Chapter 6 The Delhi Sultanat—I (Circa 1200–1400) The Mameluk Sultans


Some of the factors which enabled the Turks to extend their conquest from the Punjab and Multan into the Ganga valley and even to overrun Bihar and parts of Bengal have been mentioned in the previous chapter. For almost one hundred years after that, the Delhi sultanat, as the state ruled over by these invaders was called, was hard pressed to maintain itself in the face of foreign invasions, internal conflicts among the Turkish leaders and the attempts of the dispossessed and subordinate Rajput rulers and chiefs to regain their independence and, if possible, to oust the Turks. The Turkish rulers were successful in overcoming these difficulties, and by the end of the century, were in a position to extend their rule over Malwa and Gujarat, and to penetrate into the Deccan and south India. The effects of the establishment of the Turkish rule in northern India, thus began to be felt within a hundred years all over India, and resulted in farreaching changes in society, administration and cultural life.

Struggle For The Establishment of A Strong Monarchy

Muizzuddin (Muhammad of Ghur) was succeeded by Qutbuddin Aibak, a Turkish slave in 1206; he had played an important part in the expansion of the Turkish Sultanat in India after the battle of Tarain.

Iltutmish (1210–36)

In 1210, Aibak died of injuries received in a fall from his horse while playing chaugan (polo). He was succeeded by Iltutmish who was the son-in-law of Aibak.

Iltutmish must be regarded as the real consolidator of the Turkish conquests in north India. During the early years of his reign, Iltutmish’s attention was concentrated on the northwest. While the Mongols were busy elsewhere, Iltutmish also ousted Qubacha from Multan and Uchch. The frontiers of the Delhi Sultanat, thus, reached up to the Indus once again.

Secure in the west, Iltutmish was able to turn his attention elsewhere. In Bengal and Bihar, a person called Iwaz who had taken the title of Sultan Ghiyasuddin had assumed independence. While he made raids on the territories of his neighbours, the Sena rulers of East Bengal, and the Hindu rulers of Orissa and Kamrup (Assam) continued their sway. In 1226–27, Iwaz was defeated and killed in a battle with Iltutmish’s son near Lakhnauti. Bengal and Bihar passed under the suzerainty of Delhi once again. But they were a difficult charge, and repeatedly challenged the authority of Delhi.

At about the same time, Iltutmish took steps to recover Gwaliyar and Bayana. Ajmer and Nagor remained under his control. He sent expeditions against Ranthambhor and Jalor to reassert his suzerainty. He also attacked Nagda, the capital of Mewar (about 22 km from Udaipur), but had to beat a retreat at the arrival of the Gujarat armies, which had come to aid the Rana. As a revenge, Iltutmish despatched an expedition against the Chalukyas of Gujarat, but it was repulsed with losses.

Raziya (1236–39)

Iltutmish considered none of his surviving sons to be worthy of the throne and hence finally decided to nominate his daughter, Raziya, to the throne. In order to assert her claim, Raziya had to contend against her brothers as well as against powerful Turkish nobles, and could rule only for three years. Though brief, her rule had a number of interesting features. It marked the beginning of a struggle for power between the monarchy and the Turkish chiefs, sometimes called ‘the forty’ or the chahalgani. Iltutmish had shown great deference to these Turkish chiefs. After his death, these chiefs, drunk with power and arrogance, wanted to install on the throne a puppet whom they could control. They soon discovered that though a woman, Raziya was not prepared to play their game. She discarded the female apparel and started holding court with her face unveiled. She even hunted, and led the army in war. lltutmish’s wazir, Nizam-ul-Mulk Junaidi, who had opposed her elevation to the throne, and backed and supported a rebellion of nobles against her, was defeated and was forced to flee. She sent an expedition against Ranthambhor to control the Rajputs, and successfully established law and order in the length and breadth of her kingdom. But her attempt to create a party of nobles loyal to her and to raise a non-Turk to high office led to opposition. The Turkish nobles accused her of violating feminine modesty, and of being too friendly to an Abyssinian noble, Yaqut Khan. Yaqut Khan had been appointed Superintendent of the Royal Stable which implied closeness to the sovereign. Rebellions broke out at Lahore and Sirhind. Razia personally led an expedition against Lahore, and compelled the governor to submit. On the way to Sirhind, an internal rebellion broke out in which Yaqut Khan was killed, and Raziya imprisoned at Tabarhinda. However, Raziya won over her captor, Altunia, and after marrying him made a renewed attempt on Delhi. Raziya fought valiantly, but was defeated and killed in a forest by bandits while she was in flight.

