Ibn Battuta's Trip: Part Seven - Delhi, capital of Muslim India

Map of Sultanate of Delhi in 1294 before Sultan Muhammad Tughluq's reign which started in 1320.


India became part of Dar al-Islam through conquest. In the 11th century Muslim Turkish rulers from Afghanistan led a "holy war" against the largely Hindu farming people of India. The first wave of Muslim soldiers looted towns and smashed the images of the gods of the Hindu worshipers. But later warrior kings set up a system to tax, rather than slaughter the peasants. They replaced the local Hindu leaders with Turks from Afghanistan and conquered and united a large area almost to the tip of the subcontinent.

But these Muslim sultans were not safe. They faced continued opposition from the Hindu majority who rebelled against their conquerors, and they were threatened with invasion from outside. The Mongols invaded from the north and took Lahore (now capital of Pakistan) in 1241. Then Chagatay (whom Ibn Battuta visited) had invaded India and threatened Delhi, the new capital city about 1323. But the armies of the feisty Sultan Muhammad Tughluq had chased them back across the Indus River.



Slowly India was becoming more firmly controlled by the Muslim leaders. Hindus were even converting to Islam and finding jobs in the new government. They recognized the economic advantages of becoming Muslims: much lower taxes and opportunities for advancement under the present leader. (In the rural areas, the population remained almost exclusively Hindu. They had to pay their taxes, but were allowed to worship as they wished. And many hated the Muslim government which was imposed upon them.)

In order to strengthen his hold on India, the Sultan needed more judges, scholars, and administrators. He even needed writers, poets, and entertainers to praise and entertain the new leadership. And he turned to foreigners to fill these positions. He was distrustful of the Hindus whom he feared would rebel against him. So he recruited foreigners and rewarded them with fabulous gifts and high salaries. Persians and Turks and other Muslims flocked to the new empire looking for its rewards. Persian became the language of the ruling elite which almost isolated itself in the capital city. And it was from Sultan Muhammad Tughluq that Ibn Battuta hoped to gain employment.

Muhammad Tughluq goes down in history as an eccentric, perhaps crazy, ruler. He was described as very bright. He learned how to write Persian poetry and mastered the art of calligraphy; he could debate legal and religious issues with scholars; he learned Arabic in order to read religious texts like the Koran; and he showered gifts on scholars and the Muslims whom he trusted. But he went too far and made some disastrous decisions (about which battles to fight, where to establish his government capital, about the economy which almost bankrupted his treasury, and how to administer justice). He was known as a cruel man, even for the Middle Ages! He was responsible for having not only rebels and thieves punished with cruel deaths, but also Muslim scholars and holy men - anyone who merely questioned him about his policies or happened to be a friend of someone who did. He was paranoid and fearful of any criticism. "Not a week passed," reported one observer, "without the spilling of much Muslim blood and the running of streams of gore before the entrance of his palace." This included cutting people in half, skinning them alive, chopping off heads and displaying them on poles as a warning to others, or having prisoners tossed about by elephants with swords attached to their tusks. As Ibn Battuta reported later, "The Sultan was far too free in shedding blood... [He] used to punish small faults and great, without respect of persons, whether men of learning or piety or noble descent. Every day there are brought to the audience-hall hundreds of people, chained, pinioned, and fettered, and [they] are ... executed, ...tortured, or ...beaten." [Dunn, p. 201] Thus, to work for this man was dangerous. But the rewards could be great.

In late 1334, Ibn Battuta went to Delhi to seek official employment and he signed a contract agreeing that he would stay in India. He cleverly assembled gifts for the sultan: arrows, several camels, thirty horses, and several slaves and other goods. Everyone knew that the Muhammad Tughluq would give to his visitors gifts of far greater value in return!

When he arrived in Delhi, Ibn Battuta was given a welcoming gift of 2,000 silver dinars and put up in a comfortably furnished house. Muhammad Tughluq was not in Delhi, and so Ibn Battuta waited. Muhammad Tughluq had received reports about this new arrival and hired Ibn Battuta sight-unseen to the service of the state. He would receive an annual salary of 5,000 silver dinars to be paid from two and a half villages located about 16 miles from the city. (State officials and army officers were paid from taxes on crops produced in peasant villages rather than from the royal treasury.) The average Hindu family lived on about 5 dinars a month.

