February 17, 2008

Akbar, and Cultural Synthesis


Some of you may be aware that last month I have put up a few posts on my visit to:

Following my trips to those splendid places, I have been reading a bit of Indian history and about the Mughals in general, and Akbar in particular, with special interest pertaining to his liberal approach to religion.


As I was browsing, I came across an intriguing post dated February 13, 2008 in which Manish has detailed his experience at the Fatehpur Sikri and his views on the Mughals, and Akbar in particular here:


Manish and I have shared a few comments. One of my comments on Part II of his post dated February 13, 2008 reads as follows:


February 13th, 2008 at 11:20 pm


This is an interesting read and thank you for the details. The sleeping place of Akbar was something new that I learned about for the first time on this post.

With some of your initial description, I do not know if you are trying to portray an image of Akbar as one who led a hedonistic lifestyle. From what I read, Jehangir is more of a thoroughbred pleasure seeker than Akbar. You have pointed out Acharya Chatursen’s philosophy of the Rajput kings lifestyle and their harems, so overindulgence of the royalty was common in those days.

Akbar may have been illiterate but he was not certainly uneducated. In fact, Akbar was constantly keeping himself well informed, and was one of the greatest promoters of music, architecture, art and anything related thereto. The best about him, in my opinion, was his tolerance for other religions but sadly, that trend changed since Jehangir’s reign.

You write about a room “perfectly dark, with no provision for any light” to “emphasize the kind of accommodations women in harem used to live in.” As far as I am aware, the royal women of the Mughals spent a considerable time pursuing art, poetry, literature etc. For example, Noor Jehan, as you pointed out, unofficially ruled the Empire while Jehangir was ruled over by alcohol.

If you have been to the Agra Fort, inside the Fort premises you might have seen the Jehangir P[a]lace which was the zenana for the women of the palace. Inside it is a beautifully adorned white marble structures (my pictures shot there turned out hazy for some reason) and the Shish Mahal whose walls were inlaid with tiny mirrors. This was meant as a dressing room for the women in the harem. No dark rooms there at all. After Jodhabai, Noor Jehan continued to live there. A picture of the Jehangir’s Palace is among the set of pictures here:

...”

Decor inside the Jehangir Mahal
(one of the hazy pictures that I referred to)

Subsequently more comments have been exchanged. My dear reader, if this subject interests you and if you happen to have some time to spare, I would like to direct you to Manish's two posts, and any contribution from you for a further discussion on the interesting topic would be useful to get a better idea on it.


Despite putting up a long comment there, I feel the need to speak out a little bit more of my impressions on the matter, with particular reference to Akbar's tolerance to other religions and hence this post.


Who was Akbar and what kind of a person was he? So much has been documented about him being a great ruler who demonstrated his own capacity for good judgment and excellent leadership. He is personally known to have successfully managed the implementation of his brilliant administrative policies.

Is there a real basis for challenging that?


Akbar was born in the Rajput fortress of Umarkot in Sind where Humayun and his newly wedded wife, Hamida Banu Begum were taking refuge during the interregnum of Mughal rule. At one point, having lost his territories to Sher Shah Suri, Humayun had to flee to Persia leaving his son, Akbar behind. Akbar was then raised in Afghanistan by his uncle, Askari, in the rugged country where he did learn to hunt and fight, but not to read and write.


Later they moved to the State of Rewa (in present day Madhya Pradesh) where Akbar grew up in a village along with Prince Ram Singh, a Rajput, who later became Maharaja of Rewa. Akbar and Ram Singh spent time together in their childhood and they remained good friends forever.


Again, Akbar may have been illiterate but he was certainly not uneducated, as he ensured that he was constantly well informed. There was so much about him to be admired. He was one of the greatest promoter of arts and anything related thereto, with fine taste in music, architecture, had great love for literature and a vision that tolerates other opinions.


There are also references to holding religious debates and discourses in his court where Muslim scholars would debate on religious matters with scholars of other religions including, Sikhs, Hindu, Christians and also atheists. Most of us are aware of Akbar's concept of Din-i-Ilahi, which was created choosing what the best of other religions had to offer, including Islam, Christianity, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. Sadly and mainly for lack of cooperation from the religious ulema of his own court, it was not a success and dissolved after his death.


