Chapter 8 ​Government, and Economic and Social Life under the Delhi Sultanat


The state set up by the Turks towards the end of the twelfth century in northern India gradually developed into a powerful and highly centralized state which, for some time, controlled almost the entire country extending as far south as Madurai. The Delhi Sultanat disintegrated towards the beginning of the fifteenth century, and a series of independent states were set up in different parts of the country. However, the administrative system of the Sultanat had a powerful effect on many of them, and also influenced the Mughal system of administration which developed in the sixteenth century.

The Sultan

Although many of the Turkish sultans in India declared themselves ‘lieutenant of the faithful’, i.e., of the Abbasid caliph at Baghdad, and included his name in the khutba in the Friday prayers. The sultan’s office was the most important in the Sultanat and supreme political, military, and even legal authority, was vested in him. He was also responsible for the maintenance of law and justice. To discharge this function, he appointed judges but the sultan acted as a court of appeal from the judges.

No clear law of succession developed among Muslim rulers. The Islamic theory adhered to the idea of the election of the ruler, but accepted in practice the succession of any son of a successful ruler. The idea of primogeniture was fully acceptable neither to the Muslims nor to the Hindus. While the Muslim opinion generally adhered to the idea of legitimacy, there was no safeguard against the usurpation of the throne by a successful military leader, as happened more than once in the Delhi Sultanat. Thus, military strength was the main factor in succession to the throne. However, public opinion could not be ignored. For fear of public opinion, the Khaljis could not dare to enter Delhi for a long time after deposing the successors of Balban, but built a new town called Siri.

Central Administration

The sultan was assisted by a number of ministers who were chosen by him and remained in office at his pleasure. The key figure in administration was the wazir. In the earlier period, the wazir were primarily military leaders. In the fourteenth century, the wazir began to be considered more an expert in revenue affairs, and presided over a large department dealing both with income and expenditure. A separate Auditor General for scrutinizing expenditure, and an Accountant General for inspecting income worked under the wazir. Khan-i-Jahan, a converted Tailang Brahman who was deputy to the previous wazir, was chosen by Firuz Tughlaq as his wazir.

The most important department of state, next to the wazir’s was the diwan-i-arz or the military department. The head of this department was called the ariz-i-mamalik. The ariz was not the commander-in-chief of the army, since the sultan himself commanded all the armed forces. The special responsibility of the ariz’s department was to recruit, equip and pay the army. Alauddin insisted upon a regular muster of the armed forces. He also introduced the branding system (dagh) of the horses so that the soldiers may not bring horses of poor quality to the muster. A descriptive roll of each soldier was also maintained. The army was posted in different parts of the country, a strong contingent remaining with the ruler in the capital. Alauddin was also the first sultan who paid his soldiers fully in cash. Earlier, the Turkish soldiers had been assigned a number of villages in the doab for the payment of their salaries. These soldiers had begun to look upon these assignments as hereditary, and were not prepared to give up their posts though many of them had become too old and feeble to serve. Alauddin abolished these holdings by a stroke of the pen. He paid army in cash. The efficiency of Alauddin’s army was the main factor in his ability to contain the Mongol invasions while at the same time conquering the Deccan.

There were two other important departments of state: the diwan-i-risalat and the diwan-i-insha. The former dealt with religious matters, pious foundations and stipends to deserving scholars and men of piety. It was presided over by the chief sadr, who was generally a leading qazi. He was generally also the chief qazi. The chief qazi was the head of the department of justice. The qazis dispensed civil iaw based on the Muslim law (sharia). The Hindus were governed by their own personal laws which were dispensed by panchayats in the villages, and by the leaders of the various castes in the cities. Criminal law was based on regulations framed for the purpose by the rulers.

The diwan-i-insha dealt with state correspondence. All the correspondence, formal or confidential, between the ruler and the sovereigns of other states, and with his subordinate officials was dealt with by this department.

There were a number of other departments in addition to these. The rulers posted intelligence agents called barids in different parts of the empire to keep them informed of what was going on. The ruler’s household was another important department of state. It looked after the personal comforts of the sultan and the requirements of the large numbers of women in the royal household. It also looked after a large number of karkhanas or departments in which goods and articles needed by the king and the royal household were stored. Firuz Tughlaq had set up a separate department of slaves, many of whom were employed in these royal ‘workshops’. The officer in charge of all these activities was called wakil-i-dar. Firuz also set up a separate department of public works which built canals and many of his public buildings.

