Indian History Part 54 The Slave Dynasty Section II Shams ud-Din Iltutmish


Canberra, 12 October 2016

Qutb ud-Din Aibak’s untimely death caused a great deal of confusion amongst his followers. In Lahore, the officials placed his son Aram Shah on the throne, but the courtiers in Delhi refused to accept or support the new ruler. Aram Shah was generally considered to be weak, indecisive and unfit to be a king. Since the newly minted kingdom was at a critical stage in its development, they wanted a competent soldier and tested administrator to take the reins of the state. The Delhi court invited Shams ud-Din Iltutmish (the original Turki name was Il-tutmish and the Persian spelling Altamish, which is also used in some narratives) the governor of Badaun and son-in-law of Qutb ud-Din to accept the crown. The invitation was accepted with alacrity by Iltutmish, who had anticipated this course of events.

At this stage Aibak’s kingdom was effectively divided into four parts. Iltutmish being crowned in Delhi; Aram Shah ruling the western region from Lahore; Ali Mardan Khiji, the governor in Bengal declaring semi-independence and stopping to paying homage to Delhi; and Qubachah the governor of Uch, taking advantage of the internal divisions and seizing Multan while declaring his independence. Immediately on Iltutmish being crowned in Delhi, Aram Shah prepared to march against Delhi to fight and claim his inheritance. The Lahore army moved against Iltutmish after a few months. Aram Shah was defeated and put to death, his rule from Lahore lasting a mere eight months.

Early Days

Iltutmish is believed to have been born to noble parents of the Ilbari tribe in Central Asia. However, there is no conclusive proof of this noble birth. He is said to have been sold as a slave by envious brothers to a merchant in Ghazni, from whom he was purchased by Qutb ud-Din Aibak and brought to Delhi. In Aibak’s service his rise to prominence was rapid. Around 1196, he was placed in charge of Gwalior Fort after it was captured and subsequently promoted to the governorship of Baran (Bulundshahr). Aibak then gave his daughter in marriage to Iltutmish and appointed him the governor of Badaun.

There are some modern historians who tend to label Iltutmish a ‘usurpur’, since the Delhi throne was not his by right of inheritance. This is an incorrect assessment for two reasons. First, the Islamic system of choosing a successor to the throne was based mainly on the capability and fitness of the person being elevated to the leadership role and the claim of inheritance was purely secondary. In this situation Aram Shah was understood to be relatively weak and unfit to become the king. Second, and unique to the Delhi situation, was the fact that on Aibak’s death the Turkish state that he ruled was divided into four independent principalities centred on Lahore, Delhi/Badaun, Uch and Lakhnauti. Aram Shah was supported by the court in Lahore to rule over the entire kingdom, but even during Aibak’s rule the seat of power had shifted to Delhi and Lahore had started to be of only secondary importance. Iltutmish was supported by the officials in Delhi and therefore had the more legitimate claim to the throne. In any case, during the battle for succession Aram Shah was defeated and killed, putting a conclusive end to the speculations regarding the legitimacy of Iltutmish’s ascend to the throne.

Iltutmish, who had been freed from his slave status much earlier by Qutb ud-Din possessed great energy, was somewhat religiously oriented and was moderate in his dealings. Through the successive tenures as governor he had also established a reputation for being a competent administrator and a reliable military leader. By all rights the crown of Delhi belonged to Iltutmish; he was not a usurper and had all the qualifications to rule, a fact that he went on to prove.

On Accession…

Qutb ud-Din was officially the king only for four years. Although he is credited with having established the Delhi Sultanate, this was only in name. In reality the Sultanate was a very tenuous holding during his brief reign since there were no clearly defined borders that demarcated it. On assuming power Iltutmish controlled Delhi, Badaun and some outlying districts that ranged from Benares to the Sivalik hills. The rest of what used to be Aibak’s holdings had been carved up by other governors: Qubachah had taken over Lahore on Aram Shah’s defeat and Ali Mardan Khalji had declared independence in Bihar and Bengal. The Rajput rulers who had been brought under control by Qutb ud-Din rebelled, stopped paying tribute, and the principalities of Jalor, Ranthambhor, Gwalior and Ajmer declared independence. Yildiz who had been lying low for some time reasserted his claim to the throne of Lahore and sovereignty over the entire Turkish sultanate in the sub-continent from his position in Ghazni. There were minor but troublesome rebellions in Delhi by soldiers loyal to Aram Shah. There is no doubt that on his accession, Iltutmish would have found the throne of Delhi in a very precarious condition.

