Indian History Part 81 Akbar Section VI: The Warrior-Monarch

Canberra, 5 September 2020

There is no doubt that Akbar was a rare man—he combined many virtues that together make a ‘good’ human being and he was someone of stature who would stand out from the ordinary at all times. He was also a man of contradictions; he was personally brave to a fault, impetuous by nature, especially when angered, but kept a tight control on his temper and more than anything else, ruthlessly ambitious. Most importantly, he was a driven, possessed man in all endeavours that he undertook; yet gentle as a husband and indolent as a father, while being a steadfast friend. Within these contradictory tendencies, he was a man who never revealed his innermost feelings to anyone. His innate energy—both physical and intellectual—easily distinguished him from others.

Akbar was invincible in the battlefield and a great empire-builder. It is little wonder that over the period of his rule, he came to be considered to possess superhuman powers that he could invoke at will. Through the span of his reign, Akbar’s perceived omnipotence passed from myth into reality and then into legend with the image of the infallible Emperor continuing to grow in people’s minds to fulfil the ends of the legend, much before the legend even stared to be written. It is true that Akbar succeeded in achieving his objectives even when faced with incredible opposition and impossibly complex situations, but these events can be rationally explained. However, these achievements were also shrouded in tales of divine providence, adding to the mystic of the man himself. It is also true that Akbar had implicit trust in luck always favouring him. Even so, he did not leave anything to chance, making careful preparations and personally supervising them before all major campaigns. Impetuous and with complete trust in his luck, but never leaving anything to chance—contradictions at its best.

Akbar – The Person

All accounts and physical descriptions of Akbar mention his majestic bearing. Contemporary writings portray him as being middle-statured, with wheatish complexion, stout and sturdy, slightly bow-legged from horse-riding as a child, while being muscular and broad-shouldered.

Monserrate writes: “The Prince is of a stature and of a type of countenance well-fitted for his royal dignity, so that one could easily recognize, even at first glance, that he is King … His expression is tranquil, serene and open, full also of dignity, and when he is angry of awful majesty.”

—Quoted in Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne: The Saga of the Great Mughals, p. 164.

He is reported to have given the impression of a person holding back an explosive temper by sheer force of will, which was perhaps true. His voice was loud and credited with ‘a peculiar richness’, obviously meaning that it had a rich timbre to it.

Akbar always dressed richly, but was never gaudy in his choice and almost always wore a cloth turban adorned with pearls and gems. He does not seem to have been found of wearing jewellery but always kept a dagger in his girdle; and if he was not wearing a sword, one was always kept near at hand. It is reported that he was found of perfume and wore all his clothes heavily perfumed. All observers agree that he was charming and pleasant mannered, while at the same time managing to preserve his gravitas and sternness.

All accounts and physical descriptions of Akbar mention his majestic bearing. Contemporary writings portray him as being middle-statured, with wheatish complexion, stout and sturdy, slightly bow-legged from horse-riding as a child, while being muscular and broad-shouldered.

By all accounts, he was a complex and multi-faceted person and remained an enigma to most people throughout his life. He possessed an exceptional memory, which is reported to have been developed very early in his childhood. But from a point of view of formal education, he never managed to master the alphabet, a surprising drawback, since Humayun his father was a man of great learning. However, in medieval India illiteracy was not a disqualification for a king and Akbar was never disadvantaged because of his lack of formal education. If truth be told, the situation was to the contrary. While reading and writing were good qualifications, over indulgence in the fine arts and literature was considered unfit indulgences for men of the warrior-class who were meant to rule.

Very high self-confidence was a trait that Akbar had in plenty. Even as a young sovereign, Akbar firmly believed that he possessed exceptional physical and intellectual powers. This self-belief led him to take unnecessary risks in battle. When this trait was combined with his impetuous nature and addiction to wild adventure, both in battle and during the hunt, the king became an uncontrollable and raging storm that could not be stopped. Akbar followed the family tradition of consuming alcohol and preferred arrack, not wine. Some reports mention that his drinking was done in moderation, but the reality is quite different. Along with alcohol, he also took various preparations of opium, sometimes to excess. The drinking bouts were more frequent in his younger days than in the later years. However, it is certain that he was ‘in his cups’ fairly frequently.

