Muhammad bin Tughlaq – Maniacal Genius

by Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq was the first of the Tughlaqs to rule Delhi. His folly was the construction of the city of Tughlaqabad in a desolate area south of the capital where even the modern sprawl of Delhi has been unable to settle. Spreading over six square kilometers, the city of his dreams remains a wasteland with howling jackals at night on a wind swept arid land.

As soon as he assumed the throne in Delhi he kept himself busy with consolidating his power. He sent his son Muhammad bin Tughlaq to Deccan to subdue the Kakatiyas of Warangal while he went to Bengal and Bihar to quell resurgence of Hindu rebellion. He ran into a religious stalemate with a Sufi saint and mystic by name Shaikh Nizam-ud-din Auliya. The Sufi objected to the religious laxity of the sultan and ran afoul with him. The Sufi was said to have cursed Tughlaqabad to eternal desolation that holds true even today.
After his triumph in Bengal he ordered his son Muhammad to construct a wooden pavilion for the celebration of reunion with father and son in Tughlaqabad. The Sufi, however, predicted that the sultan would find Delhi a distant town (Abhi Dilli Door Hai). The history is murky after this event. It is recorded that following the dinner, with son and father participating, a bolt of lightening struck the wooden pavilion to electrocute the father. Another version is that the son, Muhammad, ordered stamping of several elephants in the vicinity of the pavilion (called Afghanpur pavilion) that made the whole structure fall on the sultan, crushing him to death. Given the history of the Muslim succession in India, the latter theory of intrigue and murderous plot of son disposing off his father to gain ascendancy of the throne is more believable. After all, even if a sultan died in his own bed of ‘natural causes’, poisoning would be suspected because patricide was the most common and convenient means of ascending the throne.
Muhammad bin Tughlaq was the most controversial of all the sultans ever to rule India. Muhammad Kunhi by birth, he was also called ‘Muhammad the Bloody’. He was the most cruel, cold-blooded and crazy sultan yet. At the same time, he was also brilliant, philanthropic and an endearing person. This dichotomy in his character, perhaps would be diagnosed as a psychiatric disorder today of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Whether he was a genius or a maniacal lunatic, an idealist or a visionary, a tyrant or a benevolent king are unanswered questions. However, all these characters were apparent at one time or another in his actions. Was he a devout Muslim or a heretic? A complex man, he remains an enigma. He went against theulema, the Muslim scholars who are experts in Muslim law and religion.
There are enough documentations of his psychotic behavior. One minute he would be effusive in his praise and shower of presents but the next he would enthusiastically shed blood and condemn one to death. One moment he would be humble but the very next moment he would be seething with anger, prone to the most cruel and violent deeds. There is an account of a poor soul who suffered the wrath of the sultan when he was flayed alive in front of the court audience and his innards were cooked with rice and force-fed to his family. Members of the family who refused to eat it were summarily executed. Muhammad was also exceptionally well educated and he was the patron of arts that would rival the Mughals later. He was an authority on medicine and mathematics. He possessed formidable intelligence and superb penmanship.
For all his brilliance, he also undertook bizarre unachievable campaigns like trying to reverse Alexander’s march into India and capturing Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan (what used to be called Khorasan). After spending vast sums of money the project was abandoned before it even got started. Another folly, an expedition into China got bogged down in Kulu with resistance from Hindus. Only ten out of a staggering force of sixty thousand horsemen returned to Delhi following this fiasco. He however had some success in Deccan and Devagiri was under his firm control. He renamed it Daulatabad and ordered his capital moved there, fourteen hundred kilometers from Delhi! When the pampered citizens of Delhi showed reluctance to move so far away, the sultan resorted to brutal force. People were evicted from their homes in Delhi and if they refused to go they were immediately put to death. Cripples were tied to the catapult and slung towards Daulatabad. A blind man was tied to a horse and dragged all the way and only one of his legs reached the final destination in Daulatabad. However, all these accounts of brutality may be exaggeration by the ulema, who were waging an acerbic war of words with the sultan in Delhi. It is said that his non-accommodation by the ulema was the reason for Muhammad of Tughlaq to move to Daulatabad. The monumental folly of the sultan soon ended when he decided to move back to Delhi. Some of his supporters had barely reached Daulatabad when they had to turn around.
The military expenses incurred with foolish adventures and the move to Daulatabad cost him dearly. To raise funds, additional taxes were levied on the poor farmers, who ran to the jungles to escape from the reprisals of a cruel sultan. The land went un-cultivated and this added further to the problem of the treasury. The resulting famine on top of an existing drought killed thousands. At this juncture the sultan turned very compassionate and distributed large amount of grains form the stocks and showed enormous concern.
He also attempted to fine tune the money supply with mintage of new gold coinage and adulterated silver coins. Brass and copper coins were also introduced. The scheme again failed utterly and people lost all the confidence in sultan. Counterfeits appeared all over the country and Muhammad was eventually forced to buy back all the tokens, real and the counterfeit, at considerable expense to the treasury.
Despite the mind-boggling idiocy of the experiments that failed miserably, Muhammad bin Tughlaq managed to stay in power for twenty-six years. Unlike some of his predecessors he ought to be admired for the absence of religious bigotry and his successful administration with minor reforms of merit. He did not busy himself with temple destruction neither did he indulge in nurturing his libido. He was a genius when it came to military strategy. He died in 1351, while pursuing rebels in Sindh, of natural causes though other theories of deliberate poisoning abound. His cousin, Feroz Shah, succeeded him in a remarkable bloodless manner.
Feroz Shah made peace with the ulema and promptly received favorable press. Most of his campaigns for expansion resulted in utter failure and he resumed the business of temple desecration when he sacked the sacred shrine of lord Jagannath at Puri in 1361. He returned to Delhi with the customary loot and seventy-three elephants. He also built the Feroz Shah kotla (citadel), north of Tughlaqabad. He ordered two Ashoka pillars to be transported from Ambala, down river at an enormous cost, installing them in Delhi, though no one knew the script of the writings. Curiously one of the pillars thus carried to Delhi had inscriptions added two centuries earlier by one Vigraha-raja, an ancestor of Prithviraj Chauhan, describing his victory over the Ghaznivads in Panjab. Feroz Shah was also responsible for the first madrassah (religious schools) and was the first to levy taxes (jizya) on Brahmins. After a rule of thirty-seven years Feroz Shah died in 1388 and his tomb is in Hauz Khas in southern Delhi, next to the reservoir built by Ala-ud-din Khilji. After his death, another bloody succession crisis ensued and the Tughlaq dynasty lasted only until 1413. They also had to endure the horrendously bloody attack by the Mongol, Timur the Lame (Tamerlane) in 1398. Fresh from his conquests of Baghdad and Persia, the Mongol overturned the already weakened Delhi sultanate. After defeating the incumbent sultan a three-day orgy of rape and murder went unchallenged. Timur himself admired at the amount of gold, silver, jewels and precious stones that he was able to acquire. All Hindu population was decimated and only exclusively Muslim quarters were spared. Timur’s Mongols had embraced Islam and had turned to be its firm adherents targeting the idolaters. Timur felt that it was the will of God that misfortune should befall the city and he was helpless in saving the city of Delhi or its Hindu population. After Timur departed the Tughlaqs returned to Delhi and managed to hold power for another fifteen years.