The Legend of Akbar's Navratnas

Recently I read an article about the controversy over Akbar's navratnas installation in heritage site. According to popular belief, emperor Akbar had nine extraordinary people at his court known as the Nine Jewels/Gems or Navratnas. Here's the list of Akbar's Navratnas from Wikipedia: Abul Fazl, his brother Faizi, Miyan Tansen, Raja Birbal, Raja Todar Mal, Raja Man Singh, Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana, Fakir Aziao-Din and Mulla Do-Piyaza. Vincent Smith's 'Akbar the Great Mogul' has Hakim Humam in place of Fakir Aziao-Din; some general knowledge websites have Raja Bhagwan Das in place of Fakir Aziao-Din; some others have Mirza Aziz Koka. Some websites even have a trick to remember their names. But did Akbar really have 'navratnas' in his court?

In fact, there is no mention of the 'navratnas' in any of the contemporary history books. The Mughal historian R. Nath says that the concept of Akbar's navratnas is a part of the popular folklore. The historian Raj Kishore Raje is also of the same opinion. Ain-i-Akbari, Tarikh-i Ferishta, Akbarnama, Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh or Tabakati Akbari say nothing about the nine jewels of Akbar.

The concept of navratnas is traditionally associated with the name of king Vikramaditya. Rao Bahadur G.S. Sardesai and P.P. Sinha think that the expression navratnas as applied to Akbar was also a creation of popular fancy, started after his death, possibly by Hindu pandits of the courts of Shah Jahan and Dara Shukoh.

I have found six miniatures of Akbar's so-called navratnas:

Emperor Akbar and His Nine Jewels - Modern Painting - eBay

Akbar with his nine courtiers (Navratna) - Early 20th Century - Salar Jung Museum

Akbar with his Navratnas - 18-19th Century - Allahabad Museum

emperor-akbar-in-durbar-surrounded-by- princes-and-officials-of-the-court
Akbar in durbar surrounded by princes and officials of the court - late 19th Century - Bonhams

Akbar's Navratna Durbar - Victoria Memorial Hall

Emperor Akbar and his Navratnas - Mid 19th Century - Olympia Auctions

It is true that Akbar had many scholars and talented artists in his court. It is said that Akbar "sees through some men at the first glance and confers upon them high rank". He appointed Hindus to high positions in the court; Some of the chief Hindu officials at his court were: Raja Bharmal of Amer and his sons Raja Bhagwan Das & Jagannath; Rupsi & Jagmal, brothers of Raja Bharmal, Raja Man Singh & Madhu Singh, sons of Raja Bhagwan Das, Rai Kalyan Mal of Bikaner and his son Rai Rai Singh, Raja Ram Chand Baghelah, Rai Surjan Hada of Ranthambore and his son Rai Bhoj and Motaraja Udai Singh of Marwar. Among Akbar's sons, Salim (afterwards Jahangir) was the commander of 10,000; and Murad and Daniel were the commanders of 8000 and 7000 respectively. Let's have a short biography of each of the so-called navratnas. It seems that Fakir Aziao-Din and Mulla Do-Piyaza were fictitious characters.

Shaikh Abul Fazl Allami, a commander of 2500 - Akbar's minister and famous historian. At the age of fifteen, Abul Fazl had acquired the philosophic sciences and traditional learning. In the 19th year of Akbar's reign, he presented himself before the sovereign. He records, "As I had no worldly treasures to lay at the feet of his Majesty, I wrote a commentary to the Ayat ul-Kursi, and presented it to him. I was favourably received, and his Majesty graciously accepted my offering". In 1602, Abul Fazl was murdered at the instigation of Prince Salim (Jahangir), which caused much grief to Akbar. Akbar bewailed Abul Fazl's death more than that of his son; for several days he would see no one, and after inquiring into the circumstances he exclaimed, "If Salim wished to be emperor, he might have killed me and spared Abul Fazl". Abul Fazl completed the Ain-i-Akbari in the 42th year of Akbar's reign. The Akbarnama contains accounts till the forty-six years of Akbar's reign (1602), which was then completed by Inayatullah. Abul Fazl and his brother Faizi were members of Akbar's Divine Faith.

Shaikh Abul Faiz or Faizi, a commander of 400 - He was the elder brother of Abul Fazl. He was one of the most learned men of Akbar's court. Also a popular poet of the time. Faizi, in a short time, became Akbar's constant companion and friend. He planned a Khamsa, or collection of five epics, which was never completed, only portions were written. In 1594-95, he completed the poem of Nal Daman (Nala Damayanti). Akbar conferred upon him the title of Maliku-sh-shuara, or King of the Poets. He suffered from Asthma and died in 1595. Abul Fazl and Faizi were the sons of Shaikh Mubarak, one of the most learned men of the time.

Miyan Tansen - Tansen was a renowned musician at the court of Raja Ram Chand Baghelah. When his fame reached Akbar, he sent an officer to bring Tansen to his court (1562). Ram Chand feeling himself powerless to refuse Akbar's request, sent his favorite with his musical instruments and many presents to Agra. In 1589, when Tansen died, Akbar ordered that all musicians and singers should accompany his body to the grave, making melodies as at a marriage. He remarked that Tansen's death was the annihilation of melody. It seems that, in a thousand years, few have equaled him for sweetness and art!

