Indian History Part 58 The Sayyid Dynasty Section I: Khizr Khan Sayyid

 Canberra, 29 September 2017

When Timur ‘the Scourge of God’ departed India, the Delhi Sultanate was in an appalling state of disintegration. The once large empire had fragmented into small independent states, some of which were larger than the core Delhi Sultanate itself. Even so, the Sultanate endured for another 114 years, mostly in perilous condition, till Babur the Mughal wiped it away and established the Mughal Empire in India. Following the death of Sultan Mahmud, there followed two years of chaotic interregnum before two successor dynasties came to power—first, the Sayyids ruling for 37 years under four successive sultans; followed by the Lodis ruling for 75 years under three sultans.

Sultan Khizr Khan Sayyid

Khizr Khan Sayyid founded the dynasty named after the appellation with his name that signified his descend from the Prophet Muhammad—the Sayyid Dynasty. The veracity of this claim of descent from the Prophet is not readily ascertainable and is therefore uncertain. Khizr Khan’s ancestors had indeed come from Arabia, migrating to India during the early part of the Tughluq rule. They had settled in Multan and Malik Suleiman, Khizr Khan’s father, had been appointed the governor of Multan by later Tughluq rulers. Khizr Khan inherited the position on his father’s death, but managed to lose it during the confusion that followed Firuz Shah’s death in Delhi. During that chaotic time, Sarang Khan, the brother of Mallu Iqbal Khan the strongman of Delhi, captured Khizr Khan and took over the governorship of Multan. Khizr Khan however, managed to escape.

After escaping captivity, Khizr joined Timur during his return trip from the sack of Delhi. On Timur’s final departure, Khizr regained his previous position when he was once again appointed governor of Multan. He stayed in the position and on the death of Mahmud, the last Tughluq ruler, he overthrew Daulta Khan who had come to the throne of Delhi and ascended the throne as Sultan Khizr Khan Sayyid.

Khizr Khan held fast to the conviction that he owed his power and prestige to Timur’s patronage and did not assume the title of king or sultan. He titled himself ‘Ravat-i-Ala’ meaning ‘sublime banners’ and although in reality independent, pretended to be the viceroy of Shah Rukh, Timur’s son then ruling the Timurid Empire. He also continued to send yearly tribute to Shah Rukh. Khizr did not strike new coins, which had the added advantage of facilitating the continuation of the old and established financial system. However, the lack of assertiveness on his part also revealed an inherent weakness and lack of self-confidence on the part of the new sultan. Part of this problem could be attributed to the fact that Khizr faced a hostile court of Turkish and Afghan nobles in Delhi, who considered him an upstart and follower of the despised tyrant Timur. However, since he was already the governor of Multan and the governors of Punjab and Sindh had supported him, these provinces automatically became part of the Delhi Sultanate, greatly increasing the territorial holdings.

Sultanate in Dire Straits

Even though a new Sultan had ascended the throne, the process of the Sultanate’s disintegration continued unabated. In Delhi, the nobles continued their mad scramble for power, changing allegiances rapidly and regularly. Sordid ambitions were nakedly visible and led to unprincipled opportunism and the focused pursuit of pure self-interest. Since the days of the mighty Balban, the Doab had been the most restive region under the Sultanate. During the confusion of the last days of the Tughluq dynasty, Rajput chieftains of the Rathor clan had become independent rulers in Etawah, Katehar, Kanauj and Badayun. They stirred rebellions on a regular basis, necessitating the repeated mounting of punitive expeditions by the Delhi Sultans. These expeditions were required to bring a semblance of order to the region but were never entirely successful.

By the end of the 14th century, the kingdoms of Malwa, Jaunpur and Gujarat had acknowledged independent status. They were not only engaged in fighting each other and other neighbours but regularly encroached on Delhi territory. Multan and Lahore had come under the control of Jasrat Khokhar, who paid scant attention to Delhi and established independent control by taking advantage of the prevalent chaos. Around Delhi, the Mewatis were seething with discontent. This was the state of the Sultanate that Khizr Khan had captured.

Stabilisation Attempts

Khizr Khan was pragmatic enough to accept the diminished state of the Sultanate and mindful of the fact that he only controlled a small territory around Delhi. Further, he was devoid of the large amount of resources necessary to attempt any major campaigns to recapture seceded regions and return them to the Sultanate fold. He could only attempt minor expeditions with the very limited objective of gathering arears of revenue from the small-time chieftains. Even these minor forays were not always successful. Khizr Khan’s minister Taj-ul-Mulk carried out few raids against the Rajput rulers in Etawah and Katehar with limited success. He managed to collect some amount of revenue, but did not attempt any permanent subjugation or annexation.

At this juncture, as if to create a further debacle for the embattled Sultan, the northern frontier erupted in violence. In 1416, a group of Turkbachchas assassinated Malik Sadhu Nadira, the deputy of Prince Mubarak. On the arrival of Delhi forces to quell the rebellion they fled to the mountains. However, they renewed their rebellion under the command of Tughan Rais. The forces loyal to Delhi managed to suppress the rebellion and Tughan Rais was forced to accept vassal status. To ensure his loyalty in the future, his son was taken and kept as a hostage in Delhi. However, treachery and rebellions continued unabated across the entire Sultanate.

