Akbar and Birbal
Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar, more popularly known as Akbar the Great, was the third emperor of the Mughal Empire. He ruled from 1556 to 1605 and is hailed as the most celebrated Mughal emperor since he not only strengthened the foundation of the empire but also spread the Mughal regime to almost the whole of the Indian Subcontinent. To this day, he is known as one of the most influential and powerful leaders from his time. He unified his people regardless of religion and culture and thus also had the support of the non-Muslim population. All in all, his time of rule is always remembered as a reflection of his competence and unique thinking.
But it most definitely was not an easy life for Akbar. We always read about his physical hardships and achievements but do not often ponder upon the mental challenges he would have had to face while building up his legacy, being in charge of every decision that could make it or break it. The same can be said for any good ruler of the past. When we think of them, we only think of their accomplishments during their reign and what they had left behind. But, in reality, there is a lot more to it.
Just like us, they also go through adversities and tough days, and just how we do, they also need people to confide in during such times. The significance of these people is almost always overlooked. Still, a person’s mental health is as important as their physical well-being, so we can say that their contributions were just as crucial as their ruler’s.
One such person for Akbar was Birbal. Here, we read stories about the duo that portray precisely how vital Birbal was to the emperor.
Birbal was born as Mahesh Das Brahmbhatt in 1528 to a Hindu Brahmin family. He had a great interest in literature and subsequently achieved fame in writing music and poetry. Sometime between 1556 and 1562, he was appointed by Akbar to join his court as the poet laureate at the age of 28. Afterward, he acted as a religious and military advisor to the emperor for around 30 years. He was given the name Birbal by Akbar. Birbal originates from Bir Bar or Vir Var, which means hasir javab or quick thinker. He was given the title of Raja very early on in his service.
Birbal was intelligent, generous, and creative with innovative thinking. He was also known to be a master in Sanskrit, Persian and Hindi language. These distinct characteristics, along with his kind appearance, made him immensely liked not only among the people but with Akbar himself.
Akbar was an avid fan of literature and admired the poems written by Birbal, even giving him the title of Kavi Rai, meaning King of Poets. The emperor also loved learning and gaining knowledge from people with different yet great minds. His great enthusiasm led to him forming a group of nine carefully chosen advisors, which he then called Navaratna (the nine jewels). Birbal was not only a part of this group but was referred to as the brightest jewel.
So we can say that it was no secret that Akbar was greatly fond of Birbal, not only for his physical talents but also for the way he perceived the world around him to be. For these reasons, he kept Birbal close and entrusted him as his advisor and as a companion.
Akbar was known to be quite unforgiving when it came to mistakes and misdemeanours, even when they were done by his best and most competent officials. Yet, he never once punished Birbal during his three decades of service to the Mughal regime.
When building his new residence at Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar also had a home constructed for Birbal close to his own chambers. Birbal was the only courtier who was allowed to dwell within the palace walls.
During an event of an elephant fight taking place in Akbar’s estate, one of the elephants charged at Birbal, trying to attack him with its trunk. But upon seeing this, Akbar, on his horse, immediately raced towards Birbal and the elephant, which then turned towards Akbar but ultimately left them alone. This incident showed that he treasured Birbal to the point where he was willing to risk his own life for his friend. In happenings like this, we can see just how much Akbar loved and treasured Birbal.
Birbal, too, was incredibly devoted to Akbar.
Din-i-Ilahi was a religion initiated by Akbar where beliefs from Hinduism and Islam were merged. The effort was intended to resolve the conflicts caused by religion in his court. Birbal was one of the few people and the only Hindu who followed this religion, as stated in Ain-i-Akbari (The Institutes of Akbar).
A lot of courtiers remembered Birbal with fondness and respect, but many resented him for his closeness to the emperor and the high-rank he had gained from it. Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, a court historian, wrote praises of Birbal and how successful he was as an official. While another historian, Abdul Qadir Badayuni, described Birbal as a Hindu musician who was favoured and received biased treatment for being the king’s confidant. Many thought and many still think to this day that Birbal and people like him who stick with their superiors through thick and thin are oppressors or deem them unnecessary. But the matter of fact is that Birbal was someone the emperor could lean on for emotional support, who he could confide in and get rid of his frustrations and worries.
In early 1586, Akbar sent Zain Khan Koka and Birbal to end the protests against the Mughals by Yusufzais and Mandanrs in the Swat district in Pakistan. But due to disagreements between the two leaders, Zain Khan set up a trap for Birbal, which led to the official’s death in the mountains of Kabul. Along with Birbal, 8000 more soldiers were killed and this was said to be the worst defeat in the Mughal regime during Akbar’s rule. At this time, Akbar was in Punjab, having travelled there from Fatehpur Sikri to resolve conflict at the borders, and when the news of Birbal’s death reached him, he was utterly crushed.
Akbar had retreated from his daily life, not having eaten for two days and nights or carried out any of his duties as an emperor. Only when his mother, Hamida Banu, had requested him to resume his responsibilities in court did he go back to his regular days. Yet he still mourned Birbal’s death.
Scholar Badauni was one of the people who disliked Birbal for his close affiliation with the emperor; however, he acknowledges in his writing that Akbar had never felt as much sorrow for the death of any official as he did for Birbal’s. Upsetting Akbar more was the fact that Birbal’s body had not been retrieved, and he could not show his love and respect for his companion by holding a proper state funeral. It saddened and angered him so much that he wanted to go to Kabul himself to find Birbal’s body but was convinced otherwise by his courtiers. After Birbal’s death, false news and gossip were going about that he was spotted in several places. Akbar would go as far as to send men to said locations in the desperate hopes that it would be right and that his friend was alive all along.
After Akbar had left Fatehpur Sikri, he never returned. He kept traveling further and further away, although his mother, Hamida Banu, and his aunt, Gulbadan Begum, still resided there along with many other essential and close officials. His absence lengthened from months to years, and so the city lost its once-thriving momentousness. Some speculate it was because of water shortage issues that emerged in the city because of a broken dam. Others say he never came back as he could not bear reminiscing the memories of his dear friend that those palace walls held.
Birbal’s death took a heavy toll on Akbar mentally. His absence impacted Akbar greatly, and it shows just how much Birbal’s support meant to him. Birbal was a crucial part of the reason why Akbar had gone on to become what he did and accomplished all that he did. Now, we remember their friendship in folklore and humorous tales passed on through generations. But along with those, we must not forget to recognize the importance of people like Birbal in Akbar’s life. They were not burdens but blessings in the guise of contributors to a harmonious society.
(reference -Akbar The Great Mughal by Ira Mukhoty)