The Akbar-Birbal Stories We Know and Love – History as Anecdote – Part 2

I left the last post talking about the Akbar-Birbal stories that have become indispensable to us as a nation. I mentioned the shared pattern of most of these short stories or anecdotes and wondered why Akbar is supposedly shown in a poor light. Was this distaste for a Muslim Emperor by a Hindu narrator?

Before I begin to meditate on some of these questions, a brief background about the so-called Refuge of the World, Emperor Akbar, is in order. This is not to narrate Akbar’s life story, but provide information relevant to our main concern here: Akbar’s ideas on religion, his attitude towards non-Muslim subjects and so on.

Emperor Akbar then was known to be eclectic in terms of religion. He showed fondness for theological matters and this included an interest not just in the Quran but also in Hindu epics. He, moreover, was in perpetual battle against certain Muslim religious dignitaries over things that included a more liberal reading of religion. Besides, Akbar married several Hindu princesses who weren’t forced to convert to Islam as was customary. He remained a pious Muslim but did several things to ensure that those who weren’t of his faith were not excluded in any way. This led to him abolishing the jizya and other such discriminatory taxes which had been levied against Hindu subjects by his predecessors. He never forced anyone including his courtiers to convert to Islam. And speaking of courtiers, his by-and-large favourite Birbal was actually Hindu and went by the name of Mahesh Das. So close was Akbar to Birbal that his grief at Birbal’s death was profound and led to a long period of State mourning.

Birbal was born, according to Naim, in 1528 in a bhatt-brahman family in a village that was close to the town of Kalpi. Historians state that he took up the profession of a poet at several Rajput courts. It is unclear how he came to Akbar’s attention but once he did, Birbal acquired a powerful position in Akbar’s court. The new name and title (Raja Birbar, or, “Renowned Warrior”) were bestowed by Akbar himself on his best-loved courtier.

So how did these anecdotes about Akbar and Birbal as we know them today come to the fore? Were they real events and, if so, who recorded them? Were they fictional but having a basis in truth? If so, how did they evolve into the witty stories that we know them to be today? To ask these questions is to ask something about the very nature of history and history writing.

I’ll take up all of this – you guessed it! – in the next post.