Delhi Sultanate

gigatos | January 5, 2022


The Sultanate of Delhi (Persianourdu سلطنت دلی, Salṭanat-e Dilli or سلطنت هند, Salṭanat-e Hind) was an Islamic state that existed from 1206 to 1526 that, at the time of its greatest expansion, was developed on almost the entire territory of the Indian subcontinent; the capital was located in Delhi, although there were periods in which the administrative center was located elsewhere. It was administered by a series of Turkic and Pashtun (“Afghan”) dynasties, listed here in chronological order: first the Mamluks (1206-1290), then the Khaljis (these royal families were then definitively replaced by the Mughals. It had jurisdiction over territories in present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and parts of southern Nepal.

As the successor of the Ghuride dynasty, the Delhi Sultanate was originally one of several principalities ruled by the Turkish slave generals of Muhammad of Ghur (who had conquered much of northern India, particularly near the Khyber Pass), e.g. Yildiz, Aibek and Qubacha, who had inherited and divided among themselves the Ghuride territories. After a long period of infighting, the Mamluks of Delhi bowed to the Khalji revolution, an event that marked the transfer of power from the Turks to a heterogeneous Indo-Muslim nobility. Both the emerging Khalji and Tughlaq dynasties respectively saw a new wave of rapid Muslim conquests in southern India, specifically Gujarat and Malwa, also sending a first expedition south of the Narmada river and into Tamil Nadu. It continued in the first part of the fourteenth century to extend towards southern India until 1347, when the southern provinces became independent under the Sultanate of Bahmani, which later broke up into the Sultanates of the Deccan. The state entity reached the apex of its geographic reach during the Tughlaq dynasty, when it incorporated under the same flag cities from present-day Pakistan to those of Bangladesh. Such an expansion was followed by decline due to Hindu reconquests, Hindu kingdoms such as the Vijayanagara and Mewar Empire claiming independence, and new Muslim sultanates such as Bengal, Jaunpur, Gujarat and Malwa breaking away. The Sultanate suffered the sacking of Delhi in 1398 by Tīmūr (Tamerlane) just as it was going through the process of fragmentation. The Delhi Sultanate recovered briefly under the Lōdī (or Lōdhī) dynasty before being conquered by Bābur, Mughal emperor, in 1526.

This historical state is known for its integration of the Indian subcontinent of a global cosmopolitan culture (so much so that this can be seen in the development of the Hindustani language): moreover, being one of the few to succeed in repelling the attacks of the Mongols, in particular the Chagatai Khanate, it was possible the enthronement of one of the few prominent female figures in Islamic history, Radiya Sultana, in power from 1236 to 1240. Bakhtiyar Khalji”s victorious campaigns brought with them the large-scale desecration of Hindu and Buddhist temples (followed by a decline of the latter belief in eastern India and Bengal) and the destruction of some universities and libraries. Mongol incursions into western and central Asia created the ideal conditions to initiate centuries of migration of soldiers, intellectuals, mystics, merchants, artists, and craftsmen fleeing from those regions into the subcontinent, thus allowing Islamic culture to take root in India and the rest of the region.

Historical Context

In describing the historical context that led to the rise of the Delhi Sultanate in India, one cannot disregard another event that more broadly involved much of the Asian continent, specifically the southern and western region: the influx of nomadic Turkish peoples from the steppes of Central Asia. Such an event can be traced back to the ninth century, when the Islamic caliphate began to fragment in the Middle East, where Muslim rulers in rival states began to take nomadic Turks not loyal to Islam from the steppes of Central Asia captive and to educate many of them for the purpose of making them loyal military slaves called Mamluks. Soon, the Turks began to migrate to Muslim lands and went through a process of Islamization. Many of the Turkish Mamluk slaves eventually rose to become rulers and established themselves in numerous regions of the Muslim world, establishing Mamluk sultanates that grew from Egypt to present-day Afghanistan, before focusing their attention on the Indian subcontinent.

Indeed, this phenomenon has much more ancient roots: like other settled peoples, mostly engaged in agriculture, those of the Indian subcontinent were attacked by nomadic tribes during their long existence. In assessing the impact of Islam on the subcontinent, one must consider that the northwestern subcontinent was a frequent target of tribal incursions from Central Asia in pre-Islamic times. In the light of this assertion, Muslim raids and subsequent invasions did not appear dissimilar to those of previous invasions during the first millennium.

