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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.

Portrait of Akbar

A portrait of Akbar the Falconer

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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 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 campaign.

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.

Fort of Chittor

The high walls around the fort of Chittor which overlooks the plain beneath it

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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 - who was 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 him).

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 who personally 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 character.

Akbar died on 25 October 1605 after a prolonged and undiagnosed illness. He was buried in Sikandara, Agra, where he rests in his mausoleum.


Main Sources

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000

Spear, Percival - The History of India, Penguin, 1990



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.