Iltutmish – The Pragmatist

Iltutmish immediately recognised the insecurity of his position and the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Sultanate. He was pragmatic enough to realise that he could not deal simultaneously with all the threats to the well-being of what he hoped to weld together as a viable Sultanate ruled from Delhi. The most potent threat came for Yildiz and therefore Iltutmish compromised with him first. He pretended to accept Yildiz as his overlord, indirectly supporting Yildiz’s claim of sovereignty over the entire Aibak holding. At the same time he put down the soldiers’ revolt around Delhi as a matter of priority through the use of force in some cases and diplomacy in others.

With the belief that Iltutmish would remain a vassal, Yildiz expelled Qubachah from Lahore and achieved control of the entire Punjab. On noticing the growing influence of Yildiz, the Khwarazm ruler, Shah Alauddin Muhammad, drove him out of Ghazni. Yildiz fled to Lahore. Iltutmish was acutely aware of the threat posed by the actions of the Khwarazm Shah and the possibility of his own sultanate returning to being the Turkish Indian dependency of the larger Islamic Sultanate ruled from Ghazni. Without wasting any time, Iltutmish marched against Yildiz in Lahore. In the battle that followed on the plains of Tarain, Yildiz was defeated and captured. He was imprisoned in Badaun where he died soon after. It is claimed that he was executed and since the cause of death so soon after capture is not known, an execution of some sort can be accepted as a definitive possibility.

This victory over Yildiz completed the severance of the Delhi Sultanate from remote Ghazni control that had been initiated by Qutb ud-Din Aibak in a tentative fashion. The Sultanate of Delhi became a sovereign state in actuality rather than remaining as an amorphous and ill-defined entity. Even though Yildiz had been defeated, external interference had not been fully put to rest. During the period of Iltutmish-Yildiz confrontations, Qubachah had encroached on Lahore, which Iltutmish had chosen to ignore at that time. In fact he had found it prudent to let Qubachah have his way to avoid having to fight a two-front war. He let Qubachah hold Lahore for two more years and annexed it to the Delhi Sultanate only in 1217. With this victory, Iltutmish finally had a defined sultanate to rule, albeit in a fledgling state.

The Mongol Menace

The Delhi Sultanate was still to settle down after the turmoil of consolidation when the Mongols led by the great Genghis Khan drove the Khwarazm Shah out of his kingdom and north-west to the Caspian Sea. The Shah’s son Jalal ud-Din Mangbarni however fled south-east to the Indian region. After establishing some alliances with minor chieftains of the region, he approached Iltutmish with an appeal for shelter. At this stage, the Mongols were already at the banks of the River Indus in pursuit of Jalal ud-Din. (See Part 53 of Indian history on this Blog for greater details) As an aside, there is a paradox in the Mongol behaviour: they were Shamanists, which was an altered version of Buddhism but were the most violent and ruthless warriors the Central Asian steppes had yet produced. The totally pacifist Buddhism had spawned a virulently violent religious group.

Jalal ud-Din’s appeal for shelter placed Iltutmish on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand refusal to offer shelter to a prince who had directly appealed for it was contrary to the traditional precepts of hospitality; on the other, if such shelter was provided, it was certain that the Mongols would become a direct threat to the sultanate, which was yet to find its own feet. Iltutmish decided to continue with his consciously thought through policy of detaching himself from Central Asian politics and internal squabbles. He politely refused refuge to Jalal ud-Din and also asked him to withdraw from the Punjab, which was officially part of the Delhi Sultanate by this time. Initially, Jalal ud-Din did not heed this request and encroached further into Iltutmish’s Punjab province. However, he withdrew subsequently and captured Multan from Qubachah who had not yet been subdued by Iltutmish. At this time, Qubachah remained the only credible opposition to Iltutmish.

