Indian History Part 56 The Tughluq Dynasty Section VIII The Later Tughluqs: A Decade of Decline

Canberra, 12 August 2017


The story of the Tughluqs after the death of Firuz Shah is one of rebellions, assassinations and deceit, within the realm of worthless sultans. It is a continuous saga of faithless ministers and nobles who manipulated their inept masters like master puppeteers. The process of political disintegration had already started during the ill-fated reign of Muhammad Tughluq, although it was not readily apparent at that time. The decline became obvious to an astute observer during Firuz Shah’s time on the throne, especially after he failed to reclaim the Deccan, which reduced the empire both in territorial spread and in its stature.

During the relatively long and peaceful reign of Firuz Shah, a generation of Tughluqs had come of age, almost totally ignorant of the ruthless despotism of a Balban or an Ala ud-Din that had held the Sultanate together. They were equally unaware of the feckless and irrational behaviour of an absolute monarch like Muhammad, and therefore they had no concept regarding what it took to be an absolute monarch. The result was that the next generation from within which a sultan had to emerge was a bunch of pleasure loving philanderers with no concept of the strength of character, energy and in-built ruthless required to be the undisputed king of a mighty empire. Further, they had also witnessed Firuz’s fruitless military campaigns in Bengal, Nagarkot and Sindh that did not add anything—territory, wealth or stature—to the Sultanate. These campaigns added to their belief that military might was not a critical necessity to hold together a fractious kingdom. When Firuz Shah died, his grandson ascended the throne with the title Ghiyas ud-Din Tughluq.

Ghiyas ud-Din Tughluq

On ascending the throne, Ghiyas wanted to bring his rebellious uncle Muhammad Shah to heel. Accordingly, he send an army under his wazir Khwaja Jahan along with Bahadur Nahar, a noble who was a Rajput convert to Islam, to Sirmur to subdue Muhammad who had taken shelter there. Muhammad initially resisted but then fled to Nagarkot, still instigating rebellion. The Delhi army did not pursue him or make any attempt to besiege Nagarkot, but returned to Delhi without accomplishing anything.

Ghiyas was young and inexperienced and was also a pleasure-loving youth. Instead of taking steps to bring Muhammad under control, he gave himself up to wine and debauchery. Ghiyas also had his share of ‘Tughluqian’ characteristics of extreme and irrational violence. For no apparent reason he had his brother Salar Shah imprisoned, an act that offended most of the nobles who had been instrumental in enthroning him. Ghiyas’s cousin Abu Bakr, son of Zafar Khan, suspected that the same fate as that befell Salar awaited him and therefore surreptitiously fled Delhi. Once safely outside the ambit of Ghiyas, he organised a concerted rebellion against the Sultan. Supported by Rukn ud-Din, the deputy wazir and a powerful noble in his own right, Abu Bakr stormed the palace. Ghiyas was caught attempting to flee and put to death along with his wazir. Abu Bakr now ascended the throne.

Incipient Civil War

Although a sultan ruled in Delhi, there were other forces already in play. The Amiran-i-Sadah, or ‘The Centurions’ in Samana were gathering their resources to place their own puppet on the throne of Delhi.

Amiran-i-Sadah – The Centurions

The first mention of this group of nobles is in the chronicles written during the reign of Muhammad Tughluq. These officers of the crown combined civil and military functions. They were not homogenous in their origins and were Indians as well as foreigners, including some neo-Muslims, Mongols, Turks and Afghans. They collected revenue for the Sultan and also had a minimum of 100 soldiers under their individual command. They were essentially adventurers and mercenaries. Typical of medieval adventurers, they were always on the lookout for personal profit from strategic, financial or military difficulties at the capital or centre of power. Rebellions of the Amiran-i-Sadah gradually became a chronic feature of the Tughluq reign.

