Painting of Akbar, 1630 | Met Museum | Wikimedia Commons
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In the next few years, between 1583 and 1586, the trajectory of Akbar’s life would unexpectedly swerve away from what had been the glowing heart of his empire for so many years—Fatehpur Sikri and the ibadat khana. There has been a lot of conjecture about the reason why Akbar left Fatehpur Sikri at this point. There was the death of Mirza Hakim, for one, which immediately caused turmoil in the north-west frontier. But there was also the death of a courtier and a friend who had held a unique place in the Padshah’s affections—Birbal. 

Birbal was one of the first officers to join Akbar’s court, possibly as early as 1556, when he was twenty-eight years old. A pleasant-faced man, with a glossy moustache just like the Padshah’s, Birbal’s increasingly privileged place at court would be reflected by his spreading girth, resulting in his qaba settling in comfortable, voluminous folds around his form. He was honoured with the title Raja and a high rank of 2,000 soon after he joined imperial service. In Birbal the Padshah found a quick and adaptable mind, a lively intelligence, and an engaging wit and, above all, a complete and sincere devotion to Akbar himself. Another title that Birbal earned early on in his career, which gives some indication of the talents he possessed, that would have attracted the attention of the Padshah, was that of Kavi Rai, King of Poets. He was a fine poet of Braj, and his poems were much appreciated at court. He also had a naturally generous nature and all these traits combined—elegant repartee, largesse, and poetical talent—made Birbal the ideal Mughal courtier. 

When Akbar was building his new city at Fatehpur Sikri, he had ordered ‘the erection of a stone palace for [Birbal]’. So celebrated was the friendship between the two men that long after the Mughal Empire was history, a veritable tsunami of anecdotes of the so-called Akbar–Birbal variety lived on, lampooning the Padshah as a somewhat dim-witted though well intentioned character, regularly put in his place by Birbal. The scholar C. M. Naim has shown that while often subversive, these stories also tend to try and ‘humanize’ Akbar and to transform him into someone who was accessible and approachable. While there is very little evidence that any of these anecdotes were based on actual events, there is no doubt that Akbar enjoyed witty and sharp observations.

When the poet Faizi happened to boast in Akbar’s presence that no one surpassed him in the three Cs—Chess, Combat, and Composition—the emperor retorted that he had forgotten a fourth, Conceit. On another occasion, when Shaikh Mubarak had berated the emperor for being too extravagant, Faizi had tried to make excuses for his father saying ‘our Shaikh is not much of a courtier’, whereupon Akbar had teased him saying ‘no, he has left all those fopperies to you’. That the qualities appreciated by Akbar included a lively intellect and pleasant, charming manners are evident, yet he also demanded complete devotion and loyalty. It is inconceivable, therefore, that any courtier would have been allowed the liberties depicted in the Akbar–Birbal stories, certainly not from one who had such a long and special career at court. For though Akbar surrounded himself with movement and clamour and discussions, he was ‘full also of dignity and when he is angry, of awful majesty’, according to Monserrate, with an anger that most courtiers would have been loath to provoke.

Also read: How the golden era of Kathak began during the Mughal rule under Akbar

A sign of the unique bond that Akbar shared with Birbal was that the raja was never censured in the thirty years he served at court as a close confidant of the Padshah. Even his closest courtiers were rebuked or punished when found lacking, as when Man Singh had not pursued Rana Pratap after Haldighati. ‘The King’s severity towards errors and misdemeanours committed by officials in the course of government business is remarkable’, wrote Monserrate, ‘for he is most stern with offenders against the public faith.’ Only three men never incurred royal displeasure in their entire careers: the poet Faizi, the musician Tansen, and Raja Birbal. 

‘By means of conversing with the Emperor and taking advantage of the idiosyncrasies of his disposition,’ wrote Badauni bitterly, ‘[Birbal] crept day by day more into favour, until he attained to high rank and was honoured with the distinction of becoming the Emperor’s confidant and it became a case of thy flesh is my flesh and thy blood my blood.’ 

An incident in 1583 in Fatehpur Sikri was further demonstration of the close bond between Akbar and Raja Birbal. During an elephant fight organized in the grounds of Akbar’s court, one of the elephants, ‘unique for violence’, suddenly rushed towards Birbal, and seized him with his trunk. Akbar turned his horse around and galloped towards the elephant, charging at him, while all around him his soldiers and courtiers shouted out in alarm. The elephant then turned towards Akbar but, inexplicably, faltered, and Birbal was saved.

Also read: Kashmir, Bengal, Malwa: Akbar justified invasions by claiming he was freeing people

Akbar left Fatehpur Sikri for the Punjab in 1585. When he left, there was no indication that he would never return, and that the great lively discussions of the ibadat khana were forever silenced. 

The senior members of the harem, including Hamida Banu and Gulbadan, remained in Fatehpur Sikri during Akbar’s endless absence, expecting the Padshah to return any day. Nor was there an abandonment of the city itself, as was later suggested, since many courtiers and harem members remained in the city. Rather, there was a gradual leeching away of its vitality and exuberance, as the Padshah’s absence lengthened to years, and then decades. It has also been proposed that there was a sudden water shortage in the city after a dam broke but Hakim Abu’l Fath Gilani, who stayed on at Fatehpur Sikri, increasingly bemused and saddened by Akbar’s absence, never mentioned any lack of water which he surely would have had that been the reason for the Padshah’s absence. 

