Indian History Part 56 The Tughluq Dynasty Section X The Whimpering End

Canberra, 6 September 2017


Timur left North-Western India in shambles—bleeding and in utter confusion and chaos. The entire countryside was ravaged, plundered and burned to the ground making it easy for famine and pestilence to spread. Trade, commerce and other signs of normalcy had vanished along with all trappings of prosperity. The city of Delhi was almost depopulated and destroyed. It took several years for the wounds to heal and for the region to recuperate and recover. The Delhi Sultanate, already in a diminished state before the Timurid invasion now shrunk to the dimension of a small principality, consisting of a few districts centred on Delhi.

For nearly three months after Timur’s departure, Delhi had no ruler—Mahmud Shah and the pretender Nusrat Shah had both fled from the capital, leaving it at the mercy of Timur’s plundering army. Nusrat Shah, who had fled to the Doab, was the first to attempt a return. He made another attempt to capture the throne of Delhi, and occupied the ruins of the palace at Firuzabad. However, he was driven out of Delhi by Mallu Iqbal Khan.

Mallu Iqbal Khan

Soon after being driven out of Delhi, Nusrat Shah died. Iqbal Khan established his rule from Siri and gradually the people who had fled Delhi started to return. Iqbal Khan was keen to re-establish control over the territories that had been lost, realising that the Sultanate had disintegrated into independent kingdoms and principalities of different nominations. Punjab and Sind was under the control of Khizr Khan; Gujarat was ruled by Zafar Khan; and Malwa was under the rule of Dilawar Khan. Nearer Delhi, Gulab Khan held court at Samana, while Mahoba and Kalpi was under Mahmud Khan’s jurisdiction. In the east, from Kanauj to Bihar including Jaunpur, was ruled by Mubarak Shah Qaranful. (The title ‘Qaranful’ has been translated as meaning ‘dark complexion’ or ‘clove’).

Each of these rulers coveted the throne of Delhi, even in its reduced state. Iqbal Khan was plagued by a lack of resources to establish control over regions farther away for Delhi. Therefore, he had to be content in making few forays against minor chieftains around Delhi, collecting some amount of tribute and then returning to the safety of Delhi. In the period of the internecine war in Delhi and the subsequent invasion of Timur, Jaunpur had consciously stayed away from the confusion and conflict. The new ‘kingdom’ had grown relatively powerful while the Sultanate and the western regions were breaking under the strain of Timur’s pillaging march. The Jaunpur ruler had not assisted Delhi in any manner during the time of its greatest threat, opting to conserve his strength.

Iqbal Khan realised the necessity to bring the eastern kingdom under control and marched to Kanauj. On the way he was joined by the chieftains of Mewat and Bayan, both of whom had declared independence from Delhi. However, they were more interested in bringing down the power of Jaunpur than maintaining their transitory independence and submitted to the nominal ruler of Delhi. During the march Iqbal Khan was opposed by some Hindu chieftains at Etawah, but they were defeated. Iqbal advanced to the banks of the River Ganga and was faced by the Jaunpur forces on the other bank. After a two-month stand-off between the two forces, Iqbal Khan retreated and returned to Delhi, not having achieved any tangible result or advantage in the campaign.

At this stage Iqbal Khan felt that he lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the people to rule from the throne of Delhi and so invited Mahmud Shah back to Delhi. Iqbal Khan placed Mahmud on the throne as nominal sultan and ruled in his name. Mahmud Shah once again became a puppet in the hands of the powerful noble. After making these cosmetic changes to the hierarchy in the capital, Iqbal Khan returned to confront Jaunpur, perhaps hoping that the legitimacy provided by Mahmud Shah being on the throne would alter the status quo in his favour. Jaunpur was now ruled by Ibrahim Shah Sharqi, the brother of the now deceased Mubarak Shah. Once again the armies of Delhi and Jaunpur faced off on opposite banks of the River Ganga, the stand-off again did not produce any appreciable result.

At this juncture Mahmud Shah, the nominal sultan who had been smarting under the treatment that he had been receiving from Iqbal Khan and other nobles, moved with an army and captured Kanauj. He established his rule from there, controlling only a very small spread of territory. Iqbal Khan hurriedly returned to Delhi. During this time, when Iqbal Khan was busy with the Jaunpur kingdom, Gujarat had emerged as one of the primary threats to Delhi. However, Gujarat was also the throes of internal challenges. There was confusion at the highest levels of rule with intrigue and palace revolts continually bringing chaos to the kingdom. Therefore, Gujarat could not pose a credible threat to Delhi, which receded almost completely after Muzaffar Shah regained the throne from his son Tatar Khan.

