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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jun 21, 2021

Back in our 15th episode of this series, we looked at Khwarezmian prince Jalal al-Din Mingburnu’s exploits in India in the early 1220s. Having fled there after Chinggis Khan’s devastating invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire, Jalal al-Din’s flight brought India to the attention of the Mongols. While Chinggis Khan did not invade the subcontinent, this was not the last that India would see of the Mongols. In today’s episode, we return to northern India, dominated by the Sultanate of Delhi, and look at its interactions with the Mongols who repeatedly raided its borders. Why the Delhi Sultans, from Iltutmish, Balban to Alauddin Khalji were able to largely successfully resist the Mongols will be examined, over nearly the century of Mongol-Delhi interactions. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


The Delhi Sultanate arose from the ruins of the Ghurid Empire which had stretched from Afghanistan to Bengal. The Ghurids, or Shansabanids,  had been a regional power in central Afghanistan emerging in the ninth century but were subdued by the Ghaznavids, also known as the Yamanids, a persianised Turkic dynasty which dominated much of the Iranian world up to the borders of India from the tenth to the twelfth centuries. The Ghaznavids under their great expander, the mighty Mahmud of Ghazna, reduced the Ghurids to a subject state early in the eleventh century, though in turn the Ghaznavids were pushed from Iran by the Seljuqs with the famous battle of Dandanaqan in 1040, and became tributary to the Seljuqs under their Sultan Sanjar at the start of the twelfth century. In this time, the Ghurid elite converted from Buddhism to Islam, and could be said to have bided their time. The Seljuqs weakened over the twelfth century with the arrival of  the Qara-Khitai, the Ghuzz Turk invasions and independence of the Khwarezmian Empire in the north. In turn, the weakness of the Seljuqs advanced the weakness of the Ghaznavids, which provided an opportunity for the Ghurids to rise in the second half of the twelfth century. Under the brilliant leadership of Mu’izz al-Din Muhammad Ghuri, better known simply as Muhammad of Ghor, and his brother Ghiyath al-Din, the Ghurids conquered the remnants of the Ghaznavids. Repulsing invasions by the Ghuzz  Turks and proving a staunch foe to the Qara-Khitai and Khwarezm-Shahs, Muhammad of Ghor received backing from the Caliph and expanded across the region. By the end of his life, he had forged an empire stretching from eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan across Northern India to Bengal.


Muhammad of Ghor’s military might rested in large part on his loyal ghulams, Turkic slave soldiers, though over the thirteenth century the term gave way to mamluk. A similar institution existed in the form of the Ottoman janissaries. While it was common for any good regional warlord to employ nomadic Turkic tribes due to their military prowess, they often proved unreliable and self-interested. For the conquest-minded Muhammad of Ghor, he could not put much stock on nomad chiefs  who may value their own advancement over Muhammad’s glory. Instead, Muhammad looked to the classic islamic institution of slave soldiers. Ghulams and Mamluks were young boys, generally sold by enemy Turkic tribes, that were brought into the Islamic world and raised from birth to be elite soldiers. Generally having already some horse and archery skills from their youth, these boys were converted to Islam and given the finest training in military matters, with top of the line equipment, weapons and horses, in addition to receiving education and even salaries. The result was a core of fierce warriors loyal not to any tribal or family ties, but to their fellow ghulams and their master, who sheltered and provided for them. No shortage of Islamic princes lamented on how their ghulams tended to be more loyal than their own sons; the sons awaited only the death of the father, while the ghulams wanted only his glory. Famously, the child-less Muhammad of Ghor is supposed to have remarked that, while other monarchs could have a few sons, he had thousands in the form of his ghulams.


