Post-classical history

Chapter Sixty-One


The Fall of the Khilji

Between 1303 and 1320, the Muslim sultanate of Delhi spreads across the north, but the Khilji dynasty loses its hold on the throne

UNDER ‘ALA’-UD-DIN’S heavy hand, the sultanate of Delhi was spreading, in a series of Muslim assaults aimed at obliterating the Hindu holdouts of India. The Rajput kingdoms—the Hindu warrior clans, the “sons of kings”—were falling, one by one.


61.1 The Rajput Kingdoms

Gujarat had already been taken. Malwa, the kingdom of the Rajput Parama clan, and Ranthambhore, the strongest fortress of the Chauhan clan, followed quickly. In January of 1303, the sultan turned his eye towards Mewar, kingdom of the Guhila. The Guhila were the most powerful of the remaining Rajputs; for five hundred years, they had fought back, successfully, against Muslim invasion.

According to later accounts, ‘Ala’-ud-Din chose to attack Mewar because he hoped to kidnap Mewar’s beautiful queen: Padmini, wife of the Mewar shah Rana Ratan Singh. He began the attack with deception: he visited the capital city of Chittor, ostensibly in peace, but with men hidden outside the gates. When Rana Ratan Singh courteously escorted him to the gates at the end of the visit, ‘Ala’-ud-Din’s men sprang out of hiding, seized the king of Mewar, and dragged him off to the sultan’s camp.

To save her husband, Padmini sent a message to the sultan, offering to exchange herself for her husband, as long as she could bring her beloved maids and attendants with her. ‘Ala’-ud-Din agreed; and the next day, a whole procession of curtained litters, each carried by six slaves, wended its way towards the camp. But the slaves were Rajput warriors, and the litters were so many Trojan horses, crammed with fully armed soldiers. Once inside the camp, the soldiers leapt out, slaughtered the guards around ‘Ala’-ud-Din’s camp, rescued their king, and fought their way back to Chittor.1

The details of this unlikely situation were probably invented by the sixteenth-century poet Jayasi, who was working out a detailed allegory in which ‘Ala’-ud-Din represents lust, Rana Ratan Singh love, and Padmini herself wisdom. According to Jayasi, when ‘Ala’-ud-Din finally did conquer Chittor (which he did, after an eight-month siege), Rana Ratan Singh died fighting, while Padmini sacrificed herself on his funeral pyre rather than submit to ‘Ala’-ud-Din. But there may be glimmers of fact beneath Jayasi’s embroidery. ‘Ala’-ud-Din seems to have taken the resistance of Chittor very personally; the chronicler Amir Khusru, who was there, notes that when Chittor finally fell, the sultan uncharacteristically ordered thirty thousand of the Hindu inhabitants massacred.2

In the remaining years of ‘Ala’-ud-Din’s reign, the other Hindu kingdoms surrounding the sultanate fell, one by one. Khusru lists conquest after conquest, cities and principalities falling in front of the Delhi commanders, campaign after campaign carried out “in order that the pure tree of Islam might be planted . . . and the evil tree, which had struck its roots deep, might be torn up by force.”3

The Pandyan realm, divided by civil war between two princes, fell in 1308; the northern part of the Sri Lankan island declared its independence, and Delhi armies occupied the Pandyan capital. Other Hindu kingdoms south of the Deccan survived: the Yadava, ruling from Devagiri, and the two successor states of the old Chalukya kingdom: the Kakatiya (centered at Warangal) and the Hoysala (with its capital at Dwarasamudra). But they too suffered from constant attacks: Dwarasamudra was sacked, Devagiri raided, Warangal besieged. And although the Delhi armies always withdrew from these southern lands, thousands died in the raids: “Their heads rolled on the plain like crocodile’s eggs,” writes Khusru.4

In celebration of his victories, the sultan constructed a black pavilion in the middle of Delhi, “like the Ka’aba in the navel of the earth.” The Ka’aba was Islam’s most sacred shrine; at Mecca, it housed the Black Stone, a sacred rock (possibly a meteorite) oriented towards the east.* To this simulacrum came “kings and princes of Arabia and Persia,” to prostrate themselves not just before the duplicate Ka’aba but before the sultan as well. Delhi, Amir Khusru concludes, had become “the city of Islam.”5

“IN THE LATTER PART of the reign of ‘Ala’-ud-Din,” writes Barani, “several important victories were gained, and the affairs of the State went on according to his heart’s desire, but his fortune now became clouded and his prosperity waned.” He fell out with his sons and with his ministers, reacted with vicious severity to small offenses, treated his officials to fits of temper. He suffered from painful swelling of his legs. And Barani notes, disapprovingly, that his infatuation with the handsome eunuch Malik Kafur grew even more pronounced: “He made him commander of his army, and vizier,” Barani writes, “and this eunuch and minion held the chief place in his regards.”6

In 1316, ‘Ala’-ud-Din died. He was succeeded by his designated heir, his six-year-old son; with a stunning tone deafness to possible sibling rivalry, ‘Ala’-ud-Din left the young king’s brother, his older son Qutb-ud-Din Mubarak Shah as his regent.

