Post-classical history

Chapter Sixty-Eight



Between 1320 and 1351, the sultanate of Delhi shrinks as both Muslim and Hindu subjects rebel

IN DELHI, yet another dynasty had taken the sultanate. Ghiyas-ud-Din, onetime governor in the Punjab, had rescued it from the hands of the Hindu Khusru Khan, and reestablished Islamic practice; his dynasty, the Tughluq, was the third Turkish dynasty to rule in Delhi.

The king of the south Indian kingdom of the Kakatiya, Pratapa Rudra, took the change in dynasty as an opportunity to fight back.

He had been struggling against Delhi for a decade. In 1310, the Delhi general Malik Kafur, serving ‘Ala’-ud-Din, had laid siege to Warangal for a month, forcing Pratapa Rudra to agree to a hefty annual tribute. “Reinstate him under [our] sovereignty,” Malik Kafur had instructed, “and restore his dominion; you should give him a robe studded with jewels and promise him a parasol on my behalf with due regards.” Both the robe and the parasol were symbols that Pratapa Rudra now ruled “under the shadow” of the Delhi sultan. Pratapa Rudra accepted both, but he continued to act with independence, and was often slow to send the proper tribute to Delhi. He also reinforced the walls of Warangal, building bastions all along the stone walls that surrounded the city’s outer edge.1

During the general disorder of Khusru Khan’s reign, Pratapa Rudra had decided not to send the tribute at all. But once Ghiyas-ud-Din had put the sultanate’s affairs back into order, he noticed the omission. In 1321, the year after his coronation, he sent his oldest son and chief general, Ulugh Khan, south to extract the required elephants and treasure from the king at Warangal.

The first siege failed; Warangal was successfully blockaded, but before the city could surrender, false news of Ghiyas-ud-Din’s death arrived from Delhi, and his son retreated. As he prepared to leave, a second report arrived: the sultan was well and healthy.2

Ulugh Khan laid siege to the city for a second time. It was already starving and weakened, and this time surrendered within a few days. Ulugh Khan, under instructions from Delhi, laid the city waste. He allowed his men (63,000 strong, according to one inscription) to sack Warangal, destroyed the great temple that housed the Hindu deities to whom Pratapa Rudra paid homage, ordered the city renamed Sultanpur, and began to build a huge mosque next to the wrecked Hindu temple. Pratapa Rudra, taken prisoner, was sent to Delhi in chains. He died on the way. Two inscriptions from slightly later tell us that he perished by his own wish, on the banks of the Narmada; with his kingdom wiped from the map and his city gone, the last Kakatiya king had thrown himself into the river.3

While Ulugh Khan was putting down the southern rebellion, Ghiyas-ud-Din himself was marching east against the Sultanate of Bengal, ruled by Bughra Khan’s grandson. The ruler “made some resistance,” remarks Barani, but the reconquest of Bengal happened with remarkable ease; Bughra Khan’s grandson was sent to Delhi with a rope around his neck, and the sultan of Delhi turned to start home.

On his way back to Delhi, he halted six miles southeast at Afghanapur to show himself to the residents. He was watching an elephant parade from a knocked-together royal pavilion, when it collapsed on top of him. He had been sultan for only five years.4

Ulugh Khan, still on his way back from Warangal, immediately had himself crowned on the road. He arrived at Delhi forty days later and took control of the city, under the royal name Muhammad bin Tughluq.

He had inherited the sultanate at the height of its expansion, and he proved to be an energetic and ambitious ruler. But he was also short-tempered, inclined to cruelty, and apt to act without enough forethought: “The Sultan planned in his own heart three or four projects by which the whole of the habitable world was to be brought under [his] rule,” writes Barani, “but he never talked over these projects with any of his counsellors and friends. Whatever he conceived he considered to be good, but in promulgating and enforcing his schemes, he lost his hold upon the territories he possessed, disgusted his people and emptied his treasury. . . . Every one of them that was enforced brought about wrong and mischief.”5

The first of these disastrous projects was a tax increase that infuriated the rich and ruined the poor. The second was a decision to move the capital city seven hundred miles south, to the city of Devagiri, in an effort to be closer to the new southern expanses of the empire; below the Krishna river, only the Hoysala had continued to resist the sultanate. His courtiers and officers were less than thrilled, and a good number of them refused to move there. Muhammad was not a man to be crossed. He chose a cross section of the Indian elite and forced them to transplant their families to his new capital, which he renamed Daulatabad.6

The move was calamitous. He had not prepared Daulatabad to receive the number of new residents who were now settled there, and water ran short. Famine and thirst began to kill the new citizens: “All around Daulatabad . . . there sprung up graveyards,” Barani says.7

