|The Commentary of Father
Monserrate, S.J., on his Journey to the Court of Akbar (1591)
*Characteristics of Akbar* -- *His palaces* -- *Akbar a great patron of letters* -- *Conduct to embassies* -- *His officers* -- *Sources of revenue* -- *Justice* -- *Extent of the empire*
[] To return to Zelaldinus [=Jalal ud-Din Akbar], from whom we have been for a time led away by this account of Rudolfus' death. This Prince is of a stature and of a type of countenance well-fitted to his royal dignity, so that one could easi1y recognise, even at the first glance, that he is the King. He has broad shoulders, somewhat bandy legs well-suited for horsemanship, and a light-brown complexion. He carries his head bent towards the right shoulder. His forehead is broad and open, his eyes so bright and flashing that they seem like a sea shimmering in the sunlight. His eyelashes are very long, as also are those of the Sauromates [=a Scythian tribe], Sinae [=Chinese], Niphones [=Japanese], and most other north-Asiatic races. His eyebrows are not strongly marked. His nose is straight and small, though not insignificant. His nostrils are widely opened, as though in derision. Between the left nostril and the upper lip there is a mole.
He shaves his beard, but wears a moustache like that of a. Turkish [] youth who has not yet attained to manhood (for on reaching manhood they begin to affect a beard). Contrary to the custom of his race he does not cut his hair; nor does he wear a hat, but a turban, into which he gathers up his hair. He does this, they say, as a concession to Indian usages, and to please his Indian subjects. He limps in his left leg, though indeed he has never received any injury there. His body is exceedingly well-built and is neither too thin nor too stout. He is sturdy, hearty and robust. When he laughs, his face becomes almost distorted. His expression is tranquil, serene and open, full also of dignity, and when he is angry, of awful majesty. When the priests [=Monserrate himself and two companions] first saw him [in 1579], he was thirty-eight years of age.
It is hard to exaggerate how accessible he makes himself to all who wish audience of him. For he creates an opportunity almost every day for any of the common people or of the nobles to see him and converse with him; and he endeavours to show himself pleasant-spoken and affable, rather than severe, toward all who come to speak with him. It is very remarkable how great an effect this courtesy and affability has in attaching to him the minds of his subjects. For in spite of his very heterodox attitude towards the religion of Muhammad, and in spite also of the fact that Musalmans regard such an attitude as an unforgivable offence, Zelaldinus has not yet been assassinated. He has an acute insight, and shows much wise foresight both in avoiding dangers and in seizing favourable opportunities for carrying out his designs. Yet all these fine qualities both of body and mind lose the greater part of their splendour because the lustre of the True Faith is lacking.
Zelaldinus is greatly devoted to hunting, though not equally so to hawking. As he is of a somewhat morose disposition, he amuses himself with various games. These games afford also a public spectacle to the nobility and the common people, who indeed are very fond of such spectacles. They are the following: polo, elephant-fighting, buffalo-fighting, stag-fighting [] and cock-fighting, boxing contests, battles of gladiators, and the flying of tumbler-pigeons. He is also very fond of strange birds, and indeed of any novel object. He amuses himself with singing, concerts, dances, conjurers' tricks, and the jokes of his jesters, of whom he makes much. However, although he may seem at such times to be at leisure and to have laid aside public affairs, he does not cease to revolve in his mind the heavy cares of state.
He is especially remarkable for his love of keeping great crowds of people around him and in his sight; and thus it comes about that his court is always thronged with multitudes of men of every type, though especially with the nobles, whom he commands to come from their provinces and reside at court for a certain period each year. When he goes outside the palace, he is surrounded and followed by these nobles and a strong body-guard. They have to go on foot until he gives them a nod to indicate that they may mount. All this adds greatly to the wonderful majesty and greatness of the royal court.
According to the instructions of the worthless Muhammad and the custom of the Musalmans, the orthodox must wear a long robe coming down to the calf, together with shoes very low at the ankle. Their dress must be made of wool, linen or cotton: and must be white. The shoes must be of a certain fixed pattern. However, Zelaldinus is so contemptuous of the instructions given by the false law-giver, that he wears garments of silk, beautifully embroidered in gold. His military cloak comes down only as far as the knee, according to the Christian fashion; and his boots cover his ankles completely. Moreover, he himself designed the fashion and shape of these boots. He wears gold ornaments, pearls and jewellery.
