Indian History Part 56 The Tughluq Dynasty Section VI Firuz Shah Tughluq: Military Endeavors


Canberra, 10 July 2017

Firuz Shah waged no wars of conquest as such, but he was not a pacifist. In many ways he was a gentle and cultured person and although the bulk of the army had been distributed to the nobles to maintain, he kept a large contingent of 80-90,000 cavalry in Delhi. Of course this was numerically much inferior to the standing armies that his predecessors, both Tughluqs and Khiljis, maintained in the capital. Firuz was lucky that during his reign there were no major rebellions and only two Mongol raids, which were repelled forcefully. Although considered a ‘man of peace’, he did not hesitate to wage war to repel invaders and to suppress rebellions. Further, Firuz did not display any scruples when he let loose his military on unsuspecting Hindu kingdoms, for the basis of his rule was to bring the idolaters into the Islamic fold through all possible initiatives. In the conduct of war, irrespective of how it was forced on the Sultanate, his actions were as savage and horrific as those carried out by his predecessors and successors. Violence, mayhem and extreme cruelty were part and parcel of wars in medieval times, across the entire known world of the time. It was so in the Delhi Sultanate also.

The Bengal Campaigns

In the confusion following Muhammad Tughluq’s death, Bengal had separated and become an independent entity, severing all connections with Delhi. Haji Ilyas had proclaimed himself an independent ruler with the title Shams ud-Din Ilyas Shah and then gone on to invade Tirhut, which was nominally the furthest south-eastern territory of the sultanate. This invasion by the Bengal ‘sultan’ is mentioned only in some accounts of the time.

Even a minor invasion into far-flung areas of the kingdom could not be tolerated or ignored lest such incidents become common place and gradually breakup the empire. Peace-loving Firuz was therefore left with no choice but to retaliate. Accordingly, in late 1353, he set out on an expedition to subdue Bengal. The primary objective was to chastise Shams ud-Din and get him to acknowledge vassal status to Delhi. On the approach of the Sultan Shams ud-Din withdrew and shut himself up in the strong fortress at Ekdala in East Bengal, prepared for a long siege. Firuz wanting to avoid the tribulations of a long siege, used cunning to shorten the campaign. He feinted a withdrawal. Shams ud-Din was fooled into thinking that he would be able to harass the withdrawing army. He came out of the fort with his troops and attacked the rear-guard of the Sultanate army. Promptly, Firuz counterattacked and defeated the Bengal forces upon which Shams ud-Din once again retreated to his fortress. Even though Bengal forces were defeated, Firuz did not attempt to capture the fortress of Ekdala.

This first expedition to Bengal was indecisive, but it was tarnished by a rare show of savagery by Firuz Shah. He wanted to let the people of Bengal remember the victory that he had achieved on the battlefield over their ruler, although neither had Shams ud-Din been subdued nor the fort captured. He ordered the collection of the heads of all the slain Bengal soldiers, paying one tanka per head brought, collecting as many as 180,000 heads. It is uncertain whether the heads were of soldiers already slain in battle or also included those of fresh victims killed by the Delhi soldiers to collect the reward from the sultan. It is highly possible that a fresh wave of killing took place to satisfy the Sultan’s decree.

At the end of this undecided conflict, Firuz made peace with Shams ud-Din, practically endorsing his independent status. It is reported that Firuz wanted to avoid being stuck in Bengal as the monsoons advanced and therefore decided to go back to Delhi. The expedition did not achieve anything for the Delhi sultanate, on the other hand it formalised Shams ud-Din’s position and stature as an independent ruler, functioning completely outside the ambit of Delhi.

Subsequently there is a mention of an embassy sent by Shams ud-Din to Delhi in 1356. Firuz reciprocated with a return embassy to Shams ud-Din’s court, a gesture that endorsed the fully independent status of Bengal. However, contemporary chronicles state that while the embassy was on its way to Bengal, news was received that Shams ud-Din had died and had been succeeded by his son Sikandar. Firuz recalled the embassy before it could reach Bengal. This action demonstrates that despite the friendly overtures towards Shams ud-Din, Firuz Shah was biding his time to subdue Bengal, especially considering the failed first expedition.

