Post-classical history

Chapter Seventy-Seven


The Disintegration of Delhi

Between 1352 and 1388, the sultan of Delhi exercises kindness, the Shah of Bengal cultivates mysticism, and the rulers of the south spend all their time fighting

IN DELHI, the reluctant Firoz Shah Tughluq had been on the sultan’s throne for a little less than a year. Under his uncle’s cruel and careless rule, the sultanate had drastically shrunk; the early part of his rule was more concerned with matters at home than with enemies beyond Delhi’s current borders. His biographer, Shams-i Siraj, tells us that he began his reign by making massive government loans to the people of Delhi “for the purpose of restoring the land, villages, and the quarters which had fallen into ruin during the days of famine,” and then forgiving the loans.1

This was good domestic policy, and Firoz Shah was rewarded with the loyalty of his subjects; during his entire reign, Siraj says, “not one leaf of dominion was shaken in the palace of sovereignty. . . . Everyone had plenty of gold and silver. . . . Wealth abounded and comforts were general. The whole realm of Delhi was blessed with the bounties of the Almighty. . . . These facts are among the glories of his reign.”2

While Firoz Shah prospered at home, the kingdoms that had broken away from his predecessor continued to expand.

EAST OF DELHI, the Bengali kingdom ruled by Shams-ud-Din was evolving steadily away from its previous masters. Shams-ud-Din had expanded his reach, defeating the Hindu warlords around him; and as he did so, his kingdom was taking on a new character.

Since at least the eleventh century, a mystical strain of Islam known as Sufism had threaded through Muslim practice worldwide. Practitioners of Sufi focused their efforts on the present, not on the hereafter; they sought inner purification, working hard to rise to higher and higher levels of piety. They fasted, meditated, prayed, gave alms; internally, they practiced gratitude to God, tried to exist in a constant awareness of the divine bond between God and the believer, strove for a heart-felt affirmation of the oneness of the divine.3

In this, they were like mystics worldwide: like the contemplative monks of Europe, like the original White Lotus seekers in China. But Sufi believers also held, strongly, that those who had reached inward purity—the awliyâ’, Sufi saints—were the true rulers of men. “God has saints whom he has specially distinguished by His friendship,” wrote the eleventh-century Sufi scholar ‘Ali Hujwiri, “and whom He has chosen to be the governors of His Kingdom.”

[He] has purged [them] of natural corruptions and has delivered [them] from subjection to their lower soul and passion, so that all their thoughts are of Him and their intimacy is with Him alone. . . . He has made the Saints the governors of the universe; they have become entirely devoted to His business. . . . Through the blessing of their advent the rain falls from heaven, and through the purity of their lives the plants spring up from the earth, and through their spiritual influence the Muslims gain victories over the unbelievers.4

‘Ali Hujwiri, born in Ghazni, had traveled throughout the old Persian lands where Sufism flourished; but then he had settled in the north Indian city of Lahore, and had found ready ears among both the Muslim poor and the Hindu underclass. To hear that the authority of a saint trumped the power of a king, to be given a chance to rise through spiritual discipline from the mud of their daily lives to such a dazzling high place in the world—that was a rare and wonderful promise.

Sultan Shams-ud-Din was hardly powerless, but he had embraced Sufism as part of his break away from Delhi. He became a patron and follower of the Sufi teacher Shaikh ‘Ala al-Haq, a native Bengali who had achieved sainthood within the Sufi hierarchy. “He is the guide to the religion of the Glorious,” announced Shams-ud-Din, on a mosque inscription that still survives, “may his piety last long.” Sufism gave Shams-ud-Din a useful way to distinguish his rule from that of his former master; and with royal patronage behind it, Sufi mysticism spread throughout the Bengal kingdom.5

Firoz Shah was unable to retrieve Bengal, either for orthodoxy or for the sultanate of Delhi. When Shams-ud-Din died in 1357, Firoz Shah marched into Bengal to confront his son and successor Sikandar. But he did not have the strength to compel the Bengali sultan, and he was forced to retreat after Sikandar offered him nothing more than a token tribute payment.6

SOUTH OF DELHI, the breakaway kingdoms of Vijayanagara and Bahmani were more worried about each other than about the sultanate that had once ruled them.

By the time of his death in 1356, the first Vijayanagara ruler, Harihara Raya I, had conquered himself a territory that reached from Kaveri to Krishna. His brother Bukka Raya succeeded him as sultan.

Meanwhile, Bahman Shah (the former Delhi officer Zafar Khan) was also at war. He had moved his capital city to the safer town of Gulbarga (Karnataka), a well-watered area surrounded by hills, and built himself a massive citadel there; it still survives today. By the time of his death, in 1358, he had expanded the Bahmani kingdom until it stretched from from Bhongir in the east to Daulatabad in the west; and from the Wainganga river in the north to Krishna in the south.


