Indian History Part 57 The Disintegrated Sultanate

Canberra, 24 September 2017

Even though Timur had ravaged the land and sacked Delhi, for a few more years after his departure the Tughluqs continued their internecine war for control of the Sultanate. A little over a decade later, Khizr Khan, who had been appointed by Timur as the governor of Multan, but left without an army, managed to claim the throne of Delhi. However, the Sultanate was not an imperial power anymore. Territorially it consisted of a small part of Western Uttar Pradesh and Khizr Khan brought with him control of most of the areas of Punjab and Sindh. The core Sultanate was not the strongest or most powerful of the many kingdoms into which the once-great empire had splintered. Therefore, at this juncture in the narrative history of the Delhi Sultanate it becomes necessary to analyse the various independent kingdoms before continuing the account.

At the time of the chaotic fall of the Tughluqs, the kingdoms of the sub-continent could be divided into four well-defined and independent groups:

  • The Hindu states of the Rajputana region, where Mewar (modern-day Udaipur) was the dominant power;
  • The Muslim states of Gujarat and Malwa;
  • The southern states in the Deccan—the Muslim Bahmani kingdom and the Hindu Vijayanagar Empire; and
  • The kingdoms of the East—Gondwana, Orissa, Bengal and Jaunpur.

[The Vijayanagar Empire and the Bahmani kingdom will be studied in detail in the next volume of this series.]

At the height of its power, the Bahmani kingdom exerted great influence on both Gujarat and Malwa. Its power and geographic location prevented both Gujarat and Malwa from threatening a weakened Delhi Sultanate since their own capitals were within striking distance from the Bahmani kingdom. Any prolonged absence of their armies, which would have been necessary to mount an expedition against Delhi, would have made it easy for the Bahmani kingdom to capture either Gujarat or Malwa. The respite that the Delhi Sultanate got as a result of this triangular contest for hegemony gave the Delhi Sultans the time needed to facilitate shoring up their resources to hold on to their diminished sultanate as an independent entity. However, by the end of the 15th century, the once strong Bahmani kingdom had started to break up into small principalities, which were almost completely subsumed by internecine wars.

The eastern kingdoms did not play any significant role or have any lasting influence on the history of the Delhi Sultanate. However, the Rajputana region with its war-like principalities; as well as Malwa, Gujarat and Jaunpur were intimately connected to the history of the Sultanate, playing significantly influential and important roles in their own manner.

The Rajputana Region

The Rajputana region, currently called the state of Rajasthan in India, covered more territory than the borders of the modern state indicates. It was predominantly a Hindu region that housed a large number of principalities, flanked by Gujarat in the south-west and Malwa in the south-east. During the early 15th century, the Hindu kingdoms were hard pressed by both these Muslim states. Gujarat was powerful and the champion of Islam in the west. Most of the Rajputana principalities had to buy peace from its aggression at different times.

There are two fundamental and enduring factors that enveloped Rajputana as a whole. The first was its indomitable spirit of independence. The leading light in this rebellious streak was the kingdom of Mewar with its capital at Chittor. Early in the 14th century, Ala ud-Din Khilji subdued and occupied Chittor. However, within a decade or so, in 1321, Hamir Rana of Sesoda, reoccupied Chittor and consolidated his rule over the principalities surrounding Mewar. He then assumed the title of Maharana. Unfortunately, on Hamir’s death, of old age after a long rule, in 1364, the family lapsed into the second factor that was endemic to the region and an age-old tradition of Rajput clans—they went into a period of internecine warfare, blood feuds and political assassinations.

Rana Khumbha

After nearly six decades of chaos and confusion, Rana Khumbha ascended the throne of Mewar in 1433. He went on to become one of the most famous and celebrated rulers of Rajputana. Rana Khumbha was a great warrior, an accomplished poet and musician, a man of letters, and a builder of magnificent buildings. Some of the finest monuments still seen in the Mewar region is attributed to Rana Khumbha. He defeated other minor Rajput chieftains and consolidated the region into one kingdom under a central rule. He also defeated the ruler of Malwa and erected a ‘Jayasthamba’ or ‘Victory Tower’ to commemorate the battlefield victory. Of the 84 forts that defended the kingdom of Mewar, 32 were built during the reign of Rana Khumbha, with the fort of Khumbalgarh being named after him.