The source of many of Muhammad of Ghor’s ghulams were various Qipchap Turkic tribes from the great steppe. As in late Ayyubid and early Mamluk Egypt, and indeed much of the islamic world, the Cuman-Qipchaqs were prized as warriors. His ghulams proved themselves in combat repeatedly. Though supported by local tribes, both Turkic and Pashtun, Muhammad of Ghor over his life increasingly relied on his ghulams, and in time they commanded his armies and acted as his governors. Attacking the Hindu kingdoms of northern India at the close of the twelfth century, Muhammad of Ghor had to return to Afghanistan to face the Khwarezm-Shah Tekish, and Tekish’s son Muhammad. Muhammad bin Tekish, of course, we know best as the gentleman who antagonized Chinggis Khan some two decades later. In Muhammad of Ghor’s absence fighting the Khwarezmians, his ghulams like Qutb ad-Din Aybeg were left to command his troops and govern his territories in India. And these same loyal ghulams, upon the childless Muhammad of Ghor’s assassination in 1206, then quite loyally tore the Ghurid empire to pieces, each one declaring himself master of his own domain. 


Qutb ad-Din Aybeg claimed Delhi, and though he tried to establish a dynasty, his early death in 1210 in a polo accident resulted in his young son pushed out by one of his own ghulams, his son-in-law Shams-ud-Din Iltutmish. Iltutmish, a Qipchaq like Aybeg, consolidated the Delhi Sultanate as one of the chief powers of northern India. So began the first of five separate Turko-Afghan dynasties that would rule the Delhi Sultanate over the next three centuries. Because of the ghulam, or mamluk origin of the first dynasty, the first dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate is sometimes known as the Mamluk Sultanate of Delhi, sometimes to mirror the contemporary Qipchaq founded Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt. For the next two hundred years, their foreign policy on their northern border was defined by the Mongol Empire and its successor states. 


Relations between the Delhi Sultanate and Mongols began in the 1220s, in the middle of Iltutmish’s reign, when Chinggis Khan himself rode to their borders chasing the Khwarezmian Prince Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, son of the late Khwarezm-Shah Muhammad II. Chinggis did not invade India, though he sent some forces to pursue Jalal al-Din in India. According to the Persian writer Juvaini, Chinggis actually did advance some days into the Punjab, having hoped to find a route that would allow him to march around the Himalayas and attack the Jin Dynasty from the south, but could not find such a road. Other medieval sources and modern historians offer alternative explanations for Chinggis’ refusal to spend more time in India, with reasons ranging from respect for Delhi’s neutrality, the heat of northern India, bad omens, Delhi’s diplomacy appeasing the Khan through token submission, to the simple fact that Chinggis may not have had interest expanding into a new, unknown territory while already dealing with much of Iran, Central Asia and China, with Chinggis intending all along to return to China and deal with the Jin and Tangut. We discussed the matter more in episodes 9 and 15. As it was, Chinggis returned to the east, and died while on campaign against the Tangut in 1227. As we saw in episode 15, Jalal al-Din spent a few years in India making a mess of things, nearly attacking Delhi before withdrawing to Iran after a massive coalition of the post-Ghurid and Hindu forces threatened him.

 The great consequences of Mingburnu’s time in India was that he and the Mongols sent to pursue him  greatly undermined Iltutmish of Delhi’s other Ghurid rivals in the northwest and the Punjab. Thanks to wars between the Khwarezmian and Mongol forces, Iltutmish over the late 1220s and 1230s gradually absorbed the other post-Ghurid powers up to the Indus River. In addition, he became overlord of a number of regional Hindu kingdoms; some have for this region compared the Delhi Sultanate to a collection of subkingdoms. By Iltutmish’s death in 1236, the Delhi Sultanate was the great power of northern India and the Gangetic plain, from the Indus to Bengal, with recognition from the Caliph as the only Muslim sovereign in India, and indeed, one of the mightiest Muslim rulers in the world.


However, in Iltutmish’s final years the Mongol presence on his border increased. When Chormaqun Noyan and his army entered Iran at the start of the 1230s to complete the conquest of the region and finish off Jalal al-Din -something we discussed in detail in episode 15- a portion of his force was sent into southeastern Iran and Khurasan, which included modern Afghanistan. The remnants of the empire Jalal al-Din Mingburnu had left in Afghanistan and India submitted to the Mongols, and the Mongol Empire now directly bordered the Delhi Sultanate. A tamma force under Dayir was stationed in Afghanistan, and part of the duty of the tamma was to disrupt the states along the borders of the Mongol Empire. As such, Mongol raids into the Punjab and Sind began with increasing regularity in the late 1230 and 40s, which proved difficult for Iltutmish’s troubled successors.