Character – An Analysis

From a point of view of heredity, Akbar had three distinct non-Indian blood strains from his near ancestors—Turk, Mongol and Persian. Perhaps it is not surprising that he developed the customs in his court to reflect and exhibit the features from all three. It was only at the later stages of his rule that the influence of the Indian environment started to become clearly visible. His sentiments altered, initially very gradually and then fairly rapidly—Akbar changed from a foreigner to an ‘Indian’, almost a half-Hindu. In the later years of his life, he adopted the Hindu dharma, the way of life, for the conduct of his personal life.

Language of the Mughals

Initially, both Turki and Persian were used in court, but by the time of Akbar, Turki had started to drop off and gradually fell out of use. Persian was recognised as the official and literary language. During Akbar’s long reign, a Persionised version of Hindi, the local Indian language, started to be used as the camp language of the military forces—it came to be called Urdu. It gradually developed as the instrument of communication between the locals and the foreigners. In India, the vocabulary, script and usage of Urdu was identical to Persian, while it mostly retained the grammar and structure of Hindi. 

Akbar is often described as a magnanimous emperor. This character trait is touted as being inherent, exemplified by the example of his reluctance to behead Hemu when he was a boy-king. However, the fact remains that he was magnanimous only when he wanted to be seen as being kind; with the claim of his inherent magnanimity being a later-day invention. The dichotomy in understanding the man stems from his never revealing himself completely to anyone.

As the Emperor, Akbar did not have a private place of retreat in the physical sense, even in his private quarters or the harem. He seemed to have created a virtual internal private space within himself as a retreat, a place where no one could reach. A large part of his thought process was concealed from the outside world within this space. In turn, this opaqueness of insight provided his character with an unseen depth and created an intriguing mystery in the eyes of his courtiers. Different people perceived the Emperor differently, depending on how much of himself was consciously revealed to an individual. This enigma negates the creation of a complete picture of his character, which continues to remain elusive despite the volumes written during his time and the in-depth analysis carried out in later days. At the fundamental level, Akbar’s essential character remains only partially deciphered.

Akbar had an instinctive understanding of human nature and therefore he was always a ‘ruler of men’, not necessarily of domains, provinces and regions. Perhaps his genealogy from a line of conquering heroes, an acute power of observation and practical education combined together to provide Akbar with an intuitive knowledge of how to command and lead men. He managed to instil and obtain simultaneously, the obedience, loyalty, love and respect—all tinged with a certain amount of fear—from his nobles, courtiers and soldiers alike. He mellowed towards the later part of his reign and as he grew older was prone to forgive offenders, even continuing to keep them in service with minor rebukes. This was a far cry from the young monarch who could not bear to have an incompetent person in his service. His inherent self-confidence, which grew as he became older, permitted him to bear and contain the faults of others, which was an indication of his move towards self-actualisation, a goal he was always aspiring to reach.

Similarly, as he became older and grew in stature, Akbar was increasingly aware of his own failings, faults and shortcomings. This evolution made him work very hard at being a good ruler to his people. He kept very long hours, waking about three hours before sunrise and going to bed only to get about four hours of sleep; a routine that he maintained on a daily basis. By the time he reached middle-age, he was frugal in his eating habits and towards the end of his life had almost become a vegetarian.

Akbar was a man of action, with boundless energy and able to focus on the task at hand with intense concentration. It is said that he did not know what fear was, and his personal bravery bordered on fool-hardy recklessness. Impetuous to a fault, he almost always placed himself at the place of greatest risk in battle, much to the chagrin of his immediate bodyguards. However, he also had a strong strain in his character that made him lean towards mysticism and philosophy in contemplative moods. The inquisitiveness towards mystical thought was more at an overarching strategic point of view, not at the lower level of philosophical or religious hair-splitting debate that was common at that time.

In his youth, Akbar had a voracious appetite for food, adventure, conquest in battle and sex. He married whoever he wanted and as many times as he wanted, collecting more than 300 women in his harem—wives, concubines and slaves from all regions and races. From being almost a sexual predator in his younger days, Akbar was sated by middle-age, gradually becoming continent and even recommending monogamy. As he grew older, he became an austere and saddened human being. The only ember that survived from his youth, throughout his life, was his zest for conquest.

Akbar had a quick temper that he managed to keep in check most of the time. However, when angered he displayed extreme ferocity and at timed his wrath made him get carried away in gusts of passion. Such episodes invariably led to acts of dispensing summary justice, most of the time with punishments disproportionately exceeding the crime. However, as a rule he had perfect self-control, achieved through self-training and an inborn sense of dignity and decorum.

