithvi-Raj had been to the fourteenth; that is to say,
the flower of Rajput chivalry, the idol of the men, the darling of the
women. He had taken to the hills, he had outraged Akbar's sense of
justice, and he must be crushed. The battle of Huldighat decided his
fate. Wounded, wearied, he fled on his grey horse "Chytuc" up a
narrowing stony ravine, behind him the clatter of another horse
swifter than his own; for "Chytuc," his friend, his companion, was
wounded, too, and more wearied even than wounded.
["Oh! Rider of the grey horse!"]
The cry rang out amid the echoing rocks. What! Was his enemy within
call already? "Chytuc" stumbled on, urged by the spur.
Nearer and nearer! A cry that must be answered at last. One final
stumble, "Chytuc" was down, and Pertap turned to sell life dearly.
Turned to find his brother.
"Thy horse is at its end--take mine," said Sukta, who long years
before had gone over to Akbar's side, driven thither by Pertap's
"I go back whence I came."
Those who had watched the chase from the plains below asked for
explanations. They were given.
"Tell the truth," came the calm reply.
Then Sukta told it. Drawing himself up, he said briefly:
"The burden of a kingdom over-weighted my brother. I helped him to
Needless to say, the excuse was accepted. And to this day the cry,
"Ho! nila-ghora-ki-aswar," is one of the war-cries of the Rajput.
To return to Akbar, in the twentieth year of his reign. It was just
ten years since Faizi had come into his life--Faizi, the first
Mahomedan to trouble his head about Hindu literature, Hindu science.
It had opened up a new world to Akbar, and when six years afterwards
Abul-fazl entered into the emperor's life also, with his broad, clear,
tolerant, critical outlook, and his intense personal belief in the
genius of the man he served, it seemed possible to achieve what till
then Akbar had almost despaired of achieving. The dream had always
been there. In some ways he had gone far towards realising it. He had,
early in his reign, abolished the capitation tax on infidels, and the
tax on pilgrimages, his reason for the latter being, "that although
the tax was undoubtedly on a vain superstition, yet, as all modes of
worship were designed for the One Great Being, it was wrong to throw
any obstacle in the way of the devout, and so cut them off from their
own mode of intercourse with their Maker."
Then he had absolutely forbidden the slavery of prisoners of war; and
having observed, both during his many campaigns and his still more
numerous hunting expeditions, that the greater portion of the land
he traversed remained uncultivated, he had set himself, alone,
unaided--for his courtiers were content with conventionalities--to
find out the cause. The land was rich, the cultivators were
industrious; the reason must lie in something which made cultivation
unprofitable. What was it? An excessive land-tax? He instantly started
experimental farms, which convinced him that this, and nothing else,
was the cause of the land lying idle. But on all sides he met with
opposition. Convinced himself that the old methods were obsolete, he
had almost given up the task of reform in despair, when he met
Abul-fazl. In religious matters, too, he had gone far beyond his age.
The intolerance the bigotry of those around him shocked his innate
sense of justice. Here again Abul-fazl was a tower of strength, and,
inch by inch, yard by yard, his support enabled the king to fight for
his final position, until in 1577, after endless discussions in the
House-of-Argument (which he had had built for the purpose, and where,
night after night, he sate listening while doctors of the law,
Brahmans, Jews, Jesuits, Sufis--God only knows what sects and
creeds--discussed truth from their varying standpoints), he took
the law into his own hands and practically forced the learned
Ulemas to put their signatures to a document which proclaimed him
Head-of-the-Church, the spiritual as well as the temporal guide of his
subjects. The reason he gave for desiring this decision was, that as
kings were answerable to God for their subjects, any division of
authority in dealing with them was inexpedient.
So in 1579 he mounted the pulpit in his Great Mosque at Fatehpur
Sikri, and read the Kutbah prayer in his own name in these words,
written for the occasion by the poet Faizi:--
"Lo! from Almighty God I take my kingship,
Before His throne I bow and take my judgeship,
Take Strength from Strength, and Wisdom from His Wiseness,
Right from the Right, and Justice from His Justice.
