Biography of Akbar the Great (Mughal Emperor)

Akbar (1556-1605 A.D.)

Akbar, also known as Akbar the Great, ascended the throne of Mughal Empire at the young age of 14 in 1556.

After the sudden death of his father, Humayun, the new young emperor (Akbar) succeeded to a difficult position. The Afghans had still enough military power and they were regrouping their forces under the Afghan leader Ali Adil Shah and his Hindu General Hemu. Under the leadership of Hemu the Afghan forces captured Delhi and Agra. After the capture of Delhi Hemu assumed the title of Vikramjit and declared himelf emperor.

At that time Akbar and his wazir and guardian Bairam Khan, a loyal friend of Humayun, was in the Punjab. On hearing the catastrophic news of the fall of Delhi they proceeded towards Delhi. Hemu also marched towards the Punjab. The two armies met at the historical plains of Panipat on November 5, 1556. Though Hemu fought valiantly, he was defeated and put to death. Thus the Second Battle of Panipat (1556 A.D.) again decided the fate of India in favour of the Mughal Empire and Akbar.  It also ended the Mughal-Afghan contest for supremacy.

Fall of Bairam Khan

Bairam Khan remained at the helm of affairs of the state for about four years. During his regency Gwalior, Ajmer and Jaunpur were captured. Akbar was growing up and he wanted to rule the realm himself. Bairam Khan was dismissed and was asked to go to Mecca. On his way to Mecca he was assassinated by an Afghan soldier who bore personal grudge against him.

After the fall of Bairam Khan for a time Akbar’s foster mother Maham Anga and some of her close relatives wielded the power. But in 1564, at the age of twenty, Akbar took full control of the empire in his own hands.

Akbar’s Conquest

Akbar was an imperialist. After the fall of Bairam Akbar had to face several rebellions. These rebellions created an opinion in Akbar’s mind that existence of other states, big or small, were dangerous for the paramount power. Some writers like Abut Fazal, however, said that Akbar had wanted to extend the empire to provide good government to the peoples living in other states. In the initial years of his reign, Akbar abolished Pilgrim’s Tax in 1563 and Jiziya in 1564. In spite of these internal reforms Akbar found time to make preparation for his conquests. His first victim was Gondwana (now northern part of the Central Province). Rani Durgavati, who was regent for her young son, fought valiantly against the Mughal General. But she could not stem the onslaught of the vast Mughal army. After a brave resistance the queen committed suicide.

Rajputs policy of Akbar

After the conquest of Gondwana Akbar turned his attention to Rajputana. Akbar felt that for the safety of the Mughal Empire and for expansion towards western and southern India, Rajputana was strategically important. He also knew that if he could receive help of the brave Rajputs warriors, his empire would be secure and his dependence on the fortune seekers from Afghanistan and Central Asia would be reduced. So he tried to earn the friendship of the Rajputs and adopted three policies towards Rajputs princes. With some important royal families he effected matrimonial alliance. He gave the princes of these Rajputs families high posts both in civil and military departments. Some other Rajputs princes offered submission but did not send their daughters to the Mughal harem. Akbar treated them leniently and allowed them to retain their kingdoms as his vassals. But some Rajput Kings like Rana Udai Singh of Mewar refused to suffer the ignominy of the Mughal rule. Akbar tried to crush them. Akbar’s Rajputs policy was a part of his grand plan of establishing a vast empire.

Though most of the Rajputs states recognized Akbar as their emperor, Mewar did not. So Akbar invaded Mewar and besieged Chittor in 1567. Rana Udai Singh fled from Chittor. But the Rajputs of the Chittor fort offered brave resistance under the leadership of Jaimal and Putta. After a heroic resistance for four months Akbar was able to conquer the fort. The Rajputs fought to the last and almost all of them died. After the fall of Chittor the rulers of Bikaner and Jaisalmer voluntarily offered their submission. The ruler of Ranthambhor also surrendered after a little resistance.

But even after that Mewar under Rana Pratap Singh, the valiant son of Udai Singh continued to defy the Mughals. Against him Akbar sent a vast army under Asaf Khan and Man Singh. On 18th June, 1576, Pratap fought a valiant battle against the Mughals in the Battle of Haldighati. But he was defeated and had to leave the battle field. Even after this Rana Pratap continued his heroic resistance. Before his death in 1597 he was able to restore most of Mewar except Chittor.

