History of Literature

How Akbar came to love books though he never learnt to read

The Mughal emperor was an active patron of books, supporting writers, commissioning translations, and building a huge library.

Popular television serials make much of the fact that Akbar was illiterate; a term used recently was “jāhil unpaŗh” (ignorant and illiterate).  True, all early attempts to teach Akbar how to read and write failed. The historian Andre Wink describes the many attempts made to formally educate him.  As one story goes, the astrologically auspicious hour to begin instruction had been set at the exact moment the prince turned four years, four months, four days old. Akbar, however, never turned up.

His tutors failed spectacularly, or else taught him other skills. One imparted to him the taste for pigeon-flying (though it has been suggested it was the other way around). Another did his best and then went off to Mecca, presumably to expiate for his utter failure in educating a future ruler. His father Humayun, hoping to be of some encouragement, sent him Persian verses he had composed, but Akbar remained (politely) disinterested.

But while he evidently failed to learn to read and write, Akbar, like all Mughal Princes, knew languages such as Turkic (their native language), Persian and was instructed in the manners and customs of Hindustan. He underwent instruction in the liberal arts as well, for instance, taking drawing lessons from the Persian masters and was skilled in crafts such as carpentry. Moreover, like all princes, Akbar received martial training from a very early age and assumed military command quite early as well.

As a future ruler, he also imbibed the virtues of caution and the need to be equable under all circumstances.  Abu al-Fazl ibn-Mubarak, nobleman and devoted friend, who was also Akbar’s biographer, notes in the Akbarnamah how Akbar arrived at his judgments on cases brought before him, keeping in mind not just what the laws ordained but also eyewitness accounts, his own assessment of the information, and aspects like circumstance and physiognomy.

As for his sons, their rigorous instruction regime remained uninterrupted even by travel or their long campaigns. Mughal princesses such as Gulbadan, Humayun’s sister, received formal literary education from especially appointed matrons.

The art of memory

Akbar’s “illiteracy” wasn’t really unusual for its times. As Wink suggests, kings of medieval Europe were aided by scribes and officials. There are other theories too accounting for Akbar’s lack of scholastic attitude in his childhood.  Ellen Smart in her 1981 essay (Akbar: Illiterate Genius) makes the case that Akbar may have been dyslexic, though there is little evidence or corroborating facts in support of this. Annemarie Schimmel suggests that the word “ummi” sometimes used to describe Akbar is ascribed a different meaning in the Koran: an inspired mystic, or someone whose knowledge is divinely given and not taught. Abu al-Fazl, in far too cloying terms, described Akbar as having “ilm laduni” (knowledge directly from god).

The Portuguese Jesuit priest and traveller Antonio Monserrate described Akbar as a man of “excellent judgement” and “good memory”, whose learning had been greatly accentuated by his ability to listen to others. In his own memoirs, Jahangir (Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri) wrote that his father conversed, debated and associated with men of knowledge of every religion, especially with the learned and the pundits of the land and thus much became clear to him through this exchange with the wise. During Akbar’s fifteen years at Sikri, religious debates were held every Thursday at the Ibadat Khana of Fatehpur Sikri.

A lot has been written on Akbar’s memory, especially his aural ability to remember most things he listened to, and his sharp discernment and critical abilities. He remembered what was read to him, choosing of his own accord the books he wanted read. His memory in particular helped him decide the books he wanted translated and the paintings that were to serve as accompaniment.

An army of book-readers

The Ain-i-Akbari mentions that Akbar would have books read out to him every evening. He chose readers and those who called out the daily prayers, especially for their pleasant voices. Bada’uni, the temperamental writer and historian who constantly competed with Abu al Fazl for Akbar’s attention, wrote that his appointment as one of the emperor’s chosen readers followed precisely because his voice had the “sweetness and the ravishing tones of a parrot”. Readers would be paid according to the number of leaves they had read, as indicated by jottings, some made by the emperor himself, on the book’s very last leaf.

In her book Art of Memory , Frances Yates has mentioned memory-enhancing techniques in use in ancient Europe; such mnemonics for instance imagined a certain place in the mind to store things to be remembered. While such a study hasn’t been done in the South Asian context, developing memory was an important component of the early education system, and it wasn’t just rote learning as such systems have been conveniently dismissed.

Universities in ancient India practiced and taught memory techniques. The criteria for actors as cited by the Natyashastra, included the possession of a good memory; travelling minstrels and bards needed one too, as they added to the stories in their repertoire. And while there were scribes to maintain records, officials and nobles were expected to have good memories.

The imperial library

Akbar’s love for books also led him to devote time to the collection of books in his library – one he inherited from his father and expanded substantially at Fatehpur Sikri.

Libraries did exist in India despite the oral tradition of learning. Xuanchang mentions Harshavardhan’s library, from which the emperor generously gifted him cartloads of books. There are historical references to libraries in Kashmir, Assam, and Pattan in Gujarat. Nalanda’s famous library, the Dharmaganja had three separate buildings: Ratnadadhi, Ratnasagara and Ratnaganjaka.

