Episode 71 - That IS a tasty Cabbage (Sidekicks Week)
Tom's Notes; Akbar and Birbal
I chose this topic as a result of a certain British political advisor being a complete dick a few weeks ago, living by the motto “one rule for you, another for us”.
There are some very famous political advisors; the first that came to mind when choosing this topic was Piers Gaveston, a man who had the ear of the rather mediocre English King Edward II. Gaveston was exceptionally unpopular with English nobles due to his perceived influence over Edward II and there were rumours that the two of them were lovers. Although this is debated by historians; they could have just been private school wallys who’d known each other since childhood and just liked frolicking around acting like kids when there was a country to run.
I then found myself exploring Mirrors For Princes, a genre of historical documents, and there are plenty of them from a diverse range of places and periods, concerned with teaching young princes how to govern effectively. However, I found them a tad dry.
Then I stumbled across an advisor who is lots of fun and from a period of history that is slightly out of my comfort zone, so should provide variety for listeners. By this I mean, not Plutarch.
I’m going to talk about Raja Birbal. I’m not sure we have any Indian listeners, but if we do, they’ll probably have heard about this chap. Apparently the stories that involve him are very popular in India, particularly as stories for kids. I spotted a Netflix cartoon series based on the two of them.
Let me introduce Akbar the Great, the third Mughal Emperor who reigned from 1556 to 1605. The Mughal Empire being a large empire that controlled, at its height the majority of the Indian subcontinent. The Empire lasted for about 300 years, eventually being knocked on the head by some good ol’ British Imperialism. The first Mughal Emperor, Babur, claimed descent from Genghis Khan and Tamerlane (or Timur) both famous Mongol rulers and, from what I could make out, was basically a noble brat who wanted an Empire, so we wandered around for a bit, got involved in a few scraps where he came out on the losing side, until he constructed an Empire for himself in northern India. “Daddy! Daddy! I want an Empire! Why can’t I have an Empire like everyone else? Do you know who I am? I’m descended from Genghis Khan!” The word Mughal is actually derived from Mongol.
Akbar was a successful Emperor who surrounded himself with good advisors, or members of his navaratna, which translates as “nine gems or jewels”. Yes, there were nine advisors. Birbal was one of these advisors and he was known for his quick wit, cunning and ability to outsmart people. Much like us Sam: Doctor, doctor, I have a bit of lettuce poking out of me bum. I’m afraid that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Birbal became Akbar’s closest advisor, and subsequently he garnered much antipathy and jealousy from other prominent members of Akbar’s court. It probably didn’t help that he was Hindu also surrounded by Muslims. Interestingly, Emperor Akbar tried to start his own religion during his reign and was deeply interested in spiritual matters. He even tried to bring together leaders of the multitude of religions present in his Empire to discuss religious matters together, presumably with an open mind, only to find that they just ended up shouting at each other!
Anyway, that’s the background bit, now the more fun stuff. Let’s delve into some of the stories and folk tales of Birbal.
• A stranger stopped Birbal in the street and began regaling him with stories of his miserable life and difficulties. The stranger then that he’d walked 20 miles to see Birbal, and everyone he met on the way had said that Birbal was the most generous man in the world. The stranger, predictably, then asked for money. Birbal responded by asking him to piss off back from whence he came, telling everyone he encounters that Birbal isn’t the most generous man in the world.
• On one occasion, Birbal finds himself at the court of the Persian King. He has a lovely time. When he is about to leave, he is asked by a courtier how the Persian King compares to his King. Birbal says that the Persian King is like a full moon, whereas Akbar is like a quarter moon. The Persians are delighted. When Birbal returns, Akbar isn’t! Birbal then explains, a full moon is about to fade, a quarter moon is growing stronger.
• Akbar asks his courtiers what they think a suitable punishment should be for someone who pulls his moustache. One says flogging, another says hanging, a third says beheading! Birbal then pipes up and says a sweet. Everyone looks confused. Birbal explains that only Akbar’s grandson would dare do such a thing.
• One day Akbar and Birbal were riding through the countryside and they happened to pass by a cabbage patch. "Cabbages are sooooo yummy!" said Akbar. "I just love a good cabbage. The cabbage is king of vegetables!" said Birbal. A few weeks later they were riding past the cabbage patch again. Akbar isn’t so impressed anymore; "I used to love cabbage but now they make me fart like a trooper." said Akbar. "The cabbage is a tasteless vegetable" agreed Birbal. The emperor was astonished. "But the last time we were here you said it was the king of vegetables!". “Yep” admitted Birbal. "But I am your servant Your Majesty, not the cabbage's."
• Here’s one about a mango tree; two men dispute ownership of it, Birbal tells both that the tree will be split down the middle and shared both ways. One man gets upset and asks for the tree to be given to the other man whole, rather than have it destroyed. Birbal uses this trick to ascertain that the tree was this man’s. This story is basically the same as the Judgement of Soloman in the Book of Kings from the Bible; both Hebrew and Christian.
• Emperor Akbar had a dream that he and Birbal knocked into each other in the dark. Akbar fell into a pool of rice pudding. Birbal fell into a gutter. When he recounted this story to the court, they all laughed at Birbal’s misfortune in the dream. Akbar was pleased to have made a fool of the cunning Birbal, however, Birbal retorted that he too had the same dream, but he slept through to the end of it, where Akbar climbed out of the rice pudding, Birbal out of the gutter, and they could not find any water to clean themselves with. Instead, they decided to lick each other clean. DAMN THAT BIRBAL! ALWAYS GETTING THE BETTER OF ME!
• An intellectual came to the court of Akbar and wished to know if Birbal was as smart as everyone said he was. He asked Birbal if he would like 100 easy questions or one difficult one. Birbal was in a bit of rush so asked for 1 very difficult one. What came first? The chicken or the egg? Birbal responded quickly, the chicken. What makes you so sure said the intellectual? That is 2 questions, now I must be on my way.
• Akbar asks Birbal for if it is possible for someone to be the lowest and noblest man at the same time. Birbal says most definitely and brings before Akbar a beggar. Akbar points out that this beggar is indeed low, but how is he so noble? Birbal points out that he is currently enjoying an audience with the Emperor.
Birbal eventually died in an ill-fated expedition to quash hostile Yusufzai tribes on the North-Western borders of the empire. The Mughal forces were ambushed and 8000 men were killed. The Yusufzai people are still a distinct ethnic group in Pakistan and Afghanistan and can you name a famous person of this ethnicity who went to Edgbaston High School in Birmingham opposite the Birmingham University campus that we attended?
Malala; the youngest ever recipient of a Noble Peace prize. She’s the young Pakistani lady who had a secret blog on the BBC Urdu website during the Taliban’s occupation of the area of Pakistan where she was bought up. She survived an assassination attempt at the hands of the Taliban and is currently studying at Oxford University. I, Sam, earned myself 6A*, 4As and 1B at school, Malala only got 6A* and 4A. Which logically, means I should also have a Noble Peace Prize; slightly larger than Malala’s.
Weirdly, I noticed that she’d been made Wonk of the Year for 2017 by American University. “The Wonk of the Year honors individuals who demonstrate engagement, focus, intelligence, and passion.”