Indian History Part 56 Section II Muhammad Tughluq: The Impatient Administrator


Canberra, 14 May 2017

Three days after the death of Ghiyas ud-Din, Jauna Ulugh Khan the designated crown prince, ascended the throne assuming the title Muhammad Tughluq. In various chronicles he has also been named Muhammad bin Tughluq and Muhammad Shah. Muhammad bin Tughluq would mean the son of Tughluq that in turn would make the title ‘Tughluq’ one of the common names of Ghiyas ud-Din, which is incorrect. Shah was a title that was assumed by many of the Delhi sultanate rulers, perhaps in imitations of the great Shahs of Persia, and therefore could have been attributed to Muhammad by contemporary chroniclers. For the purpose of this narrative the sultan will be referred to as Muhammad Tughluq.

There was no opposition to Muhammad’s accession to the throne. No revolution, palace intrigue or popular uprising marred the smooth transition of power from his deceased father to Muhammad being anointed the unquestioned king of Delhi. He started his reign with the grant of large and generous gifts to loyal officers and nobles. His generosity was such that the word spread far and wide, bringing to Delhi many pious and learned men—who were nevertheless sufficiently worldly wise to detect an opportunity to better their social and financial status—who were, as expected, richly rewarded by the new sultan. Public opinion in all kingdoms and at all times have been notoriously short lived. Therefore, it was not long before the catastrophe that befell Ghiyas ud-Din, and the suspicious circumstances surrounding it, were fully forgotten by the people.

Jauna Khan, Muhammad Tughluq, was brought up as a soldier while also being provided the best available literary education in his youth. His first major appointment as part of the nobility in the Delhi court was as the ‘master of the horse’ during Khusrav Shah’s reign. The appointment was not an indication of his capability, but an attempt by Khusrav to ensure the support of the Tughluq clan headed by Ghiyas ud-Din who was then the governor of Punjab. However, Muhammad Tughluq was ambitious from his younger days. There are unconfirmed reports that Ghiyas ud-Din, a staid and reliable governor, embarked upon the route of rebellion only at the instigation and advice of his son. Muhammad’s ambition was tinged with an underlying unscrupulous nature that often led to his actions being suspected of being ill-intentioned. His sudden return to Delhi from an almost victorious campaign in Warangal (described in a later chapter) has also been considered by some analysts to have been an attempt at usurping the throne. It is thought that he did not proceed further with the plan only because he lost his nerve at the last moment or because he changed his mind after initiating the actions. This vacillation was a characteristic that was to manifest even more with grave consequences, especially after he established himself as the undisputed sultan.

Muhammad Tughluq had almost a blind belief in his own wisdom and ability to rule the kingdom better than any of his predecessors. This comes through in the analysis of most of his decisions. He continued to reside in Tughlaquabad for an extended mourning period of 40 days and then set out for Delhi in a ceremonial procession. In Delhi he took up residence in the Red palace of the early sultans. He also declared that he would continue to pursue his father’s policy of ensuring justice for all. The people of Delhi celebrated the arrival of the new sultan with great festivities. Perhaps more important was that a sense of optimism prevailed amongst the population. They seemed to have high expectations of the new king who was educated, a soldier and had the demeanour of a statesman. This far out in time from those days, it can be seen that the celebrations were pre-emptive and indulged in without the people having the slightest inkling that they were about to usher in the most turbulent reign in the 300-year history of the Delhi sultanate.

Sources of Information

There is a great deal on information available about Muhammad and his reign in contemporary chronicles. There is even a detailed account written by Ibn Battuta, a Moorish explorer-traveller who spent more than a decade in India—most of it in Delhi as a guest in the court of Muhammad Tughluq. Ibn Battuta’s account is particularly forthright and honest since he had nothing to fear from the Tughluq dynasty. His account/book was written after he had returned home to Morocco at the end of his travels. However, the chronicles and reports are confused, and at times contradictory, regarding the events of Muhammad’s reign, a malaise that is apparent in modern day explanations and analysis of the events. There is inconsistency in opinion regarding the intent of some of his actions and contentious debate regarding the motive and desired results of most of the schemes that Muhammad Tughluq initiated. The confusion is compounded by the fact that there still exists doubts regarding the chronology of some of the clearly recorded events.

