Post-classical history

Chapter Fifty-Eight


The Second Sultanate of Delhi

Between 1287 and 1300, the Khilji dynasty seizes the throne of Delhi, and Sultan ‘Ala’-ud-Din drives back the Mongols

EARLY IN 1287, the Sultan of Delhi died. Balban was eighty years old; he had dominated Delhi for half his lifetime and spent twenty years as the crowned sultan, the right hand of God.

His favorite son had died before him, and he had a low opinion of his second son Bughra Khan, safely off governing the eastern Ganges delta territories known as Bengal. But he had raised his grandsons at court. On his deathbed, he ordered the crown passed to the younger child, son of the dead prince. Instead, his court officials placed the older grandchild, Bughra Khan’s seventeen-year-old son Mu’izzu-d din, on the throne.

Immediately, Delhi veered off course. “From the day that Balban, the father of his people, died,” writes Ziauddin Barani, “all security of life and property was lost, and no one had any confidence in the stability of the kingdom. . . . [T]he chiefs and nobles quarreled with each other; many were killed upon suspicion and doubt.”

The four years of Mu’izzu-d din’s reign were, effectively, an interregnum; no one was in charge. The boy was sweet-natured and kind, says Barani, but he had been raised with intense strictness, always under the careful eye of tutors, guards, and instructors, given no freedoms and no pleasures. When he suddenly became sultan, he reacted like any sheltered teenager suddenly given wings: “all that he had read, and heard, and learned, he immediately forgot . . . and he plunged at once into pleasure and dissipation of every kind.” While the chiefs and nobles fought over power, Mu’izzu-d din built an enormous palace and garden for himself, invited his friends to move in, and spent all of his time at parties.1

Balban’s younger son Bughra Khan, governing in Bengal, immediately abandoned allegiance to his son and named himself Sultan of Gaur, an independent ruler. Various other courtiers “sharpened their teeth in pursuit of ambition” as well. One of these, the Chief Justice Nizamu-d din, figured out how to get Mu’izzu-d din to eliminate his rivals; he would present himself before the young sultan when he was drunk, and get from him permission to kill anyone he pleased. Mu’izzu-d din’s toddler cousin was one of his first victims. Many more followed, until Nizamu-d din’s reign of terror became unbearable. A court official, playing the Chief Justice’s own game, convinced the intoxicated Sultan to authorize Nizamu-d din’s murder, and then put poison in his wine.2

Nizamu-d din had been ruthless, but he had also been effective, and without him the government descended again into chaos. Hastily, the sultan summoned one of his grandfather’s favored slaves, Jalalu-d din Firu Khilji, from his post as governor of the northern city of Samana and gave him the job of administering palace affairs.

Jalalu-d din proved to be just as efficient and ambitious as his predecessor. Before long, the young sultan was struck by a mysterious paralyzing illness. Jalalu-d din presided over the enthronement of the boy’s infant son as the next sultan, took the job of regent, and then with the help of his sons, kidnapped the baby. In 1289 he declared himself sultan in the child’s place. (Barani doesn’t tell us what happened to the baby, who conveniently disappeared.)

This brought an end to the mamluk dynasty of Balban and inaugurated a new dynasty, that of the Khilji. Jalalu-d din was Turkish by descent, but the Khilji had been Indianized over several generations, and the Turks of Delhi at first resisted his rule. He was forced to establish his headquarters at Kilu-ghari, a few miles from Delhi, and for the first two years did not even try to enter the capital city. Instead, he governed from Kilu-ghari, distributed alms, recruited a sizable army, and then finally sent his sons ahead of him to clear opposition out of Delhi before his arrival.

His sultanate turned out to be a short one. More than seventy when he became sultan, Jalalu-d din was still energetic and sharpwitted, careful of his power but not paranoid. When a treasonous plot was uncovered in his palace, he burned the traitors alive and had their leader crushed by an elephant. But when he received reports that a group of drunken nobles had spoken, “in their cups,” about killing him, he simply remarked, “Men often drink too much, and then say foolish things. Don’t report drunken stories to me.”3

But he was moving towards eighty; he was disinclined to fight; and the throne was not his with any kind of legitimacy. When the inevitable end came, it was from within his own house.

