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Monday, October 5, 2015

Cunning & dangerous politics of Shah Turkan versus a Strong & Determined Razia with a brief insight on Life in Harem | History of Razia Sultan - II

Hi Everyone,

This article is the second one in the series on the history of Delhi Sultanate before Razia Sultan ascended the throne. It focuses specifically on the internal politics that were played out to prevent Razia from becoming the ruler in spite of her father selecting her as his heiress. We will look at the important people involved in this power play in this article. 



An interesting aspect of the Delhi Sultanate was that matrimonial relations were used to strengthen the position of the royal family as well as that of powerful nobles in the court. Some significant examples are :

- A daughter of Qutb-ud-din Aibak was married to Iltutmish;
- A daughter of Iltutmish was married to Balban;
- Malik Altunia married Raziya Sultan;
- Balban gave one of his daughters in marriage to Nasir-ud-din Mahmud, grandson of Iltutmish;

It appears that such matrimonial relations were diplomatic in nature and were inspired by the desire to consolidate and extend the rule of the Mamluk dynasty across generations. A careful study of these marriages shows how the members of the royal family and their nobles carefully strove to keep power within the family and formed power centres that enabled some people to fulfil their ambitions of becoming Sultans by eliminating competition in various subtle and not so subtle ways. 

The matrimonial relations of the Sultans did not always remain cordial. But the ladies of the household enjoyed respectable positions and were held in high esteem by the Sultans. This is a significant point. We will discuss this in greater detail later in this article.

As mentioned earlier, we will be looking at the events preceding Razia Sultan's ascension to the throne. Razia's father Iltutmish was an able and powerful ruler who controlled the Delhi Sultanate with an iron fist. His vigilance and political adroitness had kept the nobles strictly under his control throughout his life time. His death in 1236 allowed the nobles to at last initiate factional politics. And thus began a period of chaos and confusion in the Delhi Sultanate. 

Tomb of Sultan Iltutmish, Mehrauli, Delhi. 
Copyright : Pictures India

During the three decades between Iltutmish's death and the accession of Balban, the crown of Delhi passed through many vicissitudes. The nobles left no stone unturned in divesting the Sultan of all his authority and prestige. Every important noble sought to establish their own control on the throne, and, through it, the administration of the empire.

The women of the royal harem too enjoyed a privileged position, and could sometimes change the course of events in unexpected ways. This article focuses on one such woman who played an important role in keeping Razia away from the throne for a long time but ultimately failed.


Khudavanda-i Jahan Shah Turkan: Journey from Slave Girl to Queen Mother

The first lady in the Sultanate of Delhi who was mentioned by contemporary historians was Khudavanda-i Jahan Shah Turkan. She was originally a slave girl of Turkish origin purchased by Iltutmish. She rose to the status of chief queen of Sultan Shamsuddin Iltutmish by the sheer dint of her beauty and extraordinary qualities. The subsequent appraisal demonstrates the power exercised by her from behind the scenes and the manner in which she prevailed over the imperial court politics to satisfy her personal ambitions. {In many ways, she could be considered the predecessor of Nur Jahan because of the way she held sway over the administration and controlled who became the next ruler.}

An ambitious lady possessing remarkable intelligence and ability, Shah Turkan took over the reins of the government in her own hands, after the passing away of her husband, because the new Sultan, her son Sultan Ruknuddin Firoz* had become neglectful of his duties, owing to his overindulgence in  pleasure.

* Just how Ruknuddin Firoz became the Sultan, overriding the will of Iltutmish who favoured Razia, will be seen soon.

She patronized men of letters and bestowed munificent generosity and endowments towards men of learning and piety, according to contemporary accounts.* She won the support of the nobility**, and it was with their active co operation that she succeeded in setting aside the will of Sultan Iltutmish and claimed the throne for her son Ruknuddin Firoz in place of Razia Sultan.

* -  I think she used gifts to acquire the support of important people to ensure that her son became the Sultan.

** - Iltutmish set up a governing class or an official nobility to aid the Sultan in the administration of the Sultanate. These nobles were known as Turkan-i-Chahalgani or the Amir-i-Chahalgani (the 40 nobles). Iltutmish had also set up the Iqta system. Iqtas were basically divisions of the Sultanate. Each Iqtadar retained a part of the revenue from their Iqta in return for maintaining law and order therein and for providing military service to the Sultan in times of need. 

Shah Turkan had an ambitious and intriguing nature. She rose to prominence because of the incompetent and pleasure-loving temperament of her son, Sultan Ruknuddin Firoz. The Sultan preferred a life of merrymaking with wine and women, ignoring his responsibility in discharging the affairs of the state. This provided Shah Turkan the opportunity to control the administration of the Sultanate. She enjoyed the support of the officers of the house and the Turkish officers of the capital.

All powers were concentrated in her hands, to the extent that she issued royal farmans in her own name. She meted out vicious treatment to the other wives and children of her husband after his death. Out of sheer jealousy and a desire to control the entire harem, she started harassing the ladies of the royal household. On the pretext of personal grievances, she brought about the assassination of several wives of Sultan Iltutmish. Refer to the scans below. 

