Four hundred seventy two years ago, one of the world’s greatest rulers with a philosophy centuries ahead of his time was born to destitute parents – Jalaluddin Muhhamad Akbar, known as Akbar the Great. This is his story and that of the city he had built, Fatehpur Sikri – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“considerably larger than London and more populous”
The first English merchant to have visited Fatehpur Sikri, Ralph Fitch in 1585, described the city as one of the largest in the world, ‘considerably larger than London and more populous’. Built in the period 1571-1586 by the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great, Fatehpur Sikri remains a fascinating, enigmatic, abandoned historic site that was Akbar’s residence for only 15 years.
The story of Fatehpur Sikri begins with events preceding Akbar.
Rajput presence in the area
“It was the Sikarwars who gave the place its name Sikri’
About a mile from Akbar’s city, was an old Rajput citadel held by the Sikarwar Rajputs for several centuries. It was the Sikarwars who gave the place its name Sikri (Davar, S.K. Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 123, No. 5232 (NOVEMBER 1975), pp. 781-805).
Click on the image below for more information:
Between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries, Sikri was strategically important, facing aggression of the Turks and Pathans from the north and the Rajputs from the south (Davar, S.K. Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 123, No. 5232 (NOVEMBER 1975), pp. 781-805).
Babur, the first Mughal, Akbar’s grandfather, reported to have descended from Genghis Khan the Mongol and Tamerlane, having vanquished the last Lodi king (Ibrahim) near Delhi in the first battle of Panipat, marched on to Sikri to fight combined Rajput forces led by Rana Sanga of Mewar.
Click on the images below for more information:
Bothered by stifling heat, Babur’s troops were restless and dejected, missing the cool air of Kabul where they were from. In desperation, in order to rally the soldiers, Babur openly destroyed his gold and silver wine goblets and poured out all the remaining wine stock, renouncing alcohol like a devout muslim. This transformed the mood of the soldiers, who swore on the Koran, and proceeded to destroy the Rajput forces. Babur was now firmly established as the ruler of northern India. Overwhelmed with gratitude, he named the place “Shukri” (“thanks” in Arabic) (Davar, S.K. Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 123, No. 5232 (NOVEMBER 1975), pp. 781-805).
In 1530, Babur died peacefully in his garden at Agra at the age of 48. His opium addicted son, Humayun, at age 22, ascended the Delhi throne, but was unable to hold on to the kingdom, soundly defeated by Sher Khan, an Afghan governor of Bihar. Humayun wandered destitute through the deserts of western India but managed to successfully propose marriage to the 14 year old Hamida Bano Begum, daughter of Sheikh Ali Akbar Jami. At the brink of starvation, Humayun and his pregnant wife, along with a handful of loyal soldiers, arrived at Umarkot, a small Rajput fortress in Sindh, now part of Pakistan, in August 1542 (VINCENT A. SMITH. AKBAR THE GREAT MOGUL 1542-1605. OXFORD AT THE CLARENDON PRESS 1917).
Birth of Akbar
Akbar the Great was born on November 23, 1542 in Umarkot, Sindh, his family then living in abject poverty, surviving only through the kindness of the local Hindu chief, Rana Parshad. His father, Humayun, named him Badruddin Muhhamad Akbar. Later, to mask the real date of birth from astrologers, and to make it coincide with a more auspicious day, his date of birth was changed to October 15. His name was changed to Jalaluddin Muhhamad Akbar. (VINCENT A. SMITH. AKBAR THE GREAT MOGUL 1542-1605. OXFORD AT THE CLARENDON PRESS 1917). No one could have dreamed that this little boy, born under such hopeless conditions would, at the age of 13, become the greatest Emperor of India.
Early childhood – was Akbar dyslexic?
Akbar never learned to read or write. A tutor was assigned to him when he was 5 years old. As described by Vincent Smith (VINCENT A. SMITH. AKBAR THE GREAT MOGUL 1542-1605. OXFORD AT THE CLARENDON PRESS 1917), “The person appointed proved to be inefficient, being more inclined to teach his pupil the art of pigeon-flying than the rudiments of letters” and “Akbar was a thoroughly idle boy from the schoolmaster’s point of view, and resisted all attempts to give him book-learning so successfully that he never mastered the alphabet, and to the end of his days was unable even to read or sign his own name.” Several other teachers gave up on him in despair. This did not stop him from acquiring as much knowledge as possible in that era in a huge number of subjects, including poetry, architecture, religions of the world, and carpentry, attesting to his intelligence and his ability to learn from tutors and others reading aloud to him. In order to explain this paradox, it has been speculated that he suffered from dyslexia.
Humayun’s return to power
When Humayun succeeded Babur to the throne, he was “obliged to concede the govern-ment of the Panjab and the Afghan country of Kabul, Kandahar, and Ghazni to his next brother, Kamran “(VINCENT A. SMITH. AKBAR THE GREAT MOGUL 1542-1605. OXFORD AT THE CLARENDON PRESS 1917). Later, he had left little Akbar under the care of his brother Kamran while carrying out various battles in the region. This is despite the fact that when he had lost Delhi to Sher Khan and reduced to poverty, he had received no help from Kamran.
