A Concise History of India
Chapter 2: MEDIEVAL INDIA
OR, HINDUS AND MOSLEMS IN TURMOIL
600 to 1500 A.D.
This chapter covers the following topics:
Harsha and his Successors
Harshavardhana, Harsha for short, inherited the throne of Thaneshwar, a small kingdom on the Upper Ganges, in 606, when he was only 16 years old. His father, like the other Indian kings of the day, spent his life fighting White Huns and rival monarchs. Despite his youth, Harsha did better; in only six years he conquered his neighbors and restored the boundaries of the Gupta Empire. Then he tried to conquer the Deccan, but a powerful southern dynasty, the Chalukyas, kept him from gaining any ground there. Harsha chose to devote the rest of his reign to peaceful pursuits as a result.
Harsha's method of rule was quite different from that of the Guptas. While the Guptas ran a decentralized administration, Harsha maintained tight control, treating the kingdom as if it were his personal property. He traveled constantly, inspecting local governments, redressing grievances and supporting many charities. And unlike the Guptas, who patronized Hinduism, Harsha preferred Buddhism, supporting the faith by building a large monastery at Nalanda. He seems to have been offended by certain Hindu practices, especially suttee, the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. He once had to save his sister from committing this grisly act.
Despite everything Harsha could do, the kingdom was destined to die with him. The economy never recovered from the fall of the Guptas, and soon Harsha's generosity depleted the treasury. To make matters worse, the Hindu caste system ranked priests higher than kings, so Harsha was required to pay the Brahmans annual "gifts"--actually taxes or tribute. When the money ran out Harsha gave them real estate instead, a move that strengthened the Brahmans at Harsha's expense. This meant that any king who did not like Hinduism was heading into trouble.
Eventually the Brahmans felt strong enough to plot against Harsha's life. Harsha nipped the conspiracy in the bud by arresting 500 Brahmans; then, with typical leniency, he pardoned all but the ringleaders. One pardoned minister launched a second and successful conspiracy, murdering the emperor in 647. Not long after that a Chinese embassy to Harsha arrived, and the Chinese took the usurper home with them as a prisoner, leaving a more suitable successor on the throne in his place. Northern India slid into chaos afterwards.
For the next 200 years, three dynasties fought for control of the north India plain: the Pratiharas (750-1030), the Palas (750-1161), and the Rashtrakutas (753-982). The Rashtrakuta kingdom held the northern Deccan, later expanding to the north and west. The Pala empire, India's last major Buddhist state, ruled the east--Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam--and profited from commerce with Tibet and Southeast Asia. It lasted until the Moslem conquest, but long before that it lost everything but Bihar to Hindu rulers. The Pratiharas were descendants of the White Huns, who now called themselves Rajputs, meaning "sons of kings." From their home in the Thar desert they conquered the Punjab, Gujarat and the upper Ganges valley after 778. These three states fought each other constantly for control of the Uttar Pradesh region, especially Kannauj, Harsha's capital, which gave much prestige to the monarch who held it. The strength of the three contenders was almost exactly matched, and in the tenth century, after a brief thrust by the Palas which reached as far as Benares, they all disintegrated into smaller city-states.
While India was squabbling, a new religion turned the Middle East upside down: Islam. In 712 an Arab army crossed the Indus River and conquered the kingdom of Sind (in southern Pakistan). When Pratihara resistance checked further progress, Sind broke away from the Islamic (Abbasid) Caliphate and formed two independent kingdoms, Multan and Mansura.
Here were newcomers with a creed and mind set completely incompatible with that of India's Hindu majority. Whereas Hinduism is a religion that can add the beliefs of others to its own, with enough gods for everybody, Islam is a rigid monotheism that sees submission to Allah as the only way to salvation. Furthermore, Islam teaches that all men are equal before Allah despite their class or color. Because of this incompatibility, Islam made little headway at first, and the higher populations of the Hindu states stopped the spread of Islam for the next 300 years. The Indians, who called the Arabs Mleccha (barbarians) or Yavanna (westerners), cared little about Middle Eastern politics, and therefore did not take the Arab threat to their way of life seriously. The idea that Arab traders could compete with and outperform Indian merchants was also not realized.
In the south, as in the north, three equally balanced kingdoms struggled without ever achieving a clear victory. One already mentioned, the Chalukyas (founded in 543), ruled the western and part of the eastern Deccan. Chalukya power peaked in the reign of Pulakesin II (610-642), a contemporary of Harsha. He defeated not only Harsha but also his main rival to the south, Mahendravarman I of the Pallavas (600-630). Pulakesin sent an embassy to the court of Khosrau II, the last important king of pre-Moslem Persia; the good relations started by this mission gave the Zoroastrians a place of refuge when the warriors of Islam overran their homeland. As a result, 100,000 Zoroastrians, now known as Parsees (Persians), live close to Bombay today.
The Chalukya history is more complicated than that of its rivals. Pulakesin started a second Chalukya dynasty when he put his younger brother Vishnuvardhana in charge of the eastern half of the kingdom. When the Rashtrakutas overthrew the Early or Western Chalukyas in 757, the Eastern Chalukyas survived in Andhra Pradesh. Their kingdom was eventually inherited into the Chola Empire by marriage in 1073. A third branch of the family got rid of the Rashtrakutas and founded a Late Chalukya kingdom, which lasted until it broke into two smaller states in 1200.