Akbar is known to have not only abolished payment of taxes by poor people, but also tried to eradicate the practice of sati by issuing general orders prohibiting the practice. He repealed the jizya tax on non-Muslims, discouraged child marriages and encouraged widow remarriage.


Majority of his subjects during those times were Hindus and Akbar was known to have appointed Hindus to high posts during his time. In the polarized society of such times, Akbar tried to create a medium for tolerance for all religions. He preserved Hindu temples, and is one ruler who is known to have tried to remove all distinctions between the Muslims and non-Muslims.


There are references that the organisational development of Sikhism had mostly taken place during the tolerant days of Akbar. It is said that he even helped the Sikh Gurus in various ways and sat with the ordinary and poor people of Punjab to have langar.


Akbar's integration of the Rajput principalities into his Mughal Kingdom may be considered by many to be a shrewd move, but there are the others who view it as an action that was necessary in order to strengthen his relations with the Rajputs so as to avoid wars and bloodshed.


Jehangir Mahal for Akbar's Rajput wives

Akbar's Rajput queen, mother of Jehangir, has been recorded in the Akbarnama of the Mughal period as Mariam Zamami and is popularly known as Jodhabai. According to historians, his distaste for orthodox Islam and his dabbling in other Indian faiths provoked a backlash among insecure Muslim elite of those days. So, Jodhabai's name was kept out of the Mughal records intentionally because the Islamic clergy and the Mughal people could not come to terms with the future Mughal emperor being the son of a Hindu woman.


Akbar is a good example of someone who was tolerant of other religions, Tolerance, according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary is "a sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing or conflicting with one's own." Of course, when we say one is tolerant, it does not mean that he holds his own beliefs less strongly. It means that he does not condemn people who have different ideas from his own.


Under Akbar’s rule, Jodhabai as well as the other Rajput wives of the Mughals were free to practice their own religion. It is also documented that Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan's mother was also a Rajput princess.


Jodhabai and the other Rajput women of Akbar’s time lived in the Jehangir Mahal while in Agra. According to architectural experts, the main feature of this majestic palace is the interior painting work, which is a direct expression of the Rajput style of painting. This is another example where the Hindu art and architecture was incorporated together with Persian (Islamic) to form the Mughal architecture. I would say it's a classic example of cultural synthesis.


What is your opinion of Akbar?


Do you think Akbar is:

(a) a selfish emperor with a hedonistic lifestyle to his credit; or

(b) an able statesman and leader, tolerant of other religions, and a brilliant Emperor as he is widely claimed to be; or

(c) no comments.


To make it simple, kindly choose (a), (b) or (c) with or without any explanation. Thanks for your response.


PS: Now that Jhodaa Akbar is due for release, can’t wait to watch if the alliance between Jhodabai and Akbar blossomed into a relationship of true love between them. Of course, I am aware it is not accurate history, it is a movie to be enjoyed nonetheless. ;)


33 comments:

priyank said...

(b) A diamond in the coal mine of Mughal rulers. A classic example of tolerant Islam. but, the fact that his half-Hindu son got sucked into Islamic intolerance begs a question - was Akbar a good dad?

Jaishree said...

Celine,

A beautiful post with great details. I was not aware of his close friendship with the prince of Rewa.

I must say that the photograph of Jahangir Mahal is indeed very beautiful.

Interesting to read about his encouragement to Sikhism too. In-fact I was not aware of it too. Thanks for your reseacrh.

Priyank, Jahangir even fought with Akbar, he revolted against Akbar many times and some historians doubt that Jodhabai may not be his mother.

We have to live with all these contradictions.

My vote is (a).

Thanks for beautiful story.

Manish khamesra

Jaishree said...

My vote is for (b) - I made a mistake in my previous comment (thinking it to be other way round). Either comment it in previous comment and remove this one altogther.
Sorry for mistake :)

backpakker said...

I just came here after reading manish's post and the comments ..Ive always imagined akbar as a shrewd, strategic ruler, tolerant towards all cultures and religions and a great patron of arts and architecture..as a king, he wanted to be one of the biggest emperors..and am sure he got his trophies..whether by force or through truce - so what option is that- a or b ?

lakshmi

*~*Sameera*~* said...

Wonderful pics yet again!

