Akbar’s Bridge

A poem by Rudyard Kipling

Jelaludin Muhammed Akbar, Guardian of Mankind,
Moved his standards out of Delhi to Jaunpore of lower Hind,
Where a mosque was to be builded, and a lovelier ne’er was planned;
And Munim Khan, his Viceroy, slid the drawings ’neath his hand.

(High as Hope upsheered her towers to the promised Heavens above.
Deep as Faith and dark as Judgment her unplumbed foundations dove.
Wide as Mercy, white as moonlight, stretched her fore courts to the dawn;
And Akbar gave commandment, ‘Let it rise as it is drawn.’)

Then he wearied, the mood moving, of the men and things he ruled,
And he walked beside the Goomti while the flaming sunset cooled,
Simply, without mark or ensign, singly, without guard or guide,
And he heard an angry woman screeching by the riverside.

’Twas the Widow of the Potter, a virago feared and known,
In haste to cross the ferry, but the ferry-man had gone.
So she cursed him and his office, and hearing Akbar’s tread,
(She was very old and darkling) turned her wrath upon his head.

But he answered, being Akbar, ‘Suffer me to scull you o’er.’
Called her ‘Mother,’ stowed her bundles, worked the clumsy scow from shore,
Till they grounded on a sand-bank, and the Widow loosed her mind;
And the stars stole out and chuckled at the Guardian of Mankind.

‘Oh, most impotent of bunglers! Oh, my daughter’s daughter’s brood,
Waiting hungry on the threshold for I cannot bring their food,
Till a fool has learned his business at their virtuous grandam’s cost,
And a greater fool, our Viceroy, trifles while her name is lost!

‘Munim Khan, that Sire of Asses, sees me daily come and go
As it suits a drunken boatman, or this ox who cannot row.
Munim Khan, the Owl’s Own Uncle, Munim Khan, the Capon’s seed,
Must build a mosque to Allah when a bridge is all we need!

‘Eighty years I eat oppression and extortion and delays,
Snake and crocodile and fever, flood and drouth, beset my ways.
But Munim Khan must tax us for his mosque whate’er befall;
Allah knowing (May He hear me!) that a bridge would save us all!’

While she stormed that other laboured and, when they touched the shore,
Laughing brought her on his shoulder to her hovel’s very door.
But his mirth renewed her anger, for she thought he mocked the weak;
So she scored him with her talons, drawing blood on either cheek. . . .

Jelaludin Muhammed Akbar, Guardian of Mankind,
Spoke with Munim Khan his Viceroy, ere the midnight stars declined,
Girt and sworded, robed and jewelled, but, on either cheek appeared
Four shameless scratches running from the turban to the beard.

‘Allah burn all Potters’ Widows! Yet, since this same night was young,
One has shown me by sure token, there was wisdom on her tongue.
Yes, I ferried her for hire. Yes,’ he pointed, ‘I was paid.’
And he told the tale rehearsing all the Widow did and said.

And he ended, ‘Sire of Asses, Capon, Owl’s Own Uncle, know
I, most impotent of bunglers, I, this ox who cannot row
I, Jelaludin Muhammed Akbar, Guardian of Mankind,
Bid thee build the hag her bridge and put our mosque from out thy mind.’

So ’twas built, and Allah blessed it; and, through earthquake, flood, and sword,
Still the bridge his Viceroy builded throws her arch o’er Akbar’s Ford!

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