Akbar the Barbaric


In an article for the Freer | Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian Institute, Sanskrit scholar James Mallinson provides a very interesting commentary on a number of paintings and historical records depicting sannyasis and ascetics from the 11th to 16th Centuries. A famous battle that broke out amongst the sadhus during the reign of Emperor Akbar. These battle scenes are given special focus by Mallinson in his article because they depict the various types of sadhus involved, identifiable by their dress, hair, ornament, etc. During his brutal reign of destruction of Vaisnava temples and deities, and about a year before the massacre of nearly 40,000 civilians and Rajputs at Chittor, Akbar and his men went to Thaneswar in Haryana. It was there that the great saffron battle took place. It happened that at the time, a congregation of sadhus had gathered at a tank in the village. Among all the ascetics gathered to take holy bath, a fight broke out between the two predominant groups over who should get to bathe first, and at the best spot. The fight between the sadhus became violent, and the Mughals gathered to watch. Akbar himself came, and ordered his soldiers to intervene on the side of one of the groups. The logic apparently was that as long as one group of infidels killed members of the other group, the total number of infidels would be reduced, thereby making the presence of Islam even greater. Akbar’s soldiers stepped into the middle of the unfortunate sadhus fighting at the tank that day, and began cutting them down with swords, axes, and arrows. Surprisingly enough, the events at Thaneswar were recorded by four different historians from Akbar’s court: Nizamuddin Ahmad, Badauni, Abu’l Fazl, and another anonymous writer. The accounts provided by the latter two were embellished with lavish illustrations of the sannyasis, dressed in various types of attire, engaged in combat with one another and with the Mughals. While there are some discrepancies between the four accounts, for the most part the writers were in agreement about the main facts: that Akbar’s entourage had encountered two bands of Hindu ascetics at Thaneswar;  the location of the event was a large body or ‘tank’ of water, to which people from throughout north India flocked to take holy bath and make offerings;  each group claimed to have the right to occupy the most auspicious location at the shrine that day; each group of sadhus was armed;  after some discussion, Akbar granted permission for the ascetics to take up an armed contest to settle the issue;  as the contest escalated, Akbar ordered some of his soldiers to enter the fight, assisting the smaller group; and  after considerable violence


and bloodshed, the smaller group of sadhus prevailed.

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