Indian History Part 81 Akbar Section III An Emperor Emerges

Canberra, 14 June 2020

At the time of Biram Khan’s exile, Akbar held Punjab, the North-West Provinces and Gwalior and Ajmer to the west. To the east, his control extended only as far as Jaunpur, where a governor nominally accepting Mughal sovereignty, ruled. Benares, Bihar and Bengal were still under the control of princes and nobles of the Sur dynasty, sustained mainly with the support of Afghan noble families. The entire Deccan Plateau and Peninsular India as well as Western India were outside Akbar’s control and even influence.

Subsequent events make it clear that during the five years after the victory in the Battle of Panipat, when Biram Khan ruled the kingdom on his behalf and he himself was under the noble’s tutelage, Akbar had thought deeply about the challenges of governing India and the difficulties he would encounter in uniting the disparate groups of people who populated the sub-continent. In this aspect his inheritance was four centuries of Muslim rule in North India. These were four centuries in which each ruling Muslim dynasty reigned purely based on the principle of the superiority of power that in turn permitted the imposition of religious dominance. It was therefore inevitable that each of them fell when a greater power made its appearance on the scene, thus creating a succession of dynasties, of varying power, status and relevance. The result of this succession of dynasties ruling from Delhi was that when the Lodi dynasty was ousted by the Mughals, it left behind a disunited and unstable sub-continent.

It was also a fact that throughout the previous four centuries of Muslim rule—clubbed together in historical narrative as the Delhi Sultanate—there were many pretenders to the central throne, scattered across the region, from Bengal in the east to Gujarat on the far-west and across the spread of the vast land. Each of these ‘kings’ considered the new Mughal ruler in Delhi to be only as permanent or temporary as the Lodis they had replaced. The implicit belief was that the Mughals would also be replaced in their time by a more powerful group; and if any of these pretenders were lucky, then by one of them.

The various Muslim rulers in the sub-continent considered all the rulers there to be ephemeral in nature and did not consider the Mughals to be anything separate to this four-century old reality. This belief was further confirmed by the ease with which Humayun had been evicted and driven from India. Akbar had recognised these features of the Indian kingdom.

A New Power Elite Takes Over

There is no doubt that Akbar was fully aware of the enormous effort that would be required to stabilise his regime. However, the power that had so far been vested in Biram Khan automatically passed on to the coterie led by Maham Anga and her son Adham Khan, since they had been responsible for the old minister’s removal. This power shift was also facilitated by Akbar’s apparent lack of interest in governance and fixation or enchantment with hunting and other sport. Some of her contemporary chroniclers praise Maham Anga as a capable person, but in an unbiased analysis it becomes clear that she was unworthy of the trust that Akbar reposed in her. It is possible that the chroniclers who sang her praises were either beholden to her for their position or were cultivated by her to ensure she was brought out in good light to the public. The litany of flaws in her character and behaviour is large.

Maham Anga consciously advanced the career of her second son Adham Khan, although even she was aware that he was unsuited for high office or for independent command of troops. She also reinstated Pir Muhammad, the disloyal servant who had been dismissed by Biram Khan. It was Maham Anga who send this utterly contemptible person to pursue Biram Khan while the latter was proceeding on exile, forcing the loyal noble to rebel. There is no doubt that the lady intended to insult the old general and sending Pir Muhammad to do so was a pre-calculated move to add an element of spite to the insult—an act of commission, not of omission. Throughout the duration of her being the power behind the throne, she chose the worst of the courtiers to be the front that was used to project her power externally. Even so, Maham Anga was crafty in her leadership and was always self-controlled. However, there were distinct differences between Biram Khan and this shrewd and devious lady. Biram Khan had earned his exalted position by selfless service to the Mughal dynasty and also had his own personal power-base as a successful and battle-tested general who was held in high esteem. On the other hand, unlike the intrepid general, Maham Anga derived her power purely from her personal relationship with Akbar. Therefore, she remained personally loyal to the king throughout her life, always being careful not to give any offence, either in deed or word. Her downfall would come because of her blind love for her son whose actions could not be condoned.