His chief general was his nephew ‘Ala’-ud-Din; Jalalu-d din had brought the boy up in his own house and had married a daughter to him. He trusted ‘Ala’-ud-Din without question. He had given the young man the governorship of Kara, a well-to-do town not far west of Allahabad, and had allowed him to keep a good part of the booty and treasure from various raids down into the Hindu kingdoms of the Deccan, the dry lands south of the Narmada river. Unknown to his uncle, ‘Ala’-ud-din had been stockpiling this wealth and delaying passing on the sultan’s part of it, in hopes of raising and equipping an army of his own: “Through Kara,” says Barani, “he hoped to obtain Delhi itself.”4

Warned by his advisors that ‘Ala’-ud-Din might be planning a coup, the sultan refused to listen. “What have I done to ‘Ala’-ud-Din that he should turn away from me?” he said. As his nephew arrived back from one of these raids, carried out against the rich southern city of Devagiri, the sultan went out to meet his uncle with just a few men in attendance. ‘Ala’-ud-Din knelt down in front of him to pay homage, and the sultan gave him a welcoming kiss and took him by the hand. But ‘Ala’-ud-Din had ordered his men to use this gesture of affection as a signal to attack. One of them drew his sword and wounded the sultan; as the old man tried to run back towards his attendants, a second one beheaded him. His men were cut down as well.

‘Ala’-ud-Din marched into Delhi with his private army and claimed the throne. He distributed offices and gold to all his supporters: the gifts, and the honors, earned him security. “People were so deluded by the gold which they received,” Barani writes, “that no one ever mentioned the horrible crime which the Sultan had committed, and the hope of gain left them no care for anything else.”5

His uncle’s head was placed on a spear and paraded in front of him, into Delhi. And like his pitiless counterpart in Constantinople, ‘Ala’-ud-Din ordered his cousin, Jalalu-d din’s oldest son, blinded to disqualify him from ever laying claim to the throne.6

‘ALA’-UD-DIN had barely finished his first year as sultan when the Mongols came over the mountains.

Mongol invasions into India had been carried on, for decades, by raiding parties from both the Il-khanate and Chagatai lands. Neither khanate had made any real effort to conquer Indian lands; they were too busy fighting each other.

The Il-khanate was now in the hands of Ghazan, the great-grandson of the Il-khanate founder Hulagu. Following the great Mongol tradition, Hulagu’s son and successor Abaqa had drunk himself to death in 1282; his two sons seized and lost the leadership of the Il-khanate, in quick sequence, and in 1295, Ghazan, a competent hardened soldier of twenty-four, had become khan. Like his grandfather, he was an enemy of the Egyptian sultanate and the Golden Horde khanate north of the Black Sea; he allied himself with Christian interests, made overtures of friendship to Andronicus II of Constantinople, and kept up a friendship with the distant Chinese khanate of Kublai.7


58.1 The Mongol Invasion of Delhi

The Chagatai khanate, now in the hands of Chagatai’s great-grandson Duwa, was friendly with the Golden Horde khan but hostile to Kublai’s rule, and firmly opposed to the Il-khanate—particularly when the Il-khanate soldiers made ventures eastward. Bloody fighting over the right to claim Khurasan had kept the two khanates focused on each other instead of on the lands to the south. But the internal struggle for the Il-khanate throne after Hulagu’s death had given the Chagatai armies an edge, and right before Ghazan’s khanship began, Chagatai soldiers had finally driven the Il-khanates out.8

Now Duwa had a base from which he could do more than raid north Indian lands; he could actually plan a conquest.

