Indian History Part 81 Akbar Sect V: An Unsavoury End

Canberra, 22 August 2020

By the turn of the century, around 1600, Akbar had acquired the aura of a superhuman hero, invincible in all respects. His only worry was the behaviour of his eldest son and presumed successor, Prince Salim. In 1600, Salim was 31 years old and had waited patiently to become king and emperor. However, he had gradually become impatient, and in more recent years desperate, to exercise his independence as a king, whereas he was still only a ‘prince’. To make matters worse Akbar, his father and the Emperor, was only 58 years old, had already ruled for 44 years, was in robust health and seemed to have plans to reign for many more years.

Prince Salim felt frustrated and that time was running away from him—he had reached a stage where he felt the need to force the issue of succession. The relationship between father and son was also not without its tensions; there was an underlying veneer of distrust between the two. In 1591, Akbar had suffered an attack of colic and he had expressed his suspicion of the illness being the result of Salim trying to poison him. There was absolutely no proof to substantiate this accusation, but it is indicative of the uneasy relationship between Akbar and Salim. From his perspective, Salim believed that Akbar preferred his youngest brother Daniyal over him to be the next king. It was obvious to even a casual observer that this uneasy status quo could not continue. Something had to give.

Salim Rebels

On the eve of his departure on the Deccan expedition, Akbar charged Salim with continuing the campaign against Mewar and asked him to establish his headquarters in Ajmer. He also left Agra vaguely in Salim’s care. While Salim accepted the situation, matters came to a head when Akbar installed Daniyal as the Viceroy for Deccan. In Salim’s mind it was confirmation that he was out of favour with his father, which in turn was instrumental in increasing his anxiety regarding his own future. In the interim, Salim had not taken any action to rejuvenate the Mewar campaign and was dawdling in Ajmer. When the administrator of Ajmer died, Salim was able to appropriate immense wealth, which he felt would be sufficient to finance a rebellion.

Salim now proceeded to Agra with a large entourage. If his initial intention was to seize the throne, it did not eventuate. His confidence and bravery failed him, and he made no attempt to capture the throne. The streak of disobedience in Salim was not strong enough for him to act directly against the iron will of his illustrious father. This timidity in opposing his father would again surface at a critical juncture during his rebellion. In any case, he side-stepped his way out of Agra and moved with his supporters towards Allahabad. In Allahabad he set himself up as an independent king and started to raise an army. While he was bypassing Agra, his grandmother Hamida Banu Begum, had attempted to meet him in order to persuade him to avoid initiating any precipitate action. She had wanted to counsel him to desist from the course of action that he seemed to have chosen. However, Salim did not meet with his grandmother. In Allahabad, Salim appropriated the revenue from the whole of the Bihar province for himself. These two actions—raising of the army and usurping the revenue—amounted to avowed rebellion, by any standards.

Akbar, realised the seriousness of the situation, but did not want to label it a rebellion, since doing so would exacerbate an already delicate situation. If it was declared a rebellion, the Emperor would have no option but to take serious and concerted action, which would in all likelihood have plunged the Empire into civil war. He therefore treated it as the misconduct of a haughty son, labelling it an internal family affair—an astute and statesmanlike decision. Salim on his part also did not push the issue of his independence, being contend to stay on in Allahabad and not initiate any further action. There was obvious vacillation on both sides, actions being tentative with both sides trying to probe and gauge the intention of the other. An uneasy status quo ensued.


After the fort at Asirgarh had been captured, Akbar hurriedly returned to Agra in August 1601. As an aside, this was Akbar’s last battlefield victory—he would not conquer again. In Agra, Akbar made contact with Salim and for the next eight months tried to figure out the exact nature of the prince’s grievances and attempted to assuage his anxieties. However, this approach does not seem to have worked. In March-April 1602, Akbar received information that Prince Salim was advancing towards Agra at the head of 30,000 cavalry and associated troops, having already reached Etawah about 100 kilometres from Agra. The reason given for this move was ostensibly to pay homage to his father, the Emperor, although the real intent, the capture of the throne, was obvious.

Akbar, always a man of direct action, called Salim’s bluff. He send a message for Salim either to come to Agra with a small escort or, if he did not feel safe enough in his father’s court, to return to Allahabad with his army. Under no circumstances was Salim and the army of Allahabad to move any closer to Agra. Once again Salim’s timidity was displayed—he did not dare to disobey his father and opted to return to Allahabad. Of course, it is obvious that by returning to Allahabad, Salim avoided the certainty of a civil war and perhaps his own defeat. The situation had been diffused at the nick of time and to further placate Salim, Akbar appointed him the Viceroy of Bengal and Orissa. The appointment was also done to indicate to the court that Salim was not to be considered a rebel, but only as a wayward son.