Tentative Expansionist Moves – Malwa

In 1561, Akbar took the first steps of his own expansionist agenda. He send an army under Adham Khan, with Pir Muhammad as the second-in-command to invade Malwa.

The Kingdom of Malwa

Malwa was a fertile plateau bounded by the Vindhya Ranges to the east and south, the Budelkhand Upland to the north and the Gujarat plains to the west. A Sur Pathan noble, Shujaat Khan, had ruled the kingdom practically as an independent entity from the time of Islam Shah’s rule. From the time of Islam Shah’s death, around 1555-56, Shujaat’s son Baz Bahadur had been the ruler. Baz Bahadur had assumed the title ‘Sultan’ indicating his independent status and had started his rule by murdering his younger brother and some senior officials of the state. However, Baz Bahadur had only a passing interest in governing his kingdom. He was an exceptionally gifted musician of repute and his main interest was the ardent pursuit of music. As a new Sultan he had attempted to expand the kingdom and had been defeated in battle by the Gonds. After this initial attempt at warlike kingship, he had abandoned all pretences of governing the kingdom and had immersed himself in music, pleasure, wine and women.

Although Baz Bahadur was personally a brave warrior, he was not an accomplished general and the Mughal army easily defeated the Malwa forces near its capital, Sarangpur. His harem was killed by specially designated loyal men who had been instructed to do so if Malwa forces were defeated. This act seems to have been an Indian Muslim custom developed over the past few centuries of interaction with Hinduism and adopted from the concept of Jauhar, the ritual suicide of the ladies before Rajput warriors went out to wage a suicidal battle for the last time.

Rani Rupmati

Baz Bahadur’s greatest love was Rani Rupmati, ‘renowned throughout the world for her beauty and charm’. She also perished in the aftermath of the defeat by Mughal forces, taking poison to commit suicide rather than risk being dishonoured. The love of Baz Bahadur and Rani Rupmati is the subject of legend—celebrated in song, poem and painting.

Baz Bahadur himself managed to escape after the defeat, taking refuge in various courts for a while. He eventually submitted to Akbar and was treated well. Subsequently he took up service with the Mughal army and ended his days as a commander of 2000.

After capturing Malwa, Adham Khan and Pir Muhammad carried out acts of wanton cruelty by murdering large number of citizens, going to the extent of decapitating and burning even learned sayyids, who submitted to them with the Quran in their hands. Some chroniclers mention this act as ‘disgracing’ their king, Akbar. However, wanton killing of defeated people was a common Mughal practice, with both Babur and Humayun having indulged in similar acts during their lifetime. The act being described as a disgrace to the rule of Akbar seems to have been a later-day addition to the narrative, after Akbar had evolved into a much more benign conqueror, who habitually pardoned the rank and file of the defeated adversary. There is no indication that in this instance Akbar disapproved of the slaughter.

Adham Khan now did something that angered Akbar. He kept the choicest articles of plunder and most of the captured women for himself, sending only a few elephants as booty to Akbar. This was contrary to the normal Mughal tradition of surrendering everything to the emperor and the commander then accepting what was gifted to him as a reward. When he came to know of this misconduct, Akbar immediately marched to Malwa with a small escort. Although Maham Anga had send a speedy messenger to warn her son, Akbar reached Malwa before the messenger and surprised Adham Khan. Even though Adham Khan tried to appease Akbar, it was only after Maham Anga interfered in person to smoothen his anger that Akbar finally accepted Adham Khan’s submissive apology. Akbar returned to Agra, his anger somewhat subdued but not fully assuaged. This episode fractured his relationship with Maham Anga and his trust in his foster mother never returned to the implicit nature as before.

