Representations of greatness

Print edition : October 18, 1997

Akbar and His India, edited by Irfan Habib; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997; pages 315, Rs. 495.

WE have for the first time a comprehensive book on the person and historical role of Akbar, the renowned 16th century Mughal monarch. Edited by the distinguished historian Irfan Habib, the book is a collection of essays on this legendary figure of our history who, it is tempting to construe from this collection of scholarly essays, became a legend even within his lifetime.

The volume, we learn, is the first in a series of collective studies, each devoted to a theme in medieval history. (Thereby hangs a tale. The volume was to have been brought out under a publication programme of the Centre for Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, a project that had to be shelved when Irfan Habib was removed from the honorary position of Coordinator at the Centre in May 1996 - "a minor by-product", says Habib in an editorial note, "of the turn of the political winds, thankfully fleeting, of that eventful month." He has refrained from saying that that position was subsequently not restored to him by the University; this despite his contributions towards shaping the history department in AMU into the foremost centre of teaching and research in medieval Indian history in the country.)


There are few who have been through school in India who have not formed a textbook image of the Mughal emperor Akbar - certainly one of the more popular figures amongst the pantheon of heroes in our history - as a ruler broad of mind and vision, who realised the advantages of secular statecraft to aid the process of governing the multi-faith, multi-caste empire he presided over, and who denounced formal religion to found his own 'religion' (as textbooks define it) of 'sul-i-kul' (Absolute Peace).

We now learn that Akbar's personal contribution to making history happen went far beyond this, and in areas as removed from each other as diplomacy and ship-building. The 18 articles, four documents and 10 reviews that make up the book Akbar and His India have been written for an academic and not a popular readership; some of the articles are therefore less accessible to the interested lay reader in terms of content and style than others. But collectively the articles provide the most authentic and representative statement on Akbar to date.

The volume bears the imprint of a scholarship that has become unfashionable in these post-modernist times - that of rigorous adherence to the limits imposed by source material on the stated research goal (whether the subject on hand is something as broad in its scope as Emperor Akbar's world-view, or as specific as the historical significance of a particular farman (royal order) issued by Akbar in a particular year). For the reader, it provides a nuanced and creative interpretation of Akbar based on hard historical data. A majority of the articles are based on Persian sources and give evidence of the authors' knowledge of a language that is the key to the understanding of this period.

This volume then fleshes out and recasts our image of Akbar for the sparkling person he really was: hugely talented and successful in using the position of privilege he was born into, and the access it gave him to material and intellectual resources, to slake his thirst for knowledge, while simultaneously advancing its boundaries through royal patronage. Whether it was in the domain of craft production, technology, science, politics or philosophy, Akbar functioned at its frontiers, constantly testing new waters, innovating, experimenting, and most important of all, recording everything for posterity. An emperor extrordinaire.

There are several sources that establish Akbar's close affinity with technology (Irfan Habib, "Akbar and Technology"). "Akbar had a natural inclination towards industrial crafts," says Habib, "and this was undoubtedly a source of his concern with technological innovation." A foreign traveller writing in 1580 claimed to "have even seen him making ribbons like a lace-maker, and filing, sawing, working very hard." The same traveller records that Akbar had a workshop near his palace for the refined arts such as painting, tapestry-making, carpet-weaving, curtain-making and for the manufacture of arms. In some of them he acquired proficiency, and this fact is mentioned by so many people that it cannot be dismissed for sycophantic exaggeration. "He has so well practised the making of designs that if Mani (the great artist) was alive, he would bite his fingers in astonishment at such design-making and dyeing," exclaimed one writer.

The Ain-i-Akbari, written by Abul Fazl, Akbar's biographer and minister, has a detailed description of the prefabricated and movable wooden structures - a technological innovation in which Akbar had a direct hand - that supplanted tents when Akbar and his entourage moved from place to place. He invented a device that used saltpetre to cool water; he is credited with vast improvement to water wheels through gearing devices (the terraced gardens of Fatehpur Sikri, his capital on a hill, were irrigated by wells from which water was lifted through a network of viaducts, and gearing was crucial to this network); he also put gearing to other applications like cart-mills and gun barrel boring; he experimented with different techniques of ship-building (although it is said that he sailed in a boat in the sea only once). Akbar was also a keen patron of music (Francoise 'Nalini' Delvoye, "The Image of Akbar as a patron of music in Indo-Persian and Vernacular Sources") and an accomplished composer himself, and a patron of the visual arts (Som Prakash Verma, "Painting under Akbar as Narrative Art").

