Saturday, June 9, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

What makes a man great?
Khushwant Singh

IN our history books a few rulers were given the suffix great: Ashoka, Chandra Gupta Maurya, Akbar, Ranjit Singh. Besides their conquests and ruling over vast regions, it was their humane qualities that endeared them to their subjects. Historians don’t tell us as much about them as they should. One gap in our information about Emperor Akbar has been filled by Shireen Moosvi, Professor of History at Aligarh Muslim University. Her slender book Episodes in the life of Akbar (National Book Trust) tells us what Akbar looked like, what he ate, his hobbies, how he dealt with courtiers and common folk, his religious beliefs, the hours he spent at work and the hours he slept. We get to know him as a man as well as a great ruler.


Akbar was born on October 15,1542, at Amarkot, to Hamida Bano, wife of Humayun who had been ousted from the Sultanate of Delhi by the Afghan Sher Shah Suri. He spent some years of his childhood in Kabul in the protective custody of his uncle who remarked how closely the child resembled Babar. He was a strong little boy. In a battle of strength with his elder and bigger cousin over the possession of a painted doom, he picked up his adversary and threw him down. He refused to learn how to read or write but did learn how to draw and paint. On the death of his father who had regained the Mughal throne in Delhi, he was crowned King at Kalanaur in 1556. For four years he let Bairam Khan run the affairs of the state; then summarily sent him off on a pilgrimage to Makka. (He was assassinated before he could leave India). He indulged in cock-fighting, riding horses and elephants, flying kites and pigeons. Above all, he loved hunting on a massive scale. Wild animals were rounded up by thousands of beaters, he shot them with bow and arrow, muskets, speared them or slew them with his sword. It was on one of such massive hunts near Bhera that he was overcome with remorse for killing dumb creatures which had done him no harm. He meditated over it for a long time and called off the hunt and hunted no more.

Malgudi no more
May 26, 2001
Call of the papeeha
May 19, 2001
Exporting erotica to France
May 12, 2001
Celebrating old age
May 5, 2001
Guru-chela parampara
April 28, 2001
What the world owes to Jainism
April 21, 2001
Exercising the mind with books
April 14, 2001
The great Maharaja of Punjab
April 7, 2001
Storm in a chat show
March 31, 2001
Paying the price for being upright?
March 24, 2001
World’s changing morals
March 17, 2001
A Chinese Nobel Laureate living in exile
March 10, 2001
Tagore’s offerings of love
March 3, 2001
Where has one come from?
February 24, 2001
Most educated Indians are bores
February 17, 2001
Sensing disasters before they strike
February 10, 2001

In 1563, Akbar had to contend with a quarrel between two close relations, Atka Khan and Adham Khan, sons of his foster-mothers. Adham murdered Atka. When Akbar heard of it, he flew into rage. He swore at him in Hindustani calling him a catamite and ordered him to be thrown down the ramparts of the fort twice till he was dead. Adham Khan’s tomb is in Mehrauli. His mother Maham Anga’s hospice faces the entrance gate of Delhi Zoo. Atka Khan’s body was also brought to Delhi. His mausoleum is close to the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya.

Akbar liked women and stocked his harem with hundreds of beauties selected by eunuchs who were sent out as scouts to find them. He was specially enamoured of Rajputs, the bravery of their men and the beauty of their women.

Much has been written about the nine gems (nav rattan) of his court and his interest in different religions. Moosvi’s compilation from Mughal sources mention the nine gems but has a lot on his discourses at the Ibadat Khana (house of prayer) where he heard preachers of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam propound their faiths. Though he remained illiterate to the end, he had a remarkable memory and would recite by rote passages from Rumi and Hafiz and also composed poems in Hindi and Persian. Interest in Sufism was first roused by Khawaja Salim Chishti. Akbar named his son Salim after him and built the city Fatehpur Sekri. Though constantly engaged in extending his empire, and putting down rebellions (he never lost a battle), he found time to discuss problems of the common people with governors of states. He kept a punishing schedule of work, never sleeping more than three to four hours of the day and night.

It may come as a surprise to readers that Akbar only drank water from the Ganga and his food was cooked in waters of the Yamuna and the Chenab. He ate only one meal a day at no fixed time. Gradually he gave up eating meat: "I don’t want to make my body a tomb for beasts," he said. He preferred plain rice, milk products and sweets.

Early in October 1605 Akbar was taken ill. He got high fever and diarrhoea. He sensed his end was near and sent for his eldest son. He handed over his sword to him, signifying recognition of him as his successor. He died during the night of Tuesday, on October 26, 1605. The next day Prince Salim Jahangir and his brothers took his body to Sikandara and laid it to rest. Thus ended 52 years of his glorious rule.

In love with nature

For people like us who are abysmally ignorant to the world of nature in which they live, it is a small miracle to find a few men and women who are not the least concerned with politics and corruption but spend most of their hours watching birds, trees, monkeys and insects and recording changes in them during the different seasons. One of them is Calcutta-born Ranjit Lal, who has made his home in Delhi. This man picked up a caterpillar and put it in a glass jar with a heap of leaves of the kind it was attached to. He watched it hours on end as it devoured leaf after leaf, went into his next stage, cocooned in a chrysalis, and then kept a 24-hour vigil so that he did not miss the magical moment when the worm of a few days turned into a beautiful butterfly.

Ranjit lives in an apartment overlooking the oldest Christian cemetry of Delhi in Kashmere Gate where General Nicholson, who led the assault on the city taken over by sepoys in 1857, lies buried. Its main occupants are herds of rhesus monkeys who steal food from neighbouring houses, play havoc with cars and buses parked nearby and generally have a good time playing, fighting and catapulting. Ranjit watched their antics long enough to identify them individually. He noticed that at time both males and females had red faces and behinds. He noted that the change of colour came with their periods of fertility, though like humans they indulged in sex both homo and hetero. The other areas where Ranjit does-his bird-tree-insect watching includes the stretch of the Yamuna from the Gandhi Samadhi to Majnu ka teela, the Ridge and Jackson’s Jheel. Despite Delhi being one of the most polluted cities of the world, it also has more trees to the spare kilometre than any other. So it teems with bird life and is a watchers’ paradise. The one minor problem face with his book Mostly Birds, Some Monkeys and a Pest: Nature in around Delhi (Ravi Dayal) is that it is not illustrated. His descriptions of nature make good reading but if you can’t tell a pochard from a widgeon, pin-tail or Brahmin duck, or different varieties of bulbuls and mynahs you won’t know what he is writing about.

Play on

From the shadows of the evening till the break of dawn

Music being the soul of life, play on

Play on because It’ll fill you with love and praise,

Play on because it will illuminate your gaze

Play on if you want to soothe your sullen soul

Play on if solace and joy be your goal,

Play on to the cruel and the coward because music can

Melt a monster into human and mould a human into man.

Play on to the whole nation the universal melody

For what has kept this country together chiefly so

Is nothing lofty

But the good old and the humble Hindi film songs

Play on, for Tamil Nadu enjoys it

And Assam understands it every bit:

"Ae meri zohra jabin, too abhi tak hei hasin aur mein jawan"

Play on, for the Kargil men and patently hostile to Hindustan

Even Musharraf succumbs to the magic of old Hindi songs

A bond still between India and Pakistan.

(Contributed by Kuldip Salil, Delhi)