So, like his grandfather before him, Akbar gained a crown while still a boy, but a crown for which he had to fight. There were rival claimants. One was Sikandar Sur, a nephew of that able ruler She Shah, and it was against him that Bairam Khan and Akbar had been sent to the Punjab. But a more formidable opponent appeared in a certain Hindu named Hemu, who took the field for his master, Muhammad Shah Adil, lately in occupation of Delhi, where he had usurped the throne but hand soon been driven out. Hemu was a capable general. He defeated the Mogul forces and took Delhi and Agra, and puffed up by his victory, assumed sovereignty on his own account. It was a critical situation. But Hemu had to reckon with Bairam Khan, who would listen to no counsels of retreat to Kabul, and advancing with Akbar met the enemy’s vastly superior army, with its huge array of elephants, on the field of Panipat, where Babur had won the throne of Delhi. An arrow pierced Hemu through the eye, and his troops scattered in dismay. Hemu was captured, and Bairam Khan bade Akbar dispatch the wretched prisoner, but the boy shrank from using his sword on a wounded and helpless man. Delhi and Agra were retaken. Sikandar Sur was pursued, and after a long resistance surrendered in 1557. He was generously treated. By that time the other claimants to the throne had died or disappeared from the scene. Akbar was free to rule, and to organize his realm.
During these first years of his reign Akbar’s education was continued. But while he delighted in the training of his body, and in all skilful exercises, he still refused to read, and preferred to acquire knowledge of books by ear. At this time he appeared to those around him as a healthy, athletic boy, enjoying life to the full, passionately fond of hunting and games, and paying little attention to politics, finance, and the business of state. There is a portrait of him made about this time. Seen in profile, with smooth cheeks and lips and long curling hair, an animated expression in his eyes, and wearing a purple coat, he stands smelling a flower which he holds to his nostrils. Before him is blue sky and empty plain. Pose and presentment belong to current convention, but here seem specially happy in the portrait of eager youth with all the world before it.
Yet, according to Abdul Fazl, though he appeared indifferent to affairs, his mind was busy; he was shrewdly taking stock of his supporters and testing their loyalty in the atmosphere of intrigue and counter-intrigue which pervaded the court. And perhaps an intimate observer might also have detected symptoms of something different and singular, of strange capacities for melancholy, beneath the outward glow of restless activity. Even at the age of fourteen Akbar could feel a sudden overwhelming dissatisfaction with the world. On a day in 1557 such a mood fell upon him. He felt the presence of ‘short-sighted men,’ whose thoughts were all of this world, unendurable. He appeared to be full of anger and impatience, and sent for a certain horse of Irqi breed, noted for its high mettle and vicious temper, a horse he often chose to ride. He would have none attend him, not even a groom; and mounting, he rode away into the desert plain – he was then at Agra – consumed with a passion to be away from men and utterly alone.
Out of sight and in solitude, he dismounted and ‘communed with God.’ The fiery horse at once galloped off and disappeared in the distance. Akbar remained alone on the plain, immersed in his ecstasy. But after a time, his heart refreshed and eased, he came to himself and looked around. He was in absolute solitude, and surrounded by silence. There was no one to attend him, no horse to carry him home. For a time he stood perplexed : then suddenly he saw the horse Hairan galloping out of the distance towards him. It came up and stood still beside him. The young king, astonished, mounted him, and rode back to his camp. It seemed to him a mysterious and divine intimation that he must return to his fellows and resume his work in the world.
A strange experience for a boy of fourteen. But Akbar was already steeped in the mysticism of the Persian poets, whose verses he had learnt by heart at Kabul : this mysticism appealed to his cast of mind : and, as we shall see, this adventure was the prelude to other experiences of a like nature.
He was soon plunged in the delights of sport, this time with elephants. At Kabul he had dogs, horses, and camels; but now India gave him something new to master. An animal so huge and powerful, so swift in movement for all its bulk and weight, so intelligent, delighted Akbar. And if it was fierce, vicious, and murderous, so much the more worthy to be tamed and made submissive to his will. When a certain elephant had killed its driver and savaged other men and had become a terror to all, Akbar ‘as he was walking between the garden and the courtyard,’ placed his foot on the elephant’s tusk, smilingly took his seat, and set the great beast to fight with another quarrel-some elephant. In the middle of the fight, when he saw that the driver of the other elephant had lost control, he leapt from his own elephant to the other. This and other feats of skill, courage, and agility are recorded by Abul Fazl; and the emperor Jahangir in his memoirs confirms his witness by later instances of his father’s power to subdue the wildest and most unruly elephant to his will. Akbar’s prowess caused astonishment and admiration, but also solicitude; and on one of these occasions Bairam Khan came to prostrate himself at the throne in gratitude to God for the preservation of his young sovereign’s life. He distributed largesses also, to avert the evil eye.
Bairam Khan belonged to the Shia sect, the orthodox sect in Persia; on this account he was disliked by the Sunnis, the dominant sect in India. But he raised more active enmity through his position as Protector. There were others who coveted his power and wished to get the young emperor under their own influence. Moreover, he was still a young man, and might well be suspected of cherishing ambitions on his own account. Perhaps he was not altogether free from such ambitions. Those who were to be his most formidable enemies were the ladies of the court, who after the defeat of Hemu had been escorted from Kabul to India. The queen-mother, Hamida, was then thirty years of age, and, now that after all the vicissitudes of her life success and empire were assured to her son, she was not unwilling to taste the new delights of power. With her came, among other ladies, Maham Anaga, chief of Akbar’s nurses, who brought her son, Adham Khan. Maham Anaga was a woman of little scruple and great ambition.
It was Bairam Khan who had won back the crown for Humayun. Without his skill and captaincy Akbar could hardly have retained it. Akbar was no ingrate by nature, but, conscious of his own abilities, he chafed at the restrictions imposed on him, especially as he was kept short of money. During the next three years these feelings increased, and were assiduously encouraged by the ladies of the court, and by all those whom Bairam had offended.
A protector, apt to think himself indispensable, a strong man presuming on his strength; and a youthful emperor, also a strong nature and eager to enter on his full inheritance – it was inevitable that a clash should come between them. The intrigues of the court went on; secret accusations against Bairam were continually being made. In 1560 matters came to a head. Akbar was now in his eighteenth year.
Maham Anaga, the chief nurse, took the lead in the conspiracy, and instigated Akbar to write a letter to Bairam Khan, announcing that he had determined to take the reins of government into his own hands and instructing Bairam to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, ‘upon which you have been so long intent.’ Thus was Bairam disgraced. Worse than this, a disloyal servant of his own was chosen to follow him with an armed force and ‘pack him off to Mecca.’ At this Bairam was stun into rebellion. He was defeated and brought a prisoner to Akbar, who forgave him. He was given ample means to proceed to Mecca in such state as fitted his rank and eminence, and started off to the coast. But his piligrimage was never fulfilled. At Patan he was attacked by a party of Afghans and stabbed to death. His four-year-old son, Abdurrahim, was brought to court and grew up under Akbar’s protection to become the greatest of his nobles. We can dertive from this feeling of remorse on Akbar’s part for the shabby treatment accorded to his father, to whom Akbar owed so much. Bairam Khan was brave and loyal : his high ability unquestioned. He may have shown himself arrogant, but he had fallen a victim to the intrigues of smaller men and of jealous women.
Maham Anaga enjoyed her triumph; Akbar for the time being seems to have been entirely under her influence. But before long she was to overreach herself, through her ambitions for her son.