In a strange twist of fate, this well-liked and powerful king was murdered by his own son Udaya, who was impatient and did not want to wait for the passing of his father to claim the throne. Once again in a sort of ‘getting his just desserts’, the nobles of the court declared Udaya ineligible to ascend the throne and disqualified him. Khumbha’s second son Rai Mal was elevated to the throne. Rai Mal’s rule was stable from an external perspective since there were no invasions or attacks on the kingdom. However, his reign was plagued by internal disturbances as a result of family feuds within the royal household. Rai Mal’s three sons were continually at loggerheads and jockeying for the position of the heir apparent.

In the end, Rai Mal was succeeded by his eldest son Sangram Singh. Sangram was a brave warrior, able statesman and just ruler. He was held in high esteem by the rulers of all Rajput principalities. Sangram fought a won a number of battles against Delhi, Gujarat and Malwa, thus holding aloft the independent status of the only Hindu kingdom in North India at that time. The extent of Muslim encroachment of the sub-continent can be understood from this single fact. Mewar continued to be an independent and strongly held entity till it was subjugated by the Mughal emperors at a much later date.


The kingdom of Malwa lay to the south-west of Delhi. By the 10th century it was ruled by Parmar Rajput kings who became very prominent and made Malwa into one of the leading kingdoms of North India. Rajput Malwa reached the pinnacle of its power under Raja Bhoja of Dhar. After the establishment of the nascent Sultanate in Delhi, it became obvious to the sultans that Malwa had to be brought under their flag. Accordingly, Iltutmish raided Ujjain, the largest city of the kingdom, in 1235. During this raid he demolished the famous Kali temple of Ujjain but did not annex the kingdom, leaving it as a vassal state.

Ala ud-Din Khilji conquered Malwa in 1310 and placed it under a governor. Thereafter, Malwa remained under Muslim governors until the disintegration of the Sultanate after Firuz Shah’s ineffective rule. In 1401, the governor of Malwa, Dilawar Khan Ghori a descendant of Muhammad of Ghur, declared independence from the Delhi Sultanate and established a kingdom with its capital at Dhar. Dilawar was succeeded by his son Alap Khan who assumed the title of Hushang Shah. The use of the title ‘Shah’ indicates the complete independence of the kingdom from any control or connection to the Delhi Sultanate. In any case, by this time the Delhi rulers, still carrying exalted titles were nothing but minor chieftains in actual fact. Hushang Shah transferred the capital to Mandu, a much more defensible fort than Dhar.

Hushang Shah was war-like ruler, although his competence in the battlefield was not commensurate with his ambition. He was involved in a number of conflicts with Gujarat, Jaunpur and Delhi, all of them his neighbours. His invasion of Gujarat was unsuccessful. Subsequently he attempted an attack on Delhi. He was defeated and beaten back by Mubarak Shah who forced him to pay tribute to the Delhi Sultanate. Hushang Shah was succeeded by his son Ghazi Khan (also mentioned as Ghazni Khan in some accounts), who was a worthless debauchee. Very early in his reign, Ghazi was murdered by his minister Mahmud Khan Khilji who then established the dynasty of Khilji sultans of Malwa.

Mahmud Khilji I was a great warrior and an ambitious ruler. His long reign was almost completely spent waging war to improve the territorial integrity of his kingdom and to enhance its stature within the kingdoms on North India. He waged wars, with some success but without achieving any significant victory, against Ahmad Shah of Gujarat, Rana Khumbha of Mewar, Muhammad Shah Sayyid and later Bahlul Lodi of Delhi and also Muhammad Shah III of the Bahmani kingdom. Malwa under Mahmud Khilji I was an ambitious kingdom, carrying out raids into the east against the Gondwana and Orissa kingdoms. Further, Malwa shared a contiguous border with the Delhi Sultanate and captured some of its territories. Mahmud extended his control up to Kalpi in Bundelkhand. The warrior-spirit and battlefield successes made Mahmud Khilji a prospective ruler of Delhi in the view of some of the Delhi nobles. However, it remained in the speculative stage and nothing more materialised out of this consideration.