The Pallavas got started in the Tamil Nadu area in 315 A.D. The Pallavas were aggressive seafarers and soldiers, so whenever they fought the Chalukyas they tried to conquer as much of the east coast as possible; that gave them control over the Southeast Asian trade, an important economic advantage. The third important southern kingdom, Pandya (590-920), ruled the southernmost tip of the peninsula from Madurai, and they detested both the Chalukyas and the Pallavas, attacking either at every opportunity. As Pallava and Chalukya power declined after 800, the Pandyas pushed north. Late in the ninth century another Tamil-speaking people, the Cholas, learned how to build a navy from the Pallavas, and they started to restore their ancient kingdom. Pallava power ceased to matter very much after that.
South India replaced the north as Hinduism's cultural center during this time. All manner of writers flourished: storytellers, royal biographers, historians, dramatists, and poets. Mahendravarman I, the Pallava king, even tried his hand at writing, producing a satire about Hindu and Buddhist ascetics. True masonry replaced the prevailing style of architecture from earlier times, whole temples carved out of boulders. Now they built mountain-shaped structures, and covered them with countless sculptures.(1) We can now see the best examples of these temples at Bhuvaneshvar, in the state of Orissa. The Dravidian population of the south became enthusiastic Hindus when their primitive nature worship was incorporated into Hindu thought.
With the triumph of Hinduism, Buddhism became an empty shell. Hindus did not drive Buddhism out of India; they absorbed it. The Buddha found a place in the exhaustive Hindu pantheon as the ninth and most recent avatar (incarnation) of the god Vishnu. Indian Buddhism retained its separate identity only on the fringes of the subcontinent: in Sri Lanka, Burma, and in the Himalayas.
Today's historians accept the notion that Aryans from north India settled Sri Lanka, but they disagree on the location of Sinhapura, the ancestral kingdom. Aryan legends mention Vijaya's ancestors by name, but in two widely separated regions: Gujarat and Bengal. Since the record of Vijaya's journey mentions a stop on the west coast of India, the evidence seems to point toward a western, that is, Gujarati origin. However the chief language of Sri Lanka, Sinhalese, has more in common with the languages of east India; that may be the result of a later wave of colonists, perhaps from the Mauryan Empire. Finally the island's belligerent Tamil minority arrived, coming sometime in the first millennium A.D.
According to Sinhalese tradition, Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, a son of the great Mauryan emperor Asoka. The prince and his fellow missionaries immediately converted the king, Tissa, and his family. The king built the first stupa, or shrine, in the kingdom, and he donated a park to establish a monastery in. Mahinda sent for his sister, Sanghamittha, so that an order of nuns could be founded. She arrived with a branch of the Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha had received enlightenment, and they ceremonially planted it in the capital. Sometime after that a two-inch-long piece of bone, supposedly a tooth pulled from the ashes of the Buddha's funeral pyre, appeared in Sri Lanka, and it became Buddhism's holiest relic, enshrined in a pagoda called the Temple of the Tooth in the city of Kandy.
Despite the quick conversion of the royal family, the conversion of the Sinhalese people was a gradual process, lasting about a century. As Buddhism spread, the Anuradhapura kingdom extended its political control from the north-central portion of the island to the whole of Sri Lanka. This centralization began with Duttagamani Abhaya (167-137 B.C.). In 65 A.D. the Vijaya dynasty was replaced by Vasabha, who founded the Lambakanna dynasty. The Lambakannas ruled for nearly four centuries; their most noteworthy king was Mahasena (276-303), who constructed major irrigation systems and championed heterodox Buddhist sects.
A Pandyan invasion from the mainland conquered the island in 432, but only briefly; in 459 a Sinhalese named Dhatusena defeated the Pandyas and established himself as king. His son Kasyapa (477-495) moved the capital to the rock fortress of Sigiriya, but his successor returned it to Anuradhapura. After this time the south Indian states regularly got involved in Sri Lankan politics, usually by sending Tamil mercenaries to the king. Manavamma, a royal fugitive, gained the throne in 684 with the support of the Pallavas. He founded a second Lambakanna dynasty which frequently got involved on the mainland. Sinhalese kings often fought in the battles between the Pandyas, Pallavas, and Cholas; raids between Sri Lanka and south India became a regular event. In 993 the Cholas, hostile because of the current Sinhalese alliance with Pandya, invaded Sri Lanka. The conquest was completed in 1017 when the Cholas seized the southern part of the island.
For a long time the Cholas had to accept Pallava domination, but their fortunes changed around 850. The Pallavas ordered the king at this time, Vijayalaya Chola, to capture Tanjore, the city of a minor warrior clan. The Pallavas had their hands full with other matters, and the Pallava capital, Mahabalipuram, was far away, so Vijayalaya got to keep his conquest. It soon became the main Chola seaport. His grandson, Parantaka I (907-953), was strong enough to turn the tables and make the Pallavas vassals of the Cholas; by the end of his reign every other state south of the Deccan was a Chola vassal too. He also advanced into the Deccan, but here he nearly lost his empire in 950 when the Rashtrakuta king, Krishna III, defeated the Cholas in a devastating battle that killed Parantaka's heir.
