**The following fictional story was originally written as a gallery guide to accompany the international loan show, "Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts," curated by Dr. Amy Landau and exhibited at The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (November 8, 2015- January 31, 2016) and the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (February 26- May 8, 2016).
The gallery guide was intended to engage children and adults in a discussion about how stories enrich our lives and reveal similarities between one's own experiences and those of other times and cultures.
The following story is historical fiction written from the perspective of Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556- 1605), who is remembered as a kind ruler and a generous supporter of the arts and sciences.
Emperor Akbar and his Epic Voyage
I looked out in awe at the dozens of artists hunched over their work spaces, diligently working with the finest materials to paint glorious illustrations. How fortunate that I, Emperor Akbar of the Mughal Empire, can bring the best artists to my royal atelier to create the most precious manuscripts in the entire world. People come from lands near and far to gaze in admiration at my recently built palace at Fatehpur Sikri in northern India.
Surveying the room, I saw a newly finished copy of a familiar book. The Baburnama is the memoir of my beloved grandfather, Babur, whose heroic conquests led to the legendary founding of the Mughal Empire. His stories give rich descriptions of India as my family was experiencing these mysterious lands for the first time. With both hands, I carefully picked up the heavy book and brought it to my private quarters. I settled upon my favorite red carpet and opened it.
Fingering the thick pages, I opened to a passage describing aquatic animals: “One is the alligator, which lives in still waters and resembles a lizard. They say it carries off not only men but also oxen.”
I grinned, noticing that woven into the wool carpet where I sat, an alligator swimming in a dangerous dance with rhinoceros, gazelle and elephants.
Just as I was getting lost in my daydreams, my most trusted friend, the court historian Abu’l Fazl entered.
“Akbar, I did not know you would be here,” Abu’l Fazl said, “I was coming to deliver a new manuscript.”
“Not to worry, my friend. Come here, I want to talk to you about something,” I said, gesturing for him to sit.
“Let’s take a journey as great as those of Babur,” I said, pointing to the manuscript opened on my lap.
“Emperor, do explain.”
“I rule these lands, yet I do not know them. My grandfather described temples both in the ancient style and as madrasas; green-glazed tiles and elephant statues. I want—I need to see.”
“Akbar, if you are serious, then let’s set out for a great journey tomorrow. I will make all necessary provisions,” Abu’l Fazl says earnestly. “I just have one request. I would like to share this adventure with my brother. May Fayzi come with us?”
“Yes, of course! Imagine how the scalloped pools and lush gardens, the Hindu yogis and Jain ascetics, will inspire Fayzi’s poetry,” I reply with great joy.
The next morning we set out on our adventure to the temples of Southwest India. I brought books as both entertainment and reference, and Abu’l Fazl and Fazi each brought a set of pens and several blank pages to record the journey.
During our voyage, I often asked Abu’l Fazl to share stories of Greek mythology and Fayzi, who is the court poet, to recite mystical poetry about Sufi saints.
Many times, I was reminded both men are not only highly educated, but are also kind and gentle souls.
After several weeks, we began to approach the low, rugged, and rocky mountain range described in the Baburnama. A shared excitement built and spread among us as we approached the ancient site.
“Abu’l Fazl, Fayzi, do you see these statues?” I remarked, stunned with awe.
“Emperor Akbar, they are striking! Look at this one with an elephant’s head,” Abu’l Fazl said, pointing.
“An elephant’s head on a dancing woman’s body. Who do you imagine she is?” I asked.
At once, Fayzi pulled out a book and as he hurriedly flipped through the illustrated pages, explained, “For the past year, I have been translating into Persian, this book of epic poems from ancient India that recount battles and discuss family and friendship.
It is called the Mahabharata in Sanskrit, and the Razmnama in Persian.”
“Fayzi has been working on this as a special gift for you,” Abu’l Fazl said, clearly proud of his brother.
I smiled and looked at the colorful illustrations.
“Ah, here it is!” exclaimed the poet. “Ganesha is the Lord of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles,” Fayzi read out loud.
“What a beautiful idea,” I said.
“Fayzi, thank you for sharing this knowledge with me,” I said with deep gratitude.
For what felt like hours more, we sat as friends, together humbled by the grandeur of the mighty statues, as Fayzi occasionally broke out in verse:
“With a hundred charms I am bringing an ancient book from Hindi into Persian, the language of the court. I stroll to see with friends the idol temple of Hindustan…”