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Akbar was a colourful man: Belgian historian

Wednesday May 04, 2011 03:56:28 PM, Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS

New Delhi: His harem boasted of 5,000 women, 300 of whom were his real companions. His secular outlook is a lesson for contemporary times and he understood, much before any Muslim ruler of India, that the country could be strong only if its inhabitants were united. Mughal emperor Akbar was fundamentally "an eclectic, a rationalist as well as a mystic", says Belgian historian and writer Dirk Collier.

"Akbar's wives received an allowance of Rs.1,500 a month, which helped them fend for their families and children. They were financially well-off. Many of the women in his harems commissioned monumental buildings," Collier told IANS in an e-mail interview from Knokke, his hometown in Belgium.

"His Hindu queen, the princess of Amber (in Rajasthan), amassed a personal fortune more than many European traders of that era by freighting silk and spices on ships across the seas. Records cite that Akbar often chatted with her about her trade."

Collier has brought Abu-l-Muzaffar Jalaluddin Muhammed Akbar, or Akbar the Great, alive from the tomes of history in a fact-laced-with-fiction novel, "The Emperor's Writings". The book, published by Amaryllis, an imprint of Manjul Publishing House, arrived in Indian bookstores last week.

The book unravels Akbar, who ruled from 1556 to his death in 1605, as a man with a colourful personal life, a man who was fond of female company but could not work up passion like his son Jahangir. His women remained mostly companions, Collier says.

For Collier, a senior board member of Johnson & Johnson (in Belgium) and a visiting professor at Antwerp University, the novel is his first journey into the heart of the Mughal empire and Indian historical writing.

Written in the form of an epistle - or a long letter - from Akbar to his son Jahangir, the volume chronicles the life of the Mughal emperor in a first person account and all that he wanted to tell his rebellious son about politics and warfare.

"Whatever it was that had estranged Jahangir from his father, it completely disappeared after Akbar's death. It is a well-known historical fact that Jahangir tried to emulate Akbar and held him in the highest reverence, in speech as well as in writing," Collier says.

The 54-year-old writer said "when in Agra, Jahangir would often visit his father's tomb at Sikandra".

"It is said he would always dismount, kneel down and rub his forehead on the doorstep of the mausoleum," Collier said.

Collier said he was inspired to write the book by a "17th-century painting, commissioned by Jahangir, showing him holding his father's portrait."

"It is as if Akbar is gently talking to his son. Right from the start, that is exactly how I imagined my book - Akbar talking to his son, from beyond the grave," Collier said.

"It took me seven years to write the book," he added.

The writer came upon Akbar for the first time in 2002, while reading books on the history of Goa "with a vague intention of writing after retirement." But as he immersed himself into the life of Akbar, Collier abandoned his earlier project and decided that his debut novel should be about Akbar.

"I have read not only most of the history books of our age but also translations and contemporary Mughal sources, including the highly critical Tarikh-i-Badauni and 5,000 pages of Abu'l Fazl's monumental 'Akbar Nama' and 'Ain-i-Akbari'," Collier said.

Akbar's wife Salima Sultana's accounts were another source of information.

Analysing Akbar's political foresight, the writer said the reason why Akbar could tether the disparate Indian flock together was because "he understood more than any Muslim ruler before him that Hindustan could be strong if inhabitants, diverse as they were, were united".

"He attempted to rule in strict neutrality. His wives or courtiers or anyone else did not require to abandon their religion. He spent countless hours convincing himself and others that even rigorously orthodox Islam is perfectly compatible with universal tolerance and pluralism," he said.

Collier quotes Akbar's favourite historian and confidant Abu'l Fazl to explain why the ruler's secular religion Din-e-Illahi failed.

"Abu'l Fazl is reported to have said - with his usual discernment and wit - that 'The Emperor is Parsi in his rites, Hindu in his food, and Sufi in his heart'.

"Akbar fundamentally was an eclectic, a rationalist as well as a mystic, who came to regard all religions as merely human attempts to honour and serve an ineffable, unattainable reality," Collier said.

The writer will soon begin his research on Ahmed Lahori, the chief architect of the Taj Mahal, for a new book on the mausoleum and its creator Shah Jahan.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at





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