He is very fond of carrying a European sword and dagger. He is never without arms; and is always surrounded, even within his private apartments, by a body-guard of about twenty men, variously armed. He much approves the Spanish dress, ,and wears it in private. He himself can ride and [] control elephants, camels, and horses. He drives a two-horse chariot, in which his appearance is very striking and dignified. He generally sits, with crossed legs, upon a couch covered with scarlet rugs. However, he has a velvet throne of the Portuguese type carried with him on a journey, and very frequently uses it.
His table is very sumptuous, generally consisting of more than forty courses served in great dishes. These are brought into the royal dining-hall covered and wrapped in linen cloths, which are tied up and sealed by the cook, for fear of poison. They are carried by youths to the door of the dining-hall, other servants walking ahead and the master-of-the-household following. Here they are taken over by eunuchs, who hand them to the serving girls who wait on the royal table. He is accustomed to dine in private, except on the occasion of a public banquet.
He rarely drinks wine, but quenches his
thirst with 'post' [an intoxicating drink made from the opium
or water. When he has drunk immoderately of 'post' he sinks
back stupefied and shaking. He dines alone, reclining on an ordinary couch,
which is covered with silken rugs and cushions stuffed with the fine down
of some foreign plant.
The splendour of his palaces approaches closely to that of the royal dwellings of Europe. They are magnificently built, from foundation to cornice, of hewn stone, and are decorated both with painting and carving. Unlike the palaces built by other Indian kings, they are lofty; for an Indian palace is generally as low and humble as an idol-temple. Their total circuit is so large that it easily embraces four great royal dwellings, of which the King's own palace is the largest and the finest. The second palace belongs to the queens, and the third to the royal princes, whilst the fourth is used as a store house and magazine. The roofs of these palaces are not tiled, but are dome-shaped, being protected from the weather on the outside by solid plaster covering the stone slabs. This forms a roof absolutely impervious to moisture. [] The palaces are decorated also with many pinnacles, supported on four columns, each of which forms a small covered portico.
Not a little is added to the beauty of the palaces by charming pigeon-cotes, partly covered with rough-cast, and partly showing walls built of small blue and white bricks. The pigeons are cared for by eunuchs and servant-maids. Their evolutions are controlled at will, when they are flying, by means of certain signals, just as those of well-trained soldiery are controlled by a competent general by means of bugles and drums. It will seem little short of miraculous when I affirm that when sent out, they dance, turn somersaults all together in the air, fly in orderly rhythm, and return to their starting point, all at the sound of a whistle. They are bidden to perch on the roof, to conceal themselves within their nesting-places, or to dart out of them again; and they do everything just as they are told.
There is another great building [at Fatahpur Sikri], as large as the palace, in which is the tomb of Pirxecolidezcamus [='Pir Shaikh ul-Islam', or Shaikh Salim Chishti], the philosopher who persuaded the King to remove his residence to Siquiris [=Sikri], and who-- with the greatest stupidity-- is worshipped as a saint, although he was stained with all the crimes and wickednesses of the Musalmans.
The other buildings erected by Zelaldinus in various parts of his dominions are of equal magnificence. These have been built with extraordinary speed, by the help of a host of architects, masons and workmen. For instance he built a very large peristyle, surrounded with colonnades, two hundred feet square, in three months, and some circular baths three hundred feet in circuit, with dressing-rooms, private apartments and many water-channels, in six months. Here he himself bathes. In order to prevent himself being deafened by the noise of the tools with which stones are shaped and beams [] and other timber cut, he had everything cleverly fashioned elsewhere, in accordance with the exact plan of the building, and then brought to the spot, and there fitted and fastened together. The Priests gave close attention to all this, and were reminded of what is said [in the Bible] to have happened at the building of the temple in Jerusalem, when no iron instruments of the builders were heard. They saw that this could have been true without the intervention of a miracle.
Zelaldinus is so devoted to building that he sometimes quarries stone himself,
along with the other workmen. Nor does he shrink from watching and even
himself practising, for the sake of amusement, the craft of an ordinary
artisan. For this purpose he has built a workshop near the palace, where
also are studios and work-rooms for the finer and more reputable arts,
such as painting, goldsmith-work, tapestry-making, carpet- and curtain-making,
and the manufacture of arms. Hither he very frequently comes, and relaxes
his mind with watching at their work those who practise these arts.