The thirty-five years after that were unhappy ones. The kings were weak and short-lived--at least one was assassinated--and the kingdom struggled to hold what it had. However, its opponents were no better off, and eventually the wheel of fortune turned in favor of the Cholas again.
Rajaraja (985-1014), the next important Chola king, reconquered the Pandyas, who had slipped out from under Chola rule during the previous generation. Then he conquered Kerala and the Maldive islands, which got him involved in the lucrative trade with the Arabs on the Malabar coast. Kerala had received aid from Sri Lanka, so Rajaraja launched an invasion that destroyed Anuradhapura and returned home with shiploads of loot. This was a bold stroke, and a profitable one, but the expedition only conquered the northern part of the island; the Sinhalese built a new capital called Polonnaruva in the area they still held. Late in Rajaraja's reign, around 1007, his son Rajendra led an equally successful raid that got as far as Bijapur, more than 400 miles northwest of Tanjore. The loot brought back from that campaign went into building a magnificent temple to Shiva, the largest south India had seen up to that time.
Two years before Rajaraja's death, he made Rajendra his co-regent, a move which gave the future emperor practical experience in running the state while his father was still around to guide him. Rajendra (1012-1044) outdid all other Chola monarchs when it came to achievements. He started by conquering the rest of Sri Lanka, no small feat when one considers the logistics of transporting an Indian army across the sea.(3) Another seaborne invasion captured what the chroniclers called the "many ancient islands, whose old great guard was the ocean, which makes the conchs resound"; possibly the Andamans or even the Nicobars. In 1030 Rajendra sent a fleet all the way across the Bay of Bengal to cripple Srivijaya, Indonesia's first kingdom. The objects of that raid were loot, the defeat of a possible trading rival, and simply to flaunt the king's strength in the style of Indian epic literature.
There was a word for such behavior: digvijaya, meaning to bravely show off one's power. Rajendra's greatest digvijaya took place on the east coast of the mainland. In a campaign that was almost the exact opposite of Samudragupta's southern campaign in the fourth century A.D., the Chola army marched more than 1,000 miles from Tanjore to the Ganges River. They brought back vessels full of holy Ganges water, which was used to consecrate a new temple Rajendra built 45 miles north of Tanjore. Rajendra named the site Gangaikondcholapuram, the "City of the Chola who Conquered the Ganges." He never attempted to rule north India, though; even in the high noon of the Chola Empire, its monarchs knew they had to stop somewhere.
A Chola ship. In the Middle Ages, South Indians crossed the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal on vessels like these. The largest could carry 200 people, and they had two unique features that you don't often find on ships from other places. First, the sails were bamboo mats, that were folded when not in use. Second, no nails were used in their construction, because Indians thought that rocks containing magnetic ore would attract a ship with nails, and it would not be able to escape. Instead, they made string from coconut fibers, and sewed the planks of their ships together with that.
After Rajendra the Cholas produced no more great monarchs, but the empire did not really decline; rather, it faded away. The emperors, despite their grand claims to absolute power, had no bureaucracy to administer their realm. Away from the heart of the empire--the Kaveri valley and Tanjore--power was held by local dynasties who got to keep most of their tax revenue by agreeing to acknowledge Chola supremacy and contribute troops to Chola campaigns. No centralized alternative was possible, if the emperor wished to keep his vassals loyal and the state in one piece. And the Kerala rebellions showed that even a small amount of submission could be difficult to get. In addition, villages and town had their own councils and merchant guilds, which were powerful enough to manage most local affairs. The Hindu temples were also largely independent of secular control, though the emperors were their biggest patrons. Finally, uncivilized tribes lived within the empire's boundaries, in the uplands and arid plains away from the irrigated areas.
These factors, along with an army that was too small to be everywhere at once, made for an empire with fluid boundaries. Often land would be lost in one place and gained in another simultaneously, as when Sri Lanka regained its independence and the Cholas made up for this loss by absorbing the Eastern Chalukya kingdom. Gradually, the revenue brought to the Cholas decreased, as border provinces stopped giving even token allegiance. Merchants grew rich from commerce until they were almost as powerful as the Cholas themselves. The Pandyas restored their kingdom from the ancient city of Madurai. In 1279 the Chola dynasty petered out and the empire simply disappeared. By the time that happened India's center of activity had shifted back to the north, where Islam was on the offensive again.
The Turks brought back to Islam the missionary fervor that the Arabs no longer had. They founded their first state, the Ghaznavid Emirate, in Afghanistan in 962. The first Ghaznavid leaders built up a formidable army of 100,000 slaves, and they started raiding the Punjab in 986. Twelve years later, the throne passed to the most competent soldier of the day, Mahmud of Ghazni.
In 1000 Mahmud turned his attention to India. "The whole country of India is full of gold and jewels, and the plants which grow there are those fit for making apparel, and aromatic plants and sugar-cane, and the whole aspect of the country is pleasant and delightful. Now since the inhabitants are chiefly infidels and idolaters, by the order of God and the Prophet it is right for us to conquer them." That, according to his chronicler, is how Mahmud justified what he did next. Between 1001 and his death in 1030 Mahmud made eighteen raids into India. Ironically, his first victims were the Moslems living in Multan, who had the misfortune of being in the way of his army.(4) In the years to come, all of northwest India suffered the same fate.
