PART ONE – FROM BEHIND THE VEIL
As a low rumbling growl rose from behind the dense acacia bushes thirty yards away, Akbar smiled. Even without it he would have known the tiger was there. Its musky scent hung in the air, a mixture of sweat and of the urine that it had paused during its flight to spray on the ground. The beaters had done their work well. While moonlight still silvered the hills on which Akbar’s army was encamped a hundred miles northeast of Delhi, they had begun moving out silently towards the small forest where in recent days a large male tiger had been sighted. The village headman who had brought word of it to the camp, saying he had heard that the young Moghul emperor was fond of hunting, claimed it was a man-eater that in the last few days had killed an old peasant labouring in the fields and two small children as they went to fetch water.
The headman had left the camp well rewarded by Akbar who could hardly contain his excitement. Bairam Khan, his guardian and Khan-i-Khanan – Commander-in-Chief – had tried to dissuade him, arguing that with the Moghuls’ enemies on the move this was no time to be thinking of sport. But a tiger hunt was too good to miss, Akbar had insisted and Bairam Khan, a faint smile lightening his lean scarred face, had agreed.
The beaters had employed the age-old hunting practices of the Moghul clans brought with them from their homelands on the steppes of Central Asia. Moving quietly and methodically through the darkness, eight hundred men in dark tunics and trousers had formed a qamargah, a huge circle about a mile across, around the forest. Then, striking brass gongs and thumping small, cylindrical drums suspended on thongs around their necks, they had begun moving in, forming a tighter and tighter human barrier and driving all kinds of game – black buck, nilgai, and squealing wild pigs – into the centre. Finally, as the light grew stronger some of them had spotted tiger tracks and sent word to Akbar, following the beaters on elephant back.
The beast on which Akbar was sitting high in a jewelled canopied howdah also sensed the tiger was close. It was swinging its great head from side to side and its trunk was coiling in alarm. Behind him Akbar could hear the elephants carrying his bodyguards and attendants also restlessly shifting their great feet. ‘Mahout, quieten the beast. Hold it steady’, he whispered to the skinny, red-turbaned man balanced in front of him on the elephant’s neck. The mahout at once tapped the animal behind its left ear with his iron ankas, the rod he used to control it. At the familiar signal, the well-drilled elephant slowly relaxed its trunk and stood motionless again. Taking their cue from it, the other elephants also ceased their fidgeting and a profound silence fell.
Excellent, thought Akbar. This was the moment when he felt most alive. The blood seemed to sing in his veins and he could feel his heart thumping, not with fear but with exhilaration. Though not yet fourteen years old, he had already killed several tigers but the battle of wits and of wills, the danger and unpredictability, always excited him. He knew that if the tiger suddenly broke cover, it would take him only a split second to pluck an arrow from the quiver on his back and fit it to his taut-stringed, double-curved bow – the weapon most hunters would use against such quarry. But Akbar was curious to see what a musket could do, especially against such a monster as this was reputed to be. He prided himself on his skill with a musket and had spent far more hours practising marksmanship than at his studies. Despite all the remonstrances from his mother and his advisers what did it really matter if he couldn’t read when he could outshoot any soldier in his army?
The tiger had stopped growling and Akbar sensed its amber eyes watching him. Slowly standing up, he rested the slender engraved steel barrel of his matchlock musket on the metal tripod in front of him. He had already loaded the metal ball, trickled gunpowder from his silver mounted powder horn into the pan and checked the short, thin length of fuse. His qorchi, squire, half-crouching close beside him in the howdah, was already holding the burning taper Akbar would need to ignite the fuse.
Satisfied, Akbar aimed his musket at the densest part of the acacia bushes where he was certain the tiger was hiding, braced his shoulder to the ivory- inlaid wooden butt and looked with narrowed eyes down the length of the long barrel. ‘Hand me the taper’, he whispered to his qorchi ‘and signal to the beaters.’ Clustered in a semi-circle behind the elephants, the beaters at once broke into high-pitched yells and began clashing their cymbals and beating their drums. Seconds later, with an answering roar, the tiger burst through the screen of acacias. Akbar saw a blur of long white teeth and gold and black fur leaping towards his elephant as he lit the fuse. There was a brilliant flash, then a deafening bang. The musket’s recoil knocked Akbar backwards, almost somersaulting him out of the howdah but not before he had seen the tiger drop to the ground, still some ten yards away. As the smoke cleared, Akbar saw the animal lying motionless on its side, blood pouring from a jagged hole above its right eye.