Although consciously and continually trying improve himself, Akbar was never straightforward in the conduct of diplomacy and statecraft. He preferred to follow tortuous routes and at time even perfidious action in the conduct of diplomatic manoeuvres, practising the principle of ‘economy of truth’; something that is common even today in the arena of international relations. At least on one recorded instance Akbar broke a solemn oath that he had given as an emperor; and on many occasions openly said something when he actually meant something completely different. The attempts by official chroniclers as well as by modern historians to gloss over the gross breach of faith to the king of Khandesh at the siege of Asirgarh indicate that royal treachery was not accepted as normal even in the fairly lax moral and ethical climate of medieval times. However, on the whole Akbar was as duplicitous in the conduct of diplomacy as any other medieval potentate, either European or Asiatic.

Ambition – The Driving Force

Akbar’s defining character trait was ambition—he was ruled by ambition, which was wholly dedicated to conquest. He was openly and uniformly belligerent to all neighbours, without ever considering the moral and ethical rights and wrongs of such aggression. Later-day and modern historical recounting of Akbar’s invasions always attempt to justify them as having been undertaken to ‘better the prospects of the people [of the invaded country] to live in peace and prosperity’. These are nothing but blatant efforts to ‘white-wash’, clean up the uncomfortable strategic debris, of Akbar’s military activities in order to ensure that his stature as a ‘Great Emperor’ is not tarnished. Learned historians have opined that Akbar himself would have laughed at such accounts and reasons put forward by uncritical panegyrists of a later age.

The reality is that, driven by his relentless ambition, Akbar was perhaps the most aggressive king to have ruled anywhere. The attacks on Mewar, Gondwana, Sind, Kashmir and the Deccan Sultanates were all, uniformly aimed at destroying the independence of these kingdoms; and to secure material gains for himself and his empire, which was invariably the by-product of conquest. Further, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the Mughal administration of the conquered territories or kingdoms made the local population a happier and more prosperous lot. On the contrary, in a number of cases, the conquered people seemed to have become less happy and even felt bitterly humiliated by the treatment meted out to their royal families, under whom they were relatively more prosperous. In his own lifetime, Akbar made no bones about his vaulting ambition that could only be satiated by conquest; therefore, his invasions of other kingdoms were almost always without any valid reason, other than to satisfy his pure lust for battle and conquest.

‘A monarch’, he said, ‘should be ever intent on conquest, otherwise his neighbours rise in arms against him. The army should be exercised in warfare, lest from want of training they become self-indulgent.’

—as quoted in Vincent A. Smith,

Akbar: The Great Mogul 1542 – 1605, p. 346

Even though he was intent on conquest throughout his life, other than the last three years or so, he was unable to achieve his ultimate aim of conquering the entire sub-continent and Central Asia. Time and circumstances ran against him. Akbar loved the accumulation of wealth and therefore was attracted to the booty that came with victory in battle, especially in terms of elephants and gems. Akbar inherently was prone to economise on expenses, but could also be lavish in his spending, like in the case of the construction of his new capital at Fatehpur-Sikri. His tendency to minimise state expenditure is demonstrated by the fact that the expenses incurred in the construction of the Agra Fort was defrayed by the imposition of a separate tax on the people and not borne by the royal treasury. Although it is not mentioned in any records, it is highly possible that at least part of the expenses for the construction of Fatehpur-Sikri would have been recovered in a similar manner—Akbar’s fiscal management traits point in this direction.

By the age of 30, which is fairly early in life, Akbar had established himself as the ruler of a vast empire, brought together by his intense energy, which was focused on conquest and annexation. Slightly later, he also had three sons, which ensured that the dynasty was secure. Throughout his life, in all waking hours, the raison d’etre for every single action that he initiated was the primary and instinctive urge to better the status of his empire. This seems to have been a primal calling for Akbar; everything else took second place in his priorities.

The picture that emerges is of an egotistic, over-ambitious and somewhat unscrupulous king, whose appetite for conquest and annexation overrode any, and all, moral and ethical considerations prevalent at that time; even though the concept of morality and ethics of the time was somewhat vague to start with.

