From the library of Akbar : favourite books & stories!

As part of a curated series on 'Akbar's Favourites', author Ira Mukhoty pens an account of the Mughal Emperor's love for stories and of the beautiful books that he commissioned.

What makes Akbar fascinating for a biographer are the dichotomies in his character. Despite the many myths and legends around him, Akbar remains an enigmatic personality, profoundly difficult to categorize. One of the great mysteries about Akbar is the fact that though technically illiterate, he was widely informed about the world. This was because Akbar loved books, and had them read out to him every day, even when travelling to battle. 

Take a look at some of Akbar’s favourite books and stories:

akbar favourite books mughal art

Akbar’s favourite book #1 : the Hamzanama

One of Akbar’s favourite books, especially when he was a young man, was the Hamzanama.

Akbar was so fond of these rollicking stories of Amir Hamza, the Uncle of the Prophet, that he used to recite large sections of the stories aloud to himself as he walked the corridors of his palace. His favourite kissa-khwan (storyteller), Darbar Khan used to entertain the Padshah by using elaborate hand gestures and voice modulations while recounting the tales. Akbar commissioned images to accompany the story-telling, and the 1400 paintings produced to make up the Hamzanama took 15 years to complete and changed the course of Mughal paintings for ever.

akbar favourite books hamzanama
Folio from the Hamzanama : MAK Museum
akbar favourite books hamzanama
Hamzanama 1560’s : MAK Museum

Akbar’s favourite book #2 : the Anwar-i Suhayli (Panchatantra)

The Anwar-i Suhayli, with its animal fables and moral messages from the Panchatantra, was deemed to be highly suitable to teach prince Salim and his siblings the nuances of human nature. So Akbar commissioned a simpler version of the same stories called the Iyar-e-Danesh, (Pearls of Wisdom) for the education of the princes! The accompanying enchanting paintings of bears, cheetahs, lions, birds and more, brought alive for the young princes the beloved animals and country-side of Hindustan.

akbar favourite books panchatantra Anwar-i Suhayli
akbar favourite books panchatantra Anwar-i Suhayli
[The Lion’s Court] written by Hussain Ali Waiz, the Anwar-i-Suhayli is a Persian version of the Panchatantra. From the collection of the Bharat Kala Bhavan; artist Farrukh Chela. c1596 CE

Akbar’s favourite book #3 : the Bible!

When the first Jesuit mission arrived in Fatehpur Sikri in 1580, they presented to Akbar the Royal Polyglot Bible, produced in Antwerp by the famous publisher Christophe Plantin in 7 beautifully bound volumes. Akbar respectfully took off his turban and placed each volume on his head before kissing it, and had the books kept in a special casket in his own rooms. The greatest impact of the books, however, was not religious but artistic. The phantasmagorical paintings in naturalistic style that the volumes contained astounded the Mughal court and would profoundly influence Mughal art.

akbar favourite books polygot bible
Plantin Polyglot | Rauner Special Collections Library

Akbar’s favourite book #4 : Rumi’s poetry!

Another favourite work of Akbar’s was the poet Rumi’s Masnavi. He was able to recite lines of this poetry by heart and a particularly beloved Masnavi is believed to have been:

Thou has come to unite
Not to separate
For the people of Hind, the idiom of Hindi is praiseworthy
For the people of Sind, their own is to be praised.
akbar favourite books rumi masnavi
Mas̱navī-i maʿnavī, of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d. 672 AH / 1273 CE) | Walters Art Museum

Akbar’s love for books and stories led him to commission some of the best known works of the time including the Mahabharata (Razmnama).

akbar court artists book making
Daulat (left) and ‘Abd al-Rahim (“Amber-pen”), a scribe, working on the book / Colophon from the 1595-6 Khamsa of Nizami / British Library / Public Domain

In 1582, Akbar ordered the Mahabharat to be translated from Sanskrit to Persian, something that had never been attempted before.

Called the Razmnama (The Book of War), Akbar closely supervised the translations himself, once roughly berating a translator, Badauni, accusing him of twisting the meaning of the original text to make the message more Islamic. The miserable Badauni complained of ‘the puerile absurdities’ contained in the Mahabharat, but never aloud to the Padshah, only in his covert biography!

akbar favourite books mahabharata bhishma
Composed by Ram Das, circa 1598 | The death of Bhishma.
The last hours of Bhisma: illustration to the Razmnama (a Persian translation of the Mahabharata), by Husain ‘Ali, 1598/ opaque watercolour and gold on paper, Mughal / V&A London

Akbar even had the story of Christ’s life translated: this was called ‘Mirat al-quds’

In the early 1600s, Akbar asked the Jesuit priests at his court to translate into Persian the story of the life of Christ. This book was called the Mirat al-quds (the Mirror of Purity), and Akbar greatly enjoyed listening to the story of Christ’s miracles. Akbar’s foster brother, Mirza Aziz Koka, was usually asked to read aloud from the book. To the Jesuits’ abiding sorrow, Akbar’s interest in Christianity remained entirely academic and artistic, since he greatly appreciated all the art that accompanied the holy books. He made his master painters study the European paintings and they learnt a great deal about depth and perspective from these images.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, from a Mirror of Holiness (Mir’at al-quds) of Father Jerome Xavier/ 1602–4 / Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper, Allahabad / Cleveland Museum of Art / CC0

In this painting by Miskin (an artist in the Mughal atelier), the influence of European prints circulated in the court is evident in the technique and motifs (the mother’s robes, the wavy brown hair, etc.)

akbar favourite books  Khamsa
A King Offers to Make Amends to a Bereaved Mother”, Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi /
1597–98 / Ink, opaque watercolor, gold on paper / The Met Museum / CC0

One of the last great works from Akbar’s atelier was the Divan of Anvari.

A work of poetry, this volume was tiny, measuring only 5.5 inches by 2.8 inches, with just 15 images but it was exquisitely produced. Described as a ‘de luxe’ manuscript, every aspect of the book was expensively created-from the gold-flecked paper, costly pigments, superb calligraphy, elaborate illuminations and fine bindings. 

The Poet’s Journey, from a manuscript of the Divan of Anvari copied for Emperor Akbar / 1588, Lahore / Harvard Art Museums / CC BY NC

Enjoyed reading? Don’t forget to share Akbar’s love for books!

This article is part of the series, #AkbarsFavourites.

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