Akbar gave a yell of triumph and without waiting for the mahout to bring the elephant – which had reacted with admirable calmness to the charge of the tiger and the sharp crack of the musket – to its knees, climbed, grinning broadly, over the side of the howdah and dropped lightly to the ground. He’d made a fine kill, a perfect kill. He’d proved to the doubters who insisted a musket was too slow for killing such prey that in the hands of a good marksman a musket was easily fast enough. Curious to inspect the dead animal, Akbar advanced closer, noticing how the tiger’s pink tongue, lolling flaccidly from its mouth, was already attracting clouds of green-black flies. Then he noticed something else protruding though the thick belly fur. Teats. The tiger he’d been hunting was supposed to have been male.
The thought was swiftly followed by another that made the hairs on the back of his young neck lift. With sweating fingers Akbar yanked his bow from his shoulder and reaching behind him, grabbed an arrow. He was still fitting it to the string when a second and massive tiger launched itself out of the acacias straight towards him. Somehow Akbar managed to fire his arrow and time seemed stop for him. The clamour of warning shouts behind him faded and it was as if he and the tiger were alone. He watched his arrow very slowly part the air in its flight. The tiger too looked almost suspended in its leap, saliva flecked lips drawn back, long incisors prominent and ears flattened against its head, like the image etched on the golden ring that had once belonged to Akbar’s great ancestor Timur and was now on his own shaking forefinger.
Then, suddenly, time seemed to rush forward again and the tiger was almost on him. Akbar jumped aside, closing his eyes as he did so and expecting at any moment to feel claws ripping his flesh or smell hot, rancid breath as sharp teeth sought his throat. But hearing a skidding thud he re-opened his eyes to see the tiger crumpled up beside him, his arrow embedded in the crimsoning fur of its throat. For a moment Akbar stood in silence, knowing he had experienced something almost unknown to him – fear – and also that he had been very, very lucky.
Still dazed, he caught the sound of rapidly approaching hoof beats and turned to see a rider weaving through the low scrub and spindly trees towards them. It must be a messenger from the camp, no doubt sent by Bairam Khan to hurry him up. Five minutes ago he’d have been annoyed to have his sport interrupted but now he felt grateful for the distraction from thoughts of what might have happened. The crowd of beaters, guards and attendants parted to let the rider through. His tall bay horse was foamy with sweat and he himself so caked with dust that his tunic of bright Moghul green looked almost brown. Reining in before Akbar, he flung himself from the saddle, made the briefest of obeisances then said breathlessly, ‘Majesty, Bairam Khan requests that you return to the camp immediately.’
‘There is grave news. Delhi has fallen to an advance force of Hemu’s rebels.’
Four hours later as the hunting party with Akbar at its head passed through the first of the picket lines thrown out around his camp, the sun was still high in the clear blue sky. Despite the tasselled brocade canopy shading him, Akbar’s head ached beneath his plumed helmet and sweat was sticking his tunic to his body yet he barely noticed the discomfort as he pondered the disastrous news of the loss of his capital. Surely his rule was not destined to be over almost before it had begun.
It was barely ten months since, in February 1556, on a makeshift brick throne hastily erected on a masonry platform in the centre of a Moghul encampment, he had been proclaimed Emperor of Hindustan – north-western India. His mind had still been raw with grief at the sudden death of his father, the Emperor Humayun, when he had stood awkwardly but proudly beneath a silken awning to receive the homage of Bairam Khan and his other commanders.
His mother Hamida had only recently succeeded in convincing him just how desperate that time had been and how Bairam Khan, despite his Persian origins, had understood better than anyone that in the first hours and days after his father’s death the danger to Akbar came from within – from ambitious commanders who, now the emperor was dead leaving only a boy as heir, might claim the throne for themselves. Many were from the old Moghul clans of Central Asia who with Akbar’s grandfather Babur had founded a new empire for the Moghuls on the dry plains of Hindustan – most men with no time for sentiment. The code of their homeland, the Asian steppes, had always been ‘Taktya, Tahkta’, ‘throne or coffin’. Any who felt strong enough could challenge for the crown and over the years many had done so and would do so again.
