Medieval Indian History

The Delhi Sultans

Medieval India is marked by the beginning of the Sultanate of Delhi, which was established after the conquest of Muhammad Ghori. The period of the Sultanate of Delhi ranges from AD 1206 to AD 1526. It is also considered as the beginning of Muslim rule in India.

Delhi first became the capital of a kingdom under the Tomara Rajputs, who were defeated in the middle of the twelfth century by the Chauhans (also referred to as Chahamanas) of Ajmer. It was under the Tomaras and Chauhans that Delhi became an important commercial centre. Many rich Jaina merchants lived in the city and constructed several temples. Coins minted here, called dehliwal, had a wide circulation.

Important Dynasties

Slave Dynasty

The Slave dynasty period ranges from AD 1206-1290. It was founded by Qutab–ud-din Aibak whose capital was at Lahore. He started the Persian festival of ‘Navroz’ in India. The Qutub Minar at Delhi was also built by Qutab–ud-din Aibak. Later Iltutmish got three more stories added to the Minar. Razia Sultana, the only woman ruler of India, and Balban were the important rulers of the Slave Dynasty.

In 1236 Sultan Iltutmish’s daughter, Raziyya, became Sultan. The chronicler of the age, Minhaj-i Siraj, recognised that she was more able and qualified than all her brothers. But he was not comfortable at having a queen as ruler. Nor were the nobles happy at her attempts to rule independently. She was removed from the throne in 1240.

Khilji Dynasty

The Khilji dynasty was founded by Jalal-ud-din Khilji and its period ranges from AD 1290-1320. Ala-ud-din Khiljiwas one of the most prominent rulers of this dynasty. He started branding of horses and constructed Siri Fort at Delhi and Alai Darwaja near Qutub Minar.

Tughlak Dynasty

The Tughlak dynasty was founded by Ghiasuddin Tughlak and the period ranges from AD 1320-1414. Ibn Batutawas an important African traveller who visited India in 1333. Feroz Shah Tughlak was another important king and he constructed many tombs. Mohammed-Bin-Tughlak introduced coins of brass and copper.

Lodhi Dynasty

The Lodhi dynasty was founded by Bahlol Lodhi and the period of this dynasty ranges from AD 1451-1526. Sikander and Ibrahim Lodhi were the other two prominent rulers belonging to this dynasty. Sikander established Agra City and transferred his capital from Agra to Delhi.

Mughal Dynasty (AD 1526-1857)

Babar (1526-1530)

He is credited with the foundation of the Mughal empire by defeating Ibrahim Lodhi in the First Battle of Panipat on 20 April, 1526. He established control over Agra and Delhi before his death. His tomb is built at Kabul, and his autobiography Baburnamais written in Turkish.

Humayun (1530-1540, 1555-56)

He was the next emperor of the Mughal empire after Babur. His tomb is in Delhi, his biography Humayunama was written by Guladan Begum.

Humayun divided his inheritance according to the will of his father. His brothers were each given a province. The ambitions of his brother Mirza Kamran weakened Humayun’s cause against Afghan competitors. Sher Khan defeated Humayun at Chausa (1539) and Kanauj (1540), forcing him to flee to Iran.

In Iran, Humayun received help from the Safavid Shah. He recaptured Delhi in 1555 but died in an accident the following year.

Akbar (1556-1605)

He was the most successful Mughal emperor. An excellent leader, who separated religion and politics, started a new religion called Din-e-Ilahi. He established Fatehpur Sikri and Buland Darwaja near Agra. He abolished the Jazia Tax. Bairam Khan, Akbar’s General, fought the Second Battle of Panipat in 1556 & defeated Hemu. Two important books Akbarnama and Ain-e-Akbari were written during Akbar’s tenure by Abul Fazal. His tomb is built at Sikandara near Agra.

Akbar was 13 years old when he became emperor. His reign can be divided into three periods:

1556-1570: Akbar became independent of the regent Bairam Khan and other members of his domestic staff. Military campaigns were launched against the Suris and other Afghans, against the neighbouring kingdoms of Malwa and Gondwana, and to suppress the revolt of his half-brother Mirza Hakim and the Uzbegs. In 1568 the Sisodiya capital of Chittor was seized and in 1569 Ranthambhor.

1570-1585: Military campaigns in Gujarat were followed by campaigns in the east in Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. These campaigns were complicated by the 1579-1580 revolt in support of Mirza Hakim.

