IV. Consolidation of Muslim Rule in the North

*Balban's Administration*

        [[55]] THE SULTANATE of Delhi suffered grievously in the ten years following the death of Iltutmish. The Mongols who had been hovering on the frontier grew bolder, and in 1241 sacked Lahore. They harried Multan, Sind, and central Punjab, and were in virtual control of this area for a number of years. In the east, Bengal and Bihar became independent. To the south of Delhi, the Hindus began to reassert themselves, and the Muslims lost many important strongholds which had been captured in the days of Aibak and Iltutmish. Gwalior and Ranthambhor were abandoned during Raziyya's reign. Now, even in areas nearer to the capital such as Katehar (modern Rohilkhand) and the Doab, Hindu resistance was intensified.

        Not less important than these material losses were the fissures and weaknesses displayed by the administrative structure built up by Iltutmish. The lines on which he had organized the new government required for their success a man of great ability, wisdom, and resourcefulness, but as he had feared, there was nobody equal to the task in his family. In the scramble for power which followed his death, Tajiks were pitted against Turks, the nobility was at loggerheads with the king, and the conflicting ambitions of the individual nobles prevented any united action.

Balban's Administration

        With the accession of Nasir-ud-din in 1246 this period of acute conflict ended, but it was not due to the ruler's abilities. The real power was in the hands of Balban, who had been largely instrumental in bringing him to the throne. Although Balban did not actually become sultan until 1265, the whole period from 1246 to 1287—including the years of Nasir's rule and his own—may well be designated [[56]] the "Balban Era." A member of a noble family of the Ilbari Turks, Ghiyas-ud-din Balban had been captured during the turmoil that followed the Mongol invasions of Central Asia and sold as a slave in Baghdad. He was taken to Delhi in 1232, where he was purchased by Iltutmish to serve as a personal attendant. He became chief huntsman, commander of the cavalry, and, after Iltutmish's death, lord chamberlain.

        Balban's ascendancy over the sultan was challenged, most notably in 1253 when Imad-ud-din Raihan made an attempt to oust him. This particular episode is of special interest, as Raihan was an Indian convert to Islam, and seems to have rallied the non-Turkish element in the court to his support. Balban was saved by the Turkish governors of the provinces, who rallied to his side. Balban maintained his position in the sultan's government until 1265, when, on Nasir-ud-din's death, he added the formal title of sultan to the power he had held for twenty years.

        Balban's work, both before and after he became sultan, involved not only the defense of the country against foreign aggression and internal dangers, but also a reorganization of the administration with the aim of increasing its effectiveness. Iltutmish had organized the administration in the newly conquered territories as a decentralized system in which the fiefholders enjoyed wide power, and high nobles were treated almost as peers of the king. A pious Muslim, disdaining show, he had not sought to assert royal superiority over the nobility. The disturbed conditions which followed his death, marked by a struggle between king and nobility, showed the dangers inherent in this attitude. His successor, Nasir-ud-din Mahmud, had lived an unassuming life, leaving real power with the deputy. Balban's attitude, however, was completely different. Influenced by the Iranian theory of kingship, and noting the anarchy which prevailed after the death of Iltutmish, he proceeded to raise the royal status far above that of the nobles. He used to say that next to prophethood, the highest office was that of kingship, and that the ruler who did not maintain the dignity of his office failed to perform his functions properly, and his subjects, resorting to insubordination, would fall prey to crime.

        As soon as he ascended the throne, Balban provided a material [[57]] basis for the heightened royal status by strengthening the army. Aibak and Iltutmish had relied largely on the contingents of the fiefholders, and the ariz, or war office, had been a subordinate branch of the central secretariat under the overall control of the wazir. Balban reorganized the war office, raised the status of ariz-i-mamalik, his chief of staff, and dealt directly with him. He increased the army's size, placed the troops under hand-picked commanders, and raised their emoluments. He kept it in fighting trim by taking it on long, arduous expeditions and large-scale hunting parties. The result was an instrument adequate for combatting external and internal enemies and for making the position of the king immeasurably stronger than that of the nobles and fiefholders.

        Balban took other steps to enhance the royal status. Great importance was attached to the observance of an impressive and elaborate court etiquette. When the royal cavalcade moved, hundreds of imposing heralds, dressed in brilliant uniforms, preceded it; it was such a magnificent show that according to the historian Barani, people came from great distances to witness the procession. At the royal court, there was such an atmosphere of awe and majesty that ambassadors presenting their credentials and rajas coming to pay tribute became nervous and occasionally stumbled on the steps. Very meticulous about the royal dignity, Balban imposed a rigorous discipline on himself. No valet ever saw him without a cap or socks or shoes, and throughout his long period of kingship he never laughed aloud before others, nor had anyone the courage to laugh aloud in his presence./1/

        A major problem with which Balban was faced was the all-powerful military oligarchy which had dominated the politics of the sultanate since the death of Iltutmish. This aristocratic corps, commonly known as the Chihilgan or "the Forty,”\" had at one time played a constructive role, but in the days of Iltutmish's weak successors it had become a major threat to the state. Originally Balban had been one of the Forty, but now he set about breaking their power by all possible means, including the use of poison and the assassin's dagger.

