“Akbar: The Great Mughal” by Ira Mukhoty

Detail from Akbarnama c 1605: Jesuits at Akbar’s court (Wikimedia Commons) Detail from Akbarnama c 1605: Jesuits at Akbar’s court (Wikimedia Commons)

Indian history has two “great” emperors: Ashoka of the ancient Mauryan dynasty and Akbar, one of the Mughals. Ira Mukhoty’s biography of the latter, Akbar: The Great Mughal, is a comprehensive yet simple account of the emperor’s life, one that will be of great help to readers wanting to understand more about the king while also familiarizing themselves with the how he has been represented in books, biographies, and popular culture since his time. 

Akbar ruled a kingdom that stretched from modern-day Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east in the second half of the 16th century. He was an exact contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, albeit far richer and more powerful with a reign far more vibrant in terms of intercultural dialogue, innovation in technology, and patronage of art, literature, and translation. Mukhoty unpacks it all in her biography: his attempts to reform both Hindu and Muslim customs and practices by (unsuccessfully) banning the practice of sati, revoking the jiziya tax that Hindus were forced to pay while going on pilgrimage, objecting to child marriage and circumcision.

His story is complicated: it involves many wives, alliances, conquests, and “milk brothers”, encounters with the Portuguese and the Jesuits, and quite a few biographers. He was an unruly child refusing to learn to read and write or pursue education in the conventional sense of the term, interested, instead, in playing with wild animals. He became emperor when he was a teen; as he grew, he consolidated his kingdom, eliminating the relatives claiming the throne after his father Humanyun’s death and suppressing the rebellions erupting from the territories like Gujarat and Bengal. Mukhoty records all of it without losing him to the events. Moreover, she does it with a sense of ownership and involvement that do not always shine in scholarly works. She is unabashed in her use of “we” when she writes about the purpose of the book:


Perhaps as a nation, as we attempt to come to terms with our complex heritage, we are taking a close look at the past, to understand it as well as our present. It is therefore essential that we are able to go beyond infantilizing binaries that present Akbar as the ‘good’ Muslim ruler to oppose Aurangzeb’s ‘bad’ ruler image, and past the even more lamentable excoriating of all Muslim rulers. We must reassess these constructs, deconstruct the various legacies we have inherited from our colonial past and arrive at an objective understanding of our history and key figures who people it. This is especially true of larger-than-life personalities like Akbar.


Akbar: The Great Mughal, Ira Mukhoty (Aleph, April 2020)
Akbar: The Great Mughal, Ira Mukhoty (Aleph, April 2020)

This personal touch is not limited to the vision that she brings to the book: it also works consistently to bring Akbar alive as a person and emperor. Where possible, she lets the archives speak for themselves. Here is how she weaves the Jesuits’ accounts into her own account:


The Jesuits were thoroughly confounded by what Akbar was, or considered himself to be. ‘[O]ne does not know for certain what law he follows. For though he is certainly not a Mahometan, as his actions show plainly enough, and though he seems to incline more to the superstitions of the Pagans, Gentiles (Hindus) being more welcome at his court than Mahometans, he cannot be called an Ethnique (Hindu), for he adores and recognises the true God, the maker of heaven and earth, and yet, at the same time, he worships the sun.’ They had noticed, of course, that Akbar began his day by worshipping the sun, repeating ‘as many as a thousand and fifty names’ of the sun, using a japmala made of precious stones.


This multitude of voices—Mukhoty’s, that of the Jesuits, and Akbar’s as both she and the Jesuits see him—make the book easy and accessible, as she intends it to be. This balance between complexity and simplicity is a rare achievement especially given the fact that her task is to capture the unpredictable human being that Akbar was. On the one hand, he is shown to utter the vilest expletives possible; on the other, he is poetic. Regarding a milk brother (the princes would be breast-fed and raised by many women in the harem) he was upset with, Akbar said, “Between me and Aziz is a river of milk which I cannot cross.” Mukhoty records that at one point he was astonished that his son Salim (later Emperor Jahangir) could have a man skinned alive in front of him. But Mukhoty also notes that Akbar had a servant thrown from a tower to be dashed into a thousand pieces for a trivial reason. He was unpredictable and different things at different stages of life. Mukhoty is dispassionate when it comes to writing about the ways in which he killed his enemies, or got them killed: Rani Durgavati, Queen of Gondwana, killed herself with a dagger when she could not resist the Mughal army.


The book makes for a great history of food, cities, and art too. The quintessential part of Mughal cuisine, chicken,


was well spiced and wrapped in dough, and then cooked under the earth using charcoal, a traditional Rajasthani technique for cooking vegetables.


Akbar paid his artists as much as he paid his soldiers. He made a flourishing city out of an area perceived as inhabited by ghouls.

His “restless spirituality”, as Mukhoty puts it, is only superficially known as the founding of a new spiritual practice of sulh kul or universal civility, a principle of peaceful coexistence of all religions. Mukhoty shows that it was not the sanitized version of a new religion it is generally known to be. It was seen as heresy by the Islamic clerics and even his Hindu courtiers: its slogan “Allahu Akbar” meant both “God is Great” and “Akbar is God”. Though he was challenged by the ulema and others, he knew he could not push his spirituality or new religion further and kept it restricted to a discipleship that very few people were a part of. But it is an important aspect to take note of, given Mukhoty’s larger objective: “If we are to visit our rich past to understand our complicated present, then Akbar’s is a life worth studying.” One cannot help but approach the book with the same sensitivity that Ira Mukhoty writes it. In its reflection on past, and as it reflects on the present, Akbar: The Great Mughal is an ambitious work crafted with great imagination about how the past and the present intersect:


Akbar was defined by restlessness, extraordinary courage, curiosity, strength, and intelligence. His shaping of the empire of the Mughals took it to heights it had never scaled before and would never rise to again. It is this swirling, luminous tapestry of action, adventure, ideas, and battles that I have tried to recreate here, a world now almost completely effaced, for all empires must fall. Except, sometimes, at dawn, in the charcoal shadows of the Red Fort, or in the husky alaap of a Dhrupad raag, or in the whispered sweep of a patterned kameez as a woman walks by, for a little while longer, a certain Mughal fragrance lingers.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.