Birbal and the barber.

Birbal was the closest adviser of Akbar the Great, the sixteenth century Mughal emperor of India. Akbar respected Birbal's shrewd wisdom above all his other courtiers and this inevitably led to much jealousy of Birbal at Akbar's darbar or court. Many of the ministers devised elaborate schemes to discredit or trap Birbal, or to expose a weakness in his judgement, but the wily adviser invariably outwitted them and none could succeed. Birbal could invariably recognise their devious strategies and would often turn their plots against them or unmask them. For example, one of Akbar's ministers once told the emperor that he was in danger of betrayal by Birbal because he possessed the power of being able to read anyone's mind. So Akbar summoned Birbal and asked him to demonstrate his miraculous thought reading abilities, to which Birbal cleverly responded: "Your Majesty's mind is far too subtle for me to read. However, I am quite capable of reading the minds of all your courtiers." When Akbar asked him to reveal their thoughts Birbal replied: "At this moment they are thinking how wonderful, wise and just your Majesty is. They are praying for God to bless you with a long life and greater prosperity. Is this not so, O noble courtiers?" Everyone had to agree that Birbal had correctly divined their thoughts.

Apart from Birbal there was only one other person that Akbar spent time alone with on a regular basis, and this was his barber. Every morning this man would groom the emperor's hair, trim his beard and wax his moustache, and due to his familiarity with Akbar the barber was in an ideal position for gaining the emperor's confidence. The barber was also extremely envious of Birbal. For years he had listened to the emperor's praises of his trusted advisor each morning, for years he had heard tales of his infallible wisdom. Over the course of time the barber had come to despise Birbal and wished to see an end to him. And thus it came about that a group of the emperor's most jealous courtiers enlisted the help of this barber in a scheme to kill Birbal, and for a substantial sum of money he enthusiastically agreed to help them carry out their plot.

When the barber was shaving the emperor the next morning he casually asked: "Your majesty, you appear to be living a wonderful life here on earth. Do you ever wonder what kind of existence your late father might now be experiencing in paradise?"

"It is vain to speculate thus," replied Akbar. "How can anyone know what life is like in heaven? No man has yet come back to tell the tale."

"Ah! But your Majesty, I know of a great Hindu miracle worker who is able to miraculously transport a living being to heaven and then bring him back again to earth. Through this method you could send a trusted envoy to heaven to bring back news of your father."

Akbar thoughtfully stoked his beard for a few minutes, then said to the barber: "Very well. If you are certain that this ritual actually works, find someone immediately to be transported into paradise to bring back news of my father."

"I will do so at once," replied the barber. "But we must choose an important and wise envoy; someone who will have the correct bearing befitting an ambassador from your court, and the right qualities to enter into heaven. Someone who possesses the discernment to actually find your father, the dignity to converse with him, and the wisdom to ask him the right questions."

Akbar thoughtfully stroked his beard again and said: "It appears to me that you have someone in mind. Who is it?"

"Birbal, your Majesty," replied the barber.

"Birbal!" exclaimed Akbar, "Why Birbal? He is the adviser to my heart. What if something was to go wrong? Explain to me how this ritual is to be performed."

"Birbal is the most versatile and intelligent man in your kingdom," replied the barber. "There is no need to worry about his safety, as I myself have also visited heaven several times by this method and can vouch for its effectiveness. The ritual involves the construction of a symbolic wooden palace in the local cremation ground. Birbal will sit inside this structure whilst the magician ritually seals the palace within a protective circle of black thread and iron spikes. Then the magician will recites a series of powerful spells and mantras whilst the palace is set alight and Birbal is transported to heaven upon its flames. Within a period of weeks Birbal will then reappear here again upon this earth bringing tidings of your father. Trust me your Majesty, and you will see that this amazing technique actually works."

The next day Birbal arrived at court to be greeted by the news of his impending journey to heaven. As he listened to the details of this outlandish scheme, Birbal immediately perceived that it was a new plot to get rid of him. He also realised who the perpetrators of this fiendish trap were. Birbal thought for a few moments and then said: "Your Majesty, since I am already prepared to descend into the very depths of hell for you, then going to heaven on your behalf can only be a pleasurable experience. But I will need quite a lot of money and time in order to prepare myself for this journey."

"You may have as much money as you require," said Akbar: "But how long do you need to prepare? You must realise that I am now quite excited at the prospect of receiving news from my father."

Birbal thought for a few minutes and replied: "I will need three months."

"Then three months you shall have," concluded Akbar.