In 962 A.D., the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of South Asia faced a wave of incursions carried out by Muslim armies from Central Asia. Among the attacking armies was that of Mahmud of Ghazna, the son of a Turkish Mamluk military slave who had plundered the kingdoms in northern India from east of the Indus River to west of the Yamuna River seventeen times between 997 and 1030. Mahmud of Ghazna assaulted the major centers then retreated on each occasion, extending Islamic rule into the western Punjab alone.

The wave of incursions into the kingdoms of northern and western India by Muslim warlords continued even after Mahmud of Ghazni, without any stable extension of borders for the Islamic kingdoms to which they belonged. Sultan Ghurid Mu”izz ad-Din Muhammad Ghori, otherwise known as Muhammad of Ghur, initiated a war of systematic expansion into northern India in 1173, seeking to carve out a principality for himself in the Islamic world. He envisioned the emergence of a Sunni dominion extending east of the Indus River, and thus laid the foundation for the Muslim kingdom later called the Sultanate of Delhi. Some historians place the beginning of the Delhi Sultanate in 1192, based on Muhammad Ghori”s indications and geographical location in South Asia at that time.

Ghori was assassinated in 1206, according to some accounts written by Shiite Muslims by the Ismāʿīlī, according to others by the Kokari, an indigenous population of the Punjab. After the assassination, one of Ghori”s slaves (or of the Mamluks, in Arabic: مملوك), a certain Qutb al-Din Aibak, assumed power, becoming the first sultan of Delhi.


Qutb al-Din Aibak, an old slave of Muhammad of Ghur, was the first ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. Aibak was of Cuman-Kipčaka descent and, because of his lineage, his dynasty is known as the Mamluk dynasty (i.e., of slave origin, but not to be confused with that of Iraq or Egypt). Aibak reigned as Sultan of Delhi for four years, from 1206 to 1210: given his generosity, people reserved for him after his death the appellation Lakh data, or kind-hearted.

After Aibak”s death, Aram Shah assumed power in 1210, but was assassinated in 1211 by Aibak”s son-in-law, Shams ud-Din Iltutmish. Iltutmish”s power rested on fragile foundations, and a number of Muslim emirs (nobles) challenged his authority as supporters of Qutb al-Din Aibak, resulting in a flurry of brutal executions of elements loyal to the opposition bangs, which allowed Iltutmish to consolidate his iron fist. Since his authority was challenged several times, for example by Qubacha, the period was marked by a long trail of skirmishes. Iltutmish took Multan and Bengal from the discontented Muslim rulers, as well as Ranthambore and parts of Siwalikdai headed by Hindu officials. He also took the lead in the attack and execution of Taj al-Din Yildiz, who had declared himself legitimate to rule as the heir to Mu”izz ad-Din Muhammad Ghori. Iltutmish”s rule lasted until 1236; following his death, the Delhi Sultanate saw a succession of weak rulers, antagonistic to the Muslim nobility and responsible for some court murders. The government passed from Rukn ud-Din Firuz to Radiya Sultana and others, until Ghiyas ud-Din Balban took over from 1266 to 1287. He was succeeded by the 17-year-old Mu”izz al-Din Kayqubad, who appointed Jalal al-Din Khalji as commander of the army. Khalji assassinated Qaiqabad and assumed power, thus ending the Mamluk dynasty and giving birth to the Khalji dynasty.

Qutb al-Din Aibak initiated the construction of the Qutb Minar: it is also known that he died before the minaret was completed. It was his son-in-law, Iltutmish, who completed the work. The Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, built by Aibak, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Qutb complex was expanded by Iltutmish and later by Ala ud-Din Khalji, the second ruler of the Khalji dynasty, at the beginning of the 14th century. During the Mamluk dynasty, many nobles from Afghanistan and Persia migrated and settled in India as Western Asia faced Mongol invasions.

The Khalji dynasty boasted Turkish-Afghan origins: for this reason, due to the adoption of some customs and traditions of Afghan tradition, historiography reports the family as “Turkish-Afghan”. Its progenitors had settled for some time in the present Afghanistan before moving south towards Delhi and the name “Khalji” refers to an Afghan city known as Qalati Khalji (“Fort of Ghilji”). The dynasty later also had Indian ancestry thanks to Jhatyapali (daughter of Ramachandra of Devagiri), wife of Alauddin Khalji and mother of Shihabuddin Omar.

