The Delhi Sultanate period extended from 1206 CE to 1526 CE for almost 320 years. The establishment and expansion of the Delhi Sultanate led to the evolution of a powerful and efficient administrative system.
Administration during the Delhi Sultanate was based on the laws of the Shariat or the laws of Islam. Political, legal, and military authority was vested in the Sultan. Thus military strength was the main factor in the succession of the throne.
At its zenith, the Delhi Sultanate controlled almost the entire country as far south as Madurai. Even after its disintegration, the Delhi Sultanate and its administrative system made a powerful impact on the Indian provincial kingdoms, and later on the Mughal system of administration.
The title of ‘Sultan’ was started by Turkish rulers and Mahmud of Ghazni was the first to assume the title of Sultan. The Delhi Sultanate was an Islamic state with its religion as Islam. The Sultans considered themselves as representatives of the Caliph. They included the name of the Caliph in the khutba or prayer and inscribed it on their coins. This practice was even continued by Balban, who called himself the shadow of God. Iltutmish, Muhammad bin Tughlaq, and Firoz Tughlaq obtained mansur (letter of investiture) from the Caliph.
The office of the Sultan was the most important in the Sultanate and he was the ultimate authority for the military, legal, and political matters. The dispensation of justice was another important function performed by the Sultan and he acted as a court of appeal.
For instance, Balban dispensed justice with extreme impartiality, not sparing even the high officers of state. Muhammad bin Tughlaq even gave harsh punishments to ulemas, who were previously exempted.
There was no clear law of succession during this period. All the sons had equal claim to the throne. Interestingly, the idea of primogeniture was fully acceptable neither to the Muslims nor to the Hindus. Iltutmish even nominated his daughter in preference to his sons.
But such nominations or successions were to be mostly accepted by the nobles. Sometimes, ulemas also played crucial role in getting a favourable public opinion. However, military superiority remained the main factor in matters of succession.
The Sultan was assisted by a number of ministers who headed different departments and aided in administration. These ministers were chosen by Sultan and they remained in office at his pleasure. The post of Naib was the most powerful one. The Naib practically enjoyed all the powers of the Sultan and exercised general control over all the departments.
Next to him, was the Wazir, who headed the finance department called Diwan-i-Wizarat. A separate Auditor General for scrutinising expenditure and an accountant general for inspecting income worked under the Wazir. The period of Wazir-ship of Firuz Tughlaq Khan -i-Jahan is generally considered as the high watermark period of the Wazir’s influence.
The military department was called Diwan-i-Arz. It was headed by the Ariz-i-mumalik who was responsible for recruiting the soldiers and administering the military department. It should be noted that the Ariz was not the commander-in-chief of the army, since the Sultan himself was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The military department was first set up by Balbanand was further improved by Alauddin Khalji, who insisted on a regular muster of the armed forces.
Alauddin introduced the Chehra and Dagh system, so that along with a descriptive roll of each soldier, a system of branding of the horses was also in place which would allow only good quality horses to be part of muster. He was also the first Sultan to pay his soldiers salary in cash. He also had the largest standing and efficient army of about three lakhs, which was definitely a main factor in containing the Mongol invasions along with his Deccan expansion. The Turks also maintained a large number of elephants properly trained for war purposes. However, there was predominance of the Cavalry which was considered more prestigious. At the time of Ghaznavids, Hindus were employed both in the infantry and cavalry but during the Sultanate period they were largely employed in the infantry.
Diwan-i-Rasalat was the department of religious affairs, which dealt with pious foundations and gave stipends to deserving scholars and man of piety. Grants were made by this department also for the construction and maintenance of mosques, tombs, and madrasas. It was headed by chief Sadr who also functioned as Chief Qazi,as the head of the judicial department. Other judges or qazis were appointed in various parts of the Sultanate. Muslim personal law or sharia was followed in civil matters. The Hindus were governed by their own personal law and their cases were dispensed by the village panchayats. The criminal law was based on the rules and regulations made by the Sultans.
The department of correspondence was called Diwan-i-Insha. All the correspondence between the ruler and the sovereigns of other states as well as with his subordinate officials was dealt with by this department.
The provinces under the Delhi Sultanate were called iqtas. They were initially under the control of the nobles. But the governors of the provinces were called the muqtis or walis. They were to maintain law and order and collect the land revenue.
The provinces were further divided into shiqs, which was under the control of the shiqdar, and the next division was pargana, comprising a number of villages and was headed by the amil.
The villages were grouped into units of 100 or 84 (traditionally called chaurasi). The village remained the basic unit of the administration. The village headman was known as muqaddam or chaudhri. The village accountant was called patwari.
The Iqtadari was a unique type of land distribution and the administrative system that evolved during the sultanate of Iltutmish. Under this system, the entire empire was very evenly divided into several large and small tracts of land, called the Iqtas.
These plots of land were assigned to the various nobles, officers, and soldiers for the purpose of easy and flawless administration and revenue collection.
The Iqtas were transferable, i.e., the holders of Iqtas-Iqtadars-were transferred from one region to another every three to four years. The holders of small Iqtas were individual troopers. They had no administrative responsibilities.
Muhammad of Ghur in 1206 A.D. the able king was the first to introduce the Iqta system in India, but it was lltutmish who gave it an institutional form. The Iqtadari system witnessed numerous changes during the Sultanate period.
Initially, Iqta was a revenue-yielding piece of land that was assigned in lieu of salary. However, during Firuz Shah Tughlaq’s reign, in the year 1351 A,D, it became hereditary.
After consolidating their position in India, the Delhi Sultans introduced reforms in the land revenue administration. The lands were classified into three categories:
Iqta land – Lands assigned to officials as iqtas instead of payment for their services.