Akbar had a special interest in studying and recording astronomical phenomena (Shireen Moosvi, "Science and Superstition under Akbar and Jahangir: The Observation of Astronomical Phenomena"). Moosvi says that there were seven recorded appearances of comets between 1556 and 1707, although only two were noted in Mughal sources. There were 56 eclipses of the sun in the reign of Akbar and Jahangir, although only one solar eclipse during Akbar's period and two in the reign of Jahangir were recorded. On the superstitions associated with eclipses she says, "Akbar, notwithstanding his commitment to rationality, was not immune to these superstitions." There is a whole section on science and technology in the Ain-i-Akbari, which records Akbar's interest in even such rarefied areas of science as sound and its movement, and colour (Iqbal Ghani Khan "Scientific Concepts in Abu'l Fazl's Ain-i-Akbari"). There is recorded an extraordinary experiment conducted by Akbar to disprove the then prevalent theory of zuban-i-qudrat (natural language). For this he confined six new-born infants with their nurses - who were under strict instructions not to talk in front of the children - for two years in islolation. At the end of the period, the children could speak no language, on the basis of which Akbar concluded that 'speech came to every tribe from hearing.'

Two of the most interesting articles in the collection discuss Akbar's personality and world-view (Iqtidar Alam Khan, "Akbar's Personality Traits and World Outlook - A Critical Appraisal"), and the development of the notion of India, nascent and pre-modern though the idea was, in Akbar's thinking and writing (M. Athar Ali, "The Perception of India in Akbar and Abu'l Fazl"). The Timurid concept of Yasa-i Chingezi ("to consider all sects as one and not to distinguish them from one another") was imbibed early by Akbar, argues Iqtidar Alam Khan.

We get a picture of the young Akbar, impetuous and bright, and also given to fits of depression; questioning the philosophical basis of Islamic theology and jurisprudence; developing a certain sympathy to Hinduism and its rites (the result of his marriages to Hindu women); and then, from 1571, coming under the influence of pantheistic Sufi doctrines that changed his entire outlook. He then developed the concept of 'sul-i-kul' (Absolute Peace) "a concept denoting a principle capable of promoting amity among divergent groups in a culturally pluralistic situation," says Iqtidar Alam Khan. The significance of this move in the direction of rationalism is often missed: the Mughal emperor abandoned the prescribed prayers of Islam and the notion of prophethood.

Athar Ali traces the idea of India in the Arabic-Persian tradition starting with the rather precise geographical description of 'al-Hind' in the writing of the 11th century scientist Abu Raihan al-Biruni. This notion is taken forward, Athar Ali says, in the works of Amir Khusrau, the early 14th century poet, who identifies it with certain cultural commonalities. To this vision of India, argues Ali, Akbar adds a new component, that of reform: "His prohibition of sati, and of pre-puberty marriages, his demand for equal inheritance for the daughter, his condemnation of slavery and the slave trade, all suggest the rejection of some of the burdens of the past. From India seen as a cultural unity, and then as a cultural diversity undergoing synthesis, we have with Akbar the first vision of India undergoing moral or social improvement."

Several articles in the collection deal with politics and diplomacy as practised by Akbar's regime: the strategy he used to subjugate the class of autonomous and semi-autonomous chieftains; his rather successful policy of integrating Rajput principalities into the Mughal state; the annexation of Sind, an interesting case-study of how Mughal diplomacy and militarism worked together; the relations, overall friendly, that he forged with the Portugese who were established on the west coast; and the development of the Sikh panth under Akbar's rule. The collection has an article on Akbar's relations with the Jains and the influence on him of Jainism, based on Jain sources (Pushpa Prasad, "Akbar and the Jains").

There are parts of the book that are not accessible to the interested lay reader. It is, for instance, unrealistic to expect a reader to know who is the 'Imam-i Adil' or the 'Mujtahid' (in Iqtidar Alam Khan,"Akbar's Personality Traits..."); it is unfair to keep the reader in the dark on which controversy was "made immortal by Alberuni's wise comments" (Moosvi, "Science and Superstition...") . The collection would also have benefited by the inclusion of a biographical note on the character of Akbar and on the times he lived in ( along the lines of, say , Shireen Moosvi's Episodes in the Life of Akbar: Contemporary Records and Reminiscences, National Book Trust, Delhi, 1987). But these are relatively minor drawbacks in a major contribution to the field of medieval Indian history, and the intellectual history of India.

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