The first ruler of the Khalji family was Jalal ud-Din Firuz: coming to power after the Khalji revolution, which marked the transfer of power from the monopoly of the Turkish nobles to a heterogeneous Indo-Muslim nobility, the Khalji faction attracted new sympathizers proceeding to a mass conversion of subjects and through some purges in high places. Muiz ud-Din Kaiqabad died assassinated and Jalal-ad din took power in a military coup at the age of about 70 years at the time of his ascension: the sources tell of a mild, humble and gentle monarch. Jalal ud-Din Firuz, of Afghan Turkish origin, remained in office for 6 years before being killed in 1296 by his nephew and son-in-law ʿAlī Gurshap, later to become known as ”Ala” al-Din Khalji.

”Ala” al-Din began his military career as governor of the province of Kara, in Uttar Pradesh, from where he led two raids on Malwa (1292) and Devagiri (1294) for plunder and booty. After obtaining the command, he returned to those lands and concentrated on the conquest of Gujarat, Ranthambore, Chittor and Malwa: the sequence of victories was interrupted because of Mongol attacks in the north-west. The Mongols withdrew after the raids and stopped hitting the north-western areas of the Delhi Sultanate, concentrating their attentions elsewhere.

After the Mongols withdrew, ”Ala” al-Din Khalji continued to expand the Sultanate of Delhi in southern India with the help of talented generals such as Malik Kafur and Khusrau Khan. The spoils of war (anwatan) obtained was really huge and the commanders who grabbed it had to pay a ghanima (in Arabic: الْغَنيمَة, a duty), which helped to strengthen the strength of the Khalji. Among the treasures found in Warangal was the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond.

Historians portray ”Ala” al-Din Khalji as a tyrant: anyone he suspected of being a threat was killed along with the women and children of the family. As the years passed, he ended up eliminating a large portion of the local aristocracy in favor of a handful of his slaves and family. In 1298, between 15,000 and 30,000 people near Delhi who had recently converted to Islam were slaughtered in a single day, for fear that they would start a revolt. We also have news of the cruelty that the monarch reserved towards the subjugated peoples.

After the death of ”Ala” al-Din in 1316, his eunuch general Malik Kafur, who was born into a Hindu family but later converted, assumed de facto power and enjoyed the support of the non-Khalaj nobles such as the Pashtuns, particularly General Kamal al-Din Gurg. However, the majority of Khalaj nobles preferred to replace him in the hope that one of their own would take over the reins of the Sultanate. The new ruler had Karfur”s murderers executed.

The last Khalji ruler was the eighteen-year-old son of ”Ala” al-Din, Qutb-ud-din Mubarak Shah, who ruled for four years before perishing at the behest of Khusrau Khan, another slave general with Hindu origins, who favored the inclusion of exponents of the Baradu Hindus in the nobility. The reign of Khusro lasted only a few months, as Ghazi Malik, later called Ghiyath al-Din Tughlaq, defeated him with the help of the Punjabi tribes of Kokari and assumed power in 1320: the old dynasty was in fact ousted in favor of Tughlaq.

The Tughlaq dynasty lasted from 1320 until almost the end of the 14th century; the first ruler Ghazi Malik renamed himself as Ghiyath al-Din Tughlaq: sometimes, he is referred to in academic works as Tughlak Shah. Of “humble social extraction” and generally considered of mixed origin, i.e. Turkish and Indian, Ghiyath al-Din administered the region for five years and built a city near Delhi called Tughlaqabad. He died at the hands of his son Juna Khan, who ascended the throne in 1325: renamed Muhammad ibn Tughlaq, he ruled for 26 years. During this period, the Sultanate of Delhi reached its peak in terms of geographical extension, covering a large portion of the Indian subcontinent.

Muhammad bin Tughlaq was an educated man, with a vast knowledge of the Koran, fiqh, poetry and science, as well as a deep admirer of thinkers. However, he was deeply suspicious towards his relatives and wazir (ministers), as well as extremely strict with his opponents, so much as to cause disruption in the treasury in order to neutralize the rebellions fomented by them. Among the most unsuccessful decisions is the order to mint coins from base metals with a nominal value of silver coins: ordinary people ended up minting counterfeit coins extracted from base metals they had in their homes and used them to pay taxes and jizya.

