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Why Akbar wasn’t always a beacon of tolerance

Ira Mukhoty’s new biography of the great Mughal emperor debunks the myths and legends about him

Ira Mukhoty; and (above) Akbar in conversation with Jesuit missionaries, in a 16th century Mughal School miniature painting.
Ira Mukhoty; and (above) Akbar in conversation with Jesuit missionaries, in a 16th century Mughal School miniature painting. (Photo: Getty Images)

Do we need yet another book on a great Mughal? When I was sent the new biography Akbar: The Great Mughal by historian Ira Mukhoty, that is exactly what I wondered. But as I looked deeper, I realized that there had been no recent biographies of Akbar for lay readers, apart from Manimugdha Sharma’s Allahu Akbar: Understanding The Great Mughal In Today’s India, which only came out in October last year. Most of what I knew about him was actually gleaned from a motley collection of movies, school textbooks and Amar Chitra Katha comics. Most of it was also inaccurate.

Mukhoty’s experience was similar. “We tend to leave biographies to academics in India," she says in a phone interview. “There is wonderful work being done on Akbar by art historians and scholars but there are few readable popular histories. Now that history is being manipulated left, right and centre, I think it was important to present a true picture and have this man as part of the public narrative."

Akbar—The Great Mughal: By Ira Mukhoty, Aleph Book Company, 624 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399 (digital price).
Akbar—The Great Mughal: By Ira Mukhoty, Aleph Book Company, 624 pages, 399 (digital price).

Who: Mukhoty is an accidental historian. She studied the sciences at Cambridge and was busy bringing up her two girls when she noticed the lack of engaging history books. “I was looking for women role models for them and all the historical books were so dull," she says. Out of this grew Mukhoty’s 2017 book, Heroines: Powerful Indian Women Of Myth And History, a history of mythical and real Indian women ranging from Draupadi and Meerabai to Razia Sultan and Hazrat Mahal. Her second book, Daughters Of The Sun: Empresses, Queens And Begums Of The Mughal Empire, in 2018, explored the hidden world of Mughal women, most of whom are not mentioned in the records. For both books, Mukhoty had to dig deep because so little had been written on or by women.

What: Mukhoty intended Akbar to appeal to a general audience but she does not always succeed in this. Unlike her previous books, she had a problem of plenty with Akbar. Sometimes, the multiplicity of sources and anecdotes—and the detail she goes into—may be overwhelming for the lay reader. Akbar is 500 pages long and it flags occasionally.

Ira Mukhoty
Ira Mukhoty

Yet, despite its length, some of Akbar’s early and less savoury actions seem to have been covered summarily. As Mukhoty acknowledges, Akbar did not start out as the beacon of tolerance he is considered today. During the gory siege of Chittorgarh in 1567, where Akbar himself took to the battleground, musket in hand, about 300 Rajput women committed jauhar (self-immolation) and 8,000 warriors died fighting. Less well-known is the fact that 30,000 civilians from the villages around were slaughtered by the Mughals in what Mukhoty calls an “aberrant scorched earth policy". “The defeat of Chittor was stridently proclaimed to be the victory of Islam over infidels," she writes, even as Akbar called himself “busy in jihad". But, Mukhoty adds, “This was a path that was soon forsaken, quietly assigned to past mistakes and experiments."

“Akbar wanted to take a tough stance, so that he never again had to repeat that act," says Mukhoty. “I am loath to say that he became more tolerant later. It was a pragmatic choice. He just realized that he could not keep the country together without including Hindus." Then followed the tolerant actions that we know him for: the ban on cow slaughter, the numerous marriages to Rajput women who were allowed to remain Hindu, the exploration of other religions and the inclusion of Hindus in his government. But they had their beginnings in the calculated use of Chittorgarh as a savage warning, which seems to have been glossed over a bit.

Given that this book is billed as a definitive biography, I found myself curious to read more about Akbar’s early and conservative years, when he clung closely to Islam, but the book moves rapidly over this time. These are small faults in an otherwise impressive, engaging and well-edited book. Who could resist chapters with titles like “Timurid Matriarchs And Their Colossal Dreams" or “Uzbek Clansmen And A King In The North"? Mukhoty’s exciting prose gallops like Akbar’s raging ambition and she paints compelling images which bring the characters into modern times. “Akbar was a distracted, undisciplined and rambunctious child and youth, who, in the parlance of the 21st century, may have suffered from attention deficit disorder," she explains.

Why: Read this book for some delightful and unknown details. Mukhoty uses the usual sources, such as the Akbarnama by Abu’l Fazl, Akbar’s official biographer, and the writings of his grand mufti, Abd Al Qadir Badauni. But she also finds other lesser-known sources, which reveal the secret lives of the Mughals, especially their women: chiefly the Humayun-nama, the biography of Akbar’s father, Humayun, written by Gulbadan Begum, Akbar’s lively and adventurous aunt.

For instance, the culinary arts of the Mughals, influenced by the Rajputs, make for delightful reading. In one endearing passage, the author, Ksemasarma, says of the meals prepared for Akbar: “Fie on the meal that has no aubergine. Fie on the aubergine that has no stalk. Fie on the aubergine that has a stalk but is not cooked in oil and fie upon the aubergine that is cooked in oil without using asafoetida!"

Then there is the fascinating “art battle" between Akbar and his rebellious son Jahangir. Jahangir, called Salim at the time, wanted to demonstrate his independence but was afraid to stand up to his formidable father. So he found another way: his patronage of the arts. Jahangir would collect artists from the Persianate school in a “wordless challenge to his father", who patronized the Hindustani school. Paintings of Jahangir from this time show him as a forbidding, dominating monarch, in the Persian style, while in real life his father mostly dominated him. Jahangir had to do in art what he could not do in real life.

Mukhoty also debunks many myths. Birbal was a close friend of Akbar’s but they are unlikely to have had the relationship depicted in Amar Chitra Katha comics, where Birbal was constantly displaying his wit and Akbar was portrayed as an oaf.

Much as we might coo over Akbar and Jodha, there was likely no intense romantic relationship between them. Akbar was greatly influenced by his Rajput wives but there is only one record that refers to Jodha, as the mother of Salim, and it refers to her as Harkha Bai Kacchawha. “The legend was a great deal more enduring than gritty reality," writes Mukhoty.

The women of the Mughal harem have always been thought of as downtrodden and sequestered, thanks mostly to chroniclers like Abu’l Fazl, who would erase their names and refer to them by euphemisms like “cupolas of chastity". But Mughal women in the time of Akbar’s mother Hamida Banu Begum and his aunt Gulbadan actually lived nomadic and adventurous lives. “The Mughal harem was a harem continuously on the move, of women on horseback, of women journeying and living in tents, and sharing the struggles and victories of their men," writes Mukhoty.

Indeed, in 1575, the royal women of Akbar’s harem set off for the Haj pilgrimage with his blessing, a very dangerous journey that risked piracy, abduction and drowning. The journey would take seven years and they would be marooned for a year on the way back.

In her conclusion, Mukhoty emphasizes why Akbar is so relevant today: his messiness and human failings. “A profoundly disturbing trend today is the attempt to try and rectify perceived wrongs by revising and reinterpreting the past, and to formulate an increasingly narrow definition of Indianness," she writes. “It is perhaps inevitable that people in each age are in search of certitudes. But the essential truths about people and societies, whether in India or elsewhere, are intricate, messy and often impenetrable."

Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author.

Twitter - @KavithaRao

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