Iltutmish’s eldest son and heir had been groomed for the throne, but his premature death in Bengal was a severe blow to the Sultan. A younger son, Rukn ud-Din Firoz Shah, ultimately succeeded Iltutmish, but the youth enjoyed alcohol and good times more than the complicated court machinations and governance. The boy’s mother acted as the true governor, using her power to take out her grievances. It was not a winning combination. Within months a rebellion removed Firoz Shah and his mother from the scene, which placed Iltutmish’s daughter Raziyya on the throne. Famous as the only female Muslim monarchs in India’s history, and popularly known as Raziyya Sultana, her ascension owed much to the strong Turkic force in the government, many of whom were only recent converts to Islam. Some are known to have been denizens of the former Qara-Khitai empire, which had influential women empresses, and therefore the prospect of a woman ruling in her own name was not as dreadful to them.


 Apparently Raziyya had been expected to act as a figurehead, though proved herself, in the vein of all good Qipchap women, to be very assertive and insisted on a prominent, public role. Enjoying horseback archery and riding elephants in public, she supposedly even dressed as a man. Seeking to expand her powerbase, she sought to create additional sources of support in competition to the Turkic ghulams. Her appointees to power included Ghuris, Tajiks, Hindus and even Africans. The ghulams did not appreciate it, and by 1240 Raziyya was deposed and, after a brief attempt to restore her to the throne, killed in favour of her brother, Bahram Shah. So ended the brief reign of perhaps the most well known female Muslim monarch. Her brother and successor Bahram Shah did not long enjoy the throne. A brave and often blood thirsty individual, his effort to totally remove the powerful Turkic aristocracy, increasingly showing itself a rival to power to the Sultan, resulted in his commanders storming Delhi and killing him only two years into his reign.  Bahram Shah’s most notable act was appointing Juzjani, a refugee from Khwarezm, as grand qadi of Delhi. Minhaj-i-SIraj Juzjani is one of the most important sources for the period, writing a mammoth history in the 1250s. We’ve visited it often in the course of this series to generally remark on his well known hatred of the Mongols but it is a key for the early history of the Delhi Sultanate. His great history, the Tabaqat-i-nasiri, was translated into English in the late nineteenth century by Major Raverty, and can be found in two volumes free to download by


After Sultan Bahram Shah’s death, he was succeeded by Rukn ud-Din Firoz’s son, ‘Ala al-Din Mas’ud Shah. Despite having gained the throne with the support of the Turkic aristocracy,  like his predecessors Mas’ud shah sought to weaken them. His four year reign ended with his death at the hands of the youngest surviving son of Iltutmish, Mahmud Shah. From 1246 until 1266, Mahmud proved the longest reigning of Iltutmish’ sons. He was though, the most ineffective, and gradually found himself reduced to puppet by his na’ib, Balban, who we will return to shortly.


While these political upheavals rocked the capital, the Mongols pressed on the northwestern border. In 1241 a Mongol force under Bahadur Tair took Lahore, and Multan was captured in 1245, and by the 1250s, Sind and the Punjab were largely under Mongol control and Mongol raids were a nearly annual occurrence. By the reign of Mahmud Shah, the authority of the Delhi monarch, both within his court and northern India, had declined dramatically. Fortunately for the Delhi Sultan, no full Mongol invasion yet threatened, but the stream of refugees from Iran and Central Asia must have brought constant news of the Mongol terror. Juzjani certainly reported seemingly every rumour he heard, and was certainly under the impression that at least some of the Mongol leadership, particularly Chagatai, favoured the extermination of Islam. The learned and informed in Delhi must have feared greatly what would happen if the Mongols pushed the advantage while Delhi was in the midst of another coup.


