Delhi Sultanate Research Paper

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In 1192, the Turkic ruler Muhammad of Ghor established the Delhi sultanate, a state that brought Islam and Muslim culture to the northern Indian subcontinent. The combined Hindu and Muslim influences inspired a new culture that laid the groundwork for the achievements of the Mughal Empire, which replaced the Delhi sultanate in 1526.

The Delhi sultanate (1192–1526) was established with the victory of Muhammed of Ghor (d. 1206), a Turkic ruler, over the Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan, the ruler of Ajmer and Delhi; it represented the emergence of a ruling power that was not indigenous to the region. A new religion (Islam) and culture began to pervade the northern portion of the Indian subcontinent as the Delhi sultanate came to control major areas of present-day India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Gradually, Indian culture, which was pluralistic in nature, was enriched by this new cultural infusion. It would be wrong, however, to think of the period of rule by the Delhi sultans as a period of Muslim rule, as categorizing historical periods according to the ruler’s religion is against historical norms; and in any case the whole of the Indian subcontinent was never controlled by the sultans.


The lure of wealth, religious zeal, and a desire for territorial aggrandizement were factors behind the Turkic conquest from Central Asia. The Turks’ advanced military technology, lack of unity among the regional powers, prevailing social tensions, and the apathetic attitude of the common folk facilitated the Turkic conquest. Muhammad of Ghor was succeeded by his slave and general, Qutb-ud-Din Aybak (d. 1210), and because a number of former slaves ruled during the period 1206 to 1290, this period is sometimes called the slave dynasty, though in reality no sultan was a slave at the time he became ruler, and there were actually three dynasties during this period (1206–1290).

Under the third sultan, Iltutmish (reigned 1211– 1236), a permanent capital was established at Delhi; he also expanded the territory controlled by the sultanate. Iltutmish bequeathed a strong form of military despotism to his successors. Raziya Sultana, his worthy daughter and the first Muslim woman ruler of India, became embroiled in the conspiracy of the Group of Forty, a group of Turkic nobles who wished to control the throne. The latter held sway until the coming of Ghiyas-ud-Din Balban (reigned 1266–1287), who destroyed the Forty ruthlessly, strengthened the army, and suppressed any form of dissent.

The establishment of the Khalji dynasty marked the beginning of the ascendancy of Indian (as opposed to Turkic) Muslims. The most important ruler of the dynasty, ‘Ala’-ud-Din Khalji (reigned 1296– 1316) extended the boundary of Delhi sultanate into southern India. His market reforms, taxation policy, and military administration earned him recognition as one of the efficient rulers of the period. By contrast, the ill-fated experiments of one ruler of the Tughluq dynasty, Muhammad ibn Tughluq (reigned 1325–1351), included an attempt to shift the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad and the introduction of token currency—copper coins, which the sultan made legal tender. Although without intrinsic value, their value was kept par with gold and silver coins. These experiments brought misery to his subjects.

The Mongol chief Timur (1336–1405) invaded Delhi in 1398, leaving a trail of devastation and weakening the sultanate. The Delhi sultanate was finally overthrown by Babur (1483–1530), founder of India’s Mughal Empire (1526–1857), at the first battle of Panipat in 1526.

Administration and Culture

In the beginning, the Delhi sultanate was divided into units called iqtas. The owner (iqatadar) of each iqta collected revenue and supplied army contingents to the sultan. The iqatadars became hereditary owners, and abuses crept into the system. Later, a different administrative setup came into being, with the sultan at its leader. The sultan was head of the state and enjoyed absolute power. The sultan’s vizier was the prime minister, and there were several different ministries. Religious scholars enjoyed special privileges, and Hindus, as non-Muslims, had to pay a special tax. Despite that burden, the Hindu upper classes led a comfortable life. Although there were conflicts between the Hindu and Muslim ruling elites, common people of both religions lived in harmony, and the aristocracy enjoyed a life of luxury. There was growth of urban centers, and the volume of trade with western Asia, Southeast Asia, and China increased. The sultanate was very much a part of international trade, and Muslim traders from the region helped spread a liberal brand of Islam to Southeast Asia.

The Delhi sultanate oversaw the flourishing of a new cultural era. A new style of architecture emerged that incorporated both Hindu and Muslim motifs. Notable contribution of the Delhi sultans to architecture include the Quwat-ul-Islam mosque, the Qutab Minar, the Siri fort, Alai Darwaza, the cities of Tughluqabad and Firuzabad, and the tomb of Firuz Shah Tughluq (reigned 1351–1388). Nor did the art of painting die out; it was at home in the murals, painted textiles, and manuscripts of the period. Music was patronized by some sultans and provincial rulers; the most important figure in Indian music during this period, also considered one of India’s greatest Persianlanguage poets, was Amir Khusrau (1253–1325). Credit goes to him for introducing several forms of singing and new ragas. Linguistically, amalgamation of dialects of Hindi and Persian resulted in the beginning of the Urdu language. The contemporary historical writings of Minhaj-us-Siraj, Amir Khusrau, Ziauddin Barani, Shams Siraj Afif, and Yahya bin Ahmad Sirhindi are important source materials for studying different aspects of the Delhi sultanate.

The Sufi(Islamic) and bhakti (Hindu devotional) saints of the period dedicated themselves to the cause of humanity and emphasized the cooperation between the two religious communities. Both preached equality and were against rituals and a caste-based social system. Bhakti saints such as Kabir (1440–1518) and Caitanya (1485–1533) stressed the union of the individual with God through acts of devotion. This period also saw the establishment of a new religion, Sikhism, formalized by Guru Nanak (1469–1539). The Sufireligious mystics offered a common meeting ground for Muslims and non-Muslims. Striving for Hindu-Muslim unity, they created a liberal atmosphere. Their tombs still attract people of both religions.

In sum, the period of the Delhi sultanate was important for Indian history, culture, and society. The new composite culture that began to emerge laid the groundwork for the cultural achievements of the Mughal period.


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