(Published in the Hindustan Times Brunch Magazine, November 04 2018)
In the 24th year of Jalal-ud-din Akbar’s reign, a 10-year-old boy was installed on the throne of the Adil Shahs of Bijapur. Ibrahim II was several decades the Mughal emperor’s junior, but if the two had met, they’d have enjoyed each other’s company. Though separated by distance as well as a generation gap, there was a great deal the Mughal badshah and the Deccan sultan had in common. Both were patrons of the arts, and each was a man of ability as well as charisma. And in what is directly relevant to our own times, Akbar and Ibrahim both embraced the plural impulses of the societies over which they reigned, birthing a magnificent age, and lighting a path that still shines centuries after they went to the grave.
The horror with which Akbar’s religious views were perceived is well chronicled. But in the shadow of the emperor, Ibrahim languishes forgotten. Like Akbar, he too was a violent man when it came to matters of state. But when battle was done, and a calmer breeze prevailed, his curiosity matched that of the emperor far away. Where Akbar horrified the conservative with a tika on his forehead, Ibrahim did the same with the rudraksha around his neck. Where the emperor welcomed padres at court, in Bijapur too the gates were thrown open for the message of Christ. And while Akbar participated in “heathen” rituals with his Rajput wives, Ibrahim joined his Maratha consort and venerated, besides Ganapati, the goddess Saraswati.
It wasn’t like powerful interests did not disapprove, and both men knew their unorthodox views could provoke trouble. Badauni held Akbar “in defiance and contempt of the true faith”, just as a sufi rushed to “rescue” the Adil Shah from the philosophical embrace of a yogi. Both had to compromise with the conservative. Akbar died swathed in whispers that he was an apostate, and so too went Ibrahim, surrounded by smaller men with narrower minds. Indeed, the Adil Shah felt impelled to ward off attacks on his memory. “No,” his grave read, “Ibrahim in truth was not a Jew, neither a Christian”. He was “one pure of faith”, and “never of the idolators.” But even here he played a trick. On the face of it he was bowing to the orthodox. But this was a line from the Quran, and “Ibrahim” could be either the Adil Shah or the Prophet himself – even in death he would not fully concede.
If Akbar and Ibrahim returned to gaze upon our world, they would see, like them, many with minds full of curiosity and spirit – but they would also see, as in their own time, others issuing diktats on what one should think, whom one should obey. Centuries and many ages separate us, but in the story of society, these kings might chuckle, some things clearly never change.