Akbar and his Rome

Taj Mahal often tends to overshadow all its comrades and contenders, not to mention the fact that there are multiple copies that seem to keep the perfection of the building further alive. Nothing against Taj personally, I loved my experiential visit to Taj, but arguing and guiding my auto to the lesser known places was a much better and enjoyable experience for my bossy self.

Akbar’s reign can be described as a period of religious experimentation. It opened up a whole plethora of discoveries – where both the native population and the Europeans played an equal role in influencing the exiting culture within the subcontinent. The Agra Cemetery, the oldest Christian burial ground in North India, is a prime example of this cross-cultural marriage of heritage. The land upon which the Catholic Cemetery stands is thought to have been granted by Akbar to Mariam Pyaree, a pious Armenian lady. It comes as no surprise that the oldest graves in the cemetry belong to the Armenian merchants who arrived in Agra in the 1500s. In fact, the influence of Armenia continues within Indian subcontinent throught the establishment of the first Amenian colony following the invite from Akbar himself, after the great Emperor decided to make an Armenian lady as his Queen and appointed another Armenian as the court doctor. Along with large number of Portugese and Latin headstones, there are several members of the Bourbon royal family of France who have also been buried in the Catholic Cemetery.

With its Mughal legacy, the tombs are built of sandstone more than marble, and their design makes them appear more Muslim than Christian. Inscriptions on many of the headstones are in Persian script and if it were not for the crosses atop, it would be difficult to identify them as actually Christian.

Like his ancestor Genghis Khan, Akbar was interested in world religion and actively participated in learning about the same.  Genghis encouraged his subjects to value all faiths and borrowed characteristics for the Mongol religion, an ideology which Akbar favoured greatly within his court. Akbar’s Diwan-i-Khas at Sikri is the most distinctive among Mughal private audience halls, despite its impracticaility of design. On the exterior, it is a small, single-chambered building given a double-storey effect and made entirely of locally sourced red sandstone. It is the interior is the building that has emerged as a favourite for all instagrammers.

Similar to his belief of Din-Ilahi, the interior is an amalgamation of diverse religious and regional architectural styles – the central pillar with thirty-six carved serpentine brackets resembles Hindu style typified in Rajasthan and Sultanate-era mosques in Gujarat and Mandu, while the octagonal shaft under it is carved with bands of geometric chevron designs like those in medieval Chirstian churches, along with Persian mosque-style floral designs. The shaft supports a circular ‘throne’ platform which is supposed to reference the emperor as the key centre to his empire, while the four railed bridges emerging diagnoally from the shaft to the hanging galleries are meant to seat guests, scholars, or ministers.

From the mid-1570s, he had instituted weekly religious discussions, every Thursday night in a specially built structure called the Ibadatkhanch, or House of Worship. More open-minded than most contemporaries, he invited Islamic, Hindu, Christian, Jain and Zoroastrian scholars to religious discussions. His broad fascination with religions culminated in 1582, in the establishment of the Din-Ilahi, a syncretistic cult incorporating Islamic, Hindu and Christian beliefs.

While Akbar himself never converted to Christianty, he was greatly impacted by the religion especially the painting of “Madonna and the Child with Angels” done by an unknown Portugese painter who was part of the Jessuit mission to the Mughal court. Historians have pointed out that Hamida Banu Begum (second wife of Humayun), emotionally connected with Sita and her exile as potrayed in Ramayana. For this very reason, she was said to have commissioned her own copy of Ramayana with selective portions highlighted, even before the iconic commission of the Mewar Ramayana.

In 1595, an unknown Portuguese painter arrived at the might court with a Jesuit mission. Though this painter stayed barely for a year before leaving for Japan, he left behind his painting “Madonna and Child with Angels” which is closely based on an engraving by Antoon Wierix after an original by Martin de Vos. Inspired by the painting’s theme, and knowing how his mother struggled during her exile having being separated from her at a young age, Akbar honoured his bond by bestowing her with the name Maryam-Makani, which means ‘epitome of innocence’. He greatly correlated his mother’s innocence with that of Mother Mary as depicted in the painting.

