Since 8 November, Tughlaq has been in the news again. Demonetization has revived memories of a time when Muhammad bin Tughlaq (ruled 1324-51) issued a new coinage and brought the economy to its knees. 

Tughlaq is, of course, almost a byword for arbitrary rule today. His other decision of shifting the capital to Daulatabad from Delhi and ordering the entire populace to move, resulting in many deaths, is another bitter memory. In fact, Tughlaq made the people move from Delhi to Daulatabad and then reversed his decision and had the population move back to Delhi. A direct precursor to the Reserve Bank of India’s many flip-flops in the recent past. 

These two monumentally stupid decisions devalued the Tughlaq name and ensured that it is almost always taken with scorn and derision. In fact, a Tamil magazine which goes by the name Thuglak and insinuates that our present-day politicians too are Tughlaq’s direct descendants, commands a wide readership. Its founder was the well-known satirist “Cho" Ramaswamy, who passed away recently. 

Yet, there was another Tughlaq, a forgotten one, who did a reasonably competent job and was perhaps the Delhi Sultanate’s (1206-1526) best ruler in many ways. Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s cousin, Firuz Shah Tughlaq, ascended the throne of Delhi in 1351 in difficult circumstances. His predecessor’s rule had decimated the empire so much so that even though there was no real claimant to the throne after Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s death, none wanted to ascend the throne of Delhi. Firuz Shah, who was then 42, was a reluctant successor. 

But once on the throne, he took a number of wise decisions that brought succour to the people after the utter confusion of the earlier Tughlaq’s rule. Among his more popular decisions were to institute a uniform system of taxation, which was done after an extensive revenue survey lasting six years. 

During the entire period of his reign (which lasted till 1388), the taxation system remained constant. This brought stability and order to the life of the people. Also, Firuz Shah waived off loans taken by the peasants during his predecessor’s reign. 

Firuz Shah was also a canal builder. He constructed and improved several canals, the biggest of them being the Western Yamuna Canal (originally built by Prithviraj Chauhan), which still exists, albeit in a modified form. The motivation was to bring more land under cultivation. 

Besides this, he also built a canal drawn from river Sutlej to Ghaghra, a third one from Mandvi and Sirmur hills to Hansi and a fourth canal from Ghaghra to the newly established town of Firozabad. 

In 1354, he built the Firuzabad, the fourth city of Delhi (Qila Rai Pithora, Siri and Tughlaqabad were the earlier ones). To Firuzabad, he brought an Ashoka pillar from Ambala, which had indecipherable writing on it. He offered a reward for anyone who could decipher it. 

This did not happen for the next few centuries. It was only in 1837 that James Prinsep identified the script as Brahmi and was able to read it. The ruins of Firuzabad are today visible in the Feroze Shah Kotla complex. 

Besides Firuzabad, Firuz Shah also founded the cities of Jaunpur (in Uttar Pradesh), Hissar, earlier known as Hissar-Firoza, Fatehabad (both in Haryana) and Ferozepur (in Punjab). Few rulers can boast of founding so many new cities. A chronicler also talks of how Firuz Shah had the top two floors of the Qutub Minar reconstructed after lightning knocked them off in 1368. 

Firuz Shah also had several rest-houses (sarais), madrassas, hospitals and gardens constructed in many places throughout his kingdom. The medieval historian, Zia-ud-din Barani, who wrote Tarikh-i-Firozshahi, lived in Firuz Shah’s reign. Barani praises Firuz Shah’s rule as benevolent. Firuz Shah himself was a man of learning and wrote his biography, titled Fatuhat-i-Firozshah. 

At a time when Sultans instituting cruel punishments was the norm, Firuz Shah was the exception. He put an end to punishments like chopping of limbs, gouging of the eyes and burning convicts alive. He established courts at all important places of his empire and appointed Qazis to administer milder forms of punishment and justice. 

While there is much to commend Firuz Shah, he was not without his share of flaws. He was often in an alcoholic stupor, sometimes for days on end. He was also an overzealous Muslim and imposed the hated jaziya tax on non-Muslims. He also took pride in his idol-breaking exploits. 

At a time when leading military campaigns and instituting conquests were the measure of a ruler, Firuz Shah shied away from campaigns. In the few he fought, he did not exactly cover himself with glory. 

Be that as it may, Firuz Shah’s rule was a relatively easy period. The people were afforded the time and space to breathe easy. It was a time of relative prosperity and peace. 

After Firuz Shah, things began to go awry. His older son had predeceased him and so, a clear successor was lacking. In 1387, a year before his death, he abdicated in favour of his other son, Muhammad. This decision soon boomeranged on him. An internal rebellion forced him to put his grandson Tughlaq Khan on the throne. Firuz Shah passed away in 1388. 

Tughlaq Khan’s rule was not meant to last either. Other usurpers and pretenders were soon knocking on the doors of Delhi. A decade of lawlessness followed. 

In December 1398, another conqueror (who is also in the news again) entered Delhi: Timur. The sacking of Delhi that followed his entry was one of the brutal ever witnessed. But that’s another story.

Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer. 

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