For five centuries, Birbal has been one of the best-loved figures in the folklore of India. Polished like gemstones in the river of time, The Birbal Tales’ wit and insight have delighted children and grownups from Kerala to Kashmir. Now the complete collection comes to the West, after years of loving research and creative, and historically accurate, restoration.
Moseley’s Birbal Tales have won The National Writers Club First Prize for Fiction and the University of Southern Louisiana’s First Prize for Juvenile Fiction. This timeless classic is a wonderful gift for children and a treasury of humor and wisdom for adults.
“Absolutely beautiful. I can see why you have a devoted following.”
- Duval Y. Hecht, President, BOOKS ON TAPE, INC.
“I have read Moseley's Birbal Tales and must say I was utterly enchanted. The stories are beautifully retold in a style that is not only charming in English but could have come straight from a collection of Persian tales at the Mughal court. Moseley has certainly captured the fantasy court world in which stories of this type are usually cast. He continues in the finest tradition of the Mughal qissagu (storyteller). I trust he will offer more volumes in this collection to the undoubted delight of his readers.”
- Wheeler M. Thackston, Professor of the Practice in Persian and Other Near Eastern Languages, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
- Swapna Vora, Editor, INDIAN EXPRESS, North American Edition
“At a time when thousands of intellectuals and professionals are migrating from India to the USA in search of wealth, Moseley has traveled to India to collect priceless gems from her immortal tradition and folk wisdom. Devoid of any high-sounding Brahmanic dogma, these tales have entertained and taught people of all levels for hundreds of years. Rendered again in the most lucid style, reading these tales is like reliving one's childhood. The book will fill the void for Indians now living in Diaspora and will give a new dimension of India to its Western readers.”
- Ved Prakash Vatuk, D. Litt, Director FOLKLORE INSTITUTE, Berkeley & Former Professor of Folklore, UC Berkeley
“It is so rare to have a book that will charm children, please adult readers, satisfy curiosity about foreign folk tales, and inform any reader regarding a different culture. But here is a book that does it all.”
- Ted Maas, ALLIANCE HOUSE, INC.
“James Moseley’s collection of Birbal Tales capture the wit and wisdom of the famous Indian courtier while maintaining the simple poetry of those told orally for generations across India.”
- Maryann Mahajan, INDIA POST.COM
“Moseley’s…prose evokes the magical world of Akbar’s court…in witty, charming stories, which are still popular with children in India. Historical notes are appended.”
“There are so many wonderful books for very young children, but there is too little good literature for “middlings” from age seven to eleven. This book, which adults can enjoy as well as children, brings praises from a Harvard Professor to a Hollywood Producer. Interestingly, although the tales are indeed charming and amusing, they are not fictional, but true stories of a wise man who really lived in long ago India in the palace of the Emperor Akbar. Birbal served his Emperor with wit and wisdom, and he became so renowned that even today parents and grandparents use these clever adventures as morality tales.”
“This book is very promising.”
- Vandana Kumar, Editor, INDIA CURRENTS MAGAZINE, California
“Traveling throughout India for many years, the author collected many tales from the oral tradition surrounding the 14th-century Great Mughal Emperor, Akbar, and his wise advisor, the commoner Birbal. These short stories include clever judgments and sortings out of injustices that Birbal makes, from the familiar Solomonlike offering to cut a precious but disputed tree in half so neighbors can "share" to his tricking of greedy or grasping relatives, jealous wives, or dishonest merchants…readers may often guess the solution to a knotty problem before Birbal reveals what happened next. Unfamiliar titles are italicized and footnoted, and historical notes tell about the real Akbar and Birbal. These stories read well as single tales but taken as a whole, they introduce to Western culture one of the best-loved figures in the folklore of India.”
- SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL
“I wish you the very best for your new book. Birbal stories are a personal favorite of mine and have been listening to them since I was a child. I am sure you will find a big demand among the million-strong Indian Diaspora in the USA.”
- Achal Madhavan, VEDAMS BOOKS INTERNATIONAL, New Delhi, India
“I have been waiting for a book like this for a long time.”
- Mahi Khan
“All the stories are superb.”
- Viswanath Sanghamithra
“These delightful fables sparkle like Kipling's Just So Stories and The Arabian Nights. They're full of humor and surprise endings. I loved them! The Birbal Tales are perfect bedtime stories - for the whole family!”
- Randall Brooks, CBN News Anchor
“Jim Moseley's adaptations of the Birbal classics of India are some of the most delightfully entertaining and inspiring stories I have ever read. Each one is surprising, spun with brilliant wit and ironic twists. They contain important, timeless morals that are refreshing in our contemporary culture of relativistic values. Jim has done us a valuable service, and I look forward to watching their huge success.”
- Phil Snyder, Actor, Writer, Producer
The Real Akbar and Birbal
Jalaludin Mohammed Akbar Padshah Ghazi, Emperor of India, ruled from 1560 to 1605. Akbar was great in an age of great rulers: Elizabeth I of England, Henry IV of France, Philip II of Spain, Suleiman the Magnificent of Turkey, and Shah Abbas the Great of Persia.
