Indian History Part 59 The Lodi Dynasty Section III Sikandar Lodi: Life and Times

Singapore, 19 October 2017


Bahlul Lodi had nine sons, of whom the eldest Khwaja Bayezid has predeceased his father. Bahlul’s sudden death was seized as an opportunity by the Afghan nobles to push forward the claims of their favourite princes for succession. Before proceeding to Gwalior on his last fateful expedition, Bahlul had appointed his third son Nizam Khan, whom he considered to be the ablest of the lot, as his successor. However, enfeebled by sickness and on his deathbed far away from Delhi, some nobles influenced him to cancel this appointment in favour of nominating his grandson Azam Humayun, son of Bayezid and the governor of Kalpi, to the throne. Bahlul died before this decision could be conveyed to Nizam Khan in Delhi, although Nizam had been forewarned of the proposed change of the Sultan’s decision by the vizier.

When Bahlul died, the nobles accompanying him were divided into two factions, one supporting the elevation of Azam Humayun to the throne and the other wanting to crown Barbak Shah, the eldest surviving son and the governor of Jaunpur as the new Sultan. Queen Zeba spoke up in the assembly in support of her son Nizam Khan then in-charge of Delhi. However, she was snubbed into silence by a cousin of Nizam’s, who berated her since she was a convert and not of ‘noble’ birth. Even at the end of the 15th century, when Islam had become fully established in the sub-continent, Turkish and Afghan nobility held great disdain for Indian converts, irrespective of the status of the convert in question. This is a dichotomy in a religion that converts with the sword and declares that all men are equal in front of God. This discrimination is still openly practised in Saudi Arabia, the bastion of Sunni Islam. [The author has personally witnessed the second-class citizen status that is meted out to Muslim citizens from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh who work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.]

Queen Zeba

Queen Zeba was the daughter of a Hindu goldsmith, her name being given in different chronicles as Hema, Zeba and Ambha. She was extremely beautiful and has been described in the chronicles: ‘her face was like a tulip and with jet black hair’. Bahlul was attracted to her when he was the governor of Sirhind and married her after ascending the throne of Delhi.

Since the mother was considered to be of a low social status and also a Hindu convert, the nobles believed that Nizam Khan was unfit to rule and therefore he was not even in consideration for the being made the Sultan. After all he the grandson of a goldsmith! The successful faction in the discussion where the queen had been snubbed, carried Bahlul’s coffin to a place called Jalali for internment. On the advice of his loyal vizier, Nizam Khan also reached Jalali. His physical presence unnerved the conspirators who did not put up any resistance and hastily dispersed to their fiefs. Nizam then send the Bahlul’s body to be interred in Delhi and himself returned to the capital. He formally ascended the throne of Delhi on 17 July 1489, with the support of a majority of the nobles, assuming the title Sikandar Shah Lodi.

Sikandar Shah – The Debate Regarding Age

Some historians give Sikandar Shah’s age at the time of accession as 18. This is incorrect. Majority of contemporary chronicles state that Bahlul’s third son, Nizam Khan, was born in the seventh year of his rule. Bahlul had ascended the throne in 1451, and Sikandar Shah (Nizam Khan) was born in 1457 or 1458. Therefore, in 1489 when he became Sultan, he would have been 31 years old. Further, it is also confirmed by contemporary records that he already had six sons at the time of his coronation. It is seen that Sikandar Shah was a matured man when he assumed the mantle of monarchy also made obvious by the manner of his rule.

From the very beginning of his rule, Sikandar Shah set himself the task of preserving and further entrenching the power and authority of the monarchy and extending the territorial control of the Delhi Sultanate. This brought him into direct conflict with a number of princes and nobles who felt that his actions eroded their own power and were inimical to maintaining the status quo. After all for 39 long years before Sikandar assumed the throne, the Sultan had been only ‘the first among equals’. Sikandar Shah had to justify his selection as the Sultan and also ensure the support of the nobles.

Immediate Actions

Sikandar Shah instinctively knew that he must deal with the confusion of his accession in order to entrench the legality of his rule. He had three opponents—all three of whom had been rival claimants to the throne—to deal with immediately. They were Azam Humayun, the son of his eldest brother and governor of Kalpi; Barbak Shah, his own elder brother ruling as the governor of Jaunpur; and Alam Khan, a younger brother, the governor of Rapri who had declared independence and assumed royal titles after Bahlul’s death.

