Akbar (1542-1605), as his appellation suggests, was the greatest of the Mughal emperors. His skills as a general and statesman and his policies supporting literature, the arts, and religious tolerance have led historians to view his 42-year reign (1556-1605) as the zenith of the Mughal rule.
The son of Emperor Humayun, and the grandson of Mughal Empire founder Babur, Akbar was born in Umarkot in the Sind region, on October 15, 1542. Akbar was only 13 when his father died from an accidental fall on the steps of his library. Initially the young prince's prospects appeared dubious when one of his father's Hindu ministers, Hemu, seized several important towns, including the capital at Delhi, in an attempt to seize the throne for himself. But Mughal forces soon defeated Hemu at Panipat, and Akbar's succession was secure. A loyal minister, Bairam Khan, was designated to rule as his regent until he came of age.
Upon Akbar's acession the Mughal Empire consisted of little more than Delhi and its immediate environs and the Punjab. But almost immediately after consolidating power in Akbar's name, Bairam Khan began a campaign to enlarge the empire. In 1560, at the age of 17, Akbar summarily dismissed Khan with the backing of some powerful courtiers and assumed full rulership of the empire. Although he was initally influenced by powerful members of the court, Akbar soon shook off their yoke and by the age of 21 had positioned himself as absolute monarch of the realm.
Continuing the imperial policies of Bairam Khan, Akbar embarked on a series of conquests, gradually enlarging his territory over the course of his reign to include Baluchistan, Sind, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Rajputana, Gujarat, and Bengal. Akbar used both the stick and the carrot to consolidate his power over these newly acquired lands. He ruthlessly suppressed any hint of rebellion by his conquered subjects on one hand, but also was lenient, even generous, toward those he defeated if they sumitted to his authority gracefully and did not cause further trouble. After defeating the powerful and warlike Rajputs, for example, he conciliated the humbled Rajput kings by offering them high positions in his army and government and twice personally married Rajput princesses. Thus Akbar's understanding of the complimentary uses of battlefield strength and diplomatic acumen turned his greatest enemies into some of his staunchest allies.
To effectively rule such a vast territory populated by such diverse peoples, Akbar initiated a series of reforms, centralizing the financial system, revamping the administrative beauracracy, instituting a uniform currency, and making the taxation system more accurate and efficient. Born a muslim, Akbar became famous for his religious tolerance, encouraging scholars from all creeds to debate scriptures before him at his court. Increasingly dissatisfied with orthodox Islam and hoping to bring about religious unity within his empire, Akbar promulgated (1582) the Din-i-Ilahi ("divine faith"), an eclectic new religion of his own devising blending concepts from Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity and centering on Akbar as a prophet figure. Although the new faith ultimately did not catch on, its focus on religious tolerance and conciliation had lasting infulence.
Akbar's reign was a time of cultural flourishing. The diversity of peoples in his ever expanding realm and contact with Europe (which Akbar encouraged) brought many new ideas to the fore. Although Akbar was illiterate himself, he became a great patron of arts and letters. Under Akbar's guidance, Mughal painting, poetry, music, architecture, and textiles soared to new heights.
When Akbar died of old age in 1605, leaving the throne to his son Jehangir, the Mughal Empire had reached its furthest extent, both territorially and culturally. Although the empire would endure for another century and a half, never again would it see such prosperity, or a ruler so capable, enlightened, and benevolent toward his subjects.