It was the year 1604 — 392 years ago. An officer under Mughal emperor Akbar had just got back from the south. And this time the officer, Asad Beg Qazwini, had brought several presents for his king. There was one present that he knew would excite the emperor no end — a superbly made jewelled hookah or pipe, a golden burner for lighting the pipe, and a golden box filled with tobacco leaves. All this he kept on a silver tray and presented to Akbar. The fact that the official himself had never seen the use of tobacco in northern India had made him go for it.

The emperor reacted just as he expected. Of all the presents that he saw, his gaze rested on the tray with the pipe and tobacco box. Curious that he was, he asked what it was. On being told that it was tobacco, he ordered that preparations be made for him to smoke. His request created a furore in the palace.

The moment he moved to inhale smoke, his physician came rushing up, asking him not to do so. Mindful of Asad Beg’s sentiments, the emperor drew a few breaths on the pipe and left it at that.

The Only Time when the Emperor Smoked
The Only Time when the Emperor Smoked [Ilustrations by Sudheer Nath]
It wasn’t that he had lost interest in the whole thing. Now he had another bee in his bonnet. He called his druggist to ask him what tobacco was made of. The druggist said it was a new invention.

The Europeans were using tobacco but that was no reason for them to do so, he argued. It was then that Asad Beg spoke. Every custom starts by being new. Then it gets adopted by people and spreads to other lands.

When Akbar heard this, he was very pleased. And he said the same thing, that it was not wise for them to reject a new development merely because it was not in their books.

The physician was not convinced of tobacco’s qualities, but the use of tobacco continued to spread. Most of the nobles at Akbar’s court started smoking, but the emperor never smoked again.