Sultan Mahmud Shah bin Iltutmish was overshadowed by his wazir and eventual successor Balban, who changed Delhi policy to the Mongols. An Ölberli Qipchaq and ghulam, Balban had risen in influence over the 1240s, and finally between 1246 and 1249 was raised to the viceroyalty, his might beneath only the Sultan himself. Often, you will see him referred to as a member of the “Forty,” or the “Forty Chiefs.” These were, if you believe some modern writers, forty ghulams of Sultan Iltutmish who acted as kingmakers in Delhi since Iltutmish’s death. However, as pointed out by historians like Peter Jackson, the “Forty”  are only mentioned by Ziya’ al-Din Barani, an official writing in Persian in the Delhi Sultanate in the mid-fourteenth century. No other source on Delhi from the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, especially the more contemporary Juzjani, mention such a distinct coalition. It seems likely that “Forty” refers to the fact that these men commanded corps of forty elite men; such groups are mentioned in other contemporary sources, and the same organization was present in the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt at the same time.  The “Forty” was not some provisional governmental body composed of forty men who tried to exert their power over the Sultans, but rather Barani’s way to refer to the influential members of the aristocracy and elite- many of whom were Qipchaq Turks, but including Ghuris, Tajiks and even Hindus-  who were associated with the military elite and had a vested interest in remaining influential, and were no monolithic body. Balban was a part of this elite, a man experienced with command and the court.


From 1249 through to 1266, with only a brief break, Balban was the #2 man in the Delhi Sultanate, the na’ib, who handled government himself, styled himself Ulugh Khan and married his daughter to the Sultan. Sultan Mahmud Shah turned into a shadowy figure behind Balban’s power. In 1266, Mahmud Shah and his children died in unclear, but almost certainly not natural, circumstances, and Balban took the throne himself. So ended the line of Iltutmish. After many years in the viceroyalty, Balban had moved his allies and friends into prominent positions of power, and thus held the throne securely. He was therefore able to finally act more aggressively towards the Mongols. Initially, diplomacy under Mahmud Shah and Balban had sought to appease the Mongols, and envoys from Hulegu in the 1250s had been honoured and respected, friendly relations urged. Considering the size and might of Hulegu’s army, it was a wise decision. But following Hulegu’s death in 1265, the outbreak of civil war between the Mongols and Balban’s direct seizure of the throne in 1266, Balban went on the offensive. On his order, the Sultanate retook Multan and Lahore by force. Balban worked to fortify India’s rugged border through building forts garrisoned by the various mountain tribes. Further, Balban welcomed Mongols, Persian and Central Asian refugees fleeing the Mongol civil wars in the 1260s, and gave many of them military positions which provided the Delhi Sultans’ with knowledge of Mongolian military tactics. Similar to the Mamluks of Egypt, Mongol refugees were valuable immigrants and their flight was welcomed. Supposedly entire neighbourhoods in Delhi were formed from the Mongols who fled there. Some of these men of Mongol background came to positions of great prominence, after their conversion to Islam of course. Under Balban and his successors, these neo-Muslims, as they were called by Barani,  were given command of armies and powerful positions close to the Sultan. One of these men was a member of the Khalaj tribes, named Jalal al-Din.


Beginning in the 1260s, the source of the Mongol incursions into India changed. Rather than an imperial effort, it became led by the Neguderis based in southern Afghanistan, known also as the Qaraunas. With the outbreak of war between the Ilkhanate and Golden Horde, the Ilkhan Hulagu had attacked the Jochid forces who had been a part of his army. Many fled to southern Afghanistan under their general Neguder, becoming a local and unruly power the Ilkhan and Chagatai princes sought to control. From then on, the Neguderis undertook nearly annual raids into India’s northwestern frontier.


Over Balban’s long reign he often still relied on diplomacy to keep the Mongols at bay in between periods of fighting. While he consolidated Delhi’s hold on northern India, Balban expanded southwards and restored the Delhi Sultante’s hegemony after a nadir in the 1240s. While often successful and gaining valuable experience with Mongol tactics, Balban received a great shock in 1285 when his favourite son and heir, Muhammad Shah, governor of Lahore, Multan and Dipalpur, was killed in a vicious Mongol attack on Multan. The once vigorous Balban lived the rest of his life quietly, and largely retired from governance, dying in 1287, succeeded by an inept grandson named Kayqubad. Of the eight sultans who reigned between 1236 and 1296, Sultan Balban was the only one known to have died of natural causes.


