Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Sultanate of Delhi: The Mamluk Dynasty

Delhi Sultanate under the MamluksBefore the Mughal Empire came to be, the Sultanate of Delhi stood as the most powerful state in all of Northern India. A Sultanate founded by Afghan warlords, it dominated its neighbors, defended itself against Mongols, and ruled by Sultan with each having a different personality. Explore this Sultanate that endured for centuries until the conquest of Babur came.

Foundation and the Mamluk Dynasty

The Delhi Sultanate traced its foundation to Mamluks – slave soldiers usually of Turkish birth. Slavery in the Central Asian Muslim culture did not meant a submission and degradation, but rather an opportunity to rise up in society and politics. Masters bought Turkish slave boys and groomed them to become excellent soldiers, advisers, and, luckily for some, successors. Such was the particular condition of the Mamluk Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate.

The Mamluk Dynasty and the Sultanate itself owed its rise to Mu’izz al-Din Muhammad ibn Sam or Muhammad of Ghur, a warlord that built an Empire centered in modern day Afghanistan. Thirst for conquest, he invaded Northern India and captured cities of Mirat and Delhi. In the following year they won the Battle of Taraor and Chandawar in 1194 leading to the capture of the sacred city of Benares. With much of his Indian conquest secured by his victories, Muhammad left his trusted Mamluk Qutb al-Din Aibak to serve as his viceroy while he returned to Ghazni, the capital of his extensive Ghurid Empire.

Aibak managed to consolidate Muhammad’s Indian holdings. He crushed rebellion and resistance against Ghurid rule mainly coming from Rajputs and rulers of Gwalior. He also expanded the realm to cover Gujarat and Kalinjar in 1196 and 1202 respectively. More lands followed as another Mamluk Mohammad Bakhtiyar brought Bengal into the fold nominally. Thus, Muslim rule covered Northern India. In 1206, with Muhammad of Ghur’s assassination, Aibak took the decision to declare himself Sultan becoming its inaugural ruler.

Aibak made Delhi his administrative center. From there he ruled vast lands, administered justice, and collected tribute from lesser rulers who swore fealty to the Sultanate. He placed upon himself the beautification of the city by building mosques, one of which was the Qutb Complex and its Qutb Minar which then stood as the tallest minaret and today a UNESCO Heritage Site. Aibak’s reign, however, ended unexpectedly when he fell from his horse during a game of polo.

Division followed the demise of Sultan Aibak. Various warlords rose up to rule different regions. Aibak’s son failed to assert his rule and before long his reign ended and one of his father’s Mamluk named Itutmish rose to power.

Sultan Itutmish

Itutmish achieved the recognition of the Sultanate of Delhi by the Muslim world and took the task of reunifying the Sultanate and defending its lands from foreign invasion. Itutmish, like Aibak, also came from Central Asia and sold to slavery. Later on, he found service under Aibek and received the same treatment as Aibak had been treated by Muhammad of Ghur. Eventually, Itutmish rose to become a trusted adviser and when situation suited, he took the opportunity to take over a position he knew well. Once in power, he took on the task of crushing his rivals that took over control of different provinces of the Sultanate.

Besides rivals within the Sultanate, Genghis Khan’s Mongol horde also posed a threat. Refugees from the west flowed into India and stories of the strength and brutality of the Mongols spread along with fear. The question Itutmish had: When will the Mongols finally come? Luckily for Itutmish, the Khwarezm Empire served as his buffer state against the scourge, and when the Mongols did devoured the Empire, they turned westwards rather than India. Itutmish then turned his attention in reestablishing the Sultan’s control over the Sultanate’s realm. He finally succeeded in 1230 when his final rival ended his life by drowning in the Indus River. With his rivals destroyed, he then turned his attention towards his neighbors.

Expansion of the Sultanate went to different directions, towards Malwa and Ujjain to the southwest, and every land north of Vindhyas. Itutmish strive to survive and to conquer earned him the powerful Abbasid Caliphate’s seal of recognition as Sultan of Delhi and a prominent power in India.