Muhammad bin Tughlaq chose the city of Deogiri, in the present Indian state of Maharashtra (he simultaneously ordered a forced migration of Delhi”s Muslim population, including the royal family, nobles, sayyids, sheikhs, and ʿulamāʾ to settle in Daulatabad. The purpose of relocating the entire Muslim elite was to convince them of the ruler”s ambitious plan to expand as much as possible. In addition, Muhammad intended to enhance the role of propagandists who, through the promotion of the empire”s rhetoric and Islamization campaigns, could convince many of the Deccan inhabitants to embrace this new faith and prove more lenient to the crown. Tughluq cruelly punished nobles unwilling to move to Daulatabad, judging their noncompliance to be a subversive act. According to Ferishta, when the Mongols arrived in the Punjab, the sultan brought the elite back to Delhi, although Daulatabad remained the administrative center. One result of the forcible relocation of the local aristocracy led to growing dissatisfaction with the sultan, who remained long remembered in a negative light. On the other hand, however, some preferred not to return to Delhi and stabilized the presence of the Muslim community there, without which the rise of Bahman”s kingdom against Vijayanagara would not have been possible. Muhammad bin Tughlaq”s adventures in the Deccan region also marked campaigns of destruction and desecration of Hindu and Jain temples, for example the temple of Swayambhu Shiva and the Temple of a Thousand Pillars.

Revolts against Muhammad bin Tughlaq began in 1327, continued during his reign, and over time the geographic reach of the sultanate was reduced. The Vijayanagara Empire originated in southern India as a direct response to the sultanate”s attacks and removed southern India from Delhi”s sphere. In 1330, Muhammad bin Tughlaq ordered an invasion of China, sending part of his forces to the Himalayas: the Hindu kingdom of Kangra intervened before they could reach further north. Few survived the journey and on their return were executed as deserters. During his reign, state revenues plummeted due to the decision to allow the circulation of unrefined metal coins from 1329 to 1332. To cover government expenses, taxes soared and penalties for offenders increased. Famine, widespread poverty and rebellion grew throughout the kingdom, prompting Tughlaq”s nephew to rebel in Malwa in 1338: he was attacked, imprisoned and flayed alive. In 1339, the eastern regions under local Muslim rulers and the southern parts led by Hindu kings rose up and declared independence from the Delhi Sultanate. Muhammad bin Tughlaq did not have the resources or support at that time to respond to the shrinking kingdom. Historian Walford describes that Delhi and most of India had to live with the failure of monetary policy in the following years as well. In 1347, the Bahman Sultanate emerged as an independent power in the Deccan region of South Asia.

Muhammad bin Tughlaq died in 1351, after starting a campaign to track down and punish people in Gujarat who fomented revolts against the Delhi Sultanate. He was succeeded by Firuz Shah Tughlaq (1351-1388), who tried to regain the border of the old kingdom by waging a war with Bengal for 11 months in 1359. However, the region did not yield without preventing Firuz Shah from ruling: he remained on the throne for a good 37 years. During his rule, he sought to stabilize food supplies and reduce famine by commissioning an irrigation canal along the Yamuna River. Being an educated sultan himself, Firuz Shah wrote a memoir that has survived to us. In it, he shared his disdain for the practice of torture, explicitly listing his repudiation of amputations, sawing people alive, breaking bones, pouring molten lead down their throats, vivicombustion, driving nails into their hands and feet, and other conducts as well. He also recounted that he did not tolerate attempts by Shiites and Mahdi representatives to proselytize, nor did he tolerate Hindus trying to rebuild temples destroyed by his armies. As punishment for the members of the sects, Firuz Shah condemned many Shiites, Mahdi and Hindus (siyasat) to death. The ruler also narrated in a smug tone his policy of including Hindus to Sunnis, announcing an exemption from taxes and jizya for those who intended to convert, as well as bestowing gifts and honors. In contrast to his predecessors, Hindu Brahmins were not exempted from the jizya. He also increased the number of slaves in his service and alongside the Muslim nobles. The reign of Firuz Shah Tughlaq, although characterized by the reduction of extreme forms of torture and the elimination of favoritism to certain classes, coincided with an increase in intolerance and persecution of targeted groups.

The death of Firuz Shah Tughlaq triggered anarchy and the disintegration of the kingdom. The last rulers of this dynasty were both self-proclaimed sultans from 1394 to 1397: Nasir al-Din Mahmud Shah Tughlaq, grandson of Firuz Shah Tughlaq who ruled from Delhi, and Nasir ud-Din Nusrat Shah Tughlaq, another relative of Firuz Shah Tughlaq who acted from Firozabad, which was a few miles from Delhi. The battle between the two relatives for continued until Tamerlane”s invasion happened in 1398. The Turkicised Mongolian ruler of the Timurid Empire, known to be one of the most famous generals in the history of all times, realized the weakness and the infighting in the Sultanate of Delhi, and decided to march with his army to Delhi: along the way, he sacked and killed all those who dared to oppose him. Estimates for the massacre carried out by Tamerlane in Delhi range between 100,000 and 200,000 people; the emir”s intention was not to stay and administer India, so he tried to plunder everything he could. The violence of the Timurids coincided with the imprisonment of several women and slaves (specifically skilled craftsmen) before returning to Samarkand. The people and lands within the sultanate lived in conditions of anarchy, chaos, and pestilence. Nasir ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughlaq, who fled to Gujarat during Tamerlane”s invasion, returned and played the role of nominal ruler for the Tughlaq dynasty, but in fact remained a puppet in the hands of the various powerful factions in the court.

