Indian History Part 54 The Slave Dynasty Section V From Confusion to Consolidation


Canberra, 24 November 2016

The struggle between the crown and the nobles for wielding real power in the sultanate, which had started with the death of Iltutmish, became less pronounced with the installation of Nasir ud-Din Mahmud Shah on the throne. He was invited by the nobles to be the figurehead that they had been attempting to place on the throne for the past three decades, a position that he meekly accepted. The nobles had won the power struggle, at least for the time being. Mahmud Shah obediently handed over all power to Balban, by now the unquestioned leader of ‘the Forty’. This was part of the tacit arrangement that had been put in place before Nasir ud-Din was permitted to be crowned as sultan. In any case, Nasir ud-Din was by nature docile and unambitious. He was also pious and god-fearing, preferring to lead a simple and uncomplicated life.

Nasir ud-Din Mahmud Shah’s Simplicity

It is said that the queen used to personally cook all the meals for Mahmud Shah even after he became the sultan. One day she is supposed to have burned her fingers while cooking and therefore requested her husband, the sultan, to provide her with a maid to do the cooking till such times that her wounds healed and she was able to resume her work. Nasir ud-Din refused the request on the plea that he was only a trustee of the State treasury and could not use the public moneys for his own comfort.

Without doubt this is a highly exaggerated account meant to emphasise the simple life that he led. There is irrefutable proof that the sultan had many wives and also a retinue of servants. However, this story that is recorded in the chronicles of the time should be taken as indicative of the simple and unostentatious life that the sultan preferred.

By character and temperament, Mahmud Shah was singularly unfit to rule, especially Delhi at a time when internal factionalism was at its height, and while Hindu revolts and the Mongol threat in the western borders combined to continually undermine the central power of the monarchy. Nasir ud-Din was fortunate in having as his wazir, Balban, who was efficient, strong-willed and completely loyal to the crown. In addition, Balban was also the sultan’s father-in-law and therefore had a vested interest in ensuring the longevity of his reign. There are rumours, still prevalent, that Nasir ud-Din had entered into a conspiracy with Balban against his nephew Masud Shah in order to usurp the throne. Although this is not a believable story since there is no proof, it has also been reported that Mahmud Shah was not completely bereft of ambition, as one episode further into his reign was to prove. The conspiracy theory continues to be an enigma in the life story of Nasir ud-Din Mahmud Shah—neither confirmed fully, nor disproved with certainty—an otherwise uncomplicated man, nominally ruling in a complicated time.

Mahmud Shah was however, pragmatic enough to realise his own limitations and was clearly able to distinguish and differentiate between personal ambition, probability and the ground realities of possibility. This self-awareness, along with an innate introversion ensured that he was able to reign, even though it was in name only, for the period of his entire life and to die of natural causes. This was a laudatory feat that only few ruling sultans of the period managed to achieve. There is a recognisable gap of a few years towards the end of his reign, from about 1260 onwards, where the narrative of his life is not coherent. However, there is no doubt that he lived peacefully and died, by some reports prematurely, in 1265 without leaving a male heir to the throne.

Balban Arrives on Centre-Stage

Mahmud Shah’s wazir Balban was originally named Baha ud-Din and was an Ilbari Turk like Iltutmish. He was the son of a khan of about 10,000 families but was captured by the Mongols in his youth and subsequently sold to Khwaja Jaman ud-Din of Basra in Baghdad. The Khwaja took Balban with him when he moved to Delhi where he was purchased by Iltutmish. Iltutmish recognised that his slave was highly capable and appointed him ‘Khasah-Bardar’ or personal attendant, and enrolled into the elite and famous corps of ‘the Forty Slaves’. Sultan Raziya promoted him to the post of Amir-i-Shikar, Lord of the Hunt or Chief Huntsman. However, Balban’s opportunistic streak was revealed when he joined the conspirators against Raziya and played a not insignificant part in deposing her. Bahram Shah, who was installed as the sultan after Raziya, repaid Balban’s assistance by granting him the fiefdom of Rewari in Punjab, to which the district of Hansi was added soon after.