Akbar had left Fatehpur Sikri to tend to his fractious border in the Punjab but on this journey he was also forced to deal with the consequences of two deaths that affected him deeply. The first was the death of his half-brother, Mirza Hakim. Late in 1585, Mirza Hakim ‘after much madness…fell into pains difficult of treatment’ and finally died of alcoholism. Immediately, the rebellious Kabuli noblemen showed signs of discontent, requiring Akbar’s attention, for an old nightmare from the time of Babur himself had resurfaced— the Uzbeks.

With Mirza Hakim, a convenient buffer, now dead, Abdullah Khan Uzbek began to dream of empires in Afghanistan and Hindustan. But another death, in early 1586, was much more personally devastating for Akbar. Zain Khan Koka and Raja Birbal had been sent on an expedition against the troublesome Pashtun Yusufzais in the Swat and Bajaur regions but disagreement and mistrust between the two leaders led to Birbal falling into a trap that the Yusufzais laid for him in the crumbling defiles of Kabul’s mountains. The Mughals suffered the worst defeat of Akbar’s reign, in a massacre called the Yusufzai Disaster, in which more than 8,000 Mughal soldiers, including Birbal, were killed. 

When this terrible news was announced to Akbar, he was inconsolable. For two days and two nights he refused any food or water, did not attend to any state matters, left the bemused ambassador of Turan unattended, and turned away in grief from the jharoka window. Akbar ‘grieved him exceedingly, and his heart turned away from everything’, wrote Abu’l Fazl. Hamida Banu, who had come to the Punjab to meet with her son, had to entreat with the Padshah, along with his attendants, to resume his activities. The entire court mourned Birbal and the poet Keshavdas wrote verses in Brajbhasha in memory of him. 

When Birbal passed away there was great rejoicing in Poverty’s court.

The pakhavaj drums of Evil began to play
The sounds of the conch shells of Grief resounded The songs of Falsehood, the tambourines of Fear
A concert of all these instruments was heard

The house of Kaliyuga was merry with the pipes of Discord and the streaming banners of Disgrace. 

Also read: Little-known fact: Aurangzeb had more Rajput administrators than Akbar

‘He never experienced such grief at the death of any Amir,’ wrote Badauni, ‘as he did at that of Birbal.’ Akbar seemed tormented by the idea of the broken, bloody body of his old friend lying unclaimed on the cold, stony hillsides on which he had died, carrying out his duty to his Padshah unto death. ‘Alas,’ he said, ‘that they could not bring his body out of the defile, that it might have been committed to the flames.’ In his grief and his fury he even wanted to rush to Kabul himself, to find Birbal’s body and to punish the other officers. He was dissuaded by his courtiers, and comforted by them with the idea that the light of the sun was enough to purify the body of his fallen friend.

‘By this heart-rending mishap, the memory of the pleasures of his lofty company has become very bitter,’ Akbar admitted to Abu’l Fazl, ‘and this sudden calamity has greatly afflicted my heart…some obstacles have prevented me from seeing the body with my own eyes so that I might testify my love and affection for him.’ Rumours circulated for the rest of the year, and even longer, that Birbal was not dead, that he had been seen, among jogis and sannyasis, or wandering in his old fief of Nagarkot. Every time such a rumour reached the court Akbar, painfully hopeful, sent men to have it investigated. ‘The world is like a mirage,’ Akbar wrote to Abdur Rahim sadly, ‘to beguile thirsty souls… at the end of this frenzy is simply a mist—a fume.’ 

Something had broken inside the Padshah, and he would never again contemplate returning to Fatehpur Sikri, because ‘the pleasant palaces of that city did not engage his heart’, wrote Abu’l Fazl. Akbar kept moving further and further north, to Kabul and then to Kashmir. Perhaps the palaces and courtyards of his erstwhile capital were too painful a reminder of a friend and courtier whose presence and companionship had made bearable the heavy melancholy that sometimes weighed on Akbar’s soul. The only Hindu who was so wholly devoted to the Padshah that he staked his most precious possession on the Padshah’s ‘religion’, his own immortal soul. So Fatehpur Sikri remained, not abandoned, but bereft. But for the next decade, as Fatehpur Sikri retracted back into itself, Akbar would discover Paradise on Earth. 

This excerpt from Akbar: The Great Mughal by Ira Mukhoty has been published with permission from Aleph Book Company.

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    • Mughals were not our enemies. Bahadur Shah Zafar helped Indian people in the revolt of 1857 and Akbar was a great ruler who promoted Din – e – Ilahi which means a universal religion which includes the plus points of all religions which were known to them. He never discriminated between Mughals and Hindus. That’s why he took Birbal who was a Hindu in his court with other Hindus like Man Singh.

  1. Birbal was the only courtier who accepted Akbar’s secular religion Din-e-Ilahi. None of the Hindu or Muslim courtiers renounced their religion to accept Din-e-Ilahi, which died with Akbar’s death.

  2. Are we in some history class again, talking about Akbar and Birbal like Munna bhai and circuit amar kahani? What is the need for for filling up pages? There no news worth for The Print?

    • Just go to the front page mate, there’s plenty of news. And don’t read this if you don’t like it.

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