Era of Balran (1246–87)

The struggle between the monarchy and the Turkish chiefs continued, till one of the Turkish chiefs, Ulugh Khan, known in history by his later title of Balban ascended the throne in 1265. During the earlier period, Balban held the position of naib or deputy to Nasiruddin Mahmud, a younger son of Iltutmish, whom Balban had helped in securing the throne in 1246. Balban further strengthened his position by marrying one of his daughters to the young sultan. The growing authority of Balban alienated many of the Turkish chiefs, since Nasiruddin Mahmud was young and inexperienced. They, therefore, hatched a conspiracy (1253) and ousted Balban from his position. Balban was replaced by Imaduddin Raihan who was an Indian Muslim. Although the Turkish chiefs wanted that all power and authority should remain in their hands, they consented to the appointment of Raihan because they could not agree among themselves which one of them should succeed to Balban’s post. Balban agreed to step aside, but carefully continued to build his own group. Within one and a half years of his dismissal, he managed to win over some of his opponents. Balban now made preparations for a military show-down. It seems that he had also established some contacts with the Mongols who had overrun a large part of the Punjab. Sultan Mahmud bowed to the superior strength of Balban’s group and dismissed Raihan. After some time, Raihan was defeated and killed. Balban got rid of many of his other rivals by means fair or foul. He even went so far as to assume the royal insignia, the chhatr. But he did not assume the throne himself, probably due to the sentiments of the Turkish chiefs. In 1265, Sultan Mahmud died. Some historians are of the opinion that Balban poisoned the young king, and also did away with his sons, in order to clear his way to the throne. Balban’s methods were often harsh and undesirable. But there is no doubt that with his accession to the throne there began an era of strong, centralised government.

Balban tried to strengthen his claim to the throne by declaring that he was the descendant of the legendary Iranian king Afrasiyab. In order to prove his claim to noble blood, Balban stood forth as the champion of the Turkish nobility. He refused to entertain for important government posts anyone who did not belong to a noble family. This virtually meant the exclusion of Indian Muslims from all positions of power and authority.

While claiming to act as a champion of the Turkish nobility, Balban was not prepared to share power with anyone, not even with members of his own family. Balban was determined to finally break the power of the chahalgani, i.e., the Turkish nobles. He did not hesitate even to poison his cousin, Sher Khan, to achieve this objective. At the same time, in order to win the confidence of the public, he administered justice with extreme impartiality. To keep himself well informed, Balban appointed spies in every department. He also organized a strong centralised army, both to deal with internal disturbances, and to repel the Mongols who had entrenched themselves in the Punjab and posed a serious danger to the Delhi Sultanat. For the purpose, he reorganized the military department (diwan-i-arz).

The law and order situation in the area around Delhi and in the doab had deteriorated. In the Ganga—Jamuna doab and Awadh, the roads were infested with robbers and dacoits, so much so that communication with the eastern areas had become difficult. Some of the Rajput zamindars had set up forts in the area, and defied the government. Near Delhi, the Mewatis had become so bold as to plunder people upto the outskirts of the city. To deal with these elements, Balban adopted a policy of ‘blood and iron’. The Meos (Mewatis) were ruthlessly hunted down and killed, the forests around Delhi cut down, and many military out-posts (thanas) established there. In the doab and in Katehar (modern Rohilkhand) Balban ordered forests to be cleared, rebellious villagers destroyed and the men, women and children enslaved. Colonies of Afghan soldiers were settled there to safeguard the roads, and to deal with the Rajput zamindars whenever they raised a disturbance against the government.

To emphasize that the nobles were not his equals, he insisted on the ceremony of sijada and paibos (prostration and kissing the monarch’s feet). These and many other ceremonies which he copied were Iranian in origin and were considered un-Islamic. However, little objection could be raised because at the time when most Muslim states of Central and West Asia had disappeared in the face of the Mongol onslaught, Balban and the Sultanat of Delhi stood out almost alone as the champions of ‘Islam’. Although Balban had a strong army, he did not lead any distant expeditions except the one to Bengal, or to expand the empire for fear of Mongol attack on Delhi. But he exercised his army by arranging elaborate hunting expeditions.

Balban died in 1286. He was undoubtedly one of the main architects of the Sultanat of Delhi, particularly of its form of government and institutions. By assertingthe power of the monarchy, Balban strengthened the Delhi Sultanat. But even he could not fully defend northern India against the inroads of the Mongols. Moreover, by largely excluding non-Turks from positions of power and authority and by trying to base the government on a very narrow group, he made many people dissatisfied. This led to fresh disturbances and troubles after his death.