On his return journey, Akbar indulged in his favourite pastime of hunting. In this instance, he is reported to have attacked and killed a tigress with cubs—considered the most dangerous animal to hunt—in a reckless display of personal courage. He would continue to display such irresponsible courage in the hunt, which he preferred to carry out on elephant-back. A number of paintings of the time depict him on tiger hunts mounted on an elephant. Akbar also took unnecessary, and at times fool-hardy, risks in battle, displaying a combination of his impulsive nature and inherent personal courage.

A Wild Adventure

In 1562, Akbar received news that people of eight villages in the Sakit Pargana (now Etah district in UP) had resorted to violence against other villages. He decided to punish the aggressive villagers. He led a small contingent, almost like a hunting party with elephants, and attacked the villages. A tough fight ensued.

Akbar perceiving that some of his soldiers were not fighting to their full potential, personally led his elephant into the centre of the on-going skirmish. He was almost killed in this attempt, with seven arrows piercing his personal shield. However, he managed to break into the main house of the village and set it afire, killing a number of rebels, while the others surrendered. This is one example of the personal courage that Akbar always displayed in battle. Such impetuous actions in the thick of combat was a hallmark of Akbar even in the later years of his life.

The process of self-education that he had subjected himself to, gave him great physical prowess accompanied by nerves of steel.

Still under the influence of Maham Anga, Akbar continued to gather and process more information about his kingdom, but still involved himself in the business of governance only occasionally. He continued to indulge in sport and was more engaged in hunting and other pleasures that he had cultivated. Some chroniclers mention this period of Akbar’s rule as being ‘behind the veil’, an obtuse reference to the role being played by his foster-mother in ruling the kingdom.

Removing the Veil

Akbar’s action in rushing to Malwa to chastise Adham Shah was an indication of his decisive nature and ability to initiate rapid action. This one episode alone should have warned Maham Anga and her coterie that Akbar had started to assert himself in matters of state—the king was not to be crossed lightly. Although astute in dealing with the usual intrigues of the court and ensuring her hold on power, Maham Anga considered her status as foster-mother of the emperor to be sacrosanct and therefore did not even entertain the thought that Akbar would go against her wishes. Her biggest blind spot however was her unconditional and overwhelming love for her wayward and incapable, but cruel son.

Maham Anga had also managed to bring Munim Khan, who had replaced Biram Khan as Prime Minister, within her sphere of influence and had become the unquestioned power behind the throne. In a surprise move, Akbar brought Shams ud-Din Muhammad Khan Atga from Kabul to India and appointed him the minister to manage political, economic and military matters, thus effectively sidelining Munim Khan. Maham Anga was taken aback and only now started to realise that Akbar was gradually freeing himself from external control and becoming alienated from her. The next step Akbar took was to recall Adham Khan from Malwa, leaving Pir Muhammad in-charge.

This was an unfortunate appointment. Pir Muhammad immediately attacked and captured Burhanpur and Bijagarh, while perpetuating extreme cruelty and massacre in the captured towns. In one of these encounters, Pir Muhammad was knocked down in the river he was crossing and drowned, bringing to an end a vile and cruel career. It seems that Baz Bahadur was temporarily re-instated in Malwa, with Akbar’s tacit approval. Later Akbar appointed Abdullah Khan Uzbeg to replace Baz Bahadur, who after a further few years of wandering in search of support, finally joined Mughal service, as mentioned earlier.

The appointment of Muhammad Atga had displeased Maham Anga and some senior nobles aligned with her—they felt their power slipping away. On 16th May 1562, the foolish but power hungry Adham Khan decided to act. It is unclear whether or not he had discussed the action he was about to initiate with his mother and other nobles in the group, but it was a very rash action that brought about the downfall of the Anga Coterie. On 16th May, while Atga was conducting some business with other nobles in the palace hall, Adham Khan barged in and attacked him. Atga tried to flee to the palace courtyard but was cut down by Adham Khan’s followers and died there. On hearing the noise and the fracas Akbar, who was asleep at that time, came out to see what was happening. Adham Khan tried to stop him from going out and is reported to have even put his hand on Akbar’s forearm; touching the king was a crime punishable with death. Akbar knocked Adham Khan senseless and on coming to know of his atrocious act, had him bound and thrown down from the terrace that he was standing on. The first time Adham Khan was not killed and so Akbar had the body brought back up and thrown down again to ensure that Adham Khan was dead.

