Alauddin Khilji: Ruling by the sword (18 November 2017)

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 18 2017)

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Alauddin Khilji, the 14th century Muslim king of Delhi, had a fearsome mother-in-law. The conqueror—soon arriving at your nearest cinema as the very picture of unwashed ferocity, complete with sinister, surma-lined eyes, an insatiable appetite for gore and gold, and much lust for virtuous Hindu princesses—does not seem to have enjoyed any domestic tranquillity during his very eventful life. His first wife and her mother, described variously as “fool of fools” and “silliest of the silly”, were supremely dominating, so much so that some of his early campaigns were also partly an excuse to place as much distance as possible between himself and them. Things got a little more complicated after he seized the wife of a Gujarati king—the lady missed her young daughter, so another round of battles had to be fought to seize that object of her motherly affections. Then he had in his harem a slave girl who was sent out to do battle and died in the process. Finally, he also fell in love with Malik Kafur, the eunuch general, who cheerfully exploited this sentiment till he found his way abruptly to a forgotten grave.

Alauddin was the nephew and son-in-law of the first of the Khilji sultans, a man who killed his predecessor and then belatedly found himself consumed by guilt. This uncle wouldn’t sit on the throne, for instance, because he was convinced he was unworthy. While older nobles at court were sufficiently moved, those of a more aggressive temperament thought this all sentimental nonsense. They began to plot to replace the mild-mannered monarch with a more manly substitute. When news of one of these intrigues reached the ruler, he summoned its participants to his august presence. And there, instead of relieving them of their seditious heads, he proceeded to lecture them on alcohol and the importance of not getting carried away into making strange plans while under its influence. The young men nodded and begged forgiveness, but among those who realized that the sultan was a little bit of a softie was Alauddin. In 1296, after he raided Devagiri without permission and returned with phenomenal quantities of plunder, he sought his royal uncle’s pardon and invited him to come in person to collect the treasure. Trusting and naïve, the old sultan went where he was told, and very quickly found himself in more than one piece.

“While the head of the murdered sovereign was yet dripping with blood,” writes the chronicler Ziauddin Barani, “the ferocious conspirators brought the royal canopy and elevated it over the head of Alauddin. Casting aside all shame, the perfidious and graceless wretches caused him to be proclaimed king by men who rode about on elephants.” The new king was touched. After he put his uncle’s sons to flight and eventually imprisoned his infuriating mother-in-law, the men who helped raise him to the throne were also rewarded with death—that is, leaving aside two who were already destroyed by leprosy or madness. The loot from Devagiri was put to good use, for, after all, gold could erase all traces of a less than conventional succession to the throne, buying loyalties that could not be immediately inspired. In subsequent policy, Alauddin was firm. “I issue such orders as I conceive to be for the good of the State, and the benefit of the people,” he declared. “Men are heedless, disrespectful, and disobey my commands: I am then compelled to be severe to bring them into obedience.” An elaborate network of spies was also formed, so that if anything stern was said against the sultan, His Majesty was perhaps also among the first to hear it.

Alauddin’s career was not easy, though. Having murdered his uncle, he could hardly point fingers at his own nephews for seeking to follow in his illustrious footsteps. One tried to shower him with arrows, and for this his head appeared on a spear. Two sons of a sister decided the time was right for rebellion, so they were both blinded. In due course, however, it was clear that the sultan meant business, and the court fell in line. Times were such that to hold power, one also needed periodic violent demonstrations of its use. Alauddin became an empire builder. Land after land in northern India fell to him, while his trusted commander Malik Kafur acquired mountains of gold in the south. When hordes of Mongols invaded India soon after the sultan’s ascent to power, they were defeated. In 1303, however, when Alauddin was away, the Mongols destroyed Delhi. The king returned and locked himself up in a fort, unable to do much on this occasion, though he put to good use the lessons he learnt from the experience. For the rest of his reign, he never once allowed the Mongols a victory.

Interestingly, the sack of Delhi in 1303 occurred because Alauddin was at the time in Chittor, doing battle. Padmavat, an Awadhi poem that has since been embraced as historical fact, offers a most imaginative motive to the sultan here. A parrot told the already married ruler of Chittor about a dark-skinned Ceylonese beauty. After many adventures, this beauty became queen in the desert, from where a wicked sorcerer was expelled by her Rajput husband. This character told Alauddin all about her, and so it was that the Muslim king marched his men and demanded the princess’ enlistment in his harem. To cut a long story short, battles were fought, masses of people died, and the lady jumped into a fire. Alauddin himself never knew this story, for it first appeared two centuries after his death. It would hardly have mattered though, for his was an end that was not very happy, even without women perishing in flames and hideous on-screen make-up. Illness depleted him, and he spent his time fearing his own sons, lapsing more and more into the hands of Malik Kafur, who may even have had something to do with his death. Either way, Alauddin died, and a fresh cycle of intrigues and violence began, ending with the fall of his dynasty and the inevitable advent of a new one.

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