Local Administration

When the Turks conquered the country, they divided it into a number of tracts called iqtas which were parcelled out among the leading Turkish nobles. The holders of these offices were called muqtis or walis. It were these tracts which later became provinces or subas. We are told that under Muhammad Tughlaq there were twenty-four provinces. At first, the muqtis were almost independent; they were expected to maintain law and order in their tracts, and collect the land revenue due to the government. Out of the money they collected they were expected to meet the salaries due to the soldiers and keep the balance. As the central government became stronger and gained experience, it began to control the muqtis more closely. It began to try to ascertain the actual income, and to fix the salaries of the soldiers and the muqti in cash. The muqti was now required to remit to the centre the balance of the income after meeting the expenditure. The auditing of the accounts, which took place after a couple of years was often accompanied by harshness, including torture and imprisonment of the muqti. These were relaxed by Firuz Tughlaq towards the end of the Sultanat.

Below the provinces were the shiqs and below them the pargana. We are told that the villagers were grouped into units of 100 to 84 (traditionally called chaurasi). This must have been the basis of the parganas. The pargana was headed by the amil. The most important persons in the village were the khut (landowners) and muqaddam or headman. We also hear of the village accountant or patwari.

In the initial stage, hardly any change was made in the working of the administration at the local level. Land revenue continued to be collected in the same manner, more or less by the same set of people. This must have been a major factor in the Turks establishing their authority in the countryside quickly. The changes we have mentioned began from the time of Alauddin Khalji at the beginning of the fourteenth century, and they led to conflicts, including peasant rebellions.

Economic and Social Life

Ibn Battutah, a resident of Tangier in North Africa, visited India in the fourteenth century and lived at the court of Muhammad Tughlaq for eight years. He travelled widely all over India and has left a very interesting account of the products of the country, including fruits, flowers, herbs, etc., the condition of the roads, and the life of the people. We have some other accounts also. The foodgrains and other crops, the fruits, and the flowers mentioned by these travellers are familiar to us. Rice and sugarcane were produced in the east and south, and wheat, oil-seeds, etc., in the north. Ibn Battutah says that the soil was so fertile that it could produce two crops every year, rice being sown three times a year. Sesame, indigo and cotton were also grown. They formed the basis of many village industries, such as oil pressing, making of jaggery, weaving, and dyeing of cloth, etc.

Peasants and Rural Gentry

As before, peasants formed the overwhelming majority of the population. The peasant continued to work hard and to eke out bare subsistence. There were recurring famines and wars in different parts of the country, and these added to the hardships of the peasant.

All the peasants did not live at the level of subsistence. Apart from the village artisans and share-croppers, there was a more prosperous section of people who were owner cultivators of their lands. They were considered the original settlers of the village, and dominated the village panchayat. The village headmen (muqaddams) and smaller landlords (khuts) enjoyed a higher standard of life. They continued to enjoy a standard of life higher than that of the ordinary peasants.

A section which enjoyed a high standard of life were the Hindu rais or autonomous rajas, many of whom continued to hold their previous estates. There are a number of references to the visits of the Hindu rais to the court of Balban. There is little doubt that these Hindu rais continued to be powerful even in the area under the direct control of the sultans of Delhi.

Trade, Industry and The Merchants

With the consolidation of the Delhi Sultanat and the improvement of communications, and the establishment of a sound currency system based on the silver tanka and the copper dirham, there was a definite growth of trade in the country. This was marked by the growth of towns and town life. Ibn Battutah calls Delhi the largest city in the eastern part of the Islamic world. He says that Daulatabad (Deogir) equalled Delhi in size—an index of the growth of trade between the north and the south. The other important cities of the times were Lahore and Multan in the northwest, Kara and Lakhnauti in the east, and Anhilwara (Patan) and Cambay (Khambayat) in the west. All these cities indicate flourishing urban economy. Bengal and the towns in Gujarat were famous for their fine quality fabrics. Cambay in Gujarat was famous for textiles and for gold and silver work. Sonargaon in Bengal was famous for raw silk and fine cotton cloth (called muslin later on). There were many other handicrafts as well, such as leather work, metal work, carpet weaving, wood-work including furniture, stone-cutting, etc., for which India was famous. Some of the new crafts introduced by the Turks included the manufacturer of paper. The art of manufacturing paper had been discovered by the Chinese in the second century. It was known in the Arab world in the eighth century, and travelled to Europe only during the fourteenth century.

The production of textiles was also improved by the introduction of the spinning-wheel. Cotton could be cleaned faster and better by wider use of the cotton carder’s bow (dhunia). But there is little doubt that most important was the skill of the Indian craftsmen. Indian textiles had already established their position in the trade to countries on the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf During this period, fine Indian textiles were introduced to China as well where it was valued more than silk. India imported from West Asia high grade textiles (satin, etc.) glassware and, of course, horses. From China it imported raw silk and porcelain. Ivory was imported from Africa and spices from Southeast Asia, in return for Indian textiles. Since India had a favourable trade balance, gold and silver came to India from these countries.

