Sultans of Swing

The Muslim Sultanates in India, c. 1100 – 1526 CE

In which the Indians learn that not all foreigners are barbarians, and not all invaders are villains

The subcontinent had been slumbering for centuries, paying scant attention to a world that had changed beyond recognition. It was high time for a splash of cold water. And hot blood.


Chandragupta II Vikramaditya’s Iron Pillar at Mehrauli, with the massive Qutb Minar in the background.  The tallest brick minaret in the world, the Minar was built on the orders of the slave-turned Sultan Qutb-ud-din Aibak.

This article is pivotal to the story of India, because it discusses the genesis of one of the most important aspects of modern Indian identity: Indian Islam, and the first Turkic Sultans in the subcontinent, who are generally blamed for every malaise in our society ranging from caste (“Caste was really a defense mechanism against evil invaders!”) to sati, jauhar and child marriage (“It started as a way to prevent Muslims from stealing Hindu women!”), and most disturbingly, to justify violent and radical Hindutva (“The Sultans did x to my ancestors y years ago, therefore it is acceptable to do the same thing to all Muslims in 2016!”). These arguments, despite being grounded in little to no fact whatsoever, are still broadly accepted by the average Indian, because little to nothing of Indian history of this period is taught in schools (it is too politically incendiary, and as I’ve said on a number of occasions, Indian education is much weaker because of how susceptible it is to political interference). I aim to present an unbiased view of the Muslim invasions and examine both what they contributed to India, and what the Sultans really inflicted.

I think that India was much enriched by its experience with Islam. Though the fruits of that tree were borne in the North primarily under the Great Mughals of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Deccan has had a most fascinating journey with sultans and rajas. The first part of the article discusses how it was that the Turks came to India, and sets this event in a global historical perspective. The second discusses the Sultanate itself. The third discusses the genesis of Indo-Islamic culture under Vijayanagara and the Deccan Sultanates. The fourth is a summary, and anticipates the second Indian Golden Age under the Great Mughals.

‘These Turks are Crazy!’


Turkic cavalry in the 12th century CE

By the end of the 10th century CE, the Abbasid Caliphate, in terminal decline, had lost control of its new Turkic converts. The Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan delivered a stunning blow to the Byzantine Empire, conquering Anatolia and setting it on a course that began the Crusades and eventually extinguished this last remnant of the Romans. Meanwhile, in Persia, ambitious Turkic warlords began to carve out personal fiefdoms for themselves and go on unauthorized raids for plunder and slaves, against infidels as well as fellow Muslims. Of course, all these were “in the name of Islam”, but a simple look at who was raking in the moolah is a pretty clear indicator of motivation. It’s not like the Caliph could do anything about it anyway.

Like with Indian kings, religion merely justified the violence of the state. The state was violent enough even without religion.

“… religion merely justified the violence of the state. The state was violent enough even without religion.”

As North India descended into anarchy thanks to incessant ritual warfare – by which I mean ritualised conquests of neighbouring kingdoms in the name of kingly dharma – a certain Turkish slave-turned-general, by the name of Sabuktigin, unable to make any headway in Persia, decided to bolster his cash reserves with a spot of looting. He found, to his interest, that on his borders were a bunch of Afghan Hindus known as the Shahi dynasty. Over a few years, his highly versatile cavalry archers, well-drilled and hungry for plunder, made quick work of the Shahi’s outdated elephant and ill-equipped infantry formations. His son, Mahmud, an even bloodier-minded man, conquered Lavapura/Lahore, and decided to use it as a base henceforth to mount more plunder expeditions into this unimaginably wealthy land- the land beyond the Sindhu (Indus) River. In Persian, the ‘S’ was rendered as a ‘H’. The land, therefore, was known as Hindustan.


Mahmud of Ghazni listens to Ferdowsi read his Shahnameh. Mahmud’s patronage of this text, one of the most significant cultural artifacts in history, has made him a national hero in Afghanistan.