The Amiran now killed their leader, who had been loyal to Abu Bakr, and invited Muhammad Shah to join them to assert his right to the throne. Muhammad came out of Nagarkot, reached Samana and in April 1389, crowned himself king of Delhi a second time. He then started a march towards Delhi during which some more nobles joined his ranks. Muhammad started his march with a force of 20,000 cavalry and this figure swelled to about 50,000 on the way. This increase need not have been through the induction of soldiers alone, but by the collection of riff-raff that almost always joined invading armies for the love of plunder. His actual fighting force would not have been more than a total of 30,000.

Bahadur Nahar, who had switched allegiance from Ghiyas and joined Abu Bakr now led the Delhi army along with the sultan. The Delhi forces met Muhammad’s army at Firuzabad and inflicted heavy losses on them. Muhammad fled with barely 2000 men with him and established his headquarters at Jalesar in the Doab. Once again he was joined by some prominent nobles. The chiefs of the provinces in the vicinity of Samana already supported him and now he was joined by the governors of Multan, Bihar, Avadh, and Kanauj. Even though he had been soundly defeated in battle a number of times, Muhammad had not been broken in spirit. He prepared for another assault to claim the throne that he truly believed was his inheritance.

The entire North India was now involved in the imminent civil war. Muhammad’s son, Humayun, plundered the Doab and reached the gates of Delhi. He was defeated by Abu Bakr’s forces near Panipat and fled back to his father’s camp at Jalesar. Muhammad marched towards Delhi and again Abu Bakr marched out of Delhi to meet the approaching army. Battle ensued near the village of Kandli, situated about 46 miles north-east of Delhi, with heavy casualties on both sides. Muhammad was once again defeated and retired to Jalesar, his main camp. However, despite being repeatedly defeated in battle, Muhammad continued to be acknowledged as the Sultan in the districts of Multan, Lahore, Samana, Hansi, Hissar and almost all the districts to the north of Delhi.

Encouraged by the two definitive victories over Muhammad in close succession, Abu Bakr now decided to end the conflict once and for all. He marched to Jalesar. When he was barely 30 miles out of the capital, Muhammad arrived in Delhi through another route and stormed the city. Abu Bakr immediately retraced his steps and chased Muhammad out of the city, defeating him for a third time. Even though repeatedly successful in the battlefield, Abu Bakr was undone by internal treachery. He came to know that Islam Khan, the commander of his household guards had started to negotiate with Muhammad Shah. This unnerved Abu Bakr and he fled to Bahadur Nahar’s fort at Kotla without taking his forces with him. Being left to their own devices, the officers of Aby Bakr’s army joined Muhammad, who once again marched into Delhi and ascended the throne unopposed. He resumed his old title of Nasir ud-Din Muhammad Shah Tughluq.

Muhammad Shah Tughluq

Almost immediately on assuming the throne, Muhammad set about ‘cleansing’ Delhi of rebellious elements, mainly some factions of the household guards—the old Firuz Shahi slaves who had by now become a very powerful group and king makers. Some of these slaves managed to escape and joined Abu Bakr in Kotla, others were massacred in cold blood in and around Delhi by pro-Muhammad forces. Muhammad send an army under Islam Khan and Humayun to crush Abu Bakr. In a battle at the village Mahnidwari, Abu Bakr was defeated and surrendered along with Bahadur Nahar. Abu Bakr was imprisoned in Meerut and died soon after, while Bahadur was pardoned and allowed to return to Kotla.

Ensconced in Delhi at the head of a diminished Sultanate on the verge of ruin, Muhammad attempted to stabilise the decline. This was a task for a sterner and more capable man than Muhammad and he was unable to stem the onset of a downward spiral of decline. The authority of the Sultan in Delhi was being challenged in all parts of the erstwhile empire. Gujarat was planning to secede, Mewat was restive, Punjab was edging towards rebellion, and the Doab was openly defying central authority. Muhammad’s ascension to the throne was marred almost immediately by rebellion and he knew that he had to reassert central authority if he was to continue as the sultan.