The primary source of information is the chronicle of Zia ud-Din Barani. He belonged to a family of prominent officers who had been in royal service for at least two generations. Further, although he never held any official position, Barani himself was a favoured courtier in Muhammad’s court for 14 years. This privileged position made him an enviable close-quarters witness to the functioning of the administration and provided him with a silent but ringside seat to observe the core of the kingdom’s decision-making process. This position also had the distinct disadvantage of not being able to criticise the sultan simultaneous to the happening of important events. However, Barani’s chronicle for the most part can be accepted as having been written without fear or favour of the sultan for two reasons. One, that it was only completed and made public a few years after the death of the Muhammad; and two, it was written towards the end of Barani’s own life when he was no longer a courtier and had no need to fear the Tughluqs. Barani therefore, is brutally candid about Muhammad Tughluq’s misdeeds and equally appreciative of his good deeds.

A Profile of Muhammad Tughluq

From available contemporary literature and later-day analysis, Muhammad definitely emerges as a person with a psychotic, split-personality. He was an unfathomable combination of great qualities beset with extremely base instincts; a bizarre mixture of altruistic goodness and pure evil; an individual bloated with overweening arrogance replaced at times with abject humility; a sultan given to great paroxysms of rage accompanied by brutal violence, which was masked and counterbalanced by acts of extreme compassion. At his humblest best, Muhammad was capable of delivering equity and justice, demonstrated high compassion for the needy, and bestowed extraordinary generosity.

Of all the monarchs who sat on the throne of Delhi—Hindu and Muslim—Muhammad Tughluq is the most enigmatic puzzle who continues to remain only partly understood. Muhammad generated debate amongst contemporary chroniclers in his own lifetime and continues to do so even among modern day historians. His reign was full of ‘stirring’ events, depending on how the concept of ‘stirring’ is accepted within the context of a historical analysis. A greater paradox is the fact that despite the availability of voluminous and detailed chronicles of his activities, they fail to provide any definitive clues to the influences that culminated in the generation of his unique ideas, the nature of some of his more grandiose schemes, and the motives that inspired them. This situation reinforces the impetuous nature of Muhammad’s decision-making and the inability that he displayed throughout his reign to consult with able, sane and venerable nobles in his service. His was a one-man administration, ruthlessly enforcing decisions that had not been thought through with sagacity and made without any outside inputs.

The consequence of this in-built paradox in the narrative of the sultan’s actions has been to create an image of a ruler with a wide divergence of opinion about him. In turn, this has led to hypothetical reconstruction of events based on hearsay and speculation. The situation not only makes analysis controversial, but prone to factual errors, which leads to the lack of veracity of the entire study itself. In modern times, as an anachronism in his own lifetime, Muhammad Tughluq represents the quintessential perplexing puzzle that faces historians from time to time—one that can never be fully unravelled.

Muhammad Tughluq was a compulsive innovator, at the same level as the other great innovator who preceded him on the Delhi throne, Ala ud-Din Khilji. The fundamental difference between the two, which determined the success and failure of the schemes that each of them instituted, was the disparity in their inherent human characteristics. Muhammad was not pragmatic or patient, clearly lacking the perseverance to execute his schemes properly and see it through to a logical conclusion. He was an incorrigible dreamer, although some of the schemes that his fertile mind conceived were quite sound. The challenge that Muhammad faced was not the conception of the scheme, most of which were actually fairly sound. The challenge lay within his character, which was erratic and mercurial and lacked the tenacity to fully implement even minor plans.