Mahmud's greatest conquest was the temple of Somnath, on the shores of Gujarat. The wealthiest of Hinduism's shrines, it gathered in revenue from 10,000 villages. Silver covered the temple's fifty-six pillars, and the chandeliers were made of gold. One thousand Brahmans worked there, with 300 barbers who gave haircuts to visiting pilgrims and 350 dancing girls, who performed continuously before the lingam, a huge jewel-encrusted phallus-shaped idol that represented the god Shiva.(5) In 1024 Mahmud brought 30,000 avaricious volunteers from Central Asia to attack the temple and the fort that surrounded it. The battle raged for three days, the Hindu defenders taking turns to rush into the temple and receive the blessing of Shiva before returning to the fray. When it was over most of the 50,000 defenders lay dead, and Mahmud stood victorious over the shattered idol. He went back to Ghazni "with so much booty, prisoners and wealth, that the fingers of those who counted them would have been tired," as one contemporary historian put it. This earned Mahmud the title of "Idol Breaker," and to modern Hindus the name Mahmud of Ghazni still symbolizes Moslem brutality.
Mahmud owed his success to a first-rate cavalry and excellent planning. He always started a campaign between October and December, to take advantage of the dry season. By the time he arrived it would be time for the Indian spring harvest, so his men would have plenty to eat. He would likewise return home by June, to escape the hot monsoon weather of summer.
Indian armies had scarcely changed since the time of Alexander the Great. The officers came from the Kshatriya caste of warriors, but most of the troops were drafted peasants, snatched from the fields to make up in numbers for the lack of quality all around. Because India is a poor place to breed horses and imported mounts were expensive, the existing cavalry was small. Instead the Indians put their trust in elephants; huge and impressive, but easily frightened, and in flight more likely to trample friend than foe.(6)
Mahmud did not want to rule India; he just wanted to plunder it. Nor did he try to convert the inhabitants, despite his anti-Hindu feelings. Fortunately for India, the sultans who came after him were far less aggressive. The Indians did not learn anything from Mahmud's depredations, though. The Rajputs, now the strongest power in north India, continued to use the same tactics as before, and they added a strict code of chivalry that hindered their fighting ability even more. For example, a warrior could only fight an opponent of equal rank, and he had to taunt the enemy with boasts before engaging him. Battles followed no strategy, turning into a melee of duels between champions when they took place. At one siege, victory was delayed several months because the attackers had politely allowed food supplies to get through. The most popular sport was a gargantuan form of jousting, in which nobles on elephants would fight to the death. One twelfth-century king in Kashmir liked it so much that he killed off most of his best warriors in its pursuit.
While the Rajputs were trying to make warfare a civilized business, the Ghaznavids were overthrown by one of their subjects, an Afghan tribe called the Ghurids. The Ghaznavids fled to the Punjab, and in 1173 the Ghurid sultan, Ghiyas al-Din, sent his brother Muizz al-Din Muhammad (better known as Muhammad Ghuri) to pursue them. Muhammad campaigned regularly, taking new cities in the Punjab and Sind every year, until he captured the last Ghaznavid in 1186. He came to grief, however, on the plain of Tarai in 1191, when the Rajputs united for the first (and almost the only) time, defeating and wounding him. Muhammad assembled a new force of 12,000 horsemen and came back for a rematch the following year. The second battle of Tarai was a triumph of mobility over mass; the Ghurids used the classic Turkish tactic of feigning retreat, then used their arrows to cut down pursuing opponents. This went on all day, until the Hindus were worn out; only then did the Ghurids charge. 100,000 Hindus were killed in the final slaughter, and Hindu domination of north India ended.
Muhammad had to return to Afghanistan afterwards, but he left his most trusted officer, a Turkish ex-slave named Qutb al-Din Aybak, to administer the new conquests. Qutb al-Din's first act was to build a permanent capital. He chose a Punjabi city named Delhi, and to let the world know that a new era had begun, he demolished 27 Hindu temples and used their stones to build the Quwat al-Islam mosque and the Qutb Minar, a huge tower in the center of the mosque that symbolized Islam's domination over India. Delhi would remain the main city of north India for centuries to come.
Another great Turkish soldier, Ikhtiyar-ud-Din Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji, brought Islam to the lower Ganges. Though an able warrior, the garrisons of Ghazni and Delhi refused to have him because of a unique physical feature--his arms were so long that he could touch his calves without bending. While Hindus saw this as evidence of a great hero(7), Moslems found it repulsive. Yet Ikhtiyar served well as a minor officer when he was finally accepted into the Varanasi and Oudh division of Qutb al-Din's army. Raids to the east brought him riches and a following of his own. In 1192 he conquered Bihar, looting the ancient monastery at Nalanda and ending the Buddhist presence along the Ganges.(8) After that Qutb al-Din agreed to let him lead armies in the east as long as he could pay for their upkeep.
In 1202 Ikhtiyar gained an astonishing victory when he led 2,000 horsemen against Nadia, the capital of Bengal. Ikhtiyar moved rapidly; so rapidly, in fact, that he left most of his cavalry behind and arrived at the gates of the city with only eighteen men. Bengal had heard of this long-armed invader, but, incredible as it sounds, Ikhtiyar and his men were mistaken for horse traders and allowed into the city. Perhaps nobody expected the conqueror to arrive without his army; the king, Lakshman Sena, didn't. The king was having lunch when the raiders stormed the palace, cutting down guards and anyone else who got in the way. Lakshman escaped through a back door, leaving the palace to Ikhtiyar's men, which they held until the rest of the cavalry arrived. Ikhtiyar followed up this triumph with a campaign against Tibet in 1205, but here his amazing luck ran out. The terrain, the winter weather, and hostile natives combined to defeat the Moslems, and Ikhtiyar returned to Bengal in 1206 with only 100 of the 10,000 men he had started with. Later that year, he was killed by a rival's knife.
