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HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksExcerpt: Akbar of Hindustan by Parvati Sharma

Excerpt: Akbar of Hindustan by Parvati Sharma

Paronkh was no Panipat, no defining battle for the books, but it was the first that Akbar led, and he won. Similarly, appointing Shamsuddin Ataka his vakil may not have been the most important administrative decision that Akbar ever took, but it was a decision he took alone – and he stuck by it. In the second month of his seventh year on the throne, Akbar’s veil had become decidedly worn and translucent with age.

Still, it hadn’t slipped away.

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A little after Paronkh, Shah Tahmasp of Persia finally sent condolences for Humayun’s passing. The embassy, led by the shah’s cousin, may have signalled an emerging respect for Akbar in the region. After seven years on the throne, he was more than a flash in the pan; though in a painting of the scene, he hasn’t quite outgrown his boyhood. Slim, beardless, his moustache an adolescent wisp, Akbar looks almost as young as the pageboys standing behind him. At least, in the painting, the emperor is enthroned and attended upon with some formality; Abul Fazl describes the event with all the requisite pomp: great gifts from each side to the other, the ambassador reading out the shah’s letter after “kissing the carpet”. In fact, as an eyewitness describes it, the bemused ambassador may have had some trouble identifying his host.

Cries of “Badshah Salamat” filled the air, writes Rafi al-din Ibrahim Shirazi, a Persian immigrant at the scene, but it was impossible to tell who they were hailing. “I looked to my left and right but did not find anyone having the appearance of a king. As I turned around, I saw standing there a young man of about twenty years.” The young man had rested one hand on a friend’s shoulder, and tilted his head upon that hand – a casual, almost slack pose that communicated itself to his audience. “I could guess he was the king,” writes the immigrant, appalled. “But the men continued to stand around rubbing shoulders with each other. No one observed the etiquette of showing respect to the king.”

Scandalized, Rafi asked bystanders what was going on, and was told that Akbar was “an exceedingly informal person”. How was it possible, in his unceremonious presence, to “observe etiquette”?

In keeping with such informality about official business, on 16 May 1562, Akbar skipped “court day… in the royal hall”. The padishah felt no need to attend. This is how it had been with Bairam, too. The regent would hold a couple of meetings every week, with all the chiefs, and fill Akbar in afterwards. Now, it was Shamsuddin, his vakil; Munim Khan, his khan-khanan; and Shihabuddin, Maham Anaka’s representative, who sat with other, lesser lords, “transacting public business”, while Akbar remained upstairs. It was a summer day and the padishah was fast asleep in the cool chambers of the harem. Afterwards, if an evening breeze stirred, he might have planned to fly a kite – as Rafi had once seen him do, running about the palace roof in a lungi, his head uncovered.

He woke at a sudden clamour. What was going on? Akbar wrapped on his lungi, walked out and leaned over the parapet to look into the courtyard below. There was Rafiq, an old retainer. What was going on?

Abul Fazl has Rafiq spell out an impressively coherent narrative of the chaos engulfing the palace. More likely, the old man could only point at the corpse in the courtyard and call out the urgent facts: Adham has killed your ataka!

Scene of the action: The Agra fort as it is today. (Shutterstock)
Scene of the action: The Agra fort as it is today. (Shutterstock)

This is what had happened: only moments ago, Adham Khan swaggered into the council meeting with his men. The lords of the council rose to greet him; even Shamsuddin, who had no love lost for Maham’s son, “rose half-up”. Adham strode up to Shamsuddin, hand on his dagger, and snapped at his crew, “Why do you stand still?”

One of the men stabbed Shamsuddin in the chest. Shocked yet still alive, Akbar’s ataka staggered out of the door into the courtyard. Another of Adham’s men slashed at him with his sword. Twice.

Shamsuddin of Ghazni, who dreamt of the moon in his arms, the farmer’s son who became imperial vakil in Hindustan, fell to the ground, butchered in the palace of the foster child he had served and protected from the day that Akbar was born.

