Fruit to Seed
By Abraham Eraly
It was a half-smile that sealed the fate of Anarkali. Sealed it in brick and mortar.
She was the finest flower in Emperor Akbar’s harem, and was felicitously named after pomegranate blossom. The story is that Akbar once caught her exchanging a flirtatious smile with his son, Salim, and, enraged, ordered her to be entombed alive. This poignant medieval tale, celebrated in literature, folklore and films, even today flavours the romantic sensibility of Indians.
Did the incident really happen? There is a high probability that it did. The earliest record of it is in the journal of William Finch, an English merchant who arrived in India in 1608, within three years of Akbar’s death, and stayed on here for three years. During this time he visited Lahore, where he says he saw "a faire monument for Don Sha [Daniyal] his mother, one of the Acabar his wives, with whom it is said Sha Selim had to do (her name was Immacque Kelle, or Pomgranate kernell); upon notice of which the King [Akbar] caused her to be inclosed quicke within a wall in his moholl, where shee dyed, and the King [Salim: Jahangir], in token of his love, commands a sumptuous tombe to be built of stone... ." The incident is not mentioned by any other contemporary writer, but is recorded three generations later by Khafi Khan, a chronicler of Aurangzeb.
Finch could not possibly have invented the story, as he was not long enough in India to fake its cultural nuances, nor could his informers have mythified a contemporary event. And there is nothing inherently improbable about the incident, given the acute romantic susceptibilities of Salim, Akbar’s explosive temper, and the Oedipal tension between the two, of which there are several instances.
In one such incident, Abul Fazl, Akbar’s courtier historian, reports that Salim was once caught in Akbar’s harem, and, being mistaken for an intruder, was thrashed by the harem staff, and that Akbar, who came on the scene, was about to strike him with his sword, when the prince was recognised. Abul Fazl evidently does not tell the whole truth. Adult sons of emperors did not live in the harem, so it is very odd that Salim was there at night. And if his presence there was proper, it is incredible that he did not identify himself when set upon.
Akbar was an insatiable sexual predator in his early youth — he used to send panders and eunuchs into the harems of nobles to select women for him — but he became continent in his early thirties and adopted a progressively austere lifestyle. But as his own sexual appetite waned, his sons grew into adulthood. Akbar seemed to resent this. He often treated the princes roughly, as if they were his rivals.
If the Anarkali incident took place in Punjab, it would have been during Akbar’s 13-year-long stay there towards the close of his reign. Salim was then in his early youth, a vulnerable age. Anarkali (if indeed she was the mother of Daniyal, Akbar’s youngest son) would have been much older than Salim, but there would have been an even greater age difference between her and Akbar.
A building in Lahore is often pointed out as Anarkali’s tomb, and it has on its portal the inscription, "I would give thanks unto my God till the day of resurrection, if only I could behold the face of my beloved once more." This is an epitaph that Jahangir, an incurable romantic, could well have written.