HARKING BACK: ‘Gharis’ in the life of Akbar the Great in Lahore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Mar 29, 2015

Imagine Lahore. The year is 1590. Mughal emperor Akbar lives in the fort. Exactly at sunrise a loud gong rings out. This is immediately followed by gongs ringing from atop all the then seven gates of the city. Life starts for the emperor and his subjects.

Every 24 minutes the gongs ring and a new ‘ghari’ announced. The day has 60 ‘gharis’. No gongs are rung between sunset and sunrise. Life is measured in ‘gharis’. The very word ‘ghari’, meaning watch or clock, is derived from that source.

All Mughal bureaucrats are given a strict schedule to follow, with work being measured in different ‘gharis’. The rule is that every Mughal bureaucrat must spend 30 ‘gharis’ working and the remaining 30 ‘gharis’ is his own business.

So the working day, except Fridays, is a 12-hour day for six days a week. No wonder the Mughal Empire functioned so efficiently. The emperor himself strictly followed a pre-determined schedule, and even longer when special guests or military commanders met him in his ‘ghuzal khana’ (private chamber) as the term was then used. Much later they preferred the word ‘mehmaan khana’.

It has always been a source of fascination to find out just how did the emperors of the Mughal era spend their time, as against recent, or the present, rulers do.

It was an immensely enjoyable exercise, and full of surprises. To find out about Akbar the Great use was made of three important books, they being Abul Fazl’s ‘Akbar Nama’, Mohammad Salih Kamboh’s ‘Amal-i-Salih’ and Abdul Hameed Lahori’s ‘Badshah Nama’. These three great chroniclers met opposition from powerful princes and bureaucrats in their days just as journalists face official, sometimes fatal, opposition from time to time.

The great Abul Fazl was murdered on the instructions of Prince Saleem (later emperor Jahangir) on the 12th of August 1602 by Vir Singh Bundela, who Jahangir made ruler of Orccha.

Abul Fazl’s head was sent in a bag to Allahabad to reassure Prince Saleem that the task had been accomplished, while the remaining body was buried in Antri near Narwar.

Salih Kamboh has a mosque named after him in Mochi Gate, and there is a claim that he is buried near the mosque. One version disputes this and says he was murdered and his head went missing.

The death of Abdul Hameed Lahori is not known, though one version says he died suddenly. Over the ages, more often than not, the ‘messenger gets killed’. But back to a day in the life of Akbar in Lahore.

The emperor woke early in the morning when the first gong rang. He spent two ‘gharis’ listening to as many of the holy books that time allowed. He listened because he was illiterate. The next three ‘gharis’ he spent listening to the Empire’s financial condition, about taxes collected, about defaulters, as well as the condition of the treasury.

By modern standards the first two hours were spent in spiritual and financial matters. The sixth ‘ghari’ was strictly to dictate new ‘firmans’ concerning financial matters. This was strictly the rule.

The seventh ‘ghari’ was used to go over the schedule of the remaining day as he went through a light breakfast. Abul Fazl says: ‘The emperor gets very annoyed if this schedule is disturbed’. This means that Akbar was well aware of the utility of every minute of his life.

Then came four ‘gharis’ when he went over the food and military stores with his officials. Complete reports of the food condition throughout the kingdom were read out to him and if any part of the empire faced a potential food shortage, he ordered new purchased at the central stores in Lahore, Agra and the other major cities, and immediately transferred to depleted stores from the nearest central store.

It is amazing that this fact has been repeated by all the three great chroniclers. The next two ‘gharis’ were spent dictating ‘farmans’ on food and military store matters.

The next three ‘gharis’ were spent inspecting horses and military hardware, and he made sure everything was in order himself. In this respect any laxity was taken very seriously.

Sometimes he would ride out to personally see that regiments were training as per a given schedule. This was followed by a light working lunch in which he was informed of the guests he had to meet in the evening.

After lunch and a light nap for just one ‘ghari’, he was off to work again. He met his advisers who discussed the latest political affairs. This could go on for three, sometimes four ‘gharis’ depending on the situation. This session was invariably followed by a third ‘farman’ session.

What is amazing is that late at night he set aside one session for some bureaucrats who he chose at random to read to him the ‘farmans’ he had dictated that day. This was a double-check system.

Only when he was sure would he seal the ‘farman’ and also number it and a complete record kept. If anyone claimed to have a ‘shahi farman’, he had to quote an index number which the ‘diwan’ of the court rechecked.

Late into the night the emperor met his military commanders, or foreign envoys, or any special guest of the emperor. Before sleeping the emperor would listen to music, have a light drink and food and then he was off to the ‘zinana’ and to sleep.

All this goes to show that the Mughal emperors worked at least a minimum of 16 hours a day. This is very much at odds against the common perception that the rulers of old had a whale of a time.

This set me trying to find out just how did the late ZA Bhutto function. I talked to one of his now-retired private secretaries on the phone and he told me that (let me quote) “Bhutto worked from five in the morning to two at night, marked every file, dictated long orders, took very light meals, and always took a 30-minute nap in the afternoon. He was a workaholic and drove us crazy”.

This set me trying to find out just how hard did the current Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, function. To be honest I was expecting a


narration, but what came through was a shock to me.

Let me quote a very reliable source: “He rises at five, prays, reads the Quran, then has a very light breakfast and not the famous ‘nihari’ rounds he is famous for. He then goes over pending files and then gets working on a pre-arranged schedule. In the afternoon ‘sahib’ likes a short nap of 20 minutes and then he works his way through the rest of the day.

He is very quick to understand matters, but remains deceptively poker-faced about everything. He normally sleeps after midnight”.

This was quite contrary to what I had been hearing, so I double-checked. I asked about his famous fondness for rich foods. Pat came the reply: “If he did what people claim, he would not be able to function. This talk about rich food is just nostalgia of days gone by”.

As children we heard amazing stories about life in Mughal courts and the rich foods and drinks served. The fact is that even Maharajah Ranjit Singh worked almost 18 hours a day, and ‘Yes’ he loved his drink, which was moderate by Sikh standards. When Akbar was asked why he works so hard, his answer was: “When the ‘ghari’ to go comes, it comes, and no person ever died of hard work”.



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