Birbal was one of the first officers to join Akbar’s court, possibly as early as 1556, when he was twenty-eight years old. A pleasant faced man, with a glossy moustache just like the Padshah’s, Birbal’s increasingly privileged place at court would be reflected by his spreading girth, resulting in his qaba settling in comfortable, voluminous folds around his form. He was honoured with the title Raja and a high rank of 2,000 soon after he joined imperial service. In Birbal the Padshah found a quick and adaptable mind, a lively intelligence, and an engaging wit and, above all, a complete and sincere devotion to Akbar himself. Another title that Birbal earned early on in his career, which gives some indication of the talents he possessed, that would have attracted the attention of the Padshah, was that of Kavi Rai, King of Poets. He was a fine poet of Braj, and his poems were much appreciated at court. He also had a naturally generous nature and all these traits combined—elegant repartee, largesse, and poetical talent—made Birbal the ideal Mughal courtier.
In the eleventh century text written in Persia, the Mirror for Princes, the author gives precise advice for those wishing to sparkle at a Persianate court. For the close companion, the author clarifies, ‘(y)ou should be a raconteur, retaining in your memory a large number of anecdotes, jests and clever witticisms; a boon companion without stories and quips is imperfectly equipped’.
When Akbar was building his new city at Fatehpur Sikri, he had ordered ‘the erection of a stone palace for [Birbal]’. So celebrated was the friendship between the two men that long after the Mughal Empire was history, a veritable tsunami of anecdotes of the socalled Akbar–Birbal variety lived on, lampooning the Padshah as a somewhat dim-witted though well intentioned character, regularly put in his place by Birbal. The scholar C. M. Naim has shown that while often subversive, these stories also tend to try and ‘humanize’ Akbar and to transform him into someone who was accessible and approachable. While there is very little evidence that any of these anecdotes were based on actual events, there is no doubt that Akbar enjoyed witty and sharp observations. When the poet Faizi happened to boast in Akbar’s presence that no one surpassed him in the three Cs—Chess, Combat, and Composition—the emperor retorted that he
had forgotten a fourth, Conceit. On another occasion, when Shaikh Mubarak had berated the emperor for being too extravagant, Faizi had tried to make excuses for his father saying ‘our Shaikh is not much of a courtier’, whereupon Akbar had teased him saying ‘no, he has left all those fopperies to you’. That the qualities appreciated by Akbar included a lively intellect and pleasant, charming manners are evident, yet he also demanded complete devotion and loyalty. It is inconceivable, therefore, that any courtier would have been allowed the liberties depicted in the Akbar–Birbal stories, certainly not from one who had such a long and special career at court. For though Akbar surrounded himself with movement and clamour and discussions, he was ‘full also of dignity and when he is angry, of awful majesty’, according to Monserrate, with an anger that most courtiers would have been loath to provoke.
A sign of the unique bond that Akbar shared with Birbal was that the raja was never censured in the thirty years he served at court as a close confidant of the Padshah. Even his closest courtiers were rebuked or punished when found lacking, as when Man Singh had not pursued Rana Pratap after Haldighati. ‘The King’s severity towards errors and misdemeanours committed by officials in the course of government business is remarkable’, wrote Monserrate, ‘for he is most stern with offenders against the public faith.’ Only three men never incurred royal displeasure in their entire careers: the poet Faizi, the musician Tansen, and Raja Birbal. ‘By means of conversing with the Emperor and taking advantage of the idiosyncrasies of his disposition,’ wrote Badauni bitterly, ‘[Birbal] crept day by day more into favour, until he attained to high rank and was honoured with the distinction of becoming the Emperor’s confidant and it became a case of thy flesh is my flesh and thy blood my blood.’
An incident in 1583 in Fatehpur Sikri was further demonstration of the close bond between Akbar and Raja Birbal. During an elephant fight organized in the grounds of Akbar’s court, one of the elephants, ‘unique for violence’, suddenly rushed towards Birbal, and seized him with his trunk. Akbar turned his horse around and galloped towards the elephant, charging at him, while all around him his soldiers and courtiers shouted out in alarm. The elephant then turned towards Akbar but, inexplicably, faltered, and Birbal was saved.
Excerpted with permission from AKBAR: The Great Mughal by Ira Mukhoty, Aleph Book Company.