Genghis Khan, preoccupied by the pursuit of Jalal ud-Din, the Khwarazm prince who had defeated a Mongol army in the initial stages of their Afghan campaign, decided not to cross the River Indus and thereby left Delhi alone. Iltutmish’s pragmatic assessment and decision, even though it went against the established traditions of hospitality, saved the new sultanate from the fury of the Mongols. If the Mongols had attacked, there is a high probability that the sultanate would have been destroyed in its infancy. It can be speculated that if this turn of events had come to pass, India as a ‘nation’ may have gained in terms of not becoming an Islamic state. Since the Mongols at this stage were Shamanists—closely aligned to Buddhism—and would in all likelihood have gradually merged with Hinduism, much like the earlier invaders who had succumbed to the all-enveloping embrace of the Hindu way of life. This may have avoided the cultural and religious clash that was to engulf the sub-continent for centuries, continuing ever since the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate.

Consolidation – Multan and Sindh

Jalal ud-Din left the Punjab in 1224 and the Mongols also returned to Afghanistan. The only lasting effect of this brief interlude of Central Asian politics into the sub-continent was the reduction of Qubachah’s power through his defeat at the hands of Jalal ud-Din. Parts of Multan passed into the hands of the Khwarazm forces and Bhatinda and areas along the Hakara River was annexed by Iltutmish during this skirmish. Qubachah was left with a small territorial holding restricted to some parts of Multan and Sindh.

Iltutmish recognised the opportunity of being able to finish Qubachah’s rule while he was in this reduced state and planned a two-pronged attack. He arranged to recover Lahore from Qubachah’s, by now nominal, control and then to send two armies—one from Lahore to attack Multan, and the other from Delhi to capture Uch—to envelope and reduce Qubachah to submission. On the arrival of these armies at his borders Qubachah fled to the Bhakkar Fort in lower Indus where he was besieged by Iltutmish after Uch had been overrun and annexed. At this stage Qubachah offered to negotiate, but Iltutmish demanded unconditional surrender and attacked Bhakkar. In an attempt to avoid capture and also to escape, Qubachah threw himself into the River Indus and was drowned. The year was 1228.

Multan and Sindh became integral parts of the Delhi Sultanate. Although Lahore was under Iltutmish, he did not control the entire Punjab, his direct control of the region being limited to Sialkot in the north. Iltutmish tasked the governors of Lahore, Multan and Uch to extend the borders of the sultanate to include the entire Punjab region. They planned and conducted a number of campaigns, but these were, at best, only partially successful. Iltutmish’s ambition to control the entire Punjab remained a wishful dream, his hold and control over Western Punjab was always tenuous and never permanent.

Consolidation – Bihar and Bengal

Immediately on Aibak’s death, Ali Mardan Khalji had declared his independence and started to behave as an independent ruler. However, he was barely sane, being delusional, cruel and sanguinary. After a brief period of time, his own officers revolted against his tyrannical ways and he was put to death. An officer from his entourage, Husam ud-Din Ewaz, assumed the throne as well as the title, calling himself Sultan Ghiyas ud-Din. He was an able, and perhaps more importantly, popular ruler. He brought Bihar, which had become a breakaway province, back into the fold and also started to extract tribute from the neighbouring Hindu kingdoms of Jajnagar, Tirhut, Vanga and Kamarupa.