The chiefs of the Doab were the first to openly rebel. At Etawa, Rathor Nar Singh Bhan revolted and declared independence. However, he was subdued by Islam Khan and forced to make peace with Delhi. Earlier Firuz Shah had also marched against Bhan, subdued him and brought some of his clan back to Delhi and forced them to reside there, in the fashion of hostages. Finding that the Sultanate was weak with internecine wars, the Rathor chief had declared independence. Islam khan returned to Delhi taking Rathor Nar Singh Bhan with him. Almost immediately on the Delhi forces withdrawing, the other Rajput chiefs of the region rebelled.

The Rajput Rebellion in the Doab

Different chronicles provide different names for the Rathor chief of Etawa who kept the flag of rebellion against the Muslim invaders flying under extremely difficult circumstances. He has variously been referred to as Bar Singh, Har Singh and Nar Singh, while the dynastic list of rulers refer to him as Vira Singh. There is also some confusion, especially in the European recounting of the history of this period between the Tomar rulers of Gwalior and the Rathors of Etawa.

It is obvious that while Delhi was in the grip of a civil war towards the end of the Tughluq dynasty’s rule, a number of Rajput chieftains were in open rebellion, claiming autonomy and independence for their minor principalities.

Assessing the seriousness of the situation, Muhammad personally marched to Etawa and defeated the Rajput chiefs. He destroyed the fort at Etawa and then marched to Kanauj. He proceeded further to Jalesar, constructed a fort there and renamed the town Muhammadabad. At this stage, Muhammad received information that Islam Khan was planning to usurp the throne and hurried back to Delhi. Islam Khan pleaded innocence and denied any knowledge of a plot. However, a Hindu nephew of Islam Khan provided a false testimony against him, on the strength of which he was put to death; an unfair execution of a loyal and capable commander.

On Muhammad’s hurried departure for Delhi the Rajput chiefs reoccupied Etawa and also took over the adjoining districts of Etah (Rampur) and Mainpuri. Muhammad ordered the newly appointed governor of Muhammadabad, Malik Muqarrab-ul-Mulk to march against Etawa and subdue the rebellion. Muqarrab resorted to treachery rather than take to the battlefield. He invited all the Rajput chiefs to Kanauj to discuss the terms of the truce and had all of them murdered. Only one chief, Rai Sumer, escaped and returned to Etawa, and there continued the rebellion.

Meanwhile trouble was brewing in Mewat. Bahadur Nahar, who had been pardoned by Muhammad, had never supported the new sultan. He now revolted and started to make inroads towards Delhi. Muhammad proceeded to Mewat in person, but fell ill on the way. However, he continued to march towards Kotla, being carried in a palanquin. Bahadur shut himself in his fort on the approach of the Delhi army. The Sultan was now very sick and he returned to Delhi without besieging the fort or subduing the rebellion.

In Delhi, Muhammad received news of a revolt in Lahore led by Shaikha the Khokhar. He deputed his son Humayun to proceed to Lahore and subdue the Khokhar rebellion. However, before Humayun could depart, on 20 January 1394, Muhammad Shah died. Humayun ascended the throne, assuming the title Ala ud-Din Sikandar Shah, but he too died within a few months.

The Disintegration

The nobles now placed Muhammad’s youngest son, ten-year old Mahmud, on the throne with the title Nasr ud-Din Mahmud Shah even though some doubts had been expressed regarding his ability to rule. Mahmud however proved to be a precocious child and started to deal with the prevailing instability. Muqarrab-ul-Mulk was made Vakil-ul-Sultanat and received the title Muqarrab Khan, being given the remit to reunify the kingdom. However, this was not sufficient to stop the decline since the Sultanate was in the last stages of disintegration. By now provincial governors and Hindu chiefs were in open defiance of Delhi and ruling as de-facto kings.