The threat to Delhi now started to emanate from the north-west, where Khizr Khan was in the process of consolidating his power. He considered himself the rightful heir to Timur, since he had been left in-charge by Timur, although without an army to support him. To make good this obvious lack of military power, Khizr Khan invited the Afghan chiefs, from India and abroad, to join him in an invasion aimed at mounting a challenge to the Delhi throne. A large number of chiefs flocked to his banner, no doubt lured by the prospect of plunder and wealth that would come their way through an attack on the Sultanate.

Iqbal Khan realised that the situation had deteriorated to an extent that he had to act. The Sultanate was surrounded, especially in the west and the east by strong and powerful rulers. Therefore, he marched against the Doab, relatively the least powerful of neighbouring territories. The Delhi army besieged the Rai of Etawah, but the attempt to defeat him was unsuccessful. Then Iqbal Khan moved against Mahmud Shah in Kanauj, which also turned out to be a futile attempt. The unfortunate Khan was forced to return to Delhi for the third time without achieving any gains. He then tried his luck in the west by marching to Samana. He fared better here. Iqbal Khan coerced Bahram Khan ruling in Samana to join him in an attempt to defeat Khizr Khan. The combined army marched towards Multan. On the way, for some inexplicable reason, Iqbal Khan suspected Bahram of treachery and had him flayed alive. The Samana army and some Delhi forces deserted the camp on hearing of their chief’s fate. Iqbal Khan’s army was completely depleted.

Khizr Khan saw the opportunity to best the Delhi army and came out to give battle. On 12 November 1405, battle ensued on the banks of the Dahinda, a small rivulet branching off from the River Sutlej near Ajodhan and re-joining it about 35 miles downstream. In the old records that part of the River Sutlej is also referred to as Dahinda. In the encounter, Mallu Iqbal Khan was killed. He was not mourned in Delhi. This is not surprising. Although he was a fairly loyal servant of the Tughluqs, he had also displayed personal ambition in the actions that he initiated to reassert the authority of the Tughluqs after the violent Timurid interlude. His actions and rule on behalf of the minor sultan Mahmud Shah had not been entirely altruistic. On the positive side, it has to be accepted that he met his end as a courageous soldier who had not succumbed to any other frailties of character.

Mahmud Shah Returns

On the death of Iqbal Khan, the leading nobles of Delhi invited Mahmud Shah to return and assume the throne. Mahmud returned to Delhi after being self-exiled for seven years and rewarded the nobles in the traditional manner by distributing riches among them. However, Mahmud Shah did not return to a peaceful throne. His re-ascension was opposed by Ibrahim Sharqi ruling the east from Jaunpur and Khizr Khan controlling the western region. In typical fashion, the impetuous and young Sultan decided to settle these challenges, a decision that held long-term consequences for the Sultanate.

Jaunpur to the east had become powerful at the cost of Delhi, making further inroads into its declining power. However, despite the opposition from Jaunpur, Mahmud had managed to capture Kanauj, which had been an appendage of Jaunpur till then. He had managed to stay in power there for seven years till his invited return to the Delhi throne. On Mahmud’s return to Delhi, Ibrahim Sharqi marched out to assimilate Kanauj back into the Jaunpur kingdom. From Delhi Mahmud also ventured out with an army. The armies met and a stand-off ensued since both the armies were reluctant to start a war that they felt would not provide any conclusive result. Subsequently the armies returned to their respective capitals without giving battle. Status quo prevailed. [Contemporary as well as later-day historians repeatedly mention that Jaunpur had become very powerful. However, the fact that they could not defeat a materially and numerically depleted Delhi army indicates that the Sharqi kingdom was not all that powerful and nor was its ruler confident.]

Along with the attempt to coerce Jaunpur, Mahmud had send out another army to attempt subduing Samana. Samana was ruled by a slave of Firuz Shah as a vassal of Khizr Khan. The Delhi army managed a minor victory, but when Khizr Khan marched out of Multan to help his vassal in Samana, the Delhi army fled in panic with some of the Delhi forces switching sides and joining Khizr Khan. Khizr Khan continued his eastward march and the entire area west of the River Yamuna now came under his control. Mahmud Shah’s control over the minimalist Sultanate and his personal stature suffered a setback.