During the sultanate period, the collections of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya and the Afghan noble Ghazi Khan were accessible to the public. Sultan Mahmud Begada of Gujarat had a library in his palace. In 1472, Mahmud Gawan, the noted vazir in the Bahamani kingdom, sponsored a college and a library with 30,000 books, and these later came to Aurangzeb during his Deccan campaign.

Babur had a short-lived presence in Delhi and Agra, but he did have a library in Delhi, which included books brought from Farghana and ones acquired from India. Humayun set up his own collection in the Sher Mandal in the Purana Qila, actually built by Sher Shah. It was this collection that Akbar expanded, via acquisitions, translations, donations, and also legacies, as when he inherited several hundreds of Faizi’s (Abu al-Fazl’s brother) valuable manuscripts.

The imperial library, it is believed, was located in an immense hall on one side of the octagonal tower in the fort, and included even a section in the zenana. Women of the royal household had their own libraries. The tradition began with Gulbadan Begum and apparently continued until the time of Zeb-un-nisa, Aurangzeb’s eldest child and daughter, who was also a poet.

Akbar organised the library more systematically; its staff cataloguing and classifying the nearly 24,000 books in it. Vincent Smith in his book on Akbar says that his library had few rivals in the known world. Besides, the head librarian, called the Nazim or Mutamad, and his deputy, there were assistants who entered details of the books into separate registers for each subject, ranging from astronomy, music, astrology, to commentaries on the Koran, theology and the law.

Other staff included scribes, calligraphers, book-binders and book-bearers. Manuscripts were encased in silk, bound with lacquer or leather, and richly engraved and inscribed. Books, according to Abu al-Fazl, were even carried during battle, for the army was a mobile camp.

Abu al-Fazl mentions some of the works this library contained. Akbar especially took an interest in contemporary historical works, such as the Jama’at Tawarikh, a book on the Turkish Mongolian dynasty. Baburnamah was a favourite. There were two copies of the Khalil wa Dimnah, works by the Persian poet Sa’adi – the Gulistan and the Bustan – and also those of Amir Khusrau, such as the romance Duval Rani Khidr Khan. These were all lavishly illustrated, as was Firdausi’s Shahnamah. A particular favourite of all Mughals was Jalaluddin Rumi’s Mathnawi. Babur’s father had rated it highly, and, later, Dara Shikoh copied extracts from it and Aurangzeb was often moved to tears when it was recited.

Akbar’s court also drew writers, and it was he who created the position of poet laureate. Ghazali Meshedi (originally from present day Iraq) was the first, followed by Faizi. Besides Persian writers, there were also Brajbasha writers, especially in the Mughal court of his successors.

The importance of translations  

The maktabkhana, or translation bureau, was attached to the library, Akbar sourced texts from Sanskrit, Arabic and Turkish and had these translated into Persian, with several copies being made.   He picked books out of personal interest and those that he thought would be appreciated and read by many others. Akbar emphasised aspects of clarity and reason rather than convention or even morality.

Among the first books he picked was the Hamzanamah, an adventure tale from Persia. In 1574, Bada’uni began work on translating the popular collection, Singhasan Battisi. As he narrates the story, a learned brahmin was first called on to interpret the book. Akbar liked the first leaf Bada’uni translated and the latter went on to complete the book in 1581.

The translation of the Mahabharata as Razmnamah began in 1582.  The translation method (as detailed by Audrey Truschke) saw a dual process: learned scholars rendered it from Sanskrit into Hindi and then it was rendered into Persian, as was described by Naqib Khan, one of the translators of this work (there were three, including Bada’uni)

Akbar had a clear idea of the end objectives and basics regarding translations. As scholars have explained, he was keen on getting to the original meaning of the work and on making it accessible.  On one occasion, he upbraided Bada’uni for some “false”, even “bigoted” imputation in his translation of the Mahabharata.

Two texts of the Khalil wa Dimnah were sourced and translated, one by Abu al-Fazl and the other, based on the Jain version called Pancakhyana, by Mustafa Khaliqdas Abbasi. As for his own life, Akbar commissioned Abu al-Fazl to write the Akbarnamah. This was heavily illustrated in 1586-87. A new set came up a decade later in 1596-97.

Under Akbar, the atelier attached to the kitaabkhana that housed scribes, painters and calligraphers expanded exponentially. In the time of the later Mughals, interest in painting spread to other regional kingdoms and to the provinces, and artists travelled freely, not attached to any particular court. They often also accompanied the king on his long campaigns.

It was the Hamzanamah that first Akbar had illustrated lavishly. The book was written on fabric, taking up 19 lines on one side. It had 1400 illustrations on the reverse side, so that the reader could still read while holding up the illustration for the audience to see.

The project began in 1558 and dozens of artists worked on it for 15 years. Fewer than 200 folios of the Hamzanamah have survived, some now in the V&A museum. In other artistic firsts in the Mughal period, artists appeared in paintings too, and portraiture especially was a new innovation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Putting the patient first - insights for hospitals to meet customer service expectations

These emerging solutions are a fine balance between technology and the human touch.