Praising the King, I praise God near and far--
Great is His Power! Allah-hu-Akbar!"
They were not unworthy words; and they were, as Sir William Hunter
well calls them, the Magna Charter of Akbar's reign. He was now free
to realise all his long-cherished dreams of universal tolerance and
absolute unity. In future, no distinctions of race and creed were held
cogent. The judicial system was reorganised and the magistracy made to
understand that the question of religion was no longer to enter into
The whole revenue administration was altered, and it remains to this
day practically as Akbar left it. In this, as in finance and currency,
he was ably aided by Todar-Mull, a Hindu of exceptional ability and
But Akbar was fortunate in his friends. In addition to Faizi, who
appears to have satisfied his philosophic instincts, and Abul-fazl, to
whose clear eyes he always turned when in doubt, he had a third
intimate companion who, in many ways, stood closest to him of the
This was Rajah Birbal, who began life as a minstrel. His pure
intellectuality, his quaint humour and cynical outlook on life, seem
to have given Akbar the nerve tonic, which, dreamer as he was at
times, he seems to have needed; for like all really great men, the
emperor was almost feminine in sensitiveness.
It is difficult to decide what his own personal creed was. That which
he promulgated as the Divine Faith is a somewhat nebulous Deism. That
which is credited to him in the following words is poetically
"In every Temple they seek Thee, in every Language they praise Thee.
Each Religion says that it holds Thee, the One. But it is Thou whom I
seek from temple to temple; for Heresy and Orthodoxy stand not behind
the Screen of thy Truth. Heresy to the Heretic, Orthodoxy to the
Orthodox; but only the dust of the Rose Petal remains to the seller of
Behind all this there lies the conviction so strongly expressed that
"not one step can be made without the torch of truth," that "to be
beneficial to the soul, belief must be the outcome of clear judgment."
But the chronicle of the remainder of his reign claims us.
In 1584 he outraged the orthodox by choosing a Rajputni Jodh-Bai, the
daughter of Rajah Bhagwan-das, as the first wife of his son and heir,
He himself had left such things as marriage behind him, and, though
still in the prime of years, led the life of an ascetic. Five hours
sleep sufficed for him; he ate but sparingly once a day; wine and
women he appears to have forgotten. There is a saying attributed to
him of his regret that he had not earlier recognised all women as
sisters. Certainly for the last five-and-twenty years of his life he
had nothing in this respect wherewith to reproach himself. Wider
interests absorbed him. Child-marriages had to be discountenanced,
abolished by a sweep of the pen; education placed on a firmer, better
basis. It seemed to him, as it seems to many of us to-day, that an
unconscionable time was spent in teaching very little, and, hey
presto! another sweep of the pen, and school-time was diminished by
one-half. There is nothing so dynamic as a good despotism!
All this was crowded, literally crammed into a few peaceful years at
Fatehpur Sikri, and then suddenly he left his City of Victory, the
city that was bound up with his hope of personal empire, the city he
had built to commemorate the birth of his heir and removed his
capital, not to Delhi, but to the far north--to Lahore.
Why was this?
It is said that a lack of water at Fatehpur was the cause. And yet
with the river Jumna close at hand, and Akbar's wealth and boundless
energies, what was a lack of water had he really been set on remaining
It seems as if we must seek for a cause behind this patent and pitiful
one. Such cause, deep-seated, scarcely acknowledged, is surely to be
found in the bitter disappointment caused to the emperor by his sons.
From his earliest years Salim had given trouble. At eighteen he was
dissolute, cruel, arrogant beyond belief. His younger brothers, Murad
and Danyal, were little better. Of the three, Murad was the best; it
was possible to think of him as his father's son. Yet the iron must
have eaten into that father's soul as he saw them uncomprehending even
of his idea, his dream. In leaving Fatehpur Sikri, as he did in 1585,
therefore, it seems likely that he left behind also much of his
personal interest in empire.