Ruknuddin Firoz was given to a life of pleasure. His mother ruled in his name and used her power to wreak retribution on the women of Iltutmish's harem. From Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, Minhaj, Vol-1, Raverty, Pg - 632, reprint 1970. 

Shah Turkan's Petticoat Rule

On the other hand, the treasury was being dwindled by the Sultan in pursuit of pleasure. This vicious, petticoat rule produced the inevitable reaction and the Sultan's own supporters now set about to make amends for their hasty action in enthroning him. 

Sultan Ruknuddin allows his mother to take the reign into her hands; petticoat rule disillusions nobles. From Indian Historical Quarterly, Volume-16, 1940, Caxton, Pg- 757

Blinding & Execution of Qutbuddin, Step-brother of Sultan Ruknuddin Firoz

They now turned towards another son of Sultan Iltutmish, named Qutbuddin. He was a young prince having many talents and merit. In order to keep the throne safe and secure for her son Ruknuddin Firoz, Shah Turkan and Ruknuddin Firoz, he was blinded and finally put to death.

Qutbuddin, Iltutmish's son, was blinded and put to death. Another young son of Iltutmish was said to be put to death. Various governors of the Sultanate began to turn hostile and started rebelling against the Sultan. Lakhnawati is the old name of Lucknow. From Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, Minhaj, Vol-1, Raverty, Pg - 633, reprint 1970.


Revolt Breaks Out Against Sultan Ruknuddin Firoz and Shah Turkan

All these activities of Shah Turkan led to mutual distrust in the government. Rebellions broke out in different parts of the country. The Turkan-i-chahalgani felt that for preserving the dynasty and the good name of their master (Iltutmish), Ruknuddin Firoz had to be deposed.

To make matters worse, provincial governors (Maliks) also started revolting against the Sultan. Ruknuddin Firoz marched from Delhi in order to deal with them, but the imperial officers themselves were either afraid of the power of the rebels or not loyal to the king. Junaidi, the wazir of Firoz's army, deserted the army and joined the rebels. The rebellion of the Maliks and amirs spread like a wild fire. Ruknuddin Firoz led an army towards them. At this time, the Turkish amirs and slaves of the household, who formed the core of the army of the Sultan, further complicated the situation by intriguing with many Tazik (non-Turk)* officers in the neighbourhoods of Mansurpur and Tarain.

* - It is interesting to note that the Turks considered themselves superior to all other communities, including non-Turkish Muslims.

Razia Snatches the Opportunity to Contend for the Throne

Rebellions and disorders in the empire encouraged Razia also to take advantage. She realised that it was the right time to capture the throne when her step-brother, the Sultan, was out of Delhi. Razia's relations with her step-mother Shah Turkan were far from cordial. Shah Turkan wanted to secure her own position, and challenged Razia's intention to seize power. The chronicler says that - "The generosity of Sultan Ruknuddin perhaps had kept the people of the capital in check so long, but during his absence from the capital Shah Turkan quarrelled with Razia". {Sultan Ruknuddin was known for his immense generosity in bestowing gifts, though the beneficiaries were often not the wholly deserving ones. He was good natured and might have made a good king if he did not waste himself away in indulgence.}

Hostility grew between Shah Turkan and Razia and Shah Turkan conspired to have Razia killed. Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, Minhaj, Vol-1, Raverty, Pg - 635, reprint 1970.

A rebellion broke out in Delhi in favour of Razia . She deepend the crisis by inciting the masses of Delhi against the oppressive measures of Shah Turkan. The Sultan was forced to return to Delhi, but the situation was already out of control. In response to an appeal from Razia whom Shah Turkan had attempted to capture and put to death, the people of Delhi supported Razia and Shah Turkan’s conspiracy failed miserably.

The revolt of the people met with success and Sultan Ruknuddin Firoz retired to Kilugarhi*. The amirs and the soldiers, after returning to the city, took their oath of allegiance to Sultan Razia. Ruknuddin was arrested from Kilugarhi and was imprisoned and put to death in Nov. 1236 A.D. He had ruled for only six months and twenty eight days.

* - One of the old cities of Delhi.

Shah Turkan and Sultan Ruknuddin Firoz imprisoned; Army and Turkan-i-chahalgani support Razia. Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, Minhaj, Vol-1, Raverty, Pg - 636, reprint 1970

The good-natured and beneficent Sultan Ruknuddin was the cause for plunging his sultanate into the chaos of revolts all round. I feel in a "state of intoxication" any ruler will appear to be "good natured and kind". From Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, Minhaj, Vol-1, Raverty, Pg - 637, reprint 1970

Razia Takes the Fight to the Masses and Appeals for Their Support

The contemporary chronicler says : In view of Shah Turkan's ill treatment, Razia made an appeal to the people to save her from Shah Turkan's evil machinations. Razia utilized the general discontent against Ruknuddin Firoz most cleverly to her advantage. 