Birbal obtained a large sum of money from Akbar and gave it to his wife in case his plan of escaping from the funeral pyre should fail. He also insisted upon building the wooden palace in the charnel ground himself after receiving specifications from the so-called 'magician'. When the palace was complete Birbal then began the laborious task of digging a long secret tunnel from his own house to end beneath the wooden palace in the cremation ground. This work took all of three months, and he had only just finished the tunnel with its trap doors when his allotted period of preparation was up.

A large procession accompanied Birbal to the cremation ground on that fateful day. Birbal calmly entered the hut, the door was sealed, and the magician began the ritual of staking out a protective circle with black thread and iron spikes. Then the duplicitous magician sat in front of the wooden palace and began to recite his spells and mantras. At a crucial point in the proceedings he then ordered that the great pyre of wood that Birbal had laid for the foundations of the palace should be lit. However, Birbal had ingeniously selected only fresh green wood for this pyre, and soon a vast cloud of smoke, steam and crackling hisses began to add an element of terrifying drama to the strange proceedings.

Under the cover of this smokescreen Birbal made his escape through the trap door of the palace, slowly making his way through the narrow tunnel back to his house. He was careful to seal the tunnel with earth as he retreated, fully aware that the assembled courtiers would sift through the ashes after the fire had died down. Once inside the safety of his own house Birbal remained hidden for the next three months, with only his wife secretly ministering to his needs. And for the whole of this period Birbal didn't shave, trim his hair, or cut his nails.

In the meantime Akbar was becoming very worried about the fate of his trusted advisor. He knew that some kind of plot had been set in motion to kill Birbal, yet he also knew that Birbal was far too cunning to fall into such a trap. Indeed, the very fact that Birbal had accepted this challenge so readily convinced the emperor that his advisor had set in motion a counterplot to unmask the perpetrators. In the beginning he had felt some delight in anticipating how Birbal might escape from the burning pyre. He enjoyed the prospect of Birbal revealing his genius - he liked to keep him on his toes. But now, after three months, the emperor was despondent and had started to think that his favoured envoy may have actually died in that fateful blaze.

Then suddenly one morning Birbal made a dramatic entry into the royal court. Dressed in the most delicate silk robes and slippers, anointed with the most fragrant of perfumes, and transfigured by his long hair and unkempt beard, Birbal stood again before his emperor. Akbar rushed from the throne to embrace his beloved advisor, crying, "My dear Birbal! You have returned again! How I have missed you! How are you? How was your journey to heaven?"

"It was a difficult and dangerous trip, your majesty," replied Birbal. "It took me a long time to find my way there and a long time to come back to earth again. At times I didn't think that I would ever return."

"But now you are back," said Akbar. "Tell me, did you meet my father? Did you speak with him? How is he finding heaven?"

"You father is exceedingly well, your majesty. His face is unlined, his skin is golden, and he looks far younger and healthier than he did here on earth. He dwells in a resplendent palace and is attended by a host of the most beautiful angelic beings. He sends all of his blessings to you and looks forward to the time when you shall be together again. But there is one thing that he asks of you."

"Tell me what this is," exclaimed Akbar. "There is nothing that I wouldn't do to assist him."

"Your majesty," began Birbal. "Your father has everything he could desire - beautiful young maidens, heavenly food, magnificent gardens and divine musicians. But there is one thing that cannot be found in heaven."

"What is it?" demanded the emperor, "Now that we have found a way to reach heaven, we can - in theory at least - send him anything he needs."

"Your father cannot find anyone to cut his hair, shave his beard, and manicure his nails. There are no barbers in heaven. I even had great difficulty in recognising your father. His hair has grown down to his knees, his long bushy beard now trails upon the ground, and his nails are now longer than his fingers and toes!"

"What! Has no deceased barber arrived in heaven yet?" asked Akbar. "And what of the angels? Cannot one of them cut my father's hair?"

"Alas no, your majesty," replied Birbal. "The Lord has banished all weapons from His celestial realms. I saw no razor or scissors there. Look at how unkempt my own hair, beard and nails have grown during the three months that I myself was in paradise. Don't you think that I would at least have had a haircut and shave before returning to earth to stand before you majesty? Your father asks that you send him your best barber and a sharp razor."

"Of course!" exclaimed Akbar: "I will send him my own barber immediately. He has already visited heaven several times and returned safely. Indeed, he is certain to know the way and will not be denied admission! It was because of him that I learned of my father's plight. He was the perfect instigator, now he is the perfect candidate. He deserves to go to heaven!" Akbar then called for an attendant to summon the magician, and for a group of carpenters and woodcutters to prepare the wooden palace and funeral pyre. The barber and his sharp razor were sent to heaven several days later, but he never returned again to tell of his tale. Postcards from heaven are very rare indeed.