Indian History Part 54 The Slave Dynasty Sect I Qutb ud-Din Aibak

Canberra, 9 September 2016


Muhammad of Ghur died without siring any sons and not leaving a clearly nominated successor to the empire that he had forged. At the time of his death the Ghur domains were divided into three principalities and administered by three chief nobles who immediately declared their independence—Taj al-Din Yildiz in Ghazni, Nasir ad-Din Qabachah in Multan and Qutb ud-Din Aibak in Delhi. (Aibak has also been spelt Aybak or Eibek in different sources.) Aibak was closely related to the other two; he was married to Yildiz’s daughter and Qabachah was his brother-in law, being married to his sister. However, the relationship did not stop either Yildiz or Qabachah from attempting to encroach on territories controlled by Aibak. Yildiz wanted to be named Muhammad’s successor and to be declared the sultan of the entire kingdom. This led to his challenging Aibak for control of the Indian dominions. Qabachah marched on Lahore, in an unsuccessful attempt at enlarging his own territorial holdings. Aibak managed to ward of both the attempts and consolidated his control over the Indian part of the Ghur Empire.

There is a popular notion that following the invasion of Muhammad of Ghur and his lightening conquests in the north and west of the Indian sub-continent, India had become a Muslim Empire. This perception is patently incorrect and not borne out by facts. In the period between 1200 and 1550 there were only two brief spans, of 20 and 10 years respectively, when large areas of North India was under Muslim sway. During the other times in this 350 year history, there was no Turkish Muslim Empire in the sub-continent. The Delhi Sultanate is the symbol of this elusive empire that a number of historians refer to as the establishment of a broad and overarching Islamic rule in the sub-continent. In the historical narrative, the Delhi Sultanate continues for more than three centuries as the connecting bridge between successive dynasties that ruled from Delhi; their kingdoms varying in size and their control equally fluctuating and uncertain.

The battlefield victories of Muhammad of Ghur was only the beginning of the process of carving out a viable Muslim empire in the Indian sub-continent. Muhammad was a tenacious and ambitious ruler who single-mindedly pursued his objective of establishing an Indian Empire. Unlike his predecessor in the invasion of India, Mahmud of Ghazni, the Ghurid sultan was a realist and politically astute enough to understand that creating a permanent dominion in India was the best course of action to perpetuate the Ghurid kingdom. Such a move had the added advantage of permitting the Ghurids to distance themselves from the perennial instability emanating from Central Asia. However, Muhammad’s death brought political uncertainty to the entire Ghurid enterprise through the certainty that Khavarazm Shah was preparing to annex the Ghur kingdom along with its Indian provinces to his own empire.

While events that would have far-reaching consequences for the sub-continent were unfolding in Afghanistan and the north-west region, the Indian rulers were content to carry on their middling ways, engrossed in petty and inconsequential internecine quarrels—oblivious to the dangers threatening to sweep them into obscurity. They were soon to be thrown into the proverbial ‘dust heap of history’. It is surprising that an entire generation of Indian rulers, each of whom was endowed with uncommon bravery and chivalry, could be so devoid of broader wisdom, vision and statesmanship. The moribund nature of Indian-Hindu polity was on spectacular display during these early times of the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate.

Historical analysis proves that between 1193 and 1206, both Muhammad of Ghur and his governor/viceroy of Indian provinces, Qutb ud-Din Aibak, were insecure in the control of their territorial possessions. They had not been able to entrench themselves in their newly conquered areas. It is possible that an organised resistance to their continued presence in the Gangetic Plains could have dislodged them from North India. However, this opportunity was not taken up by any of the Indian kings. It can be speculated that had the Hindu-Rajput kings realised the long term implications of the invasion of the Turks through the Khyber Pass or analysed the unfolding events, dedicated resistance would have come about. The comprehension of the enormous consequences of the Turkish invasion was also clouded by the fact that Punjab had, for centuries, been affected by and involved in Afghan and Central Asian political developments. The kingdoms of the plains considered this invasion also to be one more convulsion from Afghanistan—the same as the earlier invasions by the Shakas, Kushans and the Huns, all of which had been absorbed by the monolith that was India and the religion of Hinduism that served it.