In the second year of ‘Ala’-ud-Din’s reign, the Mongols crossed through the mountains and came into the north. The sultan sent his brother Ulugh and his close friend Zafar at the head of a large Delhi army to meet them. At Jalandhar, the Delhi army won an easy victory over the Mongols: “Many were slain or taken prisoners,” says Barani, “and many heads were sent to Delhi. The victory . . . greatly strengthened the authority of ‘Alau-d din.”9

In the flush of victory, the sultan sent an invasion force of his own westward, against the Hindu state of Gujarat. It fell easily and was folded into the Delhi sultanate. Among the prisoners taken captive was a eunuch named Malik Kafur; when ‘Ala’-ud-Din saw him, he was “captivated” by the slave’s beauty. From that time on, Malik Kafur was his constant companion.10

He intended to keep up the war against the Hindu states, but the Mongols now returned. Having tested the enemy’s strength, the Chagatai khan Duwa was ready to embark on a full-scale conquest. In 1299, he sent a force magnitudes larger than that of the 1296 invasion—two hundred thousand horsemen, according to contemporary reports—under the command of his son. Instead of raiding and fighting against border fortresses, this army ignored every target between the mountains and Delhi, and made straight for the capital city.11

Panic swept across the north. Villagers in the Mongol path abandoned their houses and farms and fled to Delhi, only to find that the city was in poor shape to receive them.

The old fortifications had not been kept in repair, and terror prevailed, such as never before had been seen or heard of. All men, great and small, were in dismay. Such a concourse had crowded into the city that the streets and markets and mosques could not contain them. Everything became very dear. The roads were stopped against caravans and merchants, and distress fell upon the people.12

‘Ala’-ud-Din summoned governors and their armies from all over his sultanate to report to Delhi for its defense. But, given the state of the city and the panic inside its gates, he ignored the advice of his councillors to prepare for siege and marched out of Delhi, towards a pitched battle on open ground.

The battle lines between the two massive armies stretched on for miles. ‘Ala’-ud-Din himself commanded the central units, with his brother in charge of the left wing, and his friend and general Zafar on the right. His own troops, equipped with hundreds of elephants, broke the Mongol line in front of him; Zafar’s wing also drove back the enemy, but in chasing them down, Zafar lost two horses from beneath him and finally was killed. After nearly a full day of fighting, the Mongols began to retreat. They made their way back to the Khyber Pass, losing more men to illness and exhaustion along the way. Duwa’s son himself died on the forced journey.

‘Ala’-ud-Din made his way back to Delhi in a state of triumph so ecstatic that, once back, he announced his intention of founding a new religion. (“My sword . . . will bring all men to adopt it,” he told his courtiers. “Through this religion, my name and that of my friends will remain among men to the last day, like the names of the Prophet and his friends.”) He named himself “The Second Alexander” and had this title embossed on his coins, announcing his intentions to go out like Alexander the Great and conquer the known world.13

The threat of the Mongol return had convinced the sultan that Delhi needed a huge standing army. One of his chroniclers notes that he built his forces until he had a standing cavalry of 475,000 horsemen. Unlike many kings at the turn of the century, he paid regular salaries to his soldiers; so that they could live comfortably on the salaries, he introduced fixed prices into the markets of Delhi, setting state-controlled limits on the costs of grain, fruit, sugar, oil, even shoes and coats. Merchants who were caught price gouging were arrested; if convicted, they were punished with the removal of flesh equal to the weight of the falsely priced goods sold.

To funnel money towards defense, ‘Ala’-ud-Din also restricted the ability of his noblemen to live luxuriously; anyone who wanted to throw a huge party or indulge in a major purchase had to get permission from the Market Controller, a new office introduced into Delhi’s government by the sultan. He repaired all of the frontier forts, garrisoned them with well-trained regiments, and branded the military’s horses to prevent theft or unauthorized sale. He put into place an espionage system to warn him of Mongol movements and unprepared fortress commanders, of discontented soldiers and possible revolt. By the century’s turn, the Mongol threat had helped to turn the sultanate of Delhi into one of the most efficient, tightly controlled, and aggressive empires in the world.14


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