It is reported that Akbar personally informed Maham Anga of the manner of her son’s death. Maham Anga died 40 days after that, while the members of her coterie fled in different directions. They were hunted down and arrested, but treated with magnanimity—the first indication of Akbar’s well-thought through change in policy in dealing with adversaries and wrong-doers after they were defeated. Pardoning them was the first step in bringing them under his influence, the equivalent of modern day ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.

Finally at the age of 20 years, Akbar was ready to rule as king and emperor—this declaration of independence was the beginning of a new chapter in Akbar’s life.

Evolving Character

About four months before the Adham Khan episode, while he was out on a hunting expedition, Akbar heard some minstrels singing the praise of Khwaja Muin ud-Din Chisti, a saint buried in Ajmer. From his younger days he had been captivated by Sufi poetry, music and philosophy. Impulsively he set out for Ajmer with a small retinue. On the way, halfway between Agra and Ajmer in a place called Deosa, Akbar was met by Raja Bihar Mal, the ruler of Amber (modern Jaipur) in Rajputana. The Raja offered his eldest daughter in marriage to Akbar, which was subsequently n solemnised in Sambhar. This marriage laid the foundation of a policy of religious tolerance and reconciliation with the Hindu rulers—one of the most significant aspects of Akbar’s rule. Bihar Mal’s nephew Raja Man Singh, who was heir to the throne of Amber, joined imperial Mughal service and rose to very high office. The Rajput princess was given the name Maryam-Zamani and later became the mother of Jahangir, the next Mughal Emperor. [There is some confusion in some chronicles regarding the name, with it being confused with Akbar’s mother’s name, whose title was Maryam-Makani.]

Akbar later married some other Hindu princesses also, who collectively exercised a great deal of influence on his personal life and more importantly on public religious policy of the kingdom. [It is reported that Humayun also had taken a Hindu wife, but there is no confirmation of this report, and if it is indeed true, then the alliance did not have any influence on formal policies of the kingdom.] His marriage to the princess of Amber was an unequivocal declaration by Akbar to the entire world that he was the Emperor of all the peoples of India—both Hindu and Muslim. This perception was supported by the power and status of the Amber royal family. Cooperation with Hindu rulers became a deliberate and passionate policy of state.

Taking Charge

Having settled personal internal matters, Akbar now gave attention to the affairs of state. His priority was finances, which were not in good shape, having suffered a great deal of embezzlement and mismanagement during the years of Maham Anga’s de facto rule. To put the financial aspects of the kingdom right, Akbar appointed a capable eunuch who had been in Sur service earlier as the Finance minister. Given the title of Itimad Khan, he soon revamped the revenue system and stamped out corruption.

At this time Akbar was going through a phase of depression. This is not surprising. He was just 20 years old, almost completely on his own since everyone he had so far trusted and reposed faith in—both male and female—had let him down. He was also acutely aware of the vast responsibilities that he had to shoulder on his own. However, he never again relied on any single advisor, charting his own course and taking responsibility for all his actions. The mess that had been created by the ‘ladies brigade’ remained at the back of his mind throughout his life. Even though he appointed ministers, they conducted only routine business of their portfolios and therefore their individual capabilities were of only limited consequence. Akbar personally shaped all important policy.

From these actions it is evident that he had given a lot of thought to shaping the course of his reign, while he had given the outward indication of being only involved in sport and hunting. Now, while completely immersed in matters of state, he also continued to enjoy the pleasures of life—taking special delight in music, song and poetry. He seems to have had a great understanding of the technicalities of Indian classical music.