In contrast to Ala ud-Din who was a total pragmatist, Muhammad was a fantasist; all of Ala ud-Din’s schemes were motivated solely by political considerations while Muhammad was motivated not by necessity, but by the excitement that his whimsies created; and while Ala ud-Din was deliberate and calculating in all his decisions, Muhammad was almost completely impulsive. Even their decision-making process was in complete contrast to each other. Ala ud-Din always held detailed discussions with his councillors on every major project that was being planned, although in the end he always made up his own mind, giving the royal stamp to the considered decision. Muhammad on the other hand never discussed his projects with anyone, probably in the implicit belief that all his ideas were good, and unilaterally promulgated whatever royal decrees he deemed necessary. The result was that while Ala ud-Din succeeded implementing almost all his reforms, Muhammad failed in all his endeavours.

Administrative Experiments

It has to be mentioned in his favour that Muhammad Tughluq was at all times a diligent ruler. Almost immediately on becoming the sultan he proclaimed a number of ordnances aimed at improving the existing revenue system. An innovative ordnance was the one that required the compilation of a register to record the revenue and expenditure of each province in detail. The governors were ordered to send all records to Delhi for centralised compilation and analysis. Muhammad must have aimed at carrying out a comparative study of the revenue and expenditure of individual provinces in order to introduce a uniform standard of land revenue. However, this is mere speculation since the sultan never spelt out the aim of the exercise and neither is it mentioned in any of the chronicles. The chronicles also do not mention any consequences that came with the implementation, any follow-up action that was instituted, or when and why the ordnance lapsed into disuse. This is a typical example of Muhammad Tughluq’s process of administrative reform—order the start of a well-meaning scheme while keeping everyone in the dark regarding the final objective, lose interest in it fairly quickly during the early stages of its implementation, and rapidly let the order lapse into dormancy.

Revenue Reforms – Taxation of the Doab

One of the earliest administrative measures that the sultan introduced was to impose extra taxes in the Doab in an effort to increase the revenue to the exchequer. The reason for the Doab to be chosen for this measure could be that the land was extremely fertile and also that the people of the Doab were habitually of a rebellious nature, rising up against Delhi at the slightest provocation. It is also presumed that the measure was an initiative to raise revenue by about five to ten per cent. There are some reports that indicate the aimed increase to be closer to 20 per cent, but even for Muhammad Tughluq that is too high a percentage increase to be considered credible. The increase in revenue was to be effected not through an increase in land taxes, but through the imposition of additional taxes like grazing tax, house tax and such. Accordingly houses were numbered, cattle branded and the taxes imposed with the full vigour of the central administration.

Unfortunately for Muhammad, the imposition of the new taxes coincided with a season of failed monsoons that had already led to the beginning of a long term famine in the land. Further, the combined taxes being imposed was out of proportion to the income of the people, even calculated at the pre-famine level. It was obvious that the people would resist paying the new taxes, and with the famine even the original amount was unaffordable. The strict enforcement of the enhanced taxes brought farmers to utter impoverishment and misery. Many farmers abandoned their land and turned to highway robbery as a means of feeding their families that in turn resulted in the rapid breakdown of the law and order in the provinces. These unintended consequences enraged the sultan, who became even more stringent in the imposition of the taxes. It is reported that defaulters were hunted down like so many animals in the forest by the sultan and his forces.

The sultan’s popularity took a beating. Rather late, Muhammad started to institute some measures to alleviate the situation. He offered loans to the farmers and also ordered wells to be dug to get over the draught and famine situation. However, like all his other policies, these also were not pursued with the necessary momentum to make them effective—they were half-hearted attempts that gradually lost impetus and failed to make any tangible difference to the sorry lot of the peasants. The introduction of additional taxes in the Doab failed to achieve its presumed objectives. ‘Presumed’ since the sultan’s reasoning for the plan and the objectives that he had in mind have remained obscure.