He is a great patron of learning, and always keeps around him erudite men, who are directed to discuss before him philosophy, theology, and religion, and to recount to him the history of great kings and glorious deeds of the past. He has an excellent judgment and a good memory, and has attained to a considerable knowledge of many subjects by means of constant and patient listening to such discussions. Thus he not only makes up for his ignorance of letters (for he is entirely unable either to read or write), but he has also become able clearly and lucidly to expound difficult matters. He can give his opinion on any question so shrewdly and keenly, that no one who did not know that he is illiterate would suppose him to be anything but very learned and erudite. And so indeed he is, for in addition to his keen intellect, of which I have already spoken, he excels many of his most learned subjects in eloquence, [] as well as in that authority and dignity which befits a King. The wise men are wont every day to hold disputations on literary subjects before him.
He listens with delight, not to actors, but to mimics and jesters, thinking their style of speaking to have a literary flavour. For the lawgiver [Muhammad] forbade all kinds of plays, both tragic and comic, and all acting, being such an impostor that, in order to gain a reputation for goodness and sanctity, he forbade things which are not in themselves wrong. And having once gained this reputation he found the way easy to a position from which he could issue those precepts of his which are alien not only to the innate dignity of human nature but also to the general conscience of mankind. For, to draw attention to one or two such points, he allowed incestuous unions with closely-related women, excepting only the mother and the sister. He also invented and introduced amongst the Musalmans two forms of marriage, first that with regular consorts, who may number four; and second that with those who are merely called wives, and who may be as numerous as a man's resources allow. Musalman kings employ this sanction and licence of the foulest immorality in order to ratify peace and to create friendly relationships with their vassal princes or neighbouring monarchs. For they marry the daughters and sisters of such rulers.
Hence Zelaldinus has more than 300 wives, dwelling in separate suites of rooms in a very large palace. Yet when the priests were at the Court he had only three sons and two daughters. His sons' names are as follows:-- the eldest is Xecus [='Shaikh Baba', Akbar's nickname for Salim, the future Jahangir], called after the Xecus by whose advice, as has been mentioned, the King built Sequiris; for this boy was the first born after the change of capital, and thus survived infancy. The second son is Paharis [=Murad, whose nickname was 'Pahari' (from 'pahar', or 'mountain')], and the third Danus or Danialus.
[] Zelaldinus has about twenty Hindu chieftains as ministers and counsellors to assist both in the work of governing the empire and in the control of the royal household. They are devoted to him, and are very wise and reliable in conducting public business. They are always with him, and are admitted to the innermost parts of the palace, which is a privilege not allowed even to the Mongol nobles. However, he is wont to entrust the provincial governorships to chiefs of the Xacattaei [=Chughtai] who are related to him. Some of these chiefs also act not only as tutors but also as guardians to his sons. His object in arranging this is to attach the chiefs to himself by a yet closer bond of affection, and also to provide protectors for his children from the malice of his life-long enemies.
Their literary education is committed, according to the Persian custom, to learned old men of a spurious virtue (but really of a character as wicked as that of the most abandoned amongst these Musalmans), and of an empty and ostentatious kind of piety and excellence. The princes have also trainers to teach them the use of arms, riding-masters, and instructors in archery. He gives very great care and attention to the education of the princesses, who are kept rigorously secluded from the sight of men. They are taught to read and write, and are trained in other ways, by matrons.
The following is the method the King employs in deliberation-- he asks each counsellor privately for his own opinion, and then himself decides upon the course which seems to be supported by the largest number and the most experienced. He asks their advice even about subjects upon which he has already made up his [] mind, saying to the nobles, 'This is what I think should be done, do you agree?' They reply 'Salaam, 0 King'; whereupon he says, 'Then let it be carried out'. If however any of them do not agree with him, he listens patiently, and sometimes even alters his own opinion.
Seven of his chief counsellors are chosen
for the following purpose. One of them is on duty each day to attend to
the business of those who crave an audience, to bring forward their petitions,
and to note down and transmit the King's replies. It is the duty also of
these chief counsellors to act as masters of the ceremonies, to usher forward
those who are admitted to do homage to the King, to conduct them back again,
to station them in the places to which their dignity entitles them, and
to present their petitions before the King.
