Enjoying the privilege of a being a capital of diverse dynasties, Delhi, has evolved as a museum showcasing the royalty of the ruling elite's and their monumental heritage.

Indian State History

India - Delhi - The Khiljis

The Khiljis

The job of founding Delhi’s first dynasty was left to the Khaljis, who came to power in 1290. The Khaljis were an Afghan family and they used their descent to win over the loyalty of the Afghan nobles who’d felt rather left out under the overwhelmingly Turkish rule till then. The Khaljis were also in favor of giving high offices to Indian Muslims, effectively reversing the policy of Balban who seemed to have believed that the divine right to govern was vested in the Turks alone.

¤ Jalal-ud-din Feroze Khalji--The Founder of The Dynasty
The new dynasty too had to cut its teeth on rebellions and campaigns against the Rajputs and Mongols. Jalal-ud-din Feroze Khalji, the founder of the dynasty, was almost senile by the time he ascended the throne. Though a powerful military general, he suddenly decided to follow the path of peace after being crowned. He refused to shed blood under any circumstances; political expediency be damned. Even criminals, thugs and rebels could not escape his mercy.

¤ Ala-ud-din Khalji

Fortunately, the aged sultan had an extremely ambitious nephew (and son-in-law), Ala-ud-din Khalji, who had campaigned in eastern India and the Deccan with great success. When Ala-ud-din set out to take the city of Devagiri (under Yadava rule) in 1296 with just 18,000 horsemen, he gave out that he was dissatisfied with his uncle and was going south to offer his services to any Hindu ruler who was interested. As a result no one offered him any resistance on the way. When he entered the boundaries of Devagiri, the Yadava king Raja Rama Chandra belatedly woke up and decided to offer some resistance. Ala-ud-din had cleverly timed his visit with a campaign that the Devagiri army was fighting further south so the king had to capitulate and pay a vast amount of gold to Ala-ud-din as part of the treaty.

When Ala-ud-din returned to Delhi, the first thing he did was to have Jalal-ud-din assassinated and crown himself Sultan. The reign of Ala-ud-din marks the highest point of the Sultanate’s political power, both in terms of the area of the kingdom and the power wielded by the Sultan.

¤ The False Play of Ala-ud-din

However when Ala-ud-din ascended the throne he wouldn’t have won any popularity contests in Delhi. He had outraged the citizens’ sense of fairplay and justice by the shocking manner in which he disposed of his uncle. As Ala-ud-din began his march home from the south, Jalal-ud-din’s well-wishers tried to warn him of his scheming nephew. However the old Sultan wouldn’t hear a word against him and was keen to welcome Ala-ud-din back from the south. Meanwhile, Ala-ud-din sent his brother Ulugh Khan to the Sultan with the message that since he had undertaken the south expedition without Jalal-ud-din’s consent he was scared to present himself at court. Ulugh Khan cleverly hinted that Ala-ud-din had brought a vast amount of gold to placate the old ruler. Much moved, Jalal-ud-din himself went across the river Ganga to bring his nephew back into the family fold. There Ala-ud-din, following Judas’s dubious example, embraced the Sultan and then ordered his head be cut off.

The nobility and the people of Delhi had always been at odds but they saw eye-to-eye on the assassination of the benign old Jalal-ud-din. They agreed that it was one of basest murders they had ever seen and mind you, the people of Delhi had seen a lot. Ala-ud-din won back the nobility and his people by way of gold. On his way back to Delhi the new Sultan scattered coins of gold and silver along the way. The same strategy won over the army too. By October 3, 1296, Ala-ud-din was proclaimed sultan of Delhi by popular demand. Those who were still opposed to Ala-ud-din saw a very different face of this gift-bearing Santa Claus – the gritty, calculating and cold-blooded side. He crushed the powerful lobby of the Jalali nobles who were opposed to him with clinical ruthlessness.

¤ Zafar Khan--A Ingenious General

One of Ala-ud-din’s greatest successes was that he rid India of the Mongolmenace permanently. The never-say-die Mongols attacked India several times during his reign. They started out soon after the coronation of Ala-ud-din early in 1296. However the new sultan proved to be equal to the crisis – he simply thrived on such perils. His trump card was his extremely shrewd and remarkably ingenious general Zafar Khan, who was something of a legend in his own lifetime. Such was his reputation that even the intrepid Mongols revered him. There’s a story that when their thirsty horses refused water the Mongols used to urge them on by asking, ‘if they had seen Zafar Khan’, implying that the animals were too frightened of the general to drink water in front of him. The first invasion of the Mongols was an abysmal failure with Zafar Khan almost grinding them into the dust.

¤ Mongols Were Successfully Defeated

It says much for the tenacious Mongol spirit that they were back the very next year and in such strength that they took over the fort of Siri, just beyond Delhi, which Ala-ud-din had built. This time they came under a leader who was a legend in his own right, Qutlugh Khwaja, the feared Central Asian warrior now commanding a force of 2,00,000 Mongols. Ala-ud-din realized that the Mongols meant business. If Qutlugh Khwaja had come himself it meant war, not for gold but for the kingdom itself.