The Sayyid dynasty ruled the Sultanate of Delhi from 1415 to 1451: the invasion and looting of the Timurids had left the country in chaos and little is known about how the rulers of the Sayyid dynasty operated. Annemarie Schimmel reports that the first ruler of the lineage was a certain Khizr Khan, who assumed power claiming to represent Tamerlane. His authority was questioned by the Delhi aristocracy. His successor, Mubarak Khan, renamed himself Mubarak Shah and tried to regain lost territories in the Punjab from local warlords, without success.

As the foundations on which the strength of the Sayyid dynasty was based constantly wavered, the history of Islam in the Indian subcontinent underwent, according to Schimmel, a profound change: the Sunnis, previously the absolute majority, fell in number in favor of the Shiites or other sects that had spread to the most populous centers.

The Sayyid dynasty disappeared without much fanfare in 1451, when it was replaced by the Lodi dynasty.

The Lodi dynasty distinguished itself in the beginning in the tribe of the same name, of Pashtun ethnicity. Bahlul Khan Lodi was the progenitor and first ever Pashtun to rule the Delhi Sultanate. Bahlul Lodi inaugurated his reign by attacking the Sultanate of Jaunpur to expand Delhi”s influence, which he partially succeeded in by signing a treaty. From then on, the region between Delhi and Varanasi (then on the border with the province of Bengal), returned under the influence of the Sultanate of Delhi.

After Bahlul Lodi”s death, his son Nizam Khan assumed power, renamed himself Sikandar Lodi, and ruled from 1489 to 1517. Among the best known rulers of the dynasty, Sikandar Lodi, expelled his brother Barbak Shah from Jaunpur, installed his son Jalal Khan as ruler, and then proceeded eastward in order to claim Bihar. The Muslim rulers of Bihar agreed to pay tribute and taxes, but operated independently of the Delhi Sultanate. Sikandar Lodi issued a law requiring officers to undergo cultural training from then on and supervised a campaign of temple destruction, particularly around Mathura. He also moved his capital and court from Delhi to Agra, an ancient Hindu city destroyed when raids occurred prior to the formation of the Delhi Sultanate. Sikandar authorized the construction of buildings in the Indo-Islamic architectural style in Agra during his lifetime; the growth of the new capital continued even during the Mughal Empire, which succeeded the state of Delhi.

Sikandar Lodi died of natural causes in 1517 and his second son Ibrahim Lodi ascended the throne. He did not enjoy the support of the Afghan and Persian nobles or of the regional chiefs, so he immediately had to worry about eliminating internal enemies such as his elder brother Jalal Khan, installed as governor of Jaunpur by his father, who had the appreciation of the amiri and the chiefs. Ibrahim Lodi failed to consolidate his power and, after the death of Jalal Khan, the governor of Punjab Daulat Khan Lodi turned to Babur, direct descendant of Tamerlane and founder of the Mughal dynasty, spurring him to attack the Sultanate of Delhi. Babur defeated and killed Ibrahim Lodi at the Battle of Panipat in 1526, an event that marked the end of the Delhi Sultanate and the establishment of the Mughal Empire in the region.

The Delhi Sultanate did not abolish the governmental conventions of previous Hindu political systems, claiming supremacy rather than exclusive supreme control. Consequently, it did not interfere with the autonomy and military of the subjugated rulers, freely including vassals and Hindu officials.

Economic policy and administration

The economic policy of the Delhi Sultanate was characterized by greater government interference in the economy than in the classical Hindu dynasties and by increased penalties for those who violated regulatory provisions. Alauddin Khalji replaced private markets with four centralized markets run by the government, appointed a “market vigilant authority,” and implemented strict price controls on all types of goods, “from caps to socks, combs to needles, vegetables to soups, sweets to chapati” (as the Indian historian Baranī wrote in about 1357). Price controls were inflexible even during periods of drought, where it was more difficult to control them. Speculators were completely banned from participating in the horse trade, animal and slave brokers were prohibited from pocketing commissions, and private merchants slowly disappeared. Prohibitions against hoarding were instituted, granaries were “nationalized” and limits were placed on the amount of grain that could be used by farmers for personal use.

