Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Slice of Moghul Flesh


Add a tad bit of juice to the imprints left behind in the sands of time, and you have a lovely cocktail of history and fiction. That is when it gets interesting and I am sure if history is taught or portrayed this way, it will catch the imagination of many and generate far greater interest than it does now.

Alex Rutherford’s series on the Moghul emperors is a good attempt at narrating history in a catchy manner. After finishing the first book on Babur, I was looking forward to the third one – simply coz the third emperor interested me much more than the second (sadly coz I know very little of Humayun and I wasn’t really interested yet). Akbar – is perhaps the most popular of the lot of Moghul rulers over India. With movies, comics and the ever famous Akbar – Birbal series, he has managed to create a cult following. 

Though by no means extensive, the book throws some light into the rise of Akbar’s power, highlighting the main events in a colourful fashion. Named ‘Ruler of the World’, Rutherford rightfully says of Akbar as perhaps the greatest of the Mughals. Crowned king at the tender age of 13, there is indeed much that Akbar claimed and established in his reign of near 50 years.

Among the anecdotes Rutherford narrates, the one that amused me the most is about Anarkali – the ‘pomegranate blossom’ girl (The name Akbar beatified her with!) Apparently she was the prized concubine of Akbar. Now, Anarkali as our dear friend google* tells me has been a debatable topic historically as there is no unanimous agreement on her exact role and the turn of events with her. Rutherford relates a version; one that I think creates maximum impact (for it has loads of Masala!)

It is those paradoxes of life that an illiterate Akbar turns out to be a keen fan of knowledge and develop a deep sense of appreciation for aesthetics and artistry. (evident in Fathehpur sikri – the city he builds of sandstone). It is no surprise then that he adorned and preserved beauty. But what makes him stand apart is the way in which he parades beauty – making a spectacle of such pomp and grandeur that it manages to sweep the feet of the viewers, throwing them to a world floating in opulence and filled with never ending riches.

Keeping with that trait, Rutherford creates a scintillating narrative in unfolding a grand entry for Anarkali– a mesmerizing belly dance performance to an audience including all the noted ones in the court. At the end of the show as the beauty is laid for the beholder’s eye, there is nothing but awe and amazement. Akbar has his way of exposing his riches and making enchanting visual statements. But with this one, he created fire. It was flaring and soaring; so much so that his own son couldn’t resist the temptation of Anarkali. Akbar’s son Jehangir a.k.a Salim was so filled with desire that he trespassed into prosecutable territory. Unable to control his growing urge, Salim uses every power he can to lay his hands to quench his thirst. His misdemeanors come to a halt when the emperor learns of the treachery. As one would expect, Akbar is enraged and mad with anger – his most prized concubine is consumed by none other than his own son – what greater insult than this! Akbar being the man he was, obsessed with the fairer sex, took great offence at this, was in no mood to let go off the transgression. He ordered Salim to exile in Kabul and as for Anarkali, he wanted her confined to a dungeon in complete isolation and to be buried alive – a fitting response for her lecherous act!

On the other side, Salim, the romantic can hardly digest the verdict and pleads on behalf of his love. Rutherford’s version has his grandmother, Akbar’s mother Hamida do an appeasing act by giving an honorable death to Anarkali.  Plays and movies fantasize this episode in their own way (Mughal – e – Azam, Anarkali, Loves of a Moghul Prince to mention a few). The heartbroken Salim is filled with remorse and after years when he is finally king, he honored Anarkali by building a tomb overher grave – situated in present day Lahore (there seems to be a whole market in Lahore – Anarkali Bazaar near her grave which is one of the oldest markets in Asia). Fittingly there is an urdu couplet which is attributed to Salim inscribed on the grave –

I would give thanks unto my God unto the day of resurrection
Ah! could I behold the face of my beloved once more
                                                                                                majn┼źn Saleem Akbar

Little wonder then that it has stirred so much of interest in the creative minds. Like I said there are different version to the episode, some from early British travellers and some from Urdu chroniclers.

Yet another interesting trait that Rutherford brings forth is about Akbar’s ingenuity when it comes to keeping his empire intact. He rightly recognizes the infectious greed that occupies the human mind and comes up with a novel way to tackle the malice – every time he gains victory, he makes a lavish display of wealth and gives a fitting share to all his governors. He takes a cue from Baburnama (the book which Babur wrote about his life)

Be generous to your supporters. If they learn that they have more to gain with you than 
When leaving u, they are bound to stay.

Another tactic he employed to promote stability in his empire was to develop marital bonds. His interest in women is a thing of legend, but for Akbar marriage seemed to be a smart way of appeasing the royals. He began with the Rajputs and went on to emulate the feat with lots of other royals so as to ensure stability to his vast empire. Smartness or mischief – depends on the way you see it.

The intriguing thing about Rutherford’s book is the absence of Birbal. For that matter the absence of any other Navratnas apart from Abul Fazal – Akbar’s chronicler or the author or Akbarnama.

Nevertheless, the book is an interesting read for any of you interested in Akbar or for that matter in knowing about the greatness of a leader who made it all on his own!

*Few interesting links on the Anarkali myth - Here and here