The Akbar-Birbal Stories We Know and Love – History as Anecdote – Part 4

After part 1, 2 and 3, I consider how it is that the Akbar-Birbal stories have traveled across time. I do this to see if the events as they as showcased in the stories actually happened, or, are entirely fictitious?
My opinion is that these stories have been coloured over time, especially if we consider the folk form, and have twisted and turned into how we know these stories today.

To begin with the history of the representation of these stories, I turn to the study by C.M. Naim. He states that the first probable reference to Birbal as a famous wit occurs in an 18th-century biographical dictionary on Mughal courtiers. He also talks separately about the Islamic tradition of “pairs” which are essentially ritual literary stock figures – something that influences the Akbar-Birbal stories a lot. Moreover, Akbar received a high status after his death, becoming in “deed and word” the most significant Mughal ruler of all time. He also states that after only a century of their deaths, the Akbar-Birbal stories were well-known in north India.

What does this study tell us then? It tells us, to bear repetition, that folk narratives, such as the Akbar-Birbal anecdotes, should be seen as symbolic in their meaning and not literal. To quote Naim directly, “Anonymous popular tales and other folklore can contribute to our understanding of political history… Folk tales are themselves history of a sort.” So long as they are not seen as literal imprints, of course.

What the Akbar-Birbal stories do is not depict Akbar in a poor light. There would always be the odd Islamophobic who thinks so, but on the whole thinking that would be too reductive. What they really do rather is to shed light on the worth and value of Akbar’s reign for Indian history. Not only are his various artifacts, such as the ruins of the forts built by him, or the writings of history commissioned by him, important, what is also significant are the anecdotal tales – popular even today.

These become then valuable remnants of a valuable past.



Here are the anecdotes stated at the commencement of the series of posts.

And the study by C.M. Naim that I’ve acknowledged throughout these posts.