India’s foreign trade both overland and overseas was truly an international enterprise. Although the Arabs were the dominant partners in the India Ocean trade, they had by no means ousted the Indian traders, viz., the Tamils, Kalingas and Gujaratis, both Hindu and Muslim. The coastal trade and trade between the coastal ports and north India was in the hands of Marwaris and Gujaratis, many of whom were Jains. The Muslim Bohra merchants also participated in this trade. The overland trade with Central and West Asia was in the hands of Multanis, who were mostly Hindus but included Muslims, who were Khurasanis, Afghans, Iranians, etc. Many of these merchants had settled down in Delhi. The Gujarati and Marwari merchants were extremely wealthy and some of them, particularly the Jains, spent large sums for the construction of temples.

In those days, travel was always risky due to robbers and dacoits and various marauding tribes. However, the royal roads were kept in good shape and there were many sarais on the way for the comfort and safety of the travellers. In addition to the royal road from Peshawar to Sonargaon, Muhammad Tughlaq built a road to Daulatabad. There were arrangements for the post being carried quickly from one part of the country to another. This was done by relays of horses or even more efficiently and quickly by runners.

Economic life was quickened in the period by the improvement of communications and the growth of trade, both overland and by sea. The Turks introduced or popularized a number of new crafts and techniques. We have already referred to the use of the iron stirrup, and a large-scale use of armour, both for the horse and the rider for heavy and light cavalry preferred by the new rulers. This led to the growth of the metallurgical industry, and metal crafts.

An even more important development was the improvement of the rahat (miscalled the Persian wheel) so that water could be lifted from a deeper level for irrigation. The other crafts included paper-making, glass-making, the spinning wheel and an improved loom for weaving.

Mention may also be made of the introduction of a superior mortar which enabled the Turks to erect magnificent buildings based on the arch and the dome. Not all these crafts were new, but their expansion and improvement, and agricultural growth were two of the most important factors which made the second half of the fourteenth century a period of growth and relative affluence.

The Sultan and The Nobles

The Sultan and his chief nobles enjoyed a standard of living which was comparable to the highest standard in the world at that time. Like the Hindu rulers, almost every sultan in India built his own, palace. Balban had a dazzling court which was designed to impress and strike a sense of awe in the hearts of the visitors. Alauddin Khalji and his successors followed the same tradition.

The royal karkhanas which we have referred to earlier catered to all the needs of the sultan. They manufactured costly articles made of silk, gold and silver ware, etc. They were also stores of choice and rare goods. Most of the articles of royal use were worked in gold and silver, embroidery and jewels. The stores also catered to the women in the haram.

Almost every sultan had a haram containing queens and a large number of slaves from various countries. A large number of servants and slaves, men and women, were employed to safeguard them, and to look after their comforts. All the women relations of the sultan, including his mother, aunts, etc., also lived in the haram. Separate accommodation had to be provided to each of them.

Town Life: Slaves, Artisans and Others

We have already referred to the revival of towns and town life under the Sultanat. The Turkish ruling class was essentially an urban ruling class with a taste for town life. Many of the towns grew around military garrisons as providers of food, goods and services to them. In due course, many of them emerged as cultural centres as well.

The medieval towns had a miscellaneous population, including many nobles and a large class of clerks for running government offices, shopkeepers, artisans, beggars, etc. The posts of clerks and lower government officials had, obviously, to be given to the people who could read and write. Since the work of teaching was largely in the hands of the Muslim theologians (ulama), the ulama and the lower officials tended to think and behave alike. Most of the historians were drawn from this section, and their writings reflect the opinions and prejudices of this section. Beggars, who generally wore arms like the ordinary citizens, formed a large mass and could sometimes create a problem of law and order.

Another large section in the town consisted of slaves and domestic servants. Slavery had existed in India as well as in West Asia and Europe for a long time. The position of different types of slaves—one born in the household, one purchased, one acquired and one inherited is discussed in the Hindu shastras. Slavery had been adopted by the Arabs and, later, by the Turks also. The most usual method of acquiring a slave was capture in war. Slave markets for men and women existed in West Asia as well as in India. The Turkish, Caucasian, Greek and Indian slaves were valued and were sought after. A small number of slaves were also imported from Africa, mainly Abyssinia. Skilled slaves were valued and some of them rose to high offices as in the case of the slaves of Qutbuddin Aibak. Firuz Tughlaq also prized slaves and collected about 1,80,000 of them. Many of them mere employed in handicrafts, while others formed the sultan’s personal bodyguard. The largest number of slaves were, however, used for personal service.

