Michael Wood Explores Akbar’s Vision and Justice at Asia Society

The celebrated historian, filmmaker, broadcaster and author Michael Wood gave a talk on the Mughal Emperor Akbar at the Asia Society on Tuesday, May 10.

The celebrated historian, filmmaker, broadcaster and author Michael Wood gave a talk on the Mughal Emperor Akbar at the Asia Society on Tuesday, May 10.

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: For those who are familiar with Michael Wood on the series The Story of India, his talk at the Asia Society last Tuesday, May 8 was a fascinating continuation of the narrative, albeit delving into the minute details of life at the beginning of the Mughal Empire in the mid-16th century. Wood was back at the AS after a gap of 20 years and he was asked to speak on the Emperor Akbar. “The history of India is second to none,” Wood said, “and Akbar is most significant and a direct contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I.”

Wood is a celebrated historian, filmmaker, broadcaster and author who has produced the 6 hour-long documentary on India that explores many aspects of its past. He is currently working on a similar Story of China.

The event was brought to the main auditorium of the AS on Southmore in collaboration with the Archaeology Institute of America, Houston Society, now rebranded as Archaeology Now. He was introduced by Moez Mangalji, a member of the Asia Society Board of Directors.

With the help of slides of colorful paintings from the era and video clips from his series, Wood was able to dive into the history of the epoch, narrating it with the same flair, fluency and wit that he displays on the PBS documentary. He gave a little premonition of what happened to the 35 year-old Akbar in a painting where he is surrounded by courtiers, but is filled with remorse and contemplation besides a shot deer which is dying.

“Tolerance was an amazing idea in the mid-16th century Muslim world,” declared Wood. Adding some background, Wood described how Akbar’s grandfather Babur started his kingdom in 1524 and wrote “Hindustan is a very strange country compared to ours. There is no limit to people and most of them are infidels.” Akbar was born at 2am, Sunday, October 25, 1542 but his father Humayun had lost most of his kingdom and the family fled to Sindh and then Jodhpur. Akbar was coronated in Khandhar in 1556 at the age of 13 after Humayun died in a tumble down a staircase.

This painting shows how the Emperor Akbar, surrounded by courtiers, was filled with remorse and contemplation after a deer was shot, showing his personal drift towards tolerance and mutual understanding of other religions.

This painting shows how the Emperor Akbar, surrounded by courtiers, was filled with remorse and contemplation after a deer was shot, showing his personal drift towards tolerance and mutual understanding of other religions.

Akbar was cruel in his youth and as a king, killing and torturing. He never learnt to read and write but had an inquisitive mind and a fantastic memory. His predecessors were intolerant towards Hindus, taxing them for their religion. But in midlife, Akbar started to change inside and became a different type of sovereign. He did away with the hated religion tax and even learnt Hindu mantras and rituals, though he was still a practicing Muslim.

In 1578, he went to the junction of the Ganges and Jamuna rivers and named the place Allahabad and started to embrace all India’s religions. In his 20th year or reign, he built Fathepur Sikri near Agra and held conferences on religions. “No one religion can claim absolute authority,” Wood quoted Akbar, “so the sovereign cannot identify with one religion.” This led to developing enemies in the Muslim Orthodoxy as Akbar created a Sufi type of tolerant society, “kind of like the Knights of the Round Table,” exclaimed Wood. Akbar died at age 62 in 1605 amid rumors that he was poisoned.

Wood wrapped up his talk by fielding several questions from the audience. His DVD on India was available for purchase after the two hour event and he personally met, spoke and posed with many of his admirers.

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