Sultan Kayqubad’s reign ended quickly, and following his murder in 1290, Jalal al-Din Khalji established the second dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate, the Khalji dynasty.  The name Khalji refers to their background, for their family came from Khalaj tribesmen of what is now Afghanistan.While generally later medieval and modern biographers have seen the Khalaj as a Turkic people, the indication from contemporary sources is that they were seen as a group distinct from the Turks- perhaps due to not being associated with horsemanship or ghulams. The Khalaj were originally Turkic speakers, but over  centuries had mingled with the various Pashtun peoples of Afghanistan. The Pashtun are a branch of the Iranian peoples, speaking a language from the Eastern Iranic language family. While associated with the Pashtun, the Khalaj were distinct from them; Juzjani, during his writing in the 1250s, always distinguished the Khalaj from Turks, Persians and Pashtuns. As such, you will often find the Khalji remarked as a Turko-Afghan dynasty. Individuals of Khalaj stock were certainly raised to prominent positions under the Khalji Sultans, but contrary to some statements, it was not a replacement of the existing multi-ethnic, but still largely Turkic nobility, but a mere another addition to it, just one group among Turks, Mongols, Hindus, Persians and more.


Around 70 years old when he became Sultan in 1290, Jalal al-Din Khalji first appeared in Mongol service. According to the fourteenth century Ilkhanate historian Wassaf, Jalal al-Din had held command over the Khalaj on behalf of the Mongol appointed governor of Binban, west of the Indus River. A fifteenth century source identifies Jalal al-Din’s father as Yughrush, the name of the Khalaj Amir who is known to have taken part in a Mongol embassy to Delhi in 1260. In the ebb and flow of frontier fortunes, perhaps falling out with the Mongols or too ambitious for the existing climate, at some point in the 1260s Jalal al-Din and a body of his men fled to the Delhi Sultanate to offer their services to Sultan Balban, who rewarded them a position on the frontier against the Mongols. This was part of a growing trend in the second half of the thirteenth century. Whereas Iltutmish and the early Sultans had given command of the borders to men trained as ghulams or mamluks, under Balban and the Khaljis the border with the Mongols was increasingly defended by Turkic tribal leaders, who came with their own retinues and forces. Many had even been in Mongol service and therefore had intimate experience with them. It was a position for any ambitious general to develop a reputation, experience and a sizable military following. 


Jalal al-Din’s prominence grew over the reign of Balban as he built his reputation against the Mongols. In the reign of Balban’s grandson Kayqubad, Jalal al-Din Khalji was invited to Delhi to assist against Kayqubad’s court rivals. Despite becoming Kayqubad’s regent, it did little good for the young sultan who was soon murdered, and  Jalal al-Din seized power in the aftermath, though faced stiff court resistance throughout his reign. 


Sultan Jalal al-Din Khalji is generally portrayed as downright mild-mannered. A devout  and forgiving Muslim, often shown to be extraordinarily benevolent and generous to his subjects, he was also very capable miltiarily, personally leading armies against independent Hindu kingdoms and Mongols invaders, a great contrast to Sultan Balban who only rarely headed armies during his long dominance. One of his most notable victories came at Bar-Ram in 1292, where when a ceasefire was declared, some 4,000 of the Mongols under their Prince decided to stay in India after converting to Islam. Sultan Jalal al-Din also cultivated good relations with the Ilkhans. A notable exception to the Sultan’s demeanor, an outright moral failing in the view of his medieval biographers like Barani, was the brutal murder of a famous sufi whose hospice was found to be attached to a conspiracy against him. Jalal al-Din Khalji’s violent reaction was rather unusual for him, given his general clemency to others who plotted against him. 


