The Delhi Sultanate is one of the least known empires in world history. It certainly deserves to have a higher profile, for the pivotal role it played in the history of India.
It was, at its greatest extent, one of the greatest empires in India history. It was far larger than the Gupta empire of the 4th and 5th centuries CE, and only slightly smaller than the Maury empire of ancient India. Only the Mughal empire and the British Indian empire were significantly larger.
More important than its size was its key role in the extension of Muslim rule across the subcontinent. Before it emerged, Islamic rule was not well established in most of India; after it, Muslim sultanates covered the majority of the vast country. It stands out as the most significant state in medieval India, and indeed marked a watershed in the long development of Indian civilization.
The first major incursion of Islam into the Indian subcontinent came in the early 8th century, when armies of the Muslim Caliphate occupied Makhran, Sindh and Multan, all in what is now Pakistan.
Islam thus established a firm foothold in South Asia, but attempts to make further advances at this time came to nothing. Strong Indian kingdoms such as those of the Gurjara-Pratiharas in the north west, and the Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas in the Deccan, were able to successfully fend off Muslim attacks. In the 9th century the Muslim rulers of Sindh and Multan became effectively independent from the Caliph, in Baghdad, and they and their successors seem to have given up further ambitions of territorial advance.
The general fragmentation of the Islamic Caliphate, however, led in due course to the rise of aggressive Muslim powers in Afghanistan and central Asia. These were well-positioned to conduct attacks into northern India, as the Huns, Kushanas, Scythians and Indo-Greeks had done before them from the same region. At the very end of the 10th century, a fearsome Turkish leader based in Afghanistan, Mahmud of Ghazni, began launching a succession of devastating raids into India. These reached as far east as Kanauj, the most important city of northern India, and as far south as Gujarat. Wherever he went Mahmud defeated local Indian rulers, destroyed Hindu temples, killed as many Hindus as he could get hold of, and carried off vast hoards of treasure.
What Mahmud did not do, at least on any scale, was occupy Indian territory. Nevertheless his campaigns had shown how disunited India had become, fragmented amongst numerous small kingdoms, and how easily they could be picked off one by one.
Unsurprisingly, other Muslim leaders decided to take advantage of this situation, and at the end of the 12th century Muhammed of Ghor (whose family had replaced that of Mahmud of Ghazni as the rulers of Afghanistan), began a systematic conquest of the subcontinent. By the time of his death, in 1206, Muhammed’s armies had conquered a large part of northern India.
Muhammed’s armies were commanded by slave generals. After Muhammed of Ghor’s death, one of them, Qutb al-Din, assumed control over Muhammed’s Indian territories. Making the city of Delhi his capital, he took the title of sultan: the Sultanate of Delhi was born.
Qutb al-Din spent most of his short reign consolidating his power in the face of resistance from his Indian subjects and threats from rival slave generals. His successors, however, such as Iltutmish (reigned 1211-36) and Balban (1266-86) were able to expand the borders of the Sultanate. Nevertheless, the sultanate met stiff resistance from Indian forces, and on several occasions lost newly won areas, which had to be reconquered. At the same time it suffered from the ambitions of its local governors, who had a tendency to assert their independence. Also, renewed incursions from central Asia from the later 13th century, this time in the shape of the Mongols, had to met.
The Delhi Sultanate also suffered from bouts of political instability, with usurpations bringing new dynasties to the throne every few decades. The first “dynasty”, the “slave” or Mamluq sultans (only a few of whom were in fact related to each other) were replaced in 1290 by the Khilji dynasty. The most important of these, Ala-ud-din (1296-1316), was an extraordinarily vigorous ruler who had to deal with no less than six Mongol invasions, all of which he defeated. He also greatly expanded the Sultanate’s territory, so that by the end of his reign it covered all the northern half of the subcontinent (with the exception of the Rajput kingdoms).
Ala-ud-din’s young son was unable to keep hold of the throne and in 1320 lost it to the Tughlaq dynasty. The short reign of the founder of this dynasty was followed by that of his son, Muhammad Tughlaq (reigned 1325-51). Under the able and ambitious (but cruel) Muhammad Tughlaq the Sultanate came to embrace all but the southernmost parts of the subcontinent.
Muhammed Tughlaq’s reign proved to be the high point of the Delhi Sultanate’s rule. Even in Muhammed’s reign local rulers repeatedly rebelled against his rule, and then in the 1340s a serious famine swept India. Next a great rebellion snatched the southern half of the empire from its control. Then a terrible pandemic (which affected much of Eurasia and in known in European history as the Black Death) spread across India, and had a particularly devastating effect on the huge mass of men making up Muhammed’s army. This prevented him from restoring his control in south India. By the time of Muhammed’s death the borders of the Sultanate had receded north, leaving a number of independent kingdoms in the south.
The two largest of these were the Bahami Sultanate, in the Deccan, and a powerful new Hindu kingdom, Vijayanagara, in the far south.
Territorial losses continued under Muhammed’s successors, with Bengal becoming independent by 1359, but the long-reigning Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1351-1388) stabilized the situation to a large extent. His death, however, was followed by anarchy, and in 1398 the central Asian conqueror Timur launched a devastating attack into India which culminated in the sack of the Sultanate’s capital, Delhi.
The Tughlaq dynasty was unable to restore its power and prestige in the wake of this catastrophe, and outlying territories fell away from the Sultanate’s control. In 1415 the Tughlaqs gave way a new dynasty, the Sayyids. Under them, the Sultanate’s territories dwindled still further, until by the mid-15th century they included only the city of Delhi itself and some surrounding area.
The receding frontiers of the Sultanate left in their train a hotchpotch of states. In the northern half of the subcontinent, apart from a group of Rajput kingdoms which had never really been incorporated into the Sultanate’s territory, these were all governed by Muslim sultans. The Delhi Sultanate may have declined, but it had left a legacy of Muslim rule throughout most of India.
Surprisingly, the Sultanate was not finished. Its fifth and final dynasty, the Lodi, produced two remarkable rulers, Bahlul (1451-89) and Sikander (1489-1517). Under them, the Sultanate again extended its control over much of northern India. Then, Sikander’s son, Ibrahim (1517-26), the last of the Delhi sultans, was defeated and killed by the forces of another invader from Afghanistan at the Battle of Panipat.
The victor of Panipat, Babur, went on the found the Mughal empire.
Related Timemaps articles:
Premium maps: India at the time of the Delhi Sultanate – shows the rise and fall of the sultanate.
If you want to see the context for the early history of Islam in medieval India, then start the sequence at India: the Medieval Era.
Here is an interesting article, albeit in summary form, on one aspect of the Delhi Sultanate, its reliance on Turkish slaves.
The Columbia university website takes an in-depth look at Society and Culture under the Delhi Sultanate.