Mahmud was a mere raider, though his own court account would seem to indicate that he had conquered the entire continent of Asia and purged it of every single Hindu who had ever lived. Yes, it’s undeniable that his raids made his capital, Ghazni, unimaginably wealthy. Yes, the fact that he was fighting against non-Muslims made him a religious hero, in the spirit of the times. Look at Godfrey of Bouillon, the commander of the First Crusade, who is a Christian hero because of his brutal slaughter of every man, woman and child, Jewish and Muslim, who happened to be in Jerusalem when he conquered it.

But there’s an important aspect missing from Mahmud’s claims: namely, the fact that no Indian source makes the slightest mention of him. This could mean two things. Firstly, that we’re horrible historians (no Indian source mentions Alexander the Great, either). Secondly, that Mahmud’s raids didn’t actually make too much of an impression on the subcontinent. It’s probably a combination of the two. Another fact worth mentioning: India may have been Mahmud’s medieval ATM, but the money was spent trying to conquer other Muslim states in Persia.

“..India may have been Mahmud’s medieval ATM, but the money was spent trying to conquer other Muslim states in Persia.”

Mahmud’s death plunged his kingdom into anarchy, and it was two centuries before yet another Turk set his sights on India. By this time, some sort of order had been restored in the North under a loose coalition of Rajput clans under Prithviraja III Chahamana (popularly known as ‘Prithviraj Chauhan’ in modern Hindi).

When Muhammad Ghori, another Turkic adventurer, occupied one of Prithviraja’s frontier forts in the Punjab, Prithviraja immediately assembled an army from his vassals to fight him off. The opposing forces met at a place called Tarain and began an inconclusive day’s combat, in which Ghori learned an important lesson on the effectiveness of Rajput infantry and armoured elephants. By evening, his forces were in full retreat. Prithviraja, foolishly assuming that his opponent fought according to outdated Indian ideals of battle, refused to follow and slaughter the enemy. In any case, the retreat of an army was at the time a token of submission and tribute in the subcontinent. But the Turks had learned their lesson well, and they now knew what they could win for themselves in Hindustan.

By the next year, masses of Turks had flocked to Muhammad’s banner for the promise of loot and plunder. He had spent the year in careful planning, while Prithviraja, confident that he was a rajadhiraja who had conquered all, had been busy enjoying himself. Muhammad proceeded again to Tarain, and an overconfident Prithviraja led his troops there. (Barely any allies?  Prithviraja’s earlier warmongering had made him a political pariah among the Rajputs.) The night before battle was expected to be joined, the Indians were shocked to find the Turks had broken all Hindu battle codes and attacked before sunrise. In confusion, they attempted to strike back with heavy infantry and elephants, but the Turkish cavalry archer lines dissolved like water and reformed out of range, showering the Indians with deadly arrows the whole time. As the sun rose to a sweltering height, the Rajputs were gradually exhausted and infuriated by an enemy that refused to engage. Then, just as their morale began to waver, Muhammad ordered his cavalry in for the killing blow.


The collapse of the Rajput center at the Second Battle of Tarain, 1192. Muhammad’s victory signalled the beginning of a new era in Indian and by extension, global history.

At sunset, the thoroughly demoralised Rajputs expected quarter. The Turks gave none. Muhammad himself led a heavy cavalry division into the Rajput center. At last they broke and fled, hoping to save their lives with this act of submission.

Unfortunately, the world did not (and does not) work according to the laws of the Mahabharata.

“Unfortunately, the world did not (and does not) work according to the laws of the Mahabharata.”

The slaughter continued through the night and ended with the complete annihilation of Prithviraja’s kingdom and his own death. But, instead of looting and departing, Muhammad decided instead to fill in the political vacuum he had helped create, and headed to the great city of Delhi. Thus was the Delhi Sultanate established.

