By the end of Akbar’s reign, local folk tales emerged involving his interactions with Akbar, portraying him as being extremely clever and witty. As the tales gained popularity in India, he became even more of a legendary figure across India and neighbouring countries surrounding it. These tales involve him outsmarting rival courtiers and sometimes even Akbar, using only his intelligence and cunning, often with giving witty and humorous responses and impressing Akbar. By the twentieth century onwards, plays, films and books based on these folk tales were made, some of these are in children’s comics and school textbooks. He was the only Hindu to adopt Din-i Ilahi the religion founded by Akbar.
Birbal was born as Mahesh Das in 1528,in a village near Kalpi, present-day Uttar Pradesh, India;according to folklore, it was at Tikawanpur near the banks of river Yamuna.His father was Ganga Das and mother, Anabha Davito. He was the third son of a Hindu Brahmin family which had a previous association with poetry and literature.
Educated in the Hindi, Sanskrit and Persian, Birbal wrote prose, specialised in music and poetry in the Braj language, thus gaining fame. He served at the Rajput court of Raja Ram Chandra of Reva, under the name “Brahma Kavi”. Birbal’s economic and social status improved when he married the daughter of a respected and rich family, contrary to the notion that he was on poor economic terms before his appointment at Mughal Emperor Akbar’s imperial court.
At the imperial court
Titles and name origin
The details and year of his first meeting with Akbar and his employment at the court are disputed to be between 1556 and 1562. He became the “Kavi Rai” (poet laureate) of the Emperor within a few years of his appointment. Akbar bestowed upon him the name ‘Birbal’ with the title “Raja”, by which he was known from then on.
Birbal comes from Bir Bar or Vir Var which means courageous and great, quite contrary for him since he was not known for his bravery or for his military skill. Akbar gave titles to his Hindu subjects according to their traditions and S. H. Hodivala writes that it could have been taken from a character in the folk tale Vetal Panchvinshati. This featured a courtier called Vir Var who showed great loyalty to his king. Akbar was also fond of literature, having works of Sanskrit and other local languages translated into Persian.
Position and association with Akbar
His growing reputation led him to be part of Akbar’s nine advisers, known as the navaratna or nine jewels, some of them being: Todar Mal, Man Singh, Bhagwan Das, Rajahs Bhar. Soon Birbal played the role of a religious advisor, military figure and close friend of the Emperor, serving him for 30 years. In 1572, he was among a large army sent to aid Husain Quli Khan against an attack from the Akbar’s brother, Hakim Mirza, which was his first military role. He later accompanied the Emperor during his Gujarat campaigns. Despite having no military background, he often participated in Akbar’s campaigns and was given leadership positions, like Todar Mal, who was an advisor in economic matters.
The Yousafzai tribes of Afghanistan had started a rebellion along the east bank of river Indus against the Mughal rule. After troops sent to crush the unrest suffered losses, Akbar sent Birbal with reinforcements from his new fort at Attock, to help the commander Zain Khan in 1586. Birbal and the army advanced into a narrow pass in Swat valley (present-day Pakistan) where the Afghans were waiting in prepared positions in the hills. In the ensuing heavy defeat, Birbal and over 8000 soldiers were killed and his body was never found.This was one of the largest military losses for Akbar.He was said to have expressed his grief over the loss his favourite courtier and not taken food or drink for two days.He was anguished since his body could not be found for Hindu cremation.He proclaimed that it was his greatest tragedy since his coming to the throne.
His majesty cared for the death of no grandee more than for that of Bir Bar. He said, ‘Alas! they could not even get his body out of the pass, that it might have been burned”; but at last, he consoled himself with the thought that Bir Bar was now free and independent of all earthly fetters, and as the rays of the sun were sufficient for him, there was no necessity that he should be cleansed by fire.
Folklore and legacy
Akbar-Birbal folk tales were passed on mainly by oral tradition. They focus on how Birbal manages to outsmart envious courtiers who try to trap and portray him in poor light in front of Akbar, often in a humorous manner with him shown giving sharp and intelligent responses. Others show his interactions with the Emperor which involve him trying to test Birbal’s wit and Birbal making him realise his folly, which always ends with Akbar getting amused and impressed. He occasionally challenges Birbal by giving him a line of poetry which Birbal has to complete. Some of the other stories are simple humorous anecdotes. Getting an advantage in a seemingly impossible situation and making his challengers look silly are usual occurrences in these tales.
Historic role versus folklore
In the folk tales, he is always portrayed as a pious Hindu, being younger than Akbar, and being morally strict in the midst of opposing Muslim courtiers, who are shown plotting against him; his success was only because of his skill and he convinces the Emperor to favour Hinduism over Islam. He is thus depicted as acquiring religious, political and personal influence over Akbar, using his intelligence and sharp tongue and never resorting to violence. However, historically he never played such a role.
Badayuni mistrusted him but did mention that he was “having a considerable amount of capacity and genius”. The Braj language poet, Rai Hol, praised Akbar and his nine jewels, having a special emphasis on Birbal for his generosity. Abul Fazl respected him by emphasising on his spiritual excellence and position as a confidant of the Emperor rather than on his wit or poetry.
In popular culture
Akbar and Birbal folk tales are featured in Amar Chitra Katha and Chandamama children’s comics and many books are available containing these collections. There are various paperback editions, films, textbooks, booklets and plays with his character as the lead. The television channel Cartoon Network in India, has two featured animated series based on him, Chota Birbal and Akbar & Birbal. Salman Rushdie’s novel The Enchantress of Florence has the character of Birbal. Akbar Birbal is a 2014 historical comedy broadcast by Big Magic.