Mogul miniature painting showing a royal procession (1400s). Photo courtesy of Seven Seas Trading Co.

Muhammad Tughluq returned in June. Ibn Battuta and the other newcomers went to greet the ruler with their gifts. On a gold-plated throne sat a tall, healthy, white-skinned man. "I approached the sultan, who took my hand and shook it, and continuing to hold it addressed me most kindly, saying in Persian,... 'Your arrival is a blessing; be at ease; I shall... give you such favors that your fellow-countrymen will hear of it and come to join you.' ... Every time he said any encouraging word to me I kissed his hand, until I had kissed it seven times, and after he had give me a robe of honor, I withdrew." [Dunn, p. 198]

The next day the Sultan paraded into the city of Delhi. On some elephants were catapults that threw out gold and silver coins to the crowd of on-lookers.

Photo of Quwwat al-Islam Mosque in Delhi, right outside Ibn Battuta's home. Photo courtesy of Hyperion Cultural Academy.


And so Ibn Battuta began working as a judge. Because he didn't speak Persian well, he was given two assistants. The Sultan told him that "they would be guided by your advice, and you shall be the one who signs all the documents." He also had plenty of time to join the Sultan and high officials on elaborate hunting expeditions which required elephants, tents, and a huge number of servants to carry all that was needed. Such extravagance and high living pushed Ibn Battuta into debt eventually, but the generous Sultan gave him more to pay his debts. He even gave Ibn Battuta another job: to take care of the Qutb al-Din Mubarak mausoleum. Of course Ibn Battuta asked for more money to take care of the tomb, not to mention money to repair his own home. The money was given.

Right: Qutb Minar, Delhi - This 288 foot tower located near present day Delhi, India was built by Qutb-al-Din Aybek, the first Muslim ruler to choose Delhi as his capital. The tower was completed in the early 13th century A.D. This tapering sandstone tower has bands of Arabic inscriptions from the Koran and listing the military triumphs of the first sultans. It is near the Quwwat al-Islam mosque and mausoleum that Ibn Battuta administered. Up until modern times it was the tallest minaret in the world.

1,300 miles away from the capital, one of Muhammad Tughluq's governors rebelled against him and proclaimed himself Sultan. This prompted him to bring his army south. During the next two and a half years that the Sultan was away at battle, Ibn Battuta lived in Delhi. He acted as a judge giving out punishments (such as eighty lashes with a whip for drinking wine!) and he took care of the tomb which required 460 workers. His job of collecting debts from his villages was made harder because of disastrous famine that hit North India in 1335 and lasted seven years. "Thousands upon thousands of people perished of want," he told. He helped to give charity to some of the poor.


The Sultan returned after an unsuccessful campaign against the rebellious army in the south. Then army officers and a governor near Delhi also rebelled. The empire was disintegrating around Muhammad Tughluq. This time he proved himself a skillful soldier and marched out to secure the town. Ibn Battuta was witness to all this for future historians to read. The traitorous leaders were captured and thrown to the elephants. "They started cutting them in pieces with the blades placed on their tusks and throwing some of them in the air and catching them. All the time the bugles and fifes and drums were being sounded." And Muhammad Tughluq began to lash out at real and imagined enemies.

Even Ibn Battuta came under suspicion. While living in Delhi, Ibn Battuta married a woman and had a daughter by her. This woman was the daughter of a court official who had plotted a rebellion and was executed by the Sultan. But the most serious problem for Ibn Battuta was his friendship with a Sufi holy man. This holy man refused to have anything to do with politics and tried to live a religious life. He snubbed the Sultan and refused to obey the Sultan's commands. In retaliation Muhammad had the holy man's beard plucked out hair by hair, then banished him from Delhi. Later the Sultan ordered him to return to court, which the holy man refused to do. The man was arrested, tortured in the most horrible way, then beheaded.

The following day the Sultan demanded a list of friends of the holy man, and Ibn Battuta's name was included. For nine days he remained under guard imaging in horror that he would be executed, too. "I recited [lines of prayer] 33,000 times and ... fasted five days on end, reciting the Koran from cover to cover each day, and tasting nothing but water. After five days I broke my fast and then continued to fast for another four days on end." [Dunn, p. 209] He rid himself of his possessions, and donned the clothes of a beggar. He was given permission to join a hermit who lived in a cave outside of Delhi. He lived like that for five months.