There were two major reasons for the failure of the new taxation initiative. First, a similar taxation offensive had been introduced by Ala ud-Din in the early days of his reign. However, ever the pragmatist, he had almost immediately seen that the measure was unpopular and had consciously allowed the order to lapse into disuse. The reintroduction of similar measures was resented and opposed by the general population. Second was the timing of the introduction when famine had already started to impact the province and realising even the normal revenue was becoming difficult. Therefore, even the attempts at providing assistance came too late, with the farmers using the loans they were given to purchase food rather than procuring seeds for the next or future planting.

Barani brings into focus like no other chronicler the inception and execution of the policy of taxation of the Doab. According to him the famine continued for several years and thousands perished in the famine. Further, the sultan is purported to have put to death any farmer abandoning his fields and also the defaulters who did not pay the increased tax. The end result was that it created untold misery on the population and devastated a large part of the kingdom. Barani particularly mentions the inhuman cruelty of the sultan in the enforcement of the new taxation laws prior to his turn around to provide assistance. Modern historians have tried to downplay the descriptions of extreme cruelty reported by contemporary writers as being biased exaggerations. However, even they have no doubts regarding the widespread distress brought on by the combination of enhanced taxes, famine and the sultan’s insistence of the strict enforcement of the royal ordnance.

Attempts to Clear Muhammad of any Misdeeds

The actual date of the enforcement of the increase in taxes has been generally accepted as 1326-27, although few sources insist that it was done three years later. This means that within a year of assuming the throne, Muhammad had started to implement his fanciful administrative ideas.

Some modern historians have hypothesised a story around the later date (1330) of the taxation initiative in order to clear the sultan of any responsibility for the debacle that followed. The concocted story is as follows:

The number of farmers in the Doab had been increased through the grant of land to soldiers disbanded after the Khorasan campaign. When the increase in taxes was announced these soldier-farmers protested and refused to cultivate the land. They were also accused of open rebellion and murdering some of the tax collectors. In retribution, the sultan inflicted heavy punishment on the Hindu village chiefs, despite that fact that the disbanded soldiers would almost all have been Muslims. The ringleaders of the rebellion, by this account all Hindu village chiefs, then fled to the forest and joined forces with the Rajput clans of Dalmau who were in open revolt against Delhi. This left the sultan with no alternative but to hunt the rebels down across the entire region.

If this narrative is believed, it automatically transfers the blame for the fiasco on to the people, particularly the Hindus. How the Muslim soldiers who rebelled were transformed to being Hindus, even in this far-fetched account is difficult to fathom. Therefore, it is apparent that this fanciful reconstruction of events is based on speculation and only aimed at erasing the faux pas that Muhammad had committed. It is an attempt to even make him look benevolent through emphasising the remedial measures that he instituted at a late stage in the self-created fiasco.

The attempt at shifting the blame is an incorrect assessment; the responsibility for the entire debacle lies firmly with Muhammad Tughluq.

Revenue Reforms – Department of Agriculture

Muhammad embarked on an innovative and valuable initiative with the object of expanding cultivation through the creation of a department of agriculture. The dual objectives were to convert fallow land to farmlands and to spread the cultivation of high-value commercial crops along with other common-consumption crops. The initiative started with the offer of liberal loans to entice and encourage the farmers to make the switch, even partially. Up to this stage, the scheme was on the right track. As a further innovation, Muhammad carried out a pilot project to study the feasibility of the scheme. He had the officials select a large tract of land, 60 miles square, and cultivated it with different crops in rotation at government expense and supervised by government officials. Then came the challenges that converted the scheme into a failure.

The experiment failed for a number of reasons. First, the land selected for the pilot project was not fertile and therefore did not give the correct indication of the feasibility of the scheme. Second, the experiment was not fully understood by both the officials and farmers involved. This was typical of Muhammad’s inability or unwillingness to explain the project and the desired end-state fully and/or have a consultation process with the officials involved. In this instance, he had not described the project in detail to anyone. To make matters worse, he did not give sufficient personal attention to the project after it had been initiated. Third, the three-year period that was prescribed to analyse the viability of the project was insufficient to produce a reasonable result, considering that this was an agricultural project.

