Akbar’s grand court carnivals

The author weaves together poetry and prose, and brings out the true spirit of the 16th and 17th century masque.

Published: 13th May 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 13th May 2017 06:24 PM   |  A+A-

Irwin Allan Sealy

Express News Service

Born on October 15, 1542, in the very heat of the Rajasthan desert, Jalal- ud-din Muhammed Akbar (1542-1605), the third of the Grand Moghuls, ascended the throne at the age of 14. Nine years later in 1565, having transferred his capital to Agra, he built himself the Agra Fort— his red sandstone citadel.
Beyond Agra atop a camel’s hump of a hill, he built himself a summer residence with battlements and round towers, within it rises a rocky high ridge crowned with buildings.

The legend of its foundation is familiar to all. The Emperor returning from one of his campaigns halted at the foot of the hill. At this time he and his wife were in deep grief at the loss of their twin children. Atop the hill resided a very famous and holy hermit, Sheikh Salem Chisti, who promised them a son and heir. Perhaps the salubrity of the air mingled with the blessings of the saint and led to the birth of a son, who was called Salem—a name which he bore till he mounted the throne as Emperor Jehangir.

Atop the highest part of this plateau, and surrounded by high walls, which give it the appearance of a fortress, stand the tomb of the saint. In the inner courtyard is a broad stone terrace with a chequered pattern much alike a chessboard. Here, according to contemporary accounts, the emperor played chess using human pieces. For the sheer scale of things leaves you breathless as: ‘One cannot but feel deeply impressed on entering this silent and deserted court; the long somber galleries, surmounted by a thousand cupolas; the gigantic gateway; and the noble mosque which forms a dark red framework to the shimmering white mausoleum of the Saint.’

Keeping the imagination captive of accomplished writers down the ages— from Ian Fleming to
Irwin Alan Sealy—the very idea of a gigantic chessboard is mesmerising. In Zelaldinus, Akbar finds himself face to face with the pick of his three hundred-strong harem. ‘Society,’ Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us, ‘is a masked ball, where everyone hides his real character and reveals it by hiding.’ And in the true spirit of the 16th and 17th century masque, Sealy mounts a moveable feast, a glittering and fantastical pageant, where the past concertinas with the present.

‘Fill your heart with simple joy, Traveller,’ Rabindranath Tagore wrote, ‘Scatter freely along the road/ The treasure you gather as you go.’

Moving through a freewheeling mix of verse and prose, it evokes the celebration of the carnival spirit of a masque. The reader finds himself tossed amid the rich and varied court life at Sikri. It mirrors reflections of what it is to be a sovereign, a study on fathers and sons, and several plots within the fable that tell a mighty tale of love across the borders that men draw. And through it all in the manner a djinn hovers the irrepressible spirit of Akbar the Great or Zelaldinus himself.

One of India’s finest English language writers, Irwin Allen Sealy takes his readers through summer, winter and spring to evoke the pageant of the sensual treat. A great read. Highly recommended.

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