An emperor for all seasons

Historian Ira Mukhoty’s new book takes a nuanced look at Akbar, one of the most acclaimed monarchs in our history

Akbar holds a religious assembly; Akbarnama , miniature painting by Nar Singh, 1605. (ALEPH)

The third Mughal emperor Abu’lFath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar is popularly considered to be the best Mughal emperor, and one of the most famous rulers in the country’s history. Akbar was known for his religious tolerance, encouragement of learning, and his skill in battle and for presiding over a golden era in our history. In her new book Akbar: The Great Mughal, Ira Mukhoty gives new insights on him such as the women around his throne, his predecessors, and how Akbar was an immensely complex character. She tells MAIL TODAY her views on his life and reign.

Why did you choose to write this book on Akbar?

Ever since I started work on Daughters of the Sun, Akbar was this invisible but magnetic presence, whose charismatic influence radiated out not only onto his descendants, but was also used to subsume his ancestors into his orbit. His legacy was so enduring that aspects of the land revenue collection system were used by the British during the Raj, while many other textures of Mughal culture brought together under Akbar endured for hundreds of years. At the same time, I came across intriguing aspects of his personality that hint at some very human flaws: an explosive temper, the use of occasionally robust language, and a tendency to melancholy. Akbar’s attitude to women could be perplexing too. On the one hand extremely sensitive to their sufferings, on the other hand orders were given which rendered them invisible. So all these factors made this emperor fascinating.

Akbar is one of the most well known characters in Indian history, in academia and otherwise. Why do you think there has been a dearth of good popular writing or accessible writing on him in recent years?

Given the stature of Akbar and the material available for his reign there should be dozens of biographies already written. Perhaps one of the reasons is in fact this huge tsunami of information available on Akbar as primary material - scholarly work, translations, multi-lingual accounts, architecture, paintings and more. I think possibly only someone outside the academic world could have had the temerity to think they could achieve such a task! At the same time, popular histories in English in general are only now becoming a popular genre. Academics tend to publish within their own circle, and they have produced a great deal of mate rial on different aspects of Akbar. This material is not very accessible for a lay audience but now that it has become evident that there is enormous interest in the lay reader, who wants to know the nuances of history, perhaps there will be more narrative history written.

At that time it wouldn't have been unusual had Akbar been somebody like Aurangzeb. What do you think it was that made Akbar so ahead of his times, in terms of his secularism and eagerness to promote learnings of all faiths?

Once you read Akbar, it becomes clear that his policies were a shrewd mix of pragmatism and unique insights. In the beginning, when his empire was still vulnerable and buffeted by challengers, Akbar did not hesitate to use force, with innovation and ferocity. As his empire expanded, he was able to use force as a deterrent, could use brilliant ways of integrating different clans and groups within the empire. One of my aims with this book was to get away from the simplistic binary of Aurangzeb as a 'bad' Muslim and Akbar as the acceptable face of Muslims in India. Reality is always complicated and it is these many intricate threads that make up the tapestry of Indian history that I wanted to unravel.

You have pointed out that Akbar gave a great deal of respect to the Timurid noblewomen, his female relatives, as well as his foster mothers, and they were intelligent women with many responsibilities. Why do you think that, Abu’l Fazl was fierce in his censorship of these women? Why was their influence overlooked by many historians?

Abu’l Fazl never refers to a woman of the Mughal harem by name. The women are completely air-brushed into 'pillars' or 'cupolas' of chastity! This attitude towards royal women was formulated under Akbar, whereby these women were so absolutely virtuous and beyond the reach of common mortals that to even think upon their given names would be to violate them. Abu’l Fazl enforced this rule ferociously, but luckily we also have the critical biographer Badauni, who felt no such compunction, as well as the extraordinary biography by Gulbadan. Unfortunately, sources such as Gulbadan’s were ignored in her own time, and in the 20th century. There has been an endemic and systematic erasure of women’s histories and women’s voices, with the result that we tend to have a limited and one-dimensional view of their influence. Hopefully now, as we start to excavate these forgotten sources, as the feminist historian Ruby Lal has done, we will see a different picture.

Why were the Jesuit priests ready to blame the women around Akbar, and not his other advisors, for his unwillingness to convert?

The Jesuit priests were critical of all non-Christian persons and influences they encountered at Akbar’s court. As Akbar was so interested in the paintings that they brought to court, they were convinced that he was fascinated by Christianity and was about to convert. However, Christianity does not permit polygamy, and so they informed Akbar that he would need to renege all his wives save one! You can imagine how appalled the harem ladies would have been, and how they would have worked against these priests, which is why the Jesuits particularly blamed Akbar’s wives. has plenty of useful resources that can help you better understand the coronavirus pandemic and protect yourself. Read our comprehensive guide (with information on how the virus spreads, precautions and symptoms), watch an expert debunk myths, and access our dedicated coronavirus page.
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