On his return Salim re-established himself in Allahabad and assumed all the trappings of an independent king, although he continued to designate Akbar as the ‘Great King’ in all his missives. Akbar was irritated, convinced in his mind that Salim was gradually setting himself up to break into open rebellion. On his return to Allahabad, Salim had send one of his trusted allies, Dost Muhammad of Kabul who was bestowed with the title Khwaja Jahan, to Agra to negotiate with Akbar. The list of demands—such as being permitted to march into Agra with 70,000 troops—were such that it became clear to Akbar that the negotiations were set up to fail. No reconciliation was achieved.

Akbar, however, was still reluctant to fight his son. The hesitation was the result of a combination of paternal affection, awareness of the growing military might of Salim’s faction, and reluctance to plunge a wealthy empire into civil war and the chaos that would follow. Akbar had always been a sagacious ruler.

Throughout 1602, Salim held court in Allahabad as an independent ruler, having the Friday prayer read in his name and even striking his own gold and copper coins. He had become impudent enough to display the temerity of sending samples of his coins to his father in Agra. Finally, Akbar was stung and insulted into action. He wrote about the troubles to his confidante, Abul Fazl, who had been left behind in the Deccan to look after the Mughal affairs there, although Prince Daniyal had been nominally appointed the viceroy. Abul Fazl was the only surviving close advisor of Akbar—Raja Birbal had perished in 1586, and both Rajas Bhagwan Das and Todar Mall in 1589. Abul Fazl replied to the Emperor that he would bring Salim bound to the royal court, and started back towards Agra.

A Murder and Reconciliation

Salim realised the danger of permitting Abul Fazl reach Agra and advice Akbar, and worse still, lead the Mughal army into Allahabad. He therefore contracted a rebel Bundela chief of Orchha, Bir Singh, to murder Abul Fazl before he could reach Agra. There are reports that Abul Fazl had been repeatedly warned of the plot against his life, but took no heed. He was murdered in the hills near Gwalior by Bir Singh who subsequently went on to be a commander in Salim’s army. There is absolutely no doubt regarding Salim’s direct involvement in the murder, since Abul Fazl’s severed head was send to him in Allahabad as proof of the murder. It is also clear that Salim felt no remorse at the wanton murder of a loyal noble and went on to glorify his deed in the autobiography that he wrote after becoming emperor.

Akbar was deeply hurt by his son’s actions, but did not initiate any action even to chastise him. It is also reliably reported that Akbar, at least in the open court, opted to believe that the murder plot was the work of Bir Singh on his own and that Salim had not been involved. As an analyst delving into these matters after centuries of their happening, one gets the distinct feeling that by this time Akbar was weary of the court intrigues, tough military campaigns and the general impost upon him of carrying out the day-to-day ‘ruling’ of the Empire—he needed rest and support.

The great ladies of the harem—his mother Hamida Banu Begum and a favourite wife, Sultana Salima Begum, who had been Biram Khan’s widow and was Prince Murad’s mother—took charge and started efforts to reconcile father and son. Salima Begum took the lead since she wanted to ensure that civil war was avoided at all costs. She travelled to Allahabad in late 1602 with some gifts for Salim, ostensibly from the Emperor. She is reported to have ‘berated Salim into submission’ and brought him back to Agra with her. In Agra, the venerable Hamida Banu Begum, ‘Maryam Makani’, provided personal protection for the errant prince.

The meeting between Akbar and Salim took place in the old dowager queen’s quarters. It is said that on the Emperor arriving at her palace, Hamida pushed Salim down to the ground at his feet in submission. Akbar is reported to have lifted him up gently and removing the turban from his own head placed it on Salim’s head, publicly and ritualistically proclaiming Salim to be his successor. From Akbar’s perspective the reconciliation was complete; Salim’s rebellion was over.

The Aftermath

Salim, although somewhat assuaged, does not seem to have been fully sincere about the reconciliation; he was merely using the situation as a ruse to get back into Akbar’s favour. Further, even though Akbar seemed to consider that the entire fiasco of the rebellion was over and done with, it is not possible that he would have fully forgiven the calculated murder of Abu Fazl, his close friend and ally, so quickly. Outwardly the differences between emperor and presumptive successor had been papered over.

