Once upon a time (1542–1605) there was a wise and learned Mughal emperor of India, named Akbar. In his court Akbar had “the nine jewels of Akbar”, which were not jewels but his most important advisors. Each of the advisor had his own skill, but the one especially known for his intelligence was Birbal. Emperor Akbar often enjoyed testing Birbal’s wit with various riddles.
Akbar and Birbal are classical characters in the Indian folklore, and the stories and riddles have been challenging generations of Indians. Here you can test your own wit on a few of them. Answers to the riddles could be found if you scroll down to the end of this page.
1. Eat drink and burn
One day Emperor Akbar asked Birbal to give his daughter one single item that she could drink when she was thirsty, eat when she was hungry and burn in the fire to get heat. What did Birbal give to Akbar’s daughter?
2. The death sentence
A man was brought to Emperor Akbar for a minor offense. Akbar was in a bad mood and wanted to punish the man with a death sentence, but as the offense was minor, the man could choose the way to be killed. Akbar asked the man to give a statement. If the statement was held true by Akbar, he would be killed by a tiger, and if the statement was considred to be false, he would be beheaded by sword.
Birbal felt sorry for the man and whispered something in his ear, and the man gave Birbal’s words as his stament. After hearing it, Akbar could not kill the man. What did the man say?
3. Writing on the wall
At one time, Birbal was challenged by Akbar to write something on a wall that would make a happy person sad and a sad person happy. What did Birbal write?
4. Who was the King?
The reputation of Birbal’s wits one day reached the King of a neighbouring country, and this King wanted to test it himself. It was agreed that Birbal should visit the King, whom he had never seen before, and he should bring with him a gift from Emperor Akbar. When Birbal arrived to the King’s court, he found not one, but six for him unknown men in identical cloths and jewellery sitting in front of him. Birbal thought for a short while, and then bowed and presented the gift to one of the men, who laughingly acknowledged that he indeed was the King. How could Birbal know?
5. Any fruits left?
Once, Birbal had been travelling to the far north and bought three sacks containing 30 juicy fruits that none at the Moghul court had ever heard of before. Each sack could hold exactly 10 fruits, and on his way back to Akbar’s court, he would need to pass 10 check points, and at each check point he would need to give one fruit for each sack to the customs authorities. How many fruits had Birbal left after having passed all 10 check points?
6. The smaller line
One day, Akbar drew a line in the sand and asked if Birbal could make it smaller without erasing any part of it. Birbal smiled and did so immediately. How could he do it?
7. The spears and the shield
A man well-known for making fine weaponry, once came to Emperor Akbar’s court. The man claimed that his weapon were the best in the world, and no weapon could pierce his shields and no shields could protect from his spears. Birbal who was there, said that he could immediately prove the man wrong. “Impossible”, said the man. How could Birbal prove him wrong?
8. Justice or a bag of gold?
Akbar was well-known for being a fair and just Emperor, and he wanted this quality also in his advisors. Therefore, he asked Birbal what he would choose if he was either offered justice or a bag of gold. Birbal immediately answered that he would have chosen the bag of gold. Emperor Akbar and the other advisors were all appalled. How could Birbal defend his choice with his honour intact?
9. Who is the guest?
Once Birbal was invited to the home of a wealthy but very boring man. When he arrived, he found that the room was full of people. As Birbal hated large gatherings, he told the host that he was displeased and intended to go home. The host calmed him down and told him that of all the people he could see in the room, all except one were servants that could be dismissed. Knowing Birbal’s wits, the man asked him if he could identify the other guest. Birbal said that he would need to study each one thoroughly, but if his host might be so kind to tell a funny story while he did that, the necessary wait would be more pleasant. The host immediately did that, and with no hesitation Birbal went and pointed out the other guest. How did he manage to do that?
10. Who is the thief?
One day when all the courtiers of Emperor Akbar’s court were gathered in the large assembly hall he was told that a valuable jewel had been stolen the previous night. As the Moghul court was very well guarded, the theft must have been done by a member of the court. Akbar asked if Birbal could identify the thief. Birbal thought for a second, and then said of course. What did Birbal say next that immediately identified the thief?
Answers to the riddles:
1. A coconut – the milk to drink, the white meat to eat, and the shell to burn.
2. The man said “I will be beheaded”. If Akbar had said that the statement was true, the man would be killed by a tiger, which would make the statement false. If Akbar instead said the statement was false, the man would be beheaded, which would make it true. Thus Akbar had no choice but to let the man live in order to keep his word.
3. Birbal wrote “Your present state of mind will soon change”.
4. The five “fake” Kings were all glancing at the real King to see how he was acting. Only the real King had the self-assurance not to look around him.
5. He would have 8 fruits left. At the first four checkpoints he has to give up 4 x 3 = 12 fruits. He then puts the remaining 18 fruits in two of the sacks and gets rid of the third sack. In the next 4 checkpoints he would need to give up 4 x 2 fruits, leaving him with 10 fruits, which he now puts all in one sack. He yet has to pass two checkpoints, leaving him with 8 fruits after having passed them all.
6. He drew a larger line, next to Akbar’s thus making the Emperor’s line smaller.
7. Birbal took one of the spears and threw it at the man’s shield. If the spear pierced the shield the man would have been wrong about the shield. If the spear did not pierce the shield, the man would have been wrong about the spear.
8. Birbal answered that he would choose what he did not have. Under the fair and just Emperor Akbar, everyone had justice, but as Birbal was poor he did not have any gold.
9. As the host was known to be boring, so would his jokes be. The only persons to laugh would therefore be the servants, and Birbal could approach the only other person in the room looking bored.
10. Birbal said: “The thief has a straw in his beard”. In fact, no one had a straw in his beard, but while all the innocent courtiers stood still the thief quickly moved his hand to the beard in an attempt to quickly remove the straw before anyone else was noticing.