Other Conquests

After Mewar Akbar turned his eyes to the rich province of Gujarat. The ports of Gujarat were important as centers of trade with West Asia and Europe. In 1572 Akbar invaded Gujarat and conquered Ahmedabad. Next year he again came to Gujarat, conquered the rich port Surat and annexed the province. Akbar’s empire now extended to the sea and he could profit by the rich commerce passing through Surat and other western ports.

After the fall of Gujarat, Akbar turned his attention to Bengal and Bihar. Daud Khan, the ruler of Bengal and Bihar had declared independence. Akbar sent various expeditions between 1574 to 1576 to these provinces. Daud Khan was finally defeated and killed in 1576 and his kingdom was annexed. But the powerful local chiefs of east and south-east Bengal known as Baro Bhuiyans continued to resist for some time.

Then Akbar turned his attention to north-western India which had become a trouble-spot and refuge for rebels. In 1581 Akbar defeated his younger brother Hakim who ruled as an independent king in Kabul. Akbar annexed Kabul after the death of Hakim in 1585. He completed the conquest of Kashmir, Sind and Kandahar between 1586 to 1595 A.D. By this time, Akbar had become the master of northern and central India.

Having thus completed the conquest of northern India Akbar sought to conquer southern India. He stormed Ahmadnagar in 1600 and captured Asirgarh in Khandesh in 1601 A.D. That was his last conquest. At his death four years later Akbar’s empire extended from Kabul in the west to Bengal in the east and from the foot of the Himalayas in the north to the river Narmada in the south.

Akbar’s administration

The principle and systems of Mughal administration was mainly the product of the genius of Akbar. His administrative system requires careful study as it continued to be the basis of the administrative system up to the time of the British rule.

The Mughal Emperors were despotic rulers in whose hands all civil and military powers of the state were concentrated. The emperor was the supreme commander of the imperial forces and fountain-head of justice; his word was law. But as it was not possible for any person to bear the whole burden, the emperor took advice and active assistance from his ministers. Of the ministers, four were important. They were: (i) Vakil or Prime minister, (ii) Wazir or Diwan who was the finance minister, (iii) Mir Bhaksi who was in charge of the military department and (iv) Mirsaman or the store-keeper.

Provincial administration

For the convenience of provincial administration Akbar divided his empire in 15 provinces. There were some autonomous feudatory areas as well. Subedars were in charge of the provincial administration. They maintained law and order of the area under their command and carried out the orders of the emperor.

For the collection of revenue there was a Diwan. Akbar divided distinctly the powers of Subedar and Diwan. Thus the power of the provinces could not be concentrated in the hands of any single person.

The subas were again subdivided into sarkars or districts. Each sarkar was under a Faujdar. He was responsible for administration of the sarkar. The sarkars were again subdivided into parganas.

Land Revenue System

Like Sher Shah, Akbar also showed interest in the land revenue system. During the early years of his reign Akbar made several revenue experiments. At last Todarmal’s system of revenue was adopted.

Three salient features of the Mughal land-revenue system was introduced by Akbar. They were:

  • Measurement of land,
  • Classification of land and
  • Fixation of rate.

Todarmal made a thorough survey of land.

There were different systems of collection of land revenue.

The main source of the Mughal treasury was the land-revenue. But customs duties, mint, presents or peshkash, imposition of fines and war-booties etc. also fetched considerable sum.

Many historians have praised the revenue system of Akbar. The state became sure about its income. On the other hand, the peasants were saved from the oppression of the tax-collectors.

Mansabdari system. Its advantages and disadvantages:

Akbar knew that the expansion and the maintenance of the empire could be best done by organizing the nobility as well as the army. Akbar felt that both these purposes could be served by the mansabdari system. Under this system every office was assigned a rank (mansab). He created 33 ranks ranging from the command of 10 to that of 7,000 horsemen.

The mansabdars could be assigned civil, military or judicial functions. The recruitment, promotion and demotion of the mansabdars all depended upon the sweet will of the emperor. The lesser mansabdars were paid in cash while the mansabdars belonging to higher category were granted jagirs. To check malpractices the horses under the mansabdars were branded. Mansabdari system was not hereditary like jagirdari system. The mansabdars were often transferred by the emperor.

