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Author Parvati Sharma on what makes Akbar ‘the great’

Author Parvati Sharma says Akbar’s clear ideological template was ‘peace for all’, which allowed for diversity of sects and creeds

The tomb of Mughal emperor Akbar at Sikandra in Uttar Pradesh.
The tomb of Mughal emperor Akbar at Sikandra in Uttar Pradesh. (iStockphoto)

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In the era of rampant and wilful erasure of the Mughal period from Indian history school textbooks, Delhi-based author Parvati Sharma has been on the trail of the Great Mughals, gleaning information on their lives and times from the dense volumes of historical records and presenting their stories to us in simple and lyrical prose. Four years after she wrote Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait Of A Great Mughal, she is back with a well-researched biography of Akbar, the greatest of all Mughals, who had an insatiable appetite for conquest and ruled for nearly 50 years. Akbar Of Hindustan: Imperfect And Extraordinary, The Man Behind The Myth (Juggernaut) explores the political, theological and mythological aspects of Akbar’s life and rule.

Sharma, who has worked as an editor, a travel writer and a journalist, describes herself as a “non-historian” but the rigour and intensity with which she explores the life of the 16th century monarch shines through on every page. Employing the imagination of a fiction writer and the skills of a historian to sift through facts, her story of the most glorified Mughal emperor is told lucidly, through a vivid narrative. “Akbar was not a perfect man, but he was as great as any man can be, in that he strove for perfection not through power but through its just exercise. That was the crux of his relentless enquiries into faith,” writes Sharma, whose books include a collection of short stories and a novel: The Dead Camel And Other Stories Of Love (2010) and Close To Home (2014). Her quest to chronicle Mughal history began in 2015, when she published The Story Of Babur, a book for children that is as engaging for adults.

Despite the seriousness of her endeavour, Sharma remains aware of the limitation of her enterprise: “So much of a person’s character and destiny is woven with gossamer thread; a translucent, finely connected tapestry of instinct and belief, chance and determination, only parts of which are ever clearly visible in any particular light.” What made her arrive at Jahangir before Akbar? She says that while there was no plan to it, in retrospect, it was probably a good thing to have gone from son to father rather than the other way round. “Not only is Jahangir an easier subject, but he was also, in a way, an introduction to Akbar and his court. Had I walked into Akbar blind, I think I would still be writing the book—or I would have abandoned it long ago,” she says. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

The subtitle of ‘Akbar Of Hindustan’ carries a hint of the dualistic and dichotomous aspect of Akbar’s personality, ‘Imperfect And Extraordinary’, which you dwell on throughout the book. Do you see your biography as an attempt to unlock the mystery behind the legend and show him as a flesh-and-blood character who had his virtues and flaws?

It would be presumptuous of me to claim to unlock the mystery of a man like Akbar—but yes, and despite the presumption of it, I did want to try and get to “know” him. Unlike Jahangir, with whom I was able to feel an oddly easy familiarity very quickly, Akbar is such an imposing character that there’s an instinctive tendency to “sit up straight” when writing about him. And I didn’t want that; I wanted to feel informal around him. It’s not difficult to empathise with Jahangir, but how do you empathise with someone so much larger than life? It took a lot of reading and rereading, writing and rewriting—not to mention many conversations with my editor, Nandini Mehta—to get to a point where I could write about his virtues and flaws, his victories and tragedies, without feeling out of place. So, yes, my hope was that this biography would manage to portray a complicated man; and the challenge of it was to expand my own abilities as a writer.

You wrote in a recent piece for a news portal that for Akbar, power was not a drug-fuelled dream but a dilemma: If he was ruthless in its acquisition, he was also tremendously troubled by how to exercise it. His quest to hit upon the just way to rule also made him look for divine help. What should today’s rulers learn from the story of Akbar, especially his views on religion and religious policy?

That piece was a very condensed answer to a question I have been asking myself through the last three years of writing Akbar: What, if anything, made Akbar “the Great”? I was writing about a man who built an empire, sometimes by ruthless means, and it was impossible to escape the “empire-building’ that was (and is) going on around me, the attempted creation of a Hindu Rashtra (which often positions itself against the Mughal empire, in fact). It felt like one of those “compare and contrast” questions we had in school. Where Akbar’s story takes a different turn—the contrast—is that while he could have become despotic, having won such power, he did not. Instead, while building his own imperial authority, he also built a stable, well-administered state, with the welfare and prosperity of the people in mind as much as the health of his treasury or the expansion of his borders.

Over the years, as his empire grew ever larger in size, it also acquired a clear ideological template, the shorthand for which is “sulh-i kul”, peace for all—a template that accepted and allowed for the great diversity of ethnicities and faiths in Hindustan. Such diversity of sects and creeds troubled him, initially; he invested a great deal of time and energy in seeking a “true faith”, a Jesuit in his court wrote that Akbar was always wondering which nation had the “true religion of God”—some of his critics would say he even sought divinity in himself. Eventually, however, it was the peace and welfare of the people that won over this search for a single “truth” or way of life. This understanding was and remains crucial to anyone who wants to govern a country for the good of the many, not the profit of the few, especially a country as vast and heterogenous as India.

Akbar Of Hindustan— Imperfect And Extraordinary, The Man Behind The Myth: By Parvati Sharma, Juggernaut, 386 pages, <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
Akbar Of Hindustan— Imperfect And Extraordinary, The Man Behind The Myth: By Parvati Sharma, Juggernaut, 386 pages, 799.

