Indian History Part 59 The Lodi Dynasty Section IV: Sikandar Lodi: An Appraisal

Singapore, 20 October 2017


Sikandar Lodi ruled with distinction and was undoubtedly the greatest of the Lodi kings. He extended the boundaries of the Sultanate in all directions and retrieved the still sagging prestige of the Sultanate. Sikandar wiped out all vestiges of the existence of the Jaunpur kingdom after Husein Sharqi was forced into exile in Bengal and also brought Bihar under Delhi control. Through astutely projecting his individual status and power he continually improved the stature of the Delhi Sultan to an extent that powerful kings, such as those ruling Bengal and Orissa, extended their hands in friendship to Delhi rather than risk opposing the Sultanate.


As a king and an individual, Sikandar Lodi earned high praise from the Muslim chroniclers of the time. This could be largely attributed to the fanatical zeal he displayed for establishing the tenets of Islam, which had been greatly diluted under the ineffective rule of the previous dynasty. This attitude was in agreement with the biased religious opinions of the chroniclers themselves who hailed him as a saviour. A number of contemporary historians have described Sikandar Lodi as verging close to being the ideal Sultan.

Sikandar Shah was handsome in appearance and fond of the ‘masculine’ pursuit of hunting. He always conducted himself with great decorum, being formal even in his personal conversation. He demanded that all courtiers also observe formal etiquette in his presence at all times. His father, Bahlul, had always held informal court and was a self-proclaimed primus inter pares, the first among equals. Sikandar’s court stood on the other end of the spectrum of sovereignty and was devoid of any semblance or mention of equality between Sultan and the nobles. The Sultan was placed at a far higher plane than any courtier could even aspire to reach. This manner of rule was not a whimsical imposition of the personal vanity of the Sultan but a well-considered policy created to enforce discipline and efficiency in the administration.

Sikandar Lodi revered learning and always had learned men around him for company. His patronage for learning and support for erudite teachers have been acclaimed as being unsurpassed by any monarch before him. Considering that the ancient Indian monarchs were lavish in their patronage of learned scholars, this statement has to be taken at token values as an obvious exaggeration. Even so, it is obvious that Sikandar Shah was an avid supporter of learning. Sikandar himself was a scholar of Persian literature and a poet of recognised merit, writing under the pseudonym ‘Gulrukhi’ meaning ‘Rose-faced’. The choice of the pseudonym could be indicative of a trace of vanity regarding his extreme handsomeness that was inherited from the renowned beauty of his mother. Sikandar also recited poetry beautifully.

The Poet-Sultan

Sikandar’s poems betray a delicacy of thought, feeling and expression that is unusually sentimental for a warlike Sultan. A classic example of his writing is given below:

‘Into the eye of the needle of her eye lashes,

I shall pass the thread of my soul.

If Gulrukhi could describe the charms of her teeth,

He would say they were water-white pearls of the ocean of her speech.’

A commendable fact is that he paid personal attention to the preservation of ancient manuscripts and arranged for the translation of several Sanskrit texts to Persian. It was during this process that the ancient Indian treatise on medicine was translated into Persian under the title, Tibb-i-Sikandari.

Sikandar was personally pious and virtuous and held back from all frivolous pursuits. He was continually engaged with the affairs of state, working everyday till mid-night. A few chroniclers mention that Sikandar Lodi had a secret drinking habit, even though none of them provide any tangible proof of this weakness in the character of an otherwise perfect human being. Further, there are no records of the Sultan being seen in an inebriated state or seen to be sipping wine even once. On the other hand, the lack of information regarding the Sultan’s deficiencies, flaws of character and dubious decisions could be attributed to the chroniclers wanting to gloss over the human frailties and hypocritical ways of a monarch they unanimously raised to the level of a demi-God.


Sikandar Lodi spent his entire life waging war. Therefore, he had only very limited time to introduce effective administrative reform that could have had far-reaching impact on the well-being of the Sultanate. Even so, he focused on streamlining an administration that had become moribund and complex. In developing military policies, he was cautious and deliberate; throughout his reign he did not launch any military campaign that was too ambitious or to cater to his whim and fancy as a monarch. Another remarkable trait was that whenever circumstances permitted, Sikandar endeavoured to win over the potential adversaries through negotiations and advocating reconciliatory policies. He seems to have been acutely aware of the strategies of deterrence and coercion in an age where most monarchs relied heavily on violent wars as the only power projection capability.

