Saturday, 5 July 2014

The Age of Wrath: A History of the Delhi Sultanate. By Abraham Eraly

The Age of Wrath: A History of the Delhi Sultanate.

Abraham Eraly

Penguin/Viking. First published 2014.

In the very first page of the book, Eraly relates a brief personal story of how he recently suddenly renewed a friendship that had fallen into disuse four decades ago. He describes the friend as a 'phenomenally successful businesswoman in a faraway country' whom he first befriended when he was in college. Considering that he studied and taught - philosophy, I think - at MCC in the early 70s, this friend could be Indra Nooyi, the President, or whatever, at Pepsico. If this is true, the rest of the story has a false ring to it. In response to Eraly retailing the desire of Ibn Batuta (one of the greatest travellers and historians of medieval India) for a simple life, his friend's eyes well up with tears as she contemplates the 'sacrifices' she has made to get to where she is. And what might these be? This is not described, but I guess it would the usual stuff about not finding enough time for the real things of life - family, flowers, butterflies, fresh air, sunshine, meditative walks, books, music.... If she really felt that way, she could have stopped at an early moment in her self-centred career making hundreds of millions of dollars selling 'coloured sugar water', and lobbying for a Padma Bushan - the latter I suspect in order to fool her conscience into thinking that her achievements mean something more than just material comfort, and power that rivals that of Roman emperors. Anyway, Eraly is impressed by his friend's 'wit and wisdom' and dedicates the book to her.

Now that I've got that irritating stuff out of the way, I must say that the rest of the book belies these shallow opening thoughts. It is a well-written history of Book I of 'muslim' India, from the violent incursions of Mahmud Ghazni in the eleventh century, up to Babur's invasion in the early sixteenth. [Book II, of course, is the Mughal Empire]. The invasion signalled, for some time, the end of Delhi as the most powerful state in India, until the Mughals revived its importance about 50-100 years later. But even as the Delhi sultanate fell, in the Deccan the Bahmani sultans and the Vijayanagar rajas still held sway, until the empire rolled over them some decades later. These later Deccan kingdoms are also included by Eraly in the Age of Wrath. 

Eraly concentrates on the political power in Delhi, ignoring for most part the kings and the queens, and their political games in the rest of the country. It turns out that only two of the tens of Delhi sultans of this period could be said to rule over territory that encompassed a substantial majority of the subcontinent - Ala-ud-din Khalji and Mohammed-bin-Tughlaq. For the rest of the time during those four centuries, the subcontinent was a patchwork of kingdoms, that kept appearing and disappearing, and changing shape and size, like rival bacterial colonies fighting it out on a petri dish. [It would a fascinating project for some coder to write an app to illustrate this. Though maybe just Windows Movie-maker would be enough].

So a timeline of this period would go like this. First there were the devastating raids by the Turk Mahmud Ghanzi, starting in 1175 mainly in search of plunder, though the fact that it was non-Muslims he was plundering from probably made the task so much more palatable to himself and to any Islamic ethicists he may have consulted. Some decades passed, and then the Rajput kings, who for most part controlled much of Northern India during this period, succumbed to the raids of Muhammed Ghori, also a Turk from what is now Afghanistan. He went back, but his slaves were now nobility in India, and one of them, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, founded the so-called slave dynasty (1206). Some of the other prominent sultans of this dynasty were Iltutmish (1211), his daughter Raziya, (1236, one of five or six female sultans ever, anywhere, and the only female Muslim ruler of India), and Balban.

This period was followed by the rule of the Khaljis, of whom Jalal-ud-din (1290) was the first, and Ala-ud-din (1296) was the 'greatest'. It was during the later's reign that almost all of the subcontinent came under one ruler for the first time since the Maurya empire. Malik Kafur was an eunuch and a general in Ala-ud-din's service, who swept down the peninsula and conquered territories as far away as Rameswaram (1311), subjugating kingdoms as ancient as that of the Pandyas of Madurai. Ala-ud-din also set new standards for governance in the country, creating institutions and administrative structures that went beyond merely squeezing of the blood of revenue from the stone of the poor farmers. When Ala-ud-din died, there was chaos. The Khalji dynasty did not produce any notable or long-lived successor. Finally, in 1320, Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq, formerly the governor of Punjab under Ala-ud-din, became the sultan and founded the Tughlaq dynasty.

