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akbar_sketchSOME THREE DECADES AGO, Akbar had prayed desperately for an heir. He was given three. Today as he paces his terrace, the thought of his eldest, Salim, sets him on edge. He may not have gone to seed like his brothers, but indiscipline combined with wreckless ambition does no one any favours. In fact he has already casually crowned himself on one occasion in Allahabad, though few took note of it.

Akbar must make a decision. His energy is deserting him and he no longer presides over the daily durbars. He rarely makes an appearance at either the Diwan-i-aam or the Diwan-i-khas. He has issued orders for the construction of his own mausoleum at Sikandara, close to Agra. In a few months he is taken ill. A conference of elders and nobles is convened to decide on a successor. Not surprisingly, a few would rather Salim’s son Khusrau take over instead of the petulant heir apparent. However, it is finally decided that Salim should follow, in the course of natural succession, and Akbar himself gives his approval. From his bed, Akbar directs his son to put on the imperial robes and girdle the fath-ul-mulk, the hereditary sword of their line.


Waiting in the wings – Prince Salim. Image: From 17th C painting of Prince Salim, by Bichtir (V&A Collection) Top Image: 19th C painting of Akbar’s mausoleum near Agra (British Library)

Akbar passes from this world on his birthday (in the Gregorian Calendar) on an autumn night in 1605. The next morning, his body is led out in a quiet procession and laid to rest at his mausoleum at Sikandara. Immediately next to the slab above his resting place are placed his special books and raiment. An inscription on an entrance gate to the mausoleum reads: ‘May his soul shine like the rays of the sun and the moon …’

Akbar’s legacy is unquestionable – not only did his strategic genius broaden the realm of the Mughal Empire, his wisdom ensured that he commanded unprecedented awe within the Empire and abroad. Akbar is a pioneering champion of religious freedom at a time when his counterparts in adjoining and distant kingdoms only knew of victimising dissenters to the state line.

The Empire is in mourning; religious texts are recited in cities throughout the domain. Prince Salim will assume the throne in a week.