The Slaves who would be Sultan

Let’s zoom out a bit and try to look at the broad trends that characterised the subcontinent’s longest-lasting (yet) engagement with Islam. The first aspect I’d like to look at is military/political. The Turks’ cavalry archers, no-rules, no-holds-barred conquest of the North was unabashedly brutal, but efficient. Within a century, despite hard-fought native resistance, the Turks had overrun most of North India, from Multan to Bengal. Their armies were composed of men enslaved from across the world and purchased by Sultans, and therefore loyal only to them. The first ‘dynasty’ of the Sultanate, in fact, were all slaves of the preceding Sultan, until the Forty Nobles of the Sultanate took over after the vizierate and coup of one Ghiyas-ud-din Balban.


Hulagu Khan’s siege of Baghdad.

Under Sultan Balban, Delhi’s carefully planned border forts, diplomatic ties to other states, and state-of-the-art cavalry were able to successfully repel the Mongols under Hulagu Khan, who had destroyed Baghdad and made the Tigris river flow red with blood and black with ink. (The Delhi Sultanate of India, and the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, were practically the only states of the time to actually beat off a Mongol conquest: no mean achievement, as the Mongols were the greatest and most brutal empire of the day, causing rulers to tremble in their boots from China to Hungary, and even attacking Moscow in the winter- the only military force to ever launch a successful winter invasion of Russia.) This allowed the subcontinent a period of peace to rebuild its economy and laid the foundation for the Sultanate’s military superiority over the ageing Hindu kingdoms of the south.

The violence of the Sultanate is undeniable; but it was quite in keeping with the general brutality of the Middle Ages, especially when religion was used as a scapegoat. Broadly, Sultans did indeed sack temples and so on to fund their military but they were perfectly willing to intermarry and ally with native rulers. Especially in the South, tolerance became a de facto way of life within a couple of generations for Turks in their new native land. It makes more sense to say that the Sultans were all rapacious and greedy than to say they were all bigots.

” It makes more sense to say that the Sultans were all rapacious and greedy than to say they were all bigots.”

Another interesting tale is that of Sultana Razia, one of the very few female rulers of a major state in the Middle Ages. The daughter of the slave Sultan Iltutmish, whose eldest son and heir had been killed by the Mongols, plunging Iltutmish into a terminal depression, Razia was a brilliant ruler who would certainly have had an easier time of ruling had she been male. Her fiery spirit refused to be confined to the harem, as was expected, and she was able to gather enough support at court to be appointed Iltutmish’s successor. She was quite indulgent of the religious practices of her Hindu subjects, and openly carried out an affair with an Ethiopian slave of hers. These two proved to be the nails in her coffin, as her racist, intolerant nobles called for a civil war, which ended finally in her death, and the installation of her younger brother as a puppet Sultan.

The Turkic nobles in general were absurdly resentful of the authority of any Sultan and ensured the Sultanate never centralised for beyond a decade or two. The Delhi Sultanate suffered a great deal as a result of the conflict between nobility and monarchy, which led on multiple occasions to the unceremonious murder and replacement of a reigning Sultan. However, this was not always a bad thing, as it was precisely that sort of uncivil disobedience which enabled the brilliant general Alau-ud-din Khilji to come to the throne.

The Rajput clans had fought for decades but were subdued at last by Alau-ud-din. His ambush of, and vassalisation of, the Seuna Yadava kings of Devagiri provided the Sultanate with its first foothold in the Deccan. From here, Alau-ud-din dispatched armies under his slave, one Malik Kafur, into the deep South.


A victorious Turkic army.


The stunningly elaborate temple at Dwarasamudra. Persevering with its construction despite knowledge of Muslim invasions is an eloquent example of how kings had begun to focus on cultivating the symbols of power, instead of power itself. The successors of the Hoysalas did not make the same mistake.

Malik Kafur, born a Hindu, had been castrated and eventually came into the service of the Sultanate at the cost of a thousand dinars (hence his nickname, Thousand-Dinar-Kafur). A general in the same league as his master Alau-ud-din Khilji, Kafur’s expeditions in the south had a significant and lasting impact. He defeated the Hoysala Kingdom of Karnataka (where the blissfully clueless kings had been pumping money for nearly 200 years into the great temple at Halebidu/Dwarasamudra, still unfinished to the point where Kafur arrived and burned down the neighbouring royal palace), and wiped out the older Hindu kingdoms of Tamil Nadu. When he received news of Alau-ud-din’s death, Kafur pulled out of the South to (unsuccessfully) play kingmaker in Delhi (he died), leaving a political vaccum which was filled by interesting new states, one of which was a great new Hindu empire. This empire’s interaction with the neighbouring Bahmani sultans of Northern Karnataka and Maharashtra set the Deccan on a very interesting historical trajectory. More on that later!