As soon as the Mongols army withdrew and the threat to Delhi was neutralised, Iltutmish send an army to the east with the express order to bring Bengal back under the sultanate’s control. In 1225, Iltutmish himself took to the field against Ghiyas ud-Din. Unable to withstand the main army of Iltutmish, Ghiyas ud-Din accepted Delhi’s overlordship and agreed to pay tribute. Satisfied that the eastern regions had been brought under nominal control, Iltutmish returned to his capital. No sooner had the Delhi army moved away, Ghiyas ud-Din reneged on his agreement and reasserted his independence. Iltutmish then send his eldest and favourite son, Nasir ud-Din who was the governor of Awadh at this time, to punish Bengal. Nasir ud-Din captured the capital Lakhnauti in 1226 after defeating and killing Ghiyas ud-Din in battle. Bengal was annexed and became a province of the Delhi Sultanate. However, Nasir ud-Din died soon after under mysterious circumstances. Taking this as an opportunity, an officer Balka Khilji revolted and once again Bengal declared independence. In 1230, Iltutmish reconquered Bengal after defeating and beheading Balka Khilji. He annexed the region to the sultanate and bifurcated it into Bengal and Bihar under two separate governors to avoid concentrating too much power under one person, which invariably led to rebellion.

Campaigns in Rajputana

On Qutb ud-Din Aibak’s death, the Rajputs till then held under check, also rebelled against the Turkish governors who had been appointed by him across the entire region. Most of them managed to recapture their old holdings and reinstate themselves to their old status. Prominent amongst them were the Chandelas, Pariharas and the Chauhans who regained their entire old territories and reasserted their independence.

Iltutmish was not fazed with the loss of a large part of the sultanate’s territories. He was determined and fearless in the face of such adversity and had prioritised the tasks that he had to undertake after assuming the throne in Delhi. Immediately after the Mongol threat had been warded off through deft diplomacy, he turned his attention to the reconquest of Rajputana. In 1226, when his son was re-annexing Bengal to the sultanate, Iltutmish went deep into Rajasthan and besieged Ranthambhor. The fort was captured and reinvested with Turkish troops of the sultanate. He then went on to capture Mandor, the capital of the Paramaras. In 1228-29 he besieged Jalor where the Chauhan king Udai Singh fought back with great vigour. After a lengthy struggle, the Chauhan was defeated but Iltutmish reinstated him as a tributary king paying tribute to the Delhi Sultan.

In a span of about four years, Iltutmish recovered almost all the territory that had been lost in Rajputana at Aibak’s death. However, the campaign was not one sweeping victorious march. He suffered setbacks, at times repeatedly in some areas, and was also defeated in some of his attempts to capture territory under other kingdoms. Iltutmish captured and plundered the fort at Kalinjar and left a holding force there. The fort was counterattacked by the Chandelas and the Turkish forces under the command of Malik Tayasai fled, leaving the fort to the Chandelas.

Iltutmish personally attacked Nagada, the capital of the Guhilots (Gehlot?). However, the Guhilot ruler Kshetra Singh defeated Iltutmish on the battlefield and drove him off with great losses to his army. Similarly Iltutmish attacked the Chalukyas of Gujarat and was comprehensively defeated. He then led a plundering raid into Malwa which met with mixed success. This raid has been characterised by some English historians, particularly Sir Woolseley Haig, as a successful conquest of Malwa. This interpretation is incorrect, the foray into Malwa was only a diversionary plundering raid and nothing more. Neither did Iltutmish accomplish any lasting result from this raid.

Overall, in Rajputana Iltutmish met with mixed results, never being able to subdue the region fully and not being able to exercise uncontested control even of areas that he had captured. Even though he conducted a number of raids and fought a large number of battles, he could not affect any permanent conquests. The large revival of Hindu power during this period made it extremely difficult for Iltutmish, already under considerable pressure from other Turkish governors, to subdue them effectively. There is no doubt that his ventures into Rajputana were inconclusive and not ever of a permanent nature.

The Reconquest of the Doab

The region that lies between the two rivers Ganga and Yamuna is referred to as the Doab. Taking advantage of the power struggle in Delhi and the preoccupation of Iltutmish with the Central Asian intrusions, many provinces, some of them small by all standards, reasserted their independence. Kanauj and Benares formed part of these provinces which went outside Turkish control. Even Badaun, Itutmish’s erstwhile province, attempted to break free.