The fiscal policy, which gradually became more oppressive, made the regulations for trade very stringent: if one considers the severe penalties foreseen, one can understand how discontent spread in various phases of the sultanate”s existence. The court chose to establish a network of spies to ensure the implementation of the system; even after the policy aimed at lowering prices was revoked after the disappearance of the Khalji dynasty, Barani says that the fear of repression persisted and was such as to push many people to avoid the exchange of expensive goods.

Social policies

The sultanate imposed Islamic religious prohibitions regarding anthropomorphic representations in art.


The army turned out to be composed in the beginning of nomadic Turkish Mamluk military slaves linked to Muhammad of Ghur.

Despite the Mamluk dynasty”s rise to power, the Turkish monopoly over the state dissipated in favor of an Indian style of military warfare. Hardly any references to Turkish slaves being recruited in the coming decades can be found in historical accounts, as the new nobility wished to reduce the power of Turkish slaves prior to the overthrow of the Mamluks.

An important military result achieved by the Sultanate of Delhi concerned the victories over the Mongol Empire, thanks to which it gave up pushing further south in India and headed towards China, Corasmia and Europe. Therefore it is legitimate to conclude that, if it had not been for the Sultanate of Delhi, perhaps the Mongol Empire would have been successful in the invasion of India. The strength of the armies at Delhi”s disposal over the centuries varied until it was almost completely nullified by Tamerlane and, later, Babur.

Destruction of cities

While the looting of cities was not uncommon in medieval wars, the Delhi Sultanate”s army often took care to completely destroy settlements in its military expeditions. According to the Jain chronicler Jinaprabha Suri, Nusrat Khan”s troops eliminated hundreds of towns including Ashapalli (modern-day Ahmedabad), Vanthali, and Surat in Gujarat. Such campaigns are also recounted by Ḍiyāʾ al-Dīn Baranī.

Desecration of temples, universities and libraries

The historian Richard Eaton has shed light on the campaign of destruction of idols and temples carried out by the Sultans of Delhi, which alternated with years in which the prohibition of desecration of temples was in force. In one of his articles, later taken up by other scholars, he listed 37 cases of mandir desecrated or destroyed in India when the Delhi Sultanate was alive, from 1234 to 1518, for which we have incontrovertible evidence. Eaton also notes that such an attitude appeared to be an unusual custom in medieval India, as there were numerous recorded cases of temple desecration by Hindu and Buddhist rulers against rival Indian kingdoms between 642 and 1520, involving conflicts between communities devoted to different Hindu deities, as well as between Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. There were also many instances of Delhi sultans, who often had Hindu ministers, ordering the protection, maintenance, and repair of temples, according to both Muslim and non-Muslim sources. For example, a Sanskrit inscription notes that Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq had a temple dedicated to Siva in Bidar fixed after the taking of the Deccan. There is often found to be a certain custom for Delhi sultans to loot or damage religious buildings during the conquest and then repair them by giving in to the demands of those who demanded it following submission. This pattern ended with the Mughal Empire, so much so that Akbar the Great”s prime minister Abu l-Fadl ”Allami criticized the excesses of early sultans such as Mahmud of Ghazna.

In many cases, the demolished remains, rocks and broken statue parts of temples destroyed by the Delhi sultans were reused to build mosques and other buildings. One example is the Qutb complex in the capital was built with the stones of 27 demolished Hindu and Jain temples according to some accounts. Similarly, the Muslim mosque in Khanapur, Maharashtra, was put up thanks to some of the looting carried out and with the demolished remains of Hindu temples. Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji destroyed the Buddhist and Hindu libraries in addition to their manuscripts in the universities of Nālandā and Odantapuri in 1193 at the beginning of the Delhi Sultanate.

The first historical record of a campaign of destruction of religious buildings combined with defacement of faces or heads of Hindu idols lasted from 1193 to 1194 in Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh under Ghuri. Under the Mamluks and Khalji, the campaign of temple desecration extended to Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra and continued until the end of the 13th century. The campaign also involved Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu under Malik Kafur and Ulugh Khan in the 14th century, and by the Bahman Sultanate in the 15th century. The Sun temple of Konarak was razed in the 14th century by the Tughlaq dynasty.

