Perhaps one of the greatest emperors of the Mughal Empire, if not the best, was Jalal-ud-din Mohammad Akbar, also known as Akbar the Great. Akbar succeeded his father, Humayun, under a regent, Bairam Khan, who helped the young emperor expand and consolidate Mughal domains in India. A strong personality and a successful general, Akbar gradually enlarged the Mughal Empire to include nearly all of the Indian Subcontinent north of the Godavari river. His power and influence, however, extended over the entire country because of Mughal military, political, cultural, and economic dominance. To unify the vast Mughal state, Akbar established a centralized system of administration throughout his empire and adopted a policy of conciliating conquered rulers through marriage and diplomacy. In order to preserve peace and order in a religiously and culturally diverse empire, he adopted policies that won him the support of his non-Muslim subjects.
Akbar was fond of literature and created a library of over 24,000 volumes written in Sanskrit, Hindustani, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic and Kashmiri, staffed by many scholars, translators, artists, calligraphers, scribes, bookbinders and readers. Holy men of all kinds of faith would arrive at Akbar’s courts at Agra, Delhi and Fatehpur Sikiri regarding discussions about poetry, writing etc. At one point during his reign, Akbar created, what seemed to be a new religion to many, called Din-i-Ilahi (Divine Faith). By abolishing the sectarian tax on non-Muslims and appointing them to high civil and military posts, he was the first Mughal ruler to win the trust and loyalty of the native subjects.
Akbar was born on October 14th 1542 , at the Rajput Fortress of Umerkot in Sindh (in modern-day Pakistan), where Emperor Humayun and his recently wedded wife, Hamida Banu Begum, daughter of Shaikh Ali Akbar Jami, a Persian, were taking refuge.
Humayun had been driven into exile in Persia by the Pashtun leader Sher Shah Suri. Akbar did not go along with his parents and was instead looked after by his other family members, Mirza Askari and Mirza Kamran, and his aunts, in particular Mirza Kamran’s wife. As a young boy, Akbar learned to hunt, run and fight, but he never learned to read and write. This, however did not hinder Akbar’s knowledge. In November 1551, Akbar married his first cousin, Ruqaiya Sultan Begum at Jalandhar. Princess Ruqaiya was the only daughter of his paternal uncle, Hindal Mirza, and was his first wife and chief consort.
Following the chaos over the succession of Sher Shah Suri’s son Islam Shah, Humayun reconquered Delhi in 1555, leading an army partly provided by his Persian ally Tahmasp I. A few months later, Humayun died. Akbar’s guardian, Bairam Khan concealed the death in order to prepare for Akbar’s succession. Akbar succeeded Humayun on 14 February 1556, while in the midst of a war against Sikandar Shah to reclaim the Mughal throne (Bairam Khan acted as emperor until Akbar could at the right age).
Akbar was accorded the epithet “the Great” due to his many accomplishments, among which was his record of unbeaten military campaigns that both established and consolidated Mughal rule in the Indian subcontinent. Innovations in cannons, fortifications and use of elephants increased the power of the Mughal military and with Akbar’s interest in matchlocks, with Portuguese, Italians and Ottomans, they started working on firearms and artillery. It explains why some historians refer to the Mughal Empire as the Gunpowder Empire.
Akbar, who had been born in 1542 while his father, Humayun, was in flight from the victorious Surs, was only thirteen when he was proclaimed emperor in 1556. As the Surs reconquered Agra and Delhi following the death of Humayun, Bairam Khan insisted that they battle the strongest of the Surs, Sikander Shah Suri to reclaim them; and that they did. But more was to come.
Samrat Hem Chandra Vikramaditya, popularly called Hemu, the Hindu ruler North India from Delhi hoisted his way for the Second Battle of Panipat which took place on November 5th 1556. It was a decisive victory for Akbar who overcame the enemy when Hemu dispatched from his elephant. Once he dismounted and saddled up on his horse, an arrow hit Hemu in the eye and he fell from his horse. His troops immediately fled while Hemu was taken prisoner and immediately beheaded on the orders of the emperor. As a result, after Akbar’s victory on Hemu, it brought the restoration period of the Mughal Empire.
By 1559, the Mughals had launched a drive to the south into Rajputana and Malwa. However, due to disputes between the eighteen-year old emperor and Baraim Khan, the expansion was paused. Akbar dismissed Khan from his post in 1560 who went off for pilgrimage only to be goaded to rebel by his opponents. He lost the battle in the Punjab and was forced to submit, but Akbar forgave him and gave him two choices: either he continue his job at the court or go off on pilgrimage again. He chose the latter, but Bairam Khan was assassinated on his way to Mecca, allegedly by an Afghan with a personal vendetta.