Medieval society was a society of great inequalities. This was reflected in the Muslim society even more than in the Hindu, the latter being predominantly rural where inequalities were less marked. In towns, the Muslim nobility led a life of great ostentation. Some of the wealthy merchants, Hindu and Muslim, also led lives of ostentation. The great mass of people, in towns as well as in the countryside, lived a simple life, and often had to face many hardships. It was, however, not a life without joy, as numerous festivals, fairs, etc., relieved, to some extent, the monotony of their lives.

Caste, Social Manners and Customs

There were hardly any changes in the structure of the Hindu society during the period. The smriti writers of the time continued to assign a high place to the Brahmans, while strongly denouncing the unworthy members of the order.

The smriti texts continue to emphasize that punishing the wicked and cherishing the good was the duty of the Kshatriya and that the right to wield weapons for the purpose of protecting the people likewise belonged to him alone. The duties and occupations of Shudras were more or less repeated. T the highest duty of the shudra was the service of the other castes, he was allowed to engage in all occupations, except to deal in liquor and meat. The ban on the study and recitation of the Vedas by shudras was repeated, but not on hearing the recitation of the Puranas. The severest restrictions were placed on mingling with the Chandalas and other ‘outcastes’.

There was little change in the position of women in the Hindu society. The old rules enjoining early marriage for girls, and the wife’s obligation of service and devotion to the husband continued. Annulment of the marriage was allowed in special circumstances, such as desertion, loathsome disease, etc. Widow remarriage was among the practices prohibited in the Kali Age. But this apparently applied to the three upper castes only. Regarding the practice of sati, some writers approve it emphatically, while others allow it with some conditions. Ibn Battutah mentions sati in his accounts. According to him, permission from the sultan had to be taken for the performance of sati.

During this period, the practice of keeping women in seclusion and asking them to veil their faces in the presence of outsiders, that is, the practice of purdah became widespread among the upper class women. It was also in vogue in ancient Iran, Greece, etc. The Arabs and the Turks adopted this custom and brought it to India with them. Due to their example, it became widespread in India, particularly in north India. The growth of purdah has been attributed to the fear of the Hindu women being captured by the invaders. In an age of violence, women were liable to be treated as prizes of war. Perhaps, the most important factor for the growth of purdah was social—it became a symbol of the higher classes in society and all those who wanted to be considered respectable tried to copy it. Also religious justification was found for it. Whatever the reason, it affected women adversely, and made them even more dependent on men.

During the Sultanat period; the Muslim society remained divided into ethnic and racial groups. We have already noticed the deep economic disparities within it. The Turks, Iranians, Afghans and Indian Muslims rarely married each other. In fact, these sections developed some of the caste exclusiveness of the Hindus. Converts from lower sections of the Hindus were also discriminated against.

The Hindu and Muslim upper classes did not have much social intercourse between them during this period, partly due to the superiority complex of the latter, and partly due to the religious restrictions on the part of the Hindus of inter-marriage and interdining with them. The Hindu upper castes applied to the Muslims the restrictions they applied to the shudras. But it should be borne in mind that caste restrictions did not close social intercourse between the Muslims and the upper caste Hindus and the shudras. At various times, Hindu soldiers were enrolled in Muslim armies. Most of the nobles had Hindus as their personal managers. The local machinery of administration remained almost entirely in the hand of the Hindus. Thus, occasions for mutual intercourse were manifold. Conflict of interests as well as differences in social and cultural ideas, practices and beliefs did, however, create tensions, and slowed down the processes of mutual understanding and cultural assimilation. These will be dealt with in a subsequent chapter.

Nature of The State

The Turkish state in India was militaristic and aristocratic. The Turkish nobles, tried, at first, to monopolize the high offices of state, denying a share to the Tajiks, Afghans and other non-Turkish immigrants. The nobility acquired a broader base only under the Tughlaqs. However, a noble birth still remained a very important qualification for high office. The vast majority of the Muslims as well as the Hindus had, therefore, little opportunity for occupying high offices of state. The Hindus dominated trade and constituted the rural aristocracy, and the lower administrative wing without whose cooperation the state could not function. A kind of tacit sharing of power between the rural Hindu aristocracy and the city-based administrators was, thus, a factor of capital importance for the Delhi Sultanat, though there were frequent fights between these two sections. Often given a religious colour, the basic causes for the struggle between them were secular, such as fight for power and land, or rather, for the share of the surplus produced by land since land was not generally sold in those times. The Muslims also fought among themselves for the attainment of these objectives.

