Indian History Part 59 The Lodi Dynasty Section II Bahlul Lodi

Singapore, 18 October 2017 

BAHLUL LODI: CHIEF AMONG EQUALS

The Delhi Sultanate was on the verge of extinction when Alam Shah made known his decision to retire to Badaun. Under the leadership of Hamid Khan, the Prime Minster, the nobles of Delhi made a last ditch attempt to save the Sultanate and invited Bahlul Lodi to ascend the throne. The Lodis had established themselves in India around the year 970 or so and were the predominant tribe in the Lamghan and Multan region. Bahlul belonged to the Shahu Khel clan of the Lodi tribe. The first appearance of the Lodis in Indian history was in mid-14th century when Malik Shahu, the ancestor of the Lodi rulers of India, raided Multan, killed the governor and held the region under his power for a brief period. He was driven out by Muhammad Tugluq. However, the short-lived conquest marked the beginning of Lodi involvement in the politics of the Sultanate and in the affairs of greater India.

Early Life

Bahlul came from humble origins. His grandfather Behram Lodi was the grandson of Malik Shahu. He was an Afghan trader who used to travel to Hindustan to sell his merchandise and enhance his trading prospects. Behram became estranged from his brother and moved permanently to India during the reign of Firuz Tughluq. He joined service under Malik Mardan Daulat, the governor Multan and was given charge of a contingent of Afghan soldiers. Behram Lodi had five sons. The eldest, Malik Sultan Shah, took up service under Khizr Khan, then the governor of Multan. In one of the encounters during the internecine war between the Sayyids and the senior nobles of Delhi, Sultan Shah killed the leader of one faction, Mallu Iqbal Khan, in 1405. Khizr Khan rewarded him with the title Islam Khan and conferred the fiefdom of Sirhind on him.

During his governorship, Sultan Shah favoured his brother, Malik Kala Lodi, and appointed him to ‘rule’ the pargana (district) of Daurala. Malik Kala’s wife, his uncle’s daughter, fell under a collapsing wall while in an advanced stage of pregnancy and was crushed to death. However, the child she was carrying was surgically rescued and was named Bahlul Lodi. Soon after this debacle, Malik Kala also died in battle and the orphan Bahlul was send for by his uncle Sultan Shah, alias Islam Khan, and brought up in Sirhind. Bahlul was full of spirit and martial qualities from a young age and became a favourite of his uncle. By this time Islam Khan had gradually assumed the title of Islam Shah and become independent for all practical purposes. He perceived the talent and merit in Bahlul, got his own daughter married to him and appointed him the heir apparent over his own sons, even though they were also intelligent and diligent.

Islam Shah continued to gain royal favours during Mubarak Shah’s rule of the Sultanate for services rendered. He went on to place a contingent of 12,000 cavalry under Bahlul’s command who was now officially his successor. In May 1431, Islam Shah was killed in battle and Bahlul took possession of Sirhind. Bahlul developed a very strong army and helped the ruling Delhi Sultan, Muhammad Shah, to put down rebellions in Mewat and Malwa. Gradually Bahlul increased his territorial holdings, both through his own military annexations and grants from the Sultan. By the time of Alam Shah’s voluntary ‘retirement’, Bahlul was in control of almost the entire Punjab region. When he was invited to take over the throne of Delhi by the nobles led by the Vizier, Prime Minster Hamid Khan, he dealt with Alam Shah very courteously and tactfully, ensuring that neither the retiring Sultan nor the nobles were upset. He ascended the throne of Delhi under the title Sultan Abul Muzaffar Bahlul Shah Ghazi.

Consolidating Power

Bahlul was possessed of vaulting ambition. However, he was shrewd enough to realise that Hamid Khan, the Prime Minister had concentrated all power in his own hands. The only advantage that Bahlul had was that on assuming power in Delhi he had increased the territorial holding of the till-then miniature Sultanate since he brought almost the whole of the Punjab with him. Further, many of the chiefs controlling districts around Delhi were Afghans and therefore offered support to Bahlul, a fellow Afghan. On the other hand, anti-Afghan sentiment was rife in the court amongst the Turkish nobility who considered the Afghans to be uncouth and uncultured. Hamid Khan based his position on the support of this powerful and entrenched group. Bahlul had to fight this faction throughout his rule.