In order to stem this tide, Mahmud appointed his wazir, Malik-ul-Sharq, the ‘Lord of the East’ and sent him to subdue the rebellion that had spread from Kanauj to Bihar in the eastern parts of the empire. Malik-ul-Sharq captured the districts of Koil, Etawa, Kanauj and occupied Jaunpur, bringing under control the important centres of the region.

Manaich – Jaunpur

The history of Jaunpur can be traced back to the time of Gaharwar Rajputs who ruled the region with their capital at Manaich. Later it included the capital of the Sharqi kings. In 1321, during the reign of Ghiyas ud-Din Tughluq, his third son Zafar Khan captured Manaich. It was renamed Zafarabad and given as a ‘jagir’ to Zafar Khan by a grateful monarch, his father. The town, in decline, had been rejuvenated and renamed Jaunpur by Firuz Shah during his first expedition to Bengal, in honour of his cousin and predecessor Muhammad Tughluq. A while later, the town was held by Shahibzada Nasir Khan, a natural son of Firuz Shah. Mahmud now appointed his wazir, Malik-ul-Sharq as its governor.

Over a period of time, Malik-ul-Sharq, who had by now been titled Malik Saravan, consolidated his position, increased his power and stature and became an independent ruler.

In the western part of the kingdom Shaikha Khokhar was ruling from Lahore, untroubled since Humayun had not undertaken the expedition that his father had ordered. Sarang Khan Lodi, the governor of Dipalpur, gathered a number of chiefs under his banner and led a joint expedition to Lahore. In a counter move, Shaikha took the offensive and sacked Dipalpur while the governor was marching towards Lahore. Unperturbed, Sarang Khan continued towards Lahore and Shaikha was compelled to hurry back to Lahore. At a keenly contested battle, fought at Samuthala, Shaikha Khokhar was routed and fled to the hills of Jammu, the traditional territory of the Khokhar clan. Sarang Khan placed his brother Adil Khan as the governor of Lahore and returned to Dipalpur.

The events described above provide an indication of the plural centres of power that had sprung up in the kingdom and the lack of influence, let alone control, that the sultan ruling in Delhi could exercise over his nominal empire. They also demonstrate the spread of the Muslim nobility across the entire northern part of the sub-continent and their stranglehold on power. There were Rajput chiefs who were also ruling their principalities, but history does not provide any instance of their being victorious in battles of importance. Certainly the Rajput chiefs also won victories, otherwise they would not have been able to hold on to their kingdoms and principalities. However, in the broader flow of history, their victories were not influential enough to matter much since they did not noticeably change the course of events as they unfolded. Another important aspect that can be gleaned from an analysis of these events is the repeated mention of Hindu chiefs and generals, such as Bahadur Nahar, who had converted to Islam and become part of the mainstream within the ruling class. The not so peaceful coming together and intertwining of two cultures and almost diametrically opposing religious views and practices can be seen. Further, and more importantly, the interaction between the religions was the beginning of the development of a unique brand of Islam in the sub-continent.

The Rule of Two Sultans

While the governors were fighting for supremacy in the north-west region on their own impetus, Mahmud Shah, the boy-sultan of Delhi, went with Sadat Khan and some other nobles to visit Gwalior. He left Muqarrab Khan in charge of Delhi as the regent. At Gwalior, Mallu Iqbal Khan Lodi, brother of Sarang Khan, conspired against Sadat Khan as he was jealous of the influence that Sadat exercised over the Sultan. Sadat came to know of the conspiracy and had the conspirators put to death. However, Mallu Khan managed to escape and returned to Delhi, where he sought protection from Muqarrab Khan. Muqarrab, also an enemy of Sadat, gladly granted him asylum within Delhi.

The Sultan and his entourage returned to Delhi. On their approach, Muqarrab Khan closed the gates of the city to the royal procession. Sadat Khan laid siege to the city, although even after three months no progress in seizing the city was made. There are two versions of subsequent events. One states that Muqarrab Khan invited Mahmud Shah into the city and the other opines that Mahmud Shah, weary of the humiliation of being locked out of his own capital, forsook Sadat Khan and entered the city of his own volition. In either case, Sadat was now left to his own devices, outside the city gates of Delhi.