Akbar wanted Salim to restart the campaign to destroy Mewar, ordered few years back. Mewar was ruled by Rana Amar Singh, son of the indomitable Rana Pratap Singh (died 1597), who was continuing the gallant fight his father had initiated against the Mughals. Akbar had not forgotten or forgiven the spirited resistance of the Ranas of Mewar and still harboured ambitions of complete conquest of the rebel kingdom. He wanted to convert his personal dream to a Mughal dynastic dream and his acknowledged heir apparent to pursue it wholeheartedly. At this stage, Amar Singh controlled almost the whole of the erstwhile Mewar kingdom. In this situation, the stark truth was that Salim and most of the Mughal nobility were reluctant to begin a campaign into to Mewar. They disliked campaigning in the Rajputana hills because there was very little plunder to be had and, perhaps more importantly, these campaigns always carried an inherent risk of ending in humiliating defeat.

In order to have this ‘crazy’ idea of a Mewar campaign either delayed or postponed indefinitely, Salim demanded an extravagant amount of treasure and a ridiculously large army for him to start the campaign. Obviously these demands were refused by Akbar and therefore, Salim sought permission to return to Allahabad. On reaching Allahabad, he reverted to his old position of practical independence and in addition sank into a lifestyle of shocking depravity, bent on self-destruction, much to Akbar’s distress.

To add to Akbar’s discomfiture, things were not going well in the Deccan. He had harboured great hopes for Prince Daniyal—that he would conquer the Deccan, annex it to the expanding Mughal Empire and govern it well. Unfortunately, like his brother Murad, Daniyal too was addicted to wine and a hopeless alcoholic, unfit to rule even a small province, let alone a conquered Deccan Plateau. Even though he was kept confined and under guard in an effort to wean him off liquor, he managed to corrupt the guards and obtain alcohol for his daily intake. Daniyal died in April 1604 of delirium tremens, after suffering for six months in Burhanpur.

Akbar Attempts to Take Charge

With his only surviving son also declining into becoming an alcoholic Akbar decided to take concrete action. He set out for Allahabad to take charge of his son and successor. However, the change in Akbar’s fortunes was apparent at every stage of this enterprise. It seemed as if lady luck who had so far smiled indulgently at the Emperor had started to look elsewhere—Akbar, it seemed, was no longer in favour. On setting out, Akbar’s barge got stuck on a sandbank and was grounded; and seasonal rains flooded the base camp that had been established for the expedition.

Akbar’s mother argued with her son not to proceed on this journey. Her unsaid reasoning was that if the arbitrations in Allahabad did not achieve true reconciliation, civil war would break out; and she knew that in battle her grandson Salim would be destroyed. Akbar was an experienced and undefeated general and indomitable when stung into action. When all arguments to stop Akbar from embarking on this journey upon which the fate of the great Empire rested, failed, Hamida Banu Begum fell ill and took to her bed, soon becoming critical. Akbar was already on his journey, but on hearing the news of his mother’s illness, returned to Agra. On 10th September 1604, Hamida Banu, the old dowager empress died at the age of 77. Akbar did not recommence his journey to Allahabad to bring his errant son to his senses, although negotiations between father and son started again.

Final Reconciliation

The negotiators pointed out to Salim that as the only surviving son, he had nothing to fear by going to Agra and submitting to the Emperor, who had indicated that all would be forgiven. Gradually Salim was persuaded to accept this proposal. He marched from Allahabad, escorted by a small force and arrived at Agra on 9th November 1604. He had brought some presents for his father, and leaving the escorting forces outside the city limits proceeded to the palace to pay his respect. He was received by the Emperor in public, personally, cordially and with great affection. A second reconciliation had been achieved.

As the court was breaking up, Akbar seized Salim and drew him into an inner apartment. Once out of sight of the courtiers, the father repeatedly slapped his son, reproaching him for his conduct of the past few years and also for not daring to fight even when he was in command of 30,000 cavalry, like in early 1602. Further, Akbar declared Salim to be sick, a patient, in need of treatment. Salim was kept in confinement in the care of the renowned physician, Raja Salivahan. Akbar also had many of Salim’s supporters arrested to ensure that there would be no palace coup in the prince’s favour. Salim was released ten days later, given high honours and moved to a fitting residence. However, he was kept under strict, if private, surveillance. It would seem that Salim was cured of his addiction through this treatment. Salim lived in Agra for a year in apparent harmony with his father.

Akbar’s Last Days

The death of his mother seems to have sapped Akbar of his legendary vitality and the urgency with which he approached all aspects of being a king and in everything that he had undertaken. It also increased his sense of isolation, his will to win snapped, and loneliness set in. He appointed Salim the governor of the Western provinces and continued to reside in Agra. The saga of Salim’s rebellions and insincere reconciliations had by now lasted more than four years and Akbar was tired.