After establishing control of Delhi and stamping out the minor army revolt Iltutmish brought most of these provinces back under his control. It is obvious that there was only limited opposition to this reconquest, since there is almost no mention of these provinces or the battles to reconquer them in the broader narrative that is available. However, Awadh put up a spirited defence but was finally overcome. Nasir ud-Din, Iltutmish’s son was appointed the governor. Nasir ud-Din had to wage a continuous war with the local tribes to maintain control over the principality.

It is reported that the local population of Awadh put up a stout and long opposition in order to safeguard their independence and protect their religion. They were led by a chieftain named Pirthu (named Bartu in some sources) who is said to have killed 120,000 Muslim soldiers. This figure obviously is an exaggeration but testifies to his leadership and courage, which is also established by the fact that the tribes could be conquered by the Muslim forces only after his death. The fact that the locals were attempting to protect their religion indicates that forced conversions and religious oppression had started to make in-roads into the Turkish administration.

Iltutmish fell ill while on an expedition in the Baniyan of the Punjab region against the Khokars, returned to Delhi, and died on 29 April 1236.

Iltutmish – An Assessment

Iltutmish was sultan for nearly 25 years, ruling from 1211 when he was invested in Delhi to his death in 1236. He was an accomplished individual, brave soldier and a crafty general. Like all other Indian dynasts he was more interested in power than religion.

‘Muslim chroniclers chose to portray the occupation of Northern India as a religious offensive and to paint its principals as religious heroes; but such a view cannot stand the test of historical scrutiny.’

John Keay

India: A History, p. 242

Iltutmish was an able and successful administrator. His greatest achievement, considering that he was the slave of a slave, was to have stayed on the throne of Delhi for a quarter of a century that too during extremely volatile times. Further, whatever he achieved during his reign was through his own effort with absolutely no external support at any time. He also raised the status of the sultan above that of the nobles—till his accession, the prevalent tradition had been of the sultan being considered only the best among equals by the nobles of the court. He achieved an elevated status by introducing formalised etiquette in the court, similar to and modelled on the one followed in the great Persian court. By doing away with the easy informality that had been the norm till then, he forced the nobles to pay respect to him as the ruling king. The nobles were aware of the loss of their own status as an equal to the king and fairly rapidly formed an informal league that came to be called ‘The Forty’. This confederation of nobles controlled all the great fiefdoms of the sultanate, as well as all high offices in the government and the army. They played a crucial role in the affairs of state in the Delhi Sultanate, effectively becoming the power behind the scenes.

Iltutmish can be credited with four major achievements—he saved the infant Turkish sultanate from destruction by thwarting different threats in a methodical manner; he laid the foundation for what was to develop into a military monarchy; he provided the necessary legal status for the kingdom by introducing its own coinage in Arabic; and he perpetuated his dynasty by ensuring that his children succeeded him to the throne.

At a personal level Iltutmish appreciated learning and supported architectural developments. He built the Qutub Minar in Delhi. The construction of this structure had been commenced by Qutb ud-Din Aibak as a victory tower, but at his death only the basement storey had been constructed. Iltutmish was a pious Muslim and it has been recorded that he was intolerant of the Shi’a sect. There is tangible evidence to prove that the Ismaili Shi’as of Delhi were put to death in large numbers after a plot to assassinate him was unearthed and the Ismaili sect was implicated. Even otherwise, he pursued a policy of religious persecution, may not have been a ruthless process but nonetheless an officially sanctioned one, of all non-Sunni people.

By being overtly Muslim, he harnessed and manipulated the power of the clerics to the service of the sultanate as required. It has been suggested that his overt religious activities were mainly intended to ensure that he had the support of the zealous clergy, although this claim cannot be proved. On the negative side, even though he has been considered an able administrator, he was not a builder of institutions. His administrative acumen was realised through supplanting the existing system through Islamising it with Muslim ways and practices, mostly at the actual governing level. The fundamental principles were left intact.

Without any doubt Iltutmish can be considered the first king/sultan of the Delhi Sultanate. As is the case repeated in history many times, a notable dynasty gets established only when a capable and determined individual takes the reins at a critical juncture in its development. Shams ud-Din Iltutmish was that person for the dynasty that came to be referred to as the Slave Dynasty in later years.


© [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 Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. 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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