The fourth reason was the proverbial last straw that broke the back of the project. Seeing the ease with which generous loans were being granted, a number of unscrupulous men applied for and received enormous sums of money merely on their promise of starting to farm and creating great returns. Further, officials charged with distributing these loans themselves started to defraud the treasury. The project was one of the most innovative and advanced experimental concept in agricultural reorganisation. It could be considered the idea of a genius. However, it failed and had to be abandoned because of the inherent flaws in the sultan’s character.

Revenue Reforms – Issuance of Token Currency (1329-30)

Muhammad Tughluq’s reign has been accepted by historians as an important landmark in the history of coinage in the sub-continent. On coming to power, he initiated an ambitious program aimed at reforming the entire existing system of coinage. The aim was to determine the relative values of precious metals and the facilitate ease of exchange and convenience of circulation. There is no dissent among historians in agreeing that this was achieved without much difficulty.

Then in 1329 Muhammad attempted a most daring plan—he introduced token currency made of brass and copper that was declared equal in value to the silver and gold coins till then in circulation. It is highly probable that the idea was borrowed from China and/or Persia where paper currency had been in circulation as legal tender for a few centuries. However, there is no unanimity of opinion regarding the reasons for Muhammad to adopt this rather drastic step of introducing token currency or even the wisdom of embarking on this route.

There are two speculative reasons for Muhammad to have introduced this step, both of which cannot be confirmed with any certainty from contemporary records. First is that the royal treasury was bereft of wealth and almost bankrupt—drained by wars, putting down rebellions, expensive administrative experiments of the sultan and also by his prodigious generosity. Added to this was the failure of the taxation policy of the Doab and the subsequent expenditure involved in providing succour to the impoverished farmers and peasants of the region. The second is that famine had become endemic to most of the kingdom, especially in the most fertile of lands, leading to a general decline in agricultural produce. For a kingdom reliant on an agriculture-based economy this was a debilitating blow. The combined effect was that the sultan had to resort to deficit financing because of the extremely curtailed revenue that was flowing into the royal coffers. However, the reasons above are only speculation and not based on any firm evidence.

There is another viewpoint amongst some historians that the introduction of the token coinage was the result of a universal shortage of silver. According to this hypothesis, the sultan was only attempting to bridge the shortage of silver coins although the treasury was still rich. In any case, by royal decree brass and copper coins were made equal to the silver ‘tanka’ of 140 grains. This became enforced law. Irrespective of the reasons for the introduction of token coins, at the conceptual level the measure was praiseworthy. However, the manner in which the scheme was implemented left a lot to be desired and there is unanimity in opinion that the end-result was disastrous for the royal treasury.

So what went wrong? There are many reasons that combined to make this modernistic reform a complete disaster in the Tughluq kingdom. The first was that although the concept was borrowed from China, the sultan did not study the manner in which the scheme had been introduced and implemented in that country. In China, along with the introduction of paper currency elaborate measures had been instituted to prevent forgery with counterfeiters being summarily executed when apprehended. Muhammad lacked the administrative will to enforce laws to prevent forgery and his administration lacked the skills to effect such a complex scheme successfully.

Second, when the royal decree was issued that brass and copper coins would have the same value as gold and silver coins, the gold and silver coins were not withdrawn from circulation—they continued be in use as common legal tender. This meant that anyone could exchange a copper coin for a silver/gold coin at will. To further compound this issue, the brass and copper coins were easy to copy and counterfeits proliferated within a short period of time. It is reported by contemporary historians that every ‘Hindu’ household became a copper coin minting house. [The bias of Muslim chroniclers against the Hindus is very obvious in this statement, since the entire population entered into the business of minting copper coins, irrespective of their religious persuasion.] Merchants and village headmen minted copper coins and cleared their debts and liabilities easily and rapidly. In a very short period of time gold and silver coins were suppressed and being hoarded by the people. The result was a complete failure of the scheme.