        [[58]] As a natural consequence of this policy the provincial governors lost much of their power and privilege. The instructions which Balban gave to his son Bughra Khan, while entrusting to him the government of Bengal, laid down the relationship which was to exist between the central government at Delhi and the governors of the provinces./2/ Even more effective were the practical steps he took to control the provincial chiefs. In all provinces he appointed barids (intelligence officers) to report on the local dignitaries. On the basis of these reports Balban meted out exemplary punishments to the provincial governors for any misbehavior. This was one aspect of Balban's attempt to transform Iltutmish's decentralized organization, with the nobles possessing great powers, into a highly centralized government under the control of an autocratic king. Henceforth, subject to occasional variations, this was to be the normal pattern of Muslim government in India.

        Although he insisted on the rights of kingship, Balban acknowledged the duty of a ruler to provide peace and tranquility within his dominion. This the early Muslim rulers had not always been able to ensure. The Jats, the Mewatis, and the Khokhars were a constant menace to the peaceful subjects of the sultanate. The Muslim rulers had broken the power of the organized Hindu armies, but warlike, restless tribes had taken to robbery. Every year there was some major disturbance of the peace, and even the city of Delhi was not immune to plundering operations. Thieves infesting the jungles around Delhi robbed travelers under the very walls of the city. The gates on the south side of the city had to be shut immediately following afternoon prayers, and it was dangerous to leave the city at night.

        Balban spent the first year of his reign in enforcing law and order in the city and its suburbs. The jungle was cleared, the Mewati robbers who had made it a base for their operations were destroyed, a fort was built to guard the city's southwestern approaches, and police posts were established around Delhi. Balban dealt equally firmly with the people of the Doab, who had closed the road between Bengal and the capital. He spent nearly a year in the districts of Patyali, Bhojpur, and Kampil, extirpating the highway robbers, building forts at suitable [[59]] centers, garrisoning them with Afghan soldiers who received lands in the area for their maintenance, and granting large areas to powerful nobles so that they could bring the land under cultivation and clear the jungles. The methods he used against the local population were undoubtedly ruthless, but they secured the roads between Delhi and Bengal for nearly a century. Similar measures were taken against the Rajputs in the trans-Gangetic tract in the charge of the governors of Budaun and Amroha. Balban ordered a terrifying slaughter of the insurgents, had their houses and hiding places burned, cleared the country of forests, built roads, and introduced orderly civil government.

        Although Balban built up a powerful army, he made no attempt to extend his dominion or to recover areas such as Malwa, once controlled by the Muslims. When these measures were suggested to him he replied that he had even higher ambitions, but could not expose Delhi to the fate of Baghdad. A stern realist, he abandoned the expansionist policy of his predecessors and concentrated on the consolidation of Muslim power in India. What he did instead with his army was to use it to overawe his nobles, and, in the last two decades of his reign, to defend his frontiers against the Mongols.

        Hulagu Khan who, with his sack of Baghdad in 1258 had wiped out the great center of Abbasid culture, was still alive, and the Mongols now constituted a standing threat to the subcontinent. As a preliminary measure of defense in 1270, Balban restored the fortifications of Lahore, which had been virtually deserted since its sack by the Mongols in 1241. While this facilitated the defense of the northwest, other vigorous military measures were needed to deal with the Mongol menace, and Balban erected a chain of fortifications in the northwest. The command of this strategic area Balban entrusted initially to Sher Khan Sunqar, his most distinguished general, and on Sunqar's death to Prince Muhammad Khan, Balban's favorite son and heir-apparent. Prince Muhammad Khan was killed in 1285 in a battle with the Mongols, but the arrangements that had been made for the defense of the northwestern frontier kept Hulagu Khan in check.

        Although Balban had succeeded for forty years in maintaining his control over most of North India, he was not able to ensure a peaceful [[60]] succession. After the death of Prince Muhammad Khan, he named as his heir Bughra Khan, the governor of Bengal, but Bughra refused to remain in Delhi. On his deathbed, Balban selected a son of Prince Muhammad Khan, but his nobles disregarded his will and placed on the throne Kaiqubad, the worthless, pleasure-loving son of Bughra Khan. Unable to control the fierce rivalries of the factions that were struggling to gain power, Kaiqubad soon ceased to play an effective role in the government. The group that emerged triumphant out of the breakdown of the sultan's authority was the Khalji family, one of the Turkish clans that had been settled so long in Afghanistan before entering India that their Turkish origin was almost forgotten. The Khalji chief, Makik Jalal-ud-din Firuz, as head of the army department, had one of the most important offices in the realm. He used this position to have himself proclaimed sultan in 1290, after a Khalji noble had murdered Kaiqubad.

        With Kaiqubad's death the Slave dynasty of the Ilbari Turks came to an end. It had established the political dominance of Islam throughout North India, and had laid the foundations for an administrative structure that was more than a military occupation. The violence that marked the last years of the dynasty continued under the Khaljis, but beyond the intrigues of the palace factions the position of the Muslim rulers was consolidated, and a great new movement became possible—the conquest of South India.


/1/ H. M. Elliot and John Dowson, A History of India as Told by Its Own Historians (London, 1867–1877), III, 100.
/2/ Elliot and Dowson, III, 111.

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