Akbar: The Great Mughal is an instructive retelling of the emperor's life

The Ruling class: In Mukhoty's words, Akbar 'was a military leader of genius, an exceptional judge of men and character, a builder of cities, a connoisseur and a patron of art, an innovator, a man of reason and ideas, and much more'. Photo: Wikipedia
Jacob Burckhardt, the great historian of the Renaissance, once observed, “History is what one age finds worthy of note in another.” For many of us living in India today there is a compulsion to hark back to Akbar and how he ruled India in the second half of the 16th century, and to some of the values he represented. Ira Mukhoty’s extraordinarily vivid retelling of Akbar’s life and times is, thus, extremely timely and instructive.

Akbar was by any reckoning an unusual monarch. He was probably illiterate — he may have been dyslexic — but he was profoundly interested in the world of ideas and liked the company of learned men of different views and their debates and discussions. In a violent and intolerant age, he propagated the idea of tolerance and universal peace. In spite of being an absolute monarch — at a time when most monarchs were absolutist — he administered his growing empire through an elaborate administrative apparatus based on a detailed system of land revenue collection. Many, if not most, of these achievements outlived Akbar and were instrumental in running the Mughal Empire for three generations after Akbar.

Mukhoty writes — and this reviewer agrees with her — that the central beliefs of Akbar (and those of Ashoka) “continue to be relevant in India today”. She argues that “the essential truths about people in each age and societies, whether in India or elsewhere, are intricate, messy and often impenetrable. They cannot be made to conform to any particular ideological persuasion, no matter how strident the argument becomes.’’ It is her strongly held view that “our DNA [I take that to mean our cultures, our traditions] refuses to be categorised into our geographical location, or privilege one particular culture. Akbar understood this through his sulh kul [universal peace], through his refusal to be claimed by one certitude and one truth.’’ This is the primary reason Akbar beckons to contemporary India and Indians from across centuries. This is what 21st-century India finds of note in the life and times of Akbar.

Mukhoty writes in her book that Indian civilisational values refuse to be 'claimed by one certitude and one truth' but does not shy away from claiming that her biography is definitive.
Akbar was a multi-faceted emperor. In Mukhoty’s words, “He was a military leader of genius, an exceptional judge of men and character, a builder of cities, a connoisseur and patron of art, an innovator, a man of reason and ideas, and much more”. In that “much more” it needs to be added, since it is seldom said, that he was deeply compassionate and respectful to his elderly women relatives like his mother Hamida Banu, his aunt, Humayun’s sister, Gulbadan, and his milk or foster mother, Maham Anaga.

Mukhoty narrates Akbar’s life through six chronological divisions. The narration is in the main based on anecdotes culled from different accounts of Akbar’s reign. As the story of Akbar’s life unfolds in linear fashion — inevitable in biography — analysis often takes a back seat. This might be welcome to the general reader — Mukhoty’s target audience — but students of history already familiar with the major events of Akbar’s career might find it a trifle exasperating.

Akbar may have been a visionary and this is what Mukhoty’s narrative would drive us to believe. But such a view underestimates another facet of Akbar — that he was also a hard-nosed realist. When Adham Khan killed a man in the open court and misbehaved, Akbar did not overlook this be adabi even though Adham Khan was his milk brother and the son of Maham Anaga. Akbar took Adham Khan by his hair and flung him down the imperial stairs and when that did not kill the offender he had him flung down again head first to finish his life. Following this, he went himself to break the news to Maham Anga. He did not allow his sentiments and his familial feelings to affect his decision-making and the exercise of his supreme power and position. Similarly, in his attitude to the jizya: When he was wooing the shaikhzadas and the orthodox elements, he did not hesitate to reimpose the jizya in 1569 and then again abolish it when the circumstances demanded. It is important to make this point since Akbar’s successors, including Aurangzeb, also acted as political realists. None of them were rigid monochromatic figures driven by a single set of beliefs. They acted to strengthen their power and position and for what they thought best for their empire.

Mukhoty comes into her own as an evocative writer in her vibrant descriptions of Akbar’s campaigns and his court life. I believe her accounts of the siege of Chitor and the way Akbar planned it and her telling of Akbar’s second march to Gujarat — when he covered 800 kilometres from Fatehpur Sikri to Ahmedabad in nine days — are masterpieces of historical reconstruction. She brings the past alive. There are also thrilling descriptions of Akbar taking his mount — horse or elephant — into a river in torrent and beating the forces of nature through raw physical courage.

I have already mentioned Akbar’s care and love for his elderly female relatives. Women, it would appear from Mukhoty’s book, had a special place in Akbar’s life. Not only because he married them to gain political allies but also because of certain decisions that he took that affected the lives of even ordinary women in his realm. In 1583, he introduced measures to ensure that sati did not occur unless it was voluntary on the part of the widow. He commented, “It is a strange commentary on the magnanimity of men that they should seek their deliverance through the self-sacrifice of their wives.” Four years later, he allowed widows to remarry. These were remarkable decisions only to be repeated in the 19th century through the efforts of Rammohun Roy and Iswarchandra Vidyasagar. What prompted Akbar to take these steps in his time and age, knowing very well that it would not please all Hindus, especially his newly won allies, the Rajputs? What were the ideas that influenced him? Was there something in the Timurid traditions from which he derived his ideas? Provocative questions hover over these facts that Mukhoty presents but she tip-toes around them.

Mukhoty is at the forefront of a new kind of history writing that is emerging in India: The presentation of the past for the intelligent layperson without dumbing down and simplification — serious but accessible writing of history. Ramachandra Guha pioneered it in India but there have since been other practitioners — William Dalrymple, Nayanjot Lahiri, Ruby Lal, Sudeep Chakravarti, Manu Pillai to name a few. Ira Mukhoty is a very notable addition to this list.

I will end by expressing two reservations. One is the subtitle: “The Definitive Biography”. Mukhoty is too ardent a reader of history to be told that no retelling of the past can be “definitive”. Every telling is enriched by subsequent ones and by new facts, new analyses and new perspectives. “Definitive” implies a closure which is impossible in history writing since the past can never be captured in its fullness. Mukhoty writes in her book that Indian civilisational values refuse to be “claimed by one certitude and one truth” but she does not shy away from claiming that her biography is “definitive”. Moreover, there is a hint of arrogance in the use of the word and it sits very uneasily with the historian’s craft.

The second reservation is that the book is based entirely on her extensive reading of translated sources and secondary material. Akbar’s reign marked the apogee of what Richard Eaton has called the “Persianate Age”. To attempt to write a history of Akbar without Persian has its pitfalls. Supriya Gandhi’s biography of Dara Shukoh has recently demonstrated — without losing out on accessibility — the dimensions and depth that can be added through knowledge of the relevant languages. Those who have the language skills in Aligarh and elsewhere refuse to tread on the life and career of Akbar and so it is forgivable that Mukhoty rushed to produce a sensitive and enjoyable biography of India’s greatest ruler since Ashoka Piyadasi and before Jawaharlal Nehru.

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