Who Was the Real Birbal?

By Sandhya Sridhar

The headline to this feature does sound like one of the quirky problems faced by the legendary Birbal himself. We hear of tales of Akbar and Birbal, and they are very popular among young readers. Tales of Akbar and Birbal are oft told, with a very many variations to entertain and educate. However, who exactly was Birbal?

Folklore has it that Birbal, one of the nine gems in Akbar’s court, was witty and wise and resolved many a problem in a humorous and quirky way. He was a close confidant of Akbar, and his closeness to the ruler made other courtiers jealous of him. Birbal, it is also said, in the manner of a court jester, brought laughter to court proceedings, providing lively entertainment even as he solved puzzles and delivered justice.

Mahesh Das was Birbal’s real name. He was born in a Brahmin family in Trivikrampur, a town on the banks of the river Yamuna. However, there are conflicting accounts as to the place of his birth. Some narratives place it as Tehri in Bundelkand, while yet others say he was born in a village near Ajmer.

A portrait of Birbal from Mughal times

Mahesh Das is supposed to have lost his father when young, and was sent to his maternal grandparent’s place, where he was given a good education, becoming proficient in Sanskrit, Hindi and Persian. He learnt music and wrote poetry, becoming very proficient in the same. Thanks to his many accomplishments, he found a place in the Jaipur court as a poet. It was at this time that he began to write poetry, under the pen name, ‘Brahma’. Thus, in some of the accounts of the historians of that period, he came to be mentioned as Brahma Das. A collection of Brahma Das’ poetry has been preserved in the Bharatpur Museum. 

Mahesh Das soon moved to the court of Rewa, where his contemporary, the great musician Tansen, also received patronage. At this time, the fame of Birbal and Tansen spread beyond Rajasthan, and news of the duo reached Akbar, who must have been keen to have them in his court. Apparently, Akbar asked the Raja of Rewa to send both Tansen and Mahesh Das to his court. 

Portraits of Akbar

Stories of Mahesh Das meeting Akbar for the first time, have him cast as the impertinent but entertaining poor Brahmin, who showed the lost Akbar and his hunting group the way out of a forest, with the quip, “Roads don’t go anywhere, people do.” However, historical accounts contradict the fact of a humble and impoverished Mahesh Das. In truth, by the time he found a place in Akbar’s court, he had married a woman of some means, and was far from being a poor, itinerant young man looking for his place in the world. 

In Akbar’s court, Mahesh’s multifarious talents came to the fore. Not only was he a poet and musician and a man of great wit, but he was a good administrator and warrior too. Mahesh had shown his ability on the battlefield in expeditions to Multan and the Punjab, earning him the title of Vir-Var or the brave one, which probably became corrupted to ‘Bir-bal’.

Akbar’s official historian Abul Fazl did not write much about Birbal. This could be because he was focussed on creating an ‘official history’ for the emperor himself and he was not much concerned about the others at court. Fazl writes of Akbar, the ruler, being of great importance in the eyes of Allah. He makes a few references to Birbal that do not divulge much except that he was part of Akbar’s court. Another historian of that time, Badaoni, seems to have disliked Birbal intensely, and writes of him as being a sort of a bard, singing praises of the emperor, no more. But even he cannot ignore the affection that Akbar had for Birbal. 

Akbar inspecting Fatehpur Sikhri

However, soon after his joining Akbar’s court, Birbal was given the title of ‘Raja’ and was made a mansabdar of the rank of 2,000 horse, which was quite a high position. Birbal accompanied Akbar on many a military expedition and was known to be a capable leader.

Nizamuddin, another historian, notes that Birbal was a good conversationalist who was witty and sharp, and was inclined to be quite entertaining when at his best. Even Badaoni accepts this fact.

Birbal met his end on a battlefield, in a campaign against the Yousufzai tribe in Afghanistan. Akbar’s grief was so intense at the loss of his friend and close confidante that even Badouni notes that he had not seen the emperor grieve so much for any other courtier. 

But wait! Those stories that we read of Akbar and Birbal, those tales of wit and wisdom that have been oft retold… are they historic facts? There is no record of this.

However, in the manner of all folklore, the Akbar and Birbal stories may have been carried forward from the Vijayanagara stories of Tenali Rama and Krishnadevaraya. It is said that a poet from the Deccan, wrote the Ma’athir Al Umara, in which these stories of Akbar and Birbal first appeared, a good two centuries later. So do not be surprised if you find that Birbal and Tenali share similar or same story narratives, that tell us of their cleverness and wit.

Clearly, the writing of history never ends. Those who understand history know this—not only can history be scripted by the victor, it can also be scripted by those who wish to give it a twist!