Hamid Khan expected Bahlul to leave the running of the kingdom to him and Bahlul aspired to becoming the full-fledged sovereign of the empire, however small its territorial holdings. He was not happy even sharing power with his vizier and a contest of wills ensued.  Bahlul was cautious and cunning. He proceeded with caution to gather power into his own hands by first winning the confidence of Hamid Khan. To start with, he treated the Vizier with extreme courtesy and respect acknowledging him as a sort of senior mentor. Hamid Khan seems to have viewed all Afghans, nobility and commoners, as rustic and unsophisticated simpletons. This belief was reinforced with the obsequious behaviour of Bahlul towards the Vizier and the unfettered growth of Hamid Khan’s influence.

Bahlul now developed a strategy to grab power from Hamid Khan. He asked his Afghan supporters to behave in a simplistic manner in front of the Vizier. Bahlul himself continued the show of servility and high respect towards Hamid Khan to lull him into a sense of complacency. These displays duped Hamid Khan who became sanguine towards the activities of the Afghans. Bahlul bided his time and one day he took a group of Afghan nobles to meet Hamid Khan, in the pretext of wanting to pay their respect. However, this time unlike previous such occasions, Hamid Khan was imprisoned at the point of a sword. Bahlul explained to the Vizier that for political reasons it had become necessary to imprison him. Hamid Khan was carried away to prison and nothing more is heard of him in the chronicles.

Bahlul gained the confidence of the army to strengthen his somewhat tenuous hold on power by giving lavish gifts and bounties across the board. He also held out promise of advancement to the nobles to bring them to his side. Bahlul was faced with a three-pronged challenge to establishing his personal control over the Sultanate. First, the Turkish nobles of the court had always held the Afghans in contempt, considering them good soldiers and nothing more. The Afghans were deemed to be devoid of ‘culture’, a belief that Bahlul had used to seduce and remove Hamid Khan from power. Therefore, Afghans becoming the ruling class was anathema to the Delhi nobles. Second, the son-in-law of Alam Shah ruling in Jaunpur believed that the Delhi throne was rightfully his own. Since Alam Shah was still considered the legitimate Sultan, there was sufficient support for this claim within the Delhi court. Third, the Delhi Sultanate was an essentially broken entity and needed to be built up all over again, from scratch. Bahlul needed to reclaim, re-build and consolidate a dilapidated empire.

There is no doubt that Bahlul realised the precariousness of his situation. He started to emphasise his hold on power by giving key positions in the administration, such as treasury, stores and army, to his trusted Afghan lieutenants. Similarly, the districts around Delhi were entrusted to the care of loyal commanders. Further, Delhi itself was garrisoned by chosen Afghan soldiers, personally loyal to Bahlul. In effect, in very short order, the Delhi administration was ‘Afghanised’. However, some elements of the Afghan group continued to remain malcontent, with some even going as far as not recognising him as the legitimate Sultan. To pacify this faction he provided more positions for them in the administration, further entrenching the Afghanisation process.

Stabilising Delhi

In order to entrench his personal power, Bahlul adopted a policy of strict militarism. He undertook a series of military expeditions to the districts surrounding Delhi. The first was against Ahmad Khan Mewati, ruling a large territory called Mewat, which consisted of the modern districts of Gurugram, Alwar, Bharatpur and Agra, almost encircling Delhi. Ahmad Khan submitted to Bahlul without a fight and most of Mewat was annexed to the Sultanate. Next, Darya Khan ruling the Sambhal region was also subjugated and the territory annexed. Subsequently Bahlul defeated Isa Khan ruling Koil (modern day Aligarh); but permitted Isa Khan to retain control of his territorial possession.

The chieftain of Rewari, Qutab Khan, offered resistance to Bahlul’s invasion of his province. Qutab Khan was defeated by the Delhi forces, but allowed to retain control of his territories on his accepting the suzerainty of Delhi and paying a hefty tribute. Raja Pratap Singh of Mainpuri also submitted to the Delhi Sultan and in return was reconfirmed to his possessions. Gradually Bahlul established order and discipline in and around Delhi.

