The Navratnas: Nine Jewels of Emperor Akbar’s Mughal Court
In Mughal history, it is a well-known fact that Emperor Akbar’s court was exceptionally enlightened. Akbar sat at the helm of one of the most progressive courts of his time, ruling the Mughal Empire of South Asia between 1556 to 1605. From research, it is known that Akbar himself was illiterate, but now scholars believe that he may also have been dyslexic. Despite this, Akbar possessed an insatiable hunger for knowledge and new ideas. He gathered around him numerous brilliant, learned men. The Navratnas were said to be the most extraordinary individuals that graced Akbar’s court.
Growing up, one could not escape the numerous stories about Akbar’s nine wise men, however there is no account within Mughal contemporary sources. Even the Akbarnama, the official chronicle of Akbar’s reign, does not mention such a group. Known as the “Nine Jewels”, these famed nine men certainly existed and their achievements were individually recorded for posterity. The only problem is that there is no specific mention of there being a group known as the Navratnas. Therefore, each member will be analyzed individually.
Abul-Fazl was a liberal thinker and member of the Navratnas. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
1. Abul-Fazl ibn Mubarak: Liberal Thinker Who Penned the Akbarnama
Abul-Fazl chronicled the rule of Akbar’s life, recording the events and history within three volumes known as the Akbarnama. Born to Shaikh Mubarak on the January 14, 1551, during the reign of Sher Shah Suri. From an early age, Abul Fazl was given a good education. In his youth, he befriended Badauni, who would become his lifelong rival in Akbar’s court. In 1574 Abul Fazl arrived at Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s newly founded capital of the Mughal Empire, at the age of twenty-three.
Both scholars immediately caught Akbar’s eye and seemed to have a promising future. However, Abul Fazl and Badauni’s paths began to diverge because of their religious beliefs. Abul-Fazl was a freethinker, this helped him excel in his career because he was able to accept the religious changes that Akbar started to make. On the other hand, Badauni was a strict Sunni because of which his views may have made him feel excluded within the court.
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Although known for his literary works, he also contributed to the field of economics, politics, and culture. Despite his literary career, Abul Fazl always wanted to pursue a career in the army, finally getting his chance in 1599, when Prince Murad fell ill. Akbar sent Abul Fazl to relieve his son of command. Unfortunately, Murad passed away due to his illness, and Abul Fazl used this opportunity to prove his mettle on the battlefield.
Although he reached the heights of becoming grand vizier of the Mughal emperor, effectively the head of government under Akbar, Abul-Fazl’s career came to an abrupt end in 1602 when he was assassinated by the orders of Prince Salim, the future Emperor Jahangir. The young prince knew that Abul Fazl had been opposed to his ascension to the throne, therefore he wanted to remove the threat.
Swami Haridasa with Tansen and Akbar at Vrindavana. (Public domain)
2. Mian Tansen: Learned Man and Musical Genius
Mian Tansen was a musical genius and a legendary singer, who was greatly respected in Akbar’s court. He arrived at the court in 1562 at the age of 60, serving until his death in 1586. Born Ramtanu Pandey in 1502, Tansen was the son of a prominent poet and musician, Mukund Pandey. As early as six years old, Tansen showed an extraordinary prowess for music. Thus, his father took Tansen to Swami Haridas, who was an accomplished musician, to learn from the master.
There is a legend attached to Tansen’s early age which claims that he had been born deaf and dumb and it was only after being blessed by a saint that he gained hearing and speech. Be that as it may, before arriving at Akbar’s court Tansen served at the court of Ram Chand, where he remained for several years before the invitation from the young Emperor arrived. Tansen initially refused to leave Raja Ram Chand. Nevertheless, he was eventually convinced of his duty. According to Bonnie Wade “Abul Fazl’s entry leaves no doubt that Akbar’s patronage of Tansen was initiated as a political act in his effort to bring Ram Chand, the Baghela Rajput ruler, under his control.”
Tansen’s life is a mix of fact and fiction, an enigma of Indian history. Revered for creating many ragas, a melodic feature in classical Indian music, he is remembered for making many contributions to the field of music and as a member of the Navratnas. There are many tales related to the life of Tansen and his musical abilities. One claims that he tamed an elephant with his singing, while another recorded that rain poured when he sang in raga Megh Malhar. There’s even a story which said that extinguished lamps were relit by his rendition of raga Deepak. Later in his life he converted to Islam and renamed himself Muhammad Ata Khan.
Portrait of Tansen, one of the Navratnas, created during the reign of Emperor Akbar. (Public domain)
3. Raja Birbal: King of Poets and Akbar’s Trusted Courtier
Revered for his wit and intelligence, Raja Birbal was the most famous and popular among the Navratnas, celebrated to this day in India. Born into the Brahmin sect as Mahesh Das, he was a poet whose literary reputation in other courts had led Akbar to recruit him. Birbal may have joined Akbar’s court in 1556, at the age of twenty-three, being among the first officers to join the new literate court.
