DELHI SULTANATE, Muslim kingdom established in northern India by Central Asian Turkish warlords at the turn of the 13th century and continuing in an increasingly persianized milieu until its conquest by Bābor in 932/1526.

i. Political and cultural history.

ii. Architecture.



Although the influence of Persian civilization upon that of northern India under the sultans of Delhi has long been treated as a foregone conclusion, attempts to identify the extent of the processes by which that influence was transmitted involve the historian in a web of hypotheses and generalizations (for the historiography of the sultanate, see Hardy, 1960; Rashid; Hasan; Sarkar; Nizami, 1983). As Carl W. Ernst (p. 6) has expressed it, “‘influence’ is nothing but a rather physical metaphor suggesting a flowing in of a substance into an empty vessel. This is hardly a satisfactory model for the complicated process by which people of one culture interpret and put to new uses themes and symbols from another culture.” Because of its origins and subsequent history the sultanate provided for three and a quarter centuries a unique opportunity for the continual transmission to India of a broad range of cultural manifestations emanating from the Persian plateau: language and literature, customs and manners, concepts of kingship and government, religious organization, music, and architecture.

Persian influence in northern India before the sultanate. Islam had already entered India via Sind and up the Indus; by the late 10th century Ismaʿili communities had been established in and around Multan, but they were Carmatians from Bahrain and probably constituted a wholly Arab element. The seepage of Persian influences into northwestern India resulted, in the first instance, from the transfer of political power on the Persian plateau from ʿAbbasid governors to local dynasts. The early Saffarids Yaʿqūb b. Layṯ (d. 265/879) and ʿAmr b. Layṯ (d. 289/902) exercised a loose sway over what are today the Indo-Afghan borderlands, in which dissidents from the Persian plateau had probably established themselves free from ʿAbbasid surveillance (Bosworth). The Samanids (204-395/819-1005) later extended their hegemony over the same area, including the Kabul valley, Gardīz, Ḡazna, and Zābolestān, leading to penetration of these lands by Persian or persianized officials, traders, and adventurers. Under their aegis rebellious slave commanders like Alptigin, Sebüktigin, and the latter’s son Maḥmūd used Ḡazna as a base for raids across the Indus and into Hindustan. A century later the Saljuq vizier Neẓām-al-Molk, in his Sīāsat-nāma (p. 147), described these raids, emphasizing that plunder and adventure, as much as piety, had motivated them. The Ghaznavid Maḥmūd himself (388-421/998-1030) may well have viewed these raids as providing the means to play an active role on the Persian plateau, but after the defeat of his son Masʿūd (421-32/1031-41) by the Saljuqs at Dandānqān in 431/1040 the fulcrum of Ghaznavid power shifted east into the Punjab, and Lahore became the capital of the rump empire. The later Ghaznavids, though ethnic Turks, were wholly assimilated to Persian culture; Persian was the language of the court, and Ghaznavid Lahore must have been a typical Persian city. The first flowering of Persian poetry on Indian soil took place there, led by Abu’l-Faraj b. Masʿūd Rūnī, the panegyrist of Sultan Ebrāhīm b. Masʿūd (451-92/1059-99) and his son Masʿūd III (492-508/1099-1115), and Masʿūd-e Saʿd-e Salmān (Marek, pp. 714-15). It was also in Lahore that ʿAlī b. ʿOṯmān Hojvīrī, whose Kašf al-maḥjūb was one of the earliest accounts in Persian of Sufi theory and practice, finally settled and died (ca. 465-69/1072-77; Hojvīrī, pp. x-xi) .

