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Early Modern India
The Mughals: Akbar
by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 1 June 2009
Jalaluddin Muhammed Akbar was born on 15 October
1542, in the palace of Raja Virsal of Amarkot. Virsal had been a friend
of his father, Humayun, and had given the Mughal royal family refuge
while they were being hounded by Sher Shah Suri's hordes.
Akbar was a precocious child, with an keen intellect. Though he was
very less inclined to the literary education provided by his father,
he compensated for this with his interest in the martial arts, and outdoor
activities like horse riding, hunting and so on. He also honed artisan
skills in carpentry and was a blacksmith, a painter and an animal
trainer. However, Akbar's literary skills were to remain limited for
life, to say the least.
While Humayun was away, battling the Afghans under Sikandar Shah,
Akbar, under the guardianship of Bairam Khan, was learning to manage
the affairs of Ghazni and Lahore.
When Humayun died in an accident in Delhi, Akbar was just fourteen
years of age. Bairam Khan, a Persian loyalist of Humayun's,
immediately installed Akbar on the Mughal throne in 1556. Bairam
Khan was made the wazir and given the title of 'khan-i-khana'.
The kitchen cabinet
The position compromised Akbar's reputation
somewhat. He was said to be under the influence of Bairam Khan on
the one hand and under the influence of the 'kitchen cabinet' of
his mother, Hamida Banu, his chief nurse, Maham Anga, and his wet nurse, Jiji Anga
on the other hand.
Jiji Anga's husband, Shamsuddin Atga Khan, was Akbar's most trusted
general. After Humayun's reacquisition of the Mughal empire, and under the able guidance of Bairam Khan,
Akbar was able to reconsolidate the empire. After Humayun's death there
had been many aspirants to the Delhi throne.
One of these was Sultan Muhammad Adil Shah, also known as Mubariz Khan, who had usurped the Suri
throne after murdering his nephew, Firoz Shah, the son of Sikandar Shah.
While Akbar was camping in Punjab, in Bijapur the Hindu minister
of Sultan Adil Shah I, Hemu, had just captured Agra and was proceeding towards Delhi. Akbar,
Bairam Khan and the Mughal forces approached Delhi to head off Hemu.
A battle ensued (1556), in which Hemu was injured in the eye by
an stray arrow. Hemu collapsed to the ground, unconscious, and his army panicked and
surrendered to Akbar. The unconscious Hemu was taken before Akbar.
Bairam Khan then urged Akbar to kill Hemu and assume the title of
gazi, the slayer of the infidels. The young Akbar religiously obeyed
Bairam Khan and Hemu was killed.
Akbar was now growing into manhood, and he was fast finding Bairam
Khan to be more and more dominating and interfering. Akbar felt that his
authority was being undermined by Bairam Khan, who was even
controlling Akbar's personal finances. Also, pushing Akbar into
acting against his wazir were
lots of jealous courtiers who resented Bairam Khan's prominence in the
Mughal court. The Mughals were Sunni Muslims, whereas Bairam Khan was a
Shia, and that made some people uncomfortable.
Also conspiring against Bairam Khan were members of Akbar's
kitchen cabinet - mainly his nurse, Maham Anga, and her wayward son, Adham Khan.
In time, matters between Akbar and Bairam grew worse, and Akbar was
able to order his dismissal. Bairam Khan
obeyed Akbar and expressed a desire to proceed on a pilgrimage to
Mecca. Akbar paid for his expenses and packed him off on his
journey. But Bairam Khan, trusty servant to the last, despite his
tendency to be too controlling, never reached Mecca. He was assassinated
on the way by one of his old enemies.
Meanwhile, Adham Khan was becoming very
overbearing. There had been instances of
his barbarity and dishonesty which Akbar had earlier forgiven. But
when he became involved in a palace intrigue, Adham Khan murdered Akbar's favourite
general, Atga Khan. Akbar was furious. He ordered Adham Khan to be
thrown down from the palace rampart, and Adham Khan's mother, Maham Anga, died
of grief within a year. Akbar was now free of the kitchen cabinet
and was a full and complete authority in his own right.
Akbar the emperor
The Mughal forces had already surmounted the walls
of Malwa by 1562, defeating its ruler, Baz Bahadur.
Akbar's other conquests included Chunar and then
Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh. Akbar then attacked Gondwana in 1564. Its
regents, Durgavati, and her son, Vir Narayan, died fighting in the
battlefield. Gondwana was annexed to the Mughal empire. Now, Akbar
decided to take on the might of the Rajputs. He sent his emissaries
to various Rajput princes, asking them to accept his suzerainty. He
knew of the Rajput reputation for valour, so he initially decided on diplomatic and
subtle means to subdue them, tactfully entering into marriage
alliances with many of them. The ruler of Amer (Jaipur), Raja Bharmal, wedded
his daughter to Akbar and set the precedent. Akbar inducted his son,
Bhagwandas, and grandson, Man Singh, into his body of high ranking courtiers.
