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I have enforced the law against killing certain animals. The greatest progress of Righteousness among men comes from the exhortation in favour of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings.

– Ashoka Pillar Edict


BACK AT HIS PALACE QUARTERS, Akbar sits with scholars. They read out to him the exploits of a great emperor of the past. His name is Piyadasi, he is better known as Ashoka. They tell of his feared reputation on the field and within his own kingdom. His moment of illumination at Kalinga. His edicts promoting kindness to all living beings and edicts advising an end to the slaughter of animals. Akbar has himself paid homage at a shrine commissioned by Ashok in Sarnath. He remembers the high, polished pillar outside.

Akbar is intrigued. That a leader should be remembered for his kindness rather than his valour. The teachers tell him of Ashok’s sensitivity to all living beings – that he called for the creation of animal hospitals and put in place laws governing the rights of animals. Akbar asks the scholar about Ashok’s own diet. The scholar knows exactly what he means. He tells him that the reform meant personal sacrifices in Ashok’s regular indulgences.


In later years, Akbar too will distance himself from the slaughter of animals and the consumption of meat. Image: From 16th C painting, Akbar ordering the slaughter to cease (British Library)

Where previously, meats of great variety were prepared regularly and in large quantities in the Imperial Kitchen, with the change, only two peacocks and a deer were allowed to be used in a day. The reform also meant that Ashok no longer went on the hunting trips he had enjoyed so much in the past. In the place of these trips, he would go on dhamma tours which involved visiting holy men and the aged and making them gifts.

Akbar mulls over these stories as he sits down to his meal of khicdi and curd. But he is interrupted. News has arrived that the renegade general Hemu has not only taken Delhi but styled himself ruler under the title Raja Vikramaditya. Within only a few months of coming to the throne, Akbar and his army face their first battle. Amid the clatter of swords, booming ordinance and stampede of horses and elephants, they score a fortuitous victory over Hemu. The underdogs turn from defence to attack, even as Hemu’s forces turn on their heels. Akbar wins his first battle, but he hasn’t forgotten the story of Ashok. He wonders how it is possible to rule and preach kindness at the same time.

In the middle of so much action, Akbar has little time to relax. But after this eventful year, he has won some time for a bit of planning. Right now he is looking through plans for a new city at Feroze Shah Kotla, his father’s mausoleum which is already taking shape, and profiles of a few Rajput Princesses.