I guess I never learnt this much History even in school.Kudos to the efforts you take for your posts :)

I would choose the option (b)

Heard the movie is excellent!

Saibal Barman said...

Celine,

The instant post has a dramatic appearance like an alien boat in the midst of tranquil course of river. The focus has to shift onto its attractive presence without diminution of the flow that keeps it float on. I love the way you have created a space to explore why the journey is....
History tells us of real life characters and, its impact on human mind is more pointed than of those in literary presentations. But, they are exposed to a greater sphere of critical appreciation.
Akbar's imposing presence in the history of Mughals is more for his struggle in life and its mature effects on his view of life. His seemingly longer span of reign was otherwise not that eventful as was his transformation through the course of life. This is exclusively my personal opinion. A few aspects that truly fascinate me in the historical accounts ( maybe, with natural effect of over-praising of a ruler of the time ) of Akbar are,

1. His mental strength to support his struggling life in early years.
2. According to the account of Sir Thomas Roe, he was ever enthusiastic to know about the social perceptions of European and other prominent civilizations. Such interest did also influence him to enrol into scholarly mission to study diverse pursuits of art, culture, philosophy and religion by general populace of the county he ruled.
3. Accounts by Abul Fazal praisingly hinted about his possessing supernatural power. A logical mind cannot surely subscribe to that view, but it can neither fail to stare in awe at his versatile talents. In an equated term of mathematical philosophy, his life was alike an unbounded sequence with discrete presence of certain bounded functions.
4. His loyalty to his mother.

Celine, I am thankful to you for sharing this brilliant piece of writing.
Hope it flows on.......

Nandan Jha said...

Between the 3 choices, I would choose 2. I am not a great reader of History but back in college we did a play (stage play) called 'Aagat Anagat' and we sort of tried to do the full history (right from vedic to current age) and as Director, I did read some of 'Akbarnama' and while I dont remember almost anything :(, We did end doing one sequence from Akbar's life which was around 'Din-E-Elahi'.

Somehow to me, Akbar looks like SRK. Sorry if it sounds total rubbish. Smart, intelligent, popular and successful.
I like SRK but I dont live him, I guess Akbar definitely interests me but somehow I do not love him.

Ananda Niyogi said...

Celine,

At the outset let me let you know I enjoyed reading the post and the links.

As I was discussing with you the other day, my knowledge about this period is rather limited. Nevertheless I am venturing to offer my thoughts on this.

Overall, after reading your post I felt that it might be difficult to identify fact from fiction. Others may share a different opinion, but to me it does not matter even if Akbar had a hedonistic lifestyle. He not only believed in tolerance, he actively nurtured and practised it. His intellect was also of no small measure as can be judged from his astute actions. Even if a small percentage of medieval rulers shared his values of tolerance and his broad vision, Indian history might have have trodden a different path.

So to summarize - I do not have enough facts to support or contradict (a), but at the end of the day my impression of him will be (b).

indicaspecies said...

Priyank,

I have no answer to your question, but there is evidence provided by science to state that sometimes it is not just genes that play a part in a person's personality but environment as well. My safest bet would be a combination of both factors.

A counter-question: Did Jehangir grow up with good company in his formative years, and who else influenced him besides his father?

Thank you very much for your comment. :)

indicaspecies said...

Manish (jaishree)

Thank you very much for being here at my invitation, for your kind words and your comments.

I am truly delighted that you like the post and hope to have more interesting discussions like these in future. :)

indicaspecies said...

backpakker:

Leaving aside his shrewdness (may I call that astuteness, and possibly a virtue in this case) the 'force' that you have referred to can be considered to classifying him as someone selfish, so perhaps you feel his personality falls partly under (a).

But I notice with all the other qualities you have mentioned of Akbar, you are tilted more towards (b).

Thank you very much for your comments here Lakshmi. :)

indicaspecies said...

Sameera,

Thank you very much for your response, and your kind words.

I heard so too. Such movies are a visual splendour and a delight to watch. Please let me know what you felt about it once you have watched it. :)

indicaspecies said...

Saibal,

Thank you very much.

"..alien boat in the midst of tranquil course of river." That sounds so poetic but then your writing style is mostly such.

This topic of Akbar is a slight deviation from the posts I have begun on my recent travels to Madhya Pradesh.

