Jodha Akbar

Last week I saw Ashutosh Gwarikar’s Jodha Akbar.

Some background: Akbar was an embodiment of many contrary traits. He was great at war. And he was sensitive. A turbulent India, torn by bloody violence and looting since Ghazni set foot, was finally returned to peace. Some exceptional principles of governance and administrative structures were commissioned, that helped keep the country powerful and as one until Aurangazeb’s ascent. Akbar was tolerant off the war field. He cultivated art and literature.

Hritik Roshan seemed a fair representation of the warrior-intellectual emperor. For, he looked martial and yet sensitive. There is little image/information about Jodhabai to make any comparison. At the outset, this movie does not seem to be an attempt at serious portrayal of Akbar’s life or society at the time. Rather, it appears to be a commercial venture into bringing the important issues in Akbar’s life, using the canvas of his union with Jodhabai. And it has done that very well.

The movie is probably just a bit more than half way mark into history. Details obviously scripted. There isn’t probably any independent real account into the details. The Mongols (Mughals, in Persian) were nowhere near the Arabs in documentation, meticulousness or even tradition. The Mongols were relatively unorthodox compared to the Turk-Afghan (Slave) dynasty that ruled Delhi before them – and probably that’s why more tolerant (until Aurangzeb).

So many things in the movie make you feel, as if you’ve gone back in time. The movie of course was largely shot in real locations. Thankfully the Agra fort survives. Décor and costumes seem so real – down to minute detail. The Turk turbans, the pots, curtains, utensils.

In subtle ways, the movie captures most of the important issues in Akbar’s rule. There were rulers before him, but with little success in being able to consolidate an empire in turbulent India. What made him successful?

The following account drives the point.

In 1640, Shah Jehan ruled India. That year, a Portuguese priest Sebastien Manrique traveled across the Gangetic lands, from Orissa coast to Bengal, Bihar, and to North India. He had hired a few Muslim bodyguards and guides. While passing through Bengal, the monsoon broke loose. His team had no chance in reaching the Caravan-sarai in next town, and was forced to seek shelter in an unknown village in the middle of the night. The people were kind to admit them in village, but barred them from entering houses because Manrique’s team was meat-eating (Hindus were overwhelmingly pure vegetarians, even in Bengal). So the visitors were housed in a cattle shed. They were though being served with milk and vegetables, while it rained unabated for days. Finally, one of Manrique’s bodyguards, sick with milk & vegetables, grabbed a peacock (village pet) and killed it. The team cooked and ate. They ran away next morning before dawn. The villagers found out in a few hours and chased. Fight ensued, arrows of the villagers versus guns of the European’s team. There were injuries on both sides. The chase ensued until the next town, where the District Administrator resided. Villagers presented their case. The governor ordered arrest of the European team and ordered punishment. Despite Manrique’s articulate defense, the Administrator ruled that under Akbar’s laws (framed a hundred years back), Hindus’ beliefs/customs cannot be breached in Hindu lands. The offender (the Muslim Bodyguard) was sentenced and had his right arm severed.

Akbar’s non-partisan agenda was his biggest strength. He went on to take on his side, the biggest adversaries – the Rajputs. His alliance with the Rajputs and other Hindu chiefs was his biggest strength. This was sealed with his marriage to Jodha. One after another, almost all the Rajput kingdoms were befriended. (The large exception among the Rajputs was Mewar). Jehangir was aided by his Rajput connection. So also Shah Jehan. Shah Jehan’s war general was a Rajput too, who defended the empire’s boundaries at far away lands, even defeating armies in Shah Jehan’s ancestral lands in Central Asia.

The importance of this should be clear from the fact that India was always ruled with the help of Indians. The Slave Dynasty ruled from Delhi (which was a replica of a major Islamic city in those times). The dynasty had control over areas around Delhi and in North, but little beyond that. Hindu chiefs were almost independent, paying tributes only once in a while (in some cases, once in decades). Iltutmish mustered greater control with alliances and his grand infrastructure & welfare projects generated goodwill. The British could rule India only because they received huge support from the natives. By 1930s, the British had lost confidence of at least a vocal minority of the country and found it tough to continue.

The two emperors who indulged in extremism, perished. One was Muhammad bin Tughlaq (Slave dynasty). He was opposed to any conciliatory effort or alliances with the Hindu kings. He managed to antagonize and alienate the Hindu governors (former kings retaining their independence as governor appoint of the emperor) that his great father had cultivated arduously. His morning pastime was torturing captured Hindu kings, followed by stripping their daughters, force them dance in the courtroom and then give them away as gift to any visiting Arab or Persian. Soon, his Hindu governors launched rebellion. Tughlaq spent the rest of his life in an effort to crush rebellion, horse-riding from one part of the country to another. He died on the field.

Aurangazeb’s case was not much different. He was the same kind of religious bigot. He tried to crush Hindu powers, unleashed barbarism. He spent the last twenty years of his life combating Shivaji, but in vein. He died on field, at Deccan, far away from his home Delhi.

In comparison Akbar’s policies were consistent and treated all with equal right.

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