The decision created instant havoc. Both the six-year-old king and a third brother were blinded (“eyes cut . . . from their sockets with a razor, like slices of melon,” says Barani with relish), and Qutb-ud-Din was proclaimed sultan. The mastermind behind this plan is not entirely clear. Barani, who despises Malik Kafur, blames the eunuch; he says that Kafur intended to blind all three boys but ran into too much opposition. Other accounts chalk the plot up to Qutb-ud-Din. The evidence seems to favor Qutb-ud-Din, who not only kept his eyes but outlived his competition. Thirty-five days later, Malik Kafur was assassinated, beheaded in the halls of the palace by courtiers, or possibly by army officials.

The teenaged Qutb-ud-Din was now Sultan of Delhi, and immediately followed in his father’s footsteps. He took, says Barani, an “inordinate liking” for a young Hindu prisoner of war who had converted to Islam; he “raised him to distinction and gave him the title of Khusru Khan. He was so infatuated . . . that he placed the army . . . under that youth.” Meanwhile, he occupied himself with pleasure, wine, and overspending. He survived as sultan four years, but only by making every crowd-pleasing decision he could: removing all of ‘Ala’-ud-Din’s price controls, abandoning the tax code, giving the noblemen freedom to pursue their own power-building schemes, raising salaries, scattering gold lavishly around the court to buy loyalties.7

It was only by chance that no serious invasions or rebellions afflicted the sultanate during Qutb-ud-Din’s brief reign. But his incompetence didn’t win him many friends, bribes notwithstanding, and when Khusru Khan began to plot his overthrow, the ex-slave found plenty of willing allies.

Late one night, the conspirators entered the royal palace, heavily armed and led by Khusru Khan. Khusru himself went up to the sultan’s rooms, while the rest dispatched the guards in the courtyard. The sultan’s rooms were guarded, but his guards let the sultan’s lover through. As Khusru closed the door behind him, the sultan asked him what all the racket was about: “Your horses have broken loose,” the eunuch said, “and everyone is down in the courtyard trying to catch them.” By this point, Khusru’s men had made their way up to the royal suite behind him. As they began to kill the guards outside the door, the young sultan realized what was happening. “He put on his slippers,” says Barani, “and ran towards the harem. The traitor [Khusru Khan] saw that if the Sultan escaped to the women’s apartments, it would be difficult to consummate the plot.” He ran after Qutb-ud-Din, grabbed him by the hair, and pulled him down. The two men were still wrestling on the ground when the other conspirators arrived behind him. As Khusru bellowed at them to be careful, one of them speared the sultan and dragged him off.8

Qutb-ud-Din’s headless, dismembered body was thrown into the courtyard. Khusru Khan and his men carried out a palace purge, murdering all of the sultan’s supporters. Then, at midnight, all of the remaining officials assembled in the courtyard by torchlight and recognized Khusru as the new sultan. “Khusru Khan had prevailed,” writes Barani, “the face of the world assumed a new complexion, a new order of things sprung up, and the basis of the dynasty of ‘Ala’-ud-Din was utterly razed.”9

KHUSRU KHAN’S SULTANATE lasted a single year.

Barani’s distaste aside, he seems to have been a reasonably competent ruler and soldier, and the sultanate itself, tightly organized by ‘Ala’-ud-Din, continued to run more or less smoothly. But as soon as he was secure on his new throne, Khusru Khan renounced his profession of Islam and returned to Hindu practice. The conquered Hindus rejoiced, especially when Khusru began to promote Hindu officers and courtiers through the ranks. But the coherence of the Delhi sultanate was largely due to ‘Ala’-ud-Din’s vision of the empire as an Islamic realm, bringer of truth to the heathens, and Khusru Khan’s reconversion quickly wiped out his support. Barani complains that “preparations were made for idol worship in the palace” itself, and that “copies of the Holy Book were used as seats, and idols were set up in the pulpits”; it is unlikely that Khusru was foolish enough to defy Islamic practice so overtly, but Barani’s chronicle reflects the outrage that the Muslims of Delhi felt over this reversal.10

Two months after Khusru’s accession, the governor of one of the outlying areas in the Punjab, Ghazi Malik Tughluq, rallied an opposition party against him. In a pitched battle outside the walls of Delhi, a collection of Muslim governors and their troops faced down Khusru’s royal army. The sultan’s force broke and ran; Khusru himself hid in a nearby garden, where he was discovered and beheaded on the spot.

The governors then proclaimed Ghazi Malik the next sultan (“You have delivered us from the yoke of the Hindus!” they exclaimed). He took the royal title Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din, and, Barani concludes, “everyone paid him due homage. . . . In the course of one week, the business of the State was brought into order, and the disorders and evils occasioned by Khusru and his unholy followers were remedied.” Two Delhi dynasties had fallen, and now a third ruled; the dynasties might disintegrate, but the sultanate itself remained unmoved.11


*See Bauer, History of the Medieval World, pp. 193–195, 294–296.

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