We often call the period from 1206 to 1290 the Slave dynasty, though the term is not entirely correct because Delhi's rulers came from three families, not one, during this time. They came from a slave background because many Moslems looked for slaves, usually Turks, and trained them for warfare or government administration. As with the Mamelukes of Egypt, slave status was honorable and the best way for talented individuals to get ahead if they did not come from a noble family. A slave was considered a better investment than a son, since he was usually more competent and more loyal to his master. Yet, slaves that were too talented often controlled their masters, instead of the other way around. One of these was Iltutmish, the son-in-law of Qutb al-Din.
Iltutmish, according to the chronicles of his career, was born in Central Asia and sold into slavery by his brothers, who were jealous of his beauty, virtue, and intelligence. Such a paragon was he that his owner refused to sell him for any price, even to Muhammad Ghuri himself; Muhammad accordingly decreed that nobody would have the opportunity of buying Iltutmish. Later Qutb al-Din went to Muhammad Ghuri, sought and gained permission to purchase the famous slave. In India Iltutmish was steadily promoted from chief of Qutb al-Din's guards to chief huntsman and then provincial governor. Finally Qutb al-Din gave him his daughter in marriage, followed by his freedom. In 1211 he fought his way to his late master's throne, and ruled ably until 1236.
Iltutmish spent his reign putting down local rebellions, making the kingdom richer and more stable. However, to the northwest was a horde of nomads more savage than the Turks had ever been--the Mongols of Genghis Khan. When Genghis invaded Khwarizm a wave of refugees, including the heir to Khwarizm's throne, fled into India (1221). Iltutmish faced his greatest challenge in trying to avoid a direct conflict with Genghis Khan. He refused to support the Moslem prince of Khwarizm against the pagan Mongols and yet would not attempt to capture the prince. 20,000 Mongols pursued him and won a victory against local forces on the banks of the Indus River, but they did not care much for the sweltering climate of India, so the threat faded when the prince ran off to Persia and the Mongols followed him again. The sultans kept a presence in present-day Pakistan, though, because they were always nervous about what the Mongols were up to.(9)
When Iltutmish died a series of weak sons and grandsons ruled for the next thirty years. During this time the sultanate was kept running efficiently by the personal slaves of Iltutmish, who became known as "The Forty." One of them, Balban, seized power when the last descendant of Iltutmish died in 1266. Like Iltutmish, he conquered almost nothing, but made the state much stronger by defeating rebels and concentrating power in the sultan's hands. He also welcomed Persians, Afghans, and any other Moslem refugees from the Mongol Empire into his realm, and Delhi became one of Islam's most important cultural centers now that the Mongols had turned Baghdad, the city at the center of the Islamic world, into a heap of ruins. Because the Mongols also cut off the supply of Turkish immigrants, Balban started recruiting Indian-born Moslems into the army and government, institutions that were exclusive Turkish clubs previously.
That last policy bore fruit when Balban died in 1290. A struggle for the throne broke out between the old Turkish nobility and the newcomers, who were led by Jalal ud-Din Firuz Khalji. Jalal ud-Din won, and ruled until 1296, when he was overthrown and killed by his ambitious nephew and son-in-law Ala ud-Din Khalji. The battle fought by the two over Delhi is unusual for using the most expensive ammunition of all time. Ala ud-Din's siege of the city took so long that he ran out of stones for his catapults; instead of giving up the siege, he opened his treasury and ordered the troops to load the catapults with bags of gold! After several hundred golden missiles were fired into Delhi, the bewildered defenders surrendered the city. A single round weighed about 100 lbs., so we estimate that each missile of the golden bombardment cost $2.8 million in modern figures.
As sultan, Ala ud-Din had a high opinion of himself; he called himself a "Second Alexander" and had that title stamped on his coinage. However, he did have the ability to match his ambition. He repulsed Mongol raids with a ferocity that matched their own. Then he conquered the Rajput chiefs and invaded south India. His armies advanced all the way to Madurai in the Tamil region, returning with vast amounts of loot and leaving behind a chain of burned cities whose survivors pledged a fearful allegiance to the triumphant sultanate. At home he was a skilled administrator, the first sultan of India to raise more money from taxes than from plunder. He also provided more jobs in the government for Indian-born Moslems, and even found a place for Hindus in his polyglot state, by taking Hindu wives and treating their families with respect. However, his centralizing activities oppressed both Hindus and Moslems alike.
Despite Ala ud-Din's success, the sultanate did not remain in his family for long. They were exterminated in the civil war following his death in 1316, and this time the winner was one of his generals, Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq. He reigned for five years (1320-25) and then a wooden shelter fell on him; his son Muhammad succeeded him.