Humayun decide to begin regaining his territory by marching to and taking over Badakhshan, north of Kafiristan. (Kafiristan, incidentally, is the location of Kipling’s tale “The Man Who Would be King” later made into an excellent film starring Christopher Plummer as Kipling, Sean Connery and Michael Cain).
Kamran turned out to be a ruthless ruler. As Vincent Smith described him, “He disgraced himself by inflicting on his opponents the most fiendish tortures, not sparing even women and children”. Humayun finally attacked his brother in Kabul. The cowardly Kamran exposed little Akbar to the cannon fire by placing him on the ramparts of the fort, forcing Humayun to silence his guns. Regardless, Humayun’s forces prevailed but Kamran escaped on April 27, 1547. The brothers reconciled the following year.
Kamran subsequently regained Kabul and held little Price Akbar hostage yet again. Humayun once again captured Kabul and regained custody of Akbar. In 1553, Kamran who had so far escaped punishment was captured and sentenced to death by Humayun’s councillors. Humayun, however, could not contemplate such a punishment for his younger brother, and decided instead to blind him. One suspects he was more inclined to torture him than give him an easy exit.
A detailed account of this deed was recorded by Jauhar, Humayun’s personal attendant, and described in Smith’s book:
“Early in the morning the King marched towards Hindustan, but before his departure determined that the Prince should be blinded, and gave orders accordingly ; but the attendants on the Prince disputed among themselves who was to perform the cruel act. Sultan Aly, the paymaster, ordered Aly Dust to do it; the other replied, “You will not pay a shdhrukhy (3s. 6d.) to any person without the King’s directions; therefore, why should I commit this deed without a personal order from his Majesty? Perhaps tomorrow the King may say, ‘Why did you put out the eyes of my brother? ‘ What answer could I give? Depend upon it I will not do it by your order.” Thus they continued to quarrel for some time : at length I said, ” I will go and inform the King “. On which I, with two others, galloped after his Majesty ; when we came up with him, Aly Dust said in the Jagtay [Chagatai] Turky language, “No one will perform the business “. The King replied in the same language, abused him, and said, “Why don’t you do it yourself? ” ‘ After receiving this command, we returned to the Prince, and Ghulam Aly represented to him in a respectful and a condoling manner that he had received positive orders to blind him ; the Prince replied, ” I would rather you would at once kill me”; Ghulam Aly said, “We dare not exceed our orders ” ; he then twisted a handkerchief up as a ball for thrusting into the mouth, and he with the Ferash, seizing the Prince by the hands, pulled him out of the tent, laid him down and thrust a lancet (Neshter) into his eyes (such was the will of God). This they repeated at least fifty times ; but he bore the torture in a manly manner, and did not utter a single groan, except when one of the men who was sitting on his knees pressed him ; he then said, “Why do you sit on my knees? What is the use of adding to my pain ? ” This was all he said, and acted with great courage, till they squeezed some (lemon) juice and salt into the sockets of his eyes; he then could not forbear, and called out, ” 0 Lord, 0 Lord, my God, whatever sins I may have committed have been amply punished in this world, have compassion on me in the next”.
Kamran died 3 years later in Mecca.
Humayun proceeded to recover his kingdom in the next few years with the help of Bairam Khan who later became Akbar’s guardian and mentor.
Although Humayun did not harm Kamran’s family, Akbar later ordered the execution of Kamran’s only son, a “pretender to the throne”. (VINCENT A. SMITH. AKBAR THE GREAT MOGUL 1542-1605. OXFORD AT THE CLARENDON PRESS 1917).
Death of Humayun
On Friday, January 24, 1556, at sunset, Humayun was about to descend the staircase on the roof of the library, when, hearing the call to prayers, tried to sit down on the top step, presumably to pray, but tripped over the skirt of his robe, and fell down the stairs, fracturing the base of his skull. He died 3 days later, but his death was concealed in order to ensure that Akbar would be the successor to the throne. An impersonator was used to make public appearances to perpetuate the belief that Humayun was still in power until Bairam was ready to proclaim Akbar as the new Emperor.
Ascent of Akbar
On February 14, 1556, at the age of 13, Akbar became the ruler of the Mogul Empire.
The Empire at this time was fragmented and recovering from the famine of previous wars. Akbar, through his military genius, under the tutelage of Bairam Khan, extended the Empire “over the whole of northern, western, and central India, as well as over the immense territories now known as Afghanistan and Baluchistan, the border states of Kashmir, Sind, and Orissa, besides the minor kingdoms of the Deccan.” (VINCENT A. SMITH. AKBAR THE GREAT MOGUL 1542-1605. OXFORD AT THE CLARENDON PRESS 1917).
A child ruler led astray by his elders
As Akbar matured, his dependence on Bairam Khan “the Protector” lessened to the point that, at age 18, he asked Bairam to depart on a pilgrimage to Mecca in order to become an independent ruler, little aware that he was being manipulated by the women in his life, including his mother and his wet-nurse from infancy. As described by Smith, “Hamida Bano Begam, the queen-mother, Maham Anaga, the chief of Akbar’s nurses and ranking as a foster-mother, her son, Adham Khan, with her relative, Shihabu-d din, governor of Delhi, were the principal persons concerned in engineering the plot against the Protector.”