The most prominent of this dynasty was, of course, Mohammed-bin-Tughlaq (1325), Ghiyas-ud-din's son. His reign, while it once again encompassed vast areas of the subcontinent, was noted for its idiosyncratic sadism, its chaotic idiocies, and its sometimes well-meaning but arbitrary, futile, and therefore foolish 'reforms'. So much so, his name has become a by-word for random and stupid tyranny. His son and successor, Firuz (1351), was much more the model ruler, and one of the few that come out well in this history, though he too was not above a massacre or two of the Hindu population. Among his many sensitive and praise-worthy deeds was the transport of the Ashoka Pillar from near Ambala in Punjab and its safe re-installation in Delhi. The death of Firuz in 1388 signalled the descent into familiar murderous chaos, and the eventual fall in a few decades of the Tughlaqs. This last period had one notable sultan, Nasir-ud-din Mahmud Shah. He, too, was notable mainly because it was during his ragged reign that Timur 'the lame' swept through and devastated Northern India, much like Ghanzi and Ghori three centuries previously. After occupying Delhi for a few days, he went back whence he came, having altogether spent six months in India, from mid 1398 to early 1399.    

When Mahmud Shah died in 1412, thus bringing the reign of the Tuglaqs to an end, the sultanate was much reduced in size and strength. The succeeding dynasties ruled over a rump of the one time vast empire. The Sayyids, who immediately followed the Tughlaqs, did nothing notable except hold on to the throne at Delhi. The last of them, Alam Shah ruled from 'Delhi to Palam'. In 1451, he was overthrown by Buhlul, the first of the Lodi dynasty. He was followed by Sikander Lodi and then Ibrahim Lodi. Finally in 1526 Babur, the first of the Moghuls, defeated Ibrahim at the first battle of Panipat. And thus ended the Delhi Sultanate.

As a kind of appendix to the sultanate, Eraly adds the two kingdoms of the Deccan - the Bahmani and the Vijayanagar kingdoms, both which overlapped with the last decades of the Delhi sultanate, and kept warring with each other and their other neighbours. He mentions several other kingdoms that existed at this time, in Sind, Multan, Orissa, Bengal, and so on. He does not describe their 'dreary' histories in detail, since they were 'small and transient'. And he does even not mention what was happening in the rest of the country - the deep South, and the Northeast. But perhaps that would amount to extending the Age of Wrath too far beyond its natural boundaries.

The story he relates is one that is almost unrelievedly sordid. It is of course mainly about the kings, and their homicidal personal concerns. And it is similar to the history of England during the same period, for example. So, during this period of about 500 years, there is almost no cultural, social, administrative, scientific or technological progress. Towards the end of the period, battlefield technology changes to the extent of including firearms and cannons, but obviously only as fancy stuff, the icing on a cake, the chief ingredients of which was mainly the usual infantry and cavalry, unchanged almost since the time of King Porus and Alexander. There is almost no change in social institutions, such as the police, or the judiciary or an educational system, etc. Nobody seems to have had the time even to think about these things. And while there were certainly some forward movement in Hindu philosophy, this was mainly inward seeking, totally unconcerned with what was happening in the real world. Eraly himself remarks more than once the absence of any sort of reference in the then extant languages of India, Sanskrit and so on, to the intrusion into India of a totally alien cultural system, based on a religion, Islam, which till then, was known only in the Western coastal towns, and that thanks to Arab traders. Almost all of Eraly's original sources are Muslim texts - history written by the victors. Some of the Muslim rulers made attempts to understand the Hindu and Buddhist religions, and to try and accommodate their beliefs. But most were hostile to it, and saw the difference only as an excuse to differentiate among the people, keep them divided, and extract even more wealth to finance their own profligate ways. According to Eraly, the formal administrative and cultural structures of Muslim Kingdoms and their mainly Hindu populations were like oil and water, they did not mix. And as far as the populace themselves were concerned, the religion of their rulers, their internecine quarrels, and their dirty intrigues, did not matter to them, since both types were equally extractive and equally burdensome, and both were equally murderous and sadistic. In any case, the people themselves were highly divided in terms of castes, sects, and geographical units - they had no sense of nationhood. There were, of course some exceptional rulers - Ala-ud-din Khalji, Firuz Shah Tughlaq, Krishna Deva Raya, and some of the less well-known kings both Hindu and Muslim. Their periods of rule were finally responsible for whatever progress in architecture, art and culture that did take place in this time. 

Eraly writes easily, though sometimes I got the feeling that I was reading a PhD thesis, with the same information repeated in a preface and at various other sections of the book. There is, for example, the story of the king who regularly fed on poison, which is repeated at least thrice. Eraly modestly keeps well within himself, and does not attempt any analyses, except what I have mentioned above. He only briefly mentions some of the possible causes for the almost comical lack of resistance by the existing Hindu rulers to the Muslim invasions. These, however seem facile points of view assimilated and regurgitated from elsewhere. I wish I could have concluded this review with a statement of the new points of view I derived from reading this book, but I didn't get any. So while it was nice reading the book, I come away from it with less of a sense of accomplishment than when I finished, for example, Keay's history of India.

1 comment:

  1. hi

    I just finished reading this book today and i clearly agree with this fact that there is much repetition in this book esp when he describes how Islam and Hinduism co-existed and the lives if court officials. Other wise the book is insightful. Some maps and pictures should have been included I feel.