Ibn Battuta's path through India

"The Sultan was far too free in shedding blood... [He] used to punish small faults and great, without respect of persons, whether men of learning or piety or noble descent. Every day there are brought to the audience-hall hundreds of people, chained, pinioned, and fettered, and [they] are ... executed, ...tortured, or ...beaten." [Dunn, p. 201]


Delhi, India

Ibn Battuta entered India through the high mountains of Afghanistan, following the footsteps of Turkish warriors who, a century earlier, had conquered the Hindu farming people of India and established the Sultanate of Delhi. That first wave of Muslim soldiers looted towns and smashed the images of the gods of the Hindu worshipers. But later warrior kings set up a system to tax, rather than slaughter the peasants. They replaced the local Hindu leaders with Turks from Afghanistan and conquered and united a large area almost to the tip of the subcontinent. But these Muslim sultans in Delhi were not safe. They faced continued opposition from the Hindu majority in India who rebelled against their conquerors, and they were threatened with periodic Mongol invasions from the north. The Chagatay Khan (whom Ibn Battuta visited on his way to India) had invaded India and threatened Delhi, the new capital city about 1323. But the armies of the feisty Sultan Muhammad Tughluq in Delhi had chased them back across the Indus River.

Slowly India was becoming more firmly controlled by the Muslim leaders.Hindus were even converting to Islam and finding jobs in the new government. They recognized the economic advantages of becoming Muslims: much lower taxes and opportunities for advancement under the present leader. (In the rural areas, the population remained almost exclusively Hindu. They had to pay their taxes, but were allowed to worship as they wished. And many hated the Muslim government which was imposed upon them.)

In order to strengthen his hold on India, the Sultan needed more judges, scholars, and administrators. He even needed writers, poets, and entertainers to praise and entertain the new leadership. And he turned to foreigners to fill these positions. He was distrustful of the Hindus whom he feared would rebel against him. So he recruited foreigners and rewarded them with fabulous gifts and high salaries. Persians and Turks and other Muslims flocked to the new empire looking for its rewards. Persian became the language of the ruling elite which almost isolated itself in the capital city. And it was from Sultan Muhammad Tughluq that Ibn Battuta hoped to gain employment.

portrait of Muhammad TughluqMuhammad Tughluq goes down in history as an eccentric, erratic, violent ruler. He was described as very bright. He learned how to write Persian poetry and mastered the art of calligraphy; he could debate legal and religious issues with scholars; he learned Arabic in order to read religious texts like the Koran; and he showered gifts on scholars and the Muslims whom he trusted. But he went too far and made some disastrous decisions (about which battles to fight, where to establish his government capital, about the economy which almost bankrupted his treasury, and how to administer justice). He was known as a cruel man, even for the Middle Ages! He was responsible for having not only rebels and thieves punished with cruel deaths, but also Muslim scholars and holy men - anyone who merely questioned him about his policies or happened to be a friend of someone who did. He was paranoid and fearful of any criticism. "Not a week passed," reported one observer, "without the spilling of much Muslim blood and the running of streams of gore before the entrance of his palace." This included cutting people in half, skinning them alive, chopping off heads and displaying them on poles as a warning to others, or having prisoners tossed about by elephants with swords attached to their tusks. As Ibn Battuta reported later,

"The Sultan was far too free in shedding blood... [He] used to punish small faults and great, without respect of persons, whether men of learning or piety or noble descent. Every day there are brought to the audience-hall hundreds of people, chained, pinioned, and fettered, and [they] are ... executed, ...tortured, or ...beaten." [Dunn, p. 201]

Thus, to work for this man was dangerous. But the rewards could be great.

In late 1334, Ibn Battuta went to Delhi to seek official employment and he signed a contract agreeing that he would stay in India. He cleverly assembled gifts for the sultan: arrows, several camels, thirty horses, and several slaves and other goods. Everyone knew that the Muhammad Tughluq would give to his visitors gifts of far greater value in return!

When he arrived in Delhi, Ibn Battuta was given a welcoming gift of 2,000 silver dinars and put up in a comfortably furnished house. Muhammad Tughluq was not in Delhi, and so Ibn Battuta waited. Muhammad Tughluq had received reports about this new arrival and hired Ibn Battuta sight-unseen to the service of the state. He would receive an annual salary of 5,000 silver dinars to be paid from two and a half villages located about 16 miles from the city. (State officials and army officers were paid from taxes on crops produced in peasant villages rather than from the royal treasury.) The average Hindu family lived on about 5 dinars a month.

Muhammad Tughluq returned in June. Ibn Battuta and the other newcomers went to greet the ruler with their gifts. On a gold-plated throne sat a tall, healthy, white-skinned man.