Tomb of Alauddin KhiljiThe situation was serious enough for the usually individualistic Ala-ud-din to be forced into take advise from others. Ala-ud-din was urged to sue for peace as Qutlugh was virtually wiping his feet at the doorsteps of Delhi.

However Ala-ud-din did not become the sultan by playing it safe. Qutlugh hadn’t reckoned with the audacious, rather maverick, devil-may-care spirit that made Ala-ud-din a great man and a greater leader. Machiavellian no doubt, and also somewhat malevolent, but a great sultan nevertheless. Ignoring all well-meaning advice the young sultan attacked the Mongols. The advance guard of the army was led by Zafar Khan himself. He defeated the Mongols again and went off in hot pursuit of them as they withdrew. However, the wily Qutlugh tricked Zafar into a position where he was first surrounded and then killed by the Mongols. Ala-ud-din took this loss calmly – Zafar Khan had been entirely too popular for his comfort anyway. However, the death of the general did not improve matters for the Mongols. In face of Ala-ud-din’s continued offensives, they had to retreat to the unconquerable heights from where they had come.

The Mongols took, what was for them, a long time to rally from this setback. They attacked at the worst time possible for Ala-ud-din – when he was busy laying siege to Chittor. This time the Mongols travelled light. An army of 12,000 under Targhi’s leadership trickled into India like a shadow and moved to Delhi at a pace that was astonishing even by Mongol standards. Such was the swiftness of the attack that many governors could not send their troops to Delhi in time.

Ala-ud-din was forced to duck into Siri and stay put for about two months. The Mongols stomped through and pillaged not only the surrounding areas, but Delhi itself. However they could not get into Siri. Although minor skirmishes were fought, a decisive win eluded both parties. This deadlock dragged on for more than a couple of months. In the end when Ala-ud-din must have been rolling his eyes to heaven and fervently hoping for a miracle to help him, his prayers were answered.

The Mongols were a nomadic restless lot, and Targhi was more impatient than most of them. When Ala-ud-din dug in his heels and stayed put in his seemingly impregnable fortress for months, Targhi lost interest in the whole affair, washed his hands of it and ordered his army to withdraw.

Barani, the contemporary historian at that time, attributed this ‘marvel’ to the prayers of the Sufi mystic Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya. However if one looks closely, other, more earthly, reasons emerge. Ala-ud-din’s defences were so strong and enduring that the whole situation had really become quite an impasse. He wisely realized that the Mongols could not hold out forever and had to go home to Central Asia some time. That was where the Mongol power was concentrated and they could not afford to be away for too long.

Targhi had to go back with the consolation that he was leaving behind a much disturbed and thoughtful Ala-ud-din. The seriousness of the Qutlugh Khwaja and Targhi led Mongol invasions which had left Siri panting for breath. They forced Ala-ud-din to take stock of the situation. A defensive measure like hiding in Siri till the Mongol storm blew over must have gashed his proud spirit. He had the forts along the border strengthened and equipped with larger garrisons. New, more effective fortifications were built along this area. A whole new army, with its own special governor, was created whose portfolio was managing and guarding the border areas.

Despite these measures, the Mongols under the leadership of Ali Beg and Tartaq, suddenly appeared in Punjab and the neighbourhood of Amroha. The Mongols plundered Punjab and burnt everything to cinders along the way.

But this time Ala-ud-din was ready for them. He sent a strong army led by two of his toughest generals Ghazi Malik (watch out for more on him) and the famous ‘evil genius of the sultan’ Malik Kafur after them. They surprised the Mongols on their way back to Central Asia with their plunder. The two generals pooled in their immense talents and defeated the Mongols. The Mongol generals were captured and brought back to Siri, along with other prisoners. Ala-ud-din had the generals trampled to death by elephants while the other prisoners were put to death and their heads hung from the walls of the fort.

However the Mongols must have had stomachs of cast iron. Even after the gory treatment meted out to their last expedition, they came in again in 1306. They crossed the Indus near Multan and were moving towards the Himalayas, when Ghazi Malik (who was by then the governor of Punjab) intercepted them. About 50,000 Mongols were made prisoners including Kubak, their leader. Ala-ud-din put them all to death and sold their wives and children as slaves. The last Mongol invasion took place in 1307-8 under Iqbalmand. He had just about managed to cross the Indus when Ala-ud-din’s armies overtook them and put them all to the sword.

¤ Mongols Never Attack India Again

After 1308, the Mongols did not attack India again. There were a number of reasons for this. Principal among these was of course that Ala-ud-din, by repeated ruthlessness, finally managed to drive home the point that he would deal firmly and mercilessly with invaders into his territory. This was one of the greatest achievements of Ala-ud-din Khalji. Only a king of who was as original a thinker and brilliant a strategist as the Mongols could have reined them in. If the Mongols had still been serious about an Indian empire, they could have kept sending armies to India till the cows came home. It is to Ala-ud-din’s credit that he drove the idea of an Indian empire from the heads of the tough, never-say-die Mongols.