Akbar’s elephant stumbled, jerking him from his recollections but only for a moment. Staring down at the wrinkled grey neck of the beast with its sproutings of sparse coarse hair, his mind soon returned to its dark reflections. If the news was true and Delhi had indeed fallen, everything his mother and Bairam Khan had done for him might have been for nothing. To win precious time, they had concealed Humayun’s death for nearly two weeks, finding a loyal servant of similar build to impersonate the dead emperor. Each day at dawn, he had donned the imperial robes of green silk and Humayun’s jewelled turban with its plume of white egrets’ feathers and appeared as custom demanded on the riverside balcony of the imperial palace in Delhi, the Purana Qila, to show the crowds jostling each other on the banks of the Jumna that the Moghul Emperor lived.
Meanwhile, Hamida and her sister-in-law Gulbadan, Akbar’s aunt, had persuaded the reluctant Akbar that he must secretly leave Delhi. He could still see his mother’s strained anxious face as, holding a flickering oil lamp in one hand, she had shaken him awake with her other, whispering ‘come now – bring nothing with you – just come!’ Stumbling from his bed, he had allowed her to throw a dark hooded cloak over him, like the one she was wearing. Barely awake but head reeling with questions he had followed her down narrow passageways and twisting flights of stairs through a part of the palace he had never seen to emerge into a small, grubby courtyard. He could still recall the acrid smell of urine – human or animal – he couldn’t tell.
There a large palanquin was waiting and in the shadows Gulbadan and about twenty soldiers he had recognised as Bairam Khan’s men. ‘Get in,’ Hamida had whispered. ‘Why, where are we going?’ he had asked. ‘Your life is in danger if you stay here. Don’t question me. Just do it,’ she had replied impatiently. ‘I don’t want to run away. I’m no coward. I’ve already seen blood and battles …’ he had protested. Gulbadan had stepped forward and touching his arm had added her own arguments. ‘When you were a baby and in danger I risked my life for yours. Trust me and do as your mother says …’
Still arguing, he had nevertheless clambered in followed by Hamida and Gulbadan who had quickly pulled the concealing curtains around them. He could still recall the coarse feel of those hangings – so different from the gilded, silk-covered palanquins usually used by the royal family – and the lurching motion as the soldiers had lifted the supporting poles and resting them on their shoulders had carried them out into the night. Gulbadan and Hamida had sat tense and silent beside him and some of their fear had at last communicated itself to him even though he didn’t understand what was going on. Only when they were clear of the palace and of the city had his mother told him she had heard of a plot to assassinate him before he could be crowned emperor.
On the outskirts of Delhi, more soldiers loyal to Bairam Khan had met them and escorted them to a camp fifty miles from the city. A week later, Bairam Khan himself had joined them with the main body of his army and Akbar had been proclaimed emperor on his brick throne. Bairam Khan had then escorted Akbar in great ceremony back to Delhi where in the Friday Mosque the khutbah, the sermon, had been read in his name, confirming to all the world that Akbar was the new emperor. Outmanoeuvred before any of them had time to plan further mischief, all the Moghul leaders had pledged their allegiance to him.
That had dealt with the enemy within but not the many beyond the Moghul borders as this news about Delhi proved. The Moghuls’ position in Hindustan was indeed precarious. Vassals who had only recently sworn loyalty to his father Humayun were trying to break free while enemies beyond the empire were probing its borders. But of all of these only one – Hemu – had emerged as a serious menace. He was an unlikely enemy, this reputedly ugly but silver-tongued little man – a lowborn nobody – who seemed to have conjured an army out of nowhere to challenge Moghul authority. Until now he hadn’t paid too much attention to him but now he wondered what kind of man this Hemu was and how he inspired his men … What lay behind his success?
Akbar was now entering the heart of the tented city that was the main camp. Perched high in his howdah he saw ahead, at the very centre, his own tent – bright scarlet as befitted the command tent of an emperor and beside it, almost as magnificent with its intricate awnings, Bairam Khan’s tent. His Commander-in-Chief was standing outside waiting for him and from the posture of his tall, lean body Akbar could tell how impatient he was for him to arrive.
Akbar had barely descended from his howdah before Bairam Khan spoke. ‘Majesty, you’ve heard the news – Hemu’s forces have taken Delhi. The war council is assembled in your tent and already debating what we must do. We must join them immediately.’ Following Bairam Khan inside, Akbar saw his commanders and counsellors sitting cross-legged on the thick red and blue carpet around a low, gilded stool draped in green velvet – the emperor’s chair. As Akbar took his place, they rose and made brief obeisance to him but he noticed how, as they sat down again, their eyes quickly turned to Bairam Khan standing by his side.