Zelaldinus receives foreigners and strangers in a very different manner to that in which he treats his own fellow-countrymen and subordinates. For he behaves with marked courtesy and kindliness to foreigners, especially to the ambassadors of foreign kings, and to princes who have been driven from their dominions and appeal to him for protection. Such princes he furnishes with troops and resources, on one condition only, namely that they shall employ only his own weights and measures and money coined by himself. However he received the envoys of the Turkish Viceroy of Arabia Felix, whose capital is Senaa, so ungraciously that the embassy [] 'vanished in a cloud of smoke'. For the chief ambassador was put in irons and banished for a long period to Lahore, whilst his attendants made good their escape secretly. The reason for this is said to have been his resentment at the arrogance both of the ambassadors themselves and of the king who sent them, and the endeavour which they made to persuade him to wage war against the king of Spain and Portugal.
When his aunt [=Gulbadan Begam] returned from Mekka, the King had the street-pavements covered with silken shawls, and conducted her himself to her palace in a gorgeous litter, scattering largess meanwhile to the crowds.
In brief, Zelaldinus behaves so sternly towards the nobles who are under
his proud sway that each one of them believes himself to be regarded not
only as a contemptible creature but as the very lowest and meanest of mankind.
For instance these nobles, if they commit offences, are punished more severely
and relentlessly than the rest of the people, even those of the meanest
I have already mentioned that Zelaldinus has seven chief counsellors, one for each day of the week. In the same way he appoints four or five secretaries, out of a body of scribes, for duty each day. These secretaries write down all the business transacted by the King, all the measures he takes, and all the orders he issues. They take down what he says with such speed that they appear carefully to catch and preserve his words before they can fall to the ground and be lost. This somewhat superstitious custom would seem to have come down from the days of those old Persian kings who-- according to the [] books of Daniel, Esdras and Esther in the Holy Scriptures-- maintained the same system of scribes: in their case indeed these scribes were called chroniclers, because it was their function accurately to record in their journals and note-books every event which happened. Such is the childish folly of these scribes that the fools think it the act of a boor and a savage even to tread upon the King's shadow.
The officers mentioned above, together with the captains of the bodyguard, and the guard itself (which is on duty for 24 hours and receives rations of grain from the King) are changed in rotation every day. The same applies to the janitors, servants, and orderlies of the palace. The chief police-officer, the confidential counsellor, the chief paymaster, the comptroller of accounts, the head of the public works, the chief justice, the lord chamberlain, the governor of the palace who has charge of the King's household, the officer in charge of the royal camp, the superintendent of the treasury, the chief janitor, the chief jailor, the chief executioner, and the head cook, etc., etc., are all permanent officials always at hand in the palace.
Men of low birth, upstarts, and (as the Mongols say) 'men who have risen', together with those of alien birth, are given posts in the royal household if the King finds them capable and efficient, and are gradually promoted. But if such men practise mean and contemptible tricks or intrigues, he bids them always carry about with them the tools of their original handicraft, lest in their vulgarity and insolence they ever forget the low station from which they have sprung.
In order that the officers who are permanently on duty in the palace may be able to perform their duties conveniently and thoroughly, the King has had a small private office built for each of them within the precincts of the palace. In these offices they can work undisturbed; and hence the name of iataxqhana (i.e. house of solitude or house of quenching thirst) has been given to them.
[] Zelaldinus maintains, and gives a liberal education to, many noble
boys and youths who have lost their fathers; and in this he might well
be imitated by other princes.
The King exacts enormous sums in tribute from the provinces of his empire, which is wonderfully rich and fertile both for cultivation and pasture, and has a great trade both in exports and imports. He also derives much revenue from the hoarded fortunes of the great nobles, which by law and custom all come to the King on their owners' death. In addition, there are the spoils of conquered kings and chieftains, whose treasure is seized, and the great levies exacted, and gifts received, from the inhabitants of newly-subdued districts in every part of his dominions. These gifts and levies are apt to be so large as to ruin outright many of his new subjects. He also engages in trading on his own account, and thus increases his wealth to no small degree; for he eagerly exploits every possible source of profit.