The Mongols and The Problem of The Northwest Frontier

On account of its natural boundaries, India has been safeguarded during most of its history from external invasions. It was only in the northwest that India was vulnerable. As we have seen, it was through the mountain passes of this area that the Turks, like the earlier invaders such as the Huns, Scythians, etc., had been able to penetrate into India and establish an empire there. The configuration of these mountains was such that in order to prevent an invader from reaching the fertile valleys of the Punjab and Sind it was necessary to control the area extending from Kabul to Ghazni and Qandahar. The control of this area flanked by the Hindukush was important, for it was the main route for the arrival of reinforcements from Central Asia.

Due to the fluid situation in West Asia, the Delhi Sultanat was not able to attain these frontiers, posing a persistent danger to India.

With the rise of the Khwarizmi empire, the control of the Ghurids over Kabul, Qandahar and Ghazni had been lost. Boundary of the Khwarizmi empire had reached the river Indus. Next, an even bigger danger was the arrival of Changez Khan, the Mongol leader, who prided in calling himself ‘the scourge of God’. The Mongols attacked the Khwarizmi empire in 1218. Meanwhile, the Mongol onslaught had serious repercussions on the Sultanat of Delhi. However, Iltutmish, who was ruling at Delhi at the time, tried to appease the Mongols by politely refusing a request from Jalaluddin the defeated Khwarizmi ruler for asylum. Jalaluddin remained, for some time, in the area between Lahore and the river Sutlej. This resulted in a series of Mongol attacks. The river Indus ceased to be India’s western boundary.

Balban adopted a policy of both force and diplomacy against Mangols. He repaired the forts of Tabarhinda, Sunam and Samana, and posted a strong force in order to prevent the Mongols from crossing the river Beas. Balban tacitly agreed to leave the major portion of the Punjab under the Mongol control. The Mongols, on their part, did not make any attack on Delhi. The frontier, however, remained undefined and Balban had to conduct almost annual expeditions against the Mongols in order to keep them in check.

The Mongol attempt to pass beyond the Punjab and to attack Delhi itself was due to a change in Central Asian politics. The ruler of Trans-Oxiana, Dawa Khan, being unable to prevail against Mangol Il-Khan of Iran made an attempt to conquer India. From 1297, he mounted a series of campaigns against the forts defending Delhi. Alauddin Khalji, who was ruling over Delhi, decided to face the Mongols outside Delhi. After some time, the Mongols withdrew without risking a full-scale battle. In 1303, the Mongols appeared again with a force of 1,20,000. Alauddin Khalji, who was campaigning in Rajputana against Chittor, rushed back and fortified himself at his new capital, Siri, near Delhi. The two armies camped facing each other for two months. Finally, the Mongols retreated again, without having achieved anything. It was a stern warning to the sultans of Delhi. Alauddin Khalji now took serious steps to raise a large, efficient army, and repaired the fortresses near the Beas. He was, thus, able to repel with great slaughter the Mongol invasions which took place in the following years. In 1306, Dawa Khan, the Mongol ruler of Trans-Oxiana, died and his death was followed by confusion and a civil war. Taking advantage of the confusion among the Mongols, the rulers of Delhi were able to recover Lahore and, in course of time, extended their control up to the river Indus.

It will, thus, be seen that during the entire thirteenth century, the Sultanat of Delhi had to face a serious danger from the northwest. Although the Mongols were gradually able to bring almost the entire Punjab as well as Kashmir under their control, and to threaten Delhi, due to the firmness and vigour of the Turkish rulers, and their diplomacy, this threat was averted, and later the Punjab was recovered. However, the serious threat posed to the Sultanat of Delhi by the Mongols had a powerful effect on all the internal problems of the Sultanat.

Internal Rebellions and The Struggle For The Territorial Consolidation of The Delhi Sultanat

During the rule of the Ilbari Turks (sometimes called the Mameluk or Slave rulers), the Sultans of Delhi had to face not only internal dissensions and foreign invasions, but internal rebellions as well. Some of these rebellions were led by ambitious Muslim chiefs who wanted to become independent; others were led by Rajput rajas and zamindars who were eager to expel the Turkish invaders from their territories or to exploit the difficulties of the Turkish rulers and to aggrandize themselves at the expense of their weaker neighbours. Thus, these rajas and zamindars not only fought against the Turks, but against each other as well. The nature and objectives of the various internal rebellions differed. Hence, it is not correct to lump them together as ‘Hindu resistance’.

It is not necessary to list all the rebellions against the sultans of Delhi. The eastern region of India which included Bengal and Bihar strove continuously to throw off the yoke of Delhi. It has been noted in an earlier chapter how the Khalji chief, Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji, succeeded in expelling the Sena king, Lakshmana Sena, from Lakhnauti. After some confusion, a person called Iwaz who took the title of Ghiyasuddin Sultan began to function as an independent ruler there. Taking advantage of Iltutmish’s preoccupations in the northwest, he extended his authority over Bihar and exacted tribute from the ruler of Jajnagar (Orissa), Tirhut (north Bengal), Bang (east Bengal) and Kamrup (Assam).