In addition to destruction and desecration, the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate in some cases forbade the reconstruction of damaged Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist religious buildings and prohibited the repair of old ones or the construction of new ones. In scattered contexts, permission was granted for repairs or construction from scratch if the patron or religious community paid jizya (a capitation tax). A proposal by the Chinese to repair Himalayan Buddhist temples destroyed by the Sultanate”s army was declined, on the grounds that such temple adjustments were permitted only if the Chinese would agree to pay the jizya to the Delhi treasury. In his memoirs, Firoz Shah Tughlaq describes the demolition of religious structures in favor of mosques and with the execution of those who stood in the way of this policy. Other historical documents provided by the viziers, emirs, and court historians of various monarchs of the Delhi Sultanate describe the grandeur of the idols and temples they witnessed in their campaigns and how these were swept away after being desecrated.

Many historians argue that the Delhi Sultanate made India more multicultural and cosmopolitan: the emergence of a new power in this geographical region was compared to the expansion of the Mongol Empire and called “part of a larger trend that has often occurred in Eurasia, namely the migration of nomadic peoples from the steppes of Inner Asia to become politically dominant”.

In terms of mechanical devices, the later Mughal emperor Babur provides a description of the use of the water wheel in the Delhi Sultanate. However, this reconstruction was criticized, for example, by Siddiqui, because he believed there was significant evidence that such technology was already present in India before the Sultanate. Still others object that the wheel was introduced to India from Iran during the Delhi Sultanate, although most scholars believe that it was coined in India in the first millennium. The two-roller cotton gin appeared in the thirteenth or fourteenth century: however, Irfan Habib asserts that its creation probably took place in peninsular India, at the time unrelated to Delhi (except for a brief invasion by the Tughlaqs between 1330 and 1335).

While papermaking was started in Korea and Japan in the 6th and 7th centuries respectively, India did not learn the process until the 12th century. Chinese papermaking technology spread outside the empire”s borders in 751 AD. It is also unclear whether the use of the hygroscopic material spread to the rest of India thanks to the Delhi Sultanate, as the 15th century Chinese traveler Ma Huan notes that Indian paper was white and extracted from the “bark of trees”, similar to the Chinese method of manufacture (and in contrast to the Middle Eastern method which involved the use of rags and discarded textile material): however, this would certainly testify to the fact that such knowledge had come via China.


Although the Indian subcontinent was invaded by peoples coming from Central Asia since ancient times, what made the Muslim invasions different is the fact that, unlike the previous invaders who assimilated into the present society, the new conquerors preserved their Islamic identity and instituted innovative legal and administrative systems: in many cases they supplanted the previous order in terms of social and ethical conduct, which increased the rivalry between Muslims and non-Muslims. The introduction of new cultural codes, in some ways quite different from those sedimented in the Indian regions, gave life to a new Indian culture of mixed nature, different from the traditional one. The vast majority of Muslims in India were native Indian converts to Islam. This factor played an important role in cross-cultural synergy.

The Hindustani language began to emerge in the period of the Delhi Sultanate, thanks to the coexistence of the vernacular and the apabhraṃśa language present in northern India, perhaps merged. Amir Khusrow, an Indian poet who lived in the thirteenth century when the Delhi Sultanate was present in northern India, in his writings used a form of Hindustani he called Hindavi: it was probably the lingua franca of the time.


Under Qutb al-Din Aibak, from 1206, the new Islamic state in India brought with it the architectural styles of Central Asia. The types and forms of the large buildings required by Muslim elites, with very conspicuous mosques and tombs, figured quite differently from those erected in India in the past. The exteriors of both were very often surmounted by large domes and made extensive use of arches, while both of these features were hardly to be found in Hindu temple architecture and other styles typical of India. Both types of structure consist essentially of a single large space covered by a high dome, but figurative sculpture, which is essential in Hindu temples, is absent.

The important Qutb complex in Delhi was begun under Muhammad of Ghur in 1199, and work continued under Qutb al-Din Aibak and subsequent sultans. The Quwwat-ul-Islam (Power of Islam) mosque, now in ruins, was the first completed structure. As in other early Islamic buildings, elements such as columns from destroyed Hindu and Jain temples were reused, one of which was repurposed right where it had previously stood. The style was Iranian, but the arches were still corbelled in the traditional Indian manner.