The Rajput Policy

The infliction of terror, as demonstrated in Chitor, was Akbar’s preferred policy in the pursuit of conquest. However, he was astute enough to temper it with magnanimity when necessary. Akbar’s achievement was that he was able to put this stick and carrot methodology into practice and use it to good effect in integrating the Rajputs to the Mughal Empire. From his very first encounter with the Rajputs, he instinctively realised that they could be formidable adversaries, like Rana Pratap Singh was proving to be, or could become invaluable allies. Akbar carefully crafted his Rajput policy to ensure that this admirable bloc of warriors would remain his unwavering military support base. In the later years of his rule, he would actually use the Rajput alliance as a counterweight to the antagonism of the orthodox Muslim community towards his personal religious evolution.

Akbar’s Rajput policy based on marital alliances was not a new concept, he only entrenched the idea. In fact even during the period of the Delhi Sultanate, many Hindu chieftains were aligned with the ruling government and several Hindu princesses were married into the ruling elite of the Sultanate to further political alliances. Akbar and his sons took several Rajput wives, political expediency making such alliances almost sought after. In medieval times political reality always trumped racial and religious considerations and such alliances were not considered out of the ordinary. Religion always remained subservient to political necessity. This reality is starkly demonstrated by the fact that as Mughal power started to wane, towards the end of Aurangzeb’s reign, such marriage alliances also became rare.

Akbar’s Rajput policy was also built on mutual admiration. The Rajputs were extremely touchy about their personal and racial honour. Akbar understood this and ensured that the Rajputs were treated with extreme courtesy, heaping accolades and honours upon them to an extent that being in Imperial Service became more prestigious than being independent chieftains. Rajputs chiefs were raised to the level of the most exalted of Muslim nobles in the land and public proof was regularly given of their being trusted even with the life of the Emperor himself. The Rajputs in turn gave unprecedented and unquestioned loyalty to the person of the Emperor.

This relationship was mutually beneficial. The Rajputs became the backbone of Akbar’s invincible army, the shock troops who were send in when everything else failed in a military campaign. The Rajputs also gained—although not officially independent, the chiefs were permitted to rule their ‘kingdoms’ as hereditary rulers and also choose their successors, with the caveat that the successor would be anointed by the Emperor personally. This process ensured the continued loyalty of individual royal houses to the Mughal dynasty. The advantage of the system for the Rajputs was that they were protected by the might of the Mughal Empire and therefore did not have anything to fear from the feuding clan chiefs, the Thakurs, who had so far been the king-makers in Rajputana.

Being a Mughal noble set the Rajput chiefs free from the inward looking clan enmities and struggles of their desert kingdoms, raising them to a higher status than before. Moreover, the Rajput chiefs were now able to reach across the entire North India at the head of large armies, something that they could not have imagined just a generation ago. For born warriors nothing could compare to the prestige of leading conquering armies ranging far and wide. Monetarily too the Rajputs chiefs benefitted greatly, being given provinces as their jagirs to make up for salaries etc. This system gradually made Rajputana—their semi-arid ancestral land—richer than ever before. In effect, along with the Mughal Empire and its Emperor, the Rajput Chiefs also became wealthy and powerful. Other than for Rana Pratap and the interior of Mewar where he lurked, the entire Rajputana region became part of the growing Mughal Empire. Akbar’s dual policy of high reward for cooperation and relentless pressure in case of resistance, paid rich dividends.             

Akbar’s Children

Akbar had married early and also several times. However, even as late as 1569 he did not have a male heir, several children having died in infancy. In his early days as king, Akbar was assiduous in his prayers at famous shrines of Muslim saints in Delhi, Ajmer and other places. This faith was reinvigorated by the vow that he took, and fulfilled, during the siege of Chitor. Most important in his faith-based pilgrimages were the ones that he undertook to the tomb of the saint Moin ud-Din Chishti in Ajmer. In the early years of his reign, he performed this pilgrimage every year without fail, the last one being in 1579. By this time he had already started to become disenchanted with Islam.

Shaikh Salim was also a Chishti and a holy man who lived in the village of Sikri, about 23 miles to the west of Agra. He had assured Akbar that his wish for a son would be met and in fact promised that Akbar would have three sons.

Shaikh Salim Chishti

Shaikh Salim was the descendant of the famous saint Shaikh Farid-i-Shakarganj who lived in the 13th century. Salim had twice travelled out of India on pilgrimage to holy places—once by land and the second time by sea. He had also performed the holy pilgrimage to Mecca 22 times. He was called the ‘holy man of India’ and lived in great austerity, although he was not celibate. He died in 1571, aged 92. 