Tansen Joins the Court

Around 1562, Akbar asked Raja Ramchand of Rewa to send Tansen of Gwalior to the Mughal court. Tansen was recognised as the best musician and foremost singer of the age. He was received by Akbar with favour and paid lavishly. Thereafter he stayed on in the Mughal court. Tansen is credited with introducing innovative developments to the already available, but somewhat staid, musical repertoire of the time.

Conservative Hindu musicians consider Tansen to have adulterated traditional Indian Ragas and also blame him for the disappearance of two old ragas—the Hindol and Megh. On the other hand, by accusing him of altering the technicalities of the existing ragas, they affirm Tansen’s direct influence on Indian classical music, even if such influences were deleterious to the purity of Indian musical science. It is indeed possible that Tansen may have violated some ancient Hindu musical canons in an effort to modernise the musical scene, and also perhaps to make it more appealing to the Middle-Eastern Muslim taste. [This author is not qualified to offer any other meaningful comment on the subject.  Therefore, the narrative of Tansen’s transgressions (if any) is stopped at this stage.]

Three actions that Akbar instituted, almost immediately on taking charge, testify to the deep thinking regarding the manner of governance that he must have undertaken during his so-called carefree years of only indulging in sport—one, the abolition of the practice of the enslavement of prisoners of war; two, marriage to the princess of Amber; and three, reorganisation of the financial and revenue systems.

‘Akbar was conscious of being a king of men, immeasurably superior in breadth and comprehensiveness of view to any of the people surrounding him, and was justified in keeping his prime minister, whether Munim Khan or another, in a position of definite subordination.’

—Vincent A. Smith,

Akbar: The Great Mughal 1542-1605, p. 63

The Start of Religious Reforms

There was some minor trouble in Kabul in 1563, which was sorted out without Akbar having to take a direct interest. In the same year, while he was camping at Mathura, he heard some pilgrims complaining about the tax that had to be paid by Hindus undertaking pilgrimages. Akbar listened to their arguments and expressed his considered opinion that it was contrary to the will of God to tax people assembled to worship the Creator, even if the form of worship may have been incorrect. This was the first indication of Akbar’s thoughts on religion and his tendency towards tolerance of disparate viewpoints in terms of freedom of worship. After this encounter with the Hindu pilgrims, he abolished the pilgrim tax, which resulted in heavy loss to the exchequer.

Early in 1564, following his marriage to the princess from Amber and Raja Man Singh making an impact on the general administration, Akbar abolished the Jizya—a poll-tax that Muslim rulers imposed on non-Muslims, which in India meant predominantly Hindus. Jizya was originally instituted by Caliph Omar and adopted by a succession of Muslim rulers in India, from the very beginning of Muslim rule in parts of the sub-continent. Within the span of one year Akbar had abolished both the pilgrim tax and the Jizya, elevating his Hindu subjects to equal religious status with that of the Muslims in the kingdom. However, this move was more political than religious in its intended effects. The act of abolishing religious taxes was an unequivocal declaration by Akbar that all his subjects were equal citizens of his Empire—a very modern concept to which no Muslim ruler had so far given even lip-service.

Apart from the loss to the exchequer that these reforms brought about and perhaps more importantly, these revolutionary changes were instituted against the expressed sentiments of his senior nobles and influential orthodox religious practitioners. The strength of will in a 21-year old king, who had only recently taken charge of the administration, must be admired. At this young age Akbar had already realised that any stable rule in the sub-continent needed the consent and support of both the major religious groups, a fact that modern Indian politicians ignore at the peril of destabilising peace.

‘But Akbar was also by nature inclined to such reforms. He was, it has been pointed out, “the child of a Sunni father and a Shia mother born in Hindustan in the land of Sufism at the house of a Hindu”.’

—Bamber Gascoigne,

The Great Mughals, p. 71.

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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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