Inevitably the value of the copper coins was reduced to the value of its metal content, not the inscribed value. The state lost heavily and private citizens profited enormously during the period of time that their value was held to be equal to the silver tankas. Muhammad Tughluq, never an unintelligent man, realised the failure and also that the state finances were being ruined. Therefore, he abandoned the scheme with another royal decree. In frustrated anger he replaced copper coins with gold or silver, as originally promised, to anyone who brought them to the royal treasury. Effectively the scheme ended with the government buying copper at the price of silver or gold!

‘Thousands of men from various quarters, who possessed thousands of these copper coins … now brought them to the treasury, [and received in exchange gold and silver coins] … So many of these copper coins were brought to the treasury, that heaps of them rose up in Tughluqabad like mountains.’

From the Chronicle of Barani,

As quoted in Abraham Eraly,

The Age of Wrath: The History of the Delhi Sultanate, p. 161.

The failure of the scheme has been attributed to a combination of the impetuousness of a well-meaning but illusionary sultan and the ignorant avarice of the general population. Although the avarice of the people was a contributory factor, the sultan should have anticipated it and taken measures to curtail the trend. It is a universal truth that the general population will always attempt to gain wealth through the easiest means. Therefore, the responsibility for the failure must, in an unbiased analysis, rest with the sultan alone.

Muhammad had failed to appreciate the elaborate administrative infrastructure that were required to be put in place before the scheme was introduced. He was bereft of the patience and perseverance necessary to purse the implementation of an intricate scheme to a successful end-state. He was also unable to appreciate the limitations of the scheme brought on by the circumstances of the time and institute remedial measures like the Chinese had done. The final result was that Muhammad became further embittered and disillusioned, turning against his subjects in anger. The fact remains that Muhammad Tughluq had not meant any deception by introducing the token currency. However, the state was defrauded by the people who took advantage of the lack of control exercised in the implementation of a visionary scheme. The strength of the kingdom’s economy was demonstrated by the fact that even after compensating the people with gold and silver, the sultan did not feel any great or irreparable financial stringency.

‘There was no special machinery to mark the difference of the fabric of the royal mint and the handiwork of the moderately skilled artisan. Unlike the precautions taken to prevent the imitation of the Chinese paper notes, there was positively no check upon the authenticity of the coper token, and no limit to the power of production by the masses at large.’

Edward Thomas, Numismatist,

As quoted in Ishwari Prasad, History of Medieval India, p. 248.

Transfer of the Capital (1326-27)

Within a year of assuming power, Muhammad Tughluq conceived a good-intentioned scheme—the shift the capital of the sultanate to Devagiri, now renamed Daulatabad, located about 1000 kilometres south of Delhi. This initiative could be termed a huge ‘political experiment’. In a critical analysis a number of logical reasons emerge as possibly having contributed to the sultan’s decision to embark on this ambitious project.

Early in his reign Muhammad had to mount an expedition to suppress a rebellion in the Deccan. In the process, the military strategist in him had clearly perceived the locational importance and geographical advantage of Devagiri. The empire had grown large by now: in the north it included the Doab, the plains of the Punjab, Lahore and the territories stretching from the River Indus to the coast of Gujarat; in the east it reached to Bengal; in the centre it encompassed the principalities of Malwa, Ujjain, Mahoba and Dhar; and in the south, the Deccan had been subdued with the principal powers acknowledging Delhi suzerainty. For such a vast empire, Delhi was inadequate as the capital and needed to be moved further inland to ensure strategic depth and geographic centrality. Delhi was far too close to the north-west frontier of the empire from where the Mongol threat always emanated. The Mongol raids regularly reached the outskirts of Delhi, making it insecure and unsuitable as the seat of imperial power.

