Qutub Minar

Medieval Meritocracy

The Qutub Minar was built during the Delhi Sultanate period. A stone plaque in the Qutub complex says that the first 90-odd years of this era is known as the Slave Dynasty, since the most prominent rulers then were former slaves.

Wait a minute. You mean slaves – like bonded labour – were being given a chance to rule an empire? Was this some crazy medieval social experiment?!

Um, no.

The word ‘Slave’ here (translated from the Arabic word Mamluk) is a bit of a misnomer – it doesn’t mean the slavery of ‘Django Unchained’ or ‘Amistad’. It refers to a fascinating practice that was prevalent in Central Asia for centuries – that of the slave trade for military & administrative purposes.

Normally in history, (especially in the US) slaves were used for labour-intensive tasks like farming and mining. They had abysmal rights and led a sorry existence.

However, there was a different need in the rich trading cities (like Bukhara, Samarkand) of medieval Central Asia, on the old Silk Route. The merchants wanted reliable soldiers for guarding their goods caravans. And so, they encouraged the practice of buying child slaves from the nomadic tribes of the region (the Central Asian steppe had always been an area of nomadic tribes, since it supported grazing and not settled agriculture).

Over time this practice morphed to form extensive slave markets across cities. These markets would be patronised by royalty, who would ‘buy’ the best slaves.

They would then do something that you would never expect to be done for a slave – groom them for leadership positions in their army and administration!

Remember how you may have heard that cliched line from HR in interviews – “We have a great career path for new entrants – anyone can become the CEO!”

Well in this case, the ‘slaves’ could and did become the CEO! This was meritocracy at work in medieval times. A modern equivalent would be an ‘Early Talent Identification and Grooming’ program (with a fancy acronym, ETIG) to get gifted kids onto a fast-track.

And these medieval kids did get onto the fast track! Let’s get back to our Delhi Sultanate story.

The Sultanate was established when Mohammed Ghori defeated Pritiviraj Chauhan in 1192. After conquering Delhi, when Mohammed Ghori left for Afghanistan, he left one such Turki slave, Qutub-ud-din Aibak in charge here.

But hang on, you may ask – what happened to family? What about handing over the throne to your descendants or close family members?

In Ghori’s case, he had no children. But even otherwise a key factor that drove the preference for slaves by royals was their distrust of family. A saying in Persian captures the thought succinctly:

‘One obedient slave is better than three hundred sons;

for the former desires his master’s glory; the latter, their father’s death.’

So it was a ‘slave’ who started rule as Delhi’s first Sultan. All right, but one Sultan does not a dynasty make! Why was this called the Slave ‘Dynasty’?

That’s because the Sultan after Aibak was not a son, but a slave of his – Shams-ud-din Iltutmish.

Now, Iltutmish had an interesting story. Apparently he was known for his good looks and intelligence as a boy, making his brothers jealous. One day they enticed him away from their home in Central Asia, on the pretext of a horse show, and sold him off to a slave trader!

After being resold a few times, he ended up in front of Mohammed Ghori. Ghori rejected him as he found the asking price too high. Qutubuddin Aibak however took a fancy to him and purchased him.

From that time, Iltutmish steadily rose up the ranks – he even married Aibak’s (i.e. his boss’) daughter. (Ah, the perks of being on the fast track)!

Iltutmish ruled for around 25 years. After him, the next few rulers were his descendants. But soon enough, another slave (of Iltutmish) named Balban ascended the throne. No wonder the Slave Dynasty name stuck.

Slave Dynasty

Slave Dynasty


Anyway, after the ‘Slave Dynasty’ period, normal service resumed. Family became supreme again (perhaps the practice of buying child slaves too discontinued).

After that we have had an almost uninterrupted line of family dynasties (save for the British period!) ruling Delhi – the Khaljis, the Tughluks, the Sayyids, Lodis, the Mughals, (Brits – brief interlude) and the Nehru-Gandhis (at least till recently)!

Be that as it may, the Slave Dynasty remains a brief and interesting experiment in medieval meritocracy!


To know more, listen to our Qutub Minar Guide 🙂