Sikandar decided to deal with his younger brother first and marched to Rapri. Alam Khan shut himself up in his fort, but could not withstand the siege for long. He fled to Patiala, which was Isa Khan’s fief. Isa Khan was the cousin who had opposed Sikandar’s claim to the throne and in the bargain also insulted Queen Zeba in court. Rapri was captured and given as a fief to the vizier. Sikandar then proceeded to Etawah where he established base camp for the expedition. Sikandar now used diplomatic means to gradually wean Alam Khan away from Isa Khan’s influence. Once he came back into the Lodi camp, Alam was conferred the governorship of Etawah. After Alam Khan was firmly on his side, Sikandar attacked Patiala. Isa Khan offered valiant battle, but was defeated and succumbed to the injuries received in battle. Sikandar conferred the fief of Patiala on Rai Ganesh. This was a shrewd political move. Rai Ganesh had been a supporter and partisan of Barbak Shah and was won over to the Delhi Sultan’s side.

Dealing with Barbak Shah

Barbak Shah was Sikandar’s elder brother and a formidable rival. He had been ruling Jaunpur independently ever since the defeat of Husein Shah Sharqi, even striking his own coins although he continued to be obedient to his father Bahlul. Sikandar moved from Patiala towards Jaunpur. He felt that his fairly lenient treatment of Alam Khan would indicate to his brother that he did not want to fight and send out feelers for a reconciliation. Sikandar informed Barbak that he only wanted his name to be included in the coinage and that Barbak should accept Delhi suzerainty; in return for which Barbak would be left to rule Jaunpur independently. Barbak would be left alone to rule as monarch.

Unfortunately the reconciliatory approach failed since Barbak refused to accept his younger brother’s authority as well Sikandar’s claim to rule in Delhi. In this refusal to consider the reconciliation attempt, he was also instigated by Husein Sharqi, the previous king of Jaunpur, now living in exile. Husein stoked the fires of division since he felt that by increasing the schism between the Lodi brothers, he could exploit the situation and improve his chances of reclaiming the kingdom that he had lost to Bahlul. Barbak Shah openly started to prepare for war. Sikandar, being left with no other option, marched to Jaunpur for an invasion.

Barbak came out to meet the Delhi army and was joined by Mian Muhammad Khan Farmuli who was popularly known as Kala Pahad, a term that means Black Mountain. Farmuli was Sikandar and Barbak’s sister’s son and the governor of Awadh and Bahraich. He was known as a formidable fighter and commanding general, as the nick-name suggests. The battle that ensued at Kanauj was bloody and ruthless. During the battle, Kala Pahad was taken prisoner. Sikandar treated him with great courtesy, acknowledging his status as a governor of a province. He was persuaded to join the Delhi forces, which was not difficult since Sikandar was also Farmuli’s uncle. The Awadh forces now started to fight against Barbak, who became demoralised at this turn of events and fled to Badaun. The Jaunpur forces were defeated, Barbak was pursued in his flight, captured and compelled to surrender by the Delhi forces.

Sikandar was aware of the lurking Husein Sharqi and of his continuing ambition to regain the throne of Jaunpur. Therefore, in a calculated move he reinstated Barbak Shah as the ruler of Jaunpur while assigning all the districts surrounding it to his own trusted and loyal officers. He also placed spies in the palace of Jaunpur. These moves effectively curtailed any tendency on the part of Barbak to rebel again and ensured that Husein Sharqi could not mount any expedition either to assist Barbak or to take over Jaunpur.

After putting in place these administrative measures in Jaunpur, Sikandar turned his attention to Kalpi. He marched there, removed his nephew Azam Humayun from the governorship, conferred Kalpi on Mahmud Khan Lodi and then returned to Delhi in 1492. In a span of a little over two years, Sikandar Shah had become the sole master of the entire North India up to the borders of Bihar.

The Jaunpur Rebellion

In Jaunpur Barbak Shah had been subdued and kept under tight control. However, the local zamindars of Jaunpur, powerful landowners with large territorial holdings and most of whom were Hindus, became a formidable bloc of influence. Husein Sharqi instigated these zamindars to rebel in his bid to make one more attempt at regaining his throne. The zamindars revolted, upon which Barbak fled and took refuge in Driyabad near Lucknow. Sikandar Shah went back to Jaunpur and in a highly contested battle managed to defeat the zamindars’ forces. He reinstated Barbak as the governor and collected enormous booty before returning to Delhi.