The invasions by the Ghaznavids and later the Ghurids has two implications for India. One, was that Punjab was conquered and thereafter remained Muslim territory, with few interludes, for the rest of history. Two, and more importantly, the repeated and ruthless nature of the conquest set up in the Indian sub-conscious and ethos a tradition of Muslim intolerance that is prevalent even today.

‘After the early Turkish period the tradition [of Muslim intolerance] was so deeply rooted that no policy of toleration, nor the general practice of the live-and-let-live principle which was the day-to-day custom of Indian life, could eradicate it. In the popular Hindu mind a Muslim was as intolerant as a bania was avaricious or a Rajput brave. Perhaps the chance of the ultimate conversion of India to Islam was lost in the din of Mahmud’s idol-breaking.’

Percival Spear

India: A Modern History, pp. 103-04.



A Misnomer

Between 1206 and 1290, Delhi was ruled by three successive clans founded by Aibak, Iltutmish and Balban, jointly called in history as the Slave Dynasty. The term ‘slave’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘Mameluke’, meaning ‘owned’. The term was used to distinguish important Turkish slaves who were meant for military service and is not to be confused with normal slaves meant for menial and other low level work in the master’s household. The Turkish soldier ‘slaves’ were not servile by any stretch of imagination. They were prized as military commanders and appreciated for their loyalty. In turn, these ‘slaves’ used the situation to their advantage, emphasising their loyalty to the reigning monarch, who was normally the nominal owner of the slave. There was no stigma attached to an individual for his having been a Mameluke.


On the death of Muhammad of Ghur, his Indian holdings were taken over by his viceroy Qutb ud-Din Aibak who went on to lay the foundation of what came to be called in later years as the Slave Dynasty. The nomenclature of ‘Slave Dynasty’ for the rulers of Delhi for the next 90 years is a contradiction in terms as well as a historic inaccuracy for two reasons. First, the founders of the three clans that are clubbed together to form the Slave Dynasty were not descendants of the same ancestor, although they were related through marriage. Second, only the founders had been slaves and that too in the earlier parts of their careers. All three had ceased to be slaves long before each of them assumed the throne. However, the name coined in some early part of the retelling of history continues to be used to depict the first Muslim dynasties that ruled from Delhi.

Qutb ud-Din Aibak, and not Muhammad of Ghur, was the real founder of the Turkish dominion in India. He was a native of Turkistan, who was enslaved as a boy and sold to the qazi (magistrate/administrator) of Nishapur. He was subsequently bought by Muhammad of Ghur and rose rapidly in the king’s service since he was energetic, efficient and dedicated. ‘Aibak’ means moon-faced, indicating beauty, although Qutb ud-Din was physically not very personable. He was initially promoted to being the commander of a section of the army and then to be the Master of the Stables, a senior military appointment. In 1192, after the Ghurid victory in the Second Battle of Tarain, Aibak was placed in charge of the Indian possessions and invested with full powers to act during the absence of Sultan Muhammad.

In 1195, Aibak led a successful campaign into Gujarat to avenge the defeat that Muhammad had suffered there earlier in his career. In recognition of this feat of arms, Qutb ud-Din was named the viceroy of India, the proclamation actually naming him ‘sultan’. He established his headquarters at Indraprastha near Delhi.

Military Conquests

In 1192, he crushed rebellions in Ajmer and Meerut and then occupied Delhi, which was subsequently to become the capital of the Turkish dominion in India. In 1194, he again defeated an uprising in Ajmer and in 1195 captured Kol (Aligarh). In 1195 Aibak also played an important role in Muhammad of Ghur’s defeat of Jai Chand Rathore of the Gahadawala Dynasty of Kanauj. He also had to suppress a third uprising in Ajmer, going on thereafter to capture the famous fort of Ranthambore.