77.1 Citadel of Gulbarga.
Credit: © R Sudhir Kumar

Krishna marked the northern border of Vijayanagara, and Bahman Shah’s son and successor, Muhammad Shah I, began a war with his neighbor over possession of the fertile land between Krishna and Tungabhadra. It was the first of ten vicious and indecisive wars that would occupy the two kingdoms for more than a century.7

Muhammad Shah himself was a no-holds-barred warrior, the first to use gunpowder in his wars in the Deccan. His gunpowder projectiles were inaccurate and unpredictable, valuable for noise and confusion more than for actual defense; they came from China, and the Indians called themhawai, “rockets.” Yet their use began to change the landscape. For the first time, the new forts being built across the contested land were given slit holes through which projectiles could be fired.8

Muhammad Shah’s wars against the Hindu kingdom to the south were, in his eyes, religious contests. Contemporary chronicles say that in the fifteen years Muhammad Shah fought against Vijayanagara, half a million people died. (Finally, the two shahs came to an agreement: civilians would be spared, as would prisoners of war.) Temporary treaties were made, and then broken; land was given over, and then reclaimed; as in France and England to the west, the will to war kept both kingdoms on the edge.9


77.1. Bahmani Expansion

Faced with solid opposition on his northern border, Bukka Raya’s son and successor Harihara made a tentative prod to the south, crossing a few soldiers over the Palk Strait and landing them on the shores of Sri Lanka.

Since the decay of Pandyan power in the previous century, the north of Sri Lanka had been independent under a king who ruled from Jaffna; the first Jaffna king may well have been a Pandyan general who remained in the island when his native country fell to Delhi. The kingdom of Jaffna had flourished, for a time; Ibn Battuta had visited the court of Jaffna sometime in the 1340s and had been given a tour of the kingdom’s pearl fisheries and ruby mines.

The south of the island had never fallen under Pandyan control, but over several obscure decades, the center of power had migrated from Dambadeniya to the capital city of Gampola, a little farther to the south, and from there to the fortress city of Kotte. From the southern shores, Sri Lankan traders had struck out to ports all over the south, reaching as far as Cairo.10

The island was rich, but not vulnerable. The Vijayanagara troops made a few incursions, but the troops committed to the north made it impossible for Harihara to follow up; the kings at Jaffna and Kotte were able to buy him off with an insignificant tribute. The conquest of the island would have to wait.

IN 1388, Firoz Shah died.

Once Delhi was firmly behind him, he had begun to make the traditional expeditions outwards, against neighboring kingdoms. These had, almost universally, failed; but his success at home continued: “Through the attention which the Sultan devoted to administration,” says Shams-i Siraj, “the country grew year by year more prosperous.”

Firoz Shah himself believed that justice and compassion were the greatest qualities of his reign. “In the reigns of former kings,” he wrote,

. . . many varieties of torture [were] employed. Amputation of hands and feet, ears and noses; tearing out the eyes, pouring molten lead into the throat, crushing the bones of the hands and feet with mallets, burning the body with fire, driving iron nails into the hands, feet, and bosom, cutting the sinews, sawing men asunder; these and many similar tortures were practised. . . . All these things were practised that fear and dread might fall upon the hearts of men, and that the regulations of government might be duly maintained. . . . [But] through the mercy which God has shown to me, these severities and terrors have been exchanged for tenderness, kindness, and mercy. Fear and respect have thus taken firmer hold of the hearts of men.11

He was right. Despite his unwarlike rule, Delhi had mostly held together; he had lost only one part of the empire, Khandesh, which rebelled under its governor six years before his death. But apart from Khandesh, general contentment prevailed. Firoz Shah was no general, but he had proved to be an excellent administrator, an enthusiastic mosque builder and garden planner, a competent manager of the empire’s finances. Grain remained cheap in the capital; soldiers and officials were well paid; taxes were reasonable.12

He died in 1388, aged eighty-one, and at once the remaining cohesion of the sultanate spun apart. The governors of Jaunpur, Malwa, and Gujarat joined Bengal and Khandesh in independence, while in Delhi, a handful of claimants battled over the weakened throne. Tenderness and kindness had not restored the empire’s greatness, but they had slowed the decay; now rot accelerated once more. “During the forty years that Firoz Shah reigned, all his people were happy and contented,” Shams-i Siraj concludes, “but when he departed, and the territory of Delhi came into the hands of others, by the will of fate, the people were dispersed.”13


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