Idylls of the King

(Published in the Mirror, March 22 2020)

Sometime in the early 1580s, a strange rumour blazed through the household of Emperor Akbar causing great sensation among the ladies at court. Jesuits from Goa, who were ensconced in Fatehpur Sikri, engaged in discussions with the king, had tried to impress upon his mind the importance of monogamy. Save for the first wife, they argued, the rest were “courtesans and adulteresses” and it was “wickedness” to keep them. Akbar listened with curiosity, and news travelled to the harem provoking an uproar among the emperor’s wives—to compare assorted Timurid begums and Rajput princesses with “adulteresses” was bound to spark umbrage. Inflamed, the ladies joined forces against the Jesuits, using everything in their power to discredit these white men from abroad. Soon afterwards, the Christians were back on the road to Goa, having also failed in their original mission to convert the padshah.

The anger of his wives may have been played up by chroniclers, but the power of the harem is a point Ira Mukhoty emphasizes throughout her new book, Akbar: The Great Mughal. It is not altogether surprising—Mukhoty’s last work was focused on imperial women, their commercial enterprises, their role as diplomats, peacemakers, and even, now and then, as warmongers. “Unlike the image of the invincible, all-knowing emperor that we have of Akbar,” she told me in a conversation, “he had to tactfully negotiate a number of sensitive relationships within the harem.” So, for instance, when he defanged orthodox Muslim ulema after some of them tried to replace him with a half-brother, “he had to do so surreptitiously, all the while making sure his mother and other ladies did not get wind of this.” A simple rebuke from a senior lady could throw a spanner in the works, and so the sovereign of Hindustan preferred to first conclude the business quietly, and then let news travel to the zenana.

Mukhoty—a half-French, half-Bengali scientist—may seem an unlikely biographer for the greatest Mughal emperor, whose life and its dynamics have been interrogated by scholars over whole lifetimes. The field is crowded, and the topic is formidable. When I asked what brought her to the Mughals to begin with, she called it “a process of slow seduction.” Having graduated from Cambridge, returned to India, and raised two girls, she did a book called Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History (2017). In the process she was gripped by the tale of Jahanara Begum, which in turn led to studying Mughal women across the board, and finally to the emperors. Besides, she adds, “I was raised in Delhi, and my childhood was spent in the broken shadows of Mughal monuments. I have grown up eating Mughlai food, wearing clothes that bear the imprint of Mughal fashion, and hearing in old Delhi’s language the echoes of long-ago cadences. I wanted to understand where these influences came from and the mutations they underwent through the centuries.”

The effort has been successful. Though Mukhoty is not an academic historian, she has, through sturdy research as well as the charm of her pen, earned praise from established scholars like Harbans Mukhia and Sugata Bose. Research skills acquired as a scientist were transferred to negotiating history. “History is not static,” she reminds me, “but an evolving science. There are discoveries being made using art, archaeology, even genetics.” Perspectives change, and fresh insights come from the oddest of places—or from the most unexpected writers. Reading Akbar, this is clear in how Mukhoty weaves the well analysed political and intellectual personas of the emperor, with a fascinating and constant nudge to a less familiar personal, even eccentric side of the man. “Akbar had a complicated internal life in which he questioned every feeling and motif, while displaying an almost guileless candour,” she tells. “This dichotomy makes him deeply enigmatic. His contemporaries admitted this: that just as you thought you understood his reasoning, he suddenly escaped your grasp entirely.”

There has been tremendous popular interest in India’s past in recent years, but Akbar, despite his towering place in our consciousness, and for all the studies on specific aspects of his reign, has not been captured for some time in a biography. Mukhoty agrees. “One assumes, given his stature, that there is an absolute glut of accessible writing on Akbar. But while there have been extensive scholarly writings, very few scholars in India have transitioned to popular writing on him.” There hasn’t been a standalone biography in two decades, she says, despite fresh research waiting to be incorporated into a new master-narrative. Added to this is strong primary material from his own time—a deferential account by Abu’l Fazl, his loyal courtier; a scathing critique written covertly by Badauni, another member of the court; and the memoirs of the Jesuits. Each has its strengths and biases, but read together, form a strong archive. “So, the question really is not why I have written about Akbar, but why it has taken so long for someone to do it!”

Mukhoty, in the nearly 500 pages of her book, marries these three sources with insights from the latest academic research, reading them critically. “That is how it becomes clear why the very same incident can be recorded in three different ways, by three different people.” The influence of Akbar’s Hindu wives is a case she cites. “It is entirely ignored by Abu’l Fazl, who decreed that royal women were to be ‘pardey-giyan’ or invisible”, in the interests of their—and the emperor’s—dignity, while the same influence was “loathed by Badauni,” who complained how Rajput women had “influenced (the emperor’s) mind against the eating of beef and garlic and onions, and (against) association with people who wore beards”. The Jesuits, Mukhoty tells, were meanwhile in “perplexed bemusement” about the harem, not to speak of the idea that the king had dozens of wives. “The challenge lies in understanding the filters and biases that each source presents, which are quite marked and often wildly exaggerated.”

But even without exaggerations, there are startling instances that sometimes seem bizarre when contemplating a “great” emperor. One episode features Akbar with an orthodox courtier who, on discovering it was time for namaz in the middle of a conversation, proceeds to pray. Annoyed, Akbar “smacked him on the head the whole time,” writes Mukhoty, “asking him to stand up.” While he was “a man of genius” in his military campaigns, political strategy, and the economic systems he established, his court was still developing a detailed protocol, and the padshah often cheerfully flouted expectations of kingly behaviour from the more stiff-necked of his courtiers. (And this when he wasn’t inventing new customs himself, to their harassment.) He was spotted flying a kite on a terrace, with just a lungi round his waist, for instance, and on other occasions spent long hours chopping wood. “Even Abu’l Fazl,” laughs Mukhoty, “who usually censored such details, found he had to write, almost unwillingly, of Akbar crouching down on the floor to watch spiders spin their webs.”

Packed with such anecdotal riches, in the end what the book seeks to accomplish is to take “a talismanic figure” like Akbar, and challenge preconceived expectations and ideas of what a Mughal emperor was all about. “I wanted to try and create a layered view of the man he was,” concludes Mukhoty, with “a slow unfurling of his ideas and his world. There may be many people who think Akbar belongs to them, and there are some who are better equipped to write about him.” But in her mind, “Akbar is greater than the sum of our imaginings and belongs to the world. He wrestled and tinkered endlessly with the ideas and things he encountered. In his own way, he was a Renaissance man.”