Mughal Courtiers: the Favourites of Emperor Akbar

As part of a curated series on 'Akbar's Favourites', author Ira Mukhoty pens an account of the Mughal Emperor's favourite courtiers and the special bond he shared with them.

Akbar had the uncommon wisdom to keep a great many talented and capable men around him, many of whom became great friends of his. This intimate coterie of brilliant men led to myth of the ‘Navratnas’, or nine jewels of Akbar’s court. Though the Navratnas were a later creation, there were certainly many favourites at the court of Akbar.

The most famous of Mughal courtiers – Birbal, the Wise One

For a great many Indians, the first introduction to Padshah Akbar is through the countless Akbar-Birbal stories that crowd popular and oral histories. These stories, however, are not literally true though they are a reflection of the great bond of affection between the two men. Birbal earned the title ‘Kavi-Rai’, or King of Poets, soon after he joined the Mughal court, demonstrating a facility with language and extemporary poetry greatly appeciated by Akbar. One of only three men said to never having incurred the Padshah’s wrath, (the others being Tansen and the poet Faizi), Birbal was also the only Hindu to join Akbar’s Din e Ilahi. After he was killed during an expedition in the 1580s, Akbar mourned his loss for years, never returning to Fatehpur Sikri which reminded him too painfully of Birbal’s absence.

Akbar's favourite Mughal courtier Birbal, kavi rai portrait miniature
Birbal portrait | British Library

The most special of Mughal courtiers: Mirza Aziz Koka

Portrait of Khan-i A’zam Koka, c.1610-1620.| Royal Collection Trust

Mirza Aziz Koka was the son of Akbar’s favourite milk-mother-Jiji Anaga. The same age as the emperor, the two boys grew up together and enjoyed an unfettered childhood in Kabul. Because of his intimacy with Akbar, Aziz Koka was able to get away with criticisms about the Padshah bordering on rudeness. Nonetheless, Akbar spoke rather poetically of the ‘river of milk’ between himself and Aziz Koka, which he could not cross to punish him. Even when Aziz Koka went away to Mecca, in a great sulk, Akbar wrote to him, reminding him that he was leaving behind in Hindustan ‘two Kaabas of flesh and blood; that is, his mother and Akbar, for a Kaaba of stone and mortar.

The Mughal courtier who chronicled Akbar’s life – Abu’l Fazl

Abu’l Fazl joined Akbar’s court as a young man and immediately used his capacious and formidable intellect to support and encourage Akbar’s philosophical and religious experiments. He remained almost constantly at court through his long career, employed in the Padshah’s most important work. At the ibadat-khana, he was instructed to understand the Christian philosophy of the Jesuits, so as to be able to help them defend their beliefs against the orthodox ulema. ‘He kept constant company with Akbar,’ grumbled the many enemies he made due to jealousy, ‘like the setting to a pearl.’ The Akbarnama and the Ain-i-Akbari which he undertook for Akbar took up years of laborious effort and ensured immortality for the Padshah’s legacy.

Mughal Courtier and Chronicler, Abu'l Fazl presents Akbarnama to Akbar, miniature
Abu’l-Fazl presenting Akbarnama to Akbar

The Mughal courtier who was like a son : ‘Farzand’ Abdur Rahim

Abdur Rahim, the son of Bairam Khan, was brought to Akbar’s court when he was just four years old upon the murder of his father. Akbar gave him the cherished title of ‘Farzand’, or son, and gave him an excellent education, making of him one of the most erudite men of his age. When he arranged for his marriage with the daughter of Jiji Anaga, he gave him the title ‘Khan’, again a rare distinction. Akbar appointed him ‘ataliq’ or guardian to his son Salim, a mark of the highest confidence and favour. The banquet that Abdur Rahim arranged for the occasion was so extravagant that Akbar was moved to offer him all the insignia of royalty. Abdur Rahim had the path from the palace to his haveli strewn with flowers made of gold and silver and rubies and had a dais constructed at the cost of Rs 1,25,000/-.

Akbar's Mughal Courtier Abdur rahim, Bairam Khan's son miniature portrait
Upper left hand corner: Akbar; upper right hand corner: Jahangir; lower lefthand corner: Abd ar-Rahim Khan Khanan; lower right hand corner: page with a fly-whisk. | British Library

The Rajput Nephew – Kuar Man Singh

Akbar first met Kuar Man Singh when he was a sprightly boy of twelve. As the nephew of Akbar’s first Rajput wife, Harkha Bai, Man Singh was a favoured member of the inner court. During a drunken evening when his Rajput companions were encouraging Akbar to some dangerous tests of valour, Man Singh had the temerity to wrestle the emperor to the ground and thereby save his life. This, however, earned him a beating from the emperor for his pains! Man Singh became a redoubtable warrior and governor, leaving his legacy in Bihar, Bengal and the north-west. The only time his ambition was checked by the emperor was when he proposed naming a town in Bihar (Rajmahal), in his own honour, upon which Akbar sharply instructed him to change it (to Akbarnagar)!

Mughal courtier Kuar Man Singh wrestles Akbar, Miniature
Akbar wrestles with Raja Man Singh. From a copy of the Akbarnama. (circa 1600-03) | Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

The Mughal courtier who had to gift Akbar a 100 elephants : Sadiq Khan

An honourable mention also for Sadiq Khan. This courtier had the misfortune to have one of the imperial elephants under his care, drown at Chausa during the fight against Daud Khan Afghan. Akbar was furious and banished him from the court. Such was the panache of the man that he only returned two years later, having amassed 100 elephants for the delighted emperor who made him a mansabdar of 5000.

Sadiq Khan
Tomb of Sadiq Khan, Agra

Enjoyed this? Check out more stories from the #AkbarsFavourites series by author Ira Mukhoty.

Each week, come back for more on #AkbarsFavourites! Meanwhile, check out the latest biography about the Mughal Emperor:

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Mughal Courtiers: the Favourites of Emperor Akbar