Although the ethnic origins of the Ghurid, or Shansabanid, dynasty (ca. 390-612/1000-1215) remain uncertain, there can be no doubt that the conquest of Ḡazna by the Ghurids’ Turkish ḡolāms in 545/1150 marked the end of Ghaznavid rule west of the Indus. The last two Ghaznavids, Ḵosrow Shah (547-55/1152-60) and Ḵosrow Malek (555-82/1160-86), controlled only the Punjab, and under their rule the cities there must have experienced further persianization. In 582/1186 the Ghurid ruler Ḡīāṯ-al-Dīn Moḥammad (558-99/1163-1203) occupied Lahore, where he established a condominium with his younger brother Moʿezz-al-Dīn Moḥammad, to whom he delegated the eastern and southern possessions of the dynasty. Thenceforth Moʿezz-al-Dīn was responsible for the extensive conquests in Hindustan. Delhi was captured in 588-89/1192, Ajmer in 589/1193, and Qannauj in 595/1198; Ghurid suzerainty thus extended in a great arc from Mount Abū in Rajasthan through Gwalior to Bundelkhand. Farther east Baḵtīār Ḵaljī proceeded into Bihar and Bengal in 599-601/1202-04, capturing the cities of Nadia and Lakhnawti (Jūzjānī, Ṭabaqāt I, pp. 422-32). Following the assassination of Moʿezz-al-Dīn in 599/1206 his territories were partitioned among his principal amirs: Tāj-al-Dīn Yildiz in Ḡazna; Nāṣer-al-Dīn Qobāča in Multan, Uch, and Bhakkar; and Qoṭb-al-Dīn Aybak in Lahore, Ajmer, and Delhi, the last city being held by his lieutenant Šams-al-Dīn Iltutmiš. In Bihar and Bengal the situation remained fluid: Baḵtiār had either died or been assassinated, and successive commanders endeavored to hold those distant provinces and to determine the basis of their legitimacy by dealing with various power brokers in the northwest (Eaton, 1993, pp. 38-39). Eventually Aybak emerged more or less supreme, though he had had to come to terms with Qobāča and probably, contrary to tradition, never assumed the title “sultan.” Nor was his son Ārām Shah able to succeed him after his premature death. His successor was his favorite ḡolām, the far-sighted and resolute Iltutmiš (607-33/1211-36), who is counted the first and among the greatest of the sultans of Delhi.

The Turkish ḡolāms of the Ghurids who laid the foundations of Muslim rule in India were no barbarian conquerors; rather, despite their origins in Central Asia, they were effective agents and purveyors of Persian civilization on the subcontinent. Aybak himself had, as a young slave, been educated by a qāżī (religious judge) in Nīšāpūr, where he had acquired a reputation as a reciter of the Koran (Jūzjānī, I, p. 416). Iltutmiš had belonged to a learned man of Bukhara, who educated him thoroughly before selling him to a merchant, who took him to Baghdad and thence to Ḡazna (Jūzjānī, I, p. 442). Qobāča, too, seems to have been a man of considerable polish; it was in his time that the Čāč-nāma was rendered from Arabic into Persian, and he provided temporary refuge from the Mongols for both Šadīd-al-Dīn ʿAwfī and Abū ʿAmr Jūzjānī. He appointed the latter to a position at the Fīrūzīya madrasa at Uch, which may have been his own foundation (Jūzjānī, I, p. 420). The biographical notices on prominent amirs of the early Delhi sultanate incorporated into Jūzjānī’s Ṭabaqāt-e nāṣerī confirm the impression of a cultivated persianized ruling elite. The earliest surviving buildings erected by the sultans of Delhi also reflect Persian antecedents (see ii, below).

The Ghaznavid and Ghurid invaders constituted a well-defined ruling elite, reinforced by adventurers of all kinds from the Muslim lands farther west. Neẓām al-Molk reported that, after news of the booty that Alptigin had acquired in the Indus frontier region became known, men flocked from Khorasan, Transoxania, and Sīstān to serve under him (Neẓām-al-Molk, p. 146). Few of these early invaders would have brought wives with them, relying principally upon Indian slave women to provide for their domestic needs and bear them sons. Apart from soldiers, little is recorded about early migrants from Persia and the borderlands into what later became the Delhi sultanate. There must have been writers from the Ghaznavid court at Lahore and in the late Ghurid period ʿolamāʾ like Jūzjānī. It can be assumed, too, that among immigrants to northern India there were armorers, metalworkers, tentmakers and furnishers, manufacturers of cavalry gear, and other craftsmen, though none is mentioned in the sources. Merchants must have followed the armies to convert the plunder (often unwieldy and practically useless in the hands of common soldiers) into cash; the vast majority of Indian captives must thus have become objects of commerce. Traders and craftsmen alike most probably came from urban centers in the eastern Persian world and, with bureaucrats and ʿolamāʾ, provided the nucleus of the free, nonmilitary Persian-speaking population of such centers as Multan, Uch, Bhakkar, Lahore, Dipalpur, and Bhatinda in the Punjab, as well as Delhi.