The general kindness, almost certainly overstated, made him appear weak to his ambitious nephew, Alauddin. In 1296 Alauddin Khalji killed his uncle, and arrested and blinded his sons and their allies, and thus usurped power in the Sultanate. So began the reign of the most famous Delhi Sultan. You may know him best as the primary antagonist in the recent Bollywood film, Padmavat, where he is portrayed by Indian actor Ranveer Singh.  Alauddin Khalji was not noted for any benevolence, but for his cunning, ruthlessness, and paranoia alongside an iron will and exceptional military ability. Cruel but highly capable, his reign began with a large Neguderi incursion, attacking Multan, Sind and Lahore. Alauddin’s commanders Ulugh Khan and Zafar Khan were mobilized with a larger army than the Mongols, and at Jaran-Manjur defeated them, capturing many men, women and children and executing them.


Alauddin Khalji initiated a number of reforms to strengthen his control and prepare against Mongol invasions. Most of these were directed to enlarging the Delhi military and making it more effective, and building new fortifications. His army and officers were paid in cash and the Sultan had personal control over the army, rather than leaving it in the hands of his amirs. Economic reforms were undertaken as well, with high taxes, up to 50% of each crop, and efforts to prevent hoarding to keep prices low, making it cheaper to feed his men. His position was strengthened by a strong spy network and his loyal eunuch and possible lover, Malik Kefar, who secured him from court intrigues. Alauddin Khalji showed exceptional cruelty as he waged war against Mongol and Hindu alike. His wars in Gujarat were accompanied by the destruction of hundreds of Hindu temples and the massacres of men, women and children. The only extant history written in the reign of Sultan Alauddin, that of Amir Khusrau, speaks of the sultan killing some 30,000 Hindus in a single day during his 1303 campaign in Chittoor. In the words of Khusrau, he cut them down as if they were nothing but dry grass. Alauddin’s conquest of the independent Hindu kingdom of Ranthambore in Rajasthan in 1301, a state which had long held out against the Delhi Sultans, was an event which has since held significance in Indian memory. A number of later poems were written on the fall  of Ranthambore which have done much to cement Alauddin’s legacy for Indians as a cruel tyrant with a near genocidal hatred for Hindus. Whether Alauddin actually carried such hatred for Hindus, or this was a consequence of a violent imitation of the cruelty associated with the very successful Mongols, is of little consolation for the many thousands killed on his order.


While these developments were occurring within the Sultanate, to the north was a major shift in the Mongol territory, largely covered in our second episode on the Chagatai Khanate and on Qaidu Khan. With Qaidu’s influence, Du’a was appointed as Khan over the Chagatai Khanate. Splitting rule of central Asia between them, Du’a and his oldest and favourite son, Qutlugh Khwaja, were able to finally bring the fearsome Neguderis, or Qara’unas,  under their power in the 1290s. Qutlugh Khwaja was given command over them. While Qaidu and Du’a focused on the border with Khubilai Khan in the northeast, Qutlugh Khwaja from his southern base turned the Chagatayid-Neguderi attention to India in the closing years of the thirteenth century.  The reasons for this are unclear: we lack sources from the Chagatai perspective, but Ilkhanid and Indian sources give Du’a an intense interest in India. India was famously wealthy and barring raids into the Punjab, was largely untouched by the Mongols. Further, the defeats suffered in the previous incursions into India needed to be avenged, much like Khubilai and his wrath towards Japan or the Ilkhans towards the Mamluk Sultanate. While the Chagatayids could feel they lacked the ability to make great gains against the Ilkhanate or the Yuan, they could have felt a haughtiness to the Turkic and Hindu forces that awaited them in India, and therefore anticipated easy successes.