Having achieved an initial semblance of stability around the capital, Bahlul turned his attention to the north-west. Leaving Delhi in the hands of his son Khwaja Bayezid, he marched to Sirhind and Multan. At this stage, Multan functioned as an autonomous region, although it was strategically important for the security of the Sultanate. Bahlul wanted to bring the region under his direct control and also recruit fresh levies from the territory.

War with the Sharqis

While the Sultan was away campaigning in the north-west, trouble was brewing in Delhi. One section of the old nobility, alarmed at the rapid Afghanisation of the administration, invited Mahmud Shah Sharqi ruling Jaunpur to occupy the throne of Delhi. The Sharqi king regarded himself as the legitimate successors to the throne of the Sayyids. Mahmud Sharqi based this claim on the fact that he was married to Alam Shah’s daughter. Further, the queen continually egged him on to take revenge for what she considered her father’s ‘forced’ retirement. Mahmud also realised that although Jaunpur was a power to be reckoned with for some years now, the Afghan ascendancy in Delhi posed a direct threat to the well-being of Jaunpur. This threat was further emphasised by the Afghan control of the Punjab and western part of Uttar Pradesh.

While Mahmud Sharqi was debating the pros and cons of accepting the Delhi nobles’ invitation to take over the Sultanate, his impetuous wife threatened to lead an expedition to Delhi herself to redeem the honour of her father and the Sayyids in general. Mahmud was already biased towards availing himself of this golden opportunity to claim Delhi and his queen’s determination made him accept the nobles’ invitation. Mahmud Sharqi also realised that it would easier to take over Delhi if action was initiated at this juncture before Bahlul was able to establish himself in Delhi. Time, obviously, was of the essence.

In 1452, Mahmud Sharqi arrived in Delhi with a large army consisting of 1000 elephants and over 170,000 cavalry. He had planned the expedition carefully, arriving in Delhi when Bahlul was far away in the western provinces. He had also coerced Darya Khan Lodi, appointed as the governor of Sambhal by Bahlul, to join the Sharqi forces. The Sharqi forces under the command of Darya Khan Lodi and Fateh Khan Harvi, an important noble of Jaunpur, besieged Delhi. As soon as he received news of the Sharqi invasion, Bahlul turned and proceeded back to Delhi. On the way he was opposed by a Sharqi contingent of 30 elephants and 30,000 cavalry, under the command of Fateh Khan another Jaunpur noble.

As soon as the Jaunpur forces arrived near Delhi, Khwaja Bayezid and his grandmother Bibi Matto closed the gates of the fort and prepared to withstand the siege. Bibi Matto, the grand old lady of the dynasty, dressed the palace ladies in soldier’s uniforms and stood them on the battlements to show the enemy a larger number of troops than were actually in the fort. In the meantime Khwaja Bayezid had made contact with Darya Khan and appealed to him not to fight his own kinsmen. This gave a Turko-Afghan twist to the impending battle. The two armies met in combat at Narela about 17 miles from Delhi. The Lodi forces were led by Qutab Khan who accosted and taunted Darya Khan for abandoning his Afghan brothers and fighting against them. Darya Khan had a change of heart and abandoned the battle along with his forces.

Darya Khan and his contingent’s withdrawal from battle crippled the Sharqi army and halved its strength. During the battle that followed Qutab Khan, acclaimed as the best archer in the Afghan army, managed to cripple Fateh Khan Harvi’s elephant with a well-calculated shot. Fateh Khan was defeated and captured. He was decapitated by Rai Karan of Shamsabad whose brother Pithora had been killed earlier by Fateh Khan. Fateh Khan’s head was ceremonially presented to Bahlul who had by then arrived in the vicinity of Delhi. Mahmud Sharqi who was in the rear headquarters of the army was shocked by this catastrophe and immediately retreated to Jaunpur.

Mahmud Sharqi was chagrined at this defeat and under the constant goading of his queen who was totally bent on revenge, decided to attack Delhi again. This time the battle was fought over possession of Etawah and Shamsabad. Although the battle did not produce any clear and definite victory for either side, it was the beginning of a long-drawn war between the two kingdoms. Bahlul’s partial victory over such a formidable enemy as the Jaunpur Sultan impressed both friend and foe alike and greatly improved his stock in the Delhi court. The performance of the Delhi army under Bahlul’s skilful command also frightened into submission a number of minor and provincial chieftains. Bahlul capitalised on this trend, which silenced the malicious gossip mongers in the court, who had been questioning his legitimacy and capacity to rule.