Three years later Firuz got the pretext that he was after to once again invade Bengal. Zafar Khan was the son-in-law of the previous ruler of Bengal, Fakhr ud-Din, from whom Shams ud-Din had usurped the throne. Zafar Khan arrived in Delhi as a fugitive with tales of the ill-treatment that he had received from Ilyas Shah and requested Firuz to redress his grievances. The sultan grabbed this opportunity and mounted another expedition to subdue Bengal. He assembled an army of 70,000 cavalry, 470 elephants and innumerable foot soldiers, and marched to Bengal. On the way he stopped on the banks of the River Gomti and founded the city of Jaunpur, honouring Muhammad Tughluq whose name as a prince was Fakhr ud-Din Jauna. Realising the danger that he was in, Sikandar now ruling Bengal, made an attempt at placating the Delhi sultan by sending him peace offerings in the form of gifts and five elephants. However, these were rejected.

Sikandar then followed his father’s example and shut himself up in the fortress of Ekdala and once again the fort was besieged by the Delhi army. The invading army made many breaches in the defences of the fortress, but they were hastily repaired by the Bengal army who displayed exemplary courage and vigour in defending their stronghold. As the interminable siege continued, patience wore out on both sides and peace negotiations were started. Sikandar agreed to restore Sonargaon to Zafar Khan and once again send presents to Firuz as peace offerings. This time they were accepted. In return, Sikandar was awarded few royal titles and confirmed on his throne. The Delhi army then started its return march.

Paradoxically, Zafar Khan, nominally for whom the sultan had gone to war, opted to continue to stay in Delhi and not return to his ‘kingdom’ in Bengal, perhaps seduced by the social life of the capital. Effectively, Firuz once again returned from the Bengal campaign without having achieved anything tangible. Contemporary chronicles state that the military expedition, from its start in Delhi, was conducted more like a pleasure trip than an expeditious march to crush an enemy. The founding of Jaunpur on the way is an example of this dawdling march towards the adversary—the sense of urgency inherent in all military actions was completely missing. This lacklustre approach was visible even in the siege of Ekdala, which was marked by indecision and a complete lack of professional military competence.

The Expedition to Jajnagar

Even though no enemy had been subdued nor any territory added to the sultanate holdings, the return to Delhi was conducted as a victorious march. On the way Firuz halted at Jaunpur, his newly created city. While relaxing there, the sultan conceived a plan to raid the kingdom of Jajnagar (modern Orissa). There is debate regarding the reason behind Firuz’s sudden decision to backtrack and invade Jajnagar. There were two mutually supporting reasons for this decision. One was that Jajnagar was an extremely rich and prosperous state and could have whetted the sultan’s avarice for wealth. Second, the famous Jaganath Temple of Puri, sacred to the Hindus across the sub-continent, was located on the eastern coast of Jajnagar. The urge to capture the temple and destroy it would have been difficult for Firuz to resist; after all he was the declared champion of the believers and Islam.

Firuz marched out of Jaunpur in October 1360 and reached Bihar in December. Then he turned south and went through modern Pachet to Sikhar in Manbhum district. The ruler of Sikhar was a relatively important chieftain since a number of minor chiefs paid homage to him. However, on the approach of the Delhi army, he fled from his capital. Although the garrison left behind put up a brave resistance, they were eventually defeated and the capital captured. Firuz moved further south, reaching the border of Jajnagar, which had never before been invaded by a Muslim army. The resistance offered by the local population at the border posts were easily overcome by the large Muslim army and Firuz continued his victorious march southward. On the way he captured many prosperous towns, the most important being Kinianagar—most probably Khiching, the capital of old Mayurbhanj State.

