Zoya Ansari describes an iconic character
All and sundry who came in contact with the Mughal emperor Akbar were impressed by his dignity despite his easily approachable manners. He carried his persona in dignified ease and in the age of ostentation he lived as simply as possible. Imbued with a natural flair for public relations Akbar the great always conveyed the impression of being very happy surrounded by people. Though he remained enigmatic in the eyes of historians yet he exhibited tremendous warmth for his people. Despite all his grandeur, Akbar was ridden by melancholy, a deep sense of the futility of everything termed as life, and always displayed an innate irreverence for life itself that he thought was just temporary. His greatness was hidden in his natural compassion but his compassion was not of character, which essentially was violence-prone owing to the age he lived in but heavily tempered with intelligence and prudence.
Throughout his life, Akbar pursued perfection beyond the limits of human endeavor and tried hard to glue together diverse peoples of his vast domains. By employing unconventional religious and cultural syncretism he ventured to let his people live in peace and amity. As a visionary devoted to rationalism Akbar resembles more of a modern man than a typical potentate. Ahead of his time, Akbar was treated rather skeptically by his contemporaries and also by subsequent generations who failed to fathom his original pursuits.
Akbar was a driven, possessed man. Akbar’s energy was prodigious and matched by only a few. Once he walked from Mathura to Agra, a distance of nearly sixty kilometers but only three of his companions could keep up with him. His invincibility on the battlefield was legendary and things came to him easily. Time transformed Akbar’s into a man of superhuman powers and the legend of his omnipotence blurred his existence into myth.
All of Akbar’s contemporaries were impressed by him and everyone mentioned his majestic bearing he was widely described as looking every inch a king. His son described him as a distinguishing-looking person with an exceedingly loud voice and a very elegant and pleasant speech. His manners and habits were quite different from those of other persons and his visage was full of godly dignity. He was slightly bow-legged due to his habit of horse riding since his young age and limped on his left leg, though indeed he had never received any injury there.
He had widely set, heavy-lidded eyes beneath sparse, thin eyebrows and his eyes were very bright. Akbar always dressed in rich clothes but was not gaudy in his sartorial tastes. A simple turban covered his head that was usually adorned with pearls and gems though it appeared simple and more a piece of apparel than an imperial diadem. Against the prevailing custom, he wore no jewels except a string of pearls around his neck. He generally sat with crossed legs and his simplicity was his overriding attribute. He always wore heavy perfume on his body and dress.
Akbar worked very hard to be a good ruler. His day was long beginning early at about three hours before daybreak. He spent some time in prayers and meditation then attended morning durbar and after a short nap in the afternoon he was busy throughout the day and slept little. For a man of his energy Akbar’s diet was frugal. Gluttonous in his youth he became Spartan with age and as he grew older he, however, became indifferent to food. Towards the end of his life he virtually gave up eating meat and vegetables and fruits became his main diet. Though Akbar had frugal eating habits he was very particular about water. He preferred water from the river Ganges and painstakingly arranged for its procurement to the farthest limits of the domains he traveled to.
Akbar eschewed heavy drinking and was conscious of its ill effects on his father and sons. With his age Akbar’s character grew in stature as from a youth of ravenous appetites for food, sex, adventure, and conquest, he turned into an austere man in middle age. Abul Fazl lists seven wives of Akbar and he had several and numerous concubines his harem was reported to consist of some 300 women, wives, and concubines from many races and different religions. However, contrary to the prevailing custom of bisexuality, he was strictly heterosexual.
In his youth Akbar was sexually voracious and hankered for fresh mates, sending eunuchs into harems of nobles to procure women for him. Considerable resentment was caused by Akbar’s forays into the households of Amirs but fortunately for Akbar his sexuality proved short-lived and by middle age, he was sated and became continent. He would often say that had he been wiser he would have refrained from his wayward behavior for he considered all his subjects as his children.
Temperamentally Akbar was secretive and never revealed himself fully to anyone and in all business, this was the characteristic manner of this elusive personality. It is however surprising to observe that he came out as a man apparently free from mystery and guile, as honest and candid as could be imagined but in reality so close and self-contained, with twists of words and deeds so divergent one from the other and most times so contradictory that even by much seeking one could not find the clue to his thoughts.
It was widely known that no one in his court had the full measure of the emperor though he was constantly in the public eye. The intense lack of privacy made Akbar retreat and keep himself concealed within his own personality. That hidden, interior space was what gave Akbar’s character its depth and resonance and also turned him into a mysterious personality.
Akbar’s charismatic personality radiated awesome power having a mesmeric effect on his subjects. It was his singular attribute as a great king for he knew that a good ruler is he who can command, simultaneously, the obedience, the respect, the love, and the fear of his subjects. He was otherwise mild-mannered and always in perfect self-control. He was generally lenient towards offenders and kept them in his employ even after they betrayed him. He maintained that the noblest quality of princes is the forgiveness of faults. He was a strong personality capable enough to bear and forgive the faults of lesser men and let them continue working for him.
All who came in contact agreed that he was great with the great and lowly with lowly and with small and common people, he was so sympathetic and indulgent that he always found time gladly to hear their cases and to respond graciously to their requests. Their little offerings, too, he used to accept with such a pleasing look, handling them and putting them in his bosom, as he did not do with the most lavish gifts of the nobles.
He was generally considered tightfisted but kept a heap of gold and silver coins beside him that he showered on people surrounding his ride. Despite all the controversies surrounding him, Akbar was a popular monarch beloved of all, a firm with the great, kind to those of low estate, and just to all. His disposition conveyed the impression that he was on the side of every man he came in contact with and this endearing quality was rendered legendary. TW