Next to it is the very tall Qutb Minar, a minaret or tower of victory which, true to the original design and despite being built in four phases, reaches a height of 73 meters: a further addition of centimeters was made later, making the brick structure the highest in the world in its category. The closest example is the minaret of Jam (62 m) in Afghanistan, also composed entirely of bricks, dating from around 1190, about a decade before work on the Delhi tower probably began. The surfaces of both are richly decorated with inscriptions and geometric patterns; at Delhi the shaft is fluted with “superb stalactite-shaped brackets under the balconies” at the top of each stage. In general, minarets took a long time to build and often appear separate from the main mosque to which they are close.

Iltutmish”s tomb was added in 1236; its dome, composed of a newly embossed spandrel, is missing today, and the intricate carving has been described by art critics as having an “angular roughness,” perhaps because the workers who contributed to the work worked according to unknown canons. More elements were added to the complex over the next two centuries.

Another very old mosque, begun in 1190, is the Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra in Ajmer, Rajasthan, built for the same rulers of Delhi, again with cantilevered arches and domes. Here the Hindu temple columns (and perhaps some new ones) were placed all three on top of each other to achieve an even greater height. Both mosques had large detached walls with pointed corbelled arches added in front of them, probably made under Iltutmish a couple of decades later. Of these, the central arch is taller, attempting to emulate the presence of an iwan. At Ajmer, the smaller screen arches were attempted to give them a cusp shape, the first such case found in India.

Around 1300 domes and wedge arches were built; the ruined tomb of Balban (died 1287) in Delhi may turn out to be the first made following these canons. The ʿAlāʾī Darwāza (Gate of ʿAlāʾ) at the Qutb complex, dated 1311, still shows a cautious approach to the new technology, with very thick walls and a shallow dome, visible only from a certain distance or height. The bold, contrasting colors of the masonry, with red sandstone and white marble, introduce what would become a common feature of Indo-Islamic architecture, replacing the polychrome tiles used in Persia and Central Asia. The pointed arches join slightly at their base, generating a slight arch that vaguely resembles a horseshoe, while the inner edges are not cusped but covered with conventional “spearhead” projections, perhaps representing lotus buds. The jali, or a perforated stone or grating, is present here: this element had long been used in temples.

The tomb of Shah Rukn-e-Alam (built from 1320 to 1324) in Multan, Pakistan, looks like a large octagonal brick mausoleum with polychrome glass decoration that remains much closer to the styles of Iran and Afghanistan; wood is also used internally. It is the first important monument erected in the Tughlaq era (1320-1413), when the sultanate experienced its heyday. Built for a wali rather than a sultan, most of the many tombs of the Tughlaqs have no out-of-the-ordinary features. The tomb of the dynasty”s founder, Ghiyath al-Din Tughluq (follows the design of a miniature Hindu temple and is topped by a small amalaka (a segmented or notched stone disk, usually with ridges on the edge) and a round fastigium similar to a kalasha. Unlike the buildings mentioned earlier, it completely lacks funerary inscriptions and is located in a complex consisting of high walls and battlements. Both these tombs have outer walls slightly inclined inwards, by 25° in the Delhi tomb: this is also the case in many fortifications, including the ruined Tughlaqabad fort opposite the tomb.

The Tughlaqs had at their service a host of architects and governmental builders, an event that gave to several buildings a standardized dynastic style: in this sector as well as in others many Hindus were employed. It is said that the third sultan, Firuz Shah (by virtue of his long tenure as head of state), more than any other sultan, the number of buildings constructed in that era is impressive. The complex of his palace, whose works were begun in 1354, is located in Hisar, Haryana, and is in a state of ruin, although some areas are in fair condition. Some of the structures built during Firuz Shah”s rule take on forms that are rare or unknown in Islamic buildings. He was buried in the large Hauz Khasa complex in Delhi, a place where there were already buildings and to which others were added in the future, including several small domed pavilions supported solely by columns.

By this time, Islamic architecture in India had adopted some features of earlier Indian architecture, such as the use of a high pedestal, and often moldings around its edges, as well as columns, corbels, and hypostyle. After the death of Firoz, the Tughlaqs experienced a major downturn, and subsequent dynasties did not make much of an impact. A considerable number of the monumental buildings constructed turned out to be tombs, the main exception of which appear to be the impressive Lodi Gardens in Delhi (adorned with fountains, chahar bagh-style gardens, ponds, tombs, and mosques), built in the last stages of the Lodi dynasty. Beyond all the aforementioned artistic manifestations, the architecture of other regional Muslim states has handed down several more fascinating examples.


  1. Sultanato di Delhi
  2. Delhi Sultanate
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