Moreover, he allows no bankers or money-changers in his empire except the superintendents and tellers of the royal treasuries. This enormous banking-business brings the King great profit; for at these royal treasuries alone may gold coin be changed for silver or copper, and vice versa. The government officers are paid in gold, silver or copper according to their rank. Thus it comes about that those who are paid in one type of coin need to change some of it into another type.
Such means of increasing the revenue may be thought base, but they have two distinct advantages: for the coinage cannot possibly be debased or adulterated; and the rate of internal exchange is kept constant, since it cannot be manipulated by fraudulent moneychangers. Moreover, as all the money in circulation comes eventually to the royal treasuries, there can be no scarcity of money with consequent high prices.
[] There is a law also that no horse may be sold without the King's knowledge or that of his agents. He allows auctions to be freely held, but buys up all the best horses for himself, without however interfering with the bidding, or taking offence if anyone tries to outbid him. In order to avoid any suspicion of oppression, the money is publicly counted out on these occasions, and the seller receives several gold pieces beyond the actual price.
Zelaldinus is sparing and tenacious of his wealth, and thus has become the richest Oriental king for at least 200 years. This fact the chieftains who surround him at his court are continually dinning into his ears, in order to ingratiate themselves with him. With the object of exhibiting his wealth, four times every year he has sacks of minted copper money publicly piled up (I think in the palace courtyard) into a heap ten feet wide and thirty feet high. By the side of this pile sit the superintendents and tellers of the treasury. They supervise the counting of the money, which is paid out to those who are entitled to receive it, after deduction of the profit which an ordinary banker would have made if it had been deposited with him. Each sack holds about four thousand copper coins.
The crowd of officers, secretaries, and paymasters, who administer the
royal supplies and grant safeconducts, passes, contracts, etc., are
accommodated in a very large hall. This secretariat is presided over by
a chieftain of great authority and ability who signs the [] royal
'farmans' [=official decrees]. These are eight days
afterwards sealed by one of the queens, in whose keeping is the royal signet-ring
and also the great seal of the realm. During this eight days' interval
every document is most carefully examined by the confidential counsellor
and by the King himself, in order to prevent error and fraud. This is done
with especial care in the case of gifts and concessions conferred by the
The King's severity towards errors and misdemeanours committed by officials in the course of government business is remarkable, for he is most stern with offenders against the public faith. Hence all are afraid of his severity, and strive with all their might to do as he directs and desires. For the King has the most precise regard for right and justice in the affairs of government. In accordance with Musalman practice cases are decided by a double process before two judges. However by the King's direction all capital cases, and all really important civil cases also, are conducted before himself. He is easily excited to anger, but soon cools down again. By nature moreover he is kindly and benevolent, and is sincerely anxious that guilt should be punished, without malice indeed, but at the same time without undue leniency. Hence in the cases in which he himself acts as judge the guilty are, by his own directions, not punished until he has given orders for the third time that this shall be done.
During the campaign against the king of Chabulum [=Kabul], twelve deserters to the enemy were captured in an ambush near the Bydaspes and brought before the King. He pronounced judgment upon them; some were to be kept in custody in order that their case might be more thoroughly investigated, whilst some were convicted of treachery and desertion and handed over for execution. One of these latter, as he was [] being hustled off by the executioners, begged for a chance to say something. 'O King', he said, 'order me not to the gibbet, for nature has bestowed upon me marvellous powers in a certain direction.' 'Well', said the King, 'in what direction do you thus excel, O miserable wretch?' 'I can sing beautifully.' 'Then sing.' The wretched fellow then began to sing, in a voice so discordant and absurd that everyone began to laugh and murmur, and the King himself could scarcely control his smiles. When the guilty man perceived this, he put in, 'Pardon me this poor performance, O King. For these guards of yours dragged me along so roughly and cruelly, on a hot and dusty road, and pummelled me so brutally with their fists, that my throat is full of dust, and my voice so husky that I cannot do myself justice in singing.' The King rewarded this witty saying with such signal grace that for the sake of this one man he pardoned both the fellow himself and his companions.
The following are the ways in which the guilty are punished. Those who have committed a capital crime are either crushed by elephants, impaled, or hanged. Seducers and adulterers are either strangled or gibbeted. The King has such a hatred of debauchery and adultery that neither influence nor entreaties nor the great ransom which was offered would induce him to pardon his chief trade commissioner, who although he was already married had violently debauched a well-born Brahman girl. The wretch was by the King's order remorselessly strangled. Although Muhammad did not forbid unnatural crimes, yet Zelaldinus punished those who are guilty of such crimes by savage scourging with leather thongs.
