Akbar and Birbal: The Ten Fools


“Emperors seem to be really whimsical people, who also have a lot of time on their hands. Actually, I don’t know if it’s all emperors or just Akbar. Anyway, one day, on a whim, Akbar decided that he wanted to find the ten biggest fools in his kingdom, because he’d had enough of being surrounded by clever and scholarly men. What a novel idea, don’t you think? So he sends his incredibly smart and witty minister Birbal, solver of every problem in his kingdom, out to retrieve these ten foolish men. He eventually returned with eight men, among whom some were supremely idiotic. Let me enlighten you. One of these guys was carrying a bale of hay while riding a horse. So Birbal goes up to this dude and asks him why he’s carrying the hay when he’s riding a horse, and so the guy replies that it’s because his horse is really, really old and weak and that he doesn’t want to burden him any further. I know, right? Now listen to this. Another guy was running down the road really fast and he collided with Birbal. The minister asks the guy where he’s off to in such a hurry and you won’t believe what the guy says. He says that he was saying his prayers in the mosque that morning and wanted to see how far his voice reached. So, duh, the first thought that came to his mind was chasing his voice. And okay, okay, last one. This third genius is looking for something in the street at night, and he can’t seem to find it. He’s looking under a streetlamp.  Birbal stumbles across him, quite literally, and asks him what he’s looking for so frantically. He explains that he lost his wedding ring in a dark galli (alley) a short ways away. So obviously, Birbal is confused and asks him why he isn’t looking in the alley, and in the street instead. Get this. This brilliant guy says that he’s looking in the main road because there’s more light there. Isn’t that hilarious? And so he takes these supremely stupid eight guys back to Akbar, who is upset that there’s only eight of them. So Birbal says, quite frankly, that Akbar is the ninth fool for thinking of such a pointless task. Offended, the Emperor demands who the tenth one is, to which Birbal just deadpans: ‘Me, of course, for agreeing to carry out such a pointless task.’ Ha ha ha!”


I was told the background of this story in due time: “There are several versions of this story, but the one with Birbal and the Ten Fools is the most popular. There’s a few other ones, though, like The Four Fools and Birbal, and also one that’s more or less the same as the one I just told you, except that the Rajput Birbal is replaced with a South Indian clever minister figure called Tenali Rama and the Emperor Akbar is replaced by the corresponding king – Raja Krishnadevaraya. I just chose this one because I like Birbal more than Tenali Rama and it’s funnier, because there are more idiots. I think the point that’s proven here is that a person who chooses to record the number of idiots in his vicinity is a bigger idiot than all of them combined, because there is no end to the idiots in any given part of the world.”


The notable point here is that the active participant, who is relating the legend, acknowledges that there are several versions and variants of this story, making the main frame of the story a taletype, and the multiple specimens of this story, told all over India, oikotypes. He also relates the story in a very humorous manner and involves the audience directly by laughing with them and asking them rhetorical, “Am I right?”-type questions to keep them engaged. In addition to this, he mentions two different (in region) but very similar (in character) elements to the story – the half-historical and half-legendary characters of Birbal and Tenali Rama, who are well-known all over the Indian subcontinent and are vehicles for many similar stories. Another point to be noted is the presence of a wedding ring in the story. The wedding ring is a traditionally Western and Christian concept that is a modern introduction into Indian culture, where a mangalsutra (wedding necklace) is more prevalent. It’s interesting because this variation in the story must have been quite recent, and also must have been engineered for the story to appeal to a wider audience.

Finally, this story is, essentially, a joke, but also a legend, because it takes place in the real world and may well have happened. Its humor mainly relies in the supreme stupidity of the people Birbal encounters, and the punchline, in which both the minister and the emperor realize that they were pretty idiotic themselves by wasting a week on such a nonsensical quest. The narrative poses the idea that one may have one’s moments of sheer brilliance, but no matter a person’s stature, an emperor, a clever minister, or a mere pauper, everyone has their own unique quirks, whims, and the capacity to be almost mind-numbingly idiotic when given the opportunity.