With these manoeuvrings, a game of chequers was set in motion. Ibrahim Sharqi now marched to Delhi. Seeing an opportunity Zafar Khan of Gujarat made a move on Jaunpur, at a time when Ibrahim was already committed to crossing the River Yamuna towards Delhi. Ibrahim Sharqi was forced to return post-haste to defend his capital and Zafar Khan retired to Gujarat. Mahmud Shah took advantage of the pre-occupation of two of his arch rivals and recaptured few towns to the east of Delhi, which may have been affiliated to Jaunpur. The success of these minor forays encouraged Mahmud to try to recapture territorial control by mounting a campaign to the west. This provoked Khizr Khan to commence a march towards Delhi. He arrived at the outskirts of the capital and besieged Siri. The deeds of his mentor Timur came back now to haunt Khizr Khan. Timur had ravaged the countryside so badly that even after nearly a decade, it was not capable of supporting a huge army engaged in a siege. Khizr Khan was forced to lift the siege and return to his home base.

Form this time onwards Khizr Khan did not make any pretence regarding his ambition and started to prepare for an attack to seize Delhi. On the other hand, Mahmud Shah turned to the pleasure loving ways of a sultan, not paying any heed to the menace being readied on the west of his Sultanate—in reality only a small principality. Khizr Khan made another attempt at claiming the throne, but was once again thwarted by a lack of provisions for the huge army that he had created. Mahmud Shah had by this become completely enamoured by a life of pleasure and avoided all involvement in affairs of the state. He died towards the end of 1412, having ‘officially’ ruled the Delhi Sultanate for a little over 18 years. Mahmud Shah ruled in name only and was a puppet sultan. Even had he wanted to set right the problems of the Sultanate, the challenges facing the kingdom were far too complex even for a competent ruler to rectify, which evidently Mahmud was not. Mahmud was a weak and ineffectual Sultan and the problems of the Sultanate only continued to multiply during his reign. After 18 years of continuous struggle, Muhammad Shah died on the throne, the last of the Tughluqs to rule.

The Coming of the Sayyids

The nobles of Delhi were now in a quandary. They could not offer the throne of Delhi to Khizr Khan who was considered the nominee of the ‘accursed’ Timur. The nobles paid homage to Daulta Khan, a Lodi Amir with no claim to the throne, and crowned him sultan. Daulta Khan was well aware of the precariousness of his position and went about creating as many alliances as possible with the chieftains ruling principalities around Delhi. He avoided siding with any faction, attempting to bring all the nobles into his fold.

In the meantime Khizr Khan started a full-scale invasion of Delhi. He besieged Rohtak; marched to Mewat where the local governor, ruling independently, surrendered; crossed the Doab and sacked Sambhal; and arrived at Delhi in March 1414 with 60,000 cavalry, and invested Siri. Daulat Khan withstood the siege for nearly four months. However, he was betrayed by one of his senior commanders who let Khizr Khan’s forces enter the fort. Daulat Khan was taken prisoner and later put to death. In June 1414, the Sultanate passed into the hands of Khizr Khan Sayyid—the first of the Sayyid dynasty.

Causes for the Disintegration of the Tughluq Empire

When Ghiyas ud-Din, the founder of the Tughluq dynasty, died his empire encompassed almost the entire northern India with the exception of Kashmir, Nepal and Assam. It also held large parts of the Deccan other than Orissa. When Mahmud Shah, the last sultan of the dynasty died, the Sultanate was little more than a petty principality surrounding Delhi. Further, the dynasty did not have the capacity to protect even this diminutive territory, the control of the region passing to Timur’s governor who went on to establish the Sayyid dynasty. The deterioration in personal capabilities of the successor sultans was rapid and the fall of the regime expected. Eight major factors, individually and in combination, contributed to this swift and sorry decline of the once grand Tughluq dynasty.

First was the character and policies of Muhammad, the second Tughluq to sit on the throne of Delhi. His ‘visionary’ projects, which almost always resulted in failure and was followed by the sultan imposing extraordinarily harsh punishments on the people, gradually made the general population resent the Sultan. Muhammad had grandiose dreams of conquest, although these fantasy filled schemes never materialised. The failure of the Sultan to follow up on his military schemes made regional governors believe that they could rebel against the central authority without any fear of retribution. This situation sowed the seeds of disintegration of the great empire. The result was that Bengal became independent and in the Deccan, the Bahmani and Vijyanagar Empires were established. It took more than two centuries for Delhi to re-establish control of the Deccan in any meaningful manner.

