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INDRAJIT HAZRA
POX INDI KA

Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist. His latest book is 'Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata' (Aleph)

Lessons in power politics, from one Delhi Sultanate to another

very time I take the Barapullah flyover that connects east Delhi to the south, I pass a domed structure to my right. In that skyline, it competes with the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, and however much I like the white "yacht sails" of the stadium spread out in the background, this brick 'n' domed structure wins with its sheer ruinous beauty.

The Lodi structure across the Barapullah — Chhote Khan's tomb from the 15th century — dates back to a period that most Delhiites are more than familiar with through the architectural leftovers dotted across the city and beyond. And yet it's the Mughals that hold our imagination. But ever since I landed in Delhi some 16 years ago, it has been the pre-Mughals that have shaped my fascination for my "new" hometown. This is partly because I've always been more interested in "transitionary" or "preparatory" phases in history and in lives.

For fans of the HBO quasi-historical-fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, this is the period in history — real history — to watch from the safe distance of 2014. Invasions in the 11th century from Ghazni in northern Afghanistan into the north-western front of the Indian subcontinent — modern Sind and Punjab — and the subsequent occupation-turned-rule that followed till the advent of Babur, another outsider from another Afghan province (Fergana), in 1526 marks the tumultuous churn that laid the foundation of much of what Delhi and India was to become.

It's the 320-year Turkish (and Afghan) rule by the Delhi sultans — the Slave dynasty (1206-1290), the Khaljis (1291-1320), the Tughluqs (1321-1414), the Sayyids (1415-1451), and the Lodis (1452-1526) — that contain everything that there is to contain in subcontinental politics: corporate-style takeovers, mafiosi-like tactics, lessons in rule and misrule, and how to wage war and contain and let go of territories. If anyone can take one through that rough and tumble journey with details that recreating the past as wholesale as possible, it's Abraham Eraly in his latest book The Age of Wrath: A History of the Delhi Sultanate.

Eraly's previous books — on the Mughals and on "ancient" or "classical" India — point to a fascination for and knowledge of India's past that goes well beyond textbook historiography, while keeping facts as the only ingredients in recipes. This is a serious time-traveller's guide. But what Eraly brings to the table is the flesh and blood, the ancedotes and actions of details.

ake this sequence from The Age of Wrath that can be straight from an episode of Game of Thrones. Here, Eraly tells us of how Jalal-ud-din Khalji encountered his nephew Ala-ud-din, the governor of Kara, who had conducted a campaign without the permission of his uncle, the sultan. Jalal-ud-din, having a soft spot for his nephew (who was also his son-in-law), set out to Kara against the advice of his noblemen to "reassure" Ala-ud-din that he, the sultan, was not angry by his irreverent move. Eraly writes: "When the party reached Kara, they found Ala-ud-din's forces drawn up in battle array on the opposite bank, but this was explained by Almas Beg (Ala-ud-din's brother) as the preparation to offer a formal, ceremonial reception to the sultan, and he persuaded him to go over to the riverbank where Ala-ud-din was waiting."

The old and gullible sultan proceeded. In the words of Barani, the courtier-chronicler of Muhammad Tughluq, Ala-ud-din "fell at his feet, and the sultan, treating him as a son, kissed his eyes and cheeks, stroked his beard, gave him two loving taps upon his cheek, and said, 'I had brought up thee from infancy, why art thou afraid of me me?'(...) The sultan then took Ala-ud-din's hand, and at that moment the stony-hearted traitor gave the fatal signal (...) (and his officer assigned for the task) struck at the sultan with a sword. But the blow fell short and cut his hand. He again struck and wounded the sultan, who then ran towards the river, crying, 'Ah thou villain, Ala-ud-din! What hast thou done!'... (Then another officer) ran after him (the sultan), threw him down, cut off his head, and bore it dripping with blood to Ala-ud-din... 'The venerable head of the sultan was then placed on a spear and paraded about... And while the head of the murdered sovereign was yet dripping with blood, the ferocious conspirators brought the royal canopy and elevated it over the head of Ala-ud-din."

Another day of power politics in late-13th-century north India.

It's not all blood and treachery — although much of it is — with politics constantly charging through and making me wonder who's going to pull a "Hillary Mantel novel" out of the Delhi Sultanate. Eraly points to important features of why India was ripe for the taking not only for raids, but for occupation and then rule. For one, there was no concept of the invader as an "alien" at this point in India. "Ghazni was just another kingdom which, though militarily more dangerous and culturally divergent than the kingdoms in the subcontinent, was nevertheless merely another element in their normal political milieu," writes Eraly. He also points to the lack of regimental discipline in Indian armies and "political strategies and political attitudes... shackled to moribund traditions, not dynamically related to evolving historical realities."

But lest we still think purely in terms of Turkish outsiders ("them") overrunning and then conquering Indians ("us"), Eraly helpfully points out how we all become "Indians" — perhaps because the climate has an enervating effect on its people — "...all the invaders who settled in India were in turn, after a couple of centuries, defeated and displaced by fresh invaders — Arabs by Ghaznavids, Ghaznavids by Ghuris, Ghuris by Mughals, and Mughals by Persians and Britishers."

I certainly smell a lesson in this great, never-stopping daisy chain of history. As well as ready to pick up a footnote from Eraly for those gnashing their teeth about a new prime minister who's not a graduate: "Muhammad Tughluq was probably the most erudite of the Delhi sultans, but he was a pathetic failure as a ruler; on the other hand, Ala-ud-din Khalji was (like Akbar, the great Mughal emperor) illiterate, but was the most successful of the Delhi sultans." Go figure.

 
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