Continuity, Traditions of Sovereignty and a ‘Foreign’ Polity: Indic Traditions within Ghūrid Political Culture, Late-12th to Early-13th Century CE.

February 4, 2023

Anwit Shahi is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He has done his master's degree in history, specializing in medieval Indian history from Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His main area of interest is Islamicate South Asia, especially religious and mystical traditions in South Asia, and ethno-histories of South Asian Muslim communities.

Continuity, Traditions of Sovereignty and a ‘Foreign’ Polity: Indic Traditions within Ghūrid Political Culture, Late-12th to Early-13th Century CE

Continuity in political traditions is an unbroken yarn running through much of India’s history since antiquity. Foreign conquerors such as the Indo-Greeks, the Kushāṇs and the Alchon Huns in the North-West, and the Tāi-Ahoms in the North-East got absorbed into the classical Sanskritic, Shāstric political culture with the passage of time. With the victory of the Turko-Persian Ghūrid armies in the Second Battle of Tarāin in 1192 CE and the subsequent establishment of the nascent Sultanate of Delhi, an alternative Perso-Islamicate political tradition, drawing on late-Abbasid and pre-Islamic Iranian notions of sovereignty and governance was introduced into the subcontinent for the first time. India’s political historiography has hitherto regarded this change as a rupture in the country’s ancient political culture. It may be agreed that in a good measure this is legitimately the case. This change notwithstanding, a careful perusal of contemporary and near-contemporary sources pertaining to Ghūrid rule in Medieval India – be they textual-epigraphic, architectural, or numismatic – reveals adoption of Indic, Sanskritic political ideas and practices into the political culture of the Ghūrid polity in India. This study shall attempt to trace some of these threads of continuity that persisted in this early precursor to the Delhi Sultanate, either in the conscious self-perception of its Tājīk and Persianized Turkic ruling class, or in the memory and perception of their Indian subjects.



To those even cursorily acquainted with Indian society and culture, the centrality of the institution of caste, and its concomitant emphasis on birth and lineage in assigning statuses in the Subcontinent’s societal schema need no restatement. Since antiquity, the caste-bound socio-political order, as expounded by the canonical dharmashāstras, prescribed kshatriya[1] parentage as an essential qualification for kingship. The lineages waxing powerful that ruled over Ancient and early-Medieval Indian Empires, both in the North and the South, duly claimed kshatriya origins, tracing their ancestry back to the legendary ‘Solar’ (Chandravaṃshī) and ‘Lunar’ (Sūryavaṃshī) kshatriya clans.[2]This practice continued unbroken in the Rājpūt kingdoms that dotted Northern and Western India on the eve of the Ghūrid invasion.

In stark contrast to this emphasis on pedigree within Indic political culture, kingly authority in the various Sultanates carved out in the Eastern Islamic world by powerful Turko-Persian generals and military slave-commanders (mamlūk) of the declining Abbasid Caliphate, was bereft of all identification with lineage and ancestry. Slaves and generals routinely inherited the throne from their masters; an enterprising mamlūk with enough political resourcefulness and a sufficiently strong grip over the hilt of his sword could successfully lay claim to power. In both the Iranian Samānid kingdom and the Turko-Afghan Yāmīnid kingdom based at Ghaznī, cases abound where powerful slave-generals assumed power, or carved out independent spheres of authority. Under the Ghūrid Sultan, Muʿizz al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Sām, who came to rule over the Yāmīnid dominion of Ghaznī after the latter were ousted from power, political power was further shorn of all natal association when he bypassed the old clan-based Ghūrid nobility in favour of his Turkic slave-generals for administering his kingdom.[3]

Curiously enough, textual evidence indicates that this shift from a caste-bound notion of kingship, centered around kshatriya identity, to a seemingly anarchic and alien ‘casteless’ political order was not palatable to the contemporary Sanskritic scholarship. They sought to subsume the Muslim and ethnic Tājīk Ghūrid kings, who would technically be classified as yavanas (lit. ‘foreigners existing outside the varṇa-jāti scheme’), into the Indic varṇa-jāti hierarchy, assigning them kshatriya status. Even though Sanskrit records pertaining to the Ghūrid kings themselves are few and sparing, a near-contemporary 14th –century source indicates how at least a section of the Sanskrit-literate Medieval Indian scholarship viewed the foreign rulers.[4] This record from Kotihar in Kashmir, dated 1369 CE, not only Sanskritizes the name of the Ghūrid Sultan Muʿizz al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Sām (also known as Shihāb al-Dīn) as ‘Shahābhadāna’, but also attributes to him a lineage going back to the legendary Pāndavaprotagonists of the epic Mahābhārata! Through association with the Pāndavas, kshatriya-hood was thus conferred upon Muʿizz al-Dīn. It was inconceivable for the Sanskritic authors of Medieval India that a ruler sans the claim to an exalted kshatriya pedigree should ascend the throne and wield the scepter. Not only were the Ghūrid king and his Persianized Turkic lieutenants injecting Perso-Islamicate influences into India’s political culture, but were themselves getting enmeshed, at least in the indigenous scholarly perception, in the ancient Sanskritic political traditions of India.



Power leaves its imprints several ways. Architecture is as much a discursive medium of the powers that be as the written word is, being almost always ideologically charged. The earliest structures built by the Ghūrid conquerors and their lieutenants in Medieval India indicate a dialogic engagement with the country’s ancient political past, and by association, with their subjects.