Unlike the Bengal expedition, in this campaign the army marched swiftly, taking King Bhanudeva III of Jajnagar by surprise. The king fled from his fortress at Saranghar, while once again the garrison that remained behind put up a spirited fight, although they were defeated in the end. [The instances of the king fleeing while the remaining garrison forces puts up brave defences is a repeating event in the medieval history of North India. It could have been because the king is requested by his nobles and soldiers to leave without being captured, so that the fight could be continued another day and he could act as the rallying point for counter-attack if he remained free. However, there are very few instances of the fight being continued by the fugitive king, with most of them submitting to the invaders later. Therefore, the fleeing of the king at the approach of the Muslim host is a dubious action and it can be assumed to smack of cowardice and fear.]

Firuz overran the capital Cuttack and without delay proceeded towards the temple town of Puri. The town was ransacked, the Jaganath Temple desecrated and destroyed, and the main idol of the temple thrown into the sea. The temple was enormously rich, with some reports stating that more than 30, 00,000 dinars were spent on the kitchen premises alone. Firuz gathered great wealth from the temple coffers. At this stage there are slight variations in the reports of events that followed. One version states that at the destruction of the temple, the Rai of Jajnagar sued for peace. The other version is more intriguing. While the town of Puri was being vandalised by the invading Muslim army, a large number of the population had taken refuge in a nearby island. This could have been in the area around the Chilka Lake. It is reported that Firuz proceeded to this island and massacred more than 100,000 people including women and children. There was no infidel left alive in the island or the town. Seeing the plight of his subjects, Bhanudeva sued for peace.

Peace was agreed upon with the Rai of Jajnagar having to pay an annual tribute of a fixed number of elephants to the sultan in Delhi. After having achieved his objective of the destruction of idol worshippers, Firuz commenced his return journey. The way back from Jajnagar was through wild and unknown territory and the guides lost their way. The entire army wandered in the forest for six months before arriving at recognisable areas and starting the journey to Delhi. During this time of being lost the army suffered great travails with provisions and even water running out. By the time Firuz reached Delhi he had been away from the capital for two and a half years, of which he had been incommunicado for six months.

Some recent historians have described the Jajnagar campaign as an ‘audacious’ feat that was ‘brilliantly executed’; attempting to prove once and for all Firuz’s skill and accomplishment as a military commander and successful general. This is a blatantly incorrect assessment. The debacle on the return march where he wandered lost in the forest with his entire army for six months cannot by any stretch of imagination be considered the actions of a ‘great’ general. If anything it conclusively disproves the claims of military acumen and accomplishment.

The Real Reason for the Jajnagar Expedition

The reasons for Firuz’s ‘sudden’ decision to attack Jajnagar has long been debated and even today is a point of contention amongst historians. To bring clarity regarding the real intentions of the Sultan and to dispel later-day attempts at ‘white-washing’ Firuz’s real character, the decision making and the thought process behind the expedition needs to be examined.

There are two contemporary and official reports or narratives that deal with the reasons for mounting the expedition and also provide fairly detailed account of the events as it happened. In both the narratives the objectives laid out for the expedition to Jajnagar are verbatim the same, ‘…extirpating Rai of Jajnagar, to break the idols, to massacre the unbelievers, shed the blood of enemies of Islam and to hunt elephants.’ Some modern writers have attempted to turn this statement on its head and state that the main reason for the expedition was to facilitate Firuz’s passion to hunt elephants and the rest of the objectives were incidental to it. This assessment is difficult to accept and also a fatuous attempt to ‘rewrite’ history. There are two fundamental reasons to refute and negate this absurd appraisal of Firuz’s intentions.

First, Firuz was a sultan who was competent and careful in delivering an efficient administration and did not at any time display any false pretensions to being a military genius. It is therefore safe to assume that he would not have committed his entire army to an elephant hunting expedition into an unknown and extremely difficult terrain. Such a commitment would not have been the actions of a stable and sensible ruler. Therefore, it is certain that Firuz considered the invasion of the ‘infidel’ nation a duty to be fulfilled, indicated by deploying the entire force available to him. Second is Firuz’s inherent bigotry that was openly demonstrated throughout his reign. His display of being a pious Muslim and a ‘champion of the religion’ leaves no doubt that the main objective of the Jajnagar expedition was the conquest of a prosperous Hindu kingdom and the desecration and destruction of the Jaganath Temple, one of Hindu religions holiest sites worshipped across the entire sub-continent. This is also corroborated by contemporary chroniclers and official reports. The additional impetus, acting almost like a fringe benefit, was the wealth and treasure that could be looted from the kingdom and the temple.