Although a Muslim, Itutmish set the tone of religious tolerance as part of the Delhi Sultanate’s survival. He did faced pressure from extremist Muslims to convert the “infidel” Hindus, but he resisted and insisted toleration as necessary to preserve the country’s unity and stability. He believe forcing conversion meant rebellion of most of their people. The self-made Mamluk Sultan Itutmish’s reign ended in 1236. His son who succeeded him, however, ruled with tyranny and before long he was murdered. Itutmish’s daughter Raziyat then took over as the new Sultana of Delhi.

Raziyat and the Forty

Raziyat proved herself to be kind hearted and skilled ruler. Nonetheless, her sex proved to be a liability. Even though she tried to be associated closer to men than women by wearing manly clothes, she failed to convince the patriarchal Afghan and Turkish officials to recognize her skills. Rebellions began when she grew closer to an Abyssinian slave in charge of the palace horses. Governor Malik Altunia rebelled against the Sultana in response of the said love affair, but Raziyat showed her political prowess, dedication, and charisma by persuading the renegade Governor to become her ally and later husband. The initial revolt failed, yet she was far from safe as other plots lingered around her.

Ambitious Mamluks who saw inspiration on the successes of Aibek and Itutmish rose up against Raziyat under the reason of women as incompetent leaders. These Mamluk who became known as the Forty rose up in rebellion and toppled down Raziyat in 1240 replacing her with his younger brother Sultan Bahram Shah.

The Forty ruled the country in the name of incompetent and sometimes brutal Sultans, thus turning the Sultanate into an oligarchy. The problem with power being held by an elite group of men was the chance of internal squabbling. Indeed internal struggle began and the Forty’s bickering made the country vulnerable and defenseless against the Mongol Horde who finally into India capturing Lahore in 1241 pushed towards western provinces of Punjab and Sind. The Forty’s reign over Sultans eventually ended with the rise of another self-made Mamluk Sultan named Ghiyas al-Din Balban.

Sultan Balban

Sultan Balban once served as part of the Forty. He earned recognition as an excellent administrator and military commander who won victories against the dreaded Mongols. In 1246, he aided in enthroning Nasiruddin Mahmud as the new Sultan. He served the Sultan well until he passed away in 1266. He had the support of many officials who helped him to take power and become its new ruler. Under him, the Sultanate underwent administrative reforms, including the breaking up of the aging Forty. He removed many landlords or Khans from power centralizing much of the power to Delhi. He established a vast network of spies to thwart plots by traitors. He ordered vast road networks to increase commerce, mobility, and speed to respond to any crisis and rebellions. Fort numbers rose to improve defense and his grip over lands far from Delhi’s immediate reach. He responded strongly against the constant threats of Mongol invasion and rebellions. He had his son Mohammad to lead the Delhi army to fight against the Mongols and scored a victory against the Horde in 1279. Internally, he crushed the calls of Bengal for independence and secured it as part of the Sultanate for another century. With his strong leadership, the Sultanate saw an era of political stability as well as security under Balban. The strong Mamluk Sultan’s reign ended with his demise on 1287. His son, failed to succeed him as Prince Mohammed passed away 2 year ago, which some said brought great grief to the Sultan that led to his health decline. 

The death of Balban marked the decline of the Mamluk Dynasty. His grandson and successor was young and internal descent followed soon. The political chaos that followed marked the end of persevering self-made Mamluk Sultans and the rise of another dynasty - the Khalji – who ushered a new era of glory, expansion, iron-fisted rule to the Delhi Sultanate. 

See also:

Jackson, A.V. Williams. History of India Volume III: Medieval India from the Mohammedan Conquest to the Reign of Akbar the Great. London: The Grolier Society Publishers, 1906.

Kulke, Hermann & Dietmar Rothermund. A History of India. New York, New York: Routledge, 2004.

Stein, Burton. A History of India. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2010.

Srinivasachari, Rao Saheb & M.S. Ramaswami Aiyangar. History of India Part II: Muhammadan India. Mount Road, Madras: Srinivasa Varadachari & Co., 1937.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. "Delhi Sultanate." In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on February 6, 2009. URL:

No comments:

Post a Comment