As soon as the Delhi army started its return march, the zamindars once again rebelled. Barbak was once again unable to contain the rebellion and proved his incompetence as an administration for the second time. Sikandar took to the field again. He ordered the arrest of Barbak and placed him as a state prisoner. Then the Sultan proceeded to Chunar and suppressed the zamindars’ revolt, suffering great losses to his own army. The battle was fought ferociously from both sides. However, before Sikandar could achieve total victory, the zamindars invited Husein Sharqi to make another attempt at seizing the throne. Husein Sharqi took to the field with a huge army, supported by the zamindars and some other local Hindu chieftains. In an extended battle fought near Varanasi (or Benares) Husein was defeated and fled to Colgong in Lakhnauti. He was a spent force and lived the rest of his life in Bengal in obscurity. This was the final curtain call for the Sharqi dynasty created by Malik-us-Sharq Khwaja in Jaunpur.

The Bachgotis

The Bachgotis were a tribe of turbulent Rajputs, descended from the Mainpuri Chauhans, led by a warlike chief called Juga. Known in modern times as Basgotis, the members of the tribe are found in large numbers even today in the Allahabad-Jaunpur region. Juga attacked and killed Mubarak Khan the governor of Kara. Thereafter he was partially responsible for making Barbak flee from Jaunpur, leading to his subsequent arrest and incarceration by Sikandar. In 1493, Juga was joined by Raja Bhedachandra of Bhatgora (modern Rewa) in an open rebellion against Delhi. Sikandar Shah arrived at Dalmau opposite Kara to face this combine against him.

Sikandar defeated Juga, who managed to escape and joined Husein Sharqi in his fort at Chaund, identified as modern Chanda, a village in Sultanpur. At this development, Sikandar tried to win over Husein Sharqi, asking him to join the fight against ‘infidel rebels’ in return for being permitted to keep his current territorial holdings. The battle of Varanasi, mentioned earlier, took place after Husein had rejected this offer. When Husein fled to Bengal, the Delhi forces were in hot pursuit till he entered Bengal territory. The outcome of this pursuit was that Bihar was easily annexed as a secondary objective and ceased to exist as an independent entity. Sikandar appointed his own officers to stabilise and govern the newly annexed region.

The Baghelas of Rewa

The Baghelas are mentioned as Vaghelas in some contemporary and modern texts. After dealing with the recurrent challenge from Husein Sharqi, Sikandar turned his attention to the Baghela Raja Bhedachandra of Rewa, who ruled from his capital at Gahora. Gahora is today a forsaken village about 12 miles east of Karvi in the Banda district of modern Uttar Pradesh. The early history of the Baghelas is obscure. Baghelas were ruling Gujarat in the 13th century and were comprehensively defeated by Ala ud-Din Khilji in 1299. The Baghelas moved en masse to the north and settled in the region around Banda and Kalinjar. After nearly 150 years, the Baghelas now under the leadership of Virama Deva, was continually being harassed by the Muslim chieftains of Kalpi and Jaunpur. His successor Raja Bhedachandra moved the tribe to another mountainous region in central India, settling in the region bounded in the north and north-west by the Kaimur ranges and the Maikal ranges on the south and south-west. This country came to be called Baghelkhand.

The 16th century Sanskrit ‘Mahakavya’, or Great Poem, called Virbhanudaya of Madhava that has been translated in abridgement by Hiranand Shastri states that Raja Bhedachandra exerted authority over the territory along the River Ganga up to Kantit in the west and to Gaya in Bihar in the east. The on-going Lodi-Sharqi rivalry suited the Baghelas since it made them safe without much interference from the two major powers. However, when the Sharqi power was destroyed after decades of war, the balance of power that had contributed to the stability of the Baghela kingdom was threatened. In the larger scheme of things, it was in Baghelkhand’s interest to have a reasonable powerful Sharqi king on the throne of Jaunpur as a counterpoint to the Delhi Sultan and his ambitions. Therefore, it is not surprising that Raja Bhedachandra of the Baghelas and Raja Man of Gwalior supported Husein Shah in his repeated attempts to regain his throne in Jaunpur.

On Husein Shah being defeated and fleeing into exile in Bengal, Bhedachandra attempted to make amends with Sikandar Shah, but his overtures were rejected by the Delhi Sultan. In 1495, Sikandar launched a campaign against the Baghelas. Throughout his march, Sikandar put the countryside he passed to sword and fire, devastating the entire region. He was opposed by the crown prince, Vahara Raya Deva who was defeated in battle and killed while retreating. Raja Bhedachandra also died soon after, never recovering from the shock of the death of his son and heir apparent. Sikandar, although victorious, paid the price for the scorched earth policy that he had followed. After defeating the Baghela prince he retired to Bandugarh. Here the policy of devastating the countryside came back to haunt him. Provisions became scarce and then an epidemic hit the army. About 90 per cent of the cavalry was devastated and the Sultan was forced to retreat to Delhi.

