Indian History Part 58 The Sayyid Dynasty Section III The Later Sayyids

Singapore, 15 October 2017

Mubarak Shah had no sons and had adopted his nephew, Muhammad bin Farid, as the heir apparent. Sarwar-ul-Mulk who had by this time become very influential, elevated Muhammad to the throne while concentrating all power in his own hands. Sarwar then assumed the title of Khan-i-Jahan, distributed offices of consequence amongst his fellow conspirators and imprisoned any noble who he suspected of being loyal to Mubarak Shah.

Sultan Muhammad Shah

Sarwar-ul-Mulk’s rapid rise to supreme power was resented by other nobles of the court, especially since he was Hindu convert to Islam and therefore not part of the influential foreign aristocracy clique. It was not long before the Royal Court turned into a hotbed of conspiracies and rival cabals. One noble, Kamal-ul-Mulk, had stayed loyal to the house of Khizr Khan Sayyid and paid homage to the new king. He concealed his hostility towards Sarwar and bided his time to avenge Mubarak Shah’s murder.

Opportunity arrived when Sarwar despatched Kamal in command of some forces to subdue a revolt outside Delhi. Instead of fighting the revolt, Kamal persuaded the rebels to fight under his flag and marched back to Delhi. Sarwar saw the danger of the situation and shut himself up in the fort at Siri. He knew he had lost the support of the army and attempted to murder Muhammad Shah but was immediately killed by the young Sultan’s bodyguards. Kamal entered the capitol in triumph. All the conspirators who had sided with Sarwar were captured and tortured to death. A new government was formed and even a second coronation of Muhammad was enacted to emphasise his legitimacy to be Sultan. Kamal-ul-Mulk was made Vizier, Prime Minster, with the title Kamal Khan. All other nobles who had assisted Kamal were rewarded and Muhammad now became a real Sultan, not one in name only.

Muhammad now enjoyed the total support of all the nobles. This would have been a golden opportunity to reorganise the affairs of the Sultanate and bring in stability. However, Muhammad disappointed all his supporters by immersing himself in the pursuit of worldly pleasure. While Muhammad was on a pilgrimage to Multan, he learned of the rebellion of Jasrat Khokhar and send an army to deal with the revolt. At the same time trouble was being stoked in Sirhind by Bahlul Lodi, the governor. Bahlul was the nephew of Islam Khan who had nominated him ahead of his own son Qutab Khan to be his successor. After assuming governorship, Bahlul had gradually turned Sirhind into an Afghan stronghold by inviting Afghan nobles to join him.

Muhammad ordered a loyal general, Malik Sikandar, to march to Sirhind and defeat Bahlul Lodi. In order to achieve this aim, Sikandar allied with the Khokhar chief and attacked Bahlul. Bahlul retreated to the Siwalik Hills. The Delhi army committed great atrocities on the Afghans and then returned to Delhi. Bahlul thereafter turned freebooter and reoccupied Sirhind. Very rapidly Bahlul and his Afghan forces became a threat to the Sultanate. However, Sultan Muhammad was completely immersed in the harem, oblivious of the developing threat in the west. By now, the Sultanate was in the firm grip of disorder and chaos.

At this juncture, Sultan Mahmud Khilji of Malwa advanced towards Delhi and camped at Talpat about 10 miles from Delhi. In Delhi Sultan Muhammad Shah was unnerved and had no other recourse but to request Bahlul to come to his aid. Bahlul grasped the opportunity and arrived near Delhi with 20,000 cavalry. He took over as the de-facto commander of the Delhi forces and entered battle with the Malwa Sultan. For the first few days the battle remained inconclusive. Sultan Muhammad, still unnerved by the proximity of the battle to his capital, now entered the political fray by sending emissaries of peace to Khilji without consulting any of his nobles or Bahlul. Mahmud Khilji was also anxious to end the conflict since he was apprehensive that in his absence his capital Mandu was unprotected and could be threatened by Ahmad Shah of Gujarat. He agreed to the terms offered by the Delhi Sultan and withdrew from battle.