The second aspect is intellectual. Delhi’s original Turkic rulers were barbaric even by the admittedly low standards of the Middle Ages. An interesting example: the general Bhaktiyar Khilji, leading a raid on behalf of the Sultans into Bengal, came upon a massive complex of buildings surrounded by a wall. There was a mob of peasants outside who attempted to fight him off, and were quickly slaughtered without much effort. Inside were a number of men with clean-shaved heads, dressed in saffron. Khilji reasoned that, as these men wore uniforms and their citadel had been defended,  it must be a fort. Being unable to talk to them, read, or write, he ordered the walls smashed, the men slaughtered, and the buildings looted. But to his surprise, all that he found in the buildings were palm leaves with strange scribblings on them. Even more surprising, the men didn’t even resist his soldiers but died quietly. The furious Khilji ordered the entire complex to be set on fire. It burned for weeks.

“Being unable to talk to them, read, or write, he ordered the walls smashed, the men slaughtered, and the buildings looted… It burned for weeks.”

That was the end of Nalanda University– founded by the Gupta emperors of India’s long-forgotten Golden Age. An institution that had imparted learning to students from across the world for hundreds of years ended at the hands of barbarians who could not even comprehend what “learning” was.

But don’t get me wrong: Nalanda’s destruction was indeed a disaster, but on the whole, the Sultans actually renewed the intellectual life of the subcontinent. Once the Indians got over the initial daze of the first successful barbarian conquest in centuries, Hinduism again changed to accommodate new traditions. In both North and South, Hindu and other rulers realised that their older traditions were untenable, and shifted to a more militaristic and realistic sort of state, more in the spirit of the times.

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The tireless Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta. Among the many, many other roles he filled, he served as a judge in the Delhi Sultanate under Muhammad bin Tughlaq.

The re-establishment of India’s trading connections with the West, now controlled by Muslims, allowed Persian intellectuals to find service in the subcontinent, bringing the Islamic world’s greatest advances in administration and military organisation into play. Religious tolerance, however, was not yet at the sublime level that India was to experience under the Mughals.

The third aspect is economic: as I said, India was dragged kicking and screaming, as it were, into the Middle Ages, and re-entered global trade. The Deccan especially, under the new sorts of Indian states, became highly prosperous and populous. Some Sultans, such as the mad genius Muhammad bin Tughlaq, experimented with leather currency; Alau-ud-din Khilji experimented with price controls in Delhi. However, as the power of the Sultans declined, the North split into a number of smaller Sultanates, with Malwa and Gujarat, for example, becoming independent. Afghan and Turkic nobles vied for power; the South, happy and prosperous, took little interest in the affairs of the North. The last great steppe conqueror, Amir Timur-i-Lenk (“Timur the Lame”, or Tamerlane), who by this time controlled most of Persia and was acknowledged as the world’s pre-eminent Muslim ruler, defeated the Tughlaq dynasty and brutally sacked Delhi. The Sultanate became a shadow of its former self, but Delhi’s days of glory were far from done. And, in a strange twist of fate, it was the descendants of Timur who would restore it. Remember that, now.

The City of Victory

After the death of Alau-ud-din Khilji and the withdrawal of Malik Kafur, a set of extraordinary men decided to take advantage of the political vaccum in the south. One of them, Alau-ud-din Bahman Shah, set up the great Bahmani Sultanate in Maharashtra and Telangana. Another pair, Harihara and Bukka Sangama Raya, former vassals of the vanquished Hoysala dynasty, constructed a new capital to rule the middle and deep South. In Orissa, the Gajapati (“Lord of the Elephants”) kings began to experiment with a new sort of state, in contest with the Sangama brothers.