At this juncture, Lakshmi Chand, Bhedachandra’s younger son, took advantage of the Delhi army’s discomfiture and invited Husein Shah to strike Sikandar immediately. However, a by-play of intrigue followed. After Bhedachandra’s demise, his brother Salivahan had assumed the throne. He had struck up a friendship with Sikandar who had provided him with some amount of treasure and riches. Salivahan was also scared that Lakshmi Chand would stake a claim to the throne and therefore increased his support for, and friendship with, Sikandar Shah. The Battle of Varanasi, with the results as described earlier followed, with Salivahan siding with Sikandar.

The Sikandar Shah-Salivahan accommodation snapped almost immediately after the victory over Husein Shah Sharqi. The Sultan’s original intention had always been to annex the Baghela kingdom, which had to be put on hold by the alliance with Salivahan. Although the Delhi forces returned to Delhi, Sikandar was biding his time. After a gap of three years, he mounted another campaign against the Baghelas. The excuse for the invasion was rather thin—Sikandar had asked Salivahan for the hand of his daughter in marriage, which had been refused. Although the invasion took place, the land that had been repeatedly devastated through pillage and burning could not sustain a large army and the expedition did not produce any conclusive outcome. The Baghelas continued to rule their small kingdom although the frequent Afghan attacks weakened them and gradually crippled the dynasty.

By 1499 Sikandar Lodi had crushed any real or perceived opposition to his rule and no danger threatened the well-being of the Delhi Sultanate. Secure at home, Sikandar turned his attention to the west.

The Tomars of Gwalior

Iltutmish had conquered Gwalior in 1232 and the region remained annexed to the Sultanate and under Muslim occupation till the end of the 14th century. As the Delhi Sultanate weakened, Vir Singh the Tomar chief took advantage and captured the Gwalior fort and declared independence from Delhi. He was followed by an array of strong rulers—Dungar Sigh, Kirti Singh, Kalyan Singh—who nurtured the independent state to strength, power and influence. These stalwarts of the Kingdom of Gwalior managed to resist all attempts by Delhi to subdue them, continually growing in stature. Gwalior managed to reach a state wherein the ruling family felt strong enough to make an unsuccessful attempt to capture the Narwar fort then under the control of the Malwa Sultan Hoshang Shah.

Raja Man Singh who came to power in 1486 was a veritable genius who held very liberal religious views. He was extremely popular with both his Hindu and Muslim subjects. However, Sikandar Shah had a score to settle with Man Singh—some years earlier, Man Singh had provided shelter to some conspirators who were exiled from Delhi, in keeping with the medieval etiquette of providing hospitality to anyone who sought shelter. Man Singh had wanted to avoid a direct military confrontation with Delhi and had send presents and tributes to Sikandar Shah. However, Sikandar was an expansionist at heart and harboured ambitions of annexing Gwalior. He declined to compromise.

Eventually Delhi mounted a campaign against Gwalior. The Delhi forces first attacked Dholpur, a dependency of Gwalior about 34 miles south of Agra, ruled by Vinayak Deva. Vinayak Deva fought bravely, inflicting heavy casualties on the Delhi army. However, when Sikandar Shah personally embarked from Delhi towards the battle field, Vinayak panicked and fled to Gwalior. Dholpur was laid waste, with temples destroyed and mosques built in their place. Sikandar then crossed the River Chambal and camped on the banks of the River Asi, modern Mandaki. The Delhi army was again ravaged by an epidemic, probably an outbreak of cholera.

Raja Man Singh was quick to take advantage of the situation to come to terms with Delhi and promised to expel the fugitives in return for Dholpur being returned to Vinayak Deva. Sikandar, now in a precarious situation and facing grave difficulties with his army in the grip of an epidemic, accepted the terms. Although the Muslim chroniclers of the time continue to flatter the Sultan and his ‘victory’, in reality Gwalior had successfully resisted Sikandar’s invasion without suffering any loss. Immediately after the withdrawal of the Delhi forces, Raja Man Singh reinforced the forts that the Tomars had built around Gwalior as the first line of defence for the country. It is obvious that he anticipated a return expedition by Sikandar Shah.

Four years later Sikandar attacked again, targeting the fort at Mandrael on the west bank of the River Chambal, which was captured after a vicious battle. He once again followed the by now familiar policy of sacking, looting and plundering the countryside before burning it down; and predictably and inevitably the actions were followed by the usual epidemic in the army and a return to Delhi in a reduced state. Sikandar now learned the lessons of the previous expeditions and realised the necessity to establish headquarters for the army closer to the region of campaign to reduce the logistical tail. This was necessary to subdue strong kingdoms and capitalise on battlefield victories. Sikandar Shah chose the place where Agra stands today as the site for the construction of the advanced headquarters, laying the foundation for a fort in 1505. This was the beginning of modern Agra.