There are two ministers of justice, one primary, and the other for appeals. There is also a chief magistrate. Judgment is delivered only verbally, and is not recorded [] in writing. Ordinary criminals are kept under guard in irons, but not in prison. Princes sentenced to imprisonment are sent to the jail at Goaleris [=Gwalior], where they rot away in chains and filth. Noble offenders are handed over to other nobles for punishment, but the base-born either to the captain of the despatch runners, or to the chief executioner. This latter official is equipped even in the palace and before the King with many instruments of punishment, such as leather thongs, whips, bow-strings fitted with sharp spikes of copper, a smooth block of wood used for pounding the criminal's sides or crushing to pieces his skull, and scourges in which are tied a number of small balls studded with sharp bronze nails (this latter weapon must I think be the one called by the ancients the scorpion). However no one is actually punished with these instruments, which seem to be intended rather to inspire terror than for actual use. For the same reason various kinds of chains, manacles, handcuffs, and other irons are hung up on one of the palace gateways, which is guarded by the afore-mentioned chief executioner. The other three gateways are guarded by the chief doorkeeper, the chief trainer of gladiators, and the chief despatch-runner respectively.
It is the duty of the orderlies to manage the water-clocks and to strike the time on bronze gongs. These water-clocks consist of a brazen vessel filled with water, and a hollow bronze cone of such a size that exactly a quarter of an hour is taken for the water to fill it through a small hole in the bottom. This cone is placed on the top of the vessel filled with water, and the water runs in through the hole in its bottom. When the cone is full, it sinks, and thus shows that a quarter of an hour has elapsed. Everything that goes on in the palace is regulated by this clock. At fixed hours, namely before dawn when the cocks begin to crow, and in the evening, a barbaric din is kept up for the space [] of a full hour by means of trumpets, bugles, drums, rattles, bells, and the like.
Amongst the despatch-runners are certain couriers who in one day can run
on foot as far as a horseman can ride at full speed. They are said
to have their livers removed in infancy, in order to prevent their suffering
from shortness of breath. They practise running in shoes made of lead,
or train themselves by repeatedly lifting their feet and moving their legs
(whilst remaining standing still in one place) till their heels touch their
buttocks. When their leaden shoes are removed, they are seen to be magnificent
runners, by the help of whose swiftness the King can very rapidly and regularly
obtain news or send orders on any matter touching the peace of his realm.
And this realm is indeed a vast one. On the north in the direction of the Circius [=Caucasus?] it is bounded by Mount Imaus [=the Pamirs] (which is now called by its inhabitants Cumaunius [=Kumaun]), by the river Indus, and by the Paharopanisus [='Paru Nishadha', the Hindu Kush]. In the south its limits are the Gangetic gulf and various inland regions which adjoin the territories of Narsinga and Bisnaga [=two names for Vijayanagar] to the north of the Pandae [=the Pandyas' territory]. Further west its southern boundary is found by Ariacum [='Aryan land', a Ptolemaic term for the Maharashtra region], [] which lies next Goa, and Cuncanum [=Konkan], which is now called Canara, and the country of the Sedani [=a Ptolemaic term for the western Deccan region], who live close to Xeulum [=Chaul] and are called Deccanici [=Deccan people]. In the west it is bounded by the coast of Gedrosia [=southern Balochistan and the Indus coast] and the Indian Ocean, and in the east by the regions of the Emodi [=Hemadri] which extend far towards the sunrise, and by the great estuary of the Ganges, which flows from the same mountains as the Jomanes [=Jumna], but from a different fountain-head and by a different course. However I must remind the reader that my task is not a general description of India, but merely an account of the empire of Equebarus [=Akbar].
Of late he has added to that empire,
partly by force of arms and partly by voluntary surrender, most of Gedrosia.
Hence it may well be believed that the circuit of the whole of his dominions
is more than 20,000 miles, and that they lie in the heart of what the ancients
called 'India within the Ganges', the land which according to the historians
of antiquity, was reached by Alexander the Macedonian, and which was first
evangelized, according to the Christian Fathers, by St. Bartholomew. St.
Thomas is said also to have lived in the coastal district.