1585-1605 (Expansion of Akbar’s empire): Campaigns in the north-west were launched. Qandahar was seized from the Safavids, Kashmir was annexed, as also Kabul, after the death of Mirza Hakim. Campaigns in the Deccan started and Berar, Khandesh and parts of Ahmadnagar were annexed. In the last years of his reign Akbar was distracted by the rebellion of Prince Salim, the future Emperor Jahangir.

Jehangir (1605-1627)

The son of Akbar, who ascended the throne after Akbar ’s death, known for his administration and strict sense of justice. He was the husband of Noor Jahan Begum and had built Shalimarand Nishant Bagh. His autobiography is Tuzk-e-Jahangiri and his tomb is built at Lahore.

Military campaigns started by Akbar continued. The Sisodiya ruler of Mewar, Amar Singh, accepted Mughal service. Less successful campaigns against the Sikhs, the Ahoms and Ahmadnagar followed. Prince Khurram, the future Emperor Shah Jahan, rebelled in the last years of his reign. The efforts of Nur Jahan, Jahangir’s wife, to marginalise him were unsuccessful.

Shahjahan (1627-1658)

Famous ruler and son of Jehangir, who built the Taj Mahal at Agra, in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Jama Masjid and Red Fortare the other two famous monuments that were built by him. He had transferred his capital from Agra to Delhi.

Mughal campaigns continued in the Deccan under Shah Jahan. The Afghan noble Khan Jahan Lodi rebelled and was defeated. Campaigns were launched against Ahmadnagar; the Bundelas were defeated and Orchha seized. In the north-west, the campaign to seize Balkh from the Uzbegs was unsuccessful and Qandahar was lost to the Safavids. In 1632 Ahmadnagar was finally annexed and the Bijapur forces sued for peace.

In 1657-1658, there was conflict over succession amongst Shah Jahan’s sons. Aurangzeb was victorious and his three brothers, including Dara Shukoh, were killed. Shah Jahan was imprisoned for the rest of his life in Agra.

Aurangzeb (1658-1707)

A very cruel ruler and son of Shahjahan, who demolished several religious structures of Hindus, and ruled for about 50 years. He constructed the ‘Moti Masjid’ in the Red Fort at Delhi and ‘Bibi ka Makbara’ at Aurangabad.

In the north-east, the Ahoms were defeated in 1663, but rebelled again in the 1680s. Campaigns in the north-west against the Yusufzai and the Sikhs were temporarily successful. Mughal intervention in the succession and internal politics of the Rathor Rajputs of Marwar led to their rebellion.

Campaigns against the Maratha chieftain Shivaji were initially successful. But Aurangzeb insulted Shivaji who escaped from Agra, declared himself an independent king and resumed his campaigns against the Mughals. Prince Akbar rebelled against Aurangzeb and received support from the Marathas and Deccan Sultanate. He finally fled to Safavid Iran.

After Akbar’s rebellion Aurangzeb sent armies against the Deccan Sultanates. Bijapur was annexed in 1685 and Golcunda in 1687. From 1698 Aurangzeb personally managed campaigns in the Deccan against the Marathas who started guerrilla warfare. Aurangzeb also had to face the rebellion in north India of the Sikhs, Jats and Satnamis, in the north-east of the Ahoms and in the Deccan of the Marathas. His death was followed by a succession conflict among his sons.

Sher Shah Suri (1540-1555)

Sher Shah Suri started his career as the manager of a small territory for his uncle in Bihar and eventually challenged and defeated the Mughal emperor Humayun (1530-1540, 1555-1556). Sher Shah captured Delhi and established his own dynasty. 

Although the Suri dynasty ruled for only fifteen years (1540-1555), it introduced an administration that borrowed elements from Alauddin Khalji and made them more efficient. Sher Shah’s administration became the model followed by the great emperor Akbar (1556-1605) when he consolidated the Mughal Empire.

He was a brilliant administrator who issued the Rupiah and Paisa coins and built the famous Grand Trunk Road from Peshawar to Calcutta. He constructed the Old Fort of Delhi.

Decline of Mughal Empire

The boundaries of the Mughal Empire were reshaped by the emergence of a number of independent kingdoms. By 1765, the British had successfully grabbed major chunks of territory in eastern India.