The Antiquity of Agra

Tradition gives great antiquity to Agra. In Indian mythology Agra is considered to have been the state prison during the reign of Raja Kans, the ruler of Mathura and uncle of Lord Krishna. In the early historical period Agra grew to be a middle-sized town of no particular importance. Mahmud Ghazni reduced the township during one of his raids and left it ruined as an insignificant village. It gradually regained importance over the years. In 1475, a Hindu prince called Badal Singh built a fort called Badalgarh in Agra. In 1492, Haibat Khan, a general of the Delhi Sultanate, captured the city that had by then become a walled city.

Agra was well-populated when Sikandar Lodi founded his secondary capital there. There is mention in the chronicles of an earthquake taking place on 6 July 1505 that reduced the town to rubble. Irrespective of the historical traditions that surround Agra, modern Agra was rebuilt by Sikandar Lodi. He built Sikandara and a fine summer house on the banks of the River Yamuna. This summer house was later converted to a tomb for Maryam Zamani, Jahangir’s mother.

It is clear that the new capital took some time to be established. The coins that Sikandar stuck in Agra were not of the same refinement as those done in Delhi, indicating that the town had not reached the level of sophistication as Delhi.

Agra now became the headquarters for the invading Delhi army, which once again captured Dholpur. This was the beginning of yet another campaign against Gwalior, with the war raging for more than a year. Raja Man Singh now resorted to a guerrilla campaign reliant on hit-and-run tactics. The fact of the matter was that Sikandar Shah was not strong enough to force the surrender of Gwalior and Man Singh was not strong enough to throw out the invading force from his kingdom. Even though he seemed to have learned the folly of adopting a scorched earth policy, Sikandar continued his strategy of the reckless destruction of the countryside, which once again boomeranged. Scarcity of provisions for the large army once again forced a retreat from Gwalior territory to Agra.

On their return march, the Delhi forces were ambushed near Jatwar by Man Singh inflicting heavy casualties. The final conclusion about the year-long war between Delhi and Gwalior is that it was an utter failure for the Delhi forces. However, Sikandar Lodi was, if anything, a persistent general. He continued to pursue the strategy of reducing the encircling forts of Gwalior to isolate it. Gradually, over years of continuous fighting, Gwalior came to be encircled by forts that were controlled by Sikandar Lodi. In 1509, Narwar was captured by Delhi forces, cutting off Gwalior from the possibility of receiving any assistance from Mewar, its principal ally. At this stage, other than Narwar, the Delhi forces controlled Dholpur, Mandrael, Avantgarh, Lahayer and Hathkant. Gwalior now knew that ultimately and inevitably it would have to surrender. However, the brave kingdom fought on till it could resist no more.

This extended campaign against Gwalior was a continuous and heavy drain on the Delhi exchequer, which it could ill-afford. More importantly, his pre-occupation with Gwalior led to Sikandar Lodi completely neglecting the north-west frontier of the kingdom and the region of the Punjab from where threats to the Sultanate traditionally emanated. His successor would later pay a high price for this generational neglect—losing both his kingdom and life. In comparison, the gain of a few minor forts in the Tomar country was but a pittance.

Other Conquests

The capture of the Narwar fort brought Sikandar in close proximity to Malwa. Since Sikandar was an expansionist who was always interested in dabbling in the politics of his neighbours, it was only a matter of time before he interfered in the affairs of Malwa. There was a power struggle in the ruling dynasty, between the father Sultan Nasir ud-Din and his son Shihab ud-Din who was supported by the nobles of the country. Shihab attacked the capital Mandu, was defeated and appealed to Sikandar for help. He promised to surrender Chanderi to the Sultanate in exchange for Sikandar putting him on the throne. Internecine war for succession continued in Malwa for another 15 years, with the active participation of the Delhi forces also in the civil war. Finally Chanderi was occupied by Sikandar’s forces.

During various times during the Malwa Civil War, Sikandar Lodi supported all the major participants thus becoming an important factor in Malwa politics. During this period, the Sultan of Nagor also submitted to Sikandar, fearing that he would be replaced by his brother on the throne by the Delhi Sultan. Having subdued and reduced Gwalior and extended his sovereignty over Malwa and Nagor, Sikandar Shah Lodi returned to Agra only to die of natural causes on 21-22 November 1517. He had ruled for 29 years and achieved some glory, increasing the stature of the Delhi Sultan.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2017]
All Rights Reserved
No part of this website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author. You may quote extracts from the website or forward the link to the website with attribution to For any other mode of sharing, please contact the author @ (

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)

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: