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Art and Architecture under Delhi Sultanate

One of Qutb al-Din Aibak’s first acts as the Sultan was the commissioning of a mosque— Quwwat ul-Islam, or Might of Islam, in the center of the conquered Hindu stronghold of the citadel of Delhi.

The mosque’s open courtyard, colonnades, and qibla wall were built from the pillars and ceilings of 27 Hindu temples. These repurposed pillars had to be stacked on top of each other to achieve the height necessary for the mosque’s colonnades.

Qutb al-Din Aibak later added an enormous sandstone screen in front of the mosque. Although based on Iranian prototypes, the mosque was built by local craftsmen who used corbelled arches, a technique commonly used in Indian temples, but not in earlier Islamic architecture, to create the structure.

Corbelled arches are constructed by laying stone blocks on top of each other, with each block protruding slightly beyond the blocks below until they meet at the top of the archway.

The façade was decorated with Arabic calligraphy and vegetal motifs. The iron pillar in front of the center of the central arch was taken from a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu and erected as a trophy.

To the south of the mosque, Qutb al-Din Aibak began to construct a massive minaret (72.5 meters/238 feet) that was later completed by his son and successor, Iltutmish. The minaret is decorated with wide bands of calligraphy intermingled with floral and vegetal motifs. Iltutmish also later constructed a plain square stone tomb with a corbelled dome. His commissioning of this tomb initiated the tradition of constructing royal tombs, which many successive Muslim rulers in India would follow.

The Qutb Complex, as the original mosque and its successive additions are collectively known, was further expanded by the ambitious Sultan Ala al-Din Khalji (r. 1296–1313), who added a massive ceremonial gateway made of a true arch and dome and decorated with blocks of red sandstone and white granite.

It was completed in 1311 and is pictured above on the left. Ala al-Din Khalji also began the construction of a second massive minaret: the Alai Minar. Although it was intended to be twice the size of the minaret built by Qutb al-Din Aibak and Iltutmish, it was never completed.

By the time the Tughlaq dynasty controlled the Delhi Sultanate in the 14th century, an indigenous Islamic culture was emerging in northern India. The Tughlaqs built a massive fortified city six kilometers (3.5 miles) north of the Qutb Complex.

Like the practice of building royal tombs began by Iltutmish, successive Islamic rulers would follow the Tughlaq practice and build a new capital after they came to power. The remains of this city and the capital cities constructed by successive Tughlaq rulers are located around the outskirts of the modern city of Delhi.

At a time when the Tughlaq dynasty’s power extended little beyond the area surrounding the city of Delhi, Firuz Shah Tughlaq initiated several large building projects, including hunting pavilions, palaces, mosques, canals, wells, and sluices.

One of his most interesting projects was the transport of two large columns originally erected by Emperor Ashoka (c. 304–232 B.C.E.), a powerful ancient Buddhist ruler, to Delhi. One of these pillars, known as the golden minaret, was erected beside the mosque that Firuz Shah Tughlaq built.

He also added two stories to the top of the minaret originally constructed by Qutb al-Din Aibak and Iltutmish after it was damaged by lightning. His domed tomb  was made of limestone, brick, and plaster, and its terrace was surrounded by a railing of which today only some of the columns and banisters remain.

Railings were often used in Indian Buddhist structures but are unusual in Islamic contexts and may, like the reuse of Emperor Ashoka’s columns, have been meant to recall the power and glory of ancient India.

In 1398, Timur (Tamerlane) sacked Delhi, and it was not until the mid-15th century that the Lodis established themselves as the last rulers of the Delhi Sultanate.

Rather than build new cities, mosques, or madrasas, as previous Islamic rulers had done, the Lodis built many tomb structures around the modern city of New Delhi.

Previously, only kings and saints were buried in large mausoleums, but under the Lodi rulers, large tombs were also constructed by the nobility. This has to do with the Lodi conception of kingship. Originally a tribal group with origins in Afghanistan, the Lodis considered a king to be first among equals, and tomb building was not considered solely as a royal prerogative.

The tombs of the Lodi sultans were octagonal, while the tombs of the Lodi nobles were square. Lodi rule also saw the introduction of the Iranian double dome, where one dome was constructed on top of the other with a space left in between.

Although almost no metalwork has survived that was produced under the patronage of the Delhi Sultanate, a distinct tradition of book production can be traced to the Delhi beginning in the 15th century.