Akbar, like Chinghis Khan and Timur the Lame, was a Niru’un, born of celestial light, as the myth around Mongol queen Alanqoa goes. What role do you think Akbar’s antecedents played in shaping who he became?

The myth of Alanqoa, the Mongol queen, is that she was impregnated by a blaze of light and had three sons—whose best known descendants are Chinghis, Timur and Akbar. Abu’l Fazl tells the story in the Akbarnama; it is one of many recurrent references that associate Akbar with light—which, in turn, gives him a superhuman, maybe near-divine aura. What role did Chinghis or Timur play in Akbar’s life? It’s generally agreed that the Mughals’ Chinghizid and Timurid antecedents gave them a certain prestige among neighbouring dynasties like the Safavids and Ottomans.

The modern historian Corinne Lefèvre has a very interesting article on the Mughals and their relationship with their genealogies, in which she notes how Chinghis and Timur would have been something of a “liability” in India, where memories of fighting Mongol attacks or of Timur’s invasion still lingered. She also describes how Abu’l Fazl tweaks another legend in which Timur appears as an extraordinarily bright star—to say that, in fact, that star represents Akbar. Akbar was also certainly affected by the implications of the Chinghizid code, the “yasa-i Chinghezi”, by which power did not vest in an individual ruler but in the ruling family. Akbar had a great many proud Chinghizid and Timurid descendants in his court, many of whom caused him a great deal of trouble with their resistance to his attempts to centralise authority.

The book, like a few other recent biographies of Akbar, relies heavily on the accounts of his court historian Abu’l Fazal, which are flattering, and Abdul Qadir Badauni, who is critical of the king. Does contrasting their accounts reveal fresh truths about Akbar?

I had an English teacher who used to say that there’s so much written about Shakespeare, it’s impossible to say anything original about him any more. That may be true for Akbar, too; and certainly for me, as a non-historian, I wasn’t looking to uncover any new truths about him. As it happens, though, what is commonly known about Akbar is only a tiny fraction of his life—just discovering the known truths and theories was exciting for me. And yes, I have used Abu’l Fazl and Badauni a lot. It would be virtually impossible, I think, to write about Akbar without taking them into account: Akbar and Abu’l Fazl are intertwined through the Akbarnama, you literally cannot read about the one without reading the other.

As for Badauni, he is so perfectly the counter-point to Abu’l Fazl, not to mention such an entertaining writer, that he often steals the scene from his more successful colleague: You cannot not quote him. Badauni is best known for his uninhibited critique of the emperor, of course, but he also reveals other facets of Akbar. His love of books, for example; more than once, Badauni tells of how he was summoned to read his translations to Akbar. They are the perfect odd couple, “baked in the same oven”, as Badauni puts it, but so different in temperament and career and style of writing. I really enjoyed their company these past three years.

A significant element of Akbar’s story in this biography is the evolution of his ideas and ideals of kingship and the accumulation of political and religious authority that came to be vested in him. Did you wish to dwell on his spiritual connection?

Akbar’s accumulation of authority was definitely one of the most fascinating things about him. It’s less spectacular than battles but it takes as much courage and ruthless determination: the creation of imperial authority not only through conquest, but also the establishment of a proto-bureaucracy, the reassessment and reform of agricultural land and revenue—and, alongside, the garnering of spiritual authority in the emperor’s person. Akbar’s deep interest in the divine is one of his compelling traits: He leaps into theological discussion with the same energy with which he goes to war. But here, his weapon is not the sword, but curiosity and doubt. And yet—and this is another of Akbar’s many contradictions—while he encourages every kind of theological question in his court, he also begins to emerge as a blessed, superhuman figure in the Akbarnama. Abu’l Fazl’s history abounds with miracles associated with the emperor—from stopping a storm to healing the sick. Both Badauni and visiting Jesuit priests (neither party can be accused of wanting to flatter Akbar) note how Akbar’s subjects become almost worshipful of their emperor. And there is, of course, the so-called Din-i Ilahi, by which, it has been argued, Akbar is binding his increasingly disparate nobility’s sense of loyalty and honour to the emperor—as against their own faiths or clans.

What’s also interesting about Akbar’s authority is that it isn’t restricted to him alone, but also invested in the imperial throne; it can be argued that he created a legitimacy for Mughal rule that survived long after he was gone.

How was the process of researching this book? With the wealth of material, how did you settle on the narrative structure?

At one point, the idea of writing this book as a narrative was so daunting, I was very tempted to change the whole format and just tell it as a series of vignettes. Building a narrative momentum needed more organisational labour than I have done for any other book I have written—like making a detailed timeline, for example, which was almost as long as my whole book on Jahangir. It also meant letting things go, from one draft to the next, whether details and anecdotes, or whole episodes like the prolonged battle for Gujarat led by Abdur Rahim, or Man Singh’s conquests in the east. Also, once the facts were in some kind of flow, I had to find an emotional register for the book: a way of anchoring Akbar’s seemingly limitless success. In my head, there were two images of him that helped do that: One is an actual painting of Akbar as a boy, dressed in yellow pyjamas, hunting with falcons—carefree, not knowing how soon his father will die and how quickly his own life will change. The other is Akbar on his deathbed in his 60s, when he may have hoped to live to at least twice that age, having to give the kingdom he built with such minute care to a son whom he did not, very possibly, trust to rule it well. And between these two, the interrupted childhood and the disappointed old age, there are the many, many notes, soaring, tender, furious, of the symphony of his life.

Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories By Women Writers.

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