Sadat Khan still had the army under his control and decided to teach Sultan Mahmud a lesson. He proceeded to Firuzabad before the onset of the approaching monsoons, and invited Nusrat Khan, son of Fath Khan the eldest and deceased son of Firuz Shah, to Firuzabad. On his arrival, Sadat Khan crowned him as the legitimate sultan with the title Nasir Ud-Din Nusrat Shah. Now the Sultanate had two titular rulers—one in Delhi and one in Firuzabad. Both the ‘sultans’ were puppets in the hands of their patron nobles. Sadat Khan was inherently an arrogant man and his supercilious and egotistic behaviour fell afoul of the nobles in his camp. However, he was clever enough to perceive that his support-base was diminishing and would soon vanish leaving him vulnerable. Sadat Khan fled to Delhi seeking shelter with Muqarrab Khan, who put him to death forthwith.

Even though Sadat had been removed from the scene, Nusrat Shah continued to have the support of a number of other nobles. The Sultanate was now effectively divided into two, with skirmishes between Delhi and Firuzabad becoming regular affairs. It was not long before a protracted civil war was generated with common people being killed in large numbers. The fact was that neither of the so-called sultans received any real allegiance from the nobles fighting on their behalves. The nobles considered themselves to be the rulers and only catered for their own profit and personal interest in the civil war. The administration of the state fell into anarchy. It is also instructive to note that the provincial governors, powerful in their own way, studiously kept out of the see-saw battles going on in and around Delhi. They were keeping a watch to ensure that their interests were protected irrespective of the outcome of the civil war in Delhi.

Ceaseless fighting continued with two sultans ruling a divided Delhi for the next three years. The main protagonists in the civil war were Bahadur Nahar, Mallu Iqbal Khan and Muqarrab Khan. The petty minded nobles and equally inept sultans were not able to fathom the menace that was looming across the north-western borders of their nominal Sultanate.

The Beginning of the End

Towards the end of 1397, news came that the army of Timur the Lame, or Tamerlane, had crossed the Rivers Indus and Chenab and had laid siege to Uchch. The governor Ali Malik was defeated and Timur’s army entered Multan in pursuit of the defeated army. Multan was besieged and captured after six months. Sarang Khan the governor and his family were taken prisoner. The news of the fall of Multan was a clarion call and should have acted as a catalyst for the warring sultans of Delhi to sink their differences and come together to face a ferocious common foe. However, no such luck was forthcoming for the ill-fated sultanate.

In Delhi, Mallu Iqbal Khan quarrelled with Muqarrab Khan and Sultan Mahmud. He left Delhi and aligned himself with Nusrat Shah in Firuzabad. Mallu Khan attacked Delhi, but was beaten back. He then got rid of Nusrat Khan and occupied Firuzabad. From there he managed to have Muqarrab Khan murdered and obtained control of the entire Delhi region. Nusrat Khan who had fled to Panipat started to march back to Delhi with the help of his wazir, Tatar Khan. Mallu Khan came out of Delhi with a large force and Tatar Khan gave up his proposed advance on Delhi and fled to Gujarat, where his father was the governor. Nusrat Khan sought asylum in the Doab. Mallu Iqbal Khan, now all powerful, returned to Delhi.

Before examining the final and ignoble extinction of the Tughluq dynasty, it is necessary to retract this narrative a few years in order to ensure completeness of the history being analysed. At this juncture in the history of North India, it becomes critical to study the ‘Timurid Typhoon’ that was blowing from the north-west. This ‘typhoon’ would soon engulf the northern part of the sub-continent, and lead to the eventual end not only of the Tughluq dynasty, but also of the Turkish rule in India.

© [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 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) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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