Raja Birbal, a commander of 2000 - A Brahmin and a bard; his real name was Mahesh Das. See Badauni's account, "at the beginning of his reign a certain Brahman musician, Gadai Brahmaindas by name, whose whole business was perpetually to praise the Hindus, and who was possessed of a considerable amount of capacity and genius, came to the court. By means of conversing with the Emperor and taking advantage of the idiosyncrasies of his disposition, he crept day by day more into favour, until he attained to high rank, and was honoured with the distinction of becoming the Emperor's confidant, and it became a case of 'thy flesh is my flesh, and thy blood my blood'".

In a short time, Birbal had become one of the closest companions of Akbar. As he was skilled in the composition of Hindi verses, Akbar conferred on him the title of Kab Rai (Kavi Rai) or Poet Laureate. In 1573, Akbar honoured him with the title of Raja Birbal, meaning the Brave Raja. He was a member of Akbar's new religion, the Divine Faith. Badauni believed that Birbal was primarily responsible for Akbar's apostasy from Islam. Birbal was often employed in missions. He died during the fight with Yusufzai Afghans in 1586. Not even his body had been recovered. Akbar never experienced such grief at the death of any Amir as he did at that of Birbal. He used to say "Alas, that they could not bring his body out of that defile, that it might have been committed to the flames!". Akbar-Birbal folk tales are very famous. 

Raja Todar Mal, a commander of 4000 - Raja Todar Mal is better known to as Akbar's Finance Minister, though he was deputed to missions on many occasions. He introduced many financial reforms; he ordered that all government accounts should be written in Persian language (Formerly it was kept in Hindi. Before the times of Akbar, the Hindus did not study Persian, and therefore stood politically below their Muhammadan rulers). Raja Todar Mal died in 1589. Abul Fazl records that "He was the unique of the Age for uprightness, straightforwardness, courage, knowledge of affairs and the administration of India". Dharu, one of his sons, was killed during the Sindh expedition.

Raja Bhagwan Das, a commander of 5000 - He was the son of Raja Bharmal, the first Rajput who entered the service of Akbar. Akbar's first Hindu wife, Hira Kunwari, was his sister. His daughter was married to Jahangir and Prince Khusrau was his grandson. He saved Akbar's life in the fight with Ibrahim Husain Mirza near Sarnal. He got the title of Amir ul Umara. On returning from Todar Mal's cremation, the Raja had an attack of Strangury, of which he died (1589). The Jami Masjid of Lahore was built by him.

Raja Man Singh, a commander of 5000 - He was the son of Raja Bhagwan Das. Akbar appointed him against Maharana Pratap. After the death of Raja Bhagwan Das, he received from Akbar the title of Raja. At the time of Akbar's death he plotted with Mirza Aziz Koka to raise to the throne Prince Khusrau, eldest son of Jahangir (by Man Singh' sister), but it failed. It is said that Raja Man Singh had fifteen hundred wives. The ground on which the Taj Mahal stands at Agra, belonged to him. 

Mirza Abdu-r-Rahim Khan Khanan, a commander of 5000 - He was the son of Bairam Khan and step-son of Akbar (After the death of Bairam Khan, Akbar married his widow Salima Sultan Begum). Abdu-r Rahim's mother was the youngest daughter of Jamal Khan of Mewat. After the death of Bairam Khan, Akbar took charge of the four-year old child Abdu-r-Rahim. Akbar honoured him with the title of Khan Khanan, followed by his victory over Muzaffar Shah III of Gujarat. In 1590, he translated Babur's Memoirs from Turki to Persian.

Khan-i-Azam Mirza Aziz Koka, a commander of 5000 - He was the son of Atgah Khan and thus Akbar's foster-brother (Koka means foster-brother). (Atgah Khan was a soldier who helped Humayun to cross the river after his defeat in the battle of Kannauj by Sher Shah Suri. Humayun took him to his service and appointed his wife Jiji Anaga, wet nurse to Prince Akbar at Umerkot). Though often offended by his boldness, Akbar would but rarely punish him; he used to say, "Between me and Aziz is a river of milk which I cannot cross". In the 23rd year of his reign, Akbar honoured him with the title of Azam Khan. He was a member of Akbar's new religion, the Divine Faith. Prince Khusrau married one of his daughters. After Akbar's death, he conspired with Man Singh to proclaim Prince Khusrau successor, but the attempt failed, as Shaikh Farid and others had proclaimed Jahangir before Akbar had closed his eyes.

Hakim Humam, a commander of 800 - He was a great poet, physician and also one of the intimate friends of Akbar. He also had some knowledge of physical sciences and medicine. In the 31st year, he was sent on an embassy to Abdulla Khan, the ruler of Turan. During his absence Akbar often remarked: "Since Hakim Humam has gone, my food has not the same taste". He died in 1595.