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May 2006
Kids Corner

Stories of Akbar and Birbal have been extremely popular in India for years and are told to children from a very early age. Akbar (1542-1605) was the third Mughal Emperor to rule over India in the 16th century. He is also known as Akbar the Great for his contributions in the areas of art, architecture, and music. It said that during his reign, Hindus and Muslims lived side by side in harmony. Although Akbar himself could not read or write, he provided patronage to fine arts and literature. In his court were poets, musicians, advisers, and learned men, including the Nine Jewels or "Nava Ratnas" of whom Birbal (1528-1586) was one.

The first story below tells what happened when Birbal first arrived at the Emperor's court, and the second story takes place after Birbal became the Emperor's wise Minister or Wazir.

The Gift of Fifty Lashes

A gift?how exciting! Is there anyone out there who doesn't feel thrilled by the thought of getting a gift? I doubt it. What kind of things come to your mind when you want a gift for yourself? Let me guess. Perhaps a game cube, a trip to your favorite restaurant, maybe a dress, a fun movie, perhaps a vacation?.

But, can you imagine asking for a gift of lashes ? not one, not two, but FIFTY!!!!!!!! Who on earth would want a gift like that?

I'm going to introduce you to someone who did just that. This is the story of a man named Mahesh Das. He was born in the sixteenth century in India, in the city of Agra. Mahesh Das was a poor man but very smart and very funny. Emperor Akbar was one of the mighty kings of that time. Well, on one of his hunting trips near Agra, his party of hunters got lost. Mahesh Das, who happened to be there, saved the day for the mighty emperor by giving the right directions. Akbar was so impressed that he gave him his personal ring and asked him to visit his palace at any time.

After a few years Mahesh Das decided to visit the king. At the entrance to the king's fort however, he was stopped. The guards wouldn't let him enter. "Why would the king invite a poor man like you to his palace?" barked one of the guards. Mahesh Das immediately flashed the emperor's ring as proof. The guard realized that this man was clearly important to the emperor. "I will let you get in on one condition. If you receive anything from the emperor, you will share half of that with me." Mahesh Das promised to do so.

Inside the court, he bowed to the emperor and showed him the ring. The king remembered him immediately and offered him a reward. "Anything you want," he announced. "A gift of fifty lashes of the whip, your highness, that's the gift I want," asked Mahesh Das humbly.

The king was amazed at the nature of the request and wanted to know the reason for it. He knew that this was a very smart young man who would never do anything without good reason. Mahesh Das then told him about the guard and the condition he had placed. The king was greatly amused and impressed by Mahesh Das's smartness. He rewarded him by including him in his court as a minister. He also gave him the name Birbal. The guard's dishonesty and rudeness, on the other hand, angered the emperor. He awarded him not just with half of Birbal's gift, but all of it—fifty lashes of the whip!

Birbal's Khichree

Birbal became a close friend and advisor to the king, one of the special people, the Nine Jewels or "Nava Ratnas," of the court. Birbal used his intelligence and good sense of humor to calm the ire of Emperor Akbar and amuse him at the same time, or to help the king understand a problem and make fair and just decisions.

One day during the winter, Akbar and Birbal were walking along a lake. Akbar had an idea. Pointing to the lake, he declared, "You won't find a man who is ready to spend a cold winter night standing in these waters." "I'm sure I can find such a person, your highness," replied Birbal. Akbar decided that if Birbal could find such a man, he would reward that person with hundred gold coins.

Well, Birbal did find a very poor man who happily accepted the challenge. He spent the entire night standing in the lake. The next morning, the man went to collect his reward at the king's palace. "How did you manage to spend the night standing in the cold waters of the lake?" questioned Akbar. The poor man replied, "Instead of thinking about the bitter cold, I focused my thoughts on the light from the street lamp nearby." "That means you kept yourself warm by the light from the nearby street lamp! You do not deserve the award," declared an angry Akbar. The poor man was miserable. He had just lost a chance of winning hundred gold coins. He felt cheated and decided to seek Birbal's help.

Upon hearing the man's plight, Birbal hatched a plan to help Akbar realize his error. He invited the king to his house for dinner. On the day of the dinner, Akbar arrived promptly in anticipation of his favorite khichree, which Birbal was a master at.

After a few pleasantries and drinks, Akbar, who was expecting dinner to be served, couldn't resist, and he inquired about it. Birbal assured him that khichree was indeed being cooked even as they spoke. Soon, though, an hour passed and another. Birbal would every so often go out to the backyard to check on the khichree and come back and report, "not yet."

Finally, the emperor could not stand it anymore. He demanded to see what was holding the dinner up for so long. Birbal was more than glad to oblige. He invited the king to the backyard. Akbar was surprised and confused with what he saw. There was a small fire in a pit on the ground. High above it, on the branch of a tree, was the pot of khichree! Birbal, in all seriousness, stepped up a ladder to check up on the khichree for the umpteenth time. "It hasn't even warmed up yet," he reported, in a matter-of-fact fashion.

"Of course not," cried the hungry and frustrated king. "Are you out of your mind? How can the khichree cook when it is so far away from the fire? Don't you see that you have hung the bowl so high up that the heat from the fire cannot possibly reach it?" he exclaimed.

"Indeed your highness," replied Birbal, bowing to the king, "the heat from the fire is too far from the pot. It won't cook the khichree. In the same way, the light from the street lamp was too far away from that poor man. It was not enough to give him any warmth. That man spent the night in the lake only thinking of the warmth, your highness."

The king understood that he had made a mistake in denying the man his just reward. He felt very sorry for his actions and immediately gave the poor man the 100 gold coins that had been promised to him.


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