Muhammad bin Tughlaq: The Sultan of Swing

Muhammad bin Tughlaq: The Sultan of Swing

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Muhammad bin Tughlaq will forever be remembered for the wild swings in policy that have left his name as a byword for misrule

Karthik Venkatesh

First Published: Sat, Mar 18 2017. 11 36 PM IST

When Fakhr Malik aka Jauna Khan aka Muhammad bin Tughlaq passed into history on 20 March 1351 after a 26-year reign, his subjects heaved a sigh of relief. 
For two-and-a-half decades, they had been at the mercy of this mercurial man whose policy swings had brought them to their knees and impoverished them considerably. They hoped and prayed that a more level-headed fellow would now ascend the throne. 
Under Muhammad bin Tughlaq, they had been forced at sword-point to shift from Delhi, the abode of kings from times memorial, to distant Daulatabad in the heart of today’s Maharashtra. 
Having made the difficult journey, they were then forced to move back a few years later when the Sultan changed his mind. Then they had been subject to a complete upheaval of trade and commerce when he attempted to put in place a new coinage policy. 
Sometimes, the Sultan was over-generous. He handed out bags of gold as rewards without thinking twice. But, more often than not, he was whimsical. Also, he preferred to keep his own counsel and announce his decisions as a fait accompli without subjecting them to scrutiny by the wise heads at his court. 
The result of this unflattering aspect of his personality was that his seemingly far-reaching ideas were botched up implementation-wise, with catastrophic results for king and country. 
The shifting of the capital
Among Tughlaq’s more notorious ideas was his decision to shift the capital from Delhi to Devagiri, renamed Daulatabad. 
The logic was sound. From the time of Genghis Khan (1162-1227), the Mongols had repeatedly attacked the northern parts of India. For a while, Kashmir had even been incorporated into the Mongol Empire. 
Between 1297 and 1308, Alauddin Khilji had to contend with several assaults. Once, the Mongols had even laid siege to Siri, the second city of Delhi (Prithiviraj Chauhan’s Rai Pithora was the first) and were only just beaten back. In 1327, the Mongols laid siege to Delhi again and retreated only after a hefty ransom had been paid. 
Muhammad bin Tughlaq conjectured rather wisely that the Mongols would, in all likelihood, attack again. He wasn’t quite sure if he would be able to repulse the attack when it happened. The idea of paying a ransom did not appear an enticing prospect either. Also, the empire had grown to include many parts of the Deccan and southern India. He needed to consolidate his hold over these newly conquered regions. 
Devagiri was an inspired choice, really. Its location near was an asset. For one, it was near the coast, and the Sultan reckoned that tax collection would improve as a result of the capital being closer to the major ports. 
It was also closer to the areas around Madurai and most of Karnataka, the newly conquered regions of the empire. Not to mention, it was way too far away for the Mongols to plan an attack. 
The Sultan’s mind was made up. In 1329, he declared Devagiri-Daulatabad his new capital. 
But now he passed an order that defied logic. Rather than shift his court and officials to the new capital and then allow the city to grow organically, he ordered the entire population of Delhi to move out. 
Tughlaq had roads constructed and rest-houses built, in an attempt to ease the pain of the populace. But the move was difficult and resulted in many deaths and a deep-rooted resentment against the Sultan. 
Before he had even properly settled in at Daulatabad, rebellions broke out in the northern areas of the empire, forcing him to go back to Delhi. 
When he was in Lahore, the governor of Madurai declared his independence. He now had to make the torturous journey to the deep south to quell it. 
Bengal was the next to rebel. The Sultan was forever on the move quelling rebellions. Eventually, he began to doubt his decision to shift his seat of power to Daulatabad. The northern parts of his empire were slipping beyond his grasp. 
In 1335, he rescinded his earlier order and now declared Delhi his capital and ordered the population to move back. In the later part of his reign, Daulatabad changed hands and become the domain of the Bahmani Sultanate. 
Issuing a new coinage 
In the midst of his capital-shifting and rebellion-quelling, the Sultan had time to come up with a new idea. He introduced representative or token money akin to the modern convertible paper currency. 
Representative money by itself is worth very little. But he who holds it could in theory exchange it for a fixed amount of gold or silver (the gold standard, as it is known in economics, and which the world abandoned in 1971). 
This idea no longer dominates economic thinking but for a long time, it was at the heart of it. Tughlaq’s idea actually predated modern economic theory by half a millenium. But faulty implementation owing to poor counsel resulted in chaos. 
The Sultan introduced coins of copper and brass that could be exchanged for fixed amounts of gold and silver from the Delhi Sultanate. This was known as a tanka (later modified to taka in Bengali). 
But the tanka was poorly crafted. Forgers soon began to make their own, and attempted to redeem them for gold and silver. The Sultan was in a fix. He had to withdraw this scheme. But the lack of an accepted mode of currency with which to conduct trade pushed the economy back a century. Another far-reaching idea had been botched. 
That these plans failed was certainly not on account of the fact that Muhammad bin Tughlaq was poorly educated or a person given to seeking comfort and pleasure. By all accounts, he was a learned man, and truly interested in the welfare of his people. 
He knew several languages—Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Sanskrit. He had more than a passing interest in medicine. He patronized men of learning. Ibn Battuta, the famous traveller from Morocco, was a guest at his court. He was also religious. On occasion, he could even be generous. 
But equally, he was hasty, suspicious and unconcerned with details. He could be harsh with punishments and did not seek advice. These led to his downfall. 
Towards the later part of his reign, the empire had shrunk considerably. Tax collections had fallen and people were in a desperate state. After Tughlaq’s death, no one was willing to come forward to claim the throne. Eventually, nobles persuaded Firuz Shah Tughlaq, the Sultan’s cousin, to ascend the throne. 
The Tughlaq name is today an infamous one. Economic historians give him no credit for the idea of representative money. Historians do not record the fact that the Mongol Timur did attack Delhi in 1398, just as the Sultan had feared. 
Sadly, Tughlaq’s poorly executed, but well-meaning, grand plans have resulted in the name becoming a byword for misrule.
Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer. Views are personal.
Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com