The ostensible cause of his northward journey was the death of his
brother, and a consequent revolt in Kabul; but he did not return for
fourteen long years--years that while they brought him success, while
they justified his wisdom, brought him also much sorrow and
disappointment. Though both earlier historians and Western
commentators fail, as a rule, to notice it, there can be no doubt to
those who, taking Akbar's whole character as their guide, attempt to
read between the lines, that the emperor's policy changed greatly
after he left Fatehpur Sikri behind him. A certain personal note is
wanting in it. Take, for instance, the war which he carried out in the
province of Swat, and which ended in a disaster that cost him his
dearest friend, Rajah Birbal. Now that disaster was due entirely to
this new note in Akbar's policy. He did not desire conquest; not, at
least, conquest on the old blood-and-thunder lines. He wished, and he
ordered, what we should nowadays call a "peaceful demonstration to the
tribes." The army was to march through the Swat territory, using as
little violence as possible, and return. The idea was outrageous to
the regulation general, so Abul-fazl and Birbal drew lots as to which
of them should go and keep Zein-Khan's martial ardours in check. It
fell on Birbal; much, it is believed, to Akbar's regret. Of the exact
cause of disagreement between Birbal and Zein-Khan little is known;
but they did disagree, and with disastrous results. The whole Moghul
army was practically overwhelmed, and it is supposed that Birbal, in
attempting escape by the hills, was slain. His body was never found.
Elphinstone, in his History, accuses Abul-fazl of giving a confused
and contradictory account of this event, "though he must have been
minutely informed of its history"; but a little imagination supplies a
cause for this: Abul-fazl knew that Birbal was undoubtedly acting on
the king's orders.
The emperor for a long time refused even to see Zein-Khan, and he was
inconsolable for the loss of his friend--his greatest friend--who had
known his every thought. It is said, indeed, that these two men, both
keenly interested in the answer to the Great Riddle of Life, the one
Agnostic, the other hopeless Optimist by virtue of his genius, had
agreed that they would come back the one to the other after death if
possible, and that therein lay Akbar's strange eagerness to credit the
many reports which gained currency, that Birbal had been seen again
There can be no doubt but that the loss of his friend saddened the
remainder of Akbar's life. Indeed, it may be said that from the year
in which he quitted Fatehpur Sikri, thus abandoning his Town of
Conquest to the flitting bats, the prowling hyenas, the year also of
Birbal's loss, a cloud seems to fall over the gorgeous pageant of
Just before this, however, on the very eve of departure, an event
occurred at Fatehpur Sikri which in itself, had the Dreamer-King but
possessed second sight, would have been sufficient to dim the lustre
of his personal life.
For in 1585 three travellers from England arrived with a letter from
Elizabeth their queen, to one "Yellabdin Echebar, King of Cambaya,
The letter is worth giving:--
"The great affection which our subjects have to visit the most distant
places of the world, not without good intention to introduce the
trades of all nations whatsoever they can, by which meanes the mutual
and friendly traffique of merchandise on both sides may come, is the
cause that the bearer of this letter, John Newberie, joyntly with
those that be in his company, with a courteous and honest boldnesse,
doe repaire to the borders and countreys of your Empire; we doubt not
but that your Imperiall Maiestie, through your royal grace, will
favourably and friendly accept him. And that you wold doe it the
rather for our sake, to make us greatly beholden to your Maiestie, wee
should more earnestly, and with more words, require it, if wee did
think it needful.