The dynastic history of the sultanate. Iltutmiš was succeeded by five descendants, the last of whom died in 664/1266, but usurpation and murder more often determined the succession at Delhi. In that year his former ḡolām Ḡīāṯ-al-Dīn Balban seized the throne, ruling for two decades (664-86/1266-87) in grim splendor amid the trappings of “Sasanian” kingship (Nizami, 1961, pp. 95-105); after his death his grandson and great-grandson were soon ousted, and the throne was then seized by the Turkish or turkicized Ḵaljīs (689-720/1290-1320; on this dynasty, see Haig; Nigam; Lal, 1967). After the murder of the last of the line, Qotbá-al-Dīn Mobārak Shah (716-20/1316-20), by his favorite the sultanate was restored by Ḡāzī Malek, governor of Dipalpur (Punjab), who mounted the throne as Ḡīāṯ-al-Dīn Toḡloq and founded the Tughluqid dynasty (720-817/1320-1414), under which the sultanate of Delhi reached its greatest extent but also experienced the beginning of fragmentation into smaller states. Ebn Baṭṭūṭa described Ḡāzī Malek as a Qarāʾūnā Turk from southern Afghanistan, though in India the term Qarāʾūnā may have meant descendants of Turks by Indian mothers (Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, III, p. 649). Under the Tughluqids, especially Moḥammad b. Toḡloq (725-52/1325-51) and Fīrūz Shah (752-90/1351-88), the Delhi sultanate reached the zenith of its splendor (on the Tughluqids, see Haig; Husain, 1938; idem, 1963). Even before Tīmūr’s devastating raid on Punjab and Delhi in 800/1398-99, however, the Tughluqid state had contracted to a mere shadow of its former self, and the adventurers who ruled after Tīmūr’s withdrawal, Mallū Khan, Dawlat Khan Lōdī, and Ḵeżr Khan, had no claims to legitimacy and controlled little more than the countryside immediately surrounding Delhi. Keżr Khan’s successors came to be known as the Sayyed dynasty (817-55/1414-51), probably because of spurious claims to descent from the Prophet Moḥammad; they were eventually swept away by the Lōdīs (855-932/1451-1526), themselves part of a larger infiltration of Afghan tribes into the Punjab and the Ganges plain, from which local dynasties also eventually emerged in Bengal and Malwa. The most significant legacy of the Sayyeds and Lōdīs was architectural. The last Lōdī sultan was killed at Panipat fighting the invading forces of Bābor.

Although the extent of Persian immigration into India before the 1220s is a matter of guesswork, events during the 13th century undoubtedly contributed to an increase. The garrison towns and administrative centers in the upper Jumna-Ganges plain (e.g., Baran, Etawah, Badaon, Qannauj) must have become even more persianized after the arrival of successive waves of refugees from the west. The first such wave was the result of campaigns by Čengīz Khan in Transoxania and Khorasan in 616-19/1219-22; he actually reached the Indus in 618/1221 and briefly threatened the Punjab (Jovaynī, ed. Qazvīnī, II, pp. 139-42). Many fugitives sought sanctuary in Delhi during the reign of Iltutmiš and undoubtedly stimulated a greater diffusion of Persian customs and values in lands that had previously been unstable marches on the frontiers of the Islamic world. Jūzjānī is an example, having fled from Tūlak south of Herat, arrived by boat in Uch, where he was warmly received by Qobāča, and then passed on to Delhi, where he enjoyed a moderately successful career in the service of the sultanate (Jūzjānī, I, pp. 420, 447).