‘Summon Tardi Beg so that he can tell the story he has already told me,’ Bairam Khan ordered. Moments later, the Moghul Governor of Delhi was ushered in. Akbar had known and liked Tardi Beg all his life. He was a warrior of swaggering confidence from the mountains north of Kabul with a booming voice to match the muscular bulk of his body. Usually his eyes and expression had a humourous twinkle but now his lined, sun-burnished face above his thick black beard looked sombre.
‘Well Tardi Beg, account for yourself before his Majesty and the council.’ Bairam Khan’s tone was cold. ‘Tell us how you abandoned the imperial capital to a seller of saltpetre and his rabble.’
‘It was no rabble but a powerful, well-armed force. Hemu’s origins may be humble but he is an accomplished general who has won many battles for whoever would hire him. No longer a mercenary, he is fighting for himself. He has raised the supporters of the old Lodi dynasty displaced by your grandfather against us, Majesty, and it seems that even the proudest and most noble will do whatever he bids them. Our spies reported a great advance party swarming towards Delhi over the plains from the west and that Hemu’s main army – an even bigger force with three hundred war elephants – was not many days behind. There was nothing we could do but withdraw from the city or face certain destruction.’
Bairam Khan’s face tautened with anger. ‘By fleeing Delhi you have sent a signal to every rebel and petty chieftain to turn against us. I left you with a garrison of 20,000 men …’
‘It wasn’t enough.’
‘Then you should have sent word to me and held the city until I could send you reinforcements.’
Akbar saw Tardi Beg’s eyes flash and the fingers of his right hand seek the hilt of the ruby-studded dagger tucked into his sash. ‘Bairam Khan, we have known each other many years and fought and bled side by side. Are you questioning my loyalty?’
‘Your conduct is something for which you will answer on a future occasion, Tardi Beg,’ continued Bairam Khan more quietly. ‘The question now is how to regain what you have lost. We should …’ He broke off as a man with a straggling brown beard entered the tent. ‘Ahmed Khan, I’m glad you have returned safely … What can you tell us?’
Akbar was always pleased to see Ahmed Khan, one of the most trusted of his father Humayun’s ichkis, his inner circle. Humayun had appointed him Governor of Agra but when the trouble with Hemu had begun, Bairam Khan had recalled him and asked him to resume his former role of chief scout and intelligence gatherer. The liberal speckling of dust on his clothes suggested he had only just arrived in the camp.
‘Hemu is advancing on Delhi from the northwest at the head of his main army of 200,000 men. If he maintains his present pace he will reach it in about a week. According to a small band of soldiers riding to join him that my men intercepted he intends to proclaim himself emperor there. He has already assumed the title of ‘padishah’ and ordered coins to be minted in his name. What is more, he claims the Moghuls are alien interlopers in Hindustan ruled by a mere boy and that the roots of our dynasty are so weak they will be easy to pluck out.’
His words seemed to stir his council into life, Akbar thought, watching them exchange shocked glances. ‘We must strike now – before Hemu reaches Delhi and consolidates his position,’ Bairam Khan was saying. ‘If we are quick we can intercept him before he gets there.’
‘But the risk is too great,’ interrupted a commander from Herat whose left arm ended in a stump where his hand should have been. ‘If we are defeated we will lose everything. We should try to win ourselves time by negotiating …’
‘Nonsense. Why should Hemu negotiate from a position of such strength?’ said Mohamed Beg, a thickset and grizzled veteran Badakhshani with a broken nose. ‘I agree with Bairam Khan …’
‘You are all wrong,’ cut in the younger Ali Gul, a Tajik. ‘We have only one option – to withdraw to Lahore which is still under Moghul control and regroup. Then, when we are strong enough, we can drive out our enemies.’
No one is paying me any attention, thought Akbar as the angry, anxious clamour rose around him. Bairam Khan was frowning and looking intently around him. Akbar knew he was assessing his next move. He was also sure that Bairam Khan’s strategy was right – attack was the surest defence. Hadn’t his father admitted that during his campaigns he had too often been prepared to delay and thus ceded the initiative to his enemies? In that moment Akbar made up his mind. How insupportable it would be to be driven out of Hindustan as his father had been. It was the Moghuls’ destiny to rule Hindustan, but more than that it was his destiny and rule it he would.
