Read Professor Milo Beach's Introduction

Image from the Akbarnama, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Akbar and his Hamzanama

In 1556, a 13 year old boy became the Emperor of India. His name was Prince Akbar. A courageous and outgoing young man, he grew to be one of the greatest Mughal Emperors, ruling over one of the richest and most powerful kingdoms in the world.

When Akbar ascended the throne, he took charge of the Mughal armies and opposed anyone who thought he was too young, or not smart enough, to rule. His kingdom stretched from Afghanistan in the northwest to Bengal in the east and halfway down the Deccan. His grandfather Babur, had been the first in his family to rule India. Akbar inherited his grandfather’s fascination for the many different kinds of people who lived in India, and his passionate love for history. However, he did not inherit his grandfather’s interest in reading and writing. While Babur had kept a very detailed diary of all the events at court, and wrote poetry too, Akbar preferred physical activities: riding horses and elephants, as well as hunting, wrestling, and other sports. The important things that happened at Akbar’s court were also written down, but others did this, not the Emperor himself. These records eventually became a book, The Akbarnama (The Story of Akbar), and it shows that the young emperor Akbar became an even more powerful ruler than either his grandfather; Babur or father; Humayun.

Akbar was an Islamic king, yet he encouraged his subjects— many of whom were Hindus—to practice whatever beliefs they wished. His curiosity was balanced by his energy. He met and talked with merchants, missionaries and other travellers who came to India; seeking to learn about them and the countries they came from.

Akbar never lost his love of adventure and he often took great risks. The painting on the facing page is from the Akbarnama. It shows the young prince riding his elephant. His companions had stopped at the banks of the River Ganga, which was swollen with floodwaters from the heavy monsoon rains. But Akbar, not worried about the depth or the strength of the fast moving waters, rode his elephant across—to the amazement of his companions, one of whom was Darbar Khan the storyteller. Listening to stories seems to have been so important to Akbar that he took his storyteller on many of his expeditions.

In Mughal times, storytellers like Darbar Khan were expected not only to recite stories perfectly from memory, but also to elaborate on favourite parts and even invent new episodes. One of Emperor Akbar’s favourite stories was The Hamzanama—The Story of Amir Hamza, a Persian warrior. The Hamzanama was a tale popular from Iran through Central Asia and India, and even across the Indian Ocean, in Indonesia. Full of giants, demons, dragons, heroes, beautiful princesses, and people from many different countries, these were great adventure stories to hear in the evening after the excitement of a day hunting elephants. Akbar had a special fondness for elephants and kept hundreds of them in the royal stables.

Soon after he became Emperor, Akbar decided he wanted the Hamzanama stories to be written down and also illustrated. He hired painters and scribes, and men skilled in making paper and pigments, and put them to work on this mammoth task. It took 100 artists over 15 years to complete the illustration and the inscription of the Hamzanama. The resulting manuscript included over 1400 very large and intricately detailed paintings.

These paintings remained in the Mughal Imperial Library at the Red Fort in Delhi for nearly 170 years till the Persian ruler, Nadir Shah looted Delhi and took away the magnificent Peacock Throne, the largest diamond in the world—the Kohinoor, and the beautiful Hamzanama paintings. When one of the last rulers of the Mughal dynasty, Muhammad Shah sent a special request for the return of the Hamzanama paintings, Nadir Shah said, “Ask but the return of all your treasures, and they are yours—but not the Hamzanama!”

Over the years, several of those 1400 paintings, made for Akbar were scattered across the world, and some of them certainly destroyed. Today only about 200 paintings are known to exist. The largest group of paintings is in the MAK –a museum in Vienna. A number of those are reproduced in this book.

Milo C. Beach
Retired Director
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.