The remarkable Delhi Sultanate

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


July 8, 2022

Delhi Sultanate is one of those rare phenomena that changed the course of history. Delhi Sultanate was the first Muslim bastion in India that laid the foundations of Muslim rule in the subcontinent that was to endure for centuries. In the tenth century the Turks emerged as a powerful force in Central and West Asia and carved out kingdoms for themselves. The Turks first invaded India during the late tenth and early eleventh century and Punjab came under Turkish rule. Another series of Turkish invasions in the late twelfth and thirteenth century led to the establishment of the Sultanate of Delhi. The establishment of the Sultanate marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of medieval India. Politically it led to the unification of northern India and parts of the Deccan for almost a century. With the advent of the Sultanate, it created in the society new social groups – the Turks, the Persians, the Mongols and the Afghans besides the Arabs, who ultimately settled in India. There were important changes in economic life also. Trade and crafts received a stimulus and many new towns arose as centers of administration, trade and crafts. New elements of technology were also introduced during this period.

After consolidating their position in India the Delhi Sultans introduced reforms in the land revenue administration. The lands were classified into three categories: Iqta land – lands assigned to officials as iqtas instead of payment for their services; Khalisa land – land under the direct control of the Sultan and the revenues collected were spent for the maintenance of royal court and royal household and Inam land and assigned or granted to religious leaders or religious institutions. A class of smaller landlords and autonomous rulers emerged, who enjoyed a higher standard of life and brought prosperity to their environs. There were more areas brought under cultivation increasing the income of the peasant as well as filling in the coffers of the Sultanate. Sultans took efforts to enhance agricultural production by providing irrigational facilities and by providing taqavi loans. They also encouraged the farmers to cultivate superior crop like wheat instead of barley. The Sultan and his nobles took keen interest in improving the quality of fruits in India, especially melons and grapes.

During the Sultanate period, the process of urbanisation gained momentum. A number of cities and towns had grown during this period and Delhi remained the largest city of the Sultanate. The growth of trade and commerce was phenomenal as large number of commodities were exported to the countries on the Persian Gulf and West Asia and also to South East Asian countries. Construction of roads and their maintenance were facilitated for smooth transport and communication and particularly, the royal roads were kept in good shape. There were also arrangements for posts to be carried very quickly from one part of the country to another with the help of relays of horses and runners who were posted every few kilometres.

Cotton textile and silk industry flourished in this period. Sericulture was introduced on a large scale, which made India less dependent on other countries for the import of raw silk. The paper industry had grown and there was an extensive use of paper from 14th and 15th centuries. Other crafts like leather-making, metal-crafts and carpet-weaving flourished due to the increasing demand. The royal karkhanas supplied the goods needed to the Sultan and his household. They manufactured costly articles made of gold and silver ware. The nobles also shaped the lifestyle of the Sultans and indulged in luxurious living. They were well paid and accumulated enormous wealth.

At the apex of the Sultanate was the Sultan who was well-served by a strong nobility. However, throughout the rule of Delhi Sultanate, the Sultan was obliged to keep the nobility under his executive control so as to guard his sovereign domination. Sultans of Delhi were treated as the supreme executive authority in the Sultanate and they declared themselves as lieutenants of the faithful implying that they paid their allegiance to the Abbasid caliph at Baghdad and included his name in the khutba in the Friday prayers and by doing so the sultans proclaimed that they were a part of the wider Islamic world. The sultan’s office was the most important in the Sultanate as supreme political, military and even legal authority, was vested in him. He was responsible for administration and was also the commander-in-chief of the military forces. He was also responsible for the maintenance of law and justice and to discharge this function, he appointed judges but acted as a court of appeal from the judges.

It was a consistent difficulty with the Sultanate that there existed no clear law of succession within its ranks as Islamic theory adhered to the idea of the election of the ruler but accepted in practice the succession of any son of a successful ruler. However, all the sons of a ruler were considered to have an equal claim to the throne. The idea of primogeniture was fully acceptable neither to the Muslims though some rulers did try to nominate one of the sons, not necessarily the eldest, as the successor. It, however, was for the nobles to accept such a nomination and though the Muslim opinion generally adhered to the idea of legitimacy, there was no safeguard against the usurpation of the throne by a successful military leader, as happened more than once in the Delhi Sultanate. It was therefore very clear that military strength was the main factor in succession to the throne and this factor repeatedly played its role in succession matters.

The Sultanate and his chief nobles enjoyed a standard of living which was comparable to the highest standard in the world at that time and the opulence and wealth of the ruling classes in the Sultanate was dazzling and set a standard which the ruling classes in every country tried to emulate. The ruling class built their own luxurious homes and the palaces of the Sultans were out of the ordinary and fascinated people. The palace of Muhammad Tughlaq has been described by Ibn Batuta by mentioning that a person who wanted to visit the sultan had to pass through three lofty gates which were heavily guarded. He then entered the court of thousand pillars which was a huge hall supported by polished wooden pillars and was decorated with all kinds of costly materials and furnishings. This was the place where the sultan held his public court.

They also organised highly glitzy courts and they were designed to impress and strike a sense of awe in the hearts of the visitors. The court life was highly regimented and strict decorum was observed while the Sultan held his audiences there. The Sultans spent large amounts to keep his courtiers in good humour and in this connection it was known that many Sultans presented 200,000 robes every year. These robes, woven in the royal workshops, generally consisted of imported cloth-velvet, damask or wool on which brocade and costly materials were used. There is hardly any doubt that the royal offices of finance incurred huge amounts to defray the costs of such extravagance. In addition, numerous gifts used to be bestowed on the nobles and others on festive occasions such as the sultan’s birthday, the fabled Persian New Year known as the Nauroz along with the annual celebration of the Sultan’s coronation. TW


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