Home >mint-lounge >features >Ekta Kapoor’s ‘barbarian’ Akbar

A serial on Akbar and Jodha began on Zee TV last month. It is advertised as a woman’s taming of a wild man. “Dahshat hai Akbar ka doosra naam (terror is Akbar’s middle name)" is the show’s line, “kaisay bana payegi Jodha usay insaan (how will Jodha make him a human being?)".

So what sort of man was this ruler? Very different from what the serial suggests. In fact, the opposite.

Akbar was never a barbarian and he was always a freethinker. He wasn’t just secular, as our textbooks suggest. Think of him as a modern liberal, and I have always imagined him as a California-type faddist.

He was vegetarian by choice, drank and doped moderately, dressed elegantly in colour-coordinated and event-appropriate fashion, and was always perfumed. His religious beliefs, remarkably modern for the 16th century, were so eclectic that they would be out of place even in our time.

On his roof, a fire burnt night and day, because of his conviction that the Zoroastrian faith of the Parsis carried an eternal truth. The other faith he liked was Jainism.

He vigorously engaged with their monks, and thought highly of their spartan habits and godless religion. During the sacred week of the Jain paryushan, all slaughter was banned across north India, and this was a time before refrigeration, meaning everyone, Hindu and Muslim, had also to be vegetarian.

Akbar loved—there is no other word—the religious diversity of India. He was illiterate but he had texts read out to him, which he debated with the scholars he always kept around him.

Akbar was the first Mughal to introduce Hindus to court, giving rank to the Kachwaha Rajputs of Amber (today’s Jaipur). He took up Hindu cultural traditions, such as getting himself weighed on his birthday against precious objects and giving this wealth away in charity.

He had the classic Indian outlook of respect for all faiths.

When the Jesuits of Goa hurried to visit him, hoping to convert him, Akbar kissed the Bible they offered and put it on his head in humility. He engaged with religion, but like the more enlightened of moderns, he had no time for dogma. He gave up going to the tomb of Salim Chishti, whom he credited with giving him his sons. In the teeth of opposition from the Sunni ulema (and even in the 21st century we are aware of how intransigent they are), Akbar restructured the Islamic faith.

Mischievously, he ordered that coins be struck with the words “Allah Akbar" on them—meaning either God is great or Akbar is God. His secret biographer Abdul Qadir Badauni, an orthodox Muslim, has recorded for us Akbar’s battles with the Muslim clergy, who fought, and lost, the battle to keep the ruler a practising Muslim. Badauni’s book should be compulsory reading in our schools, but it is a forgotten classic and is today not even in print.

We, the English-medium inheritors of Jawaharlal Nehru’s thinking and B.R. Ambedkar’s Constitution, find it easy to be open-minded about religion. Akbar was his own man in an era where faith and background defined you entirely. He was secular out of personal choice and intellectual curiosity.

Mind you, Akbar was no dandy. He was masculine, insisting on mounting elephants when they were in musth (a sexually aggressive phase), fighting on the frontlines with his musket, hunting with a sword (his testicles were once gored by a stag he wrestled) and during his life, deflowered perhaps a thousand virgins.

Like all warriors he had his moments of cruelty. The big one in Akbar’s life came at the end of the long and tough siege of Chittor when he was 25. He slaughtered the garrison and the non-combatants, but this was not out of religious bigotry or savagery. Alexander the Great massacred thousands of Punjabi mercenaries after declaring a truce with them, but he wasn’t accused of being bigoted so much as pragmatic.

Warriors are not usually Buddhists and the Mongols, who were the core of the Mughal army in Akbar’s early days, were barbaric. Their habit was to make mountains of severed heads. Akbar in fact moderated and Indianized their ways.

Akbar did not need anyone to make him human.

There was no woman called Jodhabai married to him (we don’t know the name of the Amber princess he married because she maintained the Rajput tradition of purdah). Jahangir was married to a woman called Jodhbai.

Whatever her name was, could “Jodha" have civilized Akbar? Actually, as a Rajput princess she would have been illiterate. She would have spent her youth in purdah and known almost nothing about the world. It is likely that it would have actually been Akbar who would have civilized her. The public family squabbles of the Rajput women shown in the serial would have been impossible. Another thing the serial gets wrong is the reluctance of the Amber Kachwahas to give their daughters to the Mughals. It was not something that the Muslims forced on them, and the marriage was a strategic alliance which paid off well for what became the royal family of Jaipur.

Zee’s Jodha Akbar, produced by Ekta Kapoor, has serious flaws, but we can overlook most of them because there is a disclaimer that runs through the screen disowning the content as being historical. But so casually has it been made that they have Mughal warriors in battle with no armour.

Akbar himself is shown as someone from Uttar Pradesh, with a classic Indian face and wheatish complexion. In fact, he was Chinese-looking as the Jesuits who met him recorded, and had little facial hair. Akbar was a headstrong and independent man, who discarded his mentor Bahram Khan in his late teens because he knew precisely how he wanted to rule. In an age when people rarely lived into their 50s and princes often became kings in their teens, Akbar was an experienced and competent ruler by age 17 and matured into one of the world’s finest and most memorable monarchs.

Akbar means great and Akbar the Great is tautology.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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