When Iltutmish was free from his preoccupations, in 1225 he marched against Iwaz. Iwaz submitted at first, then asserted his independence once Iltutmish had turned his back. A son of Iltutmish who was the governor of Awadh defeated and killed Iwaz in a battle. However, affairs continued to be confused till Iltutmish led a second expedition in 1230.

After the death of Iltutmish, the governors of Bengal sometimes asserted their independence and sometimes submitted to Delhi according to their convenience. During this period, Bihar generally remained under the control of Lakhnauti. The governors who acted as independent rulers tried, though without much success, to bring, the areas between Awadh and Bihar under their control.

With the emergence of a strong ruler in the person of Balban, Delhi was eager to reassert its control over Bihar and Bengal. A formal allegiance to Delhi was not enough any longer. Tughril, who had submitted to Balban and then asserted his independence, was hunted down by Balban (1280). Savage punishment was given by Balban to Tughril’s family members and followers. This campaign which lasted three years was the only distant campaign undertaken by Balban.

However, Delhi could not keep control over Bengal for long. After Balban’s death, his son, Bughra Khan, who had been appointed the governor of Bengal, preferred to rule over that part rather than stake his life for the throne of Delhi. He, therefore, assumed independence and set up a dynasty which ruled over Bengal for the next forty years.

Thus, Bengal and Bihar remained outside the control of Delhi during the greater part of the thirteenth century. The bulk of the Punjab, too had passed under the control of the Mongols. The Turkish rule was not fully secure even in the Ganga doab. The Katehariya Rajputs who had their capital at Ahichchatra across the Ganga were a force to be reckoned with. They frequently raided the district of Badaun. Finally, after his accession, Balban led a large force which resorted to large-scale massacre and wholesale plunder. The district was almost depopulated, jungles were cleared and roads built. Barani records that from that date the iqtas of Baran, Amroha, Sambhal and Katehar (in modern west U.P.) were rendered safe and permanently freed from any trouble.

The southern and western frontier of the Delhi Sultanat was also not fully secure. The problem here was two-fold. Under Aibak, the Turks had captured the chain of forts–Tijara (Alwar), Bayana, Gwaliyar, Kalinjar, etc. They had overrun parts of eastern Rajasthan extending up to Ranthambhor, Nagaur, Ajmer, and Nadol near Jalor. Most of these areas had at one time belonged to the Chauhan empire and were still being ruled by Chauhan families. Aibak’s operations against them were, thus, a part of the campaign against the Chauhan empire. However, in the subsequent period, far from advancing into Malwa and Gujarat, the Turks were hard put to defend their gains in eastern Rajasthan and even to maintain their hold on the redoubts defending Delhi and the Gangetic region.

Taking advantage of Iltutmish’s preoccupations with the northwest, the Rajput rajas had recovered Kalinjar, Gwaliyar and Bayana Many other principalities, including Ranthambhor and Jalor, repudiated Turkish suzerainty. From 1226, Iltutmish commenced operations to recover his control over these areas. He first invested Ranthambhor and compelled the ruler to accept Turkish suzerainty. He also captured Jalor which was on the route to Gujarat. The efforts of Iltutmish to extend his control over Gujarat and Malwa, however, failed. The Chalukyas of Gujarat repulsed an attack by Iltutmish. The Paramaras of Malwa were also too strong for the Turks. Iltutmish, however, made a raid into Malwa and plundered Ujjain and Raisina. One of his general also raided Bundi. In the east, Iltutmish recovered Bayana and Gwaliyar, but was unable to make much headway against the Rajputs of Baghelkhand.

The Turkish control over eastern Rajputana was again shaken in the confusion following Iltutmish’s death. Many Rajput rulers threw off Turkish suzerainty. The fort of Gwaliyar was also recovered by them. The Bhatti Rajputs, who were entrenched in the area of Mewat, isolated Bayana and extended their depredations up to the outskirts of Delhi.

Balban’s attempt to conquer Ranthambhor and to recover Gwaliyar failed. However, he subdued Mewat ruthlessly so that Delhi remained secure from Mewati inroads for almost one hundred years. Ajmer and Nagaur continued to remain under the firm control of the Delhi Sultanat. Balban, thus, consolidated the Turkish rule in eastern Rajasthan, despite his other preoccupations. The continuous fighting among the Rajput rulers also aided the Turks, and made impossible any effective combination of the Rajputs against them.

The establishment of a strong monarchy, the repelling of the Mongol invaders, and the consolidation of the territory of the Delhi Sultanat in the Ganga doab and control over eastern Rajasthan paved the way for the next step in the history of the Delhi Sultanat, viz., its expansion into western India and the Deccan.



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