In 1196, he overran Anhilwara and plundered the city, although for some inexplicable reason, the nearby Jain temples at Mount Abu was left untouched, contrary to the by now established custom of destroying temples. In 1197-98 Qutb ud-Din went on to capture Badaun, Chandawar and Kanauj. The capture of Kanauj indicates that although the Gahadawala Rathores had been defeated earlier in 1195, the kingdom had not been, or could not be, fully annexed. Aibak’s military campaigns were almost fully within the Rajputana region. He went on capture the kingdom of Sirohi and parts of Malwa, although it is certain that these were not permanent annexations. In 1202-03 he invaded Bundelkhand and defeated the Chandela king Paramardi Deva. In this victory he acquired the forts of Kalinjar, Mahoba and Khajuraho and surrounding areas.

At this stage, if all the victories are charted on paper, it would be seen that the nominally Ghurid Muslim Empire in India already exceeded the territorial boundaries of the kingdom of the great Harsha Vardhana. However, most of the victories that have been listed earlier in the narrative were predatory in nature and purely temporary. Ajmer and Ranthambore changed hands several times and Gwalior and Kalinjar were lost almost immediately after they had been taken by Aibak. In some cases, the defeated rulers were reinstated as vassals but renounced their submissive allegiance on the withdrawal of the Turkish forces. In other cases, the Turkish generals left behind to control the area, of were commanders of the invading forces, disavowed their loyalty to the viceroy in Delhi and became independent chieftains. Therefore, while the list of conquests and the territories captured look impressive in their geographic spread, the actual control of the Muslim ruler was very limited and confined to areas immediately bordering his headquarters in Delhi.

The Conquest of Bihar

One of Aibak’s most able generals was Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji who was bold and sagacious. There is a great deal of speculation regarding the origins of the Khilji clan, but it has been established that they were definitely of Turko-Afghan origin and that they came to India in the service of the Ghur sultans. In 1197, Muhammad Khilji forayed into Bihar, with the express permission of Qutb ud-Din, and captured the province along with enormous booty, rather easily. At this time, Bihar was the only province that still practised Buddhism as a common religion under the patronage of the Pala kings who were staunch Buddhists themselves.

The great Buddhist University of Nalanda was destroyed during this invasion. The university was situated within a walled mini-city which was mistaken for a fort and attacked by the invaders. There are reports of Buddhist monks, referred to as shaven headed Brahmins by Muslim chroniclers, being put to death in large numbers. Buddhism in Bihar was practised at this time not in the pure way of the original religion, but in the latter-day model that included idol and image worship. It is obvious that the worship practised in the Buddhist temples fired the iconoclastic zeal of the Turks and led to greater carnage than would otherwise have been the case. Irrespective of the reason for the destruction of the great university, the Muslim invasion of Bihar was a death blow to Buddhism in India. The religion never recovered in its country of origin from this debacle.

The Conquest of Bengal

Bengal was ruled by the aged king Rai Lakshmanasena of the Sena dynasty. There is still on-going debate and no agreement regarding whether the Senas were Kshatriyas or Brahmins. Irrespective of their caste, Lakshmanasena was venerated by his subjects as a learned man of high character and a patron of arts and letters. Jayadeva, the renowned author of the Gita-Govinda adorned his court. In 1199, moving further from Bihar Muhammad Khilji reached Nadia, the Sena capital. In a surprise attack on the palace with a very small band of horsemen, Khilji managed to take over the kingdom. The king fled towards Dacca where he died in 1205. His descendants continued to rule a small principality as petty chieftains for many years after that. Khilji ransacked and destroyed Nadia, and established Lakhnauti as the new capital.