Although no new reforms were introduced during his reign, Sikandar Shah accomplished much in improving the administration. He continued the trend that his father had started of centralising power, but in a far more effective manner. He faced the challenge of carefully keeping the Afghan chiefs and nobles under check and the need to keep their individualistic tendencies suppressed. Sikandar approached this task of dealing with the Afghan nobles in two-pronged manner. First, he put in place measures intended to raise the educational standards of all Afghans including common soldiers. This was intended to lead to a raising of cultural awareness in the community that had so far been looked down upon as uncouth simpletons. Second, the Sultan kept a close personal watch on all his officers, receiving information regularly from all parts of the kingdom. He also stepped in promptly to correct anything that was going wrong, even in far-flung regions of the Sultanate, thereby demonstrating to the nobility his control over the affairs of the state. These measures indicated the seriousness of the Sultan in controlling the nobles, which the nobles seem to have understood.

Audit and inspection of accounts were anathema to the Afghan nobles ruling the provinces. Sikandar Lodi enforced strict audits and cases of embezzlement were immediately punished. In order to ensure that there was no backlash from the Afghan nobility, his own brothers were equated with other nobles and also subjected to the strict financial audits. By doing so, Sikandar achieved dual purposes—the nobility remained stable and it avoided any of his brothers harbouring or pursuing royal ambitions. Another way in which the nobles were kept in check was by the Sultan personally appointing the retainers in the service of the more powerful nobles. By ensuring that these retainers remained loyal and faithful to him alone, Sikandar ensured that no plot could be hatched against him without his coming to know of it at an early stage itself. With the strict implementation of these measures, Sikandar Shah gradually extended his control over provincial affairs, enforcing a tight centralised grip over the entire Sultanate.

Sikandar Lodi established an elaborate espionage and intelligence gathering system. It is said that he knew the minutest details of people’s lives. To increase the efficiency of this system he revived the defunct practice of transmitting news through the use of a relay of horses. The ‘relay of horses’ technique was honed to such efficiency that the Sultan was able to send two ‘Firmans’, or ‘Sultan’s Orders’, every day to any part of the Sultanate. Orders that were not marked secret were read out in public in faraway provinces, an act that made the common man feel a connection to the central administration. The people could palpably feel the governance being delivered by the great Sultan in Delhi.

Although these strict measures of central control was instituted, Sikandar was very careful not to rouse the hostility of the Afghan nobles, especially the old nobles who were set in their ways. He treated these older nobles with elaborate courtesy and consideration of their entrenched prejudices, thus ensuring their support, even if reluctantly delivered.

The dispensation of justice was even-handed for all and no distinctions based on rank and status was permitted. The court sat throughout the day with special representatives being available through the entire day-light hours and the ulemas also waiting inside the palace to render expert advice when necessary. The Sultan personally intervened frequently to avert the miscarriage of justice. This meant that while the judicial process was in progress, he was being informed of the proceedings on a regular basis.

The Sultan made catering to the interest of the poor a priority activity of the central administration. Of course, the ‘poor’ in this case was restricted to the followers of the Islamic faith within the Sultanate. Sikandar abolished the tax on corn and encouraged agriculture, while also ensuring that reliable security was provided to traders and merchants. He instituted a scheme under which the state provided six-month’s provision ever year to the poor and destitute. These welfare measures were available only to the Muslim population under his rule. He also started the practice of releasing prisoners, except those jailed for embezzlement, on important religious holidays. By enforcing a variety of measures, mainly through coercion and the actual use of force when needed, Sikandar Lodi managed to keep the rebellious Hindu zamindars subdued. It could be said that the core of the Sultanate had been effectively stabilised.

Unlike the practice of some of his predecessors who transferred officials at random and regular intervals to keep them off-balance and avoid their becoming entrenched in a particular region, Sikandar Shah provided stability of tenure to his officials. He did not remove any official from his post unless some misdemeanour was proven against the official. This policy gained the goodwill and loyalty of the officers, especially the ones at the middle ranks.

There can be no administration without its own quirks, faults and pitfalls. This was true of Sikandar Lodi’s centralised administration also. In appointing officials, Sikandar was partial to the Afghans, especially those from his own tribe. Further, he based the selection on heredity and social status, rather than on merit which was not considered in the assessment. Sikandar’s administration was never a meritocracy. Even so, the Sultan’s achievements in stabilising the administration were very creditable, especially considering that he was at war almost throughout his reign. Although he was an autocratic monarch, he reposed full trust in his officials and paid them well as an anti-dote to the inherent corruption of the central bureaucracy. There is no doubt that he infused much vigour into the administration, which served the state well. However, during Sikandar’s rule the state reverted to being a theocracy, officially imposing Islam on the Hindus and other minority non-believers.