Thus within a year of ascending the throne, Bahlul had established control of the entire central region of North India—from Punjab in the west to the borders of Jaunpur in the east.

After the inconclusive battle over Etawah, a treaty had been signed between Bahlul and Mahmud Sharqi. The treaty agreed to honour the territorial possessions of each other’s predecessors; Bahlul was to return elephants that had been captured from the Jaunpur army during the siege of Delhi; and Mahmud was to hand over control of Shamsabad—then being ruled by Malik Juna, who was to be dismissed—to the Sultanate. The anti-climax of the treaty was that it was not respected by either party from the very time of its signing. Juna refused to hand over Shamsabad, with the tacit support of Mahmud Sharqi. However, Bahlul captured Shamsabad and gave it back to Rai Karan. In turn, Sultan Mahmud Sharqi proceeded to Shamsabad and carried out a daring night attack on the fort. Although the town did not fall, Qutab Khan, Bahlul’s brother-in-law and cousin, was taken prisoner by the Jaunpur forces.

Bahlul now prepared for a full-scale war against Jaunpur, determined to completely defeat and annex the kingdom. As the Delhi army was on the move, Mahmud Sharqi died suddenly and the war did not eventuate. In Jaunpur, the illustrious and sagacious queen of Mahmud Sharqi, Bibi Raji, ensured that her son Bikhan Khan was declared Sultan with the assumed title Muhammad Shah. Muhammad managed to patch a truce with Bahlul to maintain the status quo ante, which meant Bahlul returning to the Delhi-Jaunpur borders that he had inherited from Alam Shah. However, the treaty did not include the return of Qutab Khan still being held prisoner in Jaunpur.

Bahlul once again returned to Delhi. He was immediately questioned by his wife, Shams Khatun, regarding the fate of her brother Qutab Khan emphasising the need to rescue him. Bahlul stopped at a place Dhankur, about 28 miles from south-east of Delhi and did not enter Delhi proper. He decided to rescue Qutab Khan. At the same time Muhammad Shah Sharqi also doubled back and captured Shamsabad from Rai Kiran. He then marched to Sarsuti, modern day Sirsa. Bahlul arrived at Rapri, close to Sarsuti and there were sporadic clashes between the rival forces.

The Jaunpur Conspiracy

During the short duration of his rule, Muhammad Shah had already proven himself to be a wrathful and blood thirsty tyrant. While in Sarsuti, he got an inkling of a conspiracy being hatched in Jaunpur against his rule. He immediately send word to the kotwal (police chief) in Jaunpur to put to death his brothers Hasan Khan and Qutab Khan. This Qutab Khan is not to be confused with Qutab Khan Lodi then a prisoner in Jaunpur, although some Persian accounts do confuse the names. Muhammad Shah also invited his mother to join him in Sarsuti, suspecting her of being a partner in the conspiracy. She did not suspect any ulterior motive for the invitation and started on her journey to join the Sultan. On the way she received information of her son Hasan’s assassination and stopped at Kanauj to observe the traditional period of ritual mourning.

Muhammad Shah now displayed his sadistic nature by sending a message to his mother. He informed her that she should mourn all her sons together since the rest were also soon to meet the same fate as Hasan Khan. Bibi Raji immediately send word to her other sons who were with Muhammad in Sarsuti exhorting them escape with their armies. Princes Husein and Jalal, who were then in Sarsuti, made a pretext of repulsing an expected night attack being planned by Bahlul and decamped to Kanauj with their respective armies. During this rapid march, Jalal Khan was captured by Bahlul.

At Kanauj, Bibi Raji, with the approval of the nobles of Jaunpur, crowned Husein Khan as sultan. Muhammad Shah was taken aback at the turn of events and decided to retreat to Jaunpur, marching first towards Kanauj. On the road to Kanauj the Delhi army mauled Muhammad repeatedly till they reached the River Ganga. Husein Khan the ‘rebel’ sultan send out an army to meet Muhammad Shah outside Kanauj. Muhammad Shah, never a popular ruler, was now deserted by the majority of his army and was forced to fight with only a small contingent in his support. In the ensuing battle, he was killed and Husein became the actual Sultan of Jaunpur.

