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Why Did the Emperor Become a Pilgrim?

This research article by Dr Pratyay Nath interprets Akbar’s frantic pilgrimages to the Sufi dargah at Ajmer in terms of the religious, political, and strategic aspects of the formation of the Mughal Empire

Pratyay Nath

30 May, 2023 | 4m read

In 1562, the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) travelled westward from Agra on a hunting expedition. He eventually landed up at the shrine of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti (d. 1236) in Ajmer. Originally from Khurasan, Muinuddin was one of the earliest and most revered Sufi saints of South Asia. This would be the first of Akbar’s many pilgrimages to the shrine. In the 18 years between 1562 and 1579, he would visit Ajmer as many as 17 times. 

Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti. 
Detail from a Mughal miniature painting by Bichitr, c. 1615.
Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Akbar’s fascination with this shrine had as much to do with his engagements with religion as with political and strategic considerations for his empire. Let us consider the issue of religion first. The young emperor was keen to project himself as a pious king during the first half of his reign. The Chishtiyyas were a popular Sufi order in South Asia and Muinuddin’s dargah was a particularly venerated one. Associating himself with this shrine promised to lend Akbar political legitimacy. These factors must have helped him choose the Ajmer shrine as the site of his devotion and patronage.

To demonstrate his piety, Akbar would usually cover at least a part of the pilgrimage on foot in the course of the pilgrimages; on some occasions, he walked the entire way. Once in Ajmer, he would express his devotion by circumambulating the shrine, offering gifts at the Sufi’s grave and to the dargah officials, distributing alms among the devotees, and sponsoring the construction of new religious buildings in the town. He would pray at the dargah before going on important campaigns. On two occasions, he also saved certain possessions of defeated adversaries captured in the course of military campaigns and submitted them at the shrine eventually. This conveyed the idea that the victories of the Mughals in these campaigns had resulted from the blessings of the Sufi master.

Akbar visits the dargah of Muinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. 
Detail from a Mughal miniature painting by Basawan, c. 1590-1595. 
Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, for all the religious importance, Akbar’s pilgrimages to Ajmer were also shaped by political and strategic considerations. For the nascent empire, Ajmer held great strategic importance. It stood at a major nodal point of land routes in western and central India. It provided easy access to Malwa, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. Mughal forces had already conquered Malwa in 1561-62. Akbar’s frequent visits to Ajmer helped him consolidate his hold over the region. They also facilitated new expeditions against Rajput houses in Rajasthan that refused to bow down to Mughal authority. This involved the occupation of important forts like Mirtha (1562), Chitor (1567-68), and Ranthambhor (1569), as well as the conquest of Mewar (1576). The emperor’s presence in Ajmer also helped him personally lead the conquest of Gujarat in 1572–1573 and counter-insurgency operations in that region thereafter. All this helped Akbar project himself as a warrior king.

The pilgrimages showcased the dynamics of royal mobility as a form of statecraft. As the abode of the sovereign, the mobile imperial court was the prime seat of political power. As such, Akbar’s journeys to and from Ajmer did not signify a break from regular administration; rather, they were an integral part of it. Away from the confines of the palace, the publicness of the pilgrimages allowed the emperor to perform the various aspects of kingship in front of a much larger audience. They gave him the scope to personally forge diplomatic ties with local chieftains, organise the production of public infrastructure, keep an eye on imperial commanders posted in neighbouring areas, and intervene in the day-to-day life of his subjects.

Akbar’s pilgrimage on foot to Ajmer in thanksgiving for the birth of his son Selim. 
Detail from a Mughal miniature painting by Basawan and Nand Gwaliari, ca. 1586-1589.
Courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum

Interestingly, the pilgrimages stopped altogether after 1579. Aside from the changed strategic needs of the empire, this had to do with the transforming conception of Akbar’s kingship. In this new ideological paradigm inaugurated around 1580,  Akbar was projected as a universal sovereign. The spiritual status of the living emperor overshadowed the mystical authority of the dead sufi. Having briefly enjoyed the status of an imperial shrine, Ajmer was now overshadowed in sacrality forever by the imperial court of living Mughal emperors and the monumental tombs of deceased ones.

Reference article: 

Pilgrimage, performance, and peripatetic kingship: Akbar’s journeys to Ajmer and the formation of the Mughal Empire, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume 33, Issue 2, April 2023, pp. 271 – 296.

Author: Pratyay Nath

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