Considering the geo-military situation of the time, the decision was obviously not that of a whimsical despot as it has been made out to be in later-day analysis. In addition to its locational advantage, Devagiri had an impregnable fortress atop a high, rocky and precipitous hill that made an excellent and safe place for the sultan to live in, especially in the turbulent times of the age. As an aside, the abode on top of a high hill, where he would live high above his subjects—both physically and esoterically—must have also appealed to Muhammad’s exalted view of his own greatness and stature.

In addition, the northern part of the sub-continent had already been conquered and subdued, forming the core of the kingdom whereas the Peninsula was still rebellious and turbulent. The Deccan was barely under control and was a region of uneasy alliances and periodic subjugations. It would be easier for the sultan to exercise better personal administrative control over the subjugated regions and also to attempt further southward expansion from a geographically proximate capital. There was also the unreported lure of the wealth of the Deccan kingdoms that would have added impetus to the decision to relocate the capital. Devagiri was much closer to the rich kingdoms of the south and therefore would have facilitated conquest and acquisition of wealth for the sultanate.

Considering the logical reasons for the relocation of the capital, at the strategic level the decision to relocate was sensible and deserved to succeed. However, like all other initiatives of the ill-fated sultan, it failed.

The Sultan’s Disgust of Delhi?

Ibn Battuta states in his account that Muhammad was disgusted with the general population of Delhi because they had written a number of anonymous letters full of abuse regarding the administration. Some of these letters were personally abusive towards the sultan himself. Battuta claims that the sultan decided to shift the capital away from Delhi in order to punish the citizens of Delhi.

It is highly improbable that this claim and the reason given are true. The project was far too serious an undertaking even for an impetuous sultan like Muhammad to contemplate for such a frivolous reason. It is surprising that a number of respected western historians have accepted this narrative to be true.

The claim of the shifting of the capital having been initiated to spite the people of Delhi will have to be discounted as a fanciful addition to the story by Ibn Battuta, perhaps done in order to reinforce the quixotic temperament of Muhammad Tughluq.

The Reasons for Failure

The decision to relocate the capital was made in 1327. However, there is confusion about whether the sultan ordered the relocation of only the royal court with all its staff and officers or whether he meant for the entire population of Delhi to move. This is typical of Muhammad Tughluq’s modus operandi—providing clear instructions that detailed his intentions was never his forte. The royal court was the beating heart of Delhi and if the instructions were to move only the court, it would have dealt a deathblow to the magnificence of the capital. This would have been a good enough reason for the citizens of Delhi to feel resentful.

It is difficult, even so far removed in time from the actual events and with the availability of a great deal of information and analysis, to put together an authoritative sequence of events regarding the execution of the project. The most probable sequence of events of the relocation is provided here and may not be completely accurate.

In the early stages, the royal court would have been shifted as an administrative measure. This could have been a catalyst for the citizens to write the infamous and abusive anonymous missives that would have taken a toll on the sultan’s ego. The order for the entire population to shift to Devagiri could have been issued as a punitive measure by an enraged sultan, although there is no evidence to confirm this. The orders were then enforced and there are a number of graphic descriptions of the state of Delhi after it had been abandoned, as well as the cruelty exhibited by the sultan’s forces in enforcing his orders.

Under normal circumstances the administrative measure of moving the court would have been successful since it was a strategically sound and sensible measure to adopt. However, even that failed because the decision was taken in an abrupt, impulsive and personal manner with no consultation with the courtiers and senior officials. Since no explanation or reasoning for the move was provided and the orders were given with no forewarning, the administration was unprepared for this monumental shift. It therefore lacked the will and the infrastructure to make the move a success.

