(Windsor, ON, Canada)

Emperor Akbar, or by his full name, Abdul-Fath Jalal-ud-din Akbar, or simply Akbar, the Great, as history remembers him, became ruler of India in 1556, following the demise of his father Humayun (full name: Nasir-ud-Din Muhammad Humayun), who was the son of Babur (Zahir ud-Din Muhammad Babur), the conqueror of the throne of Delhi and a descendent of Ghengis Khan. Babur was the first Mughal ruler of India and also the founder of the famous Mughal dynasty in 1526 – the dynasty that would rule the sub-continent for more than three centuries – that is, until 1857, when the last Mughal Emperor, Zafar Bahadur Shah, was deposed by the British and sent into exile to Burma (to-day Myanmar) thus ending a glittering dynasty under whose rule India would ascend to newer heights in terms of the arts, architecture, culture and science.

“Raja Birbal” – famous Courtier at Emperor Akbar’s Court. He was also one of the Nav Ratnas

Akbar was only fourteen years old when he was proclaimed the third Mughal Emperor of India. However, he was lucky to have a good and shrewd regent in the person of Bairam Khan, who guided him and helped him consolidate and expand the Empire such that during Emperor Akbar’s time, India controlled practically all of the northern Indian peninsula. When Akbar became of age, he suddenly decided he no longer needed a regent. So he dismissed Bairam Khan although the latter had served him loyally. Emperor Akbar decided it was time for him to be his own master and take full command of the affairs of his realm. He surrounded himself with a group of advisors to help him run the country. There were nine of them called the Nav Ratnas.(Nine Jewels).

While, all the members of the Nav Ratnas were known for their knowledge and expertise, it was Raja Birbal, who eventually became very close to the Emperor and whose company he literally relished and used to spend much time together. So much so, it was not surprising that soon after they both passed away, a whole gamut of stories – or legends, I’d say — grew around them and their friendship. Raja Birbal would be known for his devastating wit and sagacity that always regaled the Emperor. Understandably, the Emperor came to cherish his company and it was not surprising that not everyone at the Court liked Raja Birbal and did not hesitate to label him as “the CourtJester.” Raja Birbal was a Brahmin Hindu and many at Akbar’s ‘Muslim Court‘ were understandably jealous of his closeness to the Emperor. However, nothing in the end, would ever come between the ‘friendship’ of Emperor Akbar and Raja Birbal. He ever remained the Emperor’s close and trusted friend and advisor

Birbal’s real name was Mahesh Das and he was born around 1528. The name “Birbal” or “Raja Birbal” was conferred upon him by Emperor Akbar himself when he joined the Mughal Court as a poet and singer and eventually became one of the Nav Ratnas (Jewels of the Court). He was an advisor on religion and military strategies to the Emperor. As a matter of fact, Raja Birbal was sent by Emperor Akbar at the head of an army to quell some unrest near the Afghani border, where upon arriving, he and his army were ambushed in the pass and he as well as many of his troops were killed. It was said that upon the getting the news of Raja Birbal’s death, the Emperor was shocked and deeply grieved. He would not eat or talk for days to anybody. He was deeply affected by the death of his “dear friend.”

In fact, as one of Akbar’s historians puts it:

“His majesty cared for the death of no grandee more than for that of Bir Bal. He said, ‘Alas! they could not even get his body out of the pass, that it might have been burned »; but at last, he consoled himself with the thought that Bir Bal was now free and independent of all earthly fetters, and as the rays of the sun were sufficient for him, there was no necessity that he should be cleansed by fire.”

Mughal Emperor Akbar ruled India in the years 1556-1603

And, towards the end of Emperor Akbar’s reign, folktales began to emerge about Raja Birbal – tales that highlighted his sagacity, his wit, humour and wisdom. And, as times passed, through oral tradition from generation to generation, those tales became part of the country’s folklore — cherished by all the people and, before long, Raja Birbal, known for his sharp wit, emerged as an extremely smart and witty courtier – indeed, a folklore character adored by millions till to-day. Tales about Raja Birbal tell of his shrewdness and wit and how he always outsmarted his fellow Courtiers — and quite often even Emperor Akbar himself.   

Doubtless, stories of Raja Birbal’s wit and sagacity abound and have survived the ages. There have been books, cartoons, movies, TV series made about Raja Birbal. And they are always a treat to read and to watch – the more so, the repartees between Emperor Akbar and Raja Birbal. And, in India, and wherever Indian history is studied, stories of Raja Birbal’s wit and wisdom have always been popular with the folks of all ages. Indeed, it can be said without hesitation that generations of children in India and the Indian diaspora have all been enjoying his stories growing up in one way or another.

The house of Raja Birbal in Fatehpur Sikri. Birbal was the only Nav Ratnas member to have his house close to the Emperor’s palace

In conclusion, here is one brief anecdote among the many that gives an insight into the sharp wit of the great Raja Birbal. It, sure, gives us an insight into his disparaging wit and sarcasm all wrapped and cleverly displayed. It is taken from a collection of ‘tales’ about Raja Birbal and Emperor Akbar compiled by Anindya Roy in his book : “Akbar Birbal’s Jokes.”

“Once, in Emperor Akbar’s court, a murder case was presented. The case being very complicated, it was postponed till the next day.

“The next day, the criminal came to Birbal and requested him to save him from the death sentence and to punish him by life imprisonment.

“When the case was presented in the court, he was really punished by life-imprisonment.

“He came to Birbal with folded hands and said: ”I am indebted to you, with much difficulty, you got me my life imprisonment.”

“Birbal said: “Yes, there was much difficulty because the Emperor was actually going to set you free!”