Akbar was chivalrous and just to all, but he could be violent and overmastering, if needed. His magnetic personality won the love and affection of his people and the respect and admiration of his enemies.
Akbar was superb at riding, polo and swordsmanship, and he was a crack shot with a musket. He was courageous, often fighting personally in the heat of battle. He was a brilliant general, a master of speed, surprise, and minute details. His lightening conquests of India, from the Hindu Kush to Bengal, were feats of military genius.
Akbar worked hard at the trade of king, sleeping only three hours a night. Although he could neither read nor write (he was probably dyslexic), he had legions of scholars who read to him. His son, Prince Sultan Salim, later the Emperor Jahangir, wrote that no one could have guessed that Akbar was illiterate. He loved religion, philosophy, music, architecture, poetry, history and painting. He forged an Empire that enjoyed long-lasting peace and high cultural refinement.
The Empire of the Mughals was vast and fabulously rich. Akbar’s lower taxes and rising conquests created prosperity for the people and floods of treasure for the Crown. European visitors estimated that just one province of Akbar’s Empire, Bengal, was wealthier than France and England combined. Birbal was born to a poor Brahmin family of Tikawanpur on the banks of the River Jumna. He rose to the exalted level of minister (or “Wazir”) at Akbar’s court by virtue of his razor-like wit. He was a good poet, writing under the pen-name of “Brahma,” and a collection of his verse is preserved today in the Bharatpur Museum.
Birbal’s duties at court were administrative and military, but his close friendship with the Emperor was sealed by Akbar’s love of wisdom and subtle humor. In Birbal the young King found a true sympathizer and companion. When, in an attempt to unify his Hindu and Muslim subjects, Akbar founded a new religion of universal tolerance, the Din-I-Ilahi, or “Divine Faith,” there was only one Hindu among the handful of his followers, and that was Birbal.
Many courtiers were jealous of Birbal’s star-like rise to fortune and power, and, according to popular accounts, they were endlessly plotting his downfall.
The character of Akbar in these stories is rather fanciful, and, historically, Birbal is scarcely heard of. Village storytellers probably invented many of these tales over the ages, simply attributing them to Birbal and Akbar because their characters seemed to fit.
Akbar’s court was mobile, a tradition handed down from his nomadic ancestors, the Mongols of Central Asia. (Mughal is Urdu for Mongol.) The Emperor ruled sometimes from the fortress of Agra, sometimes from the noble city of Lahore. In the period of these tales, 1571 to 1585, Akbar held court in the shimmering pleasure city which he had built for himself - Fatehpur Sikri.
I was twenty years old when I first went to India. On my first night in Bombay, my good friend Krishna Kotak told me the first Birbal Tale I ever heard. Ten seconds after he finished, its subtle wit burned like a slow fuse and then went off, and I laughed aloud.
I asked for another.
He told me another.
I asked if he could direct me to a book of Birbal Tales. He told me there were some comic books and small collections, but said they weren’t terribly well written and didn’t convey the living humor that came with hearing them over dinner or at Grandma’s knee.
So that night at the Taj Mahal Hotel, I wrote down every word I had heard. And thus began a quest of many years and literally from one end of the Subcontinent to the other. Whoever I met, old or young, low or high, Member of Parliament or chowkidar (night watchman), I asked if they had a favorite Birbal tale – and every time I wrote it down.
When I had gathered over one hundred original stories, I began a study of the historical context in which they took place - the fantasy world of the magnificent Mughal Empire. I wove the fables into a sequence that harmonized with the true events of the lives of the Emperor Akbar and his witty advisor, Birbal, for both were real people. I sent the results for review by experts in the fields of Indian folklore and Mughal history to make sure that the details were accurate. For example, you don't want characters in the sixteenth century sipping tea, when the British imported tea from China to India only in the nineteenth century!
I am especially indebted to Wheeler M. Thackston, Professor of the Practice of Persian and Other Near Eastern Languages at Harvard University and to Ved Prakash Vatuk, D. Litt., Director of the Folklore Institute and former Professor of Folklore at UC Berkeley.
I wrote this book first of all for myself, because I could not find any book that captured the wry characters of Akbar and Birbal as you hear them in conversations with the good people of India. Then I wrote them for my children, who have grown up on them.
Now my heartfelt wish is that Akbar and Birbal may give to others the enchantment they gave me in bringing them to life.
About the Author
Jim Moseley lived in India, traveling widely and studying its literature, history, and religions - and collecting Birbal Tales wherever he went. He is also the author of The Mystery of Herbs and Spices and The Ninth Jewel of the Mughal Crown. Moseley’s articles and illustrations have appeared in major periodicals like Newsday and the Los Angeles Times. He wrote the screenplay for Gorky Studios’ Father Frost, winning the Film Advisory Board’s Award of Excellence for Best Family Screenplay. Moseley earned his B.A. at Hampshire College and pursued post-graduate studies at Keble College, Oxford and the University of Miami. He lives with his wife and four children in California.