Clad in the red garment of an aggrieved person, she appealed from her palace to the populace, assembled for the Friday prayers to gain popular support. In the name of her father, she bid respite from Shah Turkan and Ruknuddin Firoz who had let loose a reign of terror in the Sultanate. We can clearly see how bold and clever was Razia's move to directly appeal to the masses to support her claim to the throne.

Ibn Batuta says that Razia wore the garments of the oppressed and appealed to the army. But most of the soldiers including the Turkish guards were absent from the capital and the appeal of Razia must have been to the people of Delhi. The people of the city hearing about the conspiracy of the queen mother against Razia rose up in rebellion, attacked the royal palace and seized Shah Turkan. 

Razia appeals to the public to protect her from the persecution of Shah Turkan.
From Indian Historical Quarterly, Volume-16, 1940, Caxton, Pg- 758

In the enthusiasm and loyalty to the memory of Iltutmish that she was able to rouse, it was easy not only to have Shah Turkan and her son seized, but also to have her own right to the throne, by virtue of her father’s proclamation, recognized and given immediate effect to. She could base her claim also on the fact that after Firoz’s dethronement and death, she happened to be the eldest of the surviving children of the late monarch. Her universally recognized superior ability was another important asset and the citizens, led by the army officers, unanimously acclaimed her as the rightful Sultan and successor to the throne of Iltutmish. *

* - Futuh-us-Salatin, re-print Madras, 1948, Pg-132.

Finally, the choice and judgement of Iltutmish no doubt, stood vindicated. But the provincial governors felt humiliated as they were not consulted in this matter by the late Sultan. They resented it and Razia proceeded to deal with them. It appears that a sort of understanding was reached between Razia and the population of Delhi who extended their support in elevating her to the throne. 

Under these circumstances Razia made up her mind to act boldly after her speech. The people stormed the palace and seized Shah Turkan. Razia enjoyed the co-operation and support of the masses for the task of administering the Sultanate. This is said by the contemporary historian Minhaj in Tabaqat-i-Nasiri. 

Conclusion and Brief Insight into Life in Harem:

The rulers of those times had large harems, which were a significant segment of royal households. The harem of a Sultan comprised his mother, wives, sisters and daughters, concubines and slave girls. Some of them were daughters of important nobles or chiefs. Those legally wedded were few; the number of others was often very large. 

Large expenses were incurred to maintain luxury in these quarters. The principal wives had each a house, a maiden, guards and servants. The women exercised considerable influence, and were consulted in important affairs of the state.

But maintaining a large harem was cumbersome; personal jealousies and intrigues disturbed the atmosphere. For example : Sultan Mahmud of Gujarat is widely quoted by historians in this regard. In order to maintain a peaceful atmosphere in his harem, he enacted a harsh rule that if any lady laughed at or mocked / derided another, then both would be killed.* This rule came into effect after it became difficult for him to manage frequent quarrels among the women in his harem.

* - Mirat-i-Sikandari, reprint Baroda, 1961, Pg 293.

The influential phase of Shah Turkan demonstrates that women in the Delhi Sultanate could rise to powerful positions. They were able to change the course of events, win nobles over to their side and decide who could be the next Sultan and who could be done away with. Of course, it cannot be denied that Shah Turkan managed to become a virtual dictator because of her son’s incompetence. If Ruknuddin had been an able ruler, then she may not have been able to control events in the harem and the court to such an extent. Ultimately, her unscrupulous acts turned some of the prominent nobles against her and brought an end to her reign. 

Like Shah Turkan, some Hindu women of princely backgrounds also assumed the role of regent when their sons were minor. For instance, in 1278, Maharani Naika, the mother of Bhima Dev II, the minor Solanki ruler of Gujarat acted as a regent. Upon the untimely death of her husband, she placed her infant son on the throne. In 1278, when Mohammad Ghori, the Ghurid ruler of Ghazni marched towards Gujarat, she took him by surprise near Mount Abu and defeated him badly. This was also mentioned in the last article {Link here}. While this victory is attributed to Bhima Dev, he was a minor then and it was his mother who achieved this victory by personally leading the attack. *

* - Majumdar in his book The Struggle for Empire, Bombay, 1966, Pg-78.

We also saw in the last post that the mother of Emperor Prithviraj Chauhan III acted as a regent for her minor 11 year old son, and took care of the throne of Ajmer and Delhi for 2 years.

The main sources used in this post are :

1. Tabaqat-i- Nasiri of Minhaj-us Siraj, 
2. Tarikh-i- Firozshahi of Ziauddin Barani, 
3. Rehla of Ibn Battuta, 
4. Tarikh-i- Ferishta of Ferishta, and 
5. Tarikh-i- Firozshahi of Shams Siraj Afif etc.

The discussion will be continued in the comments below. Our Facebook Page can also be followed for this topic. 

The next post will talk about the reign of Razia Sultan.
The article has been posted under the Razia Sultan section of this history BLOG.

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