Akbar the Great - The Liberal Emperor and Stastesman

Feb 19, 2008

Movies based on historical events or personalities have been attempted with considerable success by the Hollywood as well as the Bollywood and regional film industry in India.  Ashutosh Gowarikar's magum opus, "Jodhaa-Akbar"  released on Friday February 15 is based on the marriage alliance between the Rajput state of Amber (later Jaipur) and the Mughals. The ruler of Amber gave his daughter Jodhaabai in marriage to the Mughal Emperor Akbar and cemented his alliance with the latter.

The earlier classic by K. Asif, "Mughal-E-Azam" was based on the fictious love story between Salim (played by Dilip Kumar) and Anarkali (played by Madhubala) and the reaction to this forbidden love by Emperor Akbar (played by the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor).

While these movies strike an emotional chord with the viewers by highlighting the romantic angle, entertain them with songs and dances, and excite them with battle scenes thrown in between, the historical truth loses its significance in the maze of cinematic effects and box office considerations.

As the movie-lovers and fans of Rithik Roshan, who plays Akbar and Aishwarya Rai, who plays Jodhaabai, troop to the cinema halls and multiplexes, it would be interesting to know the real historical personality, Akbar, who had left a distinct mark on Indian history as an empire-builder and a statesman.

Akbar succeeded to the Mughal throne at the young age of thirteen following his father, Humayun's accidental death in 1556. Humayun's trusted follower, Bairam Khan became the regent, who was instrumental in defeating Hemu and the Afghan forces in the Second Battle of Panipat (1556) and re-establishing the Mughal power at Delhi and Agra.

Akbar built a vast empire in north India by resorting to wars of conquest and diplomatic maneuvers. His empire included Gujarat, Central India, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, Punjab, North-West Frontier and even part of Afghanistan including Kabul.

Akbar brought most of the Rajuput states except Chittor within his empire through a conciliatory policy. A number of Rajput sates including Amber (Jaipur), Bikaner and Jaisalmer submitted to Akbar and entered into marriage alliance. Akbar's further attempt to extend his empire in the Deccan and south India received serious setback as the Deccan sultanates refused to accept his sovereignty. However, before his death in 1605, Akbar could succeed in annexing Khandesh and parts of Ahmednagar.

Akbar was the most liberal and farsighted ruler and administrator that medieval India had produced.  Realizing the need to consolidate his vast empire he introduced a well organized administrative system at the central, provincial and local level. He introduced a farmer-friendly revenue system under the guidance of Todar Mal. The land was classified on the basis of fertility and assessment was made and revenue was collected on the basis of yield.

Poster of Jodhaa Akbar

Poster of Mughal-e-Azam

Akbar's liberalism was manifested in his tolerant attitude towards his subjects belonging to different religions. He tried to establish a national empire on secular basis. One of the first actions that Akbar took to win over the Hindu subjects was the abolition of the poll-tax (jizya) that the non-Muslims were required to pay in a Muslim state. He also abolished the pilgrim tax. He gave up the practice of forcibly converting prisoners of war to Islam. He elevated a number of Rajput Hindus in the hierarchy of imperial nobility and gave them important positions in the administration and army.

During the reign of Akbar, people belonging to different religions could practice their faith and worship without any restrictions. Even his Rajput queens including Jodhaabai were permitted to observe their religious practices and customs. In the new city Fathepur Sikri near Agra, Akbar brought about the blending of Indian and Islamic architecture. Akbar had the replicas of pillars found in different temples in India to support the roofs of the building known as the 'Panch Mahal'. Through these measures Akbar attempted to establish an empire based on equal rights to all citizens irrespective of their religious beliefs.

Akbar tried to project himself not only as the builder of a vast empire but also founder of a liberal religion. He tried to understand and assimilate the essence of different religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. He held discussions with representatives of these religions and was convinced of some of their basic principles. He even invited Jesuit missionaries to Agra from Goa. The result of this quest for truth was that Akbar founded a new religion 'Din-i-Ilahi' (Divine Faith). Though the new religion founded by Akbar had only eighteen followers including Birbal and did not survive his death, his respect for other religions and an attempt to foster understanding of different religious traditions with a view to bring about harmony  among them cannot be overlooked.

Akbar was keen in introducing social and educational reforms. He attempted to abolish the cruel practices of female infanticide and Sati (burning of widows). He also legalized widow remarriage, promoted monogamy and the age of marriage was raised to sixteen years for boys and fourteen years for girls. He got the educational courses revised laying emphasis on moral education and secular study such as mathematics, agriculture, geometry, logic, history, etc.

Panch Mahal at Fathepur Sikri

Jodhaabai’s Palace at Fathepur Sikri

Though a dyslexic in his childhood and did not have much literary education, Akbar liberally patronized art and literature. He set up a large translation department for translating books from Sanskrit, Arabic and Greek into Persian.  Ramayana, Mahabharata, Atharva Veda, Rajatarangini and Panchatantra were some of the important books which were translated from Sanskrit into Persian.

Akbar's court was adorned with eminent personalities from different fields known as  Navaratnas (Nine Jewels): These were: Birbal, known for his gift of humour and wit; Todar Mal, known for his expertise in land revenue matters; Tansen, court singer of Akbar; Abul Fazal, author of 'Akbarnama' and 'Ain-i-Akbari'; Abdur Rahim, famous Hindi and Persian scholar; Raja Man Singh, a great Rajput general of Akbar; Faizi, a great poet; Hanim Humam, a close friend of Akbar; Shaikh Mubarak, a Sufi and father of Abul Fazal and Faizi.

Akbar ruled from 1556 till his death in 1605 for nearly half a century. Through his efficient and humane administrative system and liberal policy he tried to give stability to the Mughal Empire. However, his later years were plagued by the revolt of  his eldest son Salim, who assumed the royal title in 1600 at Allahabad as he was impatient to occupy the throne.

Akbar's cup of sorrow was full when his third son Daniyal died in 1604 due to excessive drinking. Akbar's second son, prince Murad had died earlier. While Akbar was contemplating forcing Salim to submit, his own mother died. Salim was persuaded to meet Akbar at Agra. Following their meeting Salim was briefly confined, but was later released, restored to favour and was appointed as the viceroy of the Deccan in the place of Daniyal. Akbar died in 1605 following of dysentery, thus ending a memorable era in the history of medieval India. 

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Dr Eugene D'Souza, Moodubelle/Dombivli
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Comment on this article

  • bhavyaa, india

    Sat, Oct 10 2009


  • Celine Nandkumar, Muscat

    Thu, Feb 21 2008

    Great article with in-depth knowledge - hats off to Dr. Eugene for his hard work !!

  • John Peter Fernandes , Nottingham(U.K)

    Thu, Feb 21 2008

    Thanks Dr.Eugene really nice article. also thanks to daijiworld for publishing....

  • vishwanath, mangalore/usa

    Wed, Feb 20 2008

    Every time I read the articles written by Dr Eugene D`Souza the film goes infront of my eyes. that is the depth of his writting. Three cheers. god bless him.

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