An imbecilic bonehead with a sharp sword and legions of bloodthirsty followers, unfortunately, always seems to rise to power in history. Fortunately, the people of Delhi provided us with a funny way of dealing with such warlords.
Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq, born Fakhr Malik Jauna Ulugh Khan, was one of the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate for 26 years from 1325-1251 A.D.
The Delhi Sultanate was an Islamic empire that conquered much of the Indian sub-continent by force. It lasted for 320 years from around 1206-1526 A.D. Over that span of time, five dynasties, or ruling families starting with the Mamluk Dynasty and ending with the Lodi Dynasty held the throne. This Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq himself belonged to the Turko-Indian Tughluq Dynasty through which his father had achieved kingdom in the 1320 A.D. It was the third of the five Delhi Sultanate dynasties and it lasted 93 years. The Delhi Sultanate saw both its peak-rise and fall under Sultan Tughluq.
Jauna Ulugh was well educated and capable in his youth. He was a successful and effective officer in his father’s court. He became sultan after a wooden stage “mysteriously” collapsed, killing his father and brother.
As sultan, he led a series of successful military campaigns that expanded the kingdom’s borders over modern-day India and Pakistan and to as far east as Bengal. However, his character was so despised and his rule so ruthless and violent, that over twenty rebellions rose against him. His army was ruthless, preferring to execute the survivors of battles rather than take prisoners. Peoples who did not accept his rule would be chased after and hunted down to be either killed or forced to submit. One warlord-governor serving under him at the time even took to posting the decapitated heads of rebels on his town gates and spreading their flailed skins out like hunting trophies on the walls.
Sultan Tughluq possessed some of the ugliest traits a person could possess, which were exacerbated by the powers he had at hand as a sultan. On one hand, he strove to be a devout Muslim and would commit fine acts of charity like keeping a royal grain supply to sell to the poor at a very cheap rate during droughts and famines. On the other hand, he would execute hundreds of citizens on a daily basis for trifling infractions such as theft or disloyalty. And in between, he would do odd acts of contrition like catapulting coins into town squares for the people before making a public appearance.
He made obsessive efforts to prove to the public that he was a perfect man. His façade of goodness included public participation in little rites of Islam and tiny acts of honor, like regularly kissing his mother’s feet in front of an audience. All this would be done in public to ensure that people saw how good of a man he was. And he was insistent that people bow in a particular fashion. When the famed Moroccan traveler, Ibn Battuta, entered the sultan’s court one day, a group of royal eunuchs brought in some gifts and platters of food and drink. But Ibn Battuta failed to observe the strange bowing custom that the sultan had put in place. In order to properly receive the gifts of food and drink, he was supposed to take each platter one at a time and hold it on his shoulder with one hand while keeping his head down, then touch the floor with his other hand. This was the start of a long and intimidating relationship between the sultan and Ibn Battuta–one that took the traveler years to escape from. Such was life under this sultan.
And his rule became stranger and stranger. His economic policy was imbecilic. He ordered brass and copper coins to be minted and forced people to value them at the same rate as gold and silver. This caused extreme currency inflation. He also initiated a program of religious inspection in which pedestrians would be stopped at random in public to answer pop-quizzes about Islam; if they failed, they would be subject to severe and even corporeal punishment.
People simply disliked him. He began to order anyone who uttered a negative word about him killed. So, the citizens of Delhi would write insults and jokes on rocks and paper and throw them over his palace walls so that they could criticize and mock him anonymously. Whenever he would find these notes making fun of him in his courtyard, he would carry out some mean order against the citizenry. Legend has it he once went so far as to force the whole, entire city of Delhi to leave and move out of town because of the way they bullied and mocked him.
The veracity of this legend is not far-fetched. Records vary, but under his rule Delhi suffered a famine and great population loss. Credence can be offered by the fact that he did indeed move his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad (modern: Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India) from 1327 to 1334 for military reasons, ordering a mass migration of Delhi’s population to follow him and then subsequently return with him.
He reigned with his sword for 26 years. Military dominance has long been the method used by foreign empires to conquer the virtuously peaceful Hindu populations of the Indian sub-continent. But, Sultan Tughluq’s tyranny caused the Delhi Sultanate to teeter. Rebellions overcame him; even his own generals turned against him. He fell ill and died in 1351 A.D. while on a military expedition in the Sindh (modern: Sindh, Pakistan). After his death, his relatively unprepared cousin took over the throne and was forced to concede many of the lands Jauna Ulugh conquered. The Tughluq dynasty ended some time later in 1413 A.D., though the Delhi Sultanate persisted until it was taken over by the famous Mughal Dynasty in 1526 A.D.
Source: Chandra, Satish (2004). Medieval India: From Sultanat to the Mughals-Delhi Sultanat (1206-1526) – Part One. Har-Anand Publications
Source: Source: Ibn, Batuta, and Tim Mackintosh-Smith. The Travels of Ibn Battutah. London: Picador, 2002. Print.
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