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Akbar the Great, Emperor of Mughal India

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Detail of Akbar the Great from the Mahabharata, this copy c. 1754

Akbar the Great, third Moghul Empire ruler of India

Hulton Archives / Getty Images

In 1582, King Philip II of Spain received a letter from the Mughal Emperor Akbar of India.

Akbar wrote: "As most men are fettered by bonds of tradition, and by imitating ways followed by their fathers... everyone continues, without investigating their arguments and reasons, to follow the religion in which he was born and educated, thus excluding himself from the possibility of ascertaining the truth, which is the noblest aim of the human intellect. Therefore we associate at convenient seasons with learned men of all religions, thus deriving profit from their exquisite discourses and exalted aspirations." [Johnson, 208]

Akbar the Great chided Philip for the anti-Protestant excesses of the Spanish Counter-reformation. Spain's Catholic inquisitors had by this time mostly rid the country of Muslims and Jews, so turned their murderous attentions to Protestant Christians instead, particularly in Spanish-ruled Holland.

Although Philip II did not heed Akbar's call for religious tolerance, it is indicative of the Mughal emperor's attitudes towards people of other faiths. Akbar is also renowned for his patronage of the arts and sciences. Miniature painting, weaving, book-making, metallurgy, and technological innovations all flourished under his reign.

Who was this emperor, famed for his wisdom and goodness? How did he become one of the greatest rulers in world history?

Akbar's Early Life:

Akbar was born to the second Mughal Emperor Humayan and his teenaged bride Hamida Banu Begum on October 14, 1542 in Sindh, now in Pakistan. Although his ancestors included both Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane), the family was on the run after losing Babur's newly-established empire. Humayan would not regain northern India until 1555.

With his parents in exile in Persia, little Akbar was raised by an uncle in Afghanistan, with help from a series of nursemaids. He practiced key skills like hunting, but never learned to read (perhaps due to a learning disability?). Nonetheless, throughout his life, Akbar had texts on philosophy, history, religion, science and other topics read to him, and could recite long passages of what he had heard from memory.

Akbar Takes Power:

In 1555, Humayan died just months after retaking Delhi. Akbar ascended the Mughal throne at the age of 13, and became Shahanshah ("King of Kings"). His regent was Bayram Khan, his childhood guardian and an outstanding warrior/statesman.

The young emperor almost immediately lost Delhi once more to the Hindu leader Hemu. However, in November of 1556, Generals Bayram Khan and Khan Zaman I defeated Hemu's much larger army at the Second Battle of Panipat. Hemu himself was shot through the eye as he rode into battle atop an elephant; the Mughal army captured and executed him.

When he came of age at 18, Akbar dismissed the increasingly overbearing Bayram Khan and took direct control of the empire and army. Bayram was ordered to make the hajj to Mecca; instead, he started a rebellion against Akbar. The young emperor's forces defeated Bayram's rebels at Jalandhar, in the Punjab; rather than executing the rebel leader, Akbar mercifully allowed his former regent another chance to go to Mecca. This time, Bayram Khan went.

Intrigue and Further Expansion:

Although he was out from under Bayram Khan's control, Akbar still faced challenges to his authority from within the palace. The son of his nursemaid, a man called Adham Khan, killed another adviser in the palace after the victim discovered that Adham was embezzling tax funds. Enraged both by the murder and by the betrayal of his trust, Akbar had Adham Khan thrown from the parapets of the castle. From that point forward, Akbar was in control of his court and country, rather than being a tool of palace intrigues.

The young emperor set out on an aggressive policy of military expansion, both for geo-strategic reasons and as a way to get troublesome warrior/advisers away from the capital. In the following years, the Mughal army would conquer much of northern India (including what is now Pakistan) and Afghanistan.

Akbar's Governing Style:

In order to control his vast empire, Akbar instituted a highly efficient bureaucracy. He appointed mansabars, or military governors, over the various regions; these governors answered directly to him. As a result, he was able to fuse the individual fiefdoms of India into a unified empire that would survive until 1868.

Akbar was personally courageous, willing to lead the charge in battle. He enjoyed taming wild cheetahs and elephants, as well. This courage and self-confidence allowed Akbar to initiate novel policies in government, and to stand by them over objections from more conservative advisers and courtiers.