At this time, a new style of calligraphy used in the Korans called the Bihari script emerged, with distinctive wedge-shaped letters, thick bowl-like shapes for endings, and ample space left between words. Royal painting workshops appear to have flourished under more liberal rulers but were disbanded when conservatives came to the throne.

Not many examples of illustrated manuscripts created under the Delhi Sultanates have survived, but an interesting copy of the Shahnama, or The Book of Kings, created in the mid-15th century under Lodi rule, bares a close relationship to contemporary Jain paintings. The imagery contrasts sharply to Persian illustrations of the Shahnama.

Other more common features that appear in manuscripts during the 15th century that are based on Indian traditions include groups of people in serried rows and identical poses, narrow bands of decoration that run across the width of the composition, and bright and unusual colors that replace the modulated colors typically found in earlier Timurid painting.

Learning, Literature, and the Arts

After the sack of Baghdad in 1258, Delhi was perhaps the most important cultural center in the Muslim East.

Heir to the traditions of Ghazni and Lahore, its importance increased when the Mongols destroyed the cultural centers of Central and Western Asia, and the poets, scholars and men of letters from these areas took refuge in Muslim India.

Balban, who gave high offices of the state only to persons of good families, welcomed these distinguished refugees, and many illustrious families of Muslim India trace their origin to this period. This influx bore fruit in a large number of works, many of which are lost, but the contemporary historians attest to their worth.

During the reign (1296–1316) of Ala-ud-din Khalji the general prosperity engendered by his conquests enabled the nobles, and not just the sultan, to become literary patrons. This probably explains why Barani could devote fourteen pages to an account of the scholars, poets, preachers, philosophers, physicians, astronomers, and historians who thronged Delhi in the days of Ala-ud-din Khalji.

If the surviving poetry of Khusrau, the historical works of Barani, and the table talk of Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Auliya are any indication of the cultural vitality and richness of the age, one can well understand why Amir Khusrau and others felt that Delhi was the metropolis of the Muslim East.

Yet despite the cultural eminence of the capital, it cannot be claimed that the sultanate is a period marked by that solid scholarship and study of sciences. The reason is obvious. Learned and gifted men had come to India, but without their libraries. Those who were escaping with their lives could not be expected to carry heavy loads of books over long distances.

The result was that only those cultural activities gained prominence which, like poetry, belles-lettres, local history, architecture, and music, were not dependent on accumulated stores of knowledge.

Probably for the same reason—the lack of libraries—great educational institutions of the kind found in Baghdad and Cairo did not develop in India. There were, however, schools and colleges in Delhi and all the important provincial capitals.

In Muslim society, teaching and the promotion of educational enterprises are regarded as necessary marks of religious vocation, and the Muslim state is expected to facilitate this by providing teachers with ample means of subsistence. This was the procedure generally adopted during Muslim rule in India, and the official in charge of religious endowments, the sadr-i-jahan, arranged for the grant of tax-free lands to imams, qazis, and other religious groups who provided education, particularly in Islamic subjects.

This education was usually on the elementary level, but the system also provided for the maintenance of scholars who had specialized in different branches of learningThe children of nobles were taught at their own residences by private tutors, whose guidance was often available for other students also.

For advanced students madrasas, or colleges, were set up by pious and public-spirited rulers, and this activity received special attention during the early period. Two major madrasas called Muizziya and Nasiriya were established during the beginning of Muslim rule at Delhi. Firuz Tughluq was unusual in that he looked after the institutions established by his predecessors; probably most of these establishments fell into decay when the original founders passed away, and the grants made for the madrasas were diverted to other purposes.

The main subjects taught seem to have been religious—tafsir (interpretation of the Quran), hadith (tradition), and fiqh (jurisprudence).

The intellectual activity of the schools owed much to the refugee scholars from Central Asia, Persia, and Iraq who came to Delhi in the thirteenth century. After this influx had ceased and the Mongols had established their rule in the northwestern borderland, communication between Central Asia and northern India became difficult.

The one scientific subject that received considerable attention in the schools was medicine. The earliest work on medicine, of which an imperfect manuscript copy has survived, was written about 1329 in the reign of Muhammad bin Tughluq. The history of Indo-Islamic medicine has not yet been carefully studied, but it is reasonably certain that in the books written in India during the sultanate one sees the blending of the three streams of Greek, Arabic, and Hindu medical knowledge. The most famous of these works is the Tibb-i-Sikandari, written by the court physician Mian Bhuwa about 1512. It draws freely on the classical Sanskrit writers, and it long remained a standard textbook for followers of the indigenous medical systems.