The new Sultan entered into an agreement with Bahlul to maintain peace for four years and Qutab Khan and Jalal Khan, prisoners in rival camps, were both released. There are a number of stories, some authenticated and most only fanciful tales, of continued intrigue and conspiracies in the Jaunpur court. They are not germane to this narrative and is not being recounted. Even though there was some amount of internal divisions in Jaunpur, it enjoyed a decided superiority in military capability over Delhi, both in the size of the force as well as in the availability of resources. In addition, Husein Khan, the new sultan was determined to maintain the war-like tradition of the Sharqi house.

Husein therefore decided to invade Delhi territory while Bahlul was busy in Multan. The Delhi forces were defeated at Chandwar and Etawah was captured by the Jaunpur forces. Seeing the victories of the Jaunpur army, Ahmed Khan Mewati, who had been made a vassal by Bahlul, defected to Husein Khan. Isa Khan the governor of Biyani also defected and joined the Jaunpur forces. Bahlul was not perturbed by these developments and returned to Delhi. By this time both the kingdoms were tired of the constant state of war and once again reached an agreement to enforce a truce for another three years. During this truce a number of chiefs owing allegiance to Bahlul defected to the Sharqi Sultan, considering him to be more powerful.

The truce expired in 1466 at the end of three years. Almost immediately Husein Sharqi marched towards Delhi with an army of 10,000 cavalry and 1000 elephants and made first camp at Etawah. Bahlul met the advancing army at Bhatwara and battle ensued. Another battle was fought almost simultaneously near Sarai Lashkar about 25 miles east of Delhi. Both the battles were inconclusive and Husein Sharqi was forced to return to his camp at Etawah without having achieved anything. Soon after this Bibi Raji, the matron of the Sharqi clan who had held the dynasty together with an iron hand and the mother of Husein died. Wary of continuous warfare, Bahlul took this opportunity to make an attempt at placating the Jaunpur Sultan. He send an embassy of condolence led by Qutab Khan with a personal conciliatory message to Husein Sharqi. However, Husein spurned the offer and was completely unaccommodating towards any kind of truce being enacted.

An uneasy peace prevailed for a few years with both sides preparing for the eventual and inevitable clash. Bahlul appealed to Mahmud Khilji then ruling Malwa for help, which was promised. This appeal for help to a nominally subsidiary kingdom, which was independent for all practical purposes, is indicative of the poor shape of the Delhi Sultanate and the seriousness of the threat that it faced. Then, one single incident sparked off a major war. [A single, mostly insignificant event triggering a major conflict is repeated throughout history in almost all parts of the world. An example closer to modern times, is the assassination of Grand Duke Ferdinand, which started World War I. Major wars have similarly been triggered by an event that in itself was not of any direct connection to the carnage that followed.] In the case of the Delhi-Jaunpur rivalry, such an event was the death of Alam Shah, the last of the Sayyid dynasty in 1478 in Badaun.

In Jaunpur, Husein Sharqi was surrounded by a sycophantic court, which led him to believe that the throne of Delhi legitimately belonged to the Sharqis as the next of kin of the last Sayyid king and emphasised the fact that Bahlul was a usurper. On top of this Bahlul was also a plebeian by birth, a disqualification that could not be overlooked. Husein was blinded by ambition and a deep sense of righteousness as well as an exaggerated assessment of his country’s military strength. On the death of Alam Shah, Husein crossed the River Yamuna and engaged in a number of minor skirmishes with the Delhi forces. During these encounters the Jaunpur forces held a definitive advantage over the Delhi Sultanate. At the behest of Bahlul, yet another truce was arranged and the River Ganga was fixed as the boundary between the two kingdoms.