In 1572, impressed by Mahesh Das’ artistry, Akbar gave him the title of Kavi Raj, the “King of Poets”. Further along the line, he received the title of Raja Birbal, meaning “King Renowned Warrior”, and he is remembered by this name up until today. Unfortunately, in 1589 Birbal’s life came to an end. At the age of 60, he led his troops, misguidedly, into an ambush. Akbar greatly grieved the loss of Birbal, his friend and most trusted courtier.
“In Birbal the Badshah (Akbar) found a quick and adaptable mind, a lively intelligence, and an engaging wit and above all, a complete and sincere devotion to Akbar himself,” writes Ira Mukhoty. Akbar had a unique bond with Birbal. Although many courtiers were rebuked or punished when found lacking, in his thirty years of service, Birbal was never censured at court, and was considered a close confidant of the King. There were many that grew jealous of Birbal’s relationship with Akbar, and the resulting accumulation of wealth.
Raja Birbal. (Public domain)
4. Faizi: Poet Laureate of Akbar’s Court
Shaikh Abu-al-Faiz, nicknamed Faizi, was a budding poet who in 1567 was invited to Akbar’s court. At first Faizi, questioned the wisdom of going to court because his father, Shaikh Mubarak, had been punished repeatedly for heterodoxy, including by Akbar. However, he eventually obeyed the summons and made his way to Fatehpur Sikri, where he could later be joined by his younger brother, Abul Fazl.
Like his brother, Faizi was known for portraying Akbar in a grandiose manner. An example is when on June 26, 1579, Faizi composed a Khutbah for Akbar, which demonstrated his sovereignty and the sovereigns right as an Imam or prayer leader). The Khutbah read as follows:
“The Almight God, that on me the empire conferred;
A mind of wisdom, and an arm of strength conferred!
To justice and to equity, He did me guide;
Expelled all but justice, from my thought;
His attributions beyond all comprehension soar!
Exalted His greatness, Allah-o-Akbar!”
In 1588, Faizi became the poet laureate of Akbar’s court, joining the ranks of the nine gems and going on to complete two of his works, the Markaz ul-Advar and the Nal o Daman. The Nal o Daman was completed in 1594 as an answer to Nizami’s Makhzan ol-Asrarabd, or Layla and Majnun. His brilliant career as one of the Navratnas came to an end in 1595 when he passed away in Lahore.
Fatehpur Sikri, in the northern state of India’s Uttar Pradesh, was founded by Emperor Akbar in 1571 as the capital of the Mughal Empire. (Mivr / Adobe Stock)
5. Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana: Mughal Patron of Poets
Abdul Rahim was born on December 17, 1556, to Bairam Khan (guardian of the young Emperor Akbar), who was assassinated in 1561 when Abdul Rahim was still a young boy. Akbar came to his rescue, adopting him and raising the young boy at the lavish Mughal court. Abdul Rahim slowly rose among the ranks, and to enhance personal ties Akbar married Abdul Rahim to his foster relative.
“Abur ur Rahim rose very rapidly to the highest ranks and proved his mettle during the conquest of Gujarat and Sind and in the battle for north Deccan,” writes Annemarie Schimmel. “He was not only a great general, khankhanan, but a poet in Persian, Turkish and especially Hindi. He translated Babur’s memoirs into Persian and was the greatest patron of poets in the entire Mughal period.”
Abdul Rahim was also an excellent poet, known for his Hindi couplets. One of his most popular couplets stated:
"The truly great never reveal their worth. Nor do those who are truly worthy of praise, praise themselves. Says Rahim, when does a diamond reveals its value."
As a member of the Navratnas, Abdul Rahim lived a very lavish life during the reign of Emperor Akbar. Nevertheless, after Akbar’s death the situation changed, although he continued to serve at the court of Akbar’s young son Jahangir. Afraid of rebellion, Jahangir cracked down hard on all the people who he thought opposed his reign. Abdul Rahim’s sons were beheaded for disapproving of Jahangir as king. Their heads were presented to their father as a warning, Abdul Rahim died in 1627, a morose and broken man.
A young Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana being received by Emperor Akbar. (Public domain)
6. Mullah do Piyaza: The Power of Wit
Mullah Do Piyaza’s very existence has been called into question, some claiming that he, and his membership to the fabled Navratnas, is a work of fiction. Research has provided little additional information to fill out the story. According to one source, Mullah Do Piyaza came from humble origins, his father being a schoolmaster. This meant that he grew up with very little money and would therefore take on jobs in rich houses where he could get his hands on all kinds of books.
