How a eunuch won a southern province for Alauddin Khilji

Manu S Pillai’s Rebel Sultans is a fascinating account of the history of kings and kingdoms of what is now southern India. An extract about the fall of Devagiri’s Yadavas to the ‘Khilji Avalanche’

The Deccan, as Ferishta explains, was home to three peoples at the time: ‘the Marhat, the Kanhar and the Tiling’ (all of them, he claimed, descendants of the biblical Noah from a grandson conveniently called Dekhun). The Yadavas were lords of the Marathi lands, while the Kakatiyas in Warangal ruled over Telugu domains. Karnataka was held by the Hoysalas from their seat in Dwarasamudra – and, predictably, all three houses made it their business to feud over some backwater or the other for as long as could be remembered. They had not, however, anticipated invaders from the north, although the Yadavas were vaguely conscious of the rise of powerful Turks in the distant horizon. Just as Balban claimed that the south quaked in fear at the very thought of his name, Ramachandra Yadava had also, with breathtaking humility, compared himself in 1278 to the mythological ‘Great Boar in succoring the earth from the oppressions of the Turukas’, decades before he actually encountered a single Turk. And as it happened, when eventually his forces came face-to-face with Alauddin’s men, the Yadava crown was more than a little alarmed by the fate that awaited its celebrated line of kings, and the seismic changes that refashioned the very course of the Deccan’s future.

Alauddin and his 8000 cavalry met practically no resistance on their way to Devagiri in 1296, except at a single point where a chieftain, assisted by two nameless Maratha women (who ‘fought like lionesses’), unsuccessfully stood in the way. In Devagiri itself, the Yadava king shut the fort and decided to wait out the siege, not least because the bulk of his men were deployed with his son near the Hoysala frontier. The strategy was promising. As a later chronicler observed, this was ‘one of the best fortresses’ in the country, ‘the only way to it being so narrow that but one horse, or one camel, can [pass] at a time’. But since an invasion from the north was the last thing Ramachandra expected, no provisions had been stocked, and a week was all it took for the prospect of starvation to persuade him to contemplate peace.

Alauddin had also seized the queen of Gujarat, and it was from that kingdom that the enslaved eunuch Hazardinari (‘1000 coins’, after his initial price) was acquired. Destined to go down in history as Malik Kafur, this man was Alauddin’s most dreaded general – and his controversial lover

His heir, meanwhile, sped back to save the capital, and nearly succeeded in repelling the invaders: That is, until Alauddin manufactured a rumour that 20,000 fresh cavalry were on their way to reinforce his onslaught. He had 1000 horsemen raise such a whirl of dust in the distance that the Yadavas believed this inspired canard. And so it was that a ghost army behind a blur of earth and wind brought Devagiri to its knees. Such quantities of treasure were heaped before Alauddin in the aftermath that six decades later, portions of it were believed to still be found untouched in the imperial treasury. As Amir Khusro, the poet, wrote, ‘Were I to attempt to recount the plunder of jewels and gold, no measure or balance would suffice... Camels and mules were laden with rubies and diamonds... and the most experienced jewelers were unable even to guess their value’.

In what appears to have been customary at such junctures, and would remain a pattern in the Deccan, Alauddin also received a trophy from Devagiri in the form of a Yadava princess. And as was equally conventional, there was to be no happy ending for this lady: in 1316, a half-brother of Alauddin’s would blind her son and have her put to death during a contest for Delhi’s throne. Alauddin had also seized the queen of Gujarat, and it was from that kingdom that the enslaved eunuch Hazardinari (‘1000 coins’, after his initial price) was acquired. Destined to go down in history as Malik Kafur, this man was Alauddin’s most dreaded general – and his controversial lover. As Barani, the Islamic theorist, remarked with profound but predictable disapproval, Alauddin fell ‘deeply and madly in love’ with Kafur, and, over time, ‘entrusted the responsibility of the government and the control of the servants to this useless, ungrateful, ingratiate sodomite’. ‘Intoxicated’ by power but also partly due to the envy the Sultan’s affections aroused, Kafur too, in the end, met a savage end around the time the Yadava princess was murdered. He had tried to play kingmaker after Alauddin’s death, till his interlocutors in this dangerous game decided to simply cut him to pieces and speed things up in a direction of their own choosing.

For now, however, our ‘sodomite’ found his life’s purpose in subjugating the Deccan for his master-beloved. In 1296, after counting the Yadava treasure and demanding annual tribute, Alauddin returned to Delhi to, consecutively, murder his naive uncle, appropriate the throne and attend to other pressing military concerns – such as decisively defeating the Mongols, who had made it almost a custom to periodically assault north-west India. Such was the rout Alauddin inflicted on the marauders that ‘all fancy for coming to Hindustan was washed clean out of their breasts’. Meanwhile Ramachandra’s son, conscious of the Sultan’s northern preoccupations, persuaded his father to cease the transfer of gold to Delhi. A fair amount of time elapsed, but in 1308, the bells of Devagiri rang again in warning when Malik Kafur arrived at the head of what the Smritisthala declares a ‘Khilji Avalanche’. The Yadavas were defeated, and this time Ramachandra was couriered to Delhi for half a year to cool his heels and soak up lessons in obedience. When Kafur proposed to go to Warangal to destroy the Kakatiyas thereafter, the chastened Yadavas even offered assistance, lending the general a company of sturdy Maratha fighters to show the way to that city. By 1313, however, the Yadava king was dead and his unbending son sat on the throne. Devagiri stood up for the last time to Delhi, and on this occasion they were permanently crushed. The slave-turned-‘sodomite’ was appointed viceroy, and coins were minted in Alauddin’s name. The first of the old kingdoms of the Deccan was hereafter only a southern province of the Delhi Sultanate.

(Published from Manu S Pillai’s Rebel Sultans - The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji, with permission from Juggernaut)

‘I have no guarantee that we will win. But we can’t live in fear of defeat’
The myth of a temporary aberration called Partition 
‘Jayalalithaa had had her revenge. But Karunanidhi won the war’
Editor’s Pick More