I first learned about Akbar when I was studying the history of the Mughal (Moghul) Empire in Secondary 2. Sadly, that was a heavily censored version of what actually went on during the golden age of Indian history. As 14-year-old teens, we were only supposed to know that good rulers are benevolent and golden ages are ages of peace, prosperity, love and humanity.
Are you ready for a dose of harsh reality? First of all, who were the Mughals? My history teacher said something about them being Muslim Mongols, but something didn’t quite add up. From their portraits in my history book, they looked more Eurasian than Mongol or Indian. How did these European features come about? How did they end up in India?
Looking back, my teacher should have explained that the Mughals were not an “inherent” ethnic group (a concept we’ve been brought up with in multiracial Singapore) but were an “emergent” race of a mixed ancestry that came into being through conquests and alliances.
Like Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan was bent on “blending” into conquered lands. Interestingly, the Mongols seemed to have little success in China during the Yuan Dynasty. Almost all texts, be they historical or fictional, depicted the Mongols as foreign oppressors who enslaved the Chinese with little intention of blending in. This was apparently not the case in Central Asia. The first Mughal emperor, Babur (1483-1530), was perhaps the most “Mongol” of them all.
Babur’s maternal line can be traced to the great Genghis Khan. His paternal line can be traced to Timur the Lame (1370-1405), a great Turkish conqueror (also of mixed descent and distantly related to Genghis Khan) who ruled the plains of the Timurid Empire from present-day Turkey across Afghanistan, Uzbekistan to present-day Xinjiang. Unfortunately, Timur’s empire disintegrated soon after his death.
Babur was bent on recapturing Samarkand (Uzbekistan), the former capital of Timurid to regain the glory of his great great great grandfather, but he never managed to hold on to the city for long. Frustrated by repeated failures, Babur was resigned to take on an easier target. Upon the invitation of the governor of Punjab, Babur turned his attention to the south and changed the history of India forever.
Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi of the Delhi Sultanate in 1526 and his descendants ruled India (just nominally towards the end) till 1857. Babur died in 1530. He was the first Muslim ruler to write an autobiography entitled Baburnama in which he passed scathing remarks about the Indians’ lack of refinement. You may also find juicy details of his homosexual tendencies and how he was being forced to have “normal” sex by his mother.
Babur was succeeded by his son Humayun who briefly lost control of the empire. He returned to India with a vengeance, supported by a huge army of Persian soldiers and intellectuals who would obliterate the Mongol identity of the Mughals forever. From then on, the Mughals adopted Persian culture and language.
Humayun died in 1556 and was succeeded by his then 13-year-old son Akbar who would become the greatest Mughal emperor in history. However, as a teenager, Akbar left the governing of the empire to his father’s generals and especially influential was his wet nurse cum foster mother Maham Anga to whom he was deeply attached. She became the de facto regent (the official regent being army commander Bairam Khan) to the young emperor. An ambitious woman, Maham Anga was bent on tacitly poaching control from Akbar and passing it to her own son Adham Khan. Adham rose swiftly in the ranks to become a general. The rightful regent Bairam Khan was retired and sent on a pilgrimage in which he died en route.
By age 18, Akbar became acutely aware of his foster mother’s control and self-serving motives, letting her own son Adham keep all the spoils seized from battles. He decided to exercise his authority for the first time by inspecting Adham’s assets and appointing his loyalist Ataga Khan as Chief Minister. Adham Kham knew that the time had come for the ultimate showdown. He assassinated the Chief Minister and was about to kill the sleeping Akbar when a palace eunuch bolted the door and roused Akbar.
The two men (Adham was like an older brother to Akbar since young) engaged in mortal combat. Akbar won and had Adham thrown down from the palace wall repeatedly until his brains popped out. A shattered Maham Anga praised Akbar for his decisive action and was found dead soon after. Having cleared his path of manipulators and potential usurpers, Akbar took on his rightful place on the Mughal throne.
In spite of his harsh and aggressive moves to seize power from those who manipulated him, Akbar turned out to be one of the most liberal Muslim rulers in history. He realised that the Mughals were immigrants. He also realised that they were the minority in a chiefly Hindu country.
Like Alexander and Genghis, his solution was “blending in”. He not only married Indian wives but allowed them to practise Hindu rituals in his palace. Showing his respect for Hinduism, he punished those who desecrated Hindu temples. He even participated in Hindu festivities. The only Hindu ritual he banned was widow-burning.
One interesting policy Akbar had was that when a noble died, his property would be forfeited by the empire. His descendants would then be awarded different forms of compensation. This prevented siblings for fighting over inheritance or more importantly, it prevented the formation of power bases when a family’s territory expanded over several generations.
Akbar wanted his subjects to blend in, encouraging Mughals to take foreign brides, even though he never married his daughters to foreign princes. A Sunni Muslim, he also employed Shia clerics to sanctify some of his “unSunni” ways. For instance, Shia clerics approved of his 300 wives, a mix of Persian, Turkish and Indian.
Akbar realised how powerful the clerics and mullahs could be and he took care of that early in his reign. He ventured into the desert to meditate and claimed to have received messages from God. Claiming divine inspiration, he demanded a salutation involving prostration with the forehead on the ground. Whenever the clerics had a debate, he was the ultimate judge. But even the most liberal clerics had to turn a blind eye when the emperor indulged in wine and opium.
Finally, to secure his own divinity and immortality, he minted coins with the words “Allah Akbar”. It was meant to confuse. Did it mean “God is great” or “Akbar is God”. In spite of all these outrageous actions, Akbar showed few narcissistic traits. These moves were more intended to be calculated political maneuvers than simple self-glorification.
As military commander, Akbar was the most fearless. Donning the shiny armour of European knights, he would lead his army at the frontline. His first battles were won against the defiant Rajputs who could not have been defeated if they were more united. Akbar ordered a huge massacre at Chitor, a Rajput stronghold to warn the other rulers who eventually bowed to Mughal rule without too much of a fight. When the Portuguese met his army in Gujarat, the Europeans swiftly and wisely declined the Gujarati’s invitation to repel Akbar’s forces.
Akbar died at the ripe old age of 63 in 1605. Knowing that his would be a tough act to follow, his descendants erected an imposing tomb to honour his reign, hoping that their subjects would remember the glory of the Mughal Empire under his rule and remain loyal to it.
Akbar’s Tomb is a bit out of the way from Taj Mahal and the other sites like Agra Fort. From the map below, you will see it in the top left or NW corner, so getting there from the more happening part of Agra will require some bargaining skills. A word of caution, beware of guides, drivers, hotel staff who are “too friendly” or helpful. Just as the bank is never your friend, behave professionally towards these folks or you’ll have trouble shaking them off later.
Being the greatest means that all that followed were lesser. Akbar was succeeded by his son, the henpecked Jahangir who had to fight off many attempts to usurp the throne. The trend continued. Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan also died with rebelling princes vying for the throne until Aurangzeb seized the throne and forced radical Islam on his Hindu subjects. From then on, the Mughal empire started to disintegrate. The greatness of Akbar can only be remembered and not emulated.