The Pulse

Book Review: The History of Akbar, Volume 1

Akhilesh Pillalamarri reviews The History of Akbar, Volume 1.

Book Review: The History of Akbar, Volume 1
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last month, I noted that a new initiative on Indian literature, the Murty Classical Library of India, would be launched this January. The library aims to make Indian literature accessible to a wide audience, so that ever larger circles of individuals can discover the history, philosophy, and drama of India. As the volume of this library that I read, The History of Akbar (Volume 1) proved, the Murty Library has succeeded in its goal of sharing valuable knowledge and providing interesting insights on India.

The first volume of The History of Akbar, like the other books in the series, features an English translation on one side and the original text in the original language (in this case, Persian) on the other side. The book tells the history of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who reigned from 1556 to 1605 C.E, and his immediate ancestors. The Mughal court and culture was essentially Persianate, like those of many Muslim cultures in Central and South Asia. The reign of Akbar is especially notable because during his reign a fusion of Islamic and Indian cultures took place. Akbar is known for not only his tolerance, but also his great interest in religion, an interest that led to the promulgation of a new religion Din-e Ilahi in 1580. The religion combined Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism, among others. Akbar also married a Hindu, who was the mother to his heir. These facts all make him one of India’s most popular rulers and he is the subject of numerous legends, shows, and books. One of India’s most popular current television shows, Jodha Akbar, is a long drama that slowly takes viewers through the life of Akbar and his family. Akbar’s reign is especially interesting and relevant because it presents issues that resonate in modern India: balancing hard and soft power, international relations, effective administration, and issues of religious harmony.

The History of Akbar was translated by Wheeler M. Thackston, who also translated the memoirs of Akbar’s grandfather Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire. This book, the Baburnama, is a well-written, witty introduction to the origin of the Mughal Empire and the politics and daily life of 16th century Central and South Asia. The author of The History of Akbar was Abu’l Fazl, vizier and historian at the court of Akbar. While The History of Akbar is accurate, the author’s sycophancy is clear, especially when he talks about the personality traits of his employer, Akbar. Much of the first 150 pages of the book describes the horoscope of Akbar and the signs and portents that occurred during his birth (in 1542), indicating his future glory. This is interesting in its own way as it informs the reader of the assumptions and literary flourishes of that age.

The book subsequently picks up with a description of the ancestors of Akbar. Since this section starts at the beginning of time, it actually provides an excellent description of both Islamic and Hindu cosmology, origin stories, and mythology. The account enters a semi-historical place when it places the ancestors of Akbar among the tribes of Central Asia until it reaches the tale of a woman, Alanqoa. Alanqoa was the vessel by which a glorious light entered the lineage of Akbar; she herself gave birth “just like [the virgin] Mary.” After this point, the account enters a much clearer historical space. Contrary to a widely held belief strengthened by the name “Mughal,” which means Mongol, the Mughals did not consider themselves “Mongols” or descendants of Genghis Khan. Rather, they called themselves silsila-i gurkaniyya, or the Gurkanid line. The term derives from a Mongolian word gürkan which means son-in-law. The direct ancestor of the Mughal line was the Turkic, Central Asian conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) who married a descendent of Genghis Khan, and thus considered himself a son-in-law of that line, hence the term gürkan. The actual meat of the history begins when the narration gets to a descendent of Timur (who died in 1405), Babur, Akbar’s grandfather.

Babur was born in Andijan, in today’s Uzbekistan, in 1483 and became that city’s ruler in 1494. He spent most of his life obsessed with ruling over the city of Samarkand, and it was only a byproduct of this failure as well as the desire to acquire resources to do so that he ended up in India. Although he captured Samarkand three times, he could not hold it and eventually ended up capturing Kabul instead in 1504, and then ruling as its king. Afterwards, Babur spent most of his time fighting local rulers in what is today’s Afghanistan and Pakistan, and complaining then, as now, about the difficulty of fighting Pashtuns (Afghans). Finally he invaded India in 1526, defeating the Sultan of Delhi, Ibrahim, at the First Battle of Panipat. Abu’l Fazl describes this as a miracle, for the ruler of a mere city to defeat a man who controlled millions of men. However, Babur’s possession of gunpowder helped. Contrary to some images of this part of the world today, Babur and his court loved to party and drink.

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Babur was succeeded by his son Humayun in 1530. The rest of the account focuses on Humayun’s reign till Akbar’s birth. Humayun was born in 1508 in Kabul, but by 1530, the growing Mughal Empire was centered in Delhi and Agra. The account of Abu’l Fazl remains factually accurate though becomes increasingly sycophantic. Most of the rest of the book describes the various adventures and tribulations of Humayun, who faced the opposition of his brother Kamran and a noble, Sher Khan. Most of Humayun’s defeats are attributed to the characteristics of his enemies rather than his own faults. Sher Khan in particular is often described as being wily or other such terms. From 1540 to 1555, he had to flee India because of Sher Khan and spent some time in Sindh and Kabul. He married Hamida Banu Begum in 1541 despite the fact that she was probably in love with his brother Hindal. Akbar was born to this couple in 1542. Humayun spent much of his time in exile in Persia, raising an army to regain his empire, which he eventually did in 1555. However, this account ends with the birth of Akbar.

While the style of this history is different from modern history, readers can still read and appreciate The History of Akbar, Volume 1, especially the parts of it that describe the political decisions and military campaigns and adventures of Babur and Humayun. Other parts, including genealogies and horoscopes can be skimmed without much loss. I personally liked the matter of fact, rough, first person tone of the Baburnama better; however this particular volume provides valuable insight into both the history and historiography of the Mughals. I anticipate enjoying the second volume of The History of Akbar immensely, especially since it will focus on Akbar himself, an interesting and important individual for Indian history.