Khizr Khan and his indefatigable minister Taj-ul-Mulk continued to lead punitive expeditions against rebels in order to contain the fires that were being lit on a regular basis. These expeditions, undertaken at enormous cost to a depleted exchequer, were never able to fully extinguish the rebellions, nor were they able to control the chieftains even after they were defeated in battle. The Delhi Sultanate lacked the resources to follow through on battlefield victories and had to be content with minimal tributes that were paid by defeated chiefs and rulers. This situation permitted the chieftains to invariably bounce back and commence yet another rebellion. This was an endless cycle that sapped the strength and resources of an embattled Sultan.

The Nagaur Campaign

The only long distance campaign that Khizr Khan attempted was an expedition that he led towards Nagaur on the appeal by its ruler for assistance against an incursion by Ahmad Shah of Gujarat. On the approach of Khizr Khan’s army, Ahmad Shah withdrew to Gujarat without offering battle. Some narratives proclaim this withdrawal as Khizr Khan’s victory. However, this is a tenuous claim and it is difficult to accept this verdict of a ‘victory’. At the time of this episode, the Hindu kings of Idar, Champaner, Jhalawar and Nagaur had formed a confederacy to oppose Ahmad Shah who was perpetuating religious intolerance against the Hindus in Gujrat and neighbouring areas. They were also joined by the Muslim ruler of Malwa, who had also been on the receiving end of Ahmad Shah’s offensives. Since the neighbourhood was hostile to him, Ahmad Shah could not have stayed away from Gujarat for a lengthy period of time. This was more so since Malwa was also opposed to him. Therefore the strategic retreat to Gujarat was self-imposed and not really a military victory for the Delhi forces.

In any case, Nagaur accepted Delhi suzerainty although it changed allegiance to Gujarat a mere two years later when it was threatened by Malwa. Even though no battle had been fought or won, the long march out of Delhi and the withdrawal of Ahmad Shah to Gujarat on the arrival of the Delhi forces has a salutary effect on some of the minor chieftains of the region, who submitted to Delhi control without resistance. In the last year of his reign Khizr Khan raided Mewat and destroyed a fortress at Kotla. He went on to sack Gwalior and collected some tribute. This was a show of force that indicated the gradual revival of the power of the Delhi Sultanate. However, Khizr Khan was already a sick man and on his return to Delhi, took to his bed and died on 20 May 1421.

Khizr Khan – The Reluctant Sultan

Khizr Khan genuinely believed that he owed his stature to the largesse of Timur and therefore displayed unswerving loyalty to Timur and his descendants throughout his life. He was not enamoured by the trappings of power and did not even assume the title of ‘sultan’, living life in the true style of a Sayyid. It was the substance of power that mattered to Khizr Khan and all his policies were marked by prudence and rectitude. In matters of state he displayed remarkably similar traits to that of Firuz Shah—caution, moderation and benevolence. He also displayed an exemplary sense of justice, treating even rivals and adversaries with fairness and generosity. On ascending the throne, he treated the top officials of the Tughluq regime honourably, not shedding blood unnecessarily and not committing any atrocities that usually accompanied the usurpation of the throne. It is also noteworthy that Khizr Khan was free of all the common vices that afflicted the royalty of the time.

When Khizr Khan came to the throne of Delhi, the Sultanate was just one among the many kingdoms that littered the fragmented North India. He made cautious moves to expand territorial holdings, not with much success. Khizr Khan was a sensible monarch and had the good sense to clearly judge and separate the possible from the impossible, prudently tailoring his policies accordingly. He recognised the constraints under which he would have to operate and understood the importance of pursuing one objective at a time. The brutal truth was that the Sultanate did not have the resources necessary to pursue multiple objectives simultaneously. Khizr Khan only attempted to collect revenue from territories close to Delhi, resources that were essential for him to stay on as Sultan. His military expeditions were all oriented towards achieving this aim. Khizr did not formulate any grandiose or ambitious military plans. He did not attempt to fight either Gujarat or Jaunpur, both provinces that were fully independent and more powerful than Delhi. Instead, he concentrated on stamping out sedition within his reach.

While a traditional sultan of the times, he was also liked by his subjects for his thoughtful kindness and attention to their welfare—a trait that was not common amongst rulers in medieval times. His short seven-year rule was on the whole a positive period for the Sultanate, with some very minor developments towards stability taking place. He was unable to restore the prestige of the Sultanate—the odds against him were too high; and his personal abilities and capacity to be decisive under stress could not match the need of the hour. In fact the situation in the Sultanate had deteriorated to such an extent that Khizr Khan was constrained to requisition the services of some Afghan warlords in order to stay in power. Unfortunately, while this move ensured the fragile stability of his rule, it resulted in the ascendancy of the Afghan nobles in the administration. This progression proved disastrous in the long run for the continuance of the Sayyid dynasty.


© [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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