Eventually he secured for himself a position in Akbar’s court, where he earned a reputation as a witty man. In most stories he is depicted as the rival of Raja Birbal, Akbar’s trusted courtier. One story gives an idea of how he was viewed in Akbar’s court:
One day, when the Mullah Do-Piyaza was going back after having an audience with the emperor, a small copper coin fell down from his pocket. It was the only money he had at that time, so he started immediately searching for it. A courtier named Murad, who was one of his bitterest enemies at court, said, “Your Majesty, look at the Mullah! Did you see what a miserly he is? You have given him so many expensive gifts and bestowed plenty of money on him; still, he is after a copper coin.”
The Mullah said quickly, “My dear friend is highly mistaken, Jahanpanah! It is not because of the value of the coin, that I am looking for it. I am looking for it because one side of that coin bears your resemblance, and I don’t want people to inadvertently step on it.” Akbar was so pleased to hear Mullah’s reply that he took off his diamond ring and presented it to the Mullah Do-Piyaza.
Raja Todar Mal, the finance Minister of Emperor Akbar. (Public domain)
7. Raja Todar Mal: Valued Finance Minister of Akbar’s Court
Raja Todar Mal was the finance minister of Akbar’s court, remembered for having improved the revenue system and standardized weights, among other things. Born in 1500 to a Kshatriya family, his family resided within Laharpur, modern-day Uttar Pradesh. As a young man, he was a witness to the coming of the Mughals, living through the reigns of three Mughal kings and the short reign of Sher Shah Suri.
Unfortunately, not much is known about his early life, but it is known that Raja Todar Mal served in the administration of Sher Shah where he gained valuable experience in the management of land and revenues. When Akbar established his court in Fatehpur Sikri, he was gathering intelligent and capable people around him and Todar Mal fit the bill. In 1560, Todar Mal succeeded Khwaja Malik Itimad Khan as the finance minister and became one of the Navratnas.
Not restricted to the financial sector, Todar Mal is also recognized as a warrior. He served under Akbar in 1564, accompanying the emperor in a campaign against the Subahdar of Malwa, Abdullah Khan Uzbeg. Todar Mal took part in several other battles, but he is remembered for the improvements that he made to the financial sector. He died in office at the age of 89, on November 8, 1589. Akbar had not allowed him to retire because he valued his work so much.
Raja Man Singh, Commander-in-Chief of the Mughal Army, playing Kushti with Emperor Akbar. (Public domain)
8. Raja Man Singh: Commander-in-Chief of the Mughal Army
Raja Man Singh was the Raja of Amber and the commander-in-chief of the Mughal army. He played a major role in aiding Akbar expand his empire. He was only eleven years old when he was sent to serve the young Mughal emperor Akbar, who was eight years his senior. Raja Man Singh grew up in the imperial court, rising through the ranks and helping the advancement of his relatives.
Raja Man Singh was a brilliant general, who won several battles. In 1576 an army commanded by Man Singh gave a devastating defeat to the Rajput’s of Mewar. Although he won the battle, Man Singh refused to capture the ruler of Mewar, nor did he allow the Mughal forces to pillage the city. His actions caused him to fall temporarily out of favor.
When Akbar invented the Din-i-Illahi, a syncretic religion which hoped to unify the various religions in the Mughal Empire, he invited many of his loyal courtiers to join. In 1587, Raja Man Singh declined the invitation to convert to Din-i-Illahi, responding that he would convert to Islam if Akbar commanded but he could not bring himself to join the new cult.
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Later in life, Akbar appointed Raja Man Singh as the guardian to his grandson, Khusrau. When Akbar died and Jahangir came to the throne, the new king wanted to distance Khusrau from his guardian, Man Singh. Thus Jahangir, appointed Man Singh as the governor of Bengal.
According to another source, Man Singh had wanted to be Akbar’s heir. Therefore, when Jahangir ascended to the throne after Akbar’s death, Man Singh was sent to Bengal to remove him as an obstacle. Despite their differences, Man Singh continued to serve Jahangir until his death in 1614. Man Singh died of natural causes and was succeeded by his son Raja Bhau Singh.
At the helm of one of the most progressive courts, the Mughal Emperor Akbar surrounded himself with brilliant and learned men. (Public domain)
9. Fakir Aziao Din: The Sufi Mystic
Little information is known about Fakir Aziao Din. The meaning of the word Fakir is a Sufi Muslim, who tries to establish a firm relationship with God. Therefore, Fakir Aziao Din was a mystic, who Akbar made into his chief advisor. As one of the Navratnas, his advice was held in great esteem by Akbar who would often consult Aziao Din on religious matters.
While some of Akbar’s Nine Jewels have been documented in history, others have all but disappeared in the annals of history. This hasn’t diminished the valuable contributions they made to the Mughal legacy. These nine men were respected by Emperor Akbar due to their knowledge and talent. Even today, stories of the Navratnas continue to provoke awe and to inspire future scholars. If one had to sum up their achievements in a single phrase, it would have to be: “knowledge is power.”
Top image: Abu'l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, one of the Navratnas, presenting Emperor Akbar with the Akbarnama. Source: Public domain
By Khadija Tauseef
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