Matters of Faith and Marriage:

From an early age, Akbar was raised in a tolerant milieu. Although his family was Sunni, two of his childhood tutors were Persian Shias. As an emperor, Akbar made the Sufi concept of Sulh-e-Kuhl, or "peace to all," a founding principle of his law.

Akbar displayed remarkable respect for his Hindu subjects and their faith. His first marriage in 1562 was to Jodha Bai or Harkha Bai, who was a Rajput princess from Amber. As with the families of his later Hindu wives, her father and brothers joined Akbar's court as advisers, equal in rank to his Muslim courtiers. In total, Akbar had 36 wives of various ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Probably even more importantly to his ordinary subjects, Akbar in 1563 repealed a special tax placed on Hindu pilgrims who visited sacred sites, and in 1564 completely repealed the jizya, or yearly tax on non-Muslims. What he lost in revenue by these acts, he more than regained in good-will from the Hindu majority of his subjects.

Even beyond the practical realities of ruling an enormous, predominantly Hindu empire with just a small band Muslim elite, however, Akbar himself had an open and curious mind on questions of religion. As he mentioned to Philip II of Spain in his letter, cited above, he loved to meet with learned men and women of all faiths to discuss theology and philosophy. From the female Jain guru Champa to Portuguese Jesuit priests, Akbar wanted to hear from them all.

Foreign Relations:

As Akbar solidified his rule over northern India, and began to extend his power south and west to the coast, he became aware of the new Portuguese presence there. Although the initial Portuguese approach to India had been "all guns blazing," they soon realized that they were no match militarily for the Mughal Empire on land. The two powers made treaties, under which the Portuguese were allowed to maintain their coastal forts, in exchange for which the promised not to harass Mughal ships that set out from the west coast carrying pilgrims to Arabia for the hajj.

Interestingly, Akbar even formed an alliance with the Catholic Portuguese to punish the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the Arabian Peninsula at that time. The Ottomans were concerned that the huge numbers of pilgrims flooding in to Mecca and Medina each year from the Mughal Empire were overwhelming the resources of the holy cities, so the Ottoman sultan rather firmly requested that Akbar quit sending people on the hajj.

Outraged, Akbar asked his Portuguese allies to attack the Ottoman navy which was blockading the Arabian Peninsula. Unfortunately for him, the Portuguese fleet was completely routed off of Yemen. This signaled the end of the Mughal/Portuguese alliance.

Akbar maintained more enduring relations with other empires, however. Despite the Mughal capture of Kandahar from the Persian Safavid Empire in 1595, for example, those two dynasties had cordial diplomatic ties throughout Akbar's rule. The Mughal Empire was such a rich and important potential trading partner that various European monarchs sent emissaries to Akbar, as well, including Elizabeth I of England and Henry IV of France.

Akbar's Death:

In October of 1605, the 63-year-old Emperor Akbar suffered a serious bout of dysentery. After being sick for three weeks, he passed away at the end of that month. The emperor was buried in a beautiful mausoleum in the royal city of Agra.

The Legacy of Akbar the Great:

Akbar's legacy of religious toleration, firm but fair central control and liberal tax policies that gave commoners a chance to prosper established a precedent in India that can be traced forward in the thinking of later figures such as Mohandas Gandhi. His love of art led to the fusion of Indian and Central Asian/Persian styles that came to symbolize the height of Mughal achievement, in forms as varied as miniature painting and grandiose architecture. This lovely fusion would reach its absolute apex under Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan, who designed and had built the world-famous Taj Mahal.

Perhaps most of all, Akbar the Great showed the rulers of all nations everywhere that tolerance is not weakness, and open-mindedness is not the same thing as indecisiveness. As a result, he is honored more than four centuries after his death as one of the greatest rulers in human history.

Sources:

Abu Al-fazl ibn Mubarak. The ayin Akbary or the institutes of the Emperor Akbar. Translated from the original Persian, London: Social Sciences, 1777.

Alam, Muzaffar and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. "The Deccan Frontier and Mughal Expansion, ca. 1600: Contemporary Perspectives," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 47, No. 3 (2004).

Habib, Irfan. "Akbar and Technology," Social Scientist, Vol. 20, No. 9/10 (Sept.-Oct. 1992).

Richards, John F. The Mughal Empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1996).

Schimmel, Annemarie and Burzine K. Waghmar. The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture, London: Reaktion Books (2004).

Smith, Vincent A. Akbar the Great Mogul, 1542-1605, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1919).


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