ALMOST AS SOON AS HE’S BACK, there’s a marriage lined up. His own. Akbar has been engaged for some weeks now; months back he had narrowed in on the profile a Rajput princess, daughter of Raja Bihari Mal of Amber. The betrothal dovetails nicely with the strategic moves Akbar is making on Rajput strongholds. However, the princess, Harkha/Jodha Bai, has plenty of charm besides. As for the feast – at least two of his navratnas, not to mention the begums of the harem, take personal interest in cuisine for special occasions. One is the Chief Cook (Mir Bakawal) who is Hakim Humam, the other his Akbar’s personal biographer, Abu Fazl who tries out every new dish. The attention to every meal is heightened on feast days, but even on normal days, each item is supervised by the Mir Bakawal, food is served in dishes of silver, gold, earthenware and stone, each tied in cloth onto which is affixed a seal and the name of the dish.
This feast will feature plenty of Rajput culinary favourites, notably murgh mussamman – slow cooked in a manner similar to dum pukht. Akbar may not be a gourmand, but he is a taskmaster for culinary quality; the finest dishes are granted the suffix ‘Akbar’ and these will be no doubt be served at the marriage reception. It is said one chicken preparation had to be worked on more than 200 times, before it was deemed worthy of being called Murgh Akbari. This feast will also see the premier of a pilaf dedicated to his nine grandees – appropriately called navratna, studded with vegetables made to look like jewels. There will be especially improved versions of zard biryani, saag, qabuli, qima shorba, yakhni and mutanja.
Buildings are dressed in glittering gossamer awnings, streets of the bazaars are lit for whole weeks. As is the custom, the day before his wedding, Akbar receives gifts of betel leaves, sugar candy and henna from the bride’s family. His hands and feet are patterned with henna and he wears the clothes sent by the bride before heading to a party exclusively for the male guests. On the day of his wedding, dressed in red and decked in floral garlands, he puts on the beaded sehra, mounts the horse and heads in a procession through the festooned thoroughfares packed with well-wishers, to the bride’s home where the ceremony of betrothal is conducted.
From here, the party heads back to the Mughal halls for the main feast.