The reign of Muhammad ibn Tughluq (1325-51) marked both the high point and the beginning of the decline of the sultanate. He began with an empire of 23 provinces, and there were few places in the subcontinent where anyone could challenge his authority. However, the empire was now so large that even the greatest ruler would have had problems running it. Muhammad tried to make the job easier by replacing the tribute-paying Hindu princes with Moslem governors; then he moved the capital from Delhi to Devagiri (modern Daulatabad) in the Deccan. And moving the government was not enough; he ordered Delhi's entire unhappy population to march to the new capital; many did not survive the trek. However, once he was firmly established in the south, he lost control of the north. Two rebellions had to be put down, and the Mongols had to be bought off with tribute after their army came almost to the gates of Delhi. In reaction to these events, Muhammad raised an army reported to number 370,000 men and prepared to invade Central Asia, but the campaign never got started and the army had to be disbanded when the treasury ran out of money to pay for it. He also launched an invasion of Tibet which failed for the same reasons as Ikhtiyar's a century earlier.
The Sultanate of Delhi, showing what land it controlled on three key dates: under Iltutmish (1236), under Muhammad ibn Tughluq (1335), and right before Babur's invasion (1525). From Wall-Maps.com.
Gradually it became clear that Muhammad ibn Tughluq could not hold both north and south India. In 1335 the Moslem governor of Madurai, the southernmost province, declared independence. There were plenty of other disloyal governors to follow his example. Bengal broke away in 1341, the Deccan in 1347 (to form the Bahmani Sultanate), and the states of the middle Ganges, Gujarat, and the Vindhya mts. between 1382 and 1396. By 1394 two sultans were quarreling over Delhi itself, and their civil war left the countryside ripe for the most disastrous invasion yet.
That invader was Timur (also called Tamerlane), the most ruthless of Genghis Khan's successors. Already the ruler of the Middle East and Central Asia, Timur invaded India in 1398. The first Moslem and Hindu forces were either bypassed or submitted peacefully; then the Rajputs and their Moslem foes were slaughtered together at Bhatnagar. The four-month campaign ended with the sacking of Delhi. Timur reportedly ordered the execution of 50,000 captives before the battle of Delhi and afterwards took everything of value from the city, including any of the inhabitants who were still alive at that point.
After this catastrophe, India was left divided between petty Hindu and Moslem states. The sultanate never recovered from this blow, and was only the first state among equals after this. Two dynasties succeeded the Tughluqs, the Sayyids (1414-51) and the Lodis (1451-1526), but try as they might, they never controlled anything beyond the Punjab and the upper Ganges. When Timur's descendant, Babur, invaded from Afghanistan in 1526, only the Rajputs were organized to resist.
The Bahmani Sultanate got started in 1347 when Muhammad ibn Tughluq's governor of Devagiri, Hasan Gangu, declared independence and crowned himself sultan, changing his name to Ala ud-Din Bahman Shah. He immediately moved his court to Gulbarga, right in the center of the Deccan plateau, and that was the capital until 1423. We can summarize the nearly two centuries of Bahmani history as an attempt to gain control of the whole Deccan, and then, less successfully, to expand outward against hostile neighbors: Malwa and Gujarat in the north, Vijayanagar in the south, and Orissa in the east. Because Hindus ruled it, Vijayanagar was the most implacable opponent. Between 1350 and 1500 there were at least ten wars fought between them, most of them concerned with gaining control over the Doab, a rocky no man's land between the Tungabhadra and Krishna Rivers that formed an indefinite boundary between the two kingdoms.
India in the late fourteenth century. The territories of the Bahmani Sultanate (green) and Vijayanagar (orange) are correct, but the Sultanate of Delhi (here called Tughaluq) ruled the green-striped area around 1350, not 1400. From http://historyofindia-madhunimkar.blogspot.com/.
As Delhi declined, the Bahmani capital replaced it as a cultural center. Soon many Turks, Afghans and Persians left Delhi and immigrated to Gulbarga. The new settlers, known as afaqis (newcomers), competed with the old nobility, who became known as dakhnis (Deccanis, a word derived from the Deccan). Later, the addition of Hindu converts and unconverted Hindus to the nobility complicated the situation further, but the rivalry between dakhnis and afaqis was never resolved and ultimately led to the disintegration of the Bahmani state.
Three sultans reigned during the state's best years (1458-81), but the most important person in the government at this time was a Persian immigrant named Mahmud Gawan. A fine administrator and war leader, Gawan was also the leading peacemaker of his time. He maintained a careful political balance between the Deccanis and the newcomers. To increase the sultan's power and decrease that of his treacherous governors, Gawan subdivided the country's four provinces into eight smaller ones and put a large block of crown land in the middle of each. Nevertheless, party strife had grown to the point where the nobles would not stand for such actions. In 1481 a group of Deccani nobles produced false evidence against Mahmud Gawan, and Sultan Muhammad III executed him on a charge of treason. All of the newcomers and a few Deccanis denounced the execution and withdrew to the provinces, leaving the sultan with only the conspirators on his side. One year later the sultan died (of grief over his error in judgment, the chronicles report), and the conspirators gained control over the royal family.
Afterwards the sultans were weaker than their provincial governors. Starting in 1490, the governors began fighting battles among themselves as if they were independent kings. The prize they struggled for was the office of prime minister, now the most powerful job in the land. The sultan himself was no more than a pawn, passed between nobles like a ball in a sporting event. When the royal family died out in 1538, the state broke into its five component parts.