Mahmud I was renowned across the land for valour and as an immaculate general in battle. He was also acknowledged as a just and able administrator, and for his generosity as a benign ruler. Malwa prospered under his benevolent and nurturing rule. However, the continuous wars that Mahmud undertook started to show its effect towards the end of his long reign. The indecisive but brutal battles had started to whittle down the strength of Malwa. The passage of time was not kind to this prosperous kingdom, being surrounded by antagonistic neighbours and being on a war-footing for decades made sure that inevitably its strength and stature declined.

A Dubious Claim of Victory

A detailed analysis of Mahmud Khilji I’s war against Rana Khumbha of Mewar clearly indicates that the result was indecisive, although the Rajput king held the advantage.

The Rajput chronicles mention a crushing defeat of Mahmud Khilji, which is commemorated by the famous Victory Tower erected at Chittor. However, Mahmud also claimed victory in the same battle and erected a seven-storey tower in his capital Mandu. This claim of victory cannot be verified in any way.

Mahmud Khilji I died in 1496 after ruling for 34 years and was succeeded by his son Ghiyas ud-Din who was poisoned by his own son Nasir ud-Din. Nasir ud-Din then ascended the throne in 1500. Both father and son were slothful rulers given to the pleasures of the harem and completely disinterested in the administration of the kingdom. Nasir ud-Din was succeeded by his son Mahmud Khilji II. During Mahmud’s reign the Delhi Sultan Sikandar Lodi captured many districts of Malwa after a prolonged war. Around the same time, both Gujarat and Mewar were in ascendancy.

Mahmud II sought the help of the Rajputs to control the Muslim nobility who had become extremely powerful in Malwa. A well-known Rajput noble, Medini Rao, was appointed as the chief minister of Malwa. Over a short period of time he became very powerful in court. The king now started to become apprehensive of Medini Rao’s intentions and suspected that he was going to usurp power. Mahmud now requested the king of Gujarat, Muzaffar Shah for help to expel Medini Rao and re-establish his own power. Sensing an impending attack, Medini Rao asked the Rana of Mewar, Sangram Singh, for help and defeated his own king’s army. Mahmud Khilji II was captured and taken to Chittor by Rana Sangha who had led the expedition.

The Mewar king displayed the inherent magnanimity of a Rajput and not only released Mahmud, but reinstated him to the throne after restoring his kingdom. Mahmud Khilji II did not display any vestige of gratitude and led an invasion of Mewar during the reign of Rana Sangha’s successor. However, the expedition was indecisive and Mahmud returned to his by now considerably reduced kingdom. Mahmud gave shelter to the rebellious brother of Bahadur Shah, then ruling Gujarat and an ally of Mewar. Incensed with this action, Bahadur Shah attacked Malwa and captured the kingdom. Mahmud Khilji II was captured and executed. All male members of the royal family were put to death and Malwa was annexed to Gujarat. It remained part of the kingdom of Gujarat thereafter till Gujarat itself was conquered by the Mughal emperor Humayun.


The region of Gujarat is blessed with fertile land and its large coastline supports commercial and maritime activity. The ports of Cambay, Surat and Broach have been the centres of overseas trade from time immemorial—through them flowed commerce between Asia and Europe. The coast of Gujarat was known to early Greek traders and Baryagaza or Bharukacha, now Broach, is mentioned as the gateway for trade with India in ancient manuscripts. The kingdom therefore was immensely wealthy that in turn always attracted foreign invaders.

Mahmud of Ghazni was the first Muslim invader to plunder Gujarat. His notorious raid on the famous Somnath Temple was only the prelude to further Muslim invasions and sackings. Muhammad of Ghur invaded Gujarat in 1196. However, it was only in 1297 that a semi-permanent conquest of Gujarat was effected by Ala ud-Din Khilji who annexed the territory to the Delhi Sultanate. Gujarat remained under the rule of Muslim governors who were subordinate to the Delhi Sultans from then. The loyalty of the governors to Delhi and their status of autonomy fluctuated with the strength and weakness of the Delhi Sultanate. In the confusion that followed the capture and sacking of Delhi by Timur’s forces, Zafar Khan, the then governor of Gujarat and a convert to Islam from the Tauk clan of Rajputs, declared independence in 1401. He formally withdrew allegiance to the Delhi Sultan.