Balban administered his fiefdom with great care and ensured that the condition of the common people improved noticeably. In 1245, the Mongols under the leadership on Mangu, laid siege to the Uch province. The Turkish nobles in Delhi were reluctant to oppose the might of the Mongols and vacillated in taking any action. Balban rose to the occasion and raised a large army, and despite the protests of some of the nobles marched to relieve Uch. He inflicted a crushing defeat on the Mongols. The expedition was efficiently managed and was considered a brilliant success for the armies of Islam in Hind.

The De-Facto Ruler

Balban is considered to have been the leader of the group that deposed Masud Shah and placed Nasir ud-Din Mahmud Shah on the throne. In 1246, he became the principal advisor to the sultan, being appointed Naib-i-Mamlikat or the regent. Further, he got his daughter married to Mahmud Shah in 1249, thus sealing his leadership amongst the nobles. As the naib, Balban exercised full regal powers, especially since Mahmud Shah was a political nonentity in the Delhi court. He took over all the authority of the sultan, leaving the incumbent as a mere figurehead, which was in any case in accordance with the agreement between the nobles and the sultan. However, he was extremely loyal and scrupulously honest in exercising the power vested in him only for the betterment of the crown.

By the time Balban became the Principal Minister, he was already acknowledged as the leader of ‘the Forty’. He went on to appoint his relatives to positions of power and authority. His brother Kashlu Khan was appointed Lord Chamberlain and a cousin, Sher Khan, was positioned as the governor of Lahore and Bhatinda. Through these and other appointments, Balban monopolised the power structure that in turn created a faction within the court who felt disenfranchised and therefore opposed his ascendancy.

Military Exploits as the Regent

After establishing his control over the court, Balban started to consolidate the power of the crown by initiating measures to put down the rebellions that were becoming endemic in the sultanate. The defeat and death of Sultan Raziya was seen as an opportunity by a number of chieftains and governors to carve out their own independent enclaves. These moves brought into direct question the veracity of the central authority wielded from Delhi. In 1246, Balban crossed the River Ravi and subdued the rebellious Khokhars and other tribes in the hills of Jud and Jillum. A more difficult task that had to be undertaken immediately was to resist the move towards independence by a number of Hindu kingdoms. Balban mounted several expeditions to the Doab to punish the Hindu rulers of the region who continued to rise up in revolt with monotonous regularity. The ebb and flow of these revolts kept the Delhi sultanate occupied in bitter fighting for lengthy periods, with no final outcome.

Balban captured the fortress at Talsandah near Kanauj and then defeated the Rana of Malaki. This was the territory between Kalinjar and Kara and the defeated Rana is identified as Trilokyavarma of the Chandela dynasty. After overcoming stubborn resistance, the Delhi forces extracted a large booty from the Chandelas and returned. The regent then attacked and subdued Mewat, the region south of Delhi, and besieged Ranthambhor. Although the fort at Ranthambhor was captured after repeated attempts had failed, it was achieved at an exorbitant cost to the Delhi army. In 1251, an expedition was mounted against the Hindu kingdom of Gwalior, which was only partially successful. Thereafter no attempt was made to establish Turkish dominance over Central India. Since no permanent annexation of territory is recorded in any of these initiatives, it must be understood that the objective of the Regent was to ensure that these kings did not interfere with the functioning of the sultanate. The expeditions were punitive in nature and meant as a show of force, rather than a conquering march. It also indicates that the Hindu kingdoms were of equal status and power as the fledgling sultanate.

The province of Bengal was the source of a great deal of trouble to Balban throughout his tenure as the Regent. At the death of Raziya, the governor of Bengal Tughan Khan, who was a de facto independent ruler, invaded and pillaged Awadh to the west of his territories. Thereafter he attacked Jajnagar in Orissa, to the south-east of the Bengal province.  However, Tughan Khan was defeated by the Jajnagar king, which gave Balban an excuse to send the Delhi forces to intervene. Balban send an army under Tamur Khan to dismiss the Jajnagar forces from the sultanate territories. However, he also gave very specific and personal instructions to Tamur Khan that Tughan Khan was to be removed from his gubernatorial position. Tamur Khan repelled the Jajnagar forces and replaced Tughan Khan, who died immediately after being removed from power. [Although no foul play has been recorded or indicated, considering the norms of the time, some sort of extra-judicial activity in the death of Tughan Khan cannot be ruled out.]