Khalisa land – Land under the direct control of the Sultan and the revenues collected were spent for the maintenance of royal court and royal household.
Inam land – Land assigned or granted to religious leaders or religious institutions.
A class of khuts (smaller landlords) and Hindus rais (autonomous rajas) emerged, who not only enjoyed a higher standard of life but sometimes they misused their power and exploited the poor peasants. Stern actions taken against them by Alauddin Khalji.
However, the general peasantry paid one third of their produce as land revenue, and sometimes even one half of the produce. They also paid other taxes and always led a handto-mouth living. Frequent famines made their lives more miserable.
However, Sultans like Muhammad bin Tughlaq and Firoz Tughlaq took efforts to enhance agricultural production by providing irrigational facilities and by providing takkavi loans. They also encouraged the farmers to cultivate superior crop like wheat instead of barley. Firoz encouraged the growth of horticulture. Muhammad bin Tughlaq created a separate agricultural department, Diwan-i- Kohi.
The Sultan and his nobles took keen interest in improving the quality of fruits in India, especially melons and grapes.
Ibn Batuta records in his texts that the soil was so fertile that it could produce two crops every year, rice being sown three times a year.
During the Sultanate period, the process of urbanisation gained momentum. A number of cities and towns had grown during this period. Lahore and Multan (in the north west), Broach, Cambay, and Anhilwara (in the west), Kara and Lakhnauti in the east, Daulatabad, Delhi, and Jaunpur were important among them. Delhi remained the largest city in the east.
The growth of trade and commerce was described by contemporary writers. India exported a large number of commodities to the countries on the Persian Gulf and West Asia and also to South East Asian countries.
Bengal (specially Sonargaon for muslin, i.e., fine cotton cloth) and the towns in Gujarat were famous for fine quality fabrics. Cambay in Gujarat was famous for textiles and for gold and silver work.
India imported high grade textiles (satin, etc.), glassware, and horses from West Asia. From China, it imported raw silk and porcelain.
Overseas trade was under the control of Multanis (mostly Hindus) and Khurasanis (Afghan Muslims). Inland trade was dominated by Gujarati, Marwari and Muslim Bohra merchants.
The merchants were extremely wealthy and lived a luxurious life. The Gujarati and Marwari merchants were mostly Jains and they spent large sums for the construction of temples.
Construction of roads and their maintenance facilitated for smooth transport and communication. Particularly, the royal roads were kept in good shape. In addition to royal road from Peshawar to Sonargaon, Muhammad bin Tughlaq built road to Daulatabad. Sarais or rest houses on the highways were maintained for the convenience of the travelers. There were also arrangements for posts to be carried very quickly from one part of the country to another with the help of relays of horses and runners who were posted every few kilometres.
Cotton textile and silk industry flourished in this period. Sericulture was introduced on a large scale, which made India less dependent on other countries for the import of raw silk. The paper industry had grown and there was an extensive use of paper from 14th and 15th centuries. Other crafts like leather-making, metal-crafts, and carpet-weaving flourished due to the increasing demand. The royal karkhanas supplied the goods needed to the Sultan and his household. They manufactured costly articles made of gold, silver and gold ware. The nobles also aped the lifestyle of the Sultans and indulged in luxurious living. They were well paid and accumulated enormous wealth.
The system of coinage had also developed during the Delhi Sultanate. Iltutmish issued several types of silver tankas. One silver tanka was divided into 48 jitals during the Khalji rule and 50 jitals during the Tughlaq rule. Gold coins or dinars became popular during the reign of Alauddin Khalji after his South Indian conquests. Copper coins were less in number and dateless. Muhammad bin Tughlaq had not only experimented with token currency but also issued several types of gold and silver coins. They were minted at eight different places. At least twenty five varieties of gold coins were issued by him.
The Turks popularised a number of crafts and techniques such as:
Use of iron stirrup
Use of armour both for the horse and rider.
Improvement of rahat (Persian wheel through which water could be lifted from a deeper level for irrigation)
Paper-making, glass-making, the spinning wheel, and an improved loom for weaving.
Use of superior mortar, which enabled the Turks to erect magnificent buildings based on the arch and dome.
There were hardly any changes in the structure of the Hindu society during the Delhi Sultanate. The Brahmins continued to enjoy the highest place in the social strata. The severest restrictions were placed on mingling with the chandalas and other outcasts.
During this period, the practice of keeping women in seclusion and asking them to veil their faces in the presence of outsiders (purdah system) became prevalent among the upper-class Hindus (particularly in North India). The Arabs and Turks brought the purdah system into India and it became a symbol of the higher classes in society. The practice of sati was widely prevalent in different regions of the country. Ibn Batuta mentions that permission from the Sultan had to be taken for the performance of sati.
During the Sultanate period, the Muslim society remained divided into ethnic and racial groups. The Afghans, Iranians, Turks and Indian Muslims developed as exclusive groupsand rarely married each other. Converts from the lower sections of Hindus were also discriminated against.
For the Hindu subjects, from the time of the Arab invasion of Sindh, they had been given the status of zimmis or protected people i.e, those who accepted the Muslim rule and agreed to pay a tax called jaziya.
At first, jaziya was collected along with land revenue. Later, Firoz Tughlaq made jaziya a separate tax and levied it on Brahmins also, who were earlier exempted from the jaziya.
Slavery had existed in India for a long time, however, it thrived during this period. There existed slave markets for men and women. Slaves were generally bought for domestic service, for company or for their special skills. Firoz Shah Tughlaq had about 1,80,000 slaves.