Gujarat at the Time of its Separation from Delhi

The territory over which Zafar Khan declared his authority was small, even by the standards of the day when small principalities abounded. The north-west border was shared between the Rajput kingdoms of Jalor and Sirohi. The western part of the hills were under the Raja of Idar while the rest of the hills were held by Bhils and Kols, ferocious tribal groups. Some Rajput princes had also formed petty states amongst the tribal groups. The Kathiawar peninsula was controlled by few Hindu clans from Kacha and Sindh, who had occupied the region centuries back.

Zafar Khan controlled a narrow strip of land that sat between the hills and the sea. The eastern part of this petty strip of land formed part of the kingdom of the Raja of Champanir.

The bane of most Muslim dynasties—that of patricide—did not spare Zafar Khan. His son Tartar Khan, with the assistance of some disgruntled nobles, captured and imprisoned Zafar Khan. He ascended the throne as Nasir ud-Din Muhammad Shah. Nasir’s rule was short-lived since he was poisoned by a noble loyal to his father. Zafar was brought out of captivity and continued his rule under the title Muzaffar Shah. He undertook a number of expeditions to various borders of his tiny kingdom to consolidate his power and control of territory. Four years later, he was poisoned by his grandson Ahmad Shah.

Ahmad Shah

Although not the first king of an independent Gujarat, Ahmad Shah can be considered in all respects to be the founder of independent Gujarat. He was a brave and warlike king and spend almost his entire life waging war and expanding the boundaries of the kingdom that he had both usurped and inherited in an indirect manner. He administered the state with great sagacity and shifted the capital to Karnawati on the banks of the River Sabarmati, renaming it Ahmadabad. However, he was a bigoted ruler, waging relentless war against all non-believers. Even though he was a just and magnanimous ruler of the Muslim population, he considered it his religious duty to wage war against the Hindus and to destroy temples. Surprisingly for only a third-generation convert to Islam, he propagated Islam zealously. The enthusiasm for Islam could also be attributed to the fact that local converts had to display greater support to the religion than Muslim nobles who came to the sub-continent from Central Asia in order to establish their religious credentials.

Ahmad Shah waged war with all his neighbours and was victorious in most battles. The victories enhanced the wealth and stature of Gujarat, entrenching it as a notable and independent nation. Ahmad Shah was succeeded by his eldest son Muhammad Shah who was an inept ruler. He lost a battle when he invaded Champanir and shortly thereafter was poisoned by some nobles who conspired against him. Muhammad Shah’s son, Qutb ud-Din was placed on the throne and ruled for just eight years, the time being mainly spent in waging a long drawn war with Mewar. He was succeeded by Daud, his uncle and a notorious profligate, who was removed from the throne by the nobles within a few weeks. Another grandson of Ahmad Shah, Mahmud, was then placed on the throne.

Exploits of Mahmud Bighara

Mahmud was by far the greatest of the Gujarat sultans, ruling for 53 years and gaining a great deal of military glory. He is also praised in contemporary chronicles for his gallantry, generosity and love of justice. He is also reported as having been excessively found of food. His military exploits were legendary. He saved Nizam Shah Bahmani from an attack by Mahmud Khilji of Malwa; captured Pardi near Daman; attacked Rai Mandalik of Junagarh, capturing and annexing Surat to his domain; and invaded Kutchch, subjugating the Sumra and Sodha chiefs there. He then went on to subdue and punish the pirates operating off the coast of Jagat (Dwarka).

Mahmud subsequently send a raiding party into Champanir territory. When a commander was killed in the skirmish, Mahmud declared war against Champanir and proceeded personally towards the country. The Malwa ruler had come to aid of the king of Champanir, but on the arrival of the Gujarat forces, withdrew to his own territory. The Rawal of Champanir put up resistance and fought gallantly for some days, but ultimately surrendered. Mahmud had the entire garrison put to the sword and renamed the town Muhammadabad.

