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 🙂

Delhi's Location

Delhi’s Secret – Location, Location, Location

For most of Indian history before Mohammed Ghori’s invasion in 1192 AD, Delhi didn’t really figure as a significant city on India’s map. (Some may point out to the theory of Delhi having the site of  Mahabharata’s Indraprastha – but that is uncertain, and even that was never the capital of a vast empire like that of the Mauryas or the Guptas).

Other cities such as Patliputra, Ujjain, Kannauj and Mathura had been the major seats of power in north India.

Delhi attained some importance under the Tomar Rajputs from around 1050 AD (they built Lal Kot and later Prithviraj Chauhan built Qila Rai Pithora). But it had never been a place from where the entire subcontinent’s fate would be decided.

That started to change after Ghori. Delhi was adopted as the formal capital of the new rulers. And under powerful later rulers like Alauddin Khalji, Delhi’s influence reached deep into South India.

Since then, Delhi has always been the most important city in India (barring a couple of centuries in between, when Agra – under the Mughals; and then Calcutta – under the British, held that honour).

What made this city, which was an obscure hamlet for close to three thousand years, such an enduring choice for the capital of this vast country?

Like most things involving real estate, the answer is: location, location, location.

It’s useful to see Delhi’s position vis-à-vis India.


Delhi’s location in India


India is geographically bounded on three sides – the Himalayas on the north and north-east, and the seas to the east, south and west. The main entry point, historically, has been through the Khyber Pass in the north-west – on descending from which you encounter the Indus river, which gave India its name.

North India has three major geographical features – the Indus river system with its five major rivers – forming the Punjab; the Gangetic river system that flows in India’s heartland; and the Thar desert which kind of divides these two major river systems.

The Gangetic plains are a fascinating piece of world geography. Nourished by a tropical climate and by rivers fed by the melting snows of the Himalayas, these plains are an agricultural paradise.

And where you have agriculture, you have the capacity to support people – who can grow food and pay taxes.

In fact it is so conducive to human settlement that the area of the Gangetic plain (comprising the five Indian states of Delhi, UP, Bihar, Haryana, and West Bengal; and the country of Bangladesh) accounts for a current population of 605 million. That is almost 9% of world population, for a piece of land that is less than 0.5% of the world’s area!

There’s an interesting graphic tweeted by an Oxford researcher, comparing the population density of this part of the world with a few other regions.

5% of the World's Population

5% of the World’s Population


So the Indo-Gangetic plain, with a density of almost 900 people/square kilometre (as against the world average of around 50) is not just another crowded place – it is the world’s most populous piece of real estate. Basically, a great target if you wish to start a land-revenue-funded medieval empire.

And guess which place is ideally located to control this crucial piece of real estate – you’re right, it’s Delhi.

Delhi is located at the western end of this river system, on the banks of the Yamuna, a major tributary of the Ganga. With the Thar desert forming a natural barrier to its west, Delhi is a great location to control the Indo-Gangetic plain.

But hang on, they could’ve chosen any site that was situated on the bank of the Yamuna – why specifically this one?


Delhi's Micro Location

Delhi’s Micro Location

If you look at the relief map of Delhi, you will see the reason for the site location – the Ridge and the River. The Ridge is a northern extension of the ancient Aravalli mountain range. These hills form a broad ‘C-shaped’ barrier on the west – with the Yamuna river acting as a natural border on the east. Almost all of the early development of the city took place in the zone lying between the ridge and the river, given the natural protection on all sides.

So let’s recap – for control over India, it’s important to have control over India’s most populous region. And the location of Delhi is ideal for doing so.

It was almost as if India’s rulers experimented with multiple cities and sites before stumbling upon Delhi, and realised ‘Hey, we may be onto something here!’

And that’s how Delhi attained its status as India’s pre-eminent city and has pretty much retained it ever since.

To read more, download our Qutub Minar Audio Guide for Delhi