Madonna and Child with Angels (painting by a Portuguese artist), the central image of a folio from an album of Emperor Jahangir; mounted with an ornamental border by a Mughal artist. From the Harvard Art Museum

The first Christian missionaries to meet Emperor Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri, were the Jesuit Mission from Goa during 1576, led by Father Julianes Pereira who was the Bishop of Cochin and Vicar-General of Satgaon. Father Pereira, who was well versed in Quran, reminded Akbar that in Surah Mariam, the truth about Jesus is clearly stated. This meeting further propagated Akbar’s interest towards Christianity and requested for further reacquaintance with the religion.

Seeing that Akbar was deeply interested in Christianity, Pereira advised that he should send for Jesuit missionaries from the College of St.Paul in Goa. Akbar dispatched an ambassador, Abdullah to Goa with a message that two learned priests be sent to his court with the chief books of the Christian Law and the Gospel. “A committee of bishops was convened to decide on the matter and they chose three priests for this mission ~ Rudolf Aquaviva, an Italian from a noble family, Antony Monserrate, a Spaniard from Catalonia and Francis Henriquez, a Persian-speaking Armenian Muslim convert. They set off from Goa on 17 November 1579, arriving at Fatehpur Sikri around 27 February 1580”. They wrote back about “a most enchanting city the likes unknown in Europe.”

The Statesman

Akbar was presented with a new Royal Polygot Bible of Plantyn, which was placed in a gold casket in his private room. While the priests were received with respect by the emperor, he never converted. Instead, he preferred to engage in debates between the priests and the indigenous religious scholars at his court. It is said that, during the debate a comparison between Muhammad and Jesus was drawn, where a negative comment about the Muslim prophet sent Akbar into a rage. However, the same extreme reaction was not reported when the mullahs condemned Jesus. The delegation returned to Goa in February 1583. Eight years after Fatehpur, Akbar sent a invitation letter to Lahore, addressed to the the Society of Jesus at Goa in 1590. A brief from Lisbon to Goa was issued with a strong recommendation to “concentrate on converting the emperor”. The idea was that if the Greatest ruler of the largest kingdom was convinced to convert his religion, a large number of population will be immediately amenable to similar change, and will pave the way for the Western civilisation to establish a dominance quickly and effectively.

“They were received cordially, given a house within the palace in which to live, and were even permitted to start a school for the sons of noble families. Having failed twice before, the Jesuits decided to put together a ‘dream team’ of missionaries for their third attempt: Jerome Xavier, grand-nephew of St Francis Xavier, Brother Emmanuel Pinheiro, and Brother Benedict de Goes; all supremely competent men. They were met at Cambay (Khambhat) by Akbar’s second son, Murad and finally arrived in Lahore on 5 May 1595.

The Statesman

It was this third “dream team” of Jessuit priests that were allowed to build a church, and thus, “Akbar’s Church” in Agra came into existence in the year 1597. The first church was made of wood with numerous balconies and decorated with pictures. Jahangir further added to the edifice which served as the Cathedral of Agra till 1848. In fact, Mughal support for Christianity extended to include the baptism of Jahangir’s three nephews in this church in 1610.

However, Shah Jahan’s conflict with the Portuguese put a halt to the imperial patronage temporarily. Infact, the man who has inspired the greatest romantic structure and countless replicas, was responsible for causing great persecution of over 4000 Catholic prisoners in 1634. As a result, Akbar’s Catholic Cemetry was later known by an alternate moniker – “Martyrs’ Cemetery“, named so after Fr. Manuel Garcia and Fr. Manuel Danhaya who died in prison for their faith under Shah Jahan’s reign of persecution and were burried in unmarked graves within the grounds of the cemetery. Following a series of documented destructions that started in 1635 under Shah Jahan’s reign, the current structure of the church has been renamed as Church of Pieta in 2013. Amazingly, Aurangzeb never bothered the Jesuits unlike his own father. Fascinating isn’t it that the man of romance was responsible for religious persecution, while his son who is renowned for his religious bigotry, somehow maintained certain sanctity.

I have seen so many discussions lately on who your favourite Mughal will be. For me personally, each of the ruler, and their “significant” partner have such an interesting picture to portray. I wonder if we can arrange for an ancestral smackdowns across generation over dinner?

Further Readings:

Beyond the political games and hunting, there is another and more classical way that Akbar entertained himself. Check it here.

You can also read upon these interesting and detailed articles on the Jessuit Mission during Mughal period and Christian art during Mughal period. There’s also an interesting collection of Christian paintings in Mughal court available.

You can also check out the uber cool series, which is closely related to this post – Monument of Love:

Related (and not-so related) Posts:

Uttar Pradesh

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