The Rajput fort of Chittor was held by one of Akbar's staunchest
The ruler of Mewar, Maharana Uday Singh of the Sisodiya clan (a
descendent of Rana Sangha), refused Akbar's offer. Akbar
decided to punish the rana. He attacked Mewar, and annexed half of
the kingdom. Uday Singh offered brave resistance, holding on to
the other half of his kingdom until his death. Uday Singh's son,
the legendary Maharana Pratap Singh, also refused to follow Akbar's
bidding and continued his heroic resistance. Akbar met Rana Pratap at
the famous Battle of Haldighati (comparable to the Battle of
Thermopylae) in 1576. The Rajputs fought valiantly but were
outnumbered. Rana Pratap escaped to the adjoining jungles and
continued his struggle from there, waging a guerrilla battle against Akbar until his death in 1597. His son, Amar Singh, was to win
back the fort of Chittor from the Mughals. Soon, barring the part of
Mewar, Kalinjar and Ranthambor, were annexed to the Mughal empire.
The rulers of Marwar, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, and Bundi,
gradually submitted to Akbar. By 1570, the entire independence of
the Rajputs was ceded to the Mughals. This was a great success for
Akbar, who became the first emperor in Mughal history to subdue
the Rajputs in their entirety.
Soon, Gujarat, Bihar, and Bengal fell to Akbar. Having upper half of
India in his control, Akbar turned northwards. His cousin, Mirza
Muhammed Hakim, of Kabul was threatening Akbar, so Akbar sent his
Rajput general, Man Singh, to attack Kabul. Man Singh captured the
city in 1581,
while nearby Kandahar was peacefully surrendered to the Mughals
by its erstwhile governor, who had changed loyalties. Kashmir
followed in 1586, and then Sind in 1591. Orissa which was a
subsidiary of the Mughal kingdom, rebelled, but only to be annexed
in 1592. With Baluchistan in 1595, Akbar completed his northern
By 1600, the states of the Deccan plateau
and central India, Berar, Burhanpur (Madhya
Pradesh), Khandesh, Ahmednagar (Maharashtra), Golconda, and Bijapur (Karnataka), were
also overpowered by the Mughals.
The high walls around the fort of Chittor which overlooks the plain
Akbar, was now the undisputed ruler of almost the entire Indian
subcontinent. This was the biggest ever expansion of the Mughal
empire since the advent of his grandfather Babar.
The period of Akbar's rule In India can be considered the golden
age of the
Mughals. Akbar not only expanded the boundaries of his empire, but
also consolidated those boundaries.
Administration and personal life
Akbar provided an efficient administration
for his subjects. His
administration was not innovative but it did derive from the best
practices of the Afghans and the Rajputs. Akbar divided his empire
into twelve provinces (subahs) and appointed a subedar to administer
each subah. Each subah was further divided into 'sarkars' and
subdivided into 'parganas.' Moreover, to provide overall supervision
of the subahs there
were his chief courtiers: the wazir (prime minister), the qazi
(chief justice), mir bakshi (paymaster general), the muhtasib
(health minister), the khan-i-saman (chief of security), the daroga-i-topkhana (chief of artillery), and the daroga-i-dak chauki
(chief of intelligence).
Akbar's harem was said to number 5000 women comprising of his many
wives and concubines. His successor, Jehangir, was the son of Hira
Kumari or Harkha Bai, the daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amer.
Akbar was an imperialist, but also a benevolent and non partisan
ruler. He, like his predecessors, may have destroyed Hindu temples
during war, but was never overzealous and bigoted during peacetime.
He allowed his Hindu queens to practice their own religion, within
the palace precinct. In fact he used to participate in some Hindu
festivals such as Deewali (the festival of lights) and Holi (the
festival of colours). His finance minister was a Hindu - Todar Mal -
famed for his efficiency. Akbar repealed the jaziya tax in 1562 (the
tax on pilgrims), and reintroduced it in 1575, only to repeal it again
in 1580. The jaziya tax was mostly a burden for the poor. and was
used as a tool to encourage them to convert to Islam. When they
proved unable to pay the tax, poor Hindus faced execution, but if
they converted to Islam their life was spared.
Akbar was fond of religious discourses.
For this reason, he invited religious leaders from all communities
to meet him, including Jesuits
from Europe. Eventually, Akbar started his own religion, called the 'din ilahi' (which died along with
The emperor in later life, depicting him as still fairly youthful in
appearance despite his grey hair
Akbar was also a great patron of the arts. He had gathered in his
kingdom the nav ratnas (nine gems), exponents of various arts from
their respective fields; Tansen the exponent of classical Hindustani
music, Birbal the wise adviser, Fiazi the court poet, and Abu Fazal,
author of the biography Akbarnama, were amongst their number.
After his conquest of Chittor, Akbar constructed the famed city of
Fatehpur Sikri (the city of victory), but it was soon abandoned due to
water supply problems.
As described by his son, Jehangir, Akbar was physically very strong,
of medium height, with a yellow, wheatish complexion, and with long arms and a
broad chest. He had a loud voice and was very witty and animated in
discourses. He is said to have had a prodigious memory. He was also brave and
adventurous, and is said to have made an rogue elephant kneel at his
command. Another tale describes him having killed a tiger with a
single blow of his sword. Militarily, Akbar was an intrepid soldier
led his army in many battles. He was a very adept swordsman and a very
proficient archer. History views Akbar as a leader who could inspire
his followers, a
person who was shrewd, an astute diplomat and a sound judge of human
Akbar died on 25 October 1605 after a prolonged and undiagnosed
illness. He was buried in Sikandara, Agra, where he rests in his
The gates to Akbar's tomb, which was constructed during his
lifetime, but completed by his son
Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History,
Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000
Spear, Percival - The History of