The Akbar-Birbal Stories We Know and Love – History as Anecdote – Part 1

One day Akbar Badshah commanded Birbar [=Birbal], “Bring me a Muslim turned into a Hindu.” Birbal asked for the respite of one week. The king agreed. When six days had passed, on the seventh day Birbar took a donkey to the river and busied himself in bathing it. It happened that Akbar Badshah too came to the river. He asked, “Oh Birbar, what are you doing?”  He submitted, “Refuge of the World, I am bathing this donkey, so that it will turn into a horse.”  The king said, “You fool, can a donkey possibly turn into a horse?” Birbar submitted, “Refuge of the World, how can a Muslim turn into a Hindu?”


One day Akbar Badshah drew a line with his auspicious hand on the floor of the open court, and commanded, “Make this small, but don’t by any means erase it with your hand.” All those present were stupefied. When Raja Birbar’s turn came, he at once drew another line next to it, and didn’t disturb the first line. Those present saw it, and said, “In truth, the first line is small(er).” 


There are several such stories which have been in circulation throughout the country since centuries. As children, we have grown up with the morals of these stories. As adults, we have enjoyed the more mature overtones of some of these anecdotes.

All these stories and anecdotes follow a similar pattern: there is a puzzle or a question posed by Akbar which the reader/listener can not directly know or answer. This is followed by a witty rejoinder from Birbal. The emperor is left looking stupid and we tend to admire Birbal’s wit and charm at coming up with such an answer. There may, alternatively, be something which the emperor is trying to do, which meets with Birbal’s disapproval and the rest of the story is about trying to show the emperor the mirror. In all of these cases, Birbal is shown as smart, witty and with good moral sense while Akbar is shown to require help in governance and matters of the world.

Yet, have we ever wondered from where these stories come? How did they originate and come to be in a form in which we find them today?

And especially, in today’s Islamophobic world, an important question worth pursuing is whether these stories only show contempt for a Muslim ruler intellectually defeated by a Hindu courtier. Do these stories show Akbar in a poor light? Is this suppressed Hindu rage? And if so, why are there not such anecdotes repeated about other Muslim rulers, especially other much harsher rulers such as Aurangzeb?

These are complex questions indeed. Taking the help from a study by C.M. Naim, I shall try to answer some of these questions. I shall also try to find an answer as to why these stories persist as anecdotes, as riddles, as amusing stories, and come to an end by saying a few things about history itself as anecdote.

But all this in the next post. Happy reading!