Tamur Khan withdrew after placing Yuzhak-i-Tughril Khan as the governor of Bengal. Almost immediately Tughril Khan assumed independent rule although it was the Delhi forces who had bestowed the province to him. Before Balban could react to this rebellion, Tughril Khan was killed in a military expedition to Kamrupa (modern Assam). Balban then established a fragile control over Bengal but even this was short-lived. The new governor, Arslan Khan, declared independence after three years of rule and Balban did not have the resources to pay much attention to this rebellion. Bengal thereafter remained detached from the sultanate till the death of Mahmud Shah. Since the rebellious governors were all Turkish aristocrats, these developments clearly demonstrate the in-fighting and divisions within the Turkish aristocracy. It also shows that the sultanate had not yet developed the infrastructure or the pervasive power structure necessary to ensure that far-flung provinces remained within the command ambit of the Delhi sultan.

Like the province of Bengal, the North-Western region of the sultanate also remained restive, for three fundamental reasons. First, Saif ud-Din Hasan Qarlugh, the ruler of Bamiyan and surrounding areas was an ambitious and capable man. He was set on expanding his territorial hold into Multan and Sindh, sending out punitive expeditions repeatedly in order to test the strength, readiness and willingness of the Delhi sultanate to protect its borders. Although Qarlugh managed to occupy Multan in 1249, he was forced to abandon the province almost immediately. Second, the Mongols, although reduced in strength and capacity continued to be an influential group who exerted almost constant pressure on the western borders. By 1254, the Mongols controlled the major part of greater Punjab including Lahore, with the Delhi sultanate having claim only to the territories in the south-east. Third, local officers representing the Delhi sultanate in the North-West were all singularly anxious to carve out their own principalities and being self-serving were disloyal to Delhi. Intrigue, jealousy and treachery was endemic to the province and the court that ruled the sultanate’s territory.

Kashlu Khan, the governor of Multan and Uch became a vassal of the Mongol ruler of Persia, Hulagu Khan, pledging allegiance to him rather than to Delhi and Sultan Mahmud Shah. He then entered into an alliance with Qutlugh Khan the governor of Awadh with the intent of capturing Delhi in a joint attack. However, Hulagu Khan refused to support this move and reached an agreement with Balban, both sides agreeing to accept the existing border between the two kingdoms. What could have been a major setback to the stability of the sultanate and an embarrassment to Balban was avoided through deft diplomatic manoeuvrings.

A Temporary Downfall

Balban as regent was overbearing and adopted extremely regal trappings to his ‘rule’. It is therefore not difficult to understand that he had accumulated a number of enemies within the nobility. While Balban was on an expedition to Multan along with many of the nobles loyal to him, Imad ud-Din Rihan, a noble who was a Hindu convert, incited some nobles of the anti-Balban faction to revolt. He was also able to influence the mild-mannered Sultan Mahmud Shah against Balban. The weak-willed sultan had already been smarting under the overarching control of his naib, regent, and also resented the power enjoyed by Balban. In March 1253, Mahmud Shah issued orders dismissing both Balban and his brother from their official positions. Balban was further ordered to retreat to his estates in the Sewalik hills and Hansi.

Here Rihan and his co-conspirators miscalculated Balban’s shrewdness and native cunning. They had hoped that on being ordered to retreat to his estates, physically removed from the actual seat of power, Balban and his brother would revolt. Such a revolt could have been reason enough to seize all their property and reduce their power base, thus destroying their influence in one fell sweep. Balban however obeyed the orders and went to live in his estates, without putting up even a token resistance or appealing to the sultan, his son-in-law, for clemency. Rihan ensured that all Balban’s appointees holding key positions in the sultanate were removed and the places were filled by others more amenable to Rihan’s control. Rihan appointed himself, through the good offices of the ineffectual sultan, the vakil-i-dar or keeper of the palace keys and established a completely new ministerial regime.