It is true that Muhammad’s successor, Firuz Shah attempted to reverse the trend within his limited personal capacity. However, the second cause for the disintegration of the empire was the cumulative effects of the policies of Firuz Shah. His innate tendency to be lenient towards miscreants; exaggerated religious intolerance towards non-Muslims; and the revival of the feudal system that directly impaired the efficiency of the army, which was the mainstay of the Sultanate, completely weakened the central administrative control to a point beyond possible repair. The third reason is also related to Firuz Shah. Bluntly put, he lived for too long a period of time—so much so that his two elder sons, who were both efficient princes, predeceased him. Firuz was left with a pleasure-loving and ineffectual son to succeed him. In addition, Firuz did not make even a token attempt at preparing his surviving son to take on the mantle of the sultan through education and training.

This ineptitude in mentoring a worthy successor led to the fourth reason for the collapse of the Tughluq dynasty. Only incompetent non-entities followed Firuz to the throne. They were all prone to being manipulated by selfish, but powerful nobles who were also equally inept at administration and lacking in political acumen. Rival groups shadow boxed with each other in an attempt to increase their influence and prestige, while at the same time not one individual of calibre was thrown up from the large number of court hangers on and the swelling ranks of the nobility to save the Empire. It is seen throughout history that great and lasting empires invariably have available a pool of talented and dedicated nobles who rise up in times of need to selflessly buttress the foundations of the kingdom. The Tughluq dynasty did not have the luxury of such support, a situation that was self-created since foresight was lacking in the Sultans.

The fifth cause for the rapid decline was that Firuz adopted the traditional style of governance—that of centralised despotism—but did not have the strength of character and ruthlessness necessary to make an autocratic centralised rule work efficiently. Despotism of all kinds require leadership that can only be delivered by a man of great inner strength, resolute character, an excellent work ethic and extreme decisiveness. In this kind of governance, any weakness in the monarch very rapidly spreads through the entire body of the administration. The Delhi Sultanate became a moth-ridden administrative state during Firuz Shah’s long rule. The sixth reason, and perhaps one of the most important factor that led to the extinction of the dynasty was also inflicted by Firuz Shah. Under his long rule, the army of the Sultanate ceased to be the primary instrument of state power. With the power of the army being eroded, the awe of royal authority—necessary to exercise power—diminished to an extent of being non-existent. The Sultanate was a traditional police state, built on the power of the army to collect taxes in return for ensuring law and order that provided a reasonably secure life for the subjects. Even in the autocratic monarchical system of governance, there was an indelible covenant between the ruler and the ruled. A weak army broke this covenant because it could not discharge its end of the bargain, with the result the very reason for the existence of the Sultanate started to get questioned. The cohesiveness necessary for a kingdom to hold together got lost along with the diminished stature and capability of the army.

The seventh factor which contributed to the rapid decline of the dynasty was the inability of Firuz and his successors to quell the rebellions that were erupting across the entire territory of the Sultanate. Rebellions in the Deccan continued unabated. It needed the iron hand of someone like Ala ud-Din Khilji to put it down and enforce the will of the Delhi Sultan. The Tughluqs did not produce such a person of calibre and determination at the hour of their greatest need. The uncontrolled and unquestioned Deccan rebellions became the blue print for the chieftains of the north to emulate. The result was that the entire Sultanate was in rebellion almost perpetually.

The eighth reason was that the Hindu chiefs, who had now been subjugated for nearly two centuries had not yet given up their attempts to evict the ‘foreign’ invaders. Despite the integration that was taking place across the entire spectrum of society, the Muslim aristocracy was still considered ‘outsiders’, although by now most of them were born in the sub-continent. Some of them, like Firuz Shah, were also of mixed parentage—both in ethnicity and religion. Ranthambhor is a classic example of this resistance and rebellion. The fort was only subdued after 150 years of obstinate defiance. Similarly the Doab, situated very near Delhi, was always restive and never fully submissive. Immediately on the Hindu chiefs perceiving the weakness that was encroaching on Delhi, Rajasthan broke free, its many principalities declaring independence. Gwalior and other Hindu holdings were not far behind in following suit.

The individual and combined onslaught of these somewhat disparate, but intertwined, factors brought the Tughluq dynasty to its knees. Their cumulative effects made the dynasty ready to be deposed. The surprising fact was that it took so long for the actual act to take place.


© [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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