Sunday, 12 March 2017

Birbal ka Qissa

I always had a doubt about the authenticity of 'Qissa-e-Akbar-Birbal' (anecdotes of Akbar and Birbal). His more than two hundred (all unverified) stories are integral to our culture, consciousness and folklore. While there cannot be two views about his existence, as he was one of the nine gems in the court of Akbar and his life is well-documented in Persian court diaries, his electrifying intelligence and wit is rather fabled. All the witty and interesting stories attributed to him have no proofs. Abul Fazal wrote about him in his 'Aina-e-Akbari' that Birbal was very sharp and adept at the use of words having two meanings (ihaam  in Persian).

In other words, he was a great punster and Akbar loved his puns and double entendres. It's a little known fact that Akbar had a rather uncanny interest in ribald jokes and he loved them a lot (courtesy, Akbar  written by the great Aligarh historian Muhammad Mujeeb). Abul Fazal's brother Faizi (he was also one of the nine gems) wrote a letter to Raja Todarmal and wondered how an otherwise refined man like Akbar, had interest in scatological things. Birbal used to crack anatomical jokes to the emperor. It's worthwhile to state that Persian and Marathi (being connotationally heavily influenced by Persian) are the two most pun-laden languages. 


We only get to know the lighter side to Birbal's personality, thanks to the apocryphal stories like 'Birbal ki khichri' attributed to him. Birbal was a very shrewd military planner, in addition to being a great archer. Born as Mahesh Das, Birbal was a Hindu Brahmin. The name Birbal was given to him by Akbar who made him a court-poet (raaj kavi). Birbal was an extemporaneous poet (aashu-kavi) and was very good at composing spontaneous epigrams in Sanskrit, Braj and Persian. His epigrams are written proofs of his ready-wit and one can see and read them at India House, London. The stories are of dubious origins. Of all Rajput kings and chieftains, Birbal was the most intelligent mediator and a polyglot.
 Akbar had far greater faith in his negotiating skills than he had in Mansingh's pieces of advice, especially when it came to negotiating with Rajputs. 

Akbar always appreciated Birbal's uprightness and his indomitable spirit. While Mansingh always ingratiated with Akbar and other influential Muslims and Jay Singh treacherously had Shivaji arrested in the court of Aurangzeb, Birbal never stooped to conquer. He was arguably the only subordinate, who never bowed before Akbar and addressed him Alampanah  orJahaanpanah (sheltering the whole universe). He always called Akbar 'Badshah Salamat' and never resorted to fawning terms of address. Mughal court historian Khafif Khan, a rabid Muslim and Hindu-hater, called Birbal, 'the most fearless and straightforward man in Akbar's court.' He refused point-blank when Akbar made him the chief stable-keeper of Agra as he found it to be infra-dig. Akbar later apologised (refer to Askari's 'Mughalia Saltanat Ke Roshan Waqyaat; 'Glaring anecdotes of Mughal dynasty', Khudabakhsh Library, Patna). Though he was the only Hindu courtier to embrace Akbar's 'Deen-e-Ilahi', he also relinquished it within six months and had the courage of conviction to let Akbar know that his religion wouldn't last long.


Akbar allowed him to go back to Hinduism with a letter in Persian, conceding that he (Akbar) really made a mistake by starting a new religion which had no takers. Birbal participated in many battles and also died in action near Swat valley (present-day Pakistan). His body was never found. He was ambidextrous and could write with both the hands and also wield sword with consummate ease. Because of this rare quality, he was a superb calligrapher. Akbar confided in only two people: Abul Fazal and Birbal. He cried when Abul Fazal was killed near Manmad, Maharashtra at the behest of his son Jahangir and when Birbal died in a battle near Afghanistan. He was inconsolable that Birbal's body was not found. He later made arrangements for a symbolical Hindu cremation for his favourite courtier.                                                               -----Sumit Paul


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