The Mongol invasion of Persia continued into the 1250s, and it must be assumed that the exodus also continued, though presumably limited to persons of means or possessing marketable skills. A further stage in the spread of Persian influence must have followed Hülegü’s invasion of Persia in 653-56/1255-58; many refugees crossed the Indus during the reign of Sultan Nāṣer-al-Dīn Maḥmūd Shah (644-64/1246-66), and the impetus may have continued during the late 1270s and 1280s after the Negüderis or Qarāʾūnās had occupied Zābolestān in what is now southern Afghanistan, a region that became a bone of contention between Il-khanids and Chaghatayids (see CHAGHATAYID DYNASTY). The latter successfully asserted their hegemony in the borderlands northwest of the Indus and engaged in protracted internal dynastic struggles between Mongol traditionalists and those newly converted to Islam (e.g., ʿAlāʾ-al-Dīn Tarmašīrīn, 726-34/1326-34). Among the refugees who came to Delhi was the party with which Ebn Baṭṭūṭa traveled in 734/1333. The most prominent member was the qāżī of Termeḏ, who was accompanied by his women and children, three brothers and a nephew, and two notables from Bukhara and Samarqand respectively, each with an entourage of servants and hangers-on (Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, pp. 606-07). This group was probably typical of such refugees, representing high Persian culture. Sultan Moḥammad b. Toḡloq was especially renowned for his hospitality to foreigners (see Jackson), among whom the “Ḵorāsānīs” (a term used indiscriminately in Delhi to include refugees from Persia proper, the borderlands across the Indus, and Turkestan) were especially numerous. Ebn Baṭṭūṭa mentioned the sultan’s practice “of honouring strangers and showing affection to them and singling them out for governorships or high dignities of state” (p. 595). “. . . Well known is his generosity to foreigners, for he prefers them to the people of India, singles them out for favour, showers his benefits upon them . . . and confers upon them magnificent gifts” (p. 671). When the Il-khanate in Persia collapsed in 736/1336 Tughluqid Delhi provided a carrière ouverte aux talents, thus ensuring that Muslim India would become a cultural extension of Persia.

Perhaps more than elsewhere in the Muslim east, the political style of the rulers of Delhi reflected traditional concepts of Persian kingship, for Iltutmiš and his successors lacked any other obvious tradition to draw upon (Hardy, 1978a). Indigenous Rajput polities offered no meaningful exemplars, and it is unlikely that the Turks in northern India retained memories of the steppe imperium of the Oḡuz or Qarakhanids. The ʿAbbasid caliphate had provided a legitimizing mechanism, but its demise in 658/1258 left a mere fictive device. On the other hand, the culture of the courts of eastern Persia, that is, Samanid Bukhara, in whose service Alptigin had grown gray (Neẓām-al-Molk, p. 139), and the persianized milieux of the Ghaznavids and Ghurids offered a dynamic, ultimately Sasanian concept of šāhānšāhī to set against contemporary Hindu notions of kingship or the threatening universalism of the Chinghizids. This concept could be harnessed to the idea, prevalent from the time of the first Mongol incursions across the Indus, that the central functions of the rulers of Delhi were chastisement of the idolaters of Hindustan and defense of the sultanate against the Mongol infidels (Ahmad, p. 12). In his determination to enhance his authority Ḡīāṯ-al-Dīn Balban, who claimed descent from Afrāsīāb, sought to overawe his turbulent followers with the splendid ceremonial of pre-Islamic Persia (Nizami, 1985, pp. 148-52). It is surely no coincidence that his grandsons were named Kay Ḵosrow, Kay Qobād, Kay Kāvūs, and Fīrūz. The greatest poet of the Delhi sultanate, Amīr Ḵosrow Dehlavī (651-725/1253-1325; see Rypka, Hist. Iran. Lit., pp. 257-59), in his Qerān al-saʿdayn, an account of the reconciliation of Balban’s son Bōgrā Khan, ruler of Bengal, with his own son Moʿezz-al-Dīn Kay Qobād in 686/1287, glorified the external symbols of kingship and authority. ʿEsāmī, with his Fotūḥ al-salāṭīn, composed in the Deccan in 750-51/1349-50, aspired to write the Shāh-nāma of India.

