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The benefits of Turkish treatment

Rajiv Shirali 

A History of the Delhi Sultanate
Abraham Eraly

Penguin Books
448 pages; Rs 699

The Age of Wrath is the third volume of Abraham Eraly's four-volume history of pre-modern India. Rather than merely chronicling events, the author has tried to portray the life of the rulers and the ruled during the Delhi Sultanate (1206 to 1526 AD) - one of the most powerful Muslim kingdoms of its time, which at its peak under Muhammad Tughlaq (1326 to 1351) covered virtually the entire subcontinent, except for Kashmir in the far north, Kerala in the deep south and a few small pockets in between.

Mr Eraly says in the preface that there are virtually no Indian sources on the socio-cultural history of early medieval India, or on the life of the common people; astonishingly, the Indian intelligentsia simply did not take note of the profound changes taking place in India under the impact of Turkish rule. The main sources of information are the accounts of Arab, Persian and Turkish chroniclers, who are "inevitably one-sided". Mr Eraly has nevertheless drawn a fascinating portrait of life in the Delhi Sultanate, using the accounts of foreign chroniclers such as Al-biruni, Ibn Battuta and Ziauddin Barani, among others.

The picture he paints is one of "internal upheavals, assassinations of kings, and violent usurpations". The Delhi Sultanate had five dynasties (Slave, Khilji, Tughlaq, Sayyid and Lodi) and 33 sultans, some of them "worthless scamps" and some "barely sane". Of course, there were a few sultans of exceptional ability - the illiterate Alauddin Khilji (1296-1316), an innovative economic reformer who Mr Eraly calls the "greatest of the Delhi sultans"; and Firuz Tughlaq (1351-1388), under whom the Sultanate "was the closest that any government in medieval India came to being a welfare state". However, bribery and corruption were universal, from the highest to the lowest level.

The Turks, originally a nomadic people from Central Asia, had become Islamised in religion and Persianised in culture by the time they invaded India, and Persian was the favoured language of the sultans and the Muslim elite in India. Unlike earlier invaders and migrants, or the Mughals who came after them, they did not merge into the Indian social-cultural milieu, but ruled like aliens. And, being a minuscule minority, they enforced their rule through brutal oppression. It was only after the Mongols took control of the routes from Central Asia to India and slowed further Turkish migration that more Indians began to be inducted into the administration.

The key point Mr Eraly makes is that the Turkish invasion, unlike all previous invasions of India by foreigners, led to the displacement of virtually the entire traditional ruling class and, even more importantly, the superimposition of a foreign civilisation and religion over Indian civilisation and religion. However, Turkish rule made no difference to the lives of the common people, the majority of whom lived in villages, where the Turks did not intrude.

In the centuries leading to the Turko-Afghan invasions, India's urban centres had become derelict because of economic decline and the country's slide into the Dark Ages. Villages, mostly isolated and self-sufficient, were much the same. The economy and the urban landscape saw a gradual revival during the Sultanate period, and industrial production and trade expanded. Towns rose to prominence again, and new towns sprouted (such as Jaunpur and Agra, both in present-day Uttar Pradesh). The Muslim aristocracy lived extravagant lifestyles, while the common people lived at subsistence level.

Though there had been migrants and invaders earlier, the Turkish invasion for the first time significantly changed the population profile of India. Migrants continued to pour into India during the medieval period. Indeed, the Delhi sultans eagerly sought fresh migrants from Central Asia for their army and administration; and Central Asians themselves were eager to migrate to India, which they saw as a land of opportunity. Even so, at the close of the 18th century, the region around Delhi (the core area of Muslim power in India) had only 14 per cent Muslims, writes Mr Eraly.

The early medieval period in India was, in sharp contrast to the Mughal period, "culturally quite barren", according to Mr Eraly, with little creative interaction between the Hindu and Muslim civilisations. A key reason was that Indians of the late classical period had viewed all foreign civilisations as inferior to their own, and this "cultural insularity and torpor" continued in medieval India. Change did begin - in architecture (the arch and the dome, the defining characteristics of Muslim architecture, made an appearance, for example), literature, music, sartorial styles and cuisine - but the real transformation was to come during the Mughal period.

The Age of Wrath is a remarkably comprehensive and detailed account of life and times during the Delhi Sultanate, but it is no dull academic tome. Mr Eraly, an excellent storyteller, has pored over the works of scores of medieval chroniclers - Arab, Persian, Turkish, Russian, Italian and Portuguese - to put it together. The bibliography at the end lists the names and works of nearly 50 medieval chroniclers alone, lengthy quotations from which pepper the narrative. This is history written in the manner of good fiction, mixing anecdote with analysis, without sacrificing erudition.

First Published: Wed, May 07 2014. 21:25 IST