Emperor Aurangzeb had depleted the military and financial resources of his empire by fighting a long war in the Deccan. Under his successors, the efficiency of the imperial administration broke down. It became increasingly difficult for the later Mughal emperors to keep a check on their powerful mansabdars.

The Mughal emperors after Aurangzeb were unable to arrest the gradual shifting of political and economic authority into the hands of provincial governors, local chieftains and other groups.

In the midst of this economic and political crisis, the ruler of Iran, Nadir Shah, sacked and plundered the city of Delhi in 1739 and took away immense amounts of wealth. This invasion was followed by a series of plundering raids by the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali, who invaded north India five times between 1748 and 1761.

Through the eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire gradually fragmented into a number of independent, regional states.


Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah, the founder of Hyderabad state, was one of the most powerful members at the court of the Mughal Emperor Farrukh Siyar. Asaf Jah brought skilled soldiers and administrators from northern India who welcomed the new opportunities in the south. Although he was still a servant of the Mughal emperor, he ruled quite independently without seeking any direction from Delhi or facing any interference. The Mughal emperor merely confirmed the decisions already taken by the Nizam.

The state of Hyderabad was constantly engaged in a struggle against the Marathas to the west and with independent Telugu warrior chiefs (nayakas) of the plateau.


Burhan-ul-Mulk Sa‘adat Khan was appointed subadar of Awadh in 1722 and founded a state which was one of the most important to emerge out of the break-up of the Mughal Empire. Awadh was a prosperous region, controlling the rich alluvial Ganga plain and the main trade route between north India and Bengal.

Burhan-ul-Mulk tried to decrease Mughal influence in the Awadh region by reducing the number of office holders (jagirdars) appointed by the Mughals. He also reduced the size of jagirs, and appointed his own loyal servants to vacant positions.


Bengal gradually broke away from Mughal control under Murshid Quli Khan who was appointed as the naib, deputy to the governor of the province. Like the rulers of Hyderabad and Awadh he also commanded the revenue administration of the state. In an effort to reduce Mughal influence in Bengal he transferred all Mughal jagirdars to Orissa and ordered a major reassessment of the revenues of Bengal.

Watan Jagirs of the Rajputs

Many Rajput kings, particularly those belonging to Amber and Jodhpur, had served under the Mughals with distinction. In exchange, they were permitted to enjoy considerable autonomy in their watan jagirs. In the eighteenth century, these rulers attempted to extend their control over adjacent regions. Ajit Singh, the ruler of Jodhpur, was also involved in the factional politics at the Mughal court.

The Sikhs

The organisation of the Sikhs into a political community during the seventeenth century helped in regional state-building in the Punjab. Several battles were fought by Guru Gobind Singh against the Rajput and Mughal rulers, both before and after the institution of the Khalsa in 1699. After his death in 1708, the Khalsa rose in revolt against the Mughal authority under Banda Bahadur’s leadership, declared their sovereign rule by striking coins in the name of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, and established their own administration between the Sutlej and the Jamuna.

The Marathas

The Maratha kingdom was another powerful regional kingdom to arise out of a sustained opposition to Mughal rule. Shivaji (1627-1680) carved out a stable kingdom with the support of powerful warrior families (deshmukhs). Groups of highly mobile, peasant-pastoralists (kunbis) provided the backbone of the Maratha army. Shivaji used these forces to challenge the Mughals in the peninsula.

After Shivaji’s death, effective power in the Maratha state was wielded by a family of Chitpavan Brahmanas who served Shivaji’s successors as Peshwa (or principal minister). Poona became the capital of the Maratha kingdom.

Between 1720 and 1761, the Maratha empire expanded. It gradually chipped away at the authority of the Mughal Empire. Malwa and Gujarat were seized from the Mughals by the 1720s. After raiding Delhi in 1737 the frontiers of Maratha domination expanded rapidly into Rajasthan and the Punjab in the north; into Bengal and Orissa in the east; and into Karnataka and the Tamil and Telugu countries in the south.

These were not formally included in the Maratha empire, but were made to pay tribute as a way of accepting Maratha sovereignty.

The Jats

The Jats consolidated their power during the late seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries. Under their leader, Churaman, they acquired control over territories situated to the west of the city of Delhi, and by the 1680s they had begun dominating the region between the two imperial cities of Delhi and Agra.