By the time of Amīr Ḵosrow’s death Persian was firmly established as the language of polite learning, diplomacy, and higher administration among the Muslims of the subcontinent. This success owed as much to the diffusion of the Sufi orders throughout northern India, especially during the 14th century, as to elite patronage of panegyric and belles lettres. The process had begun a century earlier, with the establishment of Moʿin-al-Dīn Češtī (q.v.; d. 633/1236) in Ajmer, Ḥamīd-al-Dīn Nāgawrī (d. 675/1276) in Rajasthan, and Qoṭb-al-Dīn Baḵtīār (d. 633/1235) in Delhi (Lawrence, pp. 20-44). From them flowed the great Češtī tradition in India, embodied in Qoṭb-al-Dīn’s disciple Farīd-al-Dīn Masʿūd “Ganj-e Šekar” (664/1265); the latter’s spiritual heir, Neẓām-al-Dīn Awlīāʾ (d. 725/1325), who counted the poets Amīr Ḵosrow Dehlavī and Amīr Ḥasan Sejzī (d. 729/1328) as his friends; and Awlīāʾ’s successor, Nāṣer-al-Dīn Maḥmūd “Čerāḡ-e Dehlī” (d. 757/1356). Other orders, notably the Sohravardīya and the Ferdowsīya, had established themselves after the Turkish invasions, the former chiefly in the Punjab, the latter in Bihar and Bengal (Lawrence, pp. 60-71, 72-79). At the time of Tīmūr’s invasion of Hindustan (800/1398-99) the leading disciple of Čerāḡ-e Dehlī, Moḥammad Ḥosaynī “Gīsū Derāz” (d. 825/1422), abandoned Delhi for the Deccan, where he established himself at Golbarga (Eaton, 1978, pp. 50-52). By that time, however, Sufis had spread far and wide through Muslim territory in India. Their propensity to preserve their conversations (malfūẓāt), letters (maktūbāt), and hagiology (taḏkera) in Persian did much to encourage dissemination of that language. Little survives from before the time of Awlīāʾ, but Sejzī’s Fawāʾed al-foʾād, in which Awlīāʾ’s table talk over about fifteen years is recorded, is perhaps the most important example of the malfūẓāt genre. Ḥamīd Qalandar, in his Ḵayr al-majles, attempted to do the same for Čerāḡ-e Dehlī but lacked his predecessor’s talents as a mystic and as a poet.

Sīar al-Awlīāʾ by Amīr Ḵord, though not properly a taḏkera, is in the taḏkera tradition, containing biographical notices on the early Češtīs, especially Awlīāʾ. Although Amīr Ḵord wrote during the reign of Fīrūz Shah Toḡloq, he had access to much older oral and probably written material that is now lost. Moḥammad-Akbar Ḥosaynī, the son of Gīsū Derāz, also composed a malfūẓāt of his father’s conversations, Jawāmeʿ al-kālem, which includes important material on earlier Češtī shaikhs. Other orders developed their own literary traditions, among which the Maktūbat-e ṣadī of the Ferdowsī shaikh Šaraf-al-Dīn b. Yaḥyā Manerī “Maḵdūm-al-Molk” (d. 782/1381) was particularly celebrated. Without such works and the spiritual dynamism of the Sufi orders that inspired them, it may be doubted that the Persian language and the Persian cultural ethos would have pervaded Hindustan so deeply during the sultanate period.


Bibliography: (For cited works not found in this bibliography and for abbreviations found here, see “Short References.”)

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C. E. Bosworth, “Notes on the Pre-Ghaznavid History of Eastern Afghanistan,” Islamic Quarterly 9, 1965, pp. 12-24.

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Idem, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, Berkeley, Calif., 1993.

Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, Reḥla, tr. H. A. R. Gibb as Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, Cambridge, 1971.

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Idem, “Unity and Variety in Indo-Islamic and Perso-Islamic Civilization,” Iran 16, 1978b, pp. 127-35.

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Idem, History of the Khaljis, A.D. 1290-1320, London, 1967.

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Although parts of the Indian subcontinent had experienced the impact of Persian culture since the invasion by the Ghaznavid sultan Maḥmūd (388-421/998-1030) in the 10th century, Delhi was little affected before 588/1192, when the Ghurid general Qoṭb-al-Dīn Aybak defeated Prithvi Raj Chauhan, the last Hindu ruler of the city. By 589/1193 Aybak had taken Delhi itself and had established Islam as the new state religion; the Friday sermon (ḵoṭba) was read in the name of the Ghurid ruler Moʿezz-al-Dīn Moḥammad (569-602/1173/1206). Medieval Persian institutions, already established in Ghurid Afghanistan, were also implanted in Delhi (see i, above).