The magnificent Qutb Minār, a massive tower attached to the Qubbat al-Islam mosque, the first ever congregational mosque in the capital city of Delhi, is a structure similarly rich in royal symbolism. Along with the adjacent mosque, its construction was begun by Qutb al-Dīn Aibak, Muʿizz al-Dīn’s lieutenant in Northern India, while he still ruled over the conquered North Indian territories as a Ghūrid dependent, and the Sultanate of Delhi had yet not branched off from its parent polity as a sovereign entity. Explanations accounting for its construction include instrumentalist ones- such as its use as a minaret attached to the mosque for calling to prayers, or it being a standalone victory tower built to commemorate the recent conquests, a restatement of martial prowess in stone and mortar.

The construction of such commemorative towers was a customary practice in the royal architectural culture fostered by the Turko-Iranian Muslim dynasties in the Ajam world. The Manāreh –ye –Sārbān, or the Sārbān minaret built by Seljuk Sultans at Isfahān in Iran, and the minaret built by Ghūrid Sultans at Jām in North-Western Afghanistan are noteworthy specimens from this category of buildings.[5] What is also difficult to ignore besides these Turko-Persian associations, however, is the link between the Qutb Minar and the Indic practice of erecting similar commemorative towers. This practice was particularly associated with Rājpūtarchitectural culture. The most famous specimen of this kind is the Vijaya Stambhasituated within the Chittorgarh Fort, Rājasthān, India, built in mid-15th Century CE by RāṇāKumbhā of Méwār to commemorate his victory over the combined armies of the Gujarāt and Mālwā Sultanates. Besides commemorating martial glory, such towers could also be votive in nature, such as the KīrtiStambha, a Jain religious monument also situated within the Chittorgarh Fort, Rājasthān, India.[6] That this practice of erecting commemorative-votive towers was also adopted by the later Muslim ruling houses of India, who had no ostensible direct connection with the Medieval Persianate political culture, lends greater plausibility to such a reading. The Muslim rulers of the princely state of Pālanpur at Gujarāt, India, had constructed a similar commemorative tower to honour the memory of their dynastic antecedents in a period as late as the early 20th Century.[7] The symbolism behind the magnificent minaret, therefore, would be amply clear to both the Turko-Iranian Muslim onlookers and the indigenous Hindu and Jain subjects of the Ghūrid monarchs. In association with the congregational mosque, it would assume votive significance, a statement of Muslim piety in stone-and-mortar equally intelligible to the Turko-Iranian Muslim and Indic Hindu and Jain subjects. On the other hand, as a standalone tower, it would acquire a commemorative aspect, displaying Ghūrid martial prowess to the Indian and Turko-Iranian onlooker alike.



Even though power itself rapidly changed hands with the Ghūrid conquest of Northern India, on an administrative level, the changes were not so abrupt. Muʿizz al-Dīn preferred to govern his newly-conquered Indian territories as vassalages ruled by subjugated Rājpūt kings, allowing the ousted Chāhamānaruler Prithvirāja III, and later his son Govindarāja, to rule as a subordinate; at Delhi, the scions of the old Tomara dynasty were also reinstated as vassal rulers.[8] This policy was only later reversed with unrest in the conquered regions, and the need for North-Western India as a base-region for further conquests eastwards along the Gangetic plain.

The joint Ghūrid-Chāhamāna coins issued during this period give interesting insights into the Ghūrid engagements with contemporary Indic political culture. The obverse of these coins contains the legends ‘ShrīPrithvirājadéva’, while the reverse contains the legends ‘Shrī Muhammad Sām’ in the Nāgarī script.[9]The reuse of the insignia of supplanted dynasties in the coinage of succeeding dynasties was not new to India’s political culture. In the Deccan region of Southern India, the varāha (boar) emblem of the Ancient Chālukyas of Vātāpi was reused by the succeeding Chālukya rulers of Vengi and Kalyāni in their coinage, as well as by the Vijayanagara Emperors as late as the 14th Century CE. Whether out of sheer inertia, or due to administrative exigencies, we therefore see Ghūrids adhere to older Indic minting conventions for a good while after the inception of their rule in Northern India.



While the Ghūrid conquest did introduce a new ethno-religious element in the ruling class of pre-Modern India, from the point of view of political culture, the change was not completely abrupt. Threads of continuity persisted in notions and practices related to kingly authority and legitimacy, royal architecture, and in administration, particularly in coinage. In view of these observations, the subtle aspects of continuity present in this political transformation need to be accorded their due salience in understanding it in all its complexity.

[1] In the Hindu varṇa-jāti hierarchy, the warrior-aristocracy.

[2]BrajaDulalChattopadhyaya, The Making of Early Medieval India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012), 214-219.

[3] Irfan Habib, “Formation of the Sultanate Ruling Class of the Thirteenth Century” in Medieval India I: Researches in the History of India, 1200-1750, ed. Irfan Habib (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), 6-7.

[4]Chattopadhyaya, Making of Early Medieval India,205 (footnote 32).

[5] Alka Patel, “Architectural Cultures and Empire: The Ghurids in Northern India (ca. 1192–1210)”,Bulletin of theAsia Institute, New Series Vol. 21 (2007), 39-41.

[6]Jodh Singh Mehta, Abu to Udaipur: Celestial Simla to City of Sunrise (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970), 170.

[7]“Kirti Stambh, Palanpur”, Collectorate- District Banaskantha, Government of Gujarat, December 21, 2022,

[8] Satish Chandra,History of Medieval India (New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2014), 70.

[9] Ibid.


Published Date: February 4, 2023
Type: Essay

Anwit Shahi

Anwit Shahi is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He has done his master's degree in history, specializing in medieval Indian history from Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His main area of interest is Islamicate South Asia, especially religious and mystical traditions in South Asia, and ethno-histories of South Asian Muslim communities.
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