As customers become more vocal and assertive of their needs, their expectations are changing across industries. Consequently, customer service has gone from being a hygiene factor to actively influencing the customer’s choice of product or service. This trend is also being seen in the healthcare segment. Today good healthcare service is no longer defined by just qualified doctors and the quality of medical treatment offered. The overall ambience, convenience, hospitality and the warmth and friendliness of staff is becoming a crucial way for hospitals to differentiate themselves.

A study by the Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions in fact indicates that good patient experience is also excellent from a profitability point of view. The study, conducted in the US, analyzed the impact of hospital ratings by patients on overall margins and return on assets. It revealed that hospitals with high patient-reported experience scores have higher profitability. For instance, hospitals with ‘excellent’ consumer assessment scores between 2008 and 2014 had a net margin of 4.7 percent, on average, as compared to just 1.8 percent for hospitals with ‘low’ scores.

This clearly indicates that good customer service in hospitals boosts loyalty and goodwill as well as financial performance. Many healthcare service providers are thus putting their efforts behind: understanding constantly evolving customer expectations, solving long-standing problems in hospital management (such as long check-out times) and proactively offering a better experience by leveraging technology and human interface.

The evolving patient

Healthcare service customers, who comprise both the patient and his or her family and friends, are more exposed today to high standards of service across industries. As a result, hospitals are putting patient care right on top of their priorities. An example of this in action can be seen in the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. In July 2015, the hospital launched a ‘Smart OPD’ system — an integrated mobile health system under which the entire medical ecosystem of the hospital was brought together on a digital app. Patients could use the app to book/reschedule doctor’s appointments and doctors could use it to access a patient’s medical history, write prescriptions and schedule appointments. To further aid the process, IT assistants were provided to help those uncomfortable with technology.

The need for such initiatives and the evolving nature of patient care were among the central themes of the recently concluded Abbott Hospital Leadership Summit. The speakers included pundits from marketing and customer relations along with leaders in the healthcare space.

Among them was the illustrious speaker Larry Hochman, a globally recognised name in customer service. According to Mr. Hochman, who has worked with British Airways and Air Miles, patients are rapidly evolving from passive recipients of treatment to active consumers who are evaluating their overall experience with a hospital on social media and creating a ‘word-of-mouth’ economy. He talks about this in the video below.


As the video says, with social media and other public platforms being available today to share experiences, hospitals need to ensure that every customer walks away with a good experience.

The promise gap

In his address, Mr. Hochman also spoke at length about the ‘promise gap’ — the difference between what a company promises to deliver and what it actually delivers. In the video given below, he explains the concept in detail. As the gap grows wider, the potential for customer dissatisfaction increases.


So how do hospitals differentiate themselves with this evolved set of customers? How do they ensure that the promise gap remains small? “You can create a unique value only through relationships, because that is something that is not manufactured. It is about people, it’s a human thing,” says Mr. Hochman in the video below.


As Mr. Hochman and others in the discussion panel point out, the key to delivering a good customer experience is to instil a culture of empathy and hospitality across the organisation. Whether it is small things like smiling at patients, educating them at every step about their illness or listening to them to understand their fears, every action needs to be geared towards making the customer feel that they made the correct decision by getting treated at that hospital. This is also why, Dr. Nandkumar Jairam, Chairman and Group Medical Director, Columbia Asia, talked about the need for hospitals to train and hire people with soft skills and qualities such as empathy and the ability to listen.

Striking the balance

Bridging the promise gap also involves a balance between technology and the human touch. Dr. Robert Pearl, Executive Director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, who also spoke at the event, wrote about the example of Dr. Devi Shetty’s Narayana Health Hospitals. He writes that their team of surgeons typically performs about 900 procedures a month which is equivalent to what most U.S. university hospitals do in a year. The hospitals employ cutting edge technology and other simple innovations to improve efficiency and patient care.

The insights gained from Narayana’s model show that while technology increases efficiency of processes, what really makes a difference to customers are the human touch-points. As Mr. Hochman says, “Human touch points matter more because there are less and less of them today and are therefore crucial to the whole customer experience.”


By putting customers at the core of their thinking, many hospitals have been able to apply innovative solutions to solve age old problems. For example, Max Healthcare, introduced paramedics on motorcycles to circumvent heavy traffic and respond faster to critical emergencies. While ambulances reach 30 minutes after a call, the motorcycles reach in just 17 minutes. In the first three months, two lives were saved because of this customer-centric innovation.

Hospitals are also looking at data and consumer research to identify consumer pain points. Rajit Mehta, the MD and CEO of Max Healthcare Institute, who was a panelist at the summit, spoke of the importance of data to understand patient needs. His organisation used consumer research to identify three critical areas that needed work - discharge and admission processes for IPD patients and wait-time for OPD patients. To improve wait-time, they incentivised people to book appointments online. They also installed digital kiosks where customers could punch in their details to get an appointment quickly.

These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.