Bahlul, annoyed by the Sultan’s unnecessary and unilateral intervention, pursued the retreating Malwa army and managed to capture some baggage as booty. Muhammad Shah, in a display of royal magnanimity and pleasure, praised Bahlul for his action, proclaimed him his ‘own son’, and bestowed the title of Khan-i-Khan on him. Bahlul was also permitted to occupy most of Punjab. This was a remarkable act of stupidity, since Bahlul’s ambition to capture the throne of Delhi was nakedly visible. In Punjab Bahlul came under the influence of Jasrat Khokhar who surreptitiously inflamed the former’s already entrenched ambition and instigated him to act on it. Flattered, impatient, and full of his own importance, Bahlul collected a group of Afghans and marched to Delhi. However, his attempt to capture Delhi failed.

Bahlul returned to Sirhind but continued to harbour ambitions towards the throne of Delhi. He declared himself independent ruler and called himself Sultan Bahlul. The Sayyid ruler in Delhi had once again been saved by a miracle but time was starting to run out for him. The writing of the dynasty’s demise was on the wall for all to see. The Lodis were by now immensely powerful and by far the most influential Afghan clan in Hindustan.

Jasrat Khokhar – The Intrepid Warrior

Jasrat Khokhar, the chief of the Khokhar clan, was an indefatigable warrior—fighting continually for over two decades for independence from the Delhi Sultanate’s control. He had even opposed Timur on his invasion of India but had been defeated. Thereafter he had joined his father Shaikha and together they had occupied Lahore, while Timur was still rampaging around North India. Jasrat was subsequently captured and carried away to Samarkhand. He suffered great privations while in captivity, which turned him into a lifelong opponent of the Delhi Sultanate. He blamed the Delhi sultans for the troubles in North India and for their inability to stand up to Timur during the latter’s ruthless invasion.

When he managed to escape from captivity and get back to his own territories, he found the Sultanate to be in a weak condition and struck against it. Even towards the end of his life when his body was failing him, his animus towards Delhi remained undiminished. Such men, pursuing their self-declared aim with single-minded focus and staunch in their beliefs abounded in the 14th and 15th centuries in India.

Bahlul made another attempt to capture Delhi in 1443-44. However, the Delhi fort proved too strong to be subdued and once again he returned to Sirhind, still nurturing his ambition. There was once again a rebellion near Delhi, just 20 miles from the seat of power. At the same time a number of nobles declared independence from the Sultanate. Muhammad Shah did not initiate any action to control the rapid disintegration setting in and a state of utter chaos swept through Delhi. In the midst of this confusion, Muhammad Shah died in 1445 after nominating his son Ala ud-Din as his successor.

Ala ud-Din Alam Shah

The nobles of Delhi placed Ala ud-Din, who assumed the title ‘Alam Shah’ meaning ‘Lord of the World’, on the throne with alacrity. The reason could have been their understanding that the Sultanate would not survive without a king to hold the helm during the increasing confusion. At that troubled time, no king could have got such an unopposed ascension to the throne. The title, ‘Lord of the World’, that Ala u-Din assumed was most ironical. Under Alam Shah’s rule, the Sultanate shrank to its smallest size ever, becoming a petty state that controlled only the city of Delhi and a few surrounding villages. Ala ud-Din was even more negligent and incompetent than his father and Delhi sank into near oblivion. However, even in its totally diminished state, Delhi was Delhi and held lure for ‘would be’ kings. It’s throne still remained the ultimate goal for politically ambitious chieftains and aspiring sultans.

Alam Shah was a complete and committed pleasure seeker although his temperament was such that he did not take kindly to even well-meaning advice. Further, he was not enamoured by the city and its vicious and ever churning political environment as well as the visible climate of palace intrigue. The Sultanate at this stage was little more than a miniature territorial holding fit for a small-time chieftain, stretching from Delhi to Palam, a distance of a mere 10 miles. Alam Shah decided to shift his residence, on a permanent basis, to Badaun against the protests of the entire court. He provided a lame excuse for the move, stating that Badaun agreed with his health better than the weather at Delhi. Even though he was not interested in ‘ruling’ his little kingdom, Alam Shah was not immune to being involved in conspiracies and palace intrigue. Since the opposition to his move to Badaun was centred on his Vizier, Hamid Khan, the Sultan plotted to kill him.