Despite ultimate success in Malwa, the conflict however, exposed cracks in Akbar’s personal relationships with his relatives and Mughal nobles. When Adham Khan confronted Akbar following another dispute in 1562, he was struck down by the emperor and thrown from a terrace into the palace courtyard at Agra. Still alive, Adham Khan was dragged up and thrown to the courtyard once again by Akbar to ensure his death. Akbar now sought to eliminate the threat of over-mighty subjects.
Akbar then set his sights on the Gondwana Kingdom, known for its herds of wild elephants. The territory was ruled over by Raja Vir Narayan, a minor, and his mother, Durgavati, a Rajput warrior queen of the Gonds. However, Akbar did not lead this revolt and instead let Asaf Khan, the governor of Kara lead. Durgavati committed suicide after her defeat at the Battle of Damoh while Raja Vir Narayan was slain at the Fall of Chauragarh, the mountain fortress of the Gonds. The Mughals seized immense wealth, an uncalculated amount of gold and silver, jewels and 1000 elephants. Kamala Devi, a younger sister of Durgavati, was sent to the Mughal harem. Despite the worthy conquer and wealth, another dispute evolved by Akbar regarding Asaf Khan keeping most of the elephants arose. He gave Akbar only 200 elephants, but with more and more pressure, he had no other choice but to return the rest.
Having established Mughal rule over northern India, Akbar turned his attention to the conquest of Rajputana. No imperial power in India based on the Indo-Gangetic plains could be secure if a rival centre of power existed on its flank in Rajputana. The Mughals had already established domination over parts of northern Rajputana in Mewat, Ajmer, and Nagor, but Akbar had different views. He was keen on driving into the heartlands of the Rajputs who never submitted to the Mughal Empire. Thus, in 1567, Akbar moved to reduce the Chittorgarh Fort in Mewar. The fort fell into the hands of the Mughals after a four-month siege which ended in February 1568. The fall of Chittorgarh was followed up by a Mughal attack on the Ranthambore Fort in 1568. Ranthambore was held by the Hada Rajputs and reputed to be the most powerful fortress in India. However, it fell only after a couple of months. Akbar was now the master of almost the whole of Rajputana. The conquest of Rajputana would be celebrated by Akbar by constructing a new city called Fatehpur Sikri (the city of victory).
Akbar’s next military objectives were the conquest of Gujarat and Bengal, which connected India with the trading centres of Asia, Africa, and Europe through the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal respectively. Furthermore, Gujarat had been a haven for rebellious Mughal nobles, while in Bengal, the Afghans still held considerable influence under their ruler, Sulaiman Khan Karrani. Akbar’s first stop was Gujrat, which held possessions of rich agricultural production in its central plain; an impressive output of textiles and other industrial goods, and the busiest seaports of India. Simultaneously in 1572 and 1573, Akbar took control of Ahmeddabad and had driven out the Mirza respectively, establishing Surat as the main capital of the Mughal trading.
After 1573, Akbar had control of most of the Afghan territories except Bengal, which was the first priority of Akbar. Setting off to seaize Patna from Daud Khan who succeeded his father, Sulaiman Khan in 1572, fled to Bengal in 1574. Following Patna was the Battle of Tukaroi in 1575 which led to the annexation of Bengal and Bihar, once-controlled by Daud Khan. A year later, however, Daud Khan rebelled and attempted to regain Bengal. He was defeated by the Mughal general, Khan Jahan Quli, and had to flee into exile. Daud Khan was later captured and executed by Mughal forces.
Akbar left Fatehpur Sikri in 1581 after an attempt by his brother, Mirza Muhammad Hakim, to capture Punjab had begun. Akbar expelled his brother to Kabul and this time pressed on, determined to end the threat from Muhammad Hakim once and for all. In August 1581, Akbar pressed onto Kabul and took shelter in Babur’s old citadel. He later left Kabul in the hands of his sister, Bakht-un-Nisa Begum, returned India, but only to find out in 1585 that his brother, Mirza Hakim had died and passed Kabul to the Mughal Empire.
Over the next few years/months, more serious problems about Mughal rule would lead to more battles, executions and invasion, but with Akbar’s military intelligence, he was able to overcome them and expanded more towards in the Indus Valley.
He sent an army to conquer Kashmir in 1581 and conquered it after Ali Shah, the reigning king of the Shia Chak dynasty, surrendered. But Yagur, Shah’s son, crowned himself king and lead a stubborn resistance, but later surrendered in 1589. In 1595, while preparing to take Kandhar from the Safavids, Akbar sent an army to conquer Baluchistan.
Afterwards, Akbar would take on the Safavids to expand his empire even more, but that we will discuss in the coming week. Akbar’s way of ruling was quite different. Historians believe that peasants under his rule did not suffer as much as the later emperors or great rulers would do so.
That’s all for today. See you next week as I’ll talk more about Akbar’s reign.