Zoya Ansari gauges the larger-than-life impact of Akbar on the rise of Mughal rule
In 1615 it was observed by a historian that Mughal Empire had a revenue income of 120 million silver coins followed by 45 million for the Ottoman Empire and a paltry 15 million for the Persian Empire. The high level of financial liquidity in the Mughal Empire was primarily due to the fiscal and monetary peregrinations of its actual founder known to history as Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar. Akbar was an illiterate savant who profoundly appreciated the ebbs and flows of human psychology and created a strong web of relationships that revolved around his persona thereby taking the medieval concept of kingship to the pinnacle of practical sovereignty. Akbar is rightly rated as a philosopher king who not only kept his violent nature in control but also devised methods of dealing with matters politically and prudently.
Akbar made the Mughal Empire a place of enormous innovation, invention and opulence. During his reign great advances were made in the arts, literature, architecture, engineering and the sciences and these advances far surpassed the achievements of other empires at the time. From an early age, Akbar displayed a spirit of compassion and empathy which, along with his courage and self-confidence allowed him to take audacious and brave decisions. He ended slavery in the empire and tried to discourage the practice of sati. Akbar raised the minimum marriageable age of boys and girls, advocated monogamy, and criticised the Muslim laws of inheritance that favoured boys. His compassion knew no bounds and he set up food kitchens and inns for the poor and tried to distribute wealth to the needy to permanently eradicate poverty.
He also instinctively grasped the evolutionary nature of waging war and during his long rule he virtually disregarded all the old rules of warfare and used speed, fury and firepower in such a manner that it appeared as though he was able to bend the very forces of nature to his will. In battle after battle, in all directions, he crossed deserts, forded rivers and led his forces across the country at such speed and in such harsh conditions that these feats were considered almost miraculous with his enemies left literally awestruck. His bravery was deliberately and widely propagated but his highly adventures campaigns were carefully planned tactics, revealing a fierce intelligence and a willingness to constantly evolve.
Along with combining this tactical skill and physical endurance, Akbar also used the relatively new gunpowder technology in innovative and previously unknown ways. Understanding the need for speed and maneuverability in battle, Akbar improved upon the basic musket and cannon so that artillery became portable and effective even in the harshest environments. Having a deep understanding of weaponry and equipment of war Akbar devised ingenious rockets and created swivel guns which could be fitted onto camels and elephants. He improved siege-craft and developed lightweight cannon that could be easily pulled into battle, as well as super-heavy cannon that could be effective against the most redoubtable fortresses. This new firepower radically altered the practice of waging war and provided the Mughals with superiority in the battlefield that was to last for almost a century and a half.
After winning some spectacular victories Akbar started to employ his superior strategy in creating impression of invincibility by organising ferocious hunts with a view to let his enemies understand his intimidating position. He made his court highly peripatetic crisscrossing the length and breadth of the country ceaselessly making his enormous travelling camp an eloquent testimony to the increasing wealth and power of the empire. His prudence did not end at portraying the power of his empire but also provided defeated rulers and opposing generals face-saving alternatives. He also resorted to bribery, not objected upon in the age, when advisable, and constantly demonstrated to the most determined enemies that it was more profitable to be part of the Mughal Empire than opposed to it.
Akbar tried to create a balance between various factions as he and his predecessors had faced difficulties from them and he began creating new alliances particularly the indigenous warrior class of Rajputs. Though it was not unknown that Muslim rulers took Hindu brides but Akbar’s marital connections with Rajputs were deliberately propagated with the emperor taking conscious decisions to treat them with unprecedented prominence. In marrying Harkha Bai daughter of Raja Bharmal, Akbar not only gained a bride but the loyalty of her entire clan and he would then go on to devise a unique way to incorporate non-Muslim courtiers into the Mughal administration by making them respected and equal participants in the fate of the empire. Akbar also allowed his brides the complete freedom to exercise their own religion. The Rajput rajas and the other Hindu rulers who submitted to Akbar were slowly incorporated into the Mughal imperial service and many would attain places of the highest honour.
Akbar also took care to incorporate many diverse elements into imperial nobility including Persians, Badakhshanis, Shaikhzadas, Sufis and Indian Muslims that was born in bred in the subcontinent but were looked down upon by the foreign conquerors. A pragmatic and calculated outcome of these measures was that no one particular clan or faction was allowed overweening power over the others. All courtiers were incorporated into the Mughal mansabdari system, the efficient land revenue extraction infrastructure devised by Akbar improving upon the framework left behind by Sher Shah Sur. In this system, a unified military–administrative network was put in place, replicated throughout the empire and based on the ultimate authority of the emperor himself. Mansabdari system is rated to be first bureaucratic system, though rudimentary, of the medieval age that became the prototype of future governance systems.
Akbar was intellectually a solid character blessed with the uncanny ability to spot the capability to employ it for appropriate positions and tasks. He spotted the financial acumen of Raja Todar Mal and the administrative skill of Fathallah Shirazi and many more whose work embellished the Mughal Empire. The vast wealth and the quality of the goods of the Mughal Empire drew merchants and travellers from around the world. Akbar promoted his eclectic brand of culture that fast spread in the subcontinent and ultimately it became the dominant feature in the subcontinent.
Akbar ensured that different parts of the country were physically connected through the building of roads, dak chaukis, and sarais and were linguistically connected by Persian, which became the administrative language of the empire even in the smallest of towns and also encouraged the another language by combining the Brijbhasha phrases into imperial vocabulary and Persian idioms known as Urdu that finally proved to be the most potent lingua-franca. Akbar’s fetish for dressing gave rise to a specific form of apparel that was widely adopted by the people.
Akbar laid the foundations of architecture that were aptly followed throughout the land with suitable amendments. With the passage of time Mughal culture became infused with the taste and texture of the subcontinent creating a distinctive hybrid culture that embodied its various strands. Akbar was a ruler ahead of his times and kept himself closely informed of happenings overseas and was curious about other countries and monarchies and sent embassies to the Safavid and Uzbek monarchs with a view to remain connected with the wider world. TW
Zoya Ansari has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense