The movie Padmaavat and actor Ranveer Singh’s brilliant portrayal of the villainous Alauddin Khilji have generated a fair bit of interest in the infamous Delhi Sultan. For centuries, the conquests of Alauddin Khiji and his army, have been captured in fiction across India. From the 13th century poems like Deval Rani & Hamir Raso (conquest of Gujarat & Ranthambhore), and later 16th-century poems like Chhitai Varta (conquest of Devagiri), and the most famous and controversial Padmaavat (conquest of Chittor). However, for all his bluster, Alauddin Khilji’s own story was a saga of betrayal. Call it karma if you will, but all those he nurtured, turned against him and the house of Khilji was wiped out within years of his death. The man responsible for the downfall was none other than Alauddin’s close confidant , who is also often portrayed as his lover, Malik Kafur.
We know very little about the early life of Malik Kafur. What we do know is that he was an extremely good looking eunuch slave owned by a merchant in the port city of Khambat. He was captured by the Khilji armies during the conquest of Gujarat in 1299 CE. Originally a Hindu, Malik Kafur had converted to Islam (hence called ‘Kafur’ from the word 'Kafir' or Unbeliever) and had been bought by his original owner for a price of 1000 dinars, thus earning him the moniker ‘Hazar Dinari’.
It was a combination of shrewd intellect and administrative skills that allowed Kafur to rise swiftly in the Khilji administration. Alauddin Khiji was known to promote men from a humble background and the Delhi administration was full of such men. This probably had to do with the origins of the Khiljis themselves, who were a Turkic tribe who had settled down in Afghanistan, adopting local customs and hence looked down by the Turkic nobles who controlled the levers of power in the Delhi Sultanate.
Malik Kafur had been bought by his original owner for a price of 1000 dinars, thus earning him the moniker Hazar Dinari
One of the most authoritative books on the subject, the ‘History of the Khaljis’ by noted historian KS Lal, gives us the story of the fall of the house of Khiljis. While a capable man, Alauddin was extremely power hungry and ruthless at the same time. He murdered his uncle and father-in-law Jalaluddin Khilji in 1296 CE to become the Sultan. The Delhi Sultanate under his reign resembled a totalitarian state in the lines of present-day North Korea perhaps.
Absolute control ensured absolute power in the hands of Alauddin and chroniclers of the time note how even a high ranking general like Ulugh Khan (the brother and chief general of Alauddin) was sentenced to 20 lashings, just for suggesting to the sultan that he raise the price of grain. Alauddin also created a sophisticated espionage system and secret police, which personally reported to him. As historian KS Lal states in his book
‘Alauddin had all the qualities to become a first-rate despot’
Malik Kafur’s military abilities meant that he was able to rise up in the Khilji administration to the rank of a general. He was sent for several expeditions to the south, first to Devagiri (1308) and Warangal (1310), and the second one deeper south to Halebidu and Madurai in 1311. Sacking cities and plundering the great temples of Halebidu, Srirangam and Madurai, Kafur returned to Delhi with immense wealth. It can be said that it was these conquests by Malik Kafur which helped the Khilji Empire reach the height of wealth and power. Ironically, Kafur also led to the downfall.
By 1315 CE, as Alauddin’s health had begun to deteriorate, power began to pass into the hands of his slave general and close advisor, Malik Kafur. There were whispers of an intimate relationship between Alauddin and Malik Kafur, in the corridors of Delhi. However, we must note that the sole source of all the speculation about the Malik Kafur-Alauddin Khilji affair was the contemporary historian, Ziauddin Barani (1285 – 1357 CE) who was chronicling what he had heard from his uncle, a courtier in Khilji court. Ziauddin Barani was a member of the high Turkic nobility, who had traditionally monopolised power at the Delhi court and greatly resented their loss of power under the Khilji rule. Barani writes in Tarikh-i-Firoz Shahi -
‘In those four or five years when the Sultan was losing his memory and his senses, he had fallen deeply and madly in love with the Malik Naib. He had entrusted the responsibility of the government and the control of the servants to this useless, ungrateful, ingratiate, sodomite.’
There were whispers of an intimate relationship between Alauddin and Malik Kafur, in the corridors of Delhi.
However, historian Abraham Eraly, the Chennai based historian and authority on the Delhi Sultanate writes in his book 'The Age of Wrath: A History of Delhi Sultanate’ that Ziauddin Barani was biased against Malik Kafur due to his lowly non-Turkic origins and hence his version cannot be considered to be credible. BP Saxena, an Allahabad based historian, analyzing the Alauddin-Kafur relationship in ‘A Comprehensive History of India: The Delhi Sultanate (A.D. 1206-1526)’ states
‘During the last four or five years of his reign, Alauddin was infatuated with Malik Naib... There was no element of homosexuality in Alauddin's character; and though Kafur was a eunuch, there was nothing wrong in Alauddin's relations with Kafur, apart from the fact that since Kafur, unlike all other officers, had no family or followers, the Sultan had a greater trust in him.’
Given the multiplicity of opinion, we will never know the true nature of the relationship between Alauddin Khilji and Malik Kafur. But what we do know is that this closeness did not prevent the ambitious Malik Kafur from betraying Alauddin and attempting to take the throne for himself.
The opportunity came after Alauddin’s death in January 1316 CE. Malik Kafur promptly produced the will of the late Sultan, disinheriting all his older sons and nominating his 6-year-old son Shahabuddin to the throne, with Kafur as Regent. Kafur hated Alauddin’s chief wife Mahru and had her and her sons imprisoned in the fort of Gwalior. Contemporary chroniclers note that all of Alauddin’s able sons ‘had their eyes sliced from their sockets like melons’. Kafur even married Aladdin’s second wife and Shahabuddin’s mother so that he could become the Sultan, in his own right.
With this marriage and as a Regent, Malik Kafur became the de-facto ruler of India. However, very soon, his luck that ran out. In February 1316 CE, Kafur sent a group of elite assassins to finish off Mubarak Khan, Alauddin’s third son who was in Delhi. But Mubarak Khan countered this by bribing the men sent to kill him. The assassins returned and beheaded Kafur instead. Malik Kafur’s ambitions came to a brutal end.
The attacks and counter-attacks also marked the end of the Khiljis. A series of palace coups and murders followed until the Delhi throne finally passed into the hands of Tughlaqs.
DID YOU KNOW?
The original manuscript of Ziauddin Barani’s Tarikh-i-Firuz shahi, which provides a most comprehensive contemporary account of Alauddin Khilji’s rule, is kept at the Raza Library in Rampur.
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