Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Nine Gems of Akbar

The Mughal Emperor Akbar (1543-1605), though illiterate and unable to read or write, demonstrated a remarkable appreciation of other religious thoughts. He was also a connoisseur of music and fine arts. The Mughal architecture, that later culminated in the glorious Taj Mahal, found its beginnings in Akbar's rule. Music and miniature paintings reached their zenith. His tolerance to other religions perhaps came from his many queens including his principle wife who was a Hindu. He had also married a Christian, and several Indian and Persian Muslim women. Akbar reigned as the Mughal monarch for several decades and established himself as the most benevolent, tolerant Emperor; and history knows him as Akbar the Great.

The court of Akbar held some of the best India had to offer at that time. The Emperor had an enormously curious intellect. He would routinely assemble religious leaders of other religions in his court and patiently listen to them. Thus it was not only Hinduism he was curious about but had Christian missionaries who were more and more common after Vasco da Gama visited India. Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism also were his fascinations. He eventually formed his own religion, Din Ilahi, gathering the best from his understanding of the various religions. Akbar married thirty three times and had brides from all faiths. With his alliances with the daughters of nobles, he was able to bring peace in his empire. Several Rajput kings were his relatives by marriage and were loyal to him. Diplomacy through matrimony!

The great administrator who was also an aficionado of the arts attracted the best contemporary minds to his court. Nine such extraordinary talents, who shone brightly in their respective fields, were known as Akbar's nine gems. The nomenclature as nine gems is chosen because there are nine well-known gems (nava-rathna). There were endless lists of worthy people in his court that shone like the brightest gems, and to choose only nine amongst them is a difficult task indeed.

  1. Abul Fazl (1551-1602) was the chronicler of Akbar's rule. He authored the biographical Akbarnama, which was the result of seven years of painstaking work. He documented the history meticulously, giving a full and accurate picture of the prosperous life during the monarch's reign. His account also shed light on the brilliant administrative capacity of the Emperor.

  2. Faizi (1547-1595) was Abul Fazl's brother. He was a poet writing verses in Persian. Akbar had enormous respect for this genius and appointed him as a tutor for his son. His famous work is called Lilabati, on mathematics.

  3. Mian Tansen was a classical singer of unparalleled fame. He was born a Hindu in 1520 near Gwalior to Mukund Mishra, who was a poet himself. He learnt music from Swami Haridas and later from Hazrat Mohammad Ghaus. He was a court musician with the prince of Mewar and later recruited by Akbar as his court musician. The prince of Mewar was said to have been heartbroken to part with him. Tansen became a legendary name in India and was the composer of many classical ragas. His raga Deepak and raga Megh Malhar are famous. When he sang these ragas, Tansen was said to have lit the lamp and caused rain showers. He is also credited with creating raga Darbari Kanada and originating Drupad style of singing. Even today the classical gharanas try to align themselves with Mian Tansen. He was buried in Gwaliar, where a tomb has been constructed for him. There is a tamarind tree next to the tomb, which is reputed to be as old as the tomb itself. It is believed that one who chews a leaf from this tree in earnest faith will be bestowed with musical talents. It is unclear if Tansen converted to Islam. Akbar who was very fond of him gave him the title Mian. Tansen's son Bilas Khan composed raga Bilaskhani Todi and his daughter Saraswati Devi was a well-known Drupad singer.

  4. Birbal (1528-1583) was a poor Brahmin who was appointed to the court of Akbar for his wit as well as wisdom. Born by the name Maheshdas, he was conferred the name Raja Birbal by the Emperor. A man of tireless wit and charm, he enjoyed the Emperor's favor in administration as his trusted minister, and for his entertainment as his court jester. There are many witty stories of exchanges and interactions between the monarch and his minister that are popular even today. The stories are thought provoking, intelligent as well as educational. Birbal was also a poet and his collections under the pen name 'Brahma" are preserved in Bharatpur Museum. Raja Birbal died in battle, attempting to quell unrest amongst Afghani tribes in Northwest India. Akbar was said to have mourned for a long time on hearing the news.

  5. Raja Todar Mal was Akbar's finance minister, who from 1560 onwards overhauled the revenue system in the kingdom. He introduced standard weights and measurements, revenue districts and officers. His systematic approach to revenue collection became a model for the future Mughals as well as the British. Raja Todar Mal was also a warrior who assisted Akbar in controlling the Afghan rebels in Bengal. Raja Todar Mal had learnt his craft from another able administrator Sher Shah. In 1582, Akbar bestowed on the raja the title Diwan-I- Ashraf.

  6. Raja Man Singh, the Kacchwaha rajput raja of Amber. (Later Kacchwahas built Jaipur, close to Amber). This trusted lieutenant of Akbar was the grandson of Akbar's father-in-law. His family had been inducted into Mughal hierarchy as amirs (nobles). Raja Man Singh assisted Akbar in many fronts including holding off advancing Hakim (Akbar's half-brother, a governor of Kabyul) in Lahore. He also led campaigns in Orissa.

  7. Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khan, a poet was the son of Akbar's trusted protector and caretaker when he was a teenager, Bairam Khan. After Bairam Khan was murdered by treachery, his wife became the second wife of Akbar.

  8. Fagir Aziao Din and  (9) Mullan Do Piaza were two advisors belonging to Akbar's inner circle.

I have seen other names mentioned as gems of Akbar's court. Daswant, the painter and Abud us-Samad, a brilliant calligrapher, have also been named in some articles. Mir Fathullah Shiraz, who was a financier, philosopher, astrologer and an astute physician, has also been mentioned. Nevertheless, it is apparent that Akbar's court was filled with brilliant minds in the fields of art, administration and warfare.

With these varieties of brave soldiers with sharp intellect and wit as well as some of the greatest names in the world of art and music, Akbar ruled what history calls the greatest Mughal Empire. Akbar came to be called the greatest of the six great Mughal emperors. The foresight of this illiterate and dyslexic Emperor was remarkable and unique in history.  

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