The Tughlaq dynasty’s ‘pagla’ sultan

Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s decision to shift his capital to Daulatabad caused his downfall

Published: 13th December 2012 01:26 PM  |   Last Updated: 13th December 2012 01:26 PM   |  A+A-

Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq

Muhammad bin Tughlaq was the Turkic sultan of Delhi from 1325 to 1351. He was born in Kotla Tolay Khan in Multan, Pakistan and was the eldest son of Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq.

As a young man Muhammad was sent by his father to campaign against king Prataparudra of the Kakatiya dynasty, whose capital was at Warangal.

In 1325 after the demise of his father Mohammed ascended the throne.  Muhammad Tughlaq was a scholar of logic, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, physical sciences and calligraphy. He was also interested in medicine and  was skilled in several languages — Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Sanskrit. Ibn Battuta, the famous traveller from Morocco, was a guest at his court.

For those times Muhammad was quite liberal and allowed Hindus and Jains to settle in Delhi. His policy of tolerance was continued by his cousins and his successor, Firoz Shah Tughluq who patronised the Jain monk, Mahendrasuri, who composed the Yantraraja, the first Sanskrit text on the astrolabe.

In 1351 Tughlaq passed away en route to Thatta, Sindh where he was headed to intervene in a war between members of the Soomro tribe. He presided over the collapse of his empire, as the kingdoms in south India and Deccan broke away. 

There was no other ruler in medieval India who was as controversial as Muhammad bin Tughlaq. He was known for his strange and impulsive behaviour which caused great hardship and suffering to his courtiers and the common people.

Vivid accounts have been left by contemporary writers who had to bear the brunt of his idiosyncrasies and were probably less amused than us by them. Historians have been divided on the question of  whether he was a genius or a lunatic, an idealistic or a visionary, a bloodthirsty tyrant or a benevolent ruler, a heretic or a devoted Muslim. Clearly, Muhammad bin Tughlaq was a mass of contradictions.

One of his most controversial measures was his order to transfer the capital (1323-27) from Delhi to Devagiri, which he named Daulatabad.

According to some historians and legend, the common people including the old, sick and infirm were forced to move and those who resisted were beaten and abused by his men.

Muhammad Tughlaq’s rationale for shifting the capital was that Deccan was a new conquered territory and Muslims were in small number. the empire of the sultan had become extended and Daulatabad was in the centre, and strategically important compared to Delhi and Tughlaq believed that this new capital would be kept safe from Mongol invasions.

There is some debate amongst historians on whether all the people of Delhi were ordered to move or it was only the elite and the learned who were compelled to do so.

Contemporary historians like Barani, Ibn Battuta and Isami left terrible accounts of the events surrounding the shifting of the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad. Through their writings they showed how the entire city was forced to move leaving a devastated city in its wake.

However, the sultan was known to have arranged for all the comforts of the people during their journey to Daulatabad. Shady trees were planted all along the route, free food and water was supplied to the people after every two miles during the journey,  and all were provided with means of transport and compensated for the losses which they incurred in leaving their assets at Delhi and all were provided free residence at Daulatabad.

However, the plan became a failure and all the people finally returned to Delhi in 1335. Eventually, all the suffering and expenses involved in the transfer of the capital was for nothing and only served the purpose of assuaging the whims of the eccentric sultan.

The consequences for Delhi were very grave because not only had she lost her people but also her former prosperity and grandeur.

The sultan tried his best to make amends and invited many scholars and artistes to settle in the city. However the impact of this incident was far-reaching  and when Ibn Battuta came to Delhi in 1334 he found certain parts of the city still deserted.

 There was widespread resentment against the sultan and the bitterness stayed on for years to come. He earned the epithet of ‘pagla Tughlaq’. When he finally died in 1351, one wry contemporary observer, Badauni observed,  ‘…and so the king was freed from his people, and they from him.’

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