The first reason for Vijayanagar's success was that it had a more secure economy than its south Indian predecessors. Whereas earlier peoples like the Cholas were content to farm the river valleys, Vijayanagar placed great emphasis on irrigating the uplands, building an extensive series of wells and reservoirs to store water during the dry seasons. As population swelled, the army grew in importance because they needed it to maintain order in a difficult environment.
The empire fought with its Moslem neighbors almost from the beginning. The Bahmanis, just on the other side of the Tungabhadra, were pushed northward, and a campaign in the early 1370s swallowed up the Sultanate of Madurai, in the far south. Now Vijayanagar held nearly the same land on the mainland as the Chola Empire had. Yet Bahmani wouldn't give up that easily, so the two states continued to fight almost constantly, though neither was strong enough to eliminate the other. In the fifteenth century another Hindu power, Orissa, got involved, and the result was a messy three-sided conflict where alliances could change at the drop of a hat.
Because the strength of the Moslem armies came from their cavalry, Vijayanagar made a point of adopting the Moslem tactics, learning to use mounted archers almost as well as their enemies did. War horses became a major import, and they overhauled the country's tax code to raise the cash needed to pay for them. All commerce benefitted from the increasing number of ships that they sent across the Arabian Sea to buy more horses. The city of Calicut on the southwest coast, not to be confused with Calcutta on the east coast, soon became one of India's most important ports.
Despite Vijayanagar's success, more than once a Bahmani army approached the walls of the capital and had to be bought off with tribute. In the 1440s, King Raja Deva Raya II got mad enough at this to try something new. Realizing that the Moslem cavalry was still better than his, he decided to make the Moslems join him instead. He recruited Moslem soldiers into his service, gave them estates, and built a mosque for them to worship in. He also ordered a Koran placed on a desk before his throne, so that Moslems could bow down in his presence without sinning against their laws. Still, the military situation remained unchanged. For a generation after Raja Deva Raya's death in 1446, a series of weak rulers sat on the Hindu throne while the Bahmanis prospered(10), negating the gains made by Vijayanagar's mercenaries. Not until 1509, the year Krishna Deva Raya came to the throne, did Vijayanagar again have a strong, unchallenged ruler.
In May 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived at Calicut, leading the first European expedition to India. To the ruler of the city he took some caps and trinkets, gifts which had won him new friends in Africa. However, the palace officials took a different view of the offering. "When they saw the present, they laughed at it," the expedition's diarist noted ruefully, "saying that it was not a thing to offer a king, that the poorest merchant from Mecca or any other part of India gave more, and that if he wanted to make a present it should be in gold." They treated Da Gama with contempt for the rest of his visit.
That was the least of his problems. Few people wanted to buy the trade goods he brought, and he spent all the money he had to buy a few packets of cloves, cinnamon, and jewels so he could prove that he had reached Asia. His Indian navigator disappeared in Calicut, and without him it took three months of sailing against headwinds to get back to Africa. Supplies ran out, and the crew experienced for the first time the starvation, scurvy, filth and other horrors that long sea voyages inflict on the ill-equipped. At Malindi on the coast of Kenya, a friendly sultan saved their lives with fresh oranges, eggs and meat, but so many had died of starvation by this time that they beached and burned one of the ships; there were no longer enough sailors to man all three of them. Of the 170 men who had started the voyage, only 54 lived to complete it, and the goods they brought back did not come even close to paying for the expedition.
Despite the financial loss, da Gama's return delighted the Portuguese. In 1500 Pedro Alvares Cabral led a follow-up expedition, this time with thirteen ships and plenty of gifts for Calicut's hard-to-please mayor. When the Moslem merchants tried to hinder him, Cabral stood off the Indian coast and bombarded Calicut with cannon, accusing the mayor of siding with the Moslems against him. Then he took his wares to two other ports, Cochin and Cannanore. He came home with only seven ships and half his men, but with enough spices, incense, porcelain and jewels to turn a handsome profit.
The Portuguese trade goods may have been inferior to those of their Arab and Indian competitors, but by now their ships and cannon were superior. On his second trip to India (1502), Vasco da Gama gave a perfect demonstration of this technological edge by destroying a native fleet off Calicut; he kept his distance and used his guns at a range the native artillery could not match. Then King Manuel of Portugal appointed Francisco de Almeida as his viceroy over the Indian Ocean. Almeida's first challenge came from the Moslem state of Gujarat, which called for a holy war (jihad) and had the help of the Egyptian fleet. Almeida's victory over the fleets of both (the battle of Diu, 1509) was so complete that his successor Alfonso de Albuquerque could practice a more ambitious policy. Aiming at complete control of all Indian Ocean traffic, he organized a chain of forts all along the coast, the main ones being Goa in India (the viceregal capital), Hormuz (at the entrance to the Persian Gulf), and Malacca in Southeast Asia. Between Indonesia and Africa ships now sailed with Portuguese permission or at their peril. Yet control of the sea was the most that the Portuguese could accomplish; they realized that if they tried to conquer large amounts of Asian territory the natives would quickly overwhelm them. Goa had once been a port of Vijayanagar, but it had been under Moslem control more recently, so Krishna Deva Raya did not object when the Portuguese took it. Besides, it gave him a non-Moslem source of the much-needed war horses.
