Power Struggles in Medieval India

Guest post written by Surinder Singh, author of Situating Medieval India.

During the thirteenth century, Delhi Sultanate emerged in large parts of the Indian subcontinent. The new polity, in its nascent phase, was engaged in suppressing internal dissensions and fighting the Mongol inroads. In place of a rough extraction of tribute, it tried to impose a uniform system of tax collection in the Indo-Gangetic plain.  

The reform ignited widespread peasant uprisings. The ruling elite, learning its lessons, adopted new strategies of state formation. The second half of the fourteenth century saw the development of a triangular model involving the rulers, landlords and Sufis. The Tughluqs formed alliances with powerful chiefs such as Rana Mal Bhatti of Abohar, the Tak brothers of Thanesar and Mote Rai Chauhan of Hissar. With liberal distributions of land grants and cash allowances, the Tughluqs revived a number of Sufi establishments lying on the Delhi-Multan route.   

These measures prepared the ground for a canal network in southeast Panjab. Agrarian expansion encouraged settlement of new villages, transformation of pastoral groups into sedentary cultivators and introduction of winter crops. A similar development was replicated in the Multan region. The governor Ainul Mulk Mahru, in an attempt to revive the regional economy, streamlined the land grants. He induced the rural elites to cooperate in the excavation and maintenance of canals. As a result, huge heaps of grain accumulated in the countryside. The hordes of Timur (1398-99), plundering these stocks, wiped out the triangular model of polity, which had proved beneficial to different stakeholders.  

Islamic spirituality found a fertile ground in different parts of South Asia. If we trace the history of medieval towns, we find that the process, apart from other factors, was linked to the rooting of Sufi hospices. The Sufi lineages, particularly the Chishtis and Suhrawardis, organized durable networks through training of disciples, producing hagiographies and recording conversations. The graves of prominent Sufis were transformed as sites of popular cults. The ruling elites, in attempts to legitimize their power, claimed blessings of leading Sufis. The growing influence of Sufis was reflected in their political ambitions. In second half of the fifteenth century, two Sufis became rulers of Malerkotla and Multan. Both tried to strengthen their authority through links with local landed magnates as well as the Delhi-based Afghan regime.   

The pre-Mughal times saw a growing cultural interface between Indian subcontinent and Central Asia. Waves of Muslim immigrants, uprooted by the Mongol irruptions, settled in the fast growing urban centres between Lahore and Ajmer. In this context, we see new forms of knowledge and technical innovations. Alberuni was sorely disappointed at the low grade of scientific knowledge in India. In contrast, Amir Khusrau claimed that Indian learning, ranging from Mathematics to geography, was superior to its counterparts in Greece, Persia and China. The increasing availability of paper encouraged the Delhi Sultanate to maintain statistics and records, creating vast employment opportunities for persons trained in Persian and accounts. The installation of a time keeping device at Firozabad and relocation of Ashokan pillars were seen as marvels of the time. Sant Kabir and Guru Nanak, while condemning superstitions, advocated a scientific approach to human life and natural surroundings. People were more mobile than we have hitherto imagined. Rivers and streams were not impediments to traffic. Masonry bridges were constructed over seasonal streams. More widely spread were boats, rafts, inflated leather bags and timber-rope contraptions. The royal armies, comprising thousands of men and animals, crossed rivers over paths laid on chains of boats. Yet, it was not possible to prevent accidents that consumed numerous lives.     

In view of the widening concerns of the historian’s craft, the medieval past of undivided Panjab, extending from the Indus to Yamuna, cannot be restricted to the rise of the Sikhs. The historical process was quite complex. Two medieval states, Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire, faced stiff resistance from warlike tribes, hill chiefdoms and landed potentates. Dulla Bhatti, a landholder of Sandal Bar, led a powerful revolt against Akbar and earned an abiding place in the Panjabi folklore. The Jogis, dividing their asceticism between monastic living and charismatic mendicancy, were held in admiration. The Qadiris and Sabiris merged the technique of prime recitation with breath control. The Sufi poets (Shah Husain, Sultan Bahu and Bulle Shah) explained divine love in terms of intense eroticism and, in the process, spiritualized the love tale of Hir-Ranjha. The Sufi discourses and romantic narratives began to overlap each other. The Sikh movement was committed to social equality and, in consequence, the depressed castes attained a dominant position in the Sikh warrior bands of the eighteenth century. The history of Panjab, evolving around resistance, has been culturally diverse.  

SURINDER SINGH is the author Situating Medieval India, one of the first titles to be published under the Boydell-Manohar imprint. Boydell-Manohar is a partnership between Boydell & Brewer and Indian academic publisher Manohar.

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