In the meantime Bahlul was again planning an expedition to fulfil his royal ambitions, which he had not given up. Hamid Khan got wind of the plot against him and invited Bahlul to come to Delhi and assume sovereignty. Bahlul did not need a second invitation and immediately proceeded to Delhi and in a successful coup d’état seized the throne. Alam Shah voluntarily resigned his position as Sultan and ceded all territories to Bahlul, except the town and district of Badaun. Alam Shah lived out his life in blissful obscurity till his death in 1478, enjoying the pleasures of life free of all the cares of a crowned head. His death would cause another period of turbulence and turmoil in the Sultanate.

By the time of Bahlul ascended the throne of Delhi, the Afghans had gradually spread across the whole of the Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh. The Afghans closely supported Bahlul since he was a member of a renowned and powerful Afghan clan. Bahlul was a tactical genius in the political arena. With the help of the Afghan nobility, he managed to remove Hamid Khan from power although it was Hamid who had offered the throne to him. He also won over the Delhi nobility through the age-old custom of bestowing gifts and titles on them. With the approval of Alam Shah, who now called Bahlul elder brother since his father had called him his ‘own son’, Bahlul crowned himself on the throne of Delhi on 19 April 1451.

By willingly renouncing his claim to the throne of the Delhi Sultanate, Alam Shah brought to an end the Sayyid dynasty. In some ways Alam Shah could be considered a pragmatist—he had renounced only what was not within his powers to manage. In consciously moving himself out of centre stage, Alam Shah realised his own ambition. Even the more ambitious of his contemporary kings and chiefs left him undisturbed to rule the small district of Badaun till his death.

The Sayyids – An Overview

Alam Shah’s abdication brought to an end the Sayyid dynasty, which had ruled from Delhi for a mere 37 years. All the four Sayyid rulers had in them a streak of kindness, which made them unfit to rule in the turbulent 15th century of medieval India. They were ineffective since none of them possessed the ruthless single-mindedness that was essential to defend the borders of the country and expand the territorial holdings, both capabilities which are absolute necessities for the nation to prosper. The founder, Khizr Khan, based his strength on the support of the Afghan nobles he had brought with him, a trend that continued and became further entrenched during the rule of his successors. Their support was ensured by granting high civil and military honours to the Afghans, to the chagrin of the predominantly Turkish nobles of the Delhi court.

Mubarak Shah, by far the most effective of the dynasty although that distinction is only part of a relative assessment, attempted to establish order within the chaos, using the title and privileges of the Sultan extensively to get his way. Militarily he marched against almost all the neighbours that were crowding Delhi. The Afghans continued to be the dominant ethnic group and by the time Alam Shah inherited the throne, the entire North-West and Uttar Pradesh was controlled by them. Lodi power had blossomed at the expense of that of the Sayyid dynasty. It is a telling commentary of the diminished state and status of the Sultanate that when Alam Shah came to the throne, there were no borders more than 40 miles distance from the centre of Delhi.

When the Sayyids came to power the institutions of the monarchy and the central civil administration were in decay, having been discredited for over 50 years. Although the Delhi Sultanate was in almost terminal decline the Sayyid did not contribute in any way to furthering the concept of kingship or in bettering the civil administration. Considering that they ruled only for 37 years, the Sayyids were like wayfarers who occupied a traveller’s rest house for a night and then left, leaving no mark of their having been there. Indian history is littered with such inconsequential dynasties and rulers, who came to power, indulged themselves at the expense of the country and then passed into oblivion without having made any significant contribution to the well-being of the country that they ruled. Their arrival and departure as well as the interim period of their rule were trivial when viewed within the sweeping and broad panorama of the history of an ancient land. They left no footprints in the sands of time and made no visible strokes on the broad canvas of history. The Sayyids belong in this category in the narrative of Indian history.

When Bahlul Lodi took over the reins of the Delhi Sultanate, he had start with reinventing the process of empire building and then to develop a new theory of kingship.

© [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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