Notwithstanding the fact that rulers were overly praised, with reference to his "versatile talents" it is documented and widely recognized that Akbar was a great polymath of his times. Besides his interests in construction, architecture, armory, administration etc that was expected of an emperor, what truly fascinates me was his love for such things as art, writing, carpentry, lacemaking etc.

Reading your brilliant observations that focuses on Akbar's magnetic personality, I can state with certainty your opinion of Akbar falls under (b).

Thank you very much for taking the time to go through my present post and for your comments here. I'll consider this as a guest post. :)

indicaspecies said...

Nandan,

It's interesting to read about your play and your perception of Akbar as SRK..haha!!

Can I say a person who is 'smart, intelligent, popular and successful' is admirable as well?

Thank you very much for being here and your comments. :)

indicaspecies said...

Ananda,

I'm delighted that you enjoyed this post. Your comments here reflect my own sentiments of Akbar's personality.

Oh, how much I agree with this beautiful thought you have expressed. I am pleased to repeat it:
"Even if a small percentage of medieval rulers shared his values of tolerance and his broad vision, Indian history might have [] trodden a different path."

Thanks a lot for your comment. :)

Arun said...

Whatever little I have read about that period of Indian history portrays Akbar in a good sense. Even a book I have read, which goes on to detail the narrow minded religious rulings of few other Mughals like Aurangajeb speaks of Akbar in good light. So quite likely that he was a open minded person.

How-ever, haven't read anything about private life of Akbar, which remains unknown to me. I haven't even visited Fatepur Sikri, which would have probably thrown some light on his personal life. So would rather say nothing about it :)

indicaspecies said...

Arun,

Fatehpur Sikri is only a mute testimony to the glory of the past days. Nevertheless, it is well worth a visit and, the traveller that you are, I am sure you will not take long to reach there and beyond.

You have said a lot good about Akbar. Thank you for your visit and your kind comments. :)

GMG said...

Hi Celine, a precious post, and also loved to read the comments!
Sorry for not intervening in the discussion, but my knowledge about Akbar and the Mughal is just growing. I was much impressed with what I heard about Akbar, and not so much with Aurangzeb... Anyhow, one day I'll retire and I'll have time to enlarge my views on this and other topics! ;)
Thanks for your comments at Blogtrotter. I’m still strolling around the streets of Sofia.
Have a great weekend!
Gil

indicaspecies said...

Gil,

I was about to leave to the airport and got your comment for which I thank you. A quick note to also add that I hope we get a chance to discuss this issue at leisure sometime. I'm delighted that you found this post precious (and not surprisingly so considering the topic under consideration). ;)

billu said...

Muslim architeture is so beautiful - every single design starts from a point and then fans outward into a gorgeous geometrical symmetrical design.Signifying that from one God comes all beauty and good.

We have such a dearth of architecture here in the US and New York City that I miss the grandeur and intricacy of yore.Everything goes sky high to impress in terms of size and height - reminds me of Babylon: the more you go up the farther will be your fall.

Miss you Cellu , this is such an amazing blog.

indicaspecies said...

Billu,

What a lovely comment from a sweet lass. I'm glad you have been able to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of the Mughal architecture and been enjoying this blog. :)

I know what you mean by such architecture lacking in New York city and also in the few other cities that I have visited in the USA. Nevertheless, NYC has its own charm and I find it particularly interesting for obvious reasons, and I can't wait to make another visit so I get to meet you again as well. *hug* ;)

Aman said...

Celine,

This is a well researched, detailed post as opposed to the largely unreliable soundbyte we get to see these days. priyank's first comment being a case in point.

Aman said...

Option b it is...

indicaspecies said...

Aman,

Welcome.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post and your comments. Appreciated. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a very nice post and great pictures.
My vote for Akbar is b. Since the movie Jodha Akbar, I have researched quite on a bit on the Mughals. I think there is enough evidence in history and historical documents that he was singlehandedly responsible for establishing the Mughal reign in India. In terms of a hedonistic lifestyle, I agree that almost all ruling families had such a lifestyle but Akbar is known to have shown restraint in terms of drinking and even food and meat eating. (He was an avid hunter though!). Besides, he wouldn't have been able to consolidate the empire if he was in a drunken stupor! :)
I am sure though that he was not perfect as noted by you and some of the comments on the post. Nobody is and history and historians have the tendency to glorify unrealistically prominent figures in history. That said, Akbar indeed is a towering figure in Indian history.
By the way, among his contributions to art and architecture one less discussed contribution is his royal kitchen's development of the Mughlai cuisine,a fine blending of persian an Indian cooking styles and techniques (which most Indian restaurants serve). A very interesting book on this subject is
Curry: A tale of Cooks and Conquerors.
His successors though started the downfall of the Mughal dynasty with their over-indulgent lifestyles. I believe the sole reason Jehangir and Shah-Jahan were even successful was because of the strong administrative and military foundations laid down by Akbar which allowed them to further pursue their rich indulgent lifestyles, arts and build numerous gardens, buildings etc.

I am also including a link to an online book that is a detailed biography on Akbar. I found it quite interesting:
Click here
Hope my post was useful.

indicaspecies said...

anonymous:

I wish I knew who you were, so I could visit your space as well.

Thank you for taking the time to read my post, for your appreciation of the same, and the interesting link you provided. More importantly, thank you very much for your valuable and insightful comments.

Do visit again and I hope next time you would leave behind your identity. :)

Raza Rumi said...

What a good post and thanks for the comment on my review of Jodhaa Akbar. I do share your views on Akbar's persona and his style of governance..
cheers
Raza
P.S. nice pics of the fort in Agra.
glad that I found your blog.

indicaspecies said...

Raza Rumi,

Welcome to my space. I'm delighted at your visit to my blog, and thank you very much for your kind words.

I wish I had access to your blog. If not, may I take the liberty to add you to my contact list so we could perhaps have discussions on topics of common interest, for eg., the Mughals? :)

I'm very pleased that you like this post and the pictures of Agra Fort. Once again thanks, and hope to see around here sometimes. :)

Anonymous said...

I haven't read all, but one comment of Manish about Akbar's 5000 women made me wonder.

This number + the servants etc would easily come up to another 1000. Logic says - where did they all fit in??

This number is like a small town population and in no way could the Agra fort or the one at Fatehpur Sikri, accommodate this number.
My belief is that these are exaggerated numbers.
I also believe that in spite of having numerous wives, the king/emperor was able to fall in love with one woman, as we see Shah jehan doing, and even the King in king and I (who seemed to be falling in love with Anna).

Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot to vote;
I would say b)

I don't know how else an empire could be held on to.
There is no smoke without fire, and even if all that is said about him isn't true, I believe there must be some truth in it.

We cannot judge by today's standards. Certain things were done in medieval times by *all* the kings/emperors.
They all tended towards luxury, towards having more than one wife, and by *they* I don't mean only the Moghuls.

indicaspecies said...

Anonymous:

I wish you had identified yourself with a name.

The crux of my post was not to agree or dispute the number of women in Akbar's harem, but was more to assert that Akbar was a great Mughal emperor. Why talk of only Akbar, in fact, Jehangir was known to have added more women to the harem.

Mughal empire was so huge, and they had many places of residence spread across the entire area of the vast Mughal empire. Some places that I have personally explored are the huge Red Fort of Delhi, the vast Agra Fort, and the Fatehpur Sikri. Sikri is a city by itself. Then there are other residences in the rest of the Asian sub-continent including Pakistan, and I'm not quite sure if I can say Persia and Afghanistan too. Anyway, the remarkable fact about the administration of the Mughals empire was that it was well centralized.

As to your other comment indicating other rulers besides Mughals, I recall reading recently about Emperor Achyuta Devaraya of the Vijayanagara Empire. He was known to have 12,000 women serving him, out of which 4,000 were said to have lived in Palaces and kept aside for "reproductive purposes" (however derogatory that may sound!) and they apparently followed him wherever he went. He was, however, reputed to have sent his empire into a golden age of prosperity. There are other instances of other Rajput kings of the past who have had many many wives. So basically it was a matter of lifestyle of the kings of yore who used to consider it their prerogative.

I like your classic example of King and I, even though it's a movie. I hope the next time you are here, I get to know who I am communicating with. Thank you very much for an interesting comment, and your kind vote. I hope you drop in more often.:)

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indicaspecies said...

Anonymous,
Wish I could address you by a name and say thank you very much for your kind words.
~celine