The Turkish Conquest of Northern India

Episode 24: The Sultans of Dehli

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

In this lecture, Harl focuses on the Turkish conquest of northern India in the late 12th and early 13th century.

After clinching numerous victories in Delhi and other Hindu cities in northern India, the Seljuk Turk Muhammad of Ghazni died in 1206. The son of a slave soldier* himself, Muhammad delegated administration of the conquered territory to slave soldiers. Thus Delhi rulers following Mahmud’s death are frequently referred to as the “Slave Sultans of Delhi.”

Mahmud’s son Iltutmish extended the Seljuk conquest as far south as the Ganges. He ruled with the oversight of a governing council consisting of Muqtis (landholders). Iltutmish groomed his daughter Radiza Begum to succeed him.** Despite being an able (but not great) ruler, her efforts to reduce the power of her governing council led to a full scale rebellion to overthrow her rule.

Her successors continued to conduct raids into the Hindu kingdoms of southern India for loot to finance the Turkish occupation.

Although the sultans of India successfully resisted repeated Mongol invasions from 1220 on, they had a relatively weak military and focused mainly on public monument construction (mosques, madrassas, minarets, mausoleums, etc). Many were built from the remains of Hindu temples. Delhi, formerly a minor city became the center of Muslim power in India. Many of the minarets and mosques from this period persist to the present day.

Despite the Turkish military occupation, Islam would remain a minor religion in India. This was in part due to the failure of large numbers of Turk settlers to migrate to India and in part due to the persistence of strong Tantric (Hindu) rituals in the rural villages. By 1350, all the Muslim cities of northern India were still surrounded by Hindu farm communities.

*As growing numbers of steppes Turks converted to Islam, it became common for their Islamic overlords (as well as the Turks themselves) to enslave warriors they captured in battle to serve in their own armies.

**This was consistent with steppes tradition of appointing women of high rank to become rulers.

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