The number of truces and treaties that Delhi and Jaunpur agreed to after engaging in minor skirmishes before they developed into full-scale wars indicate that both the sides were uncertain regarding their ability to defeat the other. Both the rulers were reluctant to enter into full-scale war and take the chance of being defeated, which would invariably lead to loss of prestige and territory. However, it is evident that both the sultans harboured the intent to swallow the other kingdom but neither was strong enough to achieve their aim. The truces were normally drawn up for the convenience of the side that held the advantage at that particular time. Bahlul’s aim was to reunite the old Sultanate while Husein harboured ambitions of claiming the throne of Delhi as his rightful inheritance. Both believed in the efficacy of the sword as the final arbiter.

Husein Sharqi once again returned to Jaunpur, leaving his camp and baggage behind. As soon as Husein left his camp, Bahlul breached the truce and started to pursue the Jaunpur army. He seized the baggage that had been left behind and also captured Malika Jahan, the Sharqi queen. Bahlul acted very chivalrously and had the queen escorted back to Jaunpur with respect. Yet another agreement was accepted by both parties. This time the treaty stipulations were violated by Husein Sharqi, who took advantage of an emerging favourable situation and declared war on Bahlul. In a preliminary battle Husein suffered a great defeat and had to hurriedly retreat to Rapri. Bahlul managed to capture immense booty in this victory.

Bad luck continued to plague the Jaunpur army. During the retreat, while crossing the River Yamuna, many officers, their wives and children drowned. This debacle further reduced the strength of the Jaunpur army that had already been affected by the earlier defeat. The lack of numerical strength compelled Husein to take shelter with the Raja of Gwalior. The Raja not only provided shelter, but also gave him some reinforcements and personally escorted Husein to Kalpi at the border of Gwalior territory. In the meantime Bahlul had captured Etawah and expelled the Sharqi appointed governor. He now marched to Kalpi to once again give battle. The two armies met on the banks of Kali Nadi, also mentioned as Rahab in some chronicles. Husein was soundly defeated and fled to Jaunpur. After a brief trip to Delhi to gather further reinforcements, Bahlul prepared to mount a full-scale assault on Jaunpur. The Delhi forces attacked Jaunpur and Husein was forced to flee to Bahraich.

Jaunpur was captured and annexed to the Delhi Sultanate. After nearly a century of being an independent sovereign country that rivalled the strength of Delhi, Jaunpur once again became a province of the Sultanate. Its independent existence was short-lived. Husein made one unsuccessful attempt to regain his throne and after that fled to Bihar in late 1479. Thus ended the independent Sharqi rule in Jaunpur.

Bahlul had been engaged in a no-holds barred life and death struggle with the Sharqi kings of Jaunpur for 27 long years. Chronicles of his reign provide a large number of episodes that provide the details of the Delhi-Jaunpur war, a number of which have not been included in this narrative. Bahlul’s pre-occupation with Jaunpur meant that he had not been able to pay much attention to other parts of the empire and the provinces that had separated from the Sultanate. In the available chronicles there are only stray references to his interaction with the Rajasthan region, Sindh and Gwalior.

Gwalior

From the beginning of his reign, Bahlul had maintained friendly relations with Gwalior for two main reasons. First, it was a difficult kingdom to subdue because of its topography and inhospitable terrain. Second, Bahlul shrewdly realised the convenience of keeping an independent state as a buffer between Delhi and the powerful kingdom of Malwa. However, the fact that the Raja of Gwalior provided shelter and reinforcements to Husein Sharqi at the height of the Delhi-Jaunpur war irritated Bahlul. It is possible that the Raja of Gwalior would have noticed the increasing power that Bahlul wielded and must have wanted to assist his opponent in an effort to stem the rise of the Delhi Sultanate. Otherwise there was no reason for the Raja to upset the prevailing stable relations with Delhi. Bahlul did not take any precipitate action, but bided his time.

The Raja of Gwalior, Kalyan Singh was powerful and Bahlul acted only after his death. He decided to invade Gwalior. However, the successor, Raja Man Singh did not want to fight the Delhi forces and opted to pay a tribute of eight million tankas (silver coins) to Bahlul. Bahlul had also continued a campaign against the semi-independent chiefs of provinces surrounding Delhi. Kalpi, Dholpur, Bari, Alipore and Ujjain were brought under the control of Delhi.