The Ghurids. Among the first acts of the new conqueror was the construction of a mosque, known today as the Qowwat-al-Eslām, on a temple plinth in the citadel of the former Chauhan rulers. In its initial phase it consisted of a prayer chamber, an open courtyard, and galleries on the south, north, and east sides; according to a Persian inscription dated 587/1191, the supports of the galleries were taken from twenty-seven dismantled temples (Page, p. 29), but it is possible that this inscription was added later (Horovitz, p. 13). A second inscription suggests that much of this phase had been completed by 592/1196 (Page, p. 29). The mosque was probably modeled loosely on the Saljuq mosques of Persia, with an arcaded screen that was visually related to them (Tsukinowa, p. 37); nevertheless, owing to the predominant use of spolia that were trabeated, not arcuated, the mosque had the aspect of a rearranged Hindu temple. Aybak was evidently dissatisfied with this appearance, for in front of the trabeated prayer chamber he inserted an enormous screen pierced by five corbeled arches, the central one larger than the others, dated 20 Ḏu’l-qaʿda 594/23 September 1198; as a result the courtyard facade of the sanctuary approximated those of the great Saljuq mosques in Persia, for example, the congregational mosque at Isfahan (Tsukinowa, pp. 45, 57; Plate XX). The decorative motifs and calligraphy on this screen are closely related to those on other Ghurid structures in Afghanistan (e.g., the Šāh-e Mašhad madrasa, or religious school, in Ḡarjestān, dated 561/1165-66; Casimir and Glatzer). At the same time that he inserted the screen Aybak also began construction of an enormous minaret, known today as Qoṭb Menār, south of the mosque. It has been proposed that this structure may originally have been intended to serve as his tomb, in the tradition of the Persian tomb towers like the Gonbad-e Qābūs in Gorgān (Trousdale, p. 104).

Aybak’s successor, Šams-al-Dīn Iltutmiš (607-33/1211-36), greatly enlarged the mosque and completed the Qoṭb Menār, about 626/1229. The extensions of the Qowwat-al-Eslām generally followed the same scheme as the original; the first courtyard was surrounded on the north, east, and south by a larger porticoed courtyard, which also enclosed the minaret, and the sanctuary was extended on either side, with new mihrabs and extensions of the arcaded screen.

The completed minaret reached an estimated height of 79 m. (Cunningham, pp. 196-97). Its tapering form and height recall the “minaret” at Jām (65 m high), erected in 526/1132 by the Ghurid Ḡīāṯ-al-Dīn Moḥammad b. Sām (558-99/1163-202; Maricq and Wiet, p. 27; Plate XXI), and the alternating curved and angular projecting forms of its base are clearly related to those of the minaret of Ḵᵛāja Sīāhpūš in Afghan Sīstān (Nath, 1978, p. 25). Unlike the brick minarets of Afghanistan and Persia, however, the Qoṭb Menār was constructed of red and pink local stone. This monument may be interpreted as an expression of the victory of Islam in infidel India, as well as a declaration of the newly established supremacy of Moʿezz-al-Dīn Moḥammad and later of Iltutmiš himself. The historical inscriptions on the minaret indicate that first the Ghurid overlords and later the independent Iltutmiš considered themselves part of the greater Persian and Islamic world and adopted Persian royal titulary. For example, in four separate places the ruler is proclaimed as master of Arabs and non-Arabs (ʿarab o ʿajam; Page, pp. 30-33).

Persian influence on the architecture of the newly established Ghurid splinter state in Delhi was manifest in the very types of buildings constructed, particularly mausolea. Iltutmiš built tombs for himself and his son Nāṣer-al-Dīn Maḥmūd but in quite different styles. That for Nāṣer-al-Dīn at Malikpur, dated 629/1231 and known locally as Solṭān Ḡārī, consists of an underground crypt and heavy enclosure walls that give the appearance of being fortified; it is difficult to trace these features to any specific tradition, but there may have been links with contemporary tombs, probably built originally as rebāṭs (fortified outposts) in the Multan region, which had been under Ghurid domination since 571/1175-76 (Edwards, p. 192; Bosworth, Later Ghaznavids, p. 29). In any event, according to the later chronicle of the Tughluqid Fīrūz Shah (Fotūḥat-e fīrūzšāhī, apud Navqi, p. 6), the tomb was established as a madrasa, an institution that had originated in Persia. Iltutmiš’s own tomb, a square stone structure originally surmounted by a corbeled dome, recalls in plan and elevation tombs in persianized Central Asia, for example, the mausoleum of the Samanids at Bukhara (Pope, Survey of Persian Art, pl. 264; Plate XXII).

The Ḵaljīs. Although the buildings discussed above were clearly modeled on Persian prototypes, indigenous Indian building techniques were still in use, often in modified form (e.g., the corbeled dome of Iltutmiš’s tomb). By the turn of the 14th century true vaulting techniques, including the use of keystones, had been mastered, as attested by the southern gateway known as ʿAlāʾī Darvāza (710/1311), part of the final extension to the Qowwat al-Eslām by ʿAlāʾ-al-Dīn Ḵaljī (695-715/1296-1316). The facade of the gateway is embellished with carved red and white stone, reflecting the tradition of contrasting bands of colored stone in Syria and Anatolia, probably familiar through artisans or patrons fleeing the Mongols. ʿAlāʾ-al-Dīn’s uncompleted enlargement of the mosque, like that of Iltutmiš before him, did not change the original character of the building, however. Persian inscriptions on the facade, in which he is referred to as a “king of Darius-like splendor,” underscore his strong attachment to the Persian cultural realm (Page, p. 34).