"I approached the sultan, who took my hand and shook it, and continuing to hold it addressed me most kindly, saying in Persian,... 'Your arrival is a blessing; be at ease; I shall... give you such favors that your fellow-countrymen will hear of it and come to join you.' ... Every time he said any encouraging word to me I kissed his hand, until I had kissed it seven times, and after he had give me a robe of honor, I withdrew." [Dunn, p. 198]

The next day the Sultan paraded into the city of Delhi. On some elephants were catapults that threw out gold and silver coins to the crowd of on-lookers.

Mughal miniature painting showing a royal procession (1400s). 

And so Ibn Battuta began working as a judge. Because he didn't speak Persian well, he was given two assistants. The Sultan told him that "they would be guided by your advice, and you shall be the one who signs all the documents." He also had plenty of time to join the Sultan and high officials on elaborate hunting expeditions which required elephants, tents, and a huge number of servants to carry all that was needed. Such extravagance and high living pushed Ibn Battuta into debt eventually, but the generous Sultan gave him more to pay his debts. He even gave Ibn Battuta another job: to take care of the Qutb al-Din Mubarak mausoleum. Of course Ibn Battuta asked for more money to take care of the tomb, not to mention money to repair his own home. The money was given.

The Qutb complex of buildings in Delhi near Ibn Battuta's home included the Quwwat al-Islam Mosque and the Qutb Minar, a 288 foot tower that until modern times was the tallest minaret in the world.

This building, the tomb of Iltutmish, was one of many buildings at the Qutb complex near Delhi.

By Bikashrd - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

This is the ginat Qutb Minar (minaret), shown among other ruins at the Qutb complex.

By Bikashrd - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

1,300 miles away from the capital, one of Muhammad Tughluq's governors rebelled against him and proclaimed himself Sultan. This prompted him to bring his army south. During the next two and a half years that the Sultan was away at battle, Ibn Battuta lived in Delhi. He acted as a judge giving out punishments (such as eighty lashes with a whip for drinking wine!) and he took care of the tomb which required 460 workers. His job of collecting debts from his villages was made harder because of disastrous famine that hit North India in 1335 and lasted seven years. "Thousands upon thousands of people perished of want," he told. He helped to give charity to some of the poor.

The Sultan returned after an unsuccessful campaign against the rebellious army in the south. Then army officers and a governor near Delhi also rebelled. The empire was disintegrating around Muhammad Tughluq. This time he proved himself a skillful soldier and marched out to secure the town. Ibn Battuta was witness to all this for future historians to read. The traitorous leaders were captured and thrown to the elephants.

"They started cutting them in pieces with the blades placed on their tusks and throwing some of them in the air and catching them. All the time the bugles and fifes and drums were being sounded."

And Muhammad Tughluq began to lash out at real and imagined enemies.

Even Ibn Battuta came under suspicion. While living in Delhi, Ibn Battuta married a woman and had a daughter by her. This woman was the daughter of a court official who had plotted a rebellion and was executed by the Sultan. But the most serious problem for Ibn Battuta was his friendship with a Sufi holy man. This holy man refused to have anything to do with politics and tried to live a religious life. He snubbed the Sultan and refused to obey the Sultan's commands. In retaliation Muhammad had the holy man's beard plucked out hair by hair, then banished him from Delhi. Later the Sultan ordered him to return to court, which the holy man refused to do. The man was arrested, tortured in the most horrible way, then beheaded.

camel image to indicate side tripTake a side trip to read about Ibn Battuta's comments on torture.

The following day the Sultan demanded a list of friends of the holy man, and Ibn Battuta's name was included. For nine days he remained under guard imaging in horror that he would be executed, too.

"I recited [lines of prayer] 33,000 times and ... fasted five days on end, reciting the Koran from cover to cover each day, and tasting nothing but water. After five days I broke my fast and then continued to fast for another four days on end." [Dunn, p. 209]

He rid himself of his possessions, and donned the clothes of a beggar. He was given permission to join a hermit who lived in a cave outside of Delhi. He lived like that for five months.

Then Ibn Battuta was called back to the palace. Fearfully he returned, and was greeted warmly. But determined to avoid further troubles, got up enough courage to ask the Sultan (now in a good mood), if he could make another hajj.

But the Sultan had another task in mind, one that Ibn Battuta found fascinating. Knowing of Ibn Battuta's love of travel and sightseeing, the Sultan wanted to make Ibn Battuta ambassador to the Mongol court of China. He would accompany 15 Chinese messengers back to their homeland and carry shiploads of gifts to the emperor. Now he was given an opportunity to get away from Muhammad Tughluq and to visit further lands of Islam in a grand style! It was an offer too exciting - and too dangerous - to refuse.

samosas cooking

These are samosas or - as Ibn Battuta called them - sambusak. Variations on this dish are common from western Persia all the way down into southeast Asia and parts of China.

By kspoddar - on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

betel leaves

These are betel leaves for sale at a modern market. They are still grown and chewed  (along with areca nuts) in many parts of the world. Chewing betel, like chewing tobacco, has been linked to oral cancers.

By Augustus Binu/ www.dreamsparrow.net/ facebook - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0