The great temple of Vittala at Vijayanagar.

Let’s talk about the Sangama dynasty and the great empire they established, which I absolutely adore. I spent days exploring the ruins of the capital city, now known as Hampi, which is a pity, considering its true name is so awesome: Vijayanagara, the City of Victory!

The Vijayanagara empire, hegemon of the South, progenitor of the identity of the modern states of Karnataka and Andhra, the most powerful Hindu state since the Rashtrakutas, is often portrayed as the heroic protector of defenceless Hindus against villainous Muslims. I find that highly annoying. Firstly, Hindus were not defenceless, nor were Muslims villainous. Secondly, and this is from my personal experience: next to the ruins of the great imperial palace in Hampi is a relatively intact building. Know what it is? A mosque for the emperors’ elite Muslim troops. Next to the imperial palace. Ten minutes’ walk from the great Hazara Rama temple.

Vijayanagara’s rule of the South was feudal like no Indian state before it, but very similar indeed to its Muslim neighbours. Unlike earlier Indian kings, such as Harsha or Samudra-Gupta, the emperors of Vijayanagar would not vassalise defeated kings but conquer and administer outright, using a new feudal class loyal to the emperor alone, akin to Sultanic conquests. These nayakas, or feudal lords, were responsible for local administration, taxation, and the raising of troops. Even after the fall of Vijayanagara, the nayaks played an important role in the subcontinent, often forming the core of new local aristocracies. The modern metropolis of Chennai, for example, was named by the Telugu ruler Damarla Chennappa Nayakudu, a nayaka in the service of Vijayanagara.


India in 1500 AD, prior to the conquests of Krishna Deva Raya.

Vijayanagar’s control of both of South India’s coastlines quickly powered it to the status of an economic powerhouse, thriving on spices, gold and perfume. It imported rudimentary gunpower weaponry from the Portuguese and quality horses from Arabia, as did the Bahmani Sultanate to its north. The rivalry between Vijayanagar and the Sultanates is fascinating to observe, with the better-equipped Sultans generally having the upper hand, and Vijayanagar playing a game of catch-up until the reign of the brilliant emperor Krishna Deva Raya, patron of Telugu poetry and culture, and of the great temple complex at Tirumala (a statue of the emperor and his wives, donated to the temple, stands there to this day. Seen it!). Krishna smashed the Sultans and the Gajapati kings of Orissa, extending his rule north along the coastline of Andhra by 1530. As the Bahmanis splintered into the five smaller sultanates of Bidar, Berar, Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golkonda, Vijayanagar exploited their rivalries to maintain its hegemony of the South.


The thoroughfare outside the Vittala temple at Hampi.

The city of Vijayanagar at its peak was a wonder. The size of some of its ruins at Hampi is stupefying, and Hampi is merely the Royal and Sacred Centres of the city: the innermost of its seven walls. The city dwarfed Paris and was the largest and most populated city of its time, exceeded only by Peking in China. Great parks and markets, the raging river Tungabhadra; the ancient rocks of the Deccan; the thriving masses of people from across the world; the sacrifices; the gold! At the great temple of Vittala Krishna, I saw how reflecting pools and strategically carved roofs were used to keep the interiors of the temple bright and well ventilated. I struck with my own palms a stone pillar acoustically engineered to sound like a drum (supposedly, the queens would dance to the music of an orchestra beating on such pillars). I saw delicate paint on stones carved hundreds of years ago; I saw the influence of Dravidian and even Saracenic architecture on the watchtowers and the domes and arches of what buildings are still standing. I saw people taking selfies at temples that their ancestors would have worshipped at; I heard tales, half-myth, half-history, of Vijayanagar having been the abode of the monkey Vanaras of the Ramayana, and read carvings and stories narrating the actions of the god-hero Rama on the walls of the temples. I stood on the massive platform used for imperial coronations and great sacrifices and watched the ruined aqueducts of the palace; I stood in the immense avenues of the abandoned markets, and I could almost feel the city, still alive, merely slumbering.