Towards the end of his reign Mahmud led an expedition against the Portuguese who had established a small holding on the west coast. Vasco da Gama had discovered the sea route to India in 1498 and the Portuguese had managed to establish footholds in Cambay and Chaul. The Portuguese were intent on cutting off the trade of the Muslims in Gujarat, wanting to establish a monopoly in the spice trade for themselves. This move was bound to adversely impact the Indian trade, which made it imperative for Mahmud to initiate action against them. Mahmud Bighara, as he has also been called in a number of contemporary accounts, allied himself with the sultan of Egypt, Qansu Ghori for the ensuing battle. The combined navies of Gujarat and Egypt defeated the Portuguese fleet. However, the very next year a reverse defeat took place and Mahmud was forced to grant land for a ‘factory’ to be built in Diu by the Portuguese.

Mahmud Bighara died in 1511 and was succeeded by his son Muzaffar Shah II. Muzaffar successfully interfered and thwarted a Hindu attempt at dominating Malwa, but went on to engage in a disastrous war with Mewar. Rana Sangram Singh invaded Gujarat, captured Idar and sacked Ahmadabad. A see-saw war ensued with Muzaffar striking back with alacrity. In the meantime, Muzaffar’s son Bahadur felt that he was not being given sufficient recognition and fled to Ibrahim Lodi in Delhi. This led to further political turmoil in Gujarat that continued till Babur the Mughal arrived on the scene.

Gujarat was geographically cut off from Delhi by Malwa and Rajasthan. Therefore, the Gujarat rulers did not harbour any ambitions or aspirations to capture the throne of Delhi. Indirectly the Delhi Sultanate benefitted for a strong Gujarat since Malwa and Mewar could not attack Delhi without leaving their flank open for Gujarat to exploit.


The territory of Jaunpur had its capital of the same name, built by Firuz Shah, situated on the River Gomti about 34 miles north-west of Varanasi (see chapter titled Firuz Shah Tughluq: Military Endeavours). Mahmud Tughluq had send Kwaja Jahan Sarwar to Jaunpur to suppress the rebellious chiefs, bestowing on him the title Malik-ul-Sharq. He was very successful in subduing the rebels and soon brought a large swath of territory—spreading from Kol in the west to Tirhut in Bihar—under his control. Although he did not declare independence from Delhi, he cut off all ties with the Sultanate and ruled the territory. He pointedly did not send any assistance to Delhi during its disastrous sacking by Timur, thereby asserting his independence.

Malik-ul-Sharq was succeeded by his adopted son who assumed the title Mubarak Shah and then by Shams ud-Din Ibrahim Sharqi. Shams ud-Din fought the Tughluq army of Mahmud and managed to hold on to the territories that he had inherited. His rule of 40 years was the most stable and prosperous times for Jaunpur. Shams ud-Din’s son succeeded him and while on the throne attempted to dethrone Bahlul Lodi then ruling in Delhi. This resulted in a protracted struggle between Delhi and Jaunpur that lasted for more than a quarter century without throwing up any clear victor. However, the conflict debilitated both the kingdoms. The last Jaunpur king was Sultan Husian who made a determined attempt to invade Delhi in 1479. However, he was soundly defeated and Jaunpur was annexed to the Delhi Sultanate, ceasing to be an independent kingdom. Even though Jaunpur had existed as an independent kingdom for a mere 80 years (1399-1479), during this time it had proven to be one of the biggest trouble makers for the Delhi Sultanate.


Throughout the rule of the Sayyids and Lodis in Delhi, the north and western part of the Indian sub-continent remained fragmented. During this time both Muslim and Hindu ruling houses proliferated in the region, some of them reigning over really miniscule and completely insignificant territories as ‘independent’ kingdoms. These minor principalities, long on claims of royalty and short of everything else that denotes sovereignty, fought each other and the Sultanate on a continuous basis. The result was that the environment was hostile and did not permit the rise of a single entity with sufficient strength to unify the fractious sub-continent. Continuous wars, in which no one came out as a clear winner, bled the strength of all participants. This state of affairs continued for more than a century. The end-result was that there was not one powerful kingdom left that could sweep up the rest and create a viable empire or no dynasty strong enough to withstand the coming onslaught.

In the Deccan, the Bahmani kingdom and the Empire of Vijayanagara stood as strong bastions against any possible military incursions south of the Vindhya Ranges. North India was fragmented and bereft of any strength. The situation was ripe for an ambitious and adventurous general to take advantage of—and that is exactly what Babur the Mughal did.


© [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 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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