Of the purely literary works of the early period, very few have survived. This is especially true of poetry, for barring the works of major poets like Amir Khusrau and Hasan, only those poems have been preserved which, because of their topical nature, were included in general histories. Examples are the poems of Sangreza on the arrival of Iltutmish’s patent of sovereignty from the Abbasid caliphate and his verses on the accession of Iltutmish’s son or Ruhani’s poem on Iltutmish’s conquest of Ranthambhor. While these poems have the usual limitations of occasional poetry, they indicate high poetic skill.

The first Persian poet of eminence who was born in India was Reza, or, as he was sometimes known, Sangreza. He was Iltutmish’s secretary. The most distinguished writer of the early sultanate, however, was Amir Khusrau (c.1253–1325). His father, a junior Turkish officer under Iltutmish, had married a daughter of Rawat-i-Arz, Balban’s famous minister. Khusrau showed literary promise at an early age, and, after spending some time at the provincial court of Oudh, became attached at first to the governor of Samana and subsequently to Prince Muhammad, the heir-designate of Balban, who maintained a magnificent court at Multan.

Aart from lyrics, Khusrau wrote poems relating to contemporary events. Qiran-us-Saadain, completed in 1289, gives an account of the historic meeting of Bughra Khan and Kaiqubad on the banks of the river Sarju, and contains an interesting description of the Delhi of those days. Miftah-ul-Futuh (1291) is a versified account of the exploits of Jalal-ud-din Firuz Khalji; in Ashiqa (1315) is an account of the romance of the Gujarati princess Deval Devi and Prince Khizr Khan, son of Ala-ud-din Khalji. Khusrau was also among the earliest writers of Hindi poetry, and though the origins of the Hindi poems attributed to him are doubtful, he referred to his Hindi verses in the introduction to one of his Persian diwans. He also played a major role in the development of Indian music.

The work of Hasan (c.1252–1337), a friend of Khusrau, was praised by Jami, the great Persian poet, a rare distinction for an Indian writer. He wrote prose as well as verse, and his Fawaid-ul-Fuad, a record of the table-talk of his spiritual guide, Nizam-ud-din Auliya, is a literary classic.

Equally interesting, though not so well known, was Ziya Nakhshabi (d.1350), who was a master of simple and eloquent prose. His Tuti Nama (The Book of the Parrot) was based on a Sanskrit original. It has been translated into Turkish, German, English, and many Indian languages. His other translations include the Kok Shastra, a Sanskrit text on erotics.

While there were many distinguished names in poetry, perhaps the most important literary contribution during the sultanate was in the field of history. Since classical Hindu culture produced almost no historical literature, the Muslim works are of special significance for Indian historiography. Written by contemporaries who had taken part in the events they describe, these histories are of enormous value for an understanding of the period. The number of historical works of the sultanate period which have reached us is not large, but the works possess rich variety.

As already noted, the rise of regional kingdoms in the fifteenth century played an extremely important role in the dissemination of Islamic culture. One significant feature of this disintegration of the central authority, with its dependence on Persian as the official language, was the rise of regional languages. Hindu kings had given their patronage to Sanskrit as the language of religion and the classics; Muslim rulers felt no such compulsion, and supported the common languages of the people.

It was Muslim rulers, therefore, who were responsible for many of the first translations of the Sanskrit classics into the provincial languages. The Muslim rulers of Bengal engaged scholars to translate the Ramayana and the Mahabharata into Bengali. Other works on music and mathematics were composed by Hindu scholars at the Kashmir court. In the south the Muslim rulers of Golkunda and Bijapur employed Hindus as ministers, and maintained the state records in the Marathi language. Cultural histories of the various provincial governments are yet to be written, but a similar process was at work at all places.

Among the nonliterary arts, music, rather than painting or sculpture, underwent important developments during the period of the sultanate. Indian music had made an impact on the Arab systems as early as the conquest of Sind, and the interchange between the two forms was even more fruitful when the rich heritage of Persia and Central Asia was added. The result was the creation in North India of a new type of music, quite different from traditional Indian music which maintained its hold in South India.

Credit for this important work of synthesis is given to the poet Amir Khusrau, whose fame helped to give prestige to the new music, which had as its rival in the Delhi court the musical modes favored by the Turkish rulers. The interest of the Chishti Sufis in “Hindustani” music and its practical cultivation by them further ensured its popularity. The next stage was reached during the establishment of the independent Muslim kingdom at Jaunpur, not far from Benares, and Kanauj, the old centers of Hindu arts.

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