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Okay! I’m back. As I was saying, some elements of Vijayanagar’s ruling class were able to maintain an iron grip on the state, by engineering succession crises and regencies, and keeping the Deccan Sultanates at each other’s throats, but it couldn’t last. A series of massive insurrections in the deep South eroded the empire’s economic foundation; the excellent Kapilendra Gajapati Raju of Orissa conquered the bountiful coastal lands of Andhra from the empire; and the succession of a series of weak and inefficient rulers left the centre in chaos. Eventually the Deccan Sultanates realised that Vijayanagar would not leave them in peace and formed a coalition to destroy it. With the military sapped by the wars with Orissa, the regent was unable to put up a solid defence, and was captured and killed at the Battle of Talikota in 1565. The nayaka feudal lords no longer owed any allegiance to the state, and ordered Vijayanagar evacuated without even trying to fight. Nayaka troops, and fleeing citizens, cleared out the city almost before the Sultanate armies arrived. Did the Sultans sack and destroy the city? I doubt that, if the Sultans were really as bigoted as some textbooks make them out to be, they would have left any temples standing (which is not the case). Either way, by the time the British rediscovered the ruins hundreds of years later, the local people had forgotten all about their glorious past, in truly Indian style.

Prelude to the Great Mughals


A Mughal oil painting of Babur reading. Babur is one of history’s most interesting authors, a man a great perseverance and honest about his failings. A shrewd leader, he understood the importance of religion and showmanship in inspiring his soldiers.

Remember Timur? His sons and grandsons tore apart their inheritance with dynastic squabbling in the centuries after his death. Northern Persia and central Asia were ruled by minor ‘Timurid’ princes, each the ruler of little more than a city or two. One of these princes was named Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur. Over the course of a most interesting life, Babur conquered and lost his ancestor Timur’s capital of Samarkand a number of times, was defeated by the Uzbek ruler Shaibani Khan, considered converting to Shia Islam as a vassal of Shah Isma’il Safavid (who claimed to be the reincarnated Twelfth Imam, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali. Isma’il is primarily responsible for turning Persia/Iran into the Shi’a state it is today). Unable to make any sort of footprint in Central Asia, Babur luckily managed to inherit the kingdom of Kabul in Afghanistan, importing quality guns and cannon from the Ottoman Empire, rapidly ascending to be the most powerful state in the West under Sultan Selim the Stern and his son, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Babur, like many invaders before him, had heard a great deal of the wealth of Hindustan. He had heard of a great kingdom called Besnagar (‘Vijayanagar’) with a king who commanded armies of hundreds of thousands (yep, Krishna Deva Raya!). More importantly, he knew that the Muslim Sultans of Delhi had been defeated by his ancestor Timur, and argued that this gave him claim to suzerainty over Hindustan. This radical and potentially highly lucrative idea attracted an army to him, which he disciplined and trained into a lethal force. Blooding them with a few raids into the Punjab, Babur headed to Delhi, and destiny.

“Babur headed to Delhi, and destiny.”

What was the state of our subcontinent on the eve of Babur’s invasion? In the North, the Sultans had demolished the petty principalities, unified kingdoms, defeated the Mongols, and re-established foreign trade – with a new, Muslim dominated global community –  before turning inward and decaying. Sufi Islam had begun to take its tentative first steps. In the South, prosperous and multicultural new states had learnt interesting lessons from Islam, and administration and military techniques were the better for it. But Hinduism and Islam were yet to fuse: they were yet to contribute to a greater and broader sense of Indian-ness, they did not yet understand each other. All that was needed was a little push. And Babur and his descendants, the heirs of the destroyers Genghis Khan and Amir Timur-i-lenk, were the strange vessels upon whom this task fell.

Coming up in my next article: What does it mean to be Indian? The extraordinary legacy of the Great Mughals, and the genesis of modern Indian identity.

Prequel: Indian Sunset, Crescent Moonrise


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