Few later-day historians have gone to the extent of stating that during the expedition the sultan did not pillage any shrine or break any idols. They audaciously state that Firuz having heard of the beauty of the famous temple, went to Puri to admire its architectural splendour. These historians further add that the idol was taken from the temple to be placed in a museum in Delhi that the sultan was contemplating on building. These are puerile attempts at smoothing over the reprehensible conduct of a Muslim ruler in order to bring the narrative in line with today’s political correctness regarding religious tolerance in a region beset with sectarian and religious divisions and violence. [Obviously, these historians feel the need to repeatedly state inherent falsehoods in order to safeguard what they believe are the roots of Muslim identity in the sub-continent. From their perspective such attempts have become urgent necessities since the Hindu nationalists also have not spared history. The Hindu nationalists are embarking on a mass scale propaganda effort to discredit medieval Muslim rulers for their religious intolerance, once again measured not with the yardstick of the medieval era or even by the unbiased correctness of dealing with religion in a modern secular state. They tend to swing the bias to the other end of the spectrum and attempt to ‘rewrite’ history in a totally different manner. It has become increasingly difficult to come by a balanced narrative of events and their unbiased assessment.]

There is no doubt that Firuz was driven by his internal desire to punish and rebuke the Hindus in mounting the Jajnagar expedition. What better way to achieve this exalted objective in the service of the ‘one true religion’ than to destroy the great Jaganath Temple and pillage the temple-town of Puri? This initiative became even more laudable since it was reliably learned that the Jaganath Temple was held in great reverence by all Hindus, its sanctity held at the highest esteem.

Conquest of Nagarkot (1360-61)

The fortress at Nagarkot had been captured by Muhammad Tughluq in 1337. However, taking advantage of the on-going turmoil in the Delhi kingdom and Muhammad’s preoccupation with numerous other events, the local Rai had gradually re-established his independence. However, Firuz’s expedition to subdue Nagarkot was not initiated to chastise the Rai for his impertinence. The real reason was that Nagarkot (modern day Kangra) was the location of the Hindu temple of Jwala Mukhi—a temple that was old and venerated, which attracted (as it still does in modern India) a large number of pilgrims from across the sub-continent. These pilgrims brought rich offerings to the temple, making the temple an extremely wealthy institution. Firuz could not resist making an attempt to punish the unbelieving Hindus and humble yet another Hindu kingdom, which in addition gave the opportunity to plunder a wealthy state. The importance of the temple to the Hindus and its high status in the hierarchy of worship obviously made the expedition more attractive to the bigoted Sultan.

The march towards Nagarkot was not that of an expeditionary army, but conducted in a leisurely pace, as seems to have been customary with Firuz’s military initiatives. In any case, he was no military genius and perhaps did not even contemplate attempting surprise or other military strategies that would have made victory easier to achieve. In his relaxed march towards Nagarkot, Firuz stopped to indulge in his favourite pastime—construction—delaying the march long enough to build a canal and a fort on the way.

The fortress of Nagarkot was captured after a long siege, although the Rai was permitted to continue to rule. There are no contemporary records of the famous temple being sacked. However, in a reversal of other attempts mentioned earlier, one later-day historian has concluded that the temple was indeed sacked. Although the sacking is not corroborated by any other source, the claim seems plausible considering the Sultan’s proclivity to destroy Hindu temples. It is however established that Firuz collected a large tribute and also captured a library of nearly 1300 books written Sanskrit. He is reported to have had some of the works on philosophy and astronomy translated into Persian. The expedition against Nagarkot remains an enigma, since it does not seem to have achieved anything tangible from the Sultan’s perspective unless the sacking of the temple is confirmed.

