Characteristics of Akbar

Chapter 21

Akbar, as seen in middle life, was a man of moderate stature, perhaps five foot seven inches in height, strongly built, neither too slight nor too stout, broad-chested, narrow-waisted, and long-armed. His legs were somewhat bowed inwards from the effect of much riding in boyhood, and when walking he slightly dragged the left leg, as if he were lame, although the limb was sound. His head drooped a little towards the right shoulder. His forehead was broad and open. The nose war of moderate size, rather short, with a bony prominence in the middle, and nostrils dilated as if with anger. A small wart about half the size of a pea which connected the left nostril with the upper lip was considered to be a lucky mark. His black eyebrows were thin, and the Mongolian strain of blood in his veins was indicated by the narrow eyes characteristic of the Tartar, Chinese, and Japanese races. The eyes sparkled brightly and were "vibrant like the sea in sunshine." His complexion, sometime, described by the Indian term "wheat-coloured," was dark rather than fair. His face was clean shaven, except for a small, closely trimmed moustache worn in the fashion adopted by young Turks on the verge of manhood. His hair was allowed to grow, not being dipped close in the ancestral manner. His very loud voice was credited with "a peculiar richness." . . .

Akbar was extremely moderate in his diet, taking but one substantial meal in the day, which was served whenever he called for it, not at any fixed hour. The variety of dishes placed at his disposal was of course great, and they were presented with appropriate magnificence and elaborate precautions against poison. He cared little for flesh food, and gave up the use of it almost entirely in the later years of his life, when he came under Jain influence. . . .

He followed the practice of his family for many generations in consuming both strong drink and various preparations of opium, sometimes to excess. His drinking bouts, naturally, were more frequent while he was young than they were in his more mature years, but it is certain that tolerably often he was "in his cups," as his son puts it. When he had drunk more than was good for him he performed various mad freaks, as when at Agra he galloped the elephant Hawäï across the bridge of boats, and at Surat tried to fight his sword . . . .

He took special delight in the practice of mechanical arts with his own hands. We an told that "there is nothing that he does not know how to do, whether matters of war, or of administration, or of any mechanical art. Wherefore he takes particular pleasure in making guns and in founding and modelling cannon." Workshops were maintained on a large scale within the palace enclosure, and were frequently visited by him. He was credited with many inventions and improvements. That side of his character suggests a comparison with Peter the Great. . . .

"A monarch," he said, "should be ever intent on conquest, otherwise his neighbours rise in arms against him. The army should be exercised in warfare, lest from want of training they become self-indulgent." Accordingly he continued to be intent on conquest all his life and to keep his army in constant training. He never attained more than a part of the objective of his ambition, which included the conquest of every part of India besides Central Asia. . . .

In 1582 he resolved to attempt the impossible task of providing all sects in his empire with one universal eclectic religion to which he gave the name of Divine Monotheism. He persuaded himself that he was the viceregent of the Almighty, empowered to rule the spiritual as well as the temporal concerns of his subjects. That audacious attempt was an utter failure, but Akbar never formally admitted the fact, and to the end of his life he persisted in maintaining the farce of the new religion. From the time he proclaimed that creed he was not a Muslim. The formula of initiation required the categorical apostasy from Islam of the person initiated.

His attitude towards religion expressed the queer mixture in his mind of mysticism, rationalism, superstition, and a profound belief in his own God-given powers. His actions at times gave substantial grounds for the reproach that he was not unwilling to be regarded as a God on earth.

From V. A. SmithAkbar, the Great Mogul (1542-1605), Clarendon Press, 1919. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.


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