An analysis of Muhammad Khilji’s campaign in Bihar and Bengal shows that although militarily it was a phenomenal success, it was also accompanied by monumental and unprecedented destruction. The wanton obliteration of the University of Nalanda is but one example of the spread of the devastation that was visited on the region. After the uncontested subjugation of Bengal, the entire eastern Gangetic Plains came under Khilji’s control. He introduced some elements of Muslim administration in the region. Although Muhammad Khilji ruled both Bihar and Bengal, he still paid nominal homage to Qutb ud-Din Aibak. Accordingly it is reported that the entire North India from Delhi to Kalinjar and Gujarat, and from Lakhnauti to Lahore was under the sway of Aibak. However, truthfully analysed, it has to be accepted that the outer areas and distant lands were neither fully subdued nor directly controlled by the ruler in Delhi.

Muhammad Bin Bakhtiyar Khilji – An Ambitious Man

Once Bengal was subdued, rather painlessly, the Khilji control ran almost the full length of the Himalayan foothills. Beyond the Himalayas lay the kingdom of Tibet and Muhammad Khilji’s thirst for adventure and conquest remained unsated. He was also revelling in the unbroken chain of victories that he was able to craft in his eastward expansion. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before he launched and invasion of Tibet. He set out to conquer Tibet with 10,000 cavalry and accompanying troops.

The expedition turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. The extreme weather and the ferocity of the local tribesmen that the army encountered combined to beat the so-far victorious army. Khilji lost most of the army and himself barely managed to escape alive and return to his headquarters.

Soon after his return Muhammad Khilji died. There are two versions of his death. One, the more magnanimous version states that he fell ill because of the mental distress that he suffered on account of the number of soldiers that he lost and died having lost the will to live. The second, which is more probable, states that he was assassinated by another high-ranking officer, Ali Mardan, who subsequently assumed the leadership of the Khilji clan.

The year was 1206.

Qutb ud-Din – The Ruler

While still an acting viceroy, Aibak had already entered into shrewd alliances with powerful commanders—his daughter had been married off to Iltutmish, his own second-in-command and an able general in his own right; his sister was married to Nasir ud-Din Qabachah; and he himself was married to the powerful Taj ud-Din Yildiz’s daughter. In 1206, Muhammad of Ghur invested him with viceregal powers and bestowed the title ‘Malik’ on Aibek. On the death of the Ghurid sultan, the people of Lahore send an invitation to Qutb ud-Din to assume the throne and become their sovereign ruler. He proceeded to Lahore and formally accessed the throne on 24 June 1206. Almost immediately he severed all links with Ghazni.

Aibak has been depicted in contemporary reports—Taj-ul-Masir translated by Sir Henry Elliot—as a high spirited and open handed monarch. He was a good administrator, but in a purely military manner, dispensed even-handed justice and exerted his energies towards promoting peace and prosperity. Qutb ud-Din maintained military garrisons in all important towns across the entire domain. The local administration of the kingdom was left in the hands of the Muslim military commander of the region involved. Civilian administration does not seem to have been considered as an alternative to entrenched military rule.

Qutb ud-Din’s generosity has been repeatedly praised in reports, his munificence being such that he was called ‘Lakhbaksh’ meaning ‘the giver of Lakhs’. He was also kind to the Hindus, a fact that has been mentioned separately and also a paradox in his character since during military campaigns he was as ruthless as any of the earlier invaders in his dealings with the unbelievers. In an indirect manner this bit of information indicates a level of religious tolerance on the part of Aibak that was kept aside only when rebellions had to be subdued or kingdoms conquered with the employment of military might.

Aibak was considered a man of high character, devoted to the Islamic faith. He is also thought to have been a great warrior and a pioneer of Muslim conquest in the sub-continent. This is particularly so since the local population was known for their martial prowess and also staunch adherence to their own religion. He is reported to have possessed a refined aesthetic sense and was greatly interested in literature. He patronised men of letters, indicated by two historians Hasan Nizami and Fakhr-i-Mudabbir dedicating their works to him. He also indulged his interest in architecture by constructing two mosques from the material of destroyed temples—Quwat-ul-Islam (‘Might of Islam’) in Delhi and Dhai Din ka Jhonpra in Ajmer. However, Qutb ud-Din was not a proactive or revolutionary constructive genius and did not venture into the field of constructing civil institutions for the benefit of the common people.