Expedition into Sindh

A number of years after subjugating Nagarkot, Firuz mounted an expedition against Sindh. His predecessor, Muhammad Tughluq’s expedition to Sindh had tragically ended in his death. Therefore, from a point of view of vindicating imperial prestige, an expedition to Sindh was long overdue. It can be safely assumed that the objectives of this punitive expedition were to restore the somewhat diminished prestige of the dynasty and to avenge the ‘wrongs’ done to Muhammad in the region. The immediate excuse for the campaign was the continuing hostility of the chieftains of the region towards Delhi that found voice in regular, even though minor and inconsequential, rebellions.

Firuz assembled a huge army of 90,000 cavalry and 480 elephants along with accompanying infantry and marched to the River Indus. There he collected a fleet of boats and the army thereafter proceeded with some travelling the river and the rest marching along the banks. Unfortunately for Firuz, a pestilence attacked and decimated the horses, while lack of forward planning created a shortage of provisions and made the soldiers to suffer. Realising that a window of opportunity had opened, Jam Bibiniya (also mentioned as Banhbina) the chieftain of Sindh, sallied out of his stronghold of Tattah to take advantage of the adversity of the Delhi army. He captured the boat-borne segment of Firuz’s army. Firuz was unwilling to risk engaging in a direct battle with what was now a vastly reduced and woe-struck force, and made a ‘strategic retreat’ towards Gujarat, harried by the Jam’s forces all along the way.

On this retreat all the horses of the army died. More importantly, in a further demonstration of his ineptitude as a military commander, Firuz permitted the army to be led into the salt marshes of the Rann of Kutch by treacherous guides. The entire army floundered in the Rann suffering great privations, fighting famine, disease and lack of potable water. An almost completely destroyed army, in extremely dire straits, managed to reach Gujarat after suffering this devastating experience for six months. Firuz dismissed the governor of Gujarat, Nizam –ul-Mulk for having failed to send the much needed provisions for the army and also for failing to provide proficient guides. In his stead he appointed Zafar Khan the governor.

Firuz now undertook the task of reequipping and building up the army, appropriating all the funds available in the Gujarat coffers. He also brought in three instalments of reinforcements from Delhi to steady the depleted army. Once the new army was ready, Firuz set out again to capture Tattah.

A Wasted Opportunity?

While Firuz was recouping in Gujarat, he received an invitation from Bahram, a rival prince belonging to the Bahmani dynasty, to intervene and conquer the Deccan. At this time, the Bahmani kingdom was still in its infancy and may have proved to be easy picking for the established Delhi army. It was an excellent opportunity for Firuz to take over the Bahmani holdings and re-establish a foothold in the Deccan. However, Firuz Shah had his mind set on the conquest of Sindh and refused to aid the rebel prince of the Bahmani dynasty—a golden opportunity lost!

The second attack on Tattah saw a reversal of the positions of the antagonists in comparison to the earlier fiasco. There had been desertions from Firuz’s army, but the reinforcements from Delhi made up for the losses and moreover his army was now fully reequipped and well-rested. In contrast, the Sindh army while becoming numerically inferior through desertions, was plagued by a famine leading to a lack of provisions for the forces.

Under these circumstances, Jam Bibiniya took the prudent path and surrendered to Firuz. He accompanied Firuz back to Delhi but was later restored to his throne in Sindh with the promise of paying an annual tribute and as a vassal of Delhi. It is stated in the chronicles, that Firuz Shah was full of remorse for the suffering that he had inflicted on brother Muslims through his military expeditions and therefore decided not to embark on any further campaigns of invasions and conquests. Thereafter, only minor operations were undertaken, mostly to suppress rebellions.

