The Delhi Sultanate
This term refers to the five short-lived kingdoms or sultanates of Turkic and Pashtun (Afghan) origin that ruled Delhi between 1206 and 1526, when the last of their line was overthrown by the Mughals.
The five dynasties were:
- the Mamluk Dynasty (1206-1290)
- the Khilji Dynasty (1290-1320)
- the Tughlaq Dynasty (1320-1414)
- the Sayyid Dynasty (1414-1451)
- the Afghan Lodi Dynasty (1451-1526)
The early rulers of the Delhi Sultanate are often viewed as iconoclastic pillagers, best known for their indiscriminate destruction of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain temples; acting on Islamic prohibitions of anthropomorphic representations in art, and the attendent outrage that the sumptuously-realistic Indian sculptures and paintings would have caused them.
However, the fusion of indigenous and Muslim customs and styles under the Delhi Sultanate gave rise to the beginnings of Indo-Islamic art and architecture, which reached its zenith under the Mughal emperors.
The Sultanate's greatest contribution to the fine arts of India lies in their Indo-Islamic architecture. Qutb-ud-din Aibak, the governor of Delhi and subsequently, the first sultan of the Delhi Sultanate (ruled 1206-1210 AD), started the construction of the Qutb Minar in 1192, which was completed after his death by his successor Iltutmish.
Made of fluted red sandstone and marble, the Qutb Minar is the tallest minaret in India, standing at a height of 238 feet. It comprises several superposed flanged and cylindrical shafts, separated by balconies supported by Muqarnas corbels (an architectural ornamentation reminiscent of stalactites employed in traditional Islamic and Persian architecture). The walls of the minaret are covered with Indian floral motifs and verses from the Quran (Figure 2).
The Qutb Minar is located in Mehrauli Archeological Park, which also contains other fine examples of Delhi Sultanate architecture, including the tomb of the sultan Balban (reigned 1266-1287 AD), the first known building in India to feature a true arch.
Another building of historical importance in the develoment of Indo-Islamic architecture is the Alai Darwaza, the main gateway on the southern side of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. Built by the second Khilji sultan of Delhi, Ala-ud-din Khilji in 1311 AD, it features the earliest-surviving true dome in India.
There is little architecture remaining from the Sayyid and Lodi periods, but a few fine examples survive in Lodi Gardens in Delhi, including the tomb of Mohammad Shah, the last sultan of the Sayyid Dynasty, built in 1444. It is characterized by an octagonal main chamber with Islamic pointed arches, stone chhajjas (projecting eaves supported by carved brackets borrowed by Muslim empires from Hindu architecture) and guldastas (ornamental flower-shaped pinnacles) on the roof, both of which would eventually become common feaures of Mughal architecture.
Scholars previously believed that the Delhi Sultanate did not patronize painting because of the Islamic injunction against the portrayal of living beings in art. However, literary evidence and the discovery of illustrated manuscripts from the period suggests otherwise, and royal painting workshops appear to have flourished under more liberal rulers.
The painting style of the Delhi Sultanate borrowed heavily from the flourishing traditions of Islamic painting abroad, resulting in the development of an Indo-Persian style, based essentially on the schools of Iran but influenced by the individual tastes of Indian rulers and local styles.
The earliest known examples date from the 15th century, including a copy of the Shahnama or Book of Kings, created under Lodi rule, which bears a close relationship to contemporary Jain paintings. Features of Delhi Sultanate paintings that are based on Indian traditions include groups of people standing in rows and identical poses, narrow bands of decoration running across the width of the painting, and bright and unusual colors that replace the muted hues found in earlier Timurid painting (Figure 1).