Like any good military strategist, Ala-ud-din thought that the only way to get the Mongols really off his back was to attack them where it hurt the most – he sent plundering armies under the veteran general Ghazi Malik to Kandhar, Ghazni and Kabul. The Mongols were already so much in awe of him that they did not even bother to defend their own territories against him. These offensives effectively crippled the Mongol line of control leading to India.

¤ Ala-ud-din - A Successful Military Person

Ala-ud-din has gone down in history as a king known for his militarism. This was of course because his frontier problems forced him to maintain a large army, which had to be kept constantly busy. Once the border was secure, Ala-ud-din was quick to realize that the it didn’t take long for idle minds in the army to turn into Devil’s workshops. Consequently the army became central to many of Ala-ud-din’s other administrative and economic policies – areas in which he made sweeping and path breaking reforms. That he was confident of his authority is clear from the bold changes he made in the agrarian system, designed to strengthen the position of the sultan at the expense of the iqta-holders. He revoked all grants made by previous sultans, whether of gifts, proprietary rights, pensions or religious endowments.

¤ The Sultan Met His End

Ala-ud-din ruled for 20 years and his fruitful, though probably not very popular, reign drew to an end on January 2, 1316. Popular belief has it that he was poisoned by his own trusted general Malik Kafur. The historian Zia-ud-din Barani seemed to have had little sympathy for him and indeed, in his observations, he implies that it served Ala-ud-din right to be disposed of in this fashion. In his Tarikh-i-Feroze Shahi he says, Ala-ud-din ‘…did not escape retribution for the blood of his patron (Jalal-ud-din Khalji)… fate at length placed a betrayer (Malik Kafur) in his own path, by whom his whole family was destroyed.’

While the story of the poisoning may or may not be true, it is a fact that as he got older Ala-ud-din began to rely more and more on the artful Malik Kafur. The general convinced Ala-ud-din that he was in grave danger of being murdered by his own wife Malika-i-Jahan and sons Khizr and Shadi Khan, who were taken in custody. These unfortunate circumstances, taken in conjunction with ill health which manifested in the form of violent paroxysms of rage, brought the sultan perilously close to the grave. The final nail in the coffin was, of course, said to have been affixed by Kafur; who was, by the way, the regent of the heir apparent and thus virtually sultan himself now.

Was it sheer luck, fate or kismet that the sultanate seemed to somehow get the right ruler at the right time? When it wanted consolidating the hour produced a Balban; when it needed a firm hand to put things in shape, it got an Ala-ud-din.

¤ Ala-ud-din --The First Real Emperor of India

There is no doubting the fact that Ala-ud-din was the first real emperor of India. There had been an administrative system, economic and other policies before his reign, but they had been of an essentially stopgap nature. Unfortunately, none of the sultans who followed Balban in quick succession had the time or the strength of character to fill in the void. Ala-ud-din was the right man at the right time. He pushed the boundaries of the sultanate to hitherto undreamed of frontiers, all the way down to the Deccan, and indeed he was the only one among the Slave Dynasty to be able to do so. During his reign rebellions were trounced, defence was strengthened, crime suppressed, inflation brought firmly under check and people, for the first time, made to feel secure. The wandering historian of those times, Ferishta tells us that in Ala-ud-din’s reign, ‘… travellers slept secure on the highway, and the merchant carried his commodities in safety from the sea of Bengal to the mountains of Kabul and from Telingana to Kashmir.’

of course, Ala-ud-din could be rather savage in his use of power, and this has led several historians to question whether he was such a hot king after all. He could be a tricky customer, he used people unabashedly (starting early with his loving uncle) and when it came to being cruel he was better than the best of them. But the saving grace was his great vision, resourcefulness and determination, all taken together with his boundless energy. Which is why he was able to transform the Delhi Sultanate from the organized mess it was to an empire.

¤ Monument of Sri Fort

Among Ala-ud-din’s many contributions to Delhi was the fort of Siri, which was famed to be impregnable at one time – as the Mongol invader Targhi found much to his disgust. Many people pass the now upmarket Siri Fort area without giving a thought to the history behind the area. Most Delhiites today probably won’t even think that one of South Delhi’s swankiest addresses, Hauz Khas, is a medieval name dating to Ala-ud-din’s time. Hauz Khas actually means the main (khas) reservoir (hauz) and you can still see it. It’s behind the serpentine lanes of the ethnically chic Hauz Khas village – which is, by the way, well worth checking out.

Not much remains of the Siri fort, just some of the fort wall – which was recently used as a backdrop for a fashion show. One wonders what Ala-ud-din, who was a rather unconventional Muslim, would have thought of it. Perhaps the same thing that he had once said to the Qazi Mughis-ud-din of Biyana when the latter had questioned Ala-ud-din’s theory of kingship (he had decreed the state above religion and hence also above priesthood). ‘I do not know whether this is lawful or unlawful; whatever I think to be for the good of or suitable for the state, that I decree; and as for what may happen to me on the Day of Judgement that I do not know.’

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