Rihan however had a different challenge to overcome. An unalterable fact was that he was a convert to Islam, having been a Hindu before the conversion. There is no doubt that he was as good or as bad a Muslim as any of the Turkish or Tajzik nobles in the court. He was also the acknowledged leader of the ‘Hindu Muslims’, the locals who had converted to Islam. The Turks were fundamentally racists and did not want to be lorded over by a renegade Hindu and were extremely reluctant to function under the tutelage of Rihan. Contemporary chroniclers of Turkish extraction have used vile epithets to describe Rihan and his ‘rule’. The stand-off between Rihan and the more ‘Muslim’ elitist Turks resulted in the administration of the sultanate starting to fray at the edges and becoming lax. From contemporary records and the flow of events it is very clear that the Turks from outside the sub-continent were hostile not only to the Hindus but also to the local converts to their religion who were considered to be of an inferior social strata. [The Arabs of the Middle East continue to harbour this attitude towards Muslims from the South and South-East Asian region, treating these people as inferior in all aspects of life. The author has witnessed this arrogant disdain of the Arabs for their co-religionists from Asia first-hand when he was living in Riyadh for a brief period of time.]

The Turkish elite could not condone or tolerate a Hindu convert being at the centre of power and being the chief of the sultanate’s administration. They were the epitome of extreme racism and considered Delhi their exclusive heritage. As a result of this hostile undercurrent, the sultanate degenerated into a place where lawlessness was rampant, spreading even to Delhi, the capital. The dissatisfaction spread to all provinces and the Sultan was overwhelmed with petitions to dismiss Rihan. Some records provide a contrary report, which states that Rihan was popular with the common people of the lower class. This could be attributed to the fact that the lower strata of society were predominantly local Hindu converts and therefore could have felt a natural affinity for one of ‘their own’. The division between foreign Muslims and local converts through the reluctant acceptance of the converts and the inferior status granted to them is already visible at this stage. Considering that this was the early stages of the first really Islamic kingdom in the sub-continent, the veracity of the Islamic religious belief of considering everyone ‘equal’ has to be questioned. The meaning of the cynical statement that ‘all are equal, but some are more equal that the others’ is clearly demonstrated in this racist prejudice that was enshrined in the Indian context for a number of centuries by the Muslim rulers.

The provincial governors, all Turkish nobles, assembled an army and marched to Delhi to remove Rihan from power. Sultan Mahmud Shah marched out of Delhi to meet the rebel army and camped at Samana. The rebels had already placed Balban as the head of the army and when the two armies met at Tabarhind, the sultan’s army retreated to Hansi in complete confusion. Considering the debacle that would follow if the two armies clashed in battle, Mahmud Shah accepted the demands of the rebel army and dismissed Rihan. He was banished initially to Badaun and subsequently to Bahraich. Balban was reinstated and returned to Delhi in triumph on 1 February 1254. His temporary eclipse from supreme power had lasted one month short of a year. He continued to hold the position of regent till the death of Mahmud Shah. Balban reinstated all the nobles who had been dismissed by Rihan, thereby ensuring that the ascendancy of the Turkish nobility was unquestioned in the Delhi sultanate.

Balban’s Achievements as the Regent

Balban was the de facto ruler of the sultanate continuously for two decades, other than for the one year when he was out of favour. His greatest achievement was that he managed to preserve its integrity by containing the flow towards disintegration after Sultan Raziya was deposed and killed. There was extreme turmoil and anxiety in the country and Balban served the crown indefatigably. In these times of rebellion, conspiracy, treachery and the ever present threat of a Mongol invasion, his loyalty to the sultan was exemplary. Balban managed to control disorder and strife and also provided a stable administration to the people.

Balban created a large and efficient army that in turn protected the borders, ruthlessly suppressed internal rebellions and preserved the territorial unity of the state. Through a clever combination of military deterrence and political astuteness he managed to keep the Mongols at bay, no easy task even in the best of times. At this stage the Delhi sultanate was going through convolutions of an identity crisis in the socio-political system. Balban also managed to control the Turkish nobles through his iron will. This achievement is normally underplayed, but must be seen as an important contribution since the prime source of all dissentions and disaffections in Delhi were these nobles. The Turkish nobles were self-serving, fiercely independent, and did not readily answer to any control being imposed. In the final analysis, it can be truly said that Balban single-handedly held the sultanate together through a period which could have seen it disintegrate and disappear.

© [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 Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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