Post-classical history

Chapter Forty-Seven

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The Shadow of God

Between 1236 and 1266, the crown of Delhi passes from the family of Iltumish to a Turkish slave who becomes absolute monarch

THE SULTAN OF DELHI, Iltumish, was dead. His sons were “engrossed in the pleasures of youth,” none of them worthy of the throne; and so Iltumish left his crown to his daughter Raziyya. “[She] was a great sovereign, and sagacious,” the Tabakat-i-Nasiri tells us, “just, beneficent . . . and of warlike talent, and was endowed with all the admirable attributes and qualifications necessary for kings; but, as she did not attain the destiny, in her creation, of being computed among men, of what advantage were all these excellent qualifications to her?”1

Her father’s officers divided. The vizier of Delhi and his supporters, hoping to put one of the sultan’s useless sons on the throne instead, mounted an attack on the palace, while several governors from the outlying provinces marched with their forces to Delhi to fight for Raziyya. The queen’s supporters won, driving the malcontents out of the city.

The opposition never fully faded, though. Raziyya appointed as Master of the Stables (a military position, directing the deployment of both horses and elephants) an African soldier named Malik Hakut, born in the highlands of the southern Nile. Immediately her Turkish detractors began to whisper that Malik Hakut must be her lover; why else would she have appointed a non-Turk to such a favored position? To quell the gossip, Raziyya abandoned traditional female appearances; whenever she rode out, she used a war elephant rather than a horse, and wore a man’s armor and headdress.2

But this did not end her troubles. She was forced to put down a serious rebellion in Lahore, and had just returned to Delhi when she heard that her trusted official Malik Altuniah, governor of the southward city of Bathinda, had also revolted. Unknown to Raziyya, this second rebellion had been carried out with the cooperation of Turkish officials in her own court. She left Delhi again and marched to Bathinda, but as she arrived, her own retinue joined with Malik Altuniah, killed the queen’s Master of the Stables, and took her prisoner.

With Raziyya held captive in the Bathinda fortress known as Qila Mubarak, her shiftless brother Bahram declared himself king in Delhi, with the support of forty Turkish officers and aristocrats. But Malik Altuniah had intended to seize the throne of Delhi himself. He drew up a contract of marriage with Raziyya (apparently without consulting her), converting himself from rebel to her champion, and then brought her by force back to Delhi, where he mounted an attack on Bahram.

According to the Tabakat-i-Nasiri, Bahram’s forty supporters and their retinues routed the attackers in short order. On October 13, 1240, Raziyya and her new husband were taken captive; both of them were executed the next morning. She had served as the first Muslim queen of India for three years, six months, and six days.3

Bahram only lasted two years before his own soldiers assassinated him. For some years, his supporters—the Forty, the most powerful mamluk warriors and courtiers in Delhi—struggled with one another for power while paying lip service to a puppet sultan: first Raziyya’s alcoholic nephew and then her youngest brother, Nasiruddin.4

Nasiruddin, aged twenty when he was elevated to the sultanate of Delhi in 1246, survived on the throne for two decades by not trying to rule. He was, says the Tabakat-i-Nasiri, devoted to fasting and prayer and the study of the Holy Word; he was a model of all gentle virtues: compassion, clemency, humility, and harmlessness. Causing no harm, he received none. He gave himself over to study and charity, and turned the running of the sultanate over to his Turkish officials. “The Sultan expressed no opinion without their permission,” explains the fourteenth-century poet and historian Isami; “he did not move his hands or feet except at their order. He would neither drink water nor go to sleep except with their knowledge.”5

Chief among his officials was the Turkish Grand Chamberlain Balban. Taken captive in a Mongol raid on his tribe as a young man, sold at the Baghdad slave market, and finally bought by Iltumish himself when he was in his early thirties, Balban had spent his entire adult life as a slave; but in Delhi, this was no bar to advancement. He had worked his way into Iltumish’s good graces, had served Raziyya herself in the court position of Chief Huntsman, and by 1246 was one of the most experienced soldiers and administrators of the Forty. Nasiruddin chose him to be vizier, making him the de facto sultan of Delhi: “The king lived in the palace,” says Isami, “and Balban governed the empire.”6

The years of disruption at Delhi had threatened the sultanate’s defenses. To the southeast, the Hindu king of Orissa—long resistant to Muslim encroachment—had gone on the offensive. His name was Naramasimha Deva; he had begun his push outward in 1238 and had taken away parts of Bengal that had once fallen under Islamic rule; the Delhi-controlled city of Laknaur had fallen to Naramasimha in 1243, and the year after, a massive battle on the shores of the Ganges had ended with the Orissa armies triumphing. “The Ganga herself was blackened,” reads an Orissa inscription celebrating the victory, “by the flood of tears from the eyes of the Muslim women of the north and west, whose husbands fell to Naramasimha’s army.”7

And to the north, the Mongols threatened. Lahore had been sacked, in 1241, by a Mongol raiding party that descended, looted the city, slaughtered anyone who resisted, and then withdrew. More sustained invasions seemed likely.