Sikandar – The Religious Bigot

Despite a benevolent disposition, wide-ranging cultural interests and broad social concerns, Sikandar Lodi was an ultra-orthodox Muslim. He genuinely believed that it was his sacred duty to demolish temples to stamp out idolatry and forcibly convert non-Muslims to the ‘one true faith’. This could also have been a reaction normal to new converts who tend to be more evangelical than more established people of the faith. This phenomenon is very clearly visible in Indian history, since the Turkish, and later, Afghan nobles tended to give second-class status to Hindu converts from the sub-continent. In the case of Sikandar Lodi he may also have suffered from a socio-religious inferiority complex since his mother was a Hindu and a common goldsmith’s daughter.

In any case, several acts of extreme vandalism of temples, in the name of Islam, has been recorded in great detail and attributed directly to the Sultan by exulting chroniclers. Obviously there could be some exaggerations meant to laud the Sultan’s religious credentials and his zeal to propagate the religion. However, there is no doubt regarding Sikandar’s extreme passion for enforcing Islamic precepts across the entire Sultanate. In fact some actions that he initiated against the Hindus went far beyond what was prescribed or expected of even the most orthodox practitioners of the Islamic faith.

Most of the 15th century Delhi Sultans did not indulge in senseless religious persecution; and neither were they powerful enough to oppress the Hindus. Sikandar revived a number of oppressive religious practices against the non-believers, most of which had lain dormant for more than a century. Further, he assumed an uncompromising attitude towards Hindus, completely devoid of any trace of religious tolerance. It is noteworthy that the strict religious policies were only enforced after Sikandar had consolidated his position as the undisputed Sultan in the first decade of his rule. Before that he too did not have the power to institute religious oppression as a policy of the Sultanate.

There are a number of later-day analysis that proclaim Sikandar Shah to have been a religious bigot. He may indeed have been a bigot. However, the distinct likelihood that this conclusion, arrived at after some centuries of his rule, was the result of the fact that he put to an end the benign religious nature of the shrinking and powerless Delhi Sultanate that he had inherited cannot be ruled out. He re-introduced some practices that had been enforced in the earlier stages of the Delhi Sultanate but had fallen into disuse. In relative terms to the religious tolerance of his immediate predecessors these actions could have been considered bigotry in later analysis. Even if giving Sikandar the title of a bigot can be debated, there is absolutely no doubt regarding his extreme religious intolerance. A number of unrelated reports conclusively confirm extensive temple destruction activities committed at the Sultan’s express orders. Temples were converted to caravan serais or made into common places for the Muslims to congregate. It is also reported that the destroyed idols were given to butchers to be used as meat-weights. It is obvious that the objective was not merely the destruction of the temples, but complete desecration of the concept of Hinduism.

It was at this stage in the history of India that the destruction of temples and persecution of Hindus got separated from the greed for wealth and became a purely religious pursuit. In earlier times, the destruction was primarily to gather the wealth of the temples and the religious angle was used to provide the acts of loot and plunder a veneer of respectability. With Sikandar Shah’s policies these actions truly became religious policies with the gathering of wealth becoming a secondary part. Religious intolerance, which only varied in the scale of activities, became part and parcel of the Indian polity for ever thereafter.

The religious policies of Sikandar Lodi did not immediately impact the political scene in North India. Politically the Hindus and Muslims were interacting in cooperation or hostility depending on the prevailing circumstances. Hindu kings both supported and opposed the Sultanate in a politically expedient manner. Religion played only a secondary role in these calculations. A century before Sikandar’s reign, his religious policies and attitude towards Hindus and other non-believers would not have raised any eyebrows. His religious intolerance would have been considered normal and no separate mention of it would have been made. However, in the late 15th century his bigotry was particularly noticeable and the chroniclers asserted and applauded his zealous pursuit of the Islamic faith. Considering all factors in an overarching manner, Sikandar Lodi would have to be considered a religious bigot.


Sikandar Shah Lodi was personally brave and dauntless. It is reported that Bahlul chose him as the successor prompted by the prince’s heroism in suppressing the rebellion of Tatar Khan in the Punjab. Even after he became the Sultan, he led most of the military campaigns himself. During his reign he maintained order in the Sultanate by formulating fair and firm policies that were enforced effectively. More importantly, although he derived his support base from the Afghan nobility, he managed to keep the turbulent barons in check. This must be considered one of his greater achievements.

Without doubt, it was the father-son duo of Bahlul and Sikandar that kept the flame of the Delhi Sultanate alive. It would have floundered and been extinguished during the time of Alam Shah if the Lodis had not arrived on the scene. Following from the turbulent rule of his father, Sikandar Shah managed to usher in stability into the Sultanate with sagacity, shrewdness and the deliberate use of force when required. On his death bed Sikandar Lodi could not have known or even imagined that he was presiding over the twilight of an empire that was about to be engulfed by the darkness of extinction.

© [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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