The below mentioned article provides a biography of Akbar the great.
Akbar alone has been acclaimed the Great among the rulers of medieval India. He completed the conquest of northern India, made the Mughul empire not only the strongest state in India but also one of the best administered states of his times, innovated certain policies which proved liberal, far-sighted and successful which added a new chapter in Indian history and established the Mughul empire firmly in India.
Therefore, he has been justly described as the Great among the Mughul emperors of India. Lane-Poole has said- “He was the greatest of all the Indian monarchs.”
Dr Ishwari Prasad goes even ahead of him and says:
“Akbar is one of the most remarkable kings, not only in the history of India but of the whole world. A comparison of European monarchs with Akbar easily establishes the superiority of the latter, both in genius and achievements.”
Coronation and Early Difficulties:
Akbar was born on 15 October 1542 A.D. at the house of Raja Virsal of Amarkot. At that time, his father Humayun was running from place to place as a fugitive. When Humayun fled to Persia, he was forced to leave Akbar behind at Kandhar. Askari took Akbar under his protection. Afterwards, Akbar met his father at the age of three when Humayun conquered Kabul and Kandhar from his brothers Kamran and Askari.
Circumstances once again separated the father and the son and it was only when Akbar was five years of age, he began his settled life with his father. Humayun arranged for his education but Akbar was more interested in the training of arms, riding and hunting as compared to literary education.
He worked as the governor of Ghazni and Lahore during the life-time of his father and was busy in eliminating the power of Sikandar Shah Sur in Punjab while his father, Humayun died at Delhi. Bairam Khan who was the guardian of Akbar at that time took immediate step in crowning him king and Akbar was declared the Mughul emperor on 14 February 1556 A.D. at Kalanaur, fifteen miles west of Gurdaspur in Punjab. Akbar had not completed even fourteen years of his age at that time.
At that time of his accession, Akbar was in great difficulties. The throne of Delhi was most insecure at that time. Humayun had got no time to stabilize his empire which he had won very recently. Even Kabul, Kandhar and Badakshan were not safe. Mirza Sulaiman, the Subedar of Badakshan, declared himself independent and even desired to take Akbar and his cousin brother Mirza Hakim under his tutelage.
Kandhar, which was in the jagir of Bairam Khan, was always in danger of attack from Persia while Mirza Hakim, the governor of Kabul was also a minor like Akbar and was under the guardianship of Munim Khan. Therefore, Akbar could not expect any help from Afghanistan.
In India, the Mughuls had occupied only Delhi, Agra and its nearby places. The greater part of north India was in the hands of Afghan rebels and the Sur-contestants. Sikandar Shah, Ibrahim Shah and Adil Shah were not only alive but eager as well to recapture the throne of Delhi. The Rajputs were again reasserting themselves and Marwar was still a powerful state. Economically too Akbar’s position was poor.
The treasury was empty, the revenue could be collected only on the point of sword and there was widespread famine in the areas near Delhi and Agra. Surrounded by odds from all sides, Akbar could not depend even on the loyalty of the Mughul nobility.
One of them Abul Mali refused to attend the ‘Coronation Darbar.’ He was imprisoned and sent to Lahore. Yet, there could be other defections. But the greatest difficulty was that of Hemu, the commander of the army of Adil Shah who was proceeding to capture Delhi and Agra.
The Period of Tutelage of Bairam Khan (1556-1560 A.D.):
Akbar appointed his guardian, Bairam Khan as the vazir of the empire and gave him the title of Khan-i-Khana at the time of accession. The next four years, in fact, were the years of rule not of Akbar but of Bairam Khan. Bairam Khan was a Persian and had come to the service of Humayun at the age of 16 years.
He was a capable commander and had served Humayun well in recapturing Kabul, Kandhar and Indian territory. The credit of successfully eliminating the early difficulties of Akbar and safeguarding the Mughul empire goes to him.
1. War with Hemu and the Second Battle of Panipat (5 November 1556 A.D.):
While Akbar was yet in Punjab, Hemu proceeded towards Agra from Gwalior. Iskandar Khan, the Mughul Subedar of Agra felt that it was futile to fight against Hemu and therefore, fled to Delhi. Hemu, after capturing Agra, proceeded towards Delhi. Tardi Beg Khan, the Mughul governor of Delhi gave him a battle at Tughlaqabad but was defeated.
He then fled towards Sarhind with Iskandar Khan. Ali Quli Khan, the governor of Sambhal also fled away and joined the fugitives. Thus, the entire territory from Gwalior to the river Satluj passed under the control of Hemu who now held his coronation at Delhi and assumed the title of Maharaja Vikramaditya.
When the report of the fall of Delhi reached Akbar at Jullundar, the majority of his nobles advised him to retreat to Kabul. But Bairam Khan rejected this advice. Akbar agreed with him and decided to proceed towards Delhi. Tardi Beg Khan, Iskandar Khan and Ali Quli Khan met him near Sarhind.
Bairam Khan executed Tardi Beg Khan on the plea that it would be a lesson to other fugitives and helpful in restoring confidence, unity and discipline in the army. Contemporary historians, however, have commented that this action of Bairam Khan was primarily motivated by personal rivalry and jealousy between the two. The failure of Tardi Beg Khan at Delhi had provided the right opportunity to Bairam Khan to finish his rival. The consent of Akbar was secured by Bairam Khan only after his execution.
Hemu had sent his artillery a little ahead under small protection and that was captured by the Mughul advance party under Ali Quli Khan. It was a very heavy loss to Hemu before the final battle. The two armies met on 5 November 1556 A.D. on the field of Panipat. Even in absence of artillery, Hemu attacked the Mughuls fiercely and broke up its right and left wings. But the centre of the Mughul army remained intact.
Unfortunately, at that very time, an arrow struck one eye of Hemu and he fell unconscious. His soldiers felt that Hemu had died. That broke up their courage and they fled away in all directions. Hemu’s elephant-driver tried to take away his unconscious master to a place of safety but failed. Hemu was captured and presented before Akbar who killed him with his sword when asked by Bairam Khan to do so.
The primary causes of the failure of Hemu were his loss of artillery to the Mughuls before the battle and the striking of his eye by an arrow which made him unconscious. Dr R.P. Tripathi comments- “His defeat was accidental and the victory of Akbar providential.”
Hemu or Hemraj occupies a significant place in the history of medieval India. Hemu made a humble beginning in his life. According to contemporary records, he was a Hindu Vaisya by caste but Dr A.L. Srivastava has described him as a Dhusar Bhargava Brahmana. He was a resident of Rewari and used to sell salt in the streets of his town.
Later on he accepted service under the state as a weighman in the market. He could draw the attention of Islam Shah towards himself due to his extraordinary intelligence and good physique Islam Shah employed him in a confidential capacity at his court. When Adil Shah became king, he upgraded him and, impressed by his courage and capacity as a general and administrator, promoted him to the post of the vazir as well as commander of the army.
Himself being indolent and ease-loving, Adil Shah left entire affairs of the state to Hemu which fired his ambitions. He was a capable commander and won twenty-two battles out of twenty-four which he fought for his master. He was preparing himself to attack Agra when Humayun passed away in Delhi.
He then captured Agra, Delhi and all the nearby territory and declared himself as an independent ruler at Delhi. Thus, he finished his career as an independent ruler. However, the second battle of Panipat sealed his fate where he was defeated and killed. Certain contemporaries charged Hemu of disloyalty to his master and described him as the usurper of the throne of Delhi.
But it is a baseless charge. During medieval age, sword decided the kingship. Hemu was perfectly justified in making himself a king with the power of his sword particularly when Adil Shah was incompetent and Hemu commanded the loyalty of his soldiers including the Afghans.
2. Elimination of the Sur-Contenders:
Khizr Khan of Bengal killed Adil Shah in a battle in April 1559 A.D. Sikandar Shah, another contender of the Sur-Dynasty to the throne of Delhi, surrendered himself after some months and was assigned a small jagir in Bihar. But ultimately, he fled to Bengal where he died.
Ibrahim Shah Sur was defeated by Khan-i-Zaman and forced to flee to Orissa from Jaunpur. He died in Orissa. Thus, by the year 1559 A.D., all contenders of the Sur-dynasty were eliminated and could pose no threat to Akbar afterwards.
3. Recovery of Lost Territories:
Mughuls occupied Delhi and Agra easily after the battle of Panipat. Mewat was also captured. There the father of Hemu and all his treasures were captured by the Mughuls. Hemu’s father was put to death after his refusal to accept Islam.
The Mughuls also occupied Ajmer, Sambhal, Lucknow, Gwalior and Jaunpur. Attempts to conquer Chunargarh and Ranthambhor, however, failed while an expeditionary force sent to Malwa was called back because of the disturbed relations between Bairam Khan and Akbar.
In the north-west, Sulaiman Mirza besieged Kabul for many months but failed to capture it and therefore, turned back. However, the Mughul governor had to surrender Kandhar to Persians as no help could reach him from Delhi.
The tutelage of Akbar under Bairam Khan lasted nearly for four years. Except the loss of Kandhar, this period had been that of reconquest and consolidation. The sovereignty of Akbar in the territory from Kabul in the north to Jaunpur in the east and from the hills of Punjab to Ajmer in the south was re-established. The Gakkhars also accepted the Mughul sovereignty during this period.
4. The Fall of Bairam Khan:
Bairam Khan, who was largely responsible for the success of Akbar during the early years of his reign was asked to resign in 1560 A.D. Contemporary historians have given different reasons which resulted in the downfall of Bairam Khan. Nizamuddin described that “certain jealous nobles instigated Akbar for this act.” Akbarnama describes that “the ego of Bairam Khan was responsible for his downfall.”
Abul Fazl wrote that “his (Bairam Khan) behaviour had become intolerable and his mind was spoiled by his admirers.” Firishta described that “he was suspected of supporting the cause of Abul Kasim Mirza, son of Kamran Mirza.”
There is no evidence to prove that Bairam Khan was disloyal to the Emperor. But, certainly, the behaviour of Bairam Khan, the jealousy of certain nobles particularly of some near relatives of Akbar and the desire of Akbar to keep the power of the state to himself were responsible for the fall of Bairam Khan.
There were certain people near Akbar, mostly his foster-relations known as Atga-Khail who were inspired by jealousy and self-interest to work against Bairam Khan. They desired the overthrow of Bairam Khan in the hope to monopolise power for themselves.
Among them were Maham Anaga, the chief nurse of the emperor, her son Adham Khan, her relatives Shihabuddin Ahmad and Mirza Sharafuddin Husain. Jiji Anga who had suckled prince Akbar, her husband Shamsuddin Atga Khan, his brothers and sons and even Hamida Banu Begun, the queen mother, Pir Muhammad, who was dismissed by Bairam Khan, and some other nobles were also with them.
There was some suspicion towards Bairam Khan because he was a Shia while members of the royal family and most of the nobles of Akbar were Sunnis. The appointment of Shaik Gadai, a Shia to the post of Sadr-us-Sudur after the dismissal of Pir Muhammad gave wings to these suspicions.
Besides, Bairam Khan had married Salima Sultan Begum who was one of the nieces of Humayun and, thus, had linked himself with the royal family. That was one major cause of jealousy of the Sunni nobles against Bairam Khan.
The treatment of Bairam Khan towards Shaikh Muhammad Gaus who was revered by Akbar and some other minor incidents created further gulf between Bairam Khan and Akbar. But the root cause of the fall of Bairam Khan was the desire of Akbar to be the king not only in name but in fact also.
Akbar was growing to manhood. He felt that he was a mere puppet in the hands of his guardian who did not care to consult him even in important matters of the state and did not allow him the least power in financial matters so much so that his personal expenses were sanctioned by Bairam Khan with stringency. Bairam Khan treated Akbar as a child and failed to understand and give due allowance to the growing desires and ambitions of Akbar who now desired to be the king himself.
However, it was not easy to dismiss a powerful man like Bairam Khan. Therefore, Akbar planned it tactfully. He went on a hunting expedition taking Abul Qasim, the son of Mirza Kamran with him so that Bairam Khan could not find a pretender to the throne. There he received the news probably preplanned that his mother was ill at Delhi. He left for Delhi after sending a message to Bairam Khan.
There, the harem-party prevailed upon Akbar to dismiss Bairam Khan. Akbar sent the order of dismissal to Bairam Khan. Bairam Khan obeyed the orders of the Emperor and sent words that he was proceeding to Mecca on pilgrimage.
He moved slowly towards Punjab from where, probably, he had to secure his treasure. But the harem-party was not satisfied and, on its insistence, Akbar sent Pir Muhammad with a large army to turn Bairam Khan out of India immediately.
Bairam Khan took it as an insult and decided to wage battle with the Mughul army. Akbar recalled Pir Muhammad and sent Atga Khan as the commander of the Mughul army who defeated Bairam Khan near Tilwara. Bairam Khan, afterwards surrendered himself and he was brought before the Emperor.
Akbar received him kindly and offered him the alternatives of service as his personal companion or as a jagirdar of Kalpi and Chanderi. Bairam Khan refused both the offers and the Emperor allowed him to leave for Mecca. Bairam Khan could reach only up to Gujarat.
He was attacked there by a party of Afghans and murdered by one Mubarak Khan whose father had died fighting against Bairam Khan in the battle of Machiwara. The family of Bairam Khan, was, however, rescued and allowed to visit the court. Akbar married Bairam’s widow, Salima Begum and brought his child Abdur Rahim under his personal care who afterwards rose to the position of Khan-i-Khana.
V.A. Smith wrote:
“The story of the transaction leading up to the fall and death of Bairam Khan leaves an unpleasant taste.” Certainly, it was a tragedy that the man who had been primarily responsible for the re-establishment of the Mughul power in India was put in his grave by Fakirs (saints or beggars).
The So-Called Petticoat Government (1560-1564 A.D.):
The harem-party or Atga-Khail had participated in the downfall of Bairam Khan. Therefore, Akbar provided some liberty to some of its members to interfere in his administration for some time. It was for the period between 1560-1564 A.D. Some historians have described it as the period of “petticoat government,” because, according to them, Akbar remained under the influence of the ladies of the harem during this period. But, this nomenclature is wrong because it would be wrong to say that Akbar was under the complete influence of the ladies.
Had such been the case, the liberal policy of Akbar would not have started during this period. Akbar abolished the practice of enslaving the prisoners of war in 1562 A.D., the pilgrim tax (tax on the Hindus when they visited their places of religious pilgrimage) in 1563 A.D. and the jizya (a religious tax on all non-Muslims) in 1564 A.D. It would be wrong even to think that the abolition of these widely hated practices by Akbar was due to the influence of the ladies of the harem.
The same way Akbar started his policy of the extension of the empire during this very period and occupied Malwa, Chunar, Merta and Gondwana. The matrimonial relations with the Rajput ruler of Amer were also established during this period. All these policies were started by Akbar on his own as no other man or woman among his near relatives was capable of such a foresight.
The respect which Akbar showed to some of them did not mean that he was governed by them. And, if at all he was influenced by them, then the period of first two years was the maximum period for it. The murder of Shamsuddin Atga Khan by Adham Khan (1562 A.D.), the death- penalty to Adham Khan by Akbar in rage (1562 A.D.) and the death of Maham Anaga (1562 A.D.) made Akbar completely free from the influence of the ladies or that of his relatives. The death sentence awarded to his maternal uncle Khwaja Muazzam in 1564 A.D., however, finally closed this chapter.
The Death of Akbar:
Akbar fell ill on 3 October 1603 A.D. His illness could not be diagnosed properly. He, however, suffered from serious dysentery. He, ultimately, died on 25 October 1605 A.D.
An Estimate and Place of Akbar in History (Akbar as a National King):
Edwards and Garrett wrote:
“Akbar has proved his worth in different fields of action. He was an intrepid soldier, a great general, a wise administrator, a benevolent ruler, and a sound judge of character. He was a born leader of men and can rightly claim to be one of the mightiest sovereigns known to history . . . . During a reign of nearly fifty years, he built up a powerful Empire which could vie with the strongest and established a dynasty whose hold over India was not contested by any rival for about a century. His reign witnessed the final transformation of the Mughuls from merely military invaders into a permanent Indian dynasty.”
Historians have described Akbar as a great ruler because of another reason as well and it is that he was a “national king.” A ruler can claim to be a national ruler only when he does not discriminate among his subjects in any field on any ground, whether it may be family, religion, caste or anything else. Akbar was such a monarch. He attempted the welfare of all his subjects without any discrimination on any ground.
Prior to him, the Muslim rulers maintained distinction between their Hindu and Muslim subjects. Their Muslim subjects enjoyed certain privileges from the state simply because their religion was Islam while the Hindus suffered from certain serious handicaps simply because they were Hindus. Akbar attempted seriously to finish this discrimination and injustice among his subjects.
He was the first Muslim emperor of Delhi who treated all his subjects alike and directed state activities to provide national welfare. Akbar’s attempt to bring India under the rule of one monarch, his general administration, his revenue administration and taxation policy, opportunity to all to get the highest offices of the state on merit, his Rajput policy, his policy of religious toleration and attempt to bring about reconciliation among his subjects of all faiths, making Persian the court-language and generous help in the growth of literature in all languages, attempt to foster growth of fine arts and bring synthesis of their different styles with a view to the development of a uniform Indian style and the attempt to bring about cultural harmony and uniformity among his subjects were with the sole object of national welfare. That is why he has been described as a “national king” by different historians.
Dr R.P. Tripathi described that the aim of Akbar was more ambitious than that of a national king. Influenced by the ideals of Islam and Chenghiz Khan, he desired to bring the entire world under one rule.
He writes- “If his plan had been fully appreciated by the states of the Deccan and they could cooperate with him, India would have been possibly the strongest and most prosperous country in Eurasia, and her history would have been different. After uniting India, Akbar wanted to unite the mid-east and western Asia with him as a very important step towards the establishment of a world empire.”
This view of Dr Tripathi, however, is not accepted by the majority of historians. Yet, all historians agree that Akbar desired the political unity of India, its all round progress and uniform opportunity for development to all his subjects. That is why the majority of historians accept him as a national king and that is the primary reason of accepting Akbar as a great emperor.
K.T. Shah writes:
“Akbar was the greatest of the Mughuls and perhaps the greatest of all Indian rulers for a thousand years, if not ever since the days of the mighty Mauryas. But, without detracting in the least from the genius of the man of the inheritance of his birth, it may yet be said that Akbar was so great, because he was so thoroughly Indianised.”
When Akbar ascended the throne, the Mughul empire in India was on the verge of collapse. He protected it, provided security to it and then extended it. He desired to conquer the whole of India and provide uniform administration to it with a view to make the Mughul empire as the strongest one in India. But, there were serious difficulties in achieving this object. He was a foreign Turk- Muslim while the population of India consisted of the Hindus, the Afghans, the Persians, the Turk, etc. Yet, Akbar succeeded.
Akbar conquered the entire north India and a part of the South which, ultimately, resulted in the conquest of the entire sub-continent by his successors. Akbar further desired to consolidate his conquests. He succeeded in that too by providing a firm and uniform administration to his empire.
Akbar abolished Jizya and pilgrim tax from the Hindus, charged uniform trade-tax from all and his revenue reforms were applicable not only in the Khalisa-land but also in lands of Jagirdars. The offices of the state were open to all on merit and without distinction of caste and religion during the reign of Akbar and all services were transferable throughout the empire.
Raja Man Singh was made mansabdar of seven thousand horses while Raja Todar Mal and Birbal could rise to the ranks of ministers. Akbar provided facilities for the improvement of agriculture and growth of trade and industry which led to the prosperity of the empire. All this resulted in the betterment of his subjects and strengthening the empire.
Akbar attempted for the cultural unity of India. He made Persian the court- language of his empire. A translation department was opened by him and attempt was made to translate reputed works in other languages like Sanskrit, Arabic, Turki and Greek into Persian. The same way, Akbar tried not only for the development of fine arts but also for their synthesis.
Schools of architecture, music and painting were established during his reign where all sort of artists gathered and polished their art. This led to the synthesis of different schools of arts particularly the Persian and the Hindu which resulted in the formation of Mughul school of architecture, painting etc. which were more Indian than foreign.
Akbar attempted to abolish many social evils. He abolished slave-trade and tried to put a check to the practice of Sati, infanticide and child-marriages. It proved that he attempted to improve and strengthen the Indian society.
But, among the liberal and humane attempts of Akbar the top-most priority was given to the effort of bringing the Muslims and the Hindus together. Of course, he did not succeed much in this direction, yet, it goes to his credit that he was the first powerful Muslim ruler in India who seriously attempted for it.
The religious and Rajput policy of Akbar were serious attempts in this direction. Besides, all economic injustice towards the Hindus by the state were abolished and they were given social recognition similar to the Muslims.
Equal justice was provided to both the Hindus and the Muslims. Akbar married some Rajput princesses not by force but by willing consent of their guardians. He also did not force his Hindu wives to embrace Islam and respected them and all their relatives.
Probably, the motive of ‘Infallibility Decree’ and the Din- Ilahi’ was also the same. Akbar provided freedom to every religion. The Christians also pursued their religion freely. Akbar introduced the Hindu practices of Jharoka-Darshan, Tula-Dan, etc. and participated in the festivals of the Hindus like Dipavali, Holi, Basant, etc. He also tried to check the attitudes of fanaticism and blind faith.
Probably, this was one of his motives in removing certain social evils practised by the Hindus and the Muslims. The Rajput policy of Akbar was most successful. The Rajputs who had fought for centuries against the Muslim domination in India now accepted the services of the Mughul Emperor and strengthened his empire. Lane-Poole wrote- “Assimilation of the Hindu chiefs was the most conspicuous feature of Akbar’s reign.”
The same way, the religious policy of Akbar tried to give a new direction to the state- policy of the Mughul Emperors. Akbar, of course, did not succeed very much in bringing the Hindus and the Muslims nearer to each other, yet, certainly, helped them to co-exist with each other.
That was the spirit of the age and its necessity as well. That is why Dr R.P. Tripathi has commented- “He was at once the child and the father of his age.”
Therefore, Akbar has been regarded as a national king. Of course, he got only partial success in his attempts and failed to foster the national feeling in India, yet, he was the only ruler among the rulers of medieval India who seriously attempted for it and therefore, has claimed this honour.