Suppression of Rebellions

The first rebellion during Firuz’s reign was in Gujarat, where the governor Damaghani revolted against the huge sums of money being demanded by Delhi. He was summarily defeated and killed by loyal forces, with his severed head being send to Delhi. The second one was in Etawah for similar reasons, which was also suppressed quickly. The most notable campaign was undertaken against the Raja of Ketehar (Rohilkhand), Kharku, in 1380. The Raja had treacherously murdered the governor of Badaun and his two brothers, who were Sayyids. The Sayyids were presumed by the Muslim community to be direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. The orthodox Muslim Sultan led the retaliatory expedition himself. The Raja fled and escaped without offering a fight, at the approach of the Delhi army.

Perhaps because the murdered brothers were Sayyids, Firuz wreaked terrible vengeance on the population of the kingdom. He carried out a savage massacre, ordering all Hindus to be killed. He appointed an Afghan governor to rule the conquered kingdom and ordered him to devastate the region with ‘fire and sword’ annually for the next five years. Further, Firuz Shah personally visited the region every year for the next five years to ensure that his orders were being carried out effectively. After Rohilkhand had been savaged, Firuz pursued Kharku into Kumaon where he had fled. However, Firuz was unable to capture the fugitive king and instead massacred unnumbered Hindus along the way. He is also reported to have enslaved 23,000 Hindus during this campaign.

Last Days and Death

Firuz Shah’s last days were clouded by anxiety and personal sorrow. The sultan had a number of sons of whom the eldest, Fath Khan, was his favourite. Fath Khan was born during the march to Delhi after Firuz had ascended the throne near the River Indus. Unfortunately for the sultan, Fath Khan died in 1374 when Firuz was in his late 60s. The death of his favourite son and heir apparent shattered the ageing sultan who rapidly slid into mental and physical decline. He then appointed Zafar Khan, his second son as the crown prince but he too died about a year later. Firuz’s choice now fell on the third son Muhammad Khan although he was not formally appointed as the anointed successor.

Even during this turmoil of appointing his successors, Firuz continued his passion for building, founding yet another city in 1385. It was officially called Firuzpur Ikhleri and derisively named by his subjects as Akhirinpur, meaning last city. The reason for the derision is not clearly mentioned in any chronicle or later-day report, but could have been the advanced age of the sultan at this stage. By this time Firuz Shah was a man of decaying intellect and almost certainly senile. He was completely dominated by his Wazir or Prime Minister, Khan Jahan, the son of the great and loyal Khan-i-Jahan Maqbul who had died a few years earlier. Khan Jahan, who had designs on the throne for himself, convinced Firuz that there was a plot to murder him. A scheme that he enacted to remove Muhammad Khan from the scene backfired and Muhammad was able to convince his father to permit action to be initiated against Khan Jahan.

Muhammad besieged the house of the Wazir, but Khan Jahan managed to escape and fled to Mewat, taking refuge there with the ruler Koka Chauhan. Firuz declared Prince Muhammad as the co-ruler and conferred royal titles on him. Muhammad was a pleasure-seeking individual and did not pursue Khan Jahan. He appropriated all power to himself and thereafter gave himself up to worldly pleasure—the traditional indulgence in wine and women. Muhammad did not heed the advice of trusted officers and also promoted his own lackeys to positions of power. He also managed to get Khan Jahan murdered through dubious means.

Muhammad’s actions started to gather a strong opposition, which soon became uncontainable. The situation deteriorated into a vicious civil war in the capital between the two rival factions—on the one side were the loyal nobles and officers of the crown who also enjoyed the support of the general population and on the other were Muhammad’s supporters who were mainly flatterers and parasites of questionable character and limited capability. The civil war continued for two days with extraordinarily savage fury. On the third day, forces loyal to the dynasty captured the palace and brought an ailing Firuz Shah outside on a litter. The crowd received him joyously and Muhammad fled to Sirmur.

Firuz once again assumed full power, although he was senile and physically ill, and appointed Ghiyas ud-Din, the son of Fath Khan as the heir apparent. Shortly thereafter Firuz died in September 1388, aged 83. His death was followed, almost immediately by a scramble for power by rival princes and other parties, plunging the Sultanate into further chaos and uncertainty.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2017]
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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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