In 1569, Akbar’s first Hindu wife the princess of Amber, became pregnant. Akbar being superstitious send her to Shaikh Salim’s hermitage for confinement. There she gave birth to a son on 30th August 1569—Akbar named him Salim in acknowledgement of his faith in the holy man. The same year on 21st November, a daughter was also born through a concubine and named Shahzada Khanam Sultan Begum. Akbar had two more daughters, both born to Beiby Daulta Begum—Shahzada Shakr-un-Nissa whose date of birth cannot be verified and Shahzada Aram Banu Begum born on 22nd December 1584. The first two were married although they did not take part in any affairs of state while Aram Banu remained unmarried throughout her life.

On 8th June 1570, Salima Sultan Begum, Biram Khan’s widow whom Akbar had married, gave birth to a son who was named Murad. A third son named Daniyal, was born to a concubine living in the house of Shaikh Salim on 10th September 1572. Although this son was born after the death of Shaikh Salim, his prophesy of Akbar having three sons was thus fulfilled. All three sons attained majority. The fate of Murad and Daniyal has been already described earlier and by early 1600s Salim was left alone to continue the dynasty.

The Learned Illiterate

Akbar could barely read or write in the conventional sense, although he would not fit into the definition of an illiterate by any stretch of imagination. Throughout his life Akbar displayed an insatiable thirst for knowledge and had books read out to him regularly by erudite scholars. Over a period of time he had acquired so much knowledge that no one would even suspect that he was barely able to sign his own name. His acute retentive memory made him a learned-king par excellence. He was assiduous in collecting books and by the end of his rule his personal library was vast, reported to contain more than 24,000 volumes. However, in his collection, Akbar displayed a strange quirk—he only collected manuscripts, even giving away all the printed books that the Jesuit missionaries who arrived at his court had presented him. This could be attributed to the vanity of an egotistic king who would not want anyone else to have a copy of one of ‘his’ books. He was generous in his support and encouragement of scholars and writers, whom he patronised and cultivated without any bias.

Akbar had a lifelong passion for music and gathered musicians of repute in his court, from across the empire. Tansen, who is considered to have been an incomparable musician-composer of the time, was part of Akbar’s court. The king himself was a talented and skilled drummer and is reported to have taken regular music lessons. Akbar was a lover of poetry and also indulged in composing verses, which have unfortunately been lost in antiquity. He was intensely attracted to the mystical works of the Sufi poets and appreciated poetry at a higher plane. At the same time, Akbar seems to have developed a dislike for the pedantic verbal acrobatics of the more banal poets of the time. Akbar was also a discerning patron of art and gathered many artists in his court, while also commissioning major works. Credit must be given to the king for ensuring that from an art and scholarly point of view, no religious bias or discrimination was permitted to creep into the distribution of patronage. For example, of the 18 eminent artists brought to court, 13 were Hindus, even though Persian influence dominated the Mughal art scene. It is reported that Akbar had also appointed a tutor to teach him art and drawing.

Akbar was curious and inquisitive by nature, traits that were visible throughout his life. He had a keen interest in craft and machinery, and was personally interested in the developments in gun-smithy. He is reported to have made modifications in the design of weapons to improve their efficiency, although specific cases cannot be found in any records to substantiate this claim. From his childhood, Akbar was an avid sportsman and in later life used the playing field to ‘judge’ his nobles and their calibre. He enjoyed hunting, often using a massive hunt as a warm up exercise for an impending battle. His favourite pastimes were elephant fights and polo, with the emperor himself participating and taking extreme risks. Akbar considered all kinds of sports as battle, taking them very seriously, while at times it would seem that he did not take actual battle seriously enough. He also indulged in board games and is reported to have invented a game called Chandal Mahal, presumably lost in antiquity.


Akbar excelled as a king—repeatedly and routinely displaying his practical ability as a soldier, general, administrator and diplomat—effortlessly establishing himself as the supreme ruler. His personal force of character almost always overpowered his contemporaries, although he was careful to cultivate friendships and be bestowed with affection by those close to him. However, towards the end of his rule, having got used to more than 40 years of fully autocratic rule and with all his close friends dead, Akbar may have been more feared than loved. As a Jesuit missionary author wrote, he had truly become the ‘terror of the East’.

‘He was a born king of men, with a rightful claim to rank as one of the greatest sovereigns known to history. That claim rests securely on the basis of his extraordinary natural gifts, his original ideas, and his magnificent achievements. It is weakened, rather than strengthened, by the adulation of uncritical admirers.’

—Vincent A. Smith,

Akbar: The Great Mogul 1542 – 1605, p. 353.

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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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