Then Ibn Battuta was called back to the palace. Fearfully he returned, and was greeted warmly. But determined to avoid further troubles, got up enough courage to ask the Sultan (now in a good mood), if he could make another hajj.

But the Sultan had another task in mind, one that Ibn Battuta found fascinating. Knowing of Ibn Battuta's love of travel and sightseeing, the Sultan wanted to make Ibn Battuta ambassador to the Mongol court of China. He would accompany 15 Chinese messengers back to their homeland and carry shiploads of gifts to the emperor. Now he was given an opportunity to get away from Muhammad Tughluq and to visit further lands of Islam in a grand style! It was an offer too exciting - and too dangerous - to refuse.



Daulatabad fortress from Adam's Trip to India

The Sultan Muhammad Tughluq built Daulatabad as his new capital with a huge fortress. He forced everyone to leave the capital of Delhi, only to return within a few years. This was another example of the Sultan's poor judgment about how to rule.


What did Ibn Battuta eat while in India?

Ibn Battuta described a royal meal: bread (which is thin round cakes); large slabs of meat (sheep); round dough cakes made with ghee (clarified butter) which they stuff with sweet almond paste and honey; meat cooked with ghee, onions and green ginger; "sambusak" (triangular pastries made of hashed meat and cooked with almonds, walnuts, pistachios, onions, and spices put inside a piece of thin bread fried in ghee - like our modern samoosas); rice cooked in ghee with chickens on top; sweetcakes and sweetmeats (pastries) for dessert. They drank sherbet of sugared water before the meal and barley-water after. Then they had betel leaf and areca nut (a mild narcotic). (Gibb, Vol. III, pp. 607 - 608)

He also described the following: mango; pickled green ginger and peppers; jack-fruit (like a large melon weighing three to four pounds) and "barki" (like a yellow gourd with sweet pods and kernels) - "the best fruits in India"; tandu (fruit of the ebony tree); sweet oranges; wheat, chickpeas and lentils, and rice which was sown three times a year! Sesame and sugar cane were also sown. He said the Indians ate millet (a type of grain) most often and he especially liked pounded millet made into a gruel (porridge) cooked with buffalo's milk. They also ate peas and mung beans cooked with rice and ghee which the Indians ate for breakfast every day. Animals were fed barley, chickpeas, and leaves as fodder and even given ghee. (Gibb, pp. 609 - 612)

On a hunting trip with the Sultan Muhammad Tughluq, he describes the following food: flesh of sheep, fattened fowls, cranes, and other kinds of game.

A favorite dish of the Muslim community in Kerala in the southern state of India (where Ibn Battuta had his disastrous ship-wreck) is rasoi (made of rice, lamb, grated coconut and onion). That is what the women in the picture below are eating. Ibn Battuta told that Muslim women ate separately from the men in India, as in most of the Muslim countries he visited.

Find other traditional recipes at Mumbai site and at Indian Kitchen by Bhooma Pattabiraman.

Photo courtesy of Kerala-On-Line

An unusual custom described - the burning of widows!

"The burning of the wife after her husband's death is regarded by them as a commendable act, but is not compulsory; but when a widow burns herself her family acquire a certain prestige by it and gain a reputation for fidelity. A widow who does not burn herself dresses in coarse garments and lives with her own people in misery, despised for her lack of fidelity but she is not forced to burn herself."

"...They spent three days preceding the event in concerts of music and singing and festivals of eating and drinking, as though they were bidding farewell to the world, and the women from all around came [to take part]. On the morning of the fourth day each one of them had a horse brought to her and mounted it, richly dressed and perfumed. ... They were surrounded by Brahmans and accompanied by their own relatives, and were preceded by drums, trumpets and bugles. Everyone...would say to one of them, 'Take greetings from me to [someone who had died] and she would say 'yes'. ... On reaching [the place, they took a ritual bath and put on] a garment of coarse cotton... Meanwhile, the fires had been lit... and the flames increased. ... I saw one of them [approach it] ... with a laugh. Thereupon she joined her hands above her head in salutation to the fire and cast herself into it." [Gibb, pp. 614 - 616.]

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