Modern Asian Studies

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Modern Asian Studies (2009), 43:45-77 Cambridge University Press
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2007

Research Article

The Ignored Elites: Turks, Mongols and a Persian Secretarial Class in the Early Delhi Sultanate


a1 Department of History, Delhi University, Delhi, India Email:
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kumar s [Google Scholar]


The consolidation of the Delhi Sultanate coincided with the Mongol devastation of Transoxiana, Iran and Afghanistan. This paper studies the Persian literature of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries invested as it was in the projection of the court of the Delhi Sultans as the ‘sanctuary of Islam’, where the Muslim community was safe from the marauding infidel Mongols. The binaries on which the qualities of the accursed Mongols and the monolithic Muslim community were framed ignored the fact that a large number of Sultanate elites and monarchs were of Turkish/Mongol ethnicity or had a history of prior service in their armed contingents. While drawing attention to the narrative strategies deployed by Sultanate chroniclers to obscure the humble frontier origins of its lords and masters, my paper also elaborates on steppe traditions and rituals prevalent in early-fourteenth-century Delhi. All of these underlined the heterogeneity of Muslim Sultanate society and politics in the capital, a complexity that the Persian litterateurs were loath to acknowledge in their records.


This paper is a part of a larger study on Tughluqabad, which will be incorporated in my forthcoming book provisionally titled Sites of Power and Resistance: A Study of Sultanate Monumental Architecture. An earlier version of ‘Tughluqabad’ and this paper was drafted years ago under the supervision of John F. Richards. I am extremely grateful to him for his comments, for all his kindness and support while I was at Duke. Earlier incarnations of the paper profited from the comments of David Gilmartin, Sanjay Subrahmnyam, Kristen Neuschel, Charles Young, Steven Wilkinson, Judith Dillon, Joe Arlinghaus and Ann Farnsworth. The comments of audiences at Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi School of Sociology, Columbia University and the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris, were extremely useful during revisions. This version of the paper was presented at the conference on ‘Expanding Frontiers in South Asian and World History’ held at Duke University in September 29–30, 2006. I would like to thank participants at the conference for their comments, the anonymous referee for the careful reading of the paper, and Anjali Kumar for patient discussions on the subject.