Aside from royally endowed buildings little is known about architecture in Delhi during the early Sultanate and Ḵaljī periods. Knowledge of painting and the applied arts is also minimal. From coins it appears that indigenous motifs sometimes appeared on standard Islamic coin types like those minted under the Ghaznavids and Ghurids (Wright, esp. pp. 68-69).

The Tughluqids. Although the Tughluqids were dynamic patrons of architecture, the increasing austerity of their imperial buildings evoked few Persian forms other than those already current in Delhi. For example, the mosque of Moḥammad Shah II (725-52/1325-51) in Begumpur, in a southern suburb of the city, is only an elaboration of the Saljuq-inspired mosque type developed earlier in the sultanate period (Welch and Crane, p. 130). The leading architectural patron of the dynasty, Fīrūz Shah (752-90/1351-88), did, however, develop an elaborate building program of explicitly Persian inspiration. In keeping with the image of an ideal ruler portrayed in such Persian texts as Neẓām-al-Molk’s Sīar al-molūk, he concerned himself with building canals, wells, sluices, forts, madrasas, mosques, and other public amenities, though in reality much of this activity was designed to divert attention from his shrinking domain and political impotence (Asher, 1992, p. 7).

One building type that probably reflected actual Persian prototypes was the octagonal tomb, which became increasingly popular in pre-Mughal Delhi. It consisted of a central chamber surrounded by a veranda. Important examples are the tombs of the general Ẓafar Khan (built 723-25/1323-25) and Ḵān-e Jahān Telangānī (d. 770/1368), prime minister under Fīrūz Shah. The type appears to have been ultimately derived from such Persian tombs as that at Naṭanz (dated 389/999), now incorporated into a later mosque (Blair, p. 47). The mode of transmission is unclear, though it is notable that a type once favored for saints in Persia was used for royalty and high-ranking secular figures in India.

The later sultanate. After the invasion of Tīmūr in 801/1398 the prestige of Delhi suffered considerably. Some octagonal tombs were built in the persianate tradition established by Fīrūz Shah, notably those of Mobārak Shah (824-38/1421-35), Sekandar Shah Lōdī (894-923/1489-1517; Plate XXIII), and the high-ranking ʿĪsā Khan Nīāzī (954/1547-48). Particularly under Sekandar Shah there was an attempt to revive the city’s fortunes. The Afghan Šīr Shah Sūr, who temporarily ousted the Mughals from India, ruled Delhi in the years 947-52/1540-45; he built the Qalʿa-ye kohna mosque in the Dīn-panāh section of the city. The sanctuary consists of a single-aisled sanctuary of three bays; it is unique to India, but at that time the building type was favored specifically by Afghan families like the Sūrīs. The ornamentation may also reveal Persian influence (Asher, 1989, pp. 74-75). The exterior and interior are richly faced with red and white stones, some of which are inlaid in intricate geometric patterns reminiscent of tile patterns on Timurid buildings.


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Plate XX. Screen on the courtyard of the Qowwat al-Eslām mosque, Delhi, added by the Ghurid Qoṭb-al-Dīn Aybak, 594/1198. Photograph C. B. Asher.

Plate XXI. Remains of the Qoṭb Menār, Qowwat al-Eslām mosque, Delhi, begun by Qoṭb-al-Dīn Aybak, ca. 1200, completed by Šams-al-Dīn Iltutmiš ca. 626/1229. Photograph C. B. Asher.

Plate XXII. Facade, tomb of Iltutmiš, in the Qowwat al-Eslām mosque, Delhi, ca. 1225. Photograph C. B. Asher.

Plate XXIII. Tomb of Sekandar Shah Lōdī, in the Bāḡ-e Jor, known today as the Lodi Gardens, Delhi, ca. 1517. Photograph C. B. Asher.

(Gavin R. G. Hambly, Catherine B. Asher)

Originally Published: December 15, 1994

Last Updated: November 21, 2011

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Vol. VII, Fasc. 3, pp. 242-250