In 1511, there went to the grave in Gujarat a sultan called Mahmud Begada. Many are the tales that surround this formidably successful prince, including one or two colourful accounts left by European travellers. One, for instance, records the ruler’s penchant for everyday poison: from his childhood, claimed Duarte Barbosa, the man was fed toxins in measured doses, so that if “a fly touched him, as soon as it reached his flesh it forthwith died", while “women as slept with him (also, sadly) perished". Earlier, Ludovico di Varthema, too, made note of this inventive means to immunize, adding, however, that the sultan could use his own consequently venomous saliva to destroy opponents—all he had to do was spit on those who annoyed him, guaranteeing death to the poor souls in less than an hour.
While the obvious exaggerations can be discarded, it certainly is a fact that Mahmud Begada needed protection as a boy. His father Muhammad Shah II, whose faith was Islam but whose veins also carried Rajput blood, died, leaving a grown son to sit on his throne. Mahmud’s mother, a Sindhi princess, feared her stepson and sought protection through marriage for herself and her child with an influential Sufi brother-in-law. There, Mahmud grew into adolescence till, in 1458, he was enthroned after the passing of his half-brother, funnily enough, as victim to a poison plot. He married the dead man’s wife and showed himself early on as capable of both fury and courage: When a plot was discovered, Mahmud inaugurated his 53-year reign fittingly with executions and a veritable pool of blood.
Like most successful kings in his day, Mahmud was both a conqueror and an efficient ruler, with, however, a pronounced religious zeal. In Sindh, for instance, after he accepted the surrender of local chieftains, he found their Islam still deeply rooted in Hindu cultural practice—the result was that some of them were shipped to a religious boot-camp to be reinstructed in the faith and in its diligent exercise. Equally, he used religion whenever it aided his quest for treasure and territory. Junagadh, for instance, was under the rule of a vassal Hindu. The latter one day paraded himself with the marks of a sovereign, infuriating Mahmud. As a peace offering, the raja sent his robes and the state parasol to court, but a little later annexation was, nevertheless, announced. Asked what his crime was, Mahmud coolly replied that the raja’s infidel faith was reason enough.
Some Hindus did, however, flourish under Mahmud’s raj. His court poet Udayaraja composed in the 1460s, for instance, a Sanskrit mahakavya (epic) called the Mahmuda-Suratrana-Carita, in which the sultan is likened in strength to Bhim, in generosity to Karn, in mercy to Ram, and in the glory of his court to Indra. His patronage of scholarship was so magnificent, we read, that the goddess of learning, Saraswati, herself chose to abandon heaven to take up residence in Gujarat. But for the most part, patronage was reserved for Islam: Sufis were deputed to certain areas of the realm in order to popularize the faith through worship and song, while stories circulated of how the Prophet himself appeared before the sultan in a dream, hinting that he wage war. In Junagadh, its raja was spared after he accepted Islam; elsewhere, those who refused were done away with at once.
This was what happened in Champaner, for instance, in 1484. Held till then by Rajputs, it was Mahmud’s victory there after Junagadh which earned him the sobriquet Begada (“be" for two in Gujarati, and “gad" for forbidding fortress). The vanquished ruler and his minister both preferred, even in defeat, to remain Hindu, and for this they were executed. A decade earlier, the chieftain of Dwarka had also annoyed the sultan, whose fury was roused especially after a maulana’s ship was looted by local pirates. Not only was Dwarka sacked and its celebrated temple destroyed, the chieftain’s body was cut into pieces, with a segment hung over each of the 12 gates of Ahmedabad. In 1465, Parsis, too, had felt the force of Mahmud’s ire: They fought for their ruler in Sanjan, not only to be routed, as the epic poem Qissa-i-Sanjan relates, but also forced to move with their sacred fire to more hospitable terrain.
His violence—which was not unusual for the time—and his religious fervour did not, however, come in the way of efficient administration. Through well-policed roads, Mahmud connected the urban and commercial nodes of his kingdom, launching massive construction and town-building projects. After he took Champaner, the sultan made it his new capital, not neglecting Ahmedabad, however—he reconstructed the city’s walls and developed the place, in 16th century historian Ferishta’s words, into “the most handsome city in Hindustan". The very masons and architects who built temples now worked on mosques, leaving a noticeable Hindu influence in Mahmud’s monuments. His years on the throne brought prosperity to the land, not to speak of satisfaction to the ruler. As Mahmud declared once, “If Allah had not given his unworthy slave rule over Gujarat, who would have satisfied his hunger?"
Hunger this man with a legendary moustache certainly had: He could eat up to 150 plantains in a day, and even when he napped, liked to have trays of samosas nearby, should he wake up and feel like a bite. His harem was large, featuring African favourites, though he also had moods when he could be wistful and full of unromantic remorse: “Ah! Kazi, it is well with me," he once cried when congratulated after a military victory, “but you should tell me of those whose sons and brothers have become martyrs." For the most part, though, Mahmud was a prince of resolve and a man of unyielding faith. As the Mirat-i-Sikandari, a Persian-language history of medieval Gujarat under Muslim rule, sums up, “He added glory and lustre to the kingdom of Gujarat…and whether for abounding justice and generosity; for success in religious war and for the diffusion of the laws of Islam," in the end, he was “excellence" in human form.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).