"But, by the cingular report that is of your Imperiall Maiestie's
humanitie in these uttermost parts of the world, we are greatly eased
of that burden, and therefore we use the fewer and lesse words; only
we request, that because they are our subjects, they may be honestly
entreated and received. And that in respect of the hard journey which
they have taken to places so far distant, it would please your
Maiestie with some libertie and securitie of voiage to gratify it with
such privileges as to you shall seem good: which curtesie of your
Imperiall Maiestie shall to our subjects at our request perform, wee,
according to our royal honour, will recompense the same with as many
deserts as we can. And herewith wee bid your Imperiall Maiestie to
Akbar's answer was to give the travellers safe conduct. So John
Newbery, of Aleppo, after seeing all that was to be seen, journeyed
Punjab-ways, to be never again heard of. Ralph Fitch, merchant of
London, went south-eastward to find the Great Delta of the Ganges, and
so return to England, and by his report, help to start the first
British venture to the East; and William Leedes, jeweller, who had
learnt his trade in Ghent, remained to cut gems for Akbar.
A notable event, indeed, this first touch of England on India. And it
happened when the Moghul dynasty was at the height of its power, when
Akbar Emperor, indeed, had but one failure in his life--his sons.
Surely it must have been some prescience of what was to come, which
made him, so soon after giving that safe conduct, leave the outward
and visible sign of his personal hold on Empire--the City of his
Heirs--a prey to the owl and the bat?
Akbar's fourteen-year stay in the Punjab, spent partly at the Fort of
Attock, which he built, and which still frowns over the rushing Indus,
and at Lahore, was marked by the annexation of Kashmir, which was
effected with very little bloodshed. Owing to the difficulty of the
passes, the first expedition made terms with the ruling power, by
which, while the sovereignty of the Moghul was ceded, his interference
was barred. This did not suit Akbar's dream of united, consolidated
government. So he refused to ratify the treaty, and when the winter
snows had melted, sent another expedition to enforce his claim to
Dissensions due to bad government were rife in Kashmir. The troops
detailed to defend the Pir-Punjai pass were disloyal. Half, deserted
to the invading force, the remainder retired on the capital.
Whereupon, the whole valley lying at the mercy of the Moghul, terms
Akbar himself went twice into Kashmir. Those who have been fortunate
enough to see the indescribable beauties of its lakes, its trees, its
mountains, can imagine how it must have appealed to a man of his
Sinde and Kandahar followed Kashmir swiftly into the wide net of
Moghul influence, and took their places quietly in the emperor's Dream
of Empire. Kabul followed in its turn. While there, Akbar suffered a
severe blow in the news of the death in one day--though at different
places and causes--of two of his most trusted friends and adherents,
Rajah Todar-Mull, the great Finance-Minister, and Rajah Bhagwan-das,
his first Rajput ally.
The Dekkan was in process of being netted also, when another and still
heavier blow fell on the emperor in the death of his second--and, in
many ways, most promising--son, Murad. He died, briefly, of drink.
But the worst blow was the conduct of his son and heir, Salim,
which in 1598 made it necessary for his father to leave Lahore for
Agra, in order to check the prince's open rebellion. He was now
thirty--arrogant, dissolute, passionate in every way; and, finding
himself as his father's viceroy at the head of a large army, made a
bid for the crown, while his father's forces were engaged in the
But Akbar's love made him patient. He wrote an almost pitiful letter
of dignified tolerance. His affection, he said, was still
undiminished. Let his son return to duty, and all would be forgotten.
Salim chose the wiser part of submission, but even as he did so,
prepared to wound his forgiving father to the uttermost.
Abul-fazl was on his way back from the Dekkan, and Prince Salim
instigated the Rajah of Orchcha to lay an ambuscade for this old, this
most beloved companion of the king.
History says that he and his small force defended themselves with the
greatest gallantry, but were eventually cut to pieces. Abul-fazl's
head was sent to Prince Salim, who, however, had craft; for his
father, mercifully, never knew whose was the hand that really dealt
the death-blow. Had he done so, his grief would have been even greater
than it is reported to have been. He touched no food for days; neither
did he sleep.