In 1330, Muhammad gave up and moved back to Delhi. But the long and grueling journey across the Deccan and the Vindhya mountain range killed thousands more. Three years later, when the traveler Ibn Battuta entered Delhi (his pilgrimage to Mecca had turned into a round-the-world journey), he saw empty streets and an abandoned marketplace: “It was almost a desert,” he writes. “Its buildings were very few; in other respects it was quite empty, its houses having been forsaken. . . . The greatest city in the world had the fewest inhabitants.”8

More horrendous decisions followed. An attempt to change the currency of the entire empire over to copper coins failed horribly when private mints sprang up throughout India, churning out money that soon sank into complete worthlessness. A seven-year drought and accompanying famine—over three times as long as the Great Famine of Europe—settled over the subcontinent. Thousands died, but Muhammad bin Tughluq put no aid programs into effect; there was no lowering of taxes, no handouts of stored food. Expensive and unproductive campaigns into Khorasan made him not only poorer, but more and more unpopular. “The ill feeling among his subjects gave rise to outbreaks and revolts,” Barani tells us, “. . . and the minds of all men, high and low, were alienated from their ruler.”9

The map of India began to rearrange itself.

In 1335, the governor Ahsan Shah, struggling alone with his hungry subjects, broke away and announced himself the ruler of the Sultanate of Madura, an independent Muslim realm. The following year, the Kakatiya survivors Harahara and Bukka, brothers who had fled from the sack of Warangal, declared their own freedom from Delhi dominance at Vijayanagara and established themselves around the Tungabhadra river. Filled with fury and disgust at the violent destruction, joined by other Hindu warriors driven south by Delhi’s expansion, they now set themselves to reestablish the Hindu kingdom in the south.

Shortly after, the native Hindus who had remained in Warangal rebelled against the Delhi occupiers as well. The Hindu warrior Kapaya Nayaka drove them out and took Warangal for himself, calling himself Sultan of the Andhra Country.10

More Muslim sultanates followed: rebels against Muhammad, not against Islam. A Delhi officer named Malik Haji Ilyas seized the Bengali city of Lakhnawati, captured Gaur, and made himself Sultan Shams-ud-Din, founder of the Ilyas Shahi dynasty of Bengal. “The second Alexander,” he called himself on his own coins, “the right hand of the caliphate, the defender of the Commander of the Faithful.” In Daulatabad, the Muslim officer Hasan Gangu declared himself sultan of the Deccan in 1347. He had worked his way up from foot soldier in the Delhi army to the position of commander, and now used his authority to break away from his ruler. He took the sultanate title Ala-ud-Din Bahman; his sultanate, the Bahmani, would rule there for over a century.11


68.1 New Sultanates in India

The sheer scope of the calamity overwhelmed Muhammad. His troops were spread thin; when he did win a victory, he attempted to frighten the remaining rebels into submission with increasingly severe punishments of the captured. The more violent his reprisals, the worse the revolts became. Reproved by his advisors, the sultan snapped, “My remedy for rebels, insurgents, opponents and disaffected people is the sword. . . . The more the people resist, the more I inflict chastisement.”12

In 1351, Muhammad bin Tughluq was fighting in the north, near the Indus, when he began to suffer from fever and stomach pains. Barani chalks this up to a piece of bad fish, but it was dysentery, once again bringing a great war leader low. On March 20, 1351, the second Tughluq sultan died on the banks of the Indus.

The regiments that were with him fled, making their way back towards Delhi without order or plan. On the way, they were robbed by bandits; without food and supplies, the women and children who had accompanied the expedition began to die. Desperate, the remaining officers gathered together and begged Tughluq’s nephew Firoz Shah, who had accompanied the expedition, to become the next sultan: “For God’s sake,” they said, “save these wretched people, ascend the throne, and deliver us and many thousand other miserable men.”13

Firoz Shah refused. He did not want to be sultan; in fact, he was planning to make the hajj, and did not intend to remain long in Delhi. Over his objections, they declared him their ruler.

His first task was to get them home; and so he organized the stragglers into new regiments and turned them to attack the bandits. Under his guidance, they were victorious, and the robbers fled: “This was the first victory of the reign of Sultan Firoz,” writes his biographer Shams-i Siraj, “and he proceeded to Delhi among general rejoicings and acclamations.”14

One of his earliest acts was to pay damages to the heirs of anyone put to death unjustly by Muhammad bin Tughluq: “Those who themselves had been deprived of a limb, nose, eye, hand, or foot . . . [were] appeased with gifts,” the new sultan himself records. He repealed a whole raft of taxes, ordered new hospitals and shelters built for the poor, restored confiscated land, pensioned off or discharged government officials who had taken part in Tughluq’s repressive regime.15

The disintegration of the sultanate slowed. The borders, wildly fluctuating, began to stabilize. The flaking away of the conquered territories ground to a halt. But the sultan was now merely one ruler, and in the cluttered landscape, the kingdoms of Vijayanagara and Bahmani were already spreading into empires.


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