Emperor Akbar in his own words
By MV Kamath
The Emperor’s Writings: Memories of Akbar The Great: Dirk Collier; Amaryllis; Pp 609, Rs 695.00
THE Emperor’s Writings is a novel, not an autobiography. The title is slightly misleading. As Dirk Collier, the author, himself notes, it is a well-documented fact that Akbar was “an illiterate savant”. Other than signing his own name, he is not known to have written anything and his only surviving son, Jehangir, in his memoirs confirms that his “illustrious father” was indeed illiterate.
Akbar was a great lover of literature and he had books of all kinds read out to him, but writing, he did not. What Dirk Collier has done is to attempt to paint an historically accurate picture of Akbar’s life and reign from 1543 to 1605, bringing into the work several of the Emperor’s contemporaries through a thorough study of dozens of historical records and available documents.
As Collier clearly states: “Akbar’s skills and suicide, all the characters and events in the novel, are authentic, whereas the dialogues letters and personal memoirs are not.” This has been made clear to prevent any confusion. Again, Akbar presumably died of natural causes. There is no historic evidence that he committed suicide. Again the author hypothises that Akbar killed himself, not by accident, but deliberately, “in order to prevent civil war and ensure an orderly succession.” The fact was that his surviving son, Salim, later to be known as Jehangir, was at loggerheads with his father and Akbar was afraid that there may be several applicants to his throne leading to in-fighting between his son and other claimants and ending in the break-up of the empire, which he had built with so much effort.
As Collier himself writes: “Did Akbar actually deserve his famous epithet of ‘The Great’? In reality, if he has had many admirers, there have also been quite a few harsh critics, and over the years many people have argued that his reign and persona have been grossly over-idealised in popular tradition…. In today’s terms he was an unashamed, ruthless imperialist, who did not hesitate to act with merciless brutality, when it suited him.” Historian Vincent A Smith is quoted as saying: “Akbar’s ruling passion was ambition…. His aggression made without the slightest regard to moral consideration, were not determined by a desire to better the conditions of the people in the kingdom attacked.” This, of course, comes through in this book, especially considering the manner in which Hemu, the Hindu ruler who challenged him, was treated when caught; Hemu was beheaded and treated with utter disrespect, a disgrace for any decent ruler. As Bairam Khan told Akbar: “If we don’t stop Hemu, it will be only a matter of time before he will drive Islam out of these lands. He is an astute general and it is obvious that before long he will have armed and mobilised the Hindu masses. They have been used to foreign Muslim rulers for centuries, but this is their chance to rise again.” But, according to Collier, Akbar – known as Hazrat Shahanshah Abul Muzaffar Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar – was “fundamentally an eclectic, a rationalist, as well as a mystic who came to regard all religions as merely human attempts to honour and serve an ineffable, unattainable reality”. That would explain the Din-e-Illahi cult that he advocated though, Collier reminds us that Akbar never formally renounced Islam and never converted to any other religion “publicly or privately”.
Having made these observations one can now say of this book that it is brilliantly envisaged, superbly textualised and every recorded “conversation” sounds so authentic that one sometimes wonders whether the author has only reproduced what was originally recorded. Akbar was the most powerful and wealthiest monarch of his time, a man who enjoyed life to the full as he himself ‘confesses’ to his wayward son, telling him: “Is there anything more delightful than the companionship of a willing, beautiful naked woman?” though he was also to add: “I adore the pleasures of the harem… however, I will not allow the women who happen to be sharing my bed to interfere with the affairs of state or run my life…” But wisdom also suffused in many of his conversation with Salim, as when he told him: “It is often wise to allow former enemies to become your allies, my son” or “Beware, my son, that the first, and by far the most important task of a King is to conquer himself”, or “Make it a habit, my son, to keenly observe the ones you have recently promoted” or “If we do want the Hindus to fight for us, it is necessary that they see us as their allies, and even better, as their brothers. They need to see me not as a foreign ruler but as their legitimate emperor – not as their conqueror.”
As one reads the book so many characters come alive like Bairman Khan without when “the Mughal Empire would never have come into existence”, Hamida Banu Begum, his greatly loved mother “though it seem the two did not get along too well”, Birbal “in reality probably much less influential and important than the Birbal and Akbar stories project, Abdul Faizal who Salim got murdered, much to the angst to Akbar, Tansen of whom, unfortunately, there is so little said. We learn how the second battle of Panipat was fought, the strategy that was adopted and what happened to Sher Khan. History comes very much alive.
Akbar fought war after war. He speaks about his attack on the kingdom of Gondwana whose ruler was Rani Durgavati who refused to surrender to him even when who knew she was no match to the Mughal Army. Seated on a mighty war elephant she faced Akbar’s forces until she was wounded; even then, rather than face disgrace, she chose death by stabbing herself. Akbar was mystified. No real book on Indian history of the 16th century could have presented the times in which Akbar lived as this book has done. It reflects the mind set of the Mughal ruler, his Islamic associates and the country at large in the most vivid – and revelatory terms. When Akbar died, there was no pomp, no circumstance of any kind, no chants, no eulogies. His corpse, placed on a plain wooden bier was carried off to the mausoleum and placed in the tomb. That was the end of a man who was all things to all men. But those were the times. Birbal once said: “Our Emperor is a Hindu in his food habits, a the Parsi in his rites and a Sufi in his heart”. Collier’s portrait of him says it all.
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