In 1210, after being on the throne for a mere four years, Qutb ud-Din Aibak was killed in an accident while playing polo. During this four years as the crowned king he did not embark on any new conquests and also did not need to put down any major rebellions. Although he had been officially on the throne only for four years, his reign must be considered to have started in 1192, when he was placed in charge of the Indian possessions of the Ghurid kingdom and to have lasted for 18 years. The period that he formally ruled from Delhi was influenced more by foreign affairs than internal challenges that had to be addressed. In the beginning of his rule, he had to contend with the incursions of both Yildiz and Qabachah who wanted to annex at least part of the Delhi holdings. Then Aibak had to persuade Ali Mardan in the Bihar-Bengal region to accept his suzerainty through a series of threats and inducements. The major Hindu-Rajput kings and chieftains were intent on regaining their independence and waiting for a chance to throw off the Islamic yoke. Qutb ud-Din managed to subdue each of these challenges.

The biggest threat to the fledgling kingdom however, came from Central Asia. The Khwarizm Shah, Alauddin Muhammad wanted to take over Delhi. In the normal course of events Qutb ud-Din would have been hard pressed to ward of the Shah’s invasion. He was lucky that the Mongol incursion diverted the attention of the Khwarizm sultan and a dedicated invasion of the kingdom of Delhi was avoided. In terms of importance, the restive Rajput issue was the least of the worries that faced the new Sultan of Delhi. Aibak’s greatest achievement was his severing all ties with Ghazni, thereby creating an independent Indian identity for the kingdom that he ruled.

Qutb ud-Din Aibak can be rightly considered to have established what came to be called the ‘Delhi Sultanate’ that endured for 320 years from1206 to 1526, when Babur defeated the last Sultan of Delhi and founded the mighty Mughal Dynasty. Aibak was the first of 34 kings belonging to five successive dynasties—the Slave Dynasty, the Khaljis, Tughlaks, Sayyids and Lodis—that followed.


There is no doubt that Aibak demolished Hindu and Jain temples by the hundreds and remodelled them to create shrines to the ‘worship of the true God’. The destruction of Hindu temples was the result of a combination of entrenched piety and materialistic avarice for plunder. The consequence was that the idols, mostly made of precious metals or adorned with precious stones and jewels, were broken up for their richness and the temples dismantled for their stones, which were already dressed, to be used in all kinds of Islamic construction. Here, the difference in the perception of worship between Hinduism and Islam must be mentioned since it had a direct impact on the construction of the place of worship. The Hindu way of worship was, and continues to be, a one-on-one intimate communion with God, often facilitated by the Brahmin priest. Accordingly the Hindu temples tended to be small almost airless cells which was conducive to personalised worship. The Islamic ideal was of community worship in which all were considered equal in front of the one true God and needed large open spaces.

Three contentious topics tend to be discussed and debated even today without any clear understanding being achieved. First is the disastrous impact that the Islamic invasion had on India’s Hindu heritage. The second is the amount of oppression that the Hindus were subjected to by the invading forces and subsequently the ruling elite. Third is the quality and determination of the resistance that the Hindus put up when faced with extreme oppression. In the recounting of events, there is a noticeable tendency on the part of the initial Muslim chroniclers and later-day Indian/Western historians, no doubt biased towards the Hindu viewpoint and narrative, to generalise. The establishment of a ruling Muslim elite took centuries. Therefore, there cannot be total generalisation of the behaviour of Muslim military generals or ruling sultans. Each individual must be judged on his or her own actions and merits. The impact of the Islamic invasion and the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate cannot be a generalised account of events as sometimes made out to be; no doubt there was immediate and visible impact, but the real influence took time to permeate the society. There is no doubt that it continues to do so even in contemporary India today.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2016]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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