Akbar couldn’t believe it; “he asked again”.

Rafiq pointed at the dead man.

And Adham Khan? He had rushed upstairs, “sword in hand”. Even now, he was standing at the door to the harem, locked just in time by its guard, demanding to be let in.

In a blaze of fury, Akbar went to Adham, though not through the door at which Adham stood. He took another way, not even bothering to pick up his sword – a servant gave him the weapon as he walked past.

“Spoiled child,” he cried, from behind Adham, “why did you kill our ataka?”

This is the translation that William M Thackston, most recent translator of the Akbarnama, offers, but it is hardly satisfactory. Other translators have alternatives. “Bacha-i-laada” is what Akbar said; he might have meant “son of a fool” (Beveridge) or, perhaps, “son of a bitch” (Blochmann). Only Bayazid Biyat, the old soldier, has Akbar swearing in properly and unambiguously filthy terms at the man who had just killed his foster father. “Kandu!” – or gandu – he screamed. “Assfucker! Why did you kill my ataka?”

Adham Khan rushed to Akbar and grabbed his hands. What did he mean to do, to say? Did he want to explain? Akbar let his own sword fall, wrenched his hands free and reached for Adham’s blade, just as Adham, too, grabbed at it. Would he really have stabbed his padishah?

We will never know. As Adham took up his sword, Akbar let go of the weapon. He did not need sharp edges and polished steel. He had his fury. He made a fist.

The punch that landed on Adham Khan’s face was so hard, so swift, it knocked him to the ground, unconscious.

Five years earlier, when Bairam Khan invited his young lord to execute his first enemy, the fourteen-year-old had refused. Bairam had had to pick up a sword and cut off Hemu’s head himself.

But how long can a king baulk at vengeance and hope to retain his throne? At 19, having slammed Adham unconscious with his fist, Akbar did not think of trials and prisons, he did not think of Maham; he did not let calm reason come between him and his pitiless justice.

Akbar had Adham thrown head first over the balcony on which they stood. The balcony wasn’t all that high; Adham didn’t quite die. Akbar had him dragged back up the stairs, by the hair. In the time that Adham’s injured body returned – screaming, moaning, weeping, or all three – Akbar’s adrenaline would have begun to subside; he would have had time for second thoughts. But no: an emperor cannot betray his own decisions.

Akbar had Adham turned upside down and flung down again. This time, Adham’s neck broke; his head must have been twisted at an unnatural angle, with the soft jelly of his brain spilling out.

Looking down at Adham’s broken body, his own pulse racing, what did Akbar think? It was the first execution he’d ever ordered; it remains a milestone in the chronicles of his rule, proclaiming the dawn of his authority, as naked and compelling as his fist. Did he marvel a little at what he had done, what he was capable of? Or did the pounding fury in his head overpower all thought?

Author Parvati Sharma (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Parvati Sharma (Courtesy the publisher)

“Mama,we have killed Adham.”

Maham Anaka was ill and resting when Akbar went to tell her what had happened. Bayazid writes that he told her point-blank, but Abul Fazl presents a scene of greater ambiguity, as if Akbar did not have the heart to put the brutal fact of her son’s execution in so many words: “Adham killed our Ataga, we have inflicted retaliation upon him.”

“You did well,” Maham replied.

She didn’t believe Akbar had killed her son. It was another visitor who told her. Pale but composed, Maham went to Akbar and asked if she might see Adham one last time. Already, his mangled body had been inspected on behalf of the ataka khail, Shamsuddin’s brothers and sons threatening civil war unless they were avenged. Akbar made sure they were satisfied; but he wouldn’t let Maham near the body.

Perhaps he was trying to protect her – just as she had, perhaps, protected him on the ramparts of Kabul, or against the machinations of Bairam Khan. He could hardly protect her from her own grief. Forty days later, she died.

When he hears that Maham was gone, writes Abul Fazl, Akbar cried.

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