Akbar was world-weary and disillusioned. He fell ill on Monday, 21st September 1605. His personal physicians initially refrained from administering medicines, trusting nature and Akbar’s own robust constitution to effect a recovery. However, Akbar continued to slip into deeper illness and when acute attacks of diarrhoea followed, it became apparent that the great Emperor was dying.

While Akbar was on his deathbed, an attempt was made by Raja Man Singh and Aziz Koka, maternal uncle and father-in-law of Prince Khusrav son of Salim, to raise Khusrav to the throne instead of Salim. However, the proposal was vetoed by the majority of the nobles who contended that it was not the ‘custom of Chagatai Tartars’ to by-pass the father in favour of the son. So the ‘coup’ attempt by the two close relatives of Khusrav was stillborn. There is also a report of an assassination attempt on Prince Salim, which seems to have been easily thwarted, although the attack has never been confirmed with reasonable assurance. Salim was promised support by a majority of the nobles but they also imposed two conditions for their support of his claim to the throne. One, he was to defend the Islamic faith throughout his reign; and two, he would not initiate any retribution on his son Khusrav. The first was obviously because of the religious experiments that Akbar had indulged in and which had diluted the power of Islam on the reign (the topic of discussion in a later chapter); and the second because Khusrav had actually been an unwitting pawn in the intrigue for succession that had taken place. Salim agreed to both the conditions and, to his credit, adhered to them throughout his rule.

Prince Salim visited his father only once during his illness—on 21st October. By this time Akbar could not speak, but through signs he invested Salim with a turban and robes, indicating that he was being proclaimed the ruler. This seems to have been Akbar’s last conscious act. Akbar passed away in the night of 25th October 1605. He was 63 years old.

Conspiracy Theories

In most cases of succession in medieval empires, there is always some conspiracy theory attached to the death of a powerful monarch, especially when the death occurs as the result of some illness and not on the battlefield. The situation in the case of the Mughal patriarch’s death was similar—there are conspiracy theories associated with Akbar’s illness and death.

There is strong suspicion that Akbar’s mortal illness was caused due to poison—administered either on the direct orders of Salim or by person(s) acting to further his interests. This suspicion was prevalent as soon as Akbar fell ill, even before his death. The symptoms of the illness are corroborative of the presence of poison; Salim’s behaviour of visiting his father only once and that too very close to the Emperor’s death, point towards a powerful motive to ensure Akbar’s death. In medieval times, from desire to initiate action to taking concrete action in order to realise ambition was but a small step. Salim as Jahangir, the name he adopted on being crowned, always referred to Akbar as his ‘revered father’, although this show of affection and respect had not stopped him from mounting a four-year long rebellion to claim the throne even while his father was ruling. There is no doubt that Salim was impatient to be the king. However, there is no irrefutable proof that he was instrumental in poisoning his father, even though there is no doubt that he was fully capable of carrying out the crime. This conspiracy theory must rest there, with no certainty of the truth.

There is another story that Akbar poisoned himself by mistake. According to this hypothesis, Akbar wanted to poison Raja Man Singh—because of the latter’s effort to remove Salim from the line of accession—and made some poison pills, which he mixed with some non-poisonous ones to ensure there was no suspicion. Inadvertently, he ate some of the poisonous pills and subsequently fell ill. This is not a believable tale and has to be discarded. At the same time it also has to be acknowledged that poisoning was a much used technique in medieval times to get rid of ‘uncomfortable’ opponents.

The available information does not confirm or deny the allegations of Akbar having been poisoned to death. However, in a tentative manner it could be believed that he was poisoned by someone in some way; a theory that seems to be well-founded.

The Mausoleum

In the normal fashion of medieval Muslim kings, Akbar had started the construction of his own mausoleum few years before his death. It is obvious that he did not anticipate his death at such an early age and therefore it was still under construction when he died. It was completed by Jahangir (Salim) in 1613 at Sikandara. It is a unique structure and embodies the spirit of the king who had conceived it.

Unfortunately, in 1691—86 years after his death and internment—a band of wild Jats, who had not idea of the stature of the Emperor entombed in the mausoleum, desecrated it and scattered Akbar’s ancient bones on a bonfire. They looted and vandalised the edifice, destroying what could not be carried away.

As Abraham Eraly states so graphically, ‘A Hindu end for Akbar, after all.’

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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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