Balban met the threat by organizing annual military campaigns against both Hindu opponents and Mongol outposts. The first of these took place right after Nasiruddin’s enthronement, in 1246. With Nasiruddin in attendance and Balban in command, the armies of Delhi crossed into the region of the northern river known as the Sind and launched an attack on the scattering of Mongol forts there. “By the favour and aid of the Creator,” Balban’s chronicler tells us, “he ravaged the hills. . . . The army of the infidel Mongols who were in those parts took to flight, and . . . fear fell upon their hearts.” The following year, Balban led a similar campaign against Hindu rebels who had fortified themselves at Talsandah, east of Kannauj, and seized it for Delhi.8

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47.1 Balban’s Wars

The Tabakat-i-Nasiri lists a score of these excursions: yearly military expeditions, buttressing the boundaries of Delhi and beating back the enemies at the sultanate’s edges. The success of these campaigns lay at the heart of Balban’s clout. By 1249, he had grown so indispensable that he was able to arrange a marriage between the Sultan Nasiruddin and his own daughter. “As Balban was the asylum of the Sultan’s dynasty, the prop of the army, and the strength of the kingdom,” Juzjani remarks, “it was his daughter’s good fortune to become the royal consort.”

He probably intended to be the grandfather of the next sultan, but the single son his daughter bore to her new husband died in infancy, and no more heirs appeared.9

In 1260, Balban led a massive and bloody reprisal against the hill country of Mewar, a Rajput kingdom south of Delhi that had caused the sultanate unending headaches by raiding, burning, and pillaging: in the eyes of the mamluks, a land of thieves, cattle rustlers, and bandits. Iltumish had attacked Mewar, but had been unable to overrun it. Now, in a series of vicious and bloody battles, Balban reduced the Mewar resistance to nothing. Thousands of Mewar soldiers were killed by the sword, or trampled under the feet of Balban’s elephants; civilians were slaughtered, captives were skinned alive, then hung over the gates of cities that resisted. When guerrilla warfare continued from the forests, Balban supplied his army with axes and ordered them to clear a hundred miles of trees away, laying the ground bare: “Hindus beyond computation fell beneath the unsparing swords of the holy warriors,” the Tabakat-i-Nasiri says.10

It was Balban’s most spectacular victory yet. The account of the triumph, dated to the fifteenth year of Sultan Nasiruddin’s reign, brings the Tabakat to an end; Nasiruddin remained on the throne of Delhi for another six years, but the histories are silent about his accomplishments. Apparently Balban—despairing of a grandson, and now at the height of his power—had eclipsed the sultan entirely.

By 1266, Nasiruddin was dead. None of the thirteenth-century chroniclers describe his death; half a century later, Isami would insist that Balban had poisoned his son-in-law. However it came about, Nasiruddin died with no heir, and Balban—father of his widow—claimed the sultanate of Delhi as his own.11

Twenty years of fighting to strengthen an empire ruled by a figurehead had left Balban with a strong need to assert his own authority. As vizier, he had kept the sultanate of Delhi safe with his own right hand; as sultan, he began to work out a theory that made the strength of that right hand identical to the will of God. He was Zil-i-llahi, “shadow of God”: God’s vice-regent on earth. He, no less than the distant Frederick II, held his crown from God alone; he, no less than the faraway Innocent IV, stood above all written laws. He was answerable to no man, bound by no legal code, and vulnerable to no challenge.12

No previous sultan had made such a bold claim, but Balban was prepared to give daily demonstrations of his status as divinely appointed representative of God to his people. He gave up drinking in public, remaining always distant, aloof, and solemn. He created an imposing armed guard that surrounded him everywhere he went. He dressed magnificently and sat on a diamond-studded throne, and in his audience chamber he instituted a new ceremony: his courtiers were to prostrate themselves before the throne on their bellies and kiss his feet. They were not to laugh in his presence.13

He made a few practical innovations as well. Those of the Forty who still survived were sent far away from Delhi, on missions to distant corners of the sultanate, preferably the most wild and dangerous ones; those who survived were selectively pruned through poisoning. Balban had a network of spies throughout the empire, sending constant reports back to Delhi about the behavior of far-flung officials. One of those spies, failing to provide an update on the doings of a provincial governor, was publicly executed and hung up on the city gate of his target.14

In the disorderly years since Iltumish, explains Balban’s biographer Ziauddin Barani, the people of Delhi had become “vacillating, disobedient, self-willed.” Balban’s unyielding hand on Delhi’s reins restored peace: “The dignity and authority of government were restored,” Barani writes. “Fear of the governing power, which is the basis of all good government . . . had departed from the hearts of all men, and the country had fallen into a wretched condition. But from the very commencement of the reign of Balban the people became tractable, obedient, and submissive.” The Turkish slave, risen to the sultanate, had reduced his people to the state he had once endured: obedient and submissive, slaves.15

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