Death of Bahlul Lodi

Bahlul started his return journey to Delhi from Etawah after making administrative arrangements for the rule of Jaunpur. At a place called Bhadauli, modern Milauli, about 15 miles from Saket in Etawah district, Bahlul took ill and died at the age of 80. Chronicles mention the cause of death as ‘excessive heat’; presumably the Sultan suffered a heat stroke and never recovered. Bahlul had ruled for a strenuous 39 years, a truly exceptional length of time during an extremely turbulent period in the Delhi Sultanate’s history, which in itself proves the success of his reign. The success was even more remarkable considering the lack of resources that he faced when he came to power; and the concerted opposition to his rule from the dominant Turkish nobles and community, who considered the Afghans to be simple, unsophisticated rustic people.

Bahlul’s Achievements 

Bahlul died in harness of exhaustion brought about by over-exertion. For 39 years he had ceaselessly struggled to breathe life into a moribund and fading Sultanate. He rightly deserves the credit for reviving the Sultanate that was in terminal decline and for restoring the waning prestige of the Delhi monarchy. Bahlul had inherited a kingdom with territory that was mentioned in folklore derisively as extending from ‘Delhi-to-Palam’. He had extended the boundaries and had gradually added territories to it over the entire period of his rule. When he died his kingdom consisted of the entire Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, extending in the east up to the borders of Bihar; in the south up to Dholpur and in the south-west to Alhanpur near Ranthambhor.

Although his battlefield victories once again made Muslim power predominant in North India, his military preoccupations left him no time to indulge in reorganising the faltering civil administration. Even so he was personally involved, to the extent possible, in ensuring the welfare of the people—he heard petitions and dispensed justice regularly. Both as a military commander and an administrator, Bahlul was superior to all his predecessors up to and including Firuz Shah Tughluq. In fact he is considered a great tactician and a distinguished military commander.

His personal character was beyond reproach and he remained true to the lofty ideals that he held dear. He scrupulously adhered to the tenets of Islam while being tolerant of other religious creeds. This aspect of his behaviour won him the loyalty of non-Muslim feudatories and chiefs. Bahlul relied on these allies at several critical junctures in his military career. He has been described as being brave, generous, humane and honest. Bahlul was charitable to a fault, never turning away a supplicant who reached out to him. In victory, he was chivalrous. An example of his chivalry is the manner in which he treated the queen of Jaunpur. Husein Shah’s queen was captured twice by Bahlul. Although she was the chief instigator of Husein’s repeated invasions of the Delhi Sultanate, Bahlul treated her with respect and returned her to her husband. For a victorious Muslim Sultan in medieval India such behaviour is unique and unparalleled.

In the political arena, Bahlul used tact as a principal weapon to manage the affairs of the state. This tactfulness was evident in the way he handled the turbulent Afghan nobles, who were his primary supporters. He knew that the Afghans were used to individual independence, were of factious spirit and prone to functioning within tribal allegiances. They would not tolerate the Turkish concept and theory of the sovereignty of the Sultan and his ‘God-given’ right to rule. Bahlul therefore did away with all the trappings of power and was never ostentatious in his conduct. He did not sit on a throne, but on a shared carpet with his senior nobles. He declared publicly that he was the ‘noble of his nobles’. Being a customary Afghan warrior, he was aware of the traditions of the warlike Afghans. Therefore, more than once he took off his turban and asked the senior nobles to choose a new leader, in accordance with Afghan custom. That he was elected with overwhelming majority each time is proof of his dexterous handling of the situation.

Through his tactfulness he kept the mercurial temper of the Afghan nobility under an invisible control through developing a bond of fraternity based on the concept of equality with the entire body of noblemen. While this worked to ensure the loyalty of the Afghan nobles, there was a serious downside to it. The sovereign willingly got reduced to the status of primus inter pares, the ‘chief among equals’. It increased the power of the nobility at the expense of the status and prestige of the monarch, which was lowered significantly and created a feeling within the Delhi court that he was Sultan only of the Afghans. It also made the Afghan tribesmen a privileged class that in turn had long-term and detrimental consequences for the Sultanate.

In the final analysis, Bahlul should be considered a stalwart of the Delhi Sultanate, who single-handedly stopped its rapid decline into extinction. Unfortunately for this unusually tolerant Sultan, his inherent graciousness coupled with his visible humbleness has precluded his being recognised as such.

© [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)

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