Akbar, indeed, was fast becoming almost unnerved by his tenderness of
heart. Salim, professedly repentant, abandoned himself to still
further debaucheries at Allahabad.
As a last resource, a last effort, Akbar resolved, in a personal
interview, to appeal to his son's better feelings.
He had hardly started from Agra, however, when he was recalled to his
mother's death-bed. It was yet another shock to Akbar, who, ever since
that day of choice, when, surrounded by smiling, expectant faces, he
had stood frightened, almost tearful, then with a cry found--he knew
not how--Hamida-Begum's loving arms, had held his mother as he held no
other woman in the world.
Something of the pity of it must have struck even Salim's passion-torn
heart, for he followed his father and gave in his submission. Not for
long, however. Akbar could not be hard on those he loved. The
restraint was soon slackened; the physicians who were to break the
drug-habit sent to the right-about, and the patient restored to
freedom and favour.
And still Fate had arrows in store for poor Akbar's wounded heart.
Prince Danyal, his youngest son, drank himself to death in the
thirtieth year of his age, having accomplished his object by liquor
smuggled to him in the barrel of his fowling piece.
A pretty prince, indeed, to be the son of the greatest king India has
This rapid succession of sorrow left the emperor enfeebled. He had
always been a hard worker, had spared himself not at all; now Nature
was revenging herself on him for his defiance of fatigue.
As he lay dying in the fort at Agra, the emperor, bereft of his
friends, worse than bereft of his sons, had but one comfort--his
grandson, Prince Khurram, who afterwards succeeded his father under
the title of Shah-jahan. A word from Akbar might have set him on the
throne; but the father was loyal to his disloyal son. He summoned his
nobles around him, and his personal influence was still so great that
not a voice of dissent was raised against his declaration of Prince
Salim--little Shaikie, as he still called him at times--as his heir.
Akbar died at sixty-three, almost his last words being to ask
forgiveness of those who stood about his bed, should he ever in any
way have wronged any one of them.
The Mahomedan historians assert loudly that he also repeated the
Orthodox creed; but this is not likely. He had wandered too far from
the fold of Islam to find shelter from death in it.
So died a man who dreamt a dream, who turned that dream into a reality
for his lifetime; but for his lifetime only. Fate gave him no future.
Even his enemies admit with a sneer, saying he had it a gift from a
Hindu jogi, his almost marvellous power of seeing through men and
their motives at a glance. Did he ever, we wonder, look at his own
face in the glass, and see written there his failure?
Most of his administrative reforms exist to the present day. Some,
such as the abolition of suttee and the legislation for widow
remarriage which he enforced easily, nearly cost us India to
But Akbar had the advantage of being a king indeed.
"There is but one God, and Akbar is his Viceroy."
Such was his first motto. If it made him a despot, his second one made
"There is good in all things. Let us adopt what is good, and discard
the remainder." And this admixture of despotism and tolerance is the
secret of Indian statesmanship.
Akbar was the most magnificent of monarchs; but all his magnificences
held a hint of imagination. Whether in the scattering amongst the
crowd by the king's own hand, as he passed to and fro, of dainty
enamelled rose-leaves, silvern jasmine-buds, or gilded almonds, or in
the daily Procession of the Hours, all Akbar's ceremonials have
reference to something beyond the weary, workaday world. In the midst
of it all he was simplicity itself.
No better conclusion to this ineffectual record of his reign can be
given than this description of him by a European eyewitness:--
"He is affable and majestical, merciful and sincere. Skilful in
mechanical arts, as making guns, etc.; of sparing diet, sleeping but
three hours a day, curiously industrious, affable to the vulgar,
seeming to grace them and their presents with more respective
ceremonies than those of the grandees; loved and feared of his own;
terrible to his enemies."
One word more. He invariably administered justice sitting or standing
below the throne; thus declaring himself to be the mere instrument of
a Supreme Power to which he also owned obedience.
So not without cause did this record begin by calling Akbar a Dreamer.