Almost before he realised it, he was on his feet. He felt every eye upon him. All were used to him just sitting there, their boy emperor listening to their advice and quietly acquiescing in their decisions. ‘Enough of this. How dare any of you even think of abandoning the empire’, he said loudly. ‘It’s not yours to surrender. I am the rightful ruler here. My duty – our duty – is to win new lands not yield those our ancestors won to petty usurpers. We must attack Hemu at once and crush him like a melon beneath the elephant’s foot. I will lead the troops myself.’
Instinctively, as Akbar sat down again, he looked towards Bairam Khan whose almost imperceptible nod told Akbar his outburst had pleased his Commander-in-Chief. His other counsellors and commanders were on their feet now and suddenly the great tent was filled with their voices, this time all shouting one thing, ‘Mirza Akbar, Mirza Akbar’. Akbar’s first reaction was relief, then came pride. Not only were they acknowledging him as one of the Amirzada – the blood-kin of Timur – but affirming their readiness to follow him to war in his first campaign as emperor. He had asserted himself and despite his youth they had listened. Command was sweet.
An hour later, Akbar visited his mother in the royal women’s quarters. The sleeping tents and bath houses were well protected by a fence of tall, gilded wooden screens lashed together with thongs of ox hide in which there was only one well-guarded entry gate. As he entered her tent, he smelled the sweet spicy scent that ever since childhood he had associated with Hamida – sandalwood. It was coming from a silver incense burner in the centre of the tent, from which a thin wisp of smoke was curling upwards to a vent in the roof.
Hamida was lying against a bolster of flowered silk while Zainab her attendant combed her long hair – dark as Akbar’s own. On one side sat his aunt Gulbadan, frowning with concentration as she plucked the strings of a somewhat battered, round-bellied lute that had once belonged to Akbar’s great grandmother and that she had carried strapped to her back during the Moghuls’ flight from Central Asia. Akbar knew the story of that lute as minutely as he knew all the family history. He also knew that his aunt, clever as she was, had no talent for lute playing which annoyed her, hence her persistence.
On the other side of Hamida, embroidering a shirt, was his wet-nurse or ‘milk-mother’, Maham Anga. In Moghul society, the bond between wet-nurse and the royal child she had suckled was lifelong. It also made Maham Anga’s own son Adham Khan – just a few months older than himself – his ‘milk brother’, bound to him with ties as strong as those of blood.
At the sight of Akbar, the faces of all three women lit up. His mother Hamida, barely thirty and slender bodied and smooth skinned still, jumped up and hugged him. Gulbadan put down her lute and smiled. A little older than Hamida, tiny lines already wrinkled the corners of her tawny eyes and, had her long hair not been hennaed, silver threads would have run through it. Maham Anga came forward to embrace him warmly. She was taller than either Maham or Gulbadan and handsome in a big-boned, almost masculine way.
Akbar was pleased that the three women who meant most to him were here together. ‘I have come to you straight from the war council … Hemu’s advance force has captured Delhi but he won’t hold it long. Tomorrow I will lead our forces to intercept him and his main army before he can join his troops in Delhi. We will defeat Hemu and retake what is ours.’
While he had been speaking, Hamida’s eyes – amber-brown like his own – had been fixed on his face. As he fell silent she continued to regard him steadily. What was going through her mind, he wondered?
‘My son,’ his mother said at last, emotion in her voice, ‘I always knew, even as I carried you in my belly, that one day you would be a great warrior and a great leader. The realisation that that time has come fills me with joy. I have something for you.’ She whispered something to Zainab who hurried off. When she returned several minutes later she was carrying an object wrapped in green velvet which she laid on the carpet at Hamida’s feet. As his mother knelt and threw back the velvet, Akbar saw his father’s golden breastplate and eagle-hilted sword, Alamgir, in its sapphire-studded scabbard.
The armour and the sword evoked the image of his father so powerfully that for a moment Akbar closed his eyes lest his mother see the tears in them. Hamida, helped by Maham Anga, buckled the breastplate on him. Humayun had been tall and muscular but Akbar was already nearly as broad and the armour fitted well. Now Hamida was holding Alamgir out to him. Slowly, he drew the blade from the scabbard and made a few tentative cuts through the air. The weight, the balance, felt good.
‘I was waiting until I was sure you were ready,’ said Hamida as if she had read his mind. ‘Now I see that you are. Tomorrow when I watch you ride away I will feel a mother’s anxiety but also the pride of an empress. May God go with you my son.’