In a formal sense, the state was Islamic. The Sultans were keen to emphasize the Muslim character of the state, and to follow the Holy Law (sharia) as far as possible. This also meant not allowing any open violation of the Islamic law. They appointed Muslim divines to profitable offices of state and granted revenue-free lands to many of them. However, the sultans did not allow the Muslim divines to dictate the policy of the state.

The sultans had to supplement the Muslim law by framing their own regulations (zawabit). Alauddin Khalji told the leading qazi of the city that he did not know what was lawful or unlawful but framed laws according to the needs of the state. This is why the historian Barani refused to consider the state in India as truly Islamic, but one based on worldly or secular considerations (jahandari).

Tax called jizyah was paid by Hindu subjects. Historically, the jizya tax has been paid as a fee for protection provided by the Muslim ruler to non-Muslims, for the exemption from military service for non-Muslims. It paid on a graduated scale according to means. Women, children and the indigent, who had insufficient means, were exempted from it. The Brahmans also remained exempt. At first, jizyah was collected along with land revenue. In fact it was difficult to distinguish jizyah from land revenue since all the cultivators were Hindus. Later, Firuz while abolishing many illegal cesses, made jizyah a separate tax. He levied it on the Brahman also. However Jizyah by itself could not be a means to force the Hindus to convert to Islam.

Thus, while claiming to be Islamic, the state was militaristic and aristocratic in character, being dominated by a narrow clique of military leaders, headed by and under the control of the sultan.

Religious Freedom Under The Sultanat

In the early phase of the conquest many cities were sacked, temples being a special target partly to justify the conquest and partly to seize the fabulous treasures they were supposed to contain. During this period, a number of Hindu temples were converted into mosques. The most notable example of this is the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque near the Qutab Minar in Delhi. Formerly, it had been a Vishnu temple. This was done in a number of other places, such as Ajmer. But as soon as the Turks were settled, they started building their own mosques. Their policy towards temples and places of worship of the Hindus, Jains, etc., rested on the Muslim law (sharia) which forbade new places of worship being built ‘in opposition to Islam’.

In times of peace, however, within the Turkish territories and in those areas where the rajas had submitted to the Muslim rule, the Hindus practised their religion, even openly and ostentatiously. Despite the pressure of a section of the orthodox theologians, and the narrow approach of some of the sultans and their supporters, this policy of ‘toleration within limits’ was maintained during the Sultanat, though with occasional lapses.

Sometimes, prisoners of war were converted, or criminals exempted from punishment if they accepted Islam. Firuz executed a Brahman on a charge of abusing the Prophet of Islam. On the whole, conversions to Islam were not effected with the strength of the sword. The Muslim rulers had realised that the Hindu faith was too strong to be destroyed by force. Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya, the famous Sufi saint of Delhi, observed, ‘Some Hindus know that Islam is a true religion but they do not embrace Islam’. Barani also says chat attempt to use force had no effect on the Hindus.1

Conversions to Islam were due to hopes of political gain or economic advantage, or to improve one’s social position. Sometimes when an important ruler or a tribal chief converted, his example was followed by his subject. In some areas, such as west Punjab, the valley of Kashmir, east Bengal, etc., where tribal peoples were induced to become cultivators, they changed their earlier beliefs, and accepted the faith of the ruling elements i.e. Islam. In the towns, many artisans, following the new crafts introduced by the Turks, or depending on the patronage of the ruling class, such as weavers, ironworkers, paper-makers etc., converted to Islam. The Sufi saints too played a role, though they were generally unconcerned with conversions, and welcomed both the Hindus and the Muslims to their discourses. The saintly character of some of the Sufi saints created a receptive climate for Islam. There is no evidence, however, that large numbers of persons belonging to the lower castes embraced Islam due to the discrimination against them in the Hindu society or due to the influence of the Sufi saints. Conversions were, thus, due to personal, political and, in some cases, regional factors (as in the Punjab, east Bengal, etc.).

Following the Mongol invasion of West Asia, many persons belonging to prominent Muslim families fled to India. There was also a steady influx of the Afghans into India. Many of them enrolled themselves in the Turkish armies or were engaged in trade. A further influx of the Afghans took place in the fifteenth century under the Lodi rule. Despite this, the number of Muslims in India remained comparatively small. The nature of the Hindu–Muslim relations and the cultural attitudes of the two, which will be examined in a subsequent chapter, were conditioned by this situation.



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