Vijayanagar was at the peak of its wealth and influence during Krishna Deva Raya's twenty-year reign. He decisively defeated both Orissa and the Bahmanis; the latter were now more of a coalition of princes than a unified state. Ironically, his success also increased the danger to the realm, because it pointed out to the Moslem sultans that Vijayanagar was more powerful than any of them, so that in the years to come they started forming defensive alliances against the Hindu kingdom.
Krishna Deva Raya's half brother and heir, Achyuta Deva Raya (1529-42), was not of the same caliber, and real authority passed to Rama Raya, the great king's son-in-law and a born conspirator. When Achyuta died Rama Raya crowned Achyuta's nephew Sadashiva (1542-67) and appointed himself regent until the young king came of age; to prevent trouble from the figurehead, Rama Raya immediately had his monarch imprisoned.
Events now moved toward a crisis. The Deccan sultans of the former Bahmani domain now took sides either with Rama Raya or with his disgruntled rivals within Vijayanagar. So did the Portuguese, who added Catholicism to the already explosive religious mixture by setting up an office of the Holy Inquisition in Goa. The destruction of Hindu temples led to a brief war between Vijayanagar and the Europeans, but Rama Raya could not afford to lose his supply of horses and modern weapons, so they hastily arranged a truce. At the end of 1564 the sultans joined together and brought a huge army to the town of Talikota, just north of the Krishna River.
Moslem soldiers advancing at Talikota.
Rama Raya was not impressed; Vijayanagar had turned back every attacker before, either by force of arms or with gold. The invasion meant that his diplomatic game had failed, but in the past he had beaten each of these sultans separately and now was ready to take them on together. He immediately ordered his brothers, Tirumala and Venkatadri, to lead two armies north, and he followed behind them as supreme commander, although he was over ninety years old and had to be carried on a litter. The Moslem army was only half as large, but it had enough skilled soldiers to offset the horde of untrained draftees that made up the bulk of the Hindu force. For days the two forces marched and countermarched on opposite banks of the Krishna River, until the Moslems tricked the Hindus into leaving a ford unguarded, allowing the Islamic army to cross safely.
The main clash, involving hundreds of thousands on each side, came on the following morning, January 23, 1565. At first the Hindus had the better of it, until the Moslems loaded their guns with copper coins instead of cannonballs, mowing down the charging Hindus with primitive grapeshot. Rama Raya, still commanding from a litter, was left unguarded and captured. A quick-thinking Moslem officer lopped off his head and raised it on the point of a lance. About the same time, Vijayanagar's Moslem cavalry switched sides. The combined effect of those two events was to turn the Hindu army into a rabble of terrified men fleeing for their lives.
Once the army started running, there was no stopping it. There were plenty of good defensive positions on the 90-mile stretch between Talikota and Vijayanagar, but no one tried to stand and fight. When Tirumala, the sole surviving general, returned to the capital, he gave no thought to defending it. Instead, he seized elephants, horses and oxcarts, loaded them with treasure, scooped the wretched Sadashiva from his prison, and hurried off to the south. Looting started even before the Moslems arrived, and they spent nearly six months demolishing every building in the city. To the Moslems this must have been doubly satisfying; by smashing the temples and palaces of idol-worshippers they both gained religious merit and enriched themselves beyond their dreams.
The Vijayanagar Empire was not destroyed at the battle of Talikota, but it was never the same again. Tirumala ruled what was left of it from a fortress named Penukonda, but most of the local princes no longer paid him tribute. His kingdom slowly wasted away until his last descendant died in 1672, while rivals styled themselves kings of Vijayanagar in the same manner that certain European monarchs called themselves heirs to the Roman Caesars until World War I. The imperial city itself was never inhabited again, its architectural marvels becoming mere obstacles to the plow.
Meanwhile the Tamils seized power from Magha's successors and founded a Tamil kingdom, centered on the Jaffna peninsula. Both Tamils and Sinhalese made extravagant claims afterwards, but neither kingdom controlled much beyond the capital. The island's division invited trouble from overseas. A Malay ruler named Chandrabhanu made two unsuccessful invasions in 1247 and 1258, for reasons that are unclear to us. The Pandyas constantly interfered in Sri Lankan affairs, supporting pro-Pandyan princes vying for the thrones and taking large amounts of booty in payment including, once, the Tooth of the Buddha!
In the fifteenth century Pandya's successor, the Vijayanagar Empire, invaded and made the Jaffna kingdom a tributary state. Zheng He, the great Chinese admiral, brought his fleet to Sri Lanka; he didn't stay long the first time (1406), but on the second (1411) he defeated the Tamil king and took him and his prime minister captive to China.
The migration of the Sinhalese from the north and their replacement by Tamils had drastic social and economic consequences. Before 1000 the Sinhalese economy had depended on a complex irrigation system, which the early kings were proud to enlarge at every opportunity. Now as the Sinhalese left, their reservoirs and canals fell into ruin. The north had always been relatively dry, so now the Sinhalese found wetter areas like the south, southwest, and central highlands to be more attractive real estate. They changed their agriculture accordingly, sculpting hills into terraces so that they could grow rice on both flat and rugged terrain. They also started growing local spices, like pepper and cinnamon, which Arab traders eagerly bought up.(11) Meanwhile the Tamils introduced their institutions from the mainland, and soon Hindu temples stood where great Buddhist monasteries had once existed.
This is the End of Chapter 2.
A Concise History of India
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