To his credit it must be admitted that Muhammad provided facilities for the move of the general population from Delhi to Devagiri. A new road was built between the two towns and food and accommodation provided at state expense for the entire journey. On arrival at Devagiri the people were given state assistance to settle down and start to earn a living. These initiatives are not the actions of a king who was irritated with his subjects and further proves the fallacious nature of the reports regarding the sultan inflicting punitive punishments on the citizens of Delhi. However, the physical move between the two places took as many as 40 days on an average and the people suffered greatly despite the arrangements that had been made. In addition, the population of Delhi was loath to leave the city in which they had lived and flourished for generations. Devagiri was an alien land and the locals were not very welcoming of the new arrivals. By the time of the relocation effort, the population of Delhi contained a very large number of Muslims. The surroundings of Devagiri were almost completely Hindu in its orientation and the Muslims of Delhi would have felt apprehensive about moving to a predominantly Hindu environment. Resistance to the move was bound to solidify.

A core reason for the failure of the project was that Muhammad Tughluq failed to appreciate that the shift of the royal court would have sufficed to entice the rest of the population to move gradually to the new capital. The rest of the establishment—merchants, bazaars, artisans and other commercial entrepreneurs—would not have been able to continue in Delhi without the patronage of the sultan and his court, and would have relocated on their own accord to Devagiri. Muhammad’s impatience to create a capital to rival Delhi in its glory as an overnight venture made the project fail. Impetuousness and a sense of wanting to get things done through royal decrees that had to be immediately obeyed and implemented, doomed the project to failure from its inception. Muhammad Tughluq’s character would have been the undoing of even well-planned endeavours.

Once again the pragmatic side of Muhammad came into play and it must be admitted that when he realised the failure of the project, he ordered the people to go back to Delhi. He also facilitated the return with generous state aid. However, Delhi had been badly scarred by the initial, forced depopulation and it was many years before it regained its old splendour. The sultan continued to preside over the court in Devagiri for another eight years and then moved back to Delhi. Devagiri or Daulatabad was left as a monument to well-meant but misguided ambition and outpouring of energy.

In any holistic appraisal of the project it will be appreciated that there was strategic veracity to the proposed relocation of the capital. Devagiri as the capital did provide strategic depth to the kingdom. However, there was also the drawback of the seat of power being far away from the restive north-west frontier that was never well controlled. It would also have been difficult to effectively keep the constant vigil that was necessary over the frontier from a southern seat of power. This would have become apparent fairly quickly since the Peninsula was restive and would have consumed Muhammad’s energies in controlling it. Since the prime cause of the failure of most of his schemes was his impatience to achieve results, it is highly probable that Muhammad would not have been satisfied by his new capital. However, that is speculation.

Since the transfer of the capital was not effectively carried out, it is not possible to provide a sanguine assessment or judgement regarding the veracity of the decision. There can only be speculation about how it would, or would not, have worked for the empire; and how it would have affected the future developments in the sub-continent had the capital been established at Devagiri. The only factual statement is that it was a great and inspired project that failed even before starting to be implemented. Its efficacy remains in the realm of mere speculations.


Muhammad Tughluq had all the qualities to be a sultan of merit but his character traits overwhelmed his well-intentioned activities, dooming it to failure. It is obvious that he was well-read, intelligent and observant. It is also obvious that he intended to be a sultan of the people, almost always looking out for the welfare of his subjects. In medieval times in the sub-continent, Muslim rulers did not consider the Hindus as their subjects and Muhammad was no exception. While some historians have attempted to erase the stigma of religious intolerance from Muhammad’s reign, others have tried to bring him out as a complete religious bigot. Both these attempts are biased. A Delhi sultan in the 1300s would have behaved in no other manner than how Muhammad treated the conquered Hindus. In modern parlance, Muhammad Tughluq was ‘par for the course’ as far as religious bigotry was concerned, as good or as bad as his predecessors and successors.

If one can speculate on a ‘what if?’ basis and project some of Muhammad’s schemes as having been successful it will be seen that he would probably have been elevated by contemporary chroniclers and later-day historians to the realm of ‘great’ sultans. This endorses the view that many of his schemes were well ahead of his time and if they had been pursued to a logical conclusion would have improved the administration, security and prosperity of the kingdom. That actual events flowed in a different direction can be seen as the gap between idealistic thinking and the pragmatism needed to rule a turbulent kingdom.




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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