On his way to Mecca, Bairam Khan was assassinated in the ancient capital of Gujarat, Patan, (now in the district of Baroda) by a gang of 30 to 40 Afghans while he was strolling as usual through the gardens and viewing the beautiful lakes in the town, one day in January 1561. This was orchestrated by Mubarak Khan in revenge for his father’s killing by Bairam’s soldiers in the battle of Macchiwara in Punjab.
This period of Akbar’s life was named “Petticoat government” by Vincent Smith, as his nurse Maham Anaga essentially ran the Empire while Akbar amused himself with sports and elephant fights.
Becoming an independent thinker
When he turned 20, Akbar suffered from what now appears to be depression and became extremely introspective. He soon came to the conclusion that he had to be his own man with no further influence from others. His emerging philosophy and beliefs were incredibly advanced for the era. He embraced other religions including Hinduism, abolished slavery of prisoners of war, ended oppressive taxes on the poor, and created an organized civil service with grades of responsibility just like modern day administrations. He even married Hindu princesses, including Jodha Bai of Amber (Jaipur), the mother of Jehangir (Salim), despite opposition from muslim leaders.
Akbar even invented a new universal religion of non-discrimination, an amalgam of all faiths, called Dīn-i Ilāhī or “Divine Faith”, having thoroughly studied a number of religions including Jainism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. As described in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, “The Dīn-i Ilāhī was essentially an ethical system, prohibiting such sins as lust, sensuality, slander, and pride and enjoining the virtues of piety, prudence, abstinence, and kindness. The soul was encouraged to purify itself through yearning for God (a tenet of Ṣūfism, Islāmic mysticism), celibacy was condoned (as in Catholicism), and the slaughter of animals was forbidden (as in Jainism). There were no sacred scriptures or a priestly hierarchy in the Dīn-i Ilāhī. In its ritual, it borrowed heavily from Zoroastrianism, making light (Sun and fire) an object of divine worship and reciting, as in Hinduism, the 1,000 Sanskrit names of the Sun.”
This was a major departure from his own behaviours and customs. Unfortunately this universal religion did not take hold as only 19 adherents are known.
Akbar’s deeds mirrored those of Genghis Khan
In many ways, Akbar’s accomplishments are similar to those of his ancestor, Genghis Khan. Genghis Kahn was also raised in poverty but became the most powerful ruler of the known world at the time. In the words of Jack Weatherford in his book “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”: “In American terms, the accomplishments of Genghis Khan might be understood if the United States, instead of being created by a group of educated merchants or wealthy planters, had been founded by one of its illiterate slaves, who, by sheer force of personality, charisma, and determination, liberated America from foreign rule, united the people, created an alphabet, wrote the constitution, established universal religious freedom, invented a new system of warfare, marched an army from Canada to Brazil, and opened roads of commerce in a free-trade zone that stretched across the continents”.
The Building of Fatehpur Sikri
“It was a little over 400 years ago, when Michelangelo was busy working on his plans for St. Peter’s in Rome, that the third Mughal Emperor Akbar – a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I of England – decided to build a new city for his court and residence near Agra in India” – the late Satish K. Davar in The Sir George Birdwood Memorial Lecture delivered to the Commonwealth Section of Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, on the 29th of April 1975.
Akbar, despite his numerous wives, had been childless for years. This was because his children died in infancy. He continued to pray for a son, visiting many shrines of famous muslim saints. Finally he met Sheikh Salim Chishti in Sikri; the holy man assured Akbar that he would have three sons. Soon after this Akbar was informed that his Hindu wife Jodha of Jaipur was pregnant. Akbar sent Jodha to Sikri to be under the care of Salim Chisti during the latter part of her pregnancy. His first son was born on August 30, 1569, and named Salim in honour of the holy man (Salim became the heir and went on to become the Emperor Jahangir after Akbar’s death). His other 2 sons were born to Bairam’s widow whom Akbar had married, and to one of his concubines, respectively. He had 3 daughters as well.
Akbar, at the age of 28, then spent 15 years planning and building a city in Sikri, which he called Fatehpur (Victory Town) Sikri (after the initial name Fatehabad or City of Victory). The city stands to this day but was abandoned by Akbar in 1585.
Why was Fatehpur Sikri Abandoned?
It is a popular myth that Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned because the city ran out of water. Modern experts have doubted this explanation and attribute the abandonment to Akbar’s preoccupation with his various ongoing battles, requiring him to move his headquarters closer to the action, compounded by flood damage in Fatehpur which he had no time to attend to.
Akbar died on October 27, 1605 at the age of 63. He had developed a gastrointestinal disorder resembling dysentery, but it has been speculated that he had been poisoned by his son Salim (Jahangir) or his other enemies. His physicians had expected that he would recover, and initially gave him no treatment, but he died soon after they began to treat him. Another theory is that Akbar accidentally poisoned himself while planning to poison Raja Man Singh, mistakenly swallowing the poisonous potion instead of the innocuous one he had prepared for himself.