While generally the Mongol attacks on India are termed as raids, intended for plunder and undertaken on the direction of individual Neguderi chiefs, the most serious invasions which threatened the Delhi Sultanate occurred on Du’a’s order. The 1296 attack was already noted, and two years later another Mongol force was sent into India. Alauddin Khalji’s army under Ulugh Khan was campaigning in Gujarat when the Mongols attacked in 1298. The commander left in Delhi, Zafar Khan, was able to raise a large army and defeat the Mongols, once more driving them back across the border. The residents of the Sultanate, despite having repulsed attacks before, were not unaware of the destruction caused by the Mongols: many of the new inhabitants of Delhi over the previous decades had been refugees fleeing Mongol terror.  Each Mongol attack was therefore a cause for panic and fear. Thus, Zafar Khan was very popular after his victory, which may have given the always suspicious Sultan Alauddin concern over his loyalty. It was not unfounded that a prominent general with enough reputation could make a claim for the throne: Alauddin’s own uncle Jalal al-Din had done just that.


In late 1298 or 1299 began the most serious Mongol invasion of India. On the orders of Du’a Khan, his sons Qutlugh Khwaja and Temur Buqa marched with 50-60,000 Neguderi and Chagatai horsemen over the border. According to sources like Barani, the purpose of this assault was expressly for conquest, and even if we cannot corroborate it from the Chagatai perspective it is evident that this was a serious undertaking compared to earlier attacks. With the arrival of Qutlugh Khwaja’s army, greater than any preceding it, the Sultanate erupted into panic. Qutlugh Khwaja intended to make his mark as the next great Mongol conqueror.


The sources have Qutlugh Khwaja bypassing villages to maximize speed, intending to strike directly at the city of Delhi itself while the Sultan’s army was once again on campaign in Gujarat. At the River Jumna, Zafar Khan confronted Qutlugh but was defeated and forced to retreat to Delhi. News of the defeat of the heroic Zafar Khan caused thousands to abandon their homes in fear, and the capital was soon flooded with refugees flying before the oncoming army. Famine, overcrowding and fear now gripped Delhi as the swarm drained its resources, all while Qutlugh Khwaja closed in.


Alauddin held a council with his generals in the city, where he was advised to abandon the capital: the Mongols were too numerous, too powerful and too close for them to stand a chance.  Alauddin trusted his sword however, and raised what forces he could. Some 24 kilometres north of Delhi, Alauddin Khalji met Qutlugh Khwaja at a site called Kili.


While the sources give Alauddin a force of some 300,000 men with 2,700 war elephants, it is nigh impossible Alauddin suddenly put together and supplied an army of such a size on short notice. Modern estimates give a more feasible number at around 70,000 with 700 elephants, still a huge army that likely outnumbered the Mongols. Both forces deployed in the standard formation for steppe armies, a center and two wings. The Sultan took the Delhi center, while Zafar Khan commanded the right wing and Ulugh Khan the left, with elephants dispersed among the three groups. Like the Mongols, the Delhi forces relied on Turkic horse archers, light and heavy cavalry, with much of their army experienced in the same style of warfare as the Mongols. 


Zafar Khan, looking to avenge his defeat on the Jumna, led the first charge, attacking the Mongol left flank, which broke before him. Zafar gave chase to drive them from the field, but as he was led further away from the rest of the army, he soon found that he had fallen for a feigned retreat. Zafar was encircled, the Noyan Taraghai leading the ambush. Zafar realized that he had been left to die: the Sultan made no effort to rescue the clearly doomed force, his mistrust of his subordinate’s growing popularity being too great. Abandoned and surrounded, Zafar gave his best until he was captured. Qutlugh Khwaja was impressed by Zafar’s courage, and offered to let him join the Mongols, where surely his bravery would be appreciated, even offering to make him Sultan of Delhi. Zafar Khan was to the end loyal to his Sultan, and refused, and Qutlugh Khwaja ordered the execution of him and all his men and elephants.


With this victory, Qutlugh Khwaja was poised to defeat Alauddin and conquer the Sultanate. At this point however, the Mongol forces retreated. It seems that at some point over the course of the battle, perhaps in a final struggle during the execution of Zafar Khan’s troops, Qutlugh Khwaja was seriously injured, causing his army to retreat. Before he could make it back home, Qutlugh died of his injuries. The Chagatais had lost their prince and another invasion, and Du’a Khan his eldest son, with little to show for it. 


This defeat did not end the Mongol invasions of India though, as Noyan Taraghai attacked in 1303 while Alauddin was returning from campaigning in Chittoor where his forces suffered heavy losses. Much of his army was still occupied besieging a major Hindu stronghold. Isolated and besieged near Delhi, inconclusive fighting continued for two months as Sultan Alauddin led a grim resistance. The approaching summer heat and the stalemate tested Taraghai’s patience, and he too retreated, almost certainly unaware how tenuous Alauddin’s position had been.  From 1304 until 1308 invasions were annual, but victories over major Mongol armies had broken down much of the aura of Mongol terror, Alauddin appearing divinely protected. Mongol armies were defeated in battle, their commanders trampled to death by elephants in Delhi and pillars constructed of Mongol skulls outside the city, and Alauddin undertook a massacre of the Mongols living in Delhi.


The question remains: why were the Mongols so ineffective in India? Delhi familiarity with Mongol tactics was a major factor, both from combat experience, similar army models and the presence of Mongol defectors. Alauddin’s military and economic reforms allowed him to afford and quickly raise large armies, while his strong, centralized government kept his state from collapsing under the pressures of these invasions. India’s hot summers were hard on the Mongols and their horses, impacting pasturage and limiting when the Mongols attacked. Finally, Alauddin and his generals were simply skilled commanders and a match for the Mongol captains, with luck on their side more often than not. Indian sources however, generally ascribed victory to divine intervention rather than skill, which may be why these Mongol defeats are not remembered like Ayn Jalut. 


After Qaidu’s death, Du’a helped organize a general peace between the Mongol Khanates, even suggesting they put aside their differences and launch a joint attack on India. However, the death of Du’a in 1307 and reemergence of tension with the neighbouring Khanates brought the attention of the Chagatais away from India. In 1328-1329 Du’a’s son Tarmashirin undertook the final major Mongol offensive into India, with similar results desultory. Tarmashirin was briefly the Chagatai Khan from 1331-1334, but his death, as well as the collapse of the Ilkhanate, put Central Asia into chaos. Mongol forces were now focused on internal conflict rather than external assault. Much of this we covered in our third episode on the Chagatai khanate, which created the opportunity for a certain Barlas tribesman named Temur to take power in 1370. 


Alauddin Khalji continued to rule with an iron hand and expanded the Sultanate. He fell ill in his final years and grew ever more paranoid and disinterested in government, giving more power to his viceroy, Malik Kafur. On Alauddin’s death in 1316, he was succeeded by a young son with Malik Kafur acting as regent. Kafur was quickly murdered and Alauddin’s son deposed by a brother, Mubarak Shah. Mubarak Shah ruled for only four years before he was murdered by his vizier in 1320, ending Delhi’s Khalji Dynasty. The usurper was quickly overthrown by one of Alauddin Khalji’s generals, Ghiyath al-Din Tughluq, and so began the Delhi Tughluq Dynasty, the third dynasty of the Sultanate


Like Jalal al-Din Khalji, Ghiyath al-Din Tughluq had rose to prominence as a frontier commander against the Mongols, particularly from his post at Depalpur during the reign of Alauddin. Sources of the period, including the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta who visited his court, indicate Ghiyath al-Din was of nomadic background, possibly Mongol or Neguderi, who had entered the Sultanate during the reign of Alauddin Khalji’s uncle, working as a horse keeper for a merchant. The long reigns of Ghiyath al-Din’s successors, Muhammad Tughluq and Firuz Shah were stable, but saw the slow decline of Delhi’s power and permanent losses of Bengal and of the Deccan. Hindu and other smaller Muslim empires expanded at the expense of the Delhi Sultante. As the Tughluq Dynasty stagnated in the closing years of the fourteenth century, the great conqueror Temur cast his eye towards the jewel of northern India. In late 1398 Delhi was sacked and looted by Temur, but limped on until the 16th century when it was finally destroyed by a descendant of both Temur and Chinggis Khan, Babur. 

    The later interaction of the Delhi Sultanate with the heirs of the Mongols is a topic for future discussions, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this, then consider supporting us on patreon at to help keep bringing you great content. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.