The jagirdari system encourages conspiracies and revolts. The mansabdari system checked the process to a great extent. As lowering or upgrading of ranks depended on the efficiency and will of the emperor the mansabdars generally tried to prove their efficiency.

But this system had some defects too. As the soldiers got their salary from the mansabdars, they owed primary allegiance to the mansabdars and not to the emperor. Secondly, as the mansabdari system was not hereditary, often it induced the mansabdars to be extravagant. This luxurious life style of the props of the empire later assisted in bringing its downfall.

Akbar’s religious policy

Akbar was very tolerant in his religious views. In his childhood he was impressed by the liberal religious ideas of his teacher, Abdul Latif and Sufism. In cherishing liberal views towards the Hindus and Rajputs these impressions had a role.

Akbar’s religious views went through a process of slow evolution. This evolution of religious ideas of Akbar can be divided into three phases. During the first phase which lasted till 1574 he was an orthodox Sunni Muslim.

The period between 1574 to 1582 belonged to the second phase of his religious life. In 1575, Akbar built a hall called Ibadat Khana or the Hall of Prayer at his new capital Fatehpur Sikri. Selected men representing various schools of religious ideas—Muslim, Hindu, Parsi, Jain, Christian etc.—used to take part in religious debates.

Din-i-Ilahi

Having made a comparative study of many religions, Akbar came to the conclusion that all religions are basically one and the same and therefore, there should be no and hatred among their followers. He picked up good points from many religions to evolve a religion of his own known as the Din-i-Ilahi. Abul Fazal and Badauni called the new path proclaimed by Akbar as tauhid-i-Ilahi which literally means ‘Divine Monotheism’.

The following principles of Din-i-Ilahi are worth mentioning.

  1. God is one and the Emperor is His representative on earth.
  2. The believers in this faith were required to offer prostration to the Emperor.
  3. The members of this new faith were to abstain from taking meat and drinks. They were expected to lead a virtuous life.
  4. There were no sacred books or scriptures, no priestly class, no place of worship or rituals and ceremonies except the initiation in the Din-i-Ilahi order.

By practicing this faith Akbar tried to emphasize the concept of religious tolerance. According to Abul Fazal the followers of Din-­i-Ilahi were prepared to offer their property, society, life and religion for the Emperor. The main aim of Akbar behind preaching this religion was to strengthen the integrity of the empire. He knew that for this purpose the administrative unity alone was not sufficient. It required religious and cultural unity as well.

Akbar’s cultural life and his Court:

Perhaps it is wrong to assume that Akbar was an illiterate person as many historians say. He was a man of refined taste and had profound knowledge in various fields of art and architecture. He had a very good library. Many learned and talented persons were assembled in his court and so it became a centre of learning.

Among the luminaries who attended his court, the names of the following persons are worth mentioning. Abul Fazal, the celebrated writer of Ain-i-­Akbari and Akbarnama was his close associate. Faizi, Abul Fazal’s brother, a great scholar and poet, also adorned Akbar’s court. Nizam-ud-din and Badauni were two other reputed historians of Akbar’s court. Baz Bahadur, former ruler of Malwa, who later surrendered to Akbar and became one of his courtiers was a man of taste and won great reputation as a musician. The celebrated musician Tansen also adorned his court. Another luminary was Raja Birbal. He was known for his humor, quick wit, keen intellect and robust common sense. He was also a poet and won from Akbar the title of Kaviraja.

Estimate

Akbar was great as a conqueror but he was even greater as an administrator and organizer. He laid the foundation of an imperial structure of administration, under which the country was successfully governed by his descendants for over a century after his death. A great patron of art, architecture, education and learning, Akbar identified himself completely with the land and its people and did his best to impart Socio-cultural unity to the empire. He inculcated a firm faith in the principle of one country, one government and one people.

It was Akbar who made Mughal empire stable in India by treating all his subjects—Hindus and Muslims—alike and by winning over his subjects by adopting various popular measures like abolition of Jizia, tax on pilgrimage etc. He wanted to make India a nation that would neither be Hindu nor Muslim but only Indian. For this Jawaharlal Nehru has rightly described Akbar as the “Father of Indian Nationalism”.

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