Early Muslim Rule in India From 1206 to 1398 CE

Muslim rule extended over much of India during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries CE. Most of the new rulers came down into the subcontinent from what is now Afghanistan.

In certain regions, such as southern India, Hindu kingdoms held on and even pushed back against the Muslim tide. The subcontinent also faced invasions by famed Central Asian conquerors Genghis Khan, who was not Muslim, and Timur or Tamerlane, who was.

This period was a precursor to the Mughal Era (1526–1857). The Mughal Empire was established by Babur, a Muslim prince originally from Uzbekistan. Under later Mughals, particularly Akbar the Great, the Muslim emperors and their Hindu subjects reached an unprecedented understanding and created a beautiful and flourishing multicultural, multiethnic, and religiously diverse state.

1206–1526: The Delhi Sultanates Rule India

Qutub Minar against blue sky in Delhi
The Qutub Minar in Delhi, India, built in the 1200s CE, shows a combination of Hindu and Muslim architectural styles.

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In 1206, a former Mamluk slave named Qutbubuddin Aibak conquered northern India and founded a kingdom. He named himself sultan of Delhi. Aibak was a Central Asian Turkic speaker, as were the founders of three of the next four Delhi sultanates. A total of five dynasties of Muslim sultans ruled much of northern India up until 1526, when Babur swept down from Afghanistan to found the Mughal Dynasty.

1221: Battle of Indus

large Genghis Khan statue on top of a building
Genghis Khan monument in Mongolia.

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In 1221, the sultan Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu fled his capital at Samarkand, Uzbekistan. His Khwarezmid Empire had fallen to the advancing armies of Genghis Khan, and his father had been slain, so the new sultan fled south and east into India. At the Indus River in what is now Pakistan, the Mongols caught Mingburnu and his 50,000 remaining troops. The Mongol army was only 30,000 strong, but it pinned the Persians against the river bank and decimated them. It might be easy to feel sorry for the sultan, but his father's decision to murder Mongol envoys was the immediate spark that set off the Mongol conquests of Central Asia and beyond in the first place.

1250: Chola Dynasty Falls to Pandyans in South India

Brihadeeswarar Temple
Brihadeeswarar Temple, built around 1000 CE by the Chola dynasty.

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The Chola Dynasty of southern India had one of the longest runs of any dynasty in human history. Founded some time in the 300s BCE, it lasted until the year 1250 CE.  There is no record of a single decisive battle; rather, the neighboring Pandyan Empire simply grew in strength and influence to such an extent that it overshadowed and gradually extinguished the ancient Chola polity.  These Hindu kingdoms were far enough south to escape the influence of Muslim ​conquerors coming down from Central Asia.

1290: Khilji Family Takes Over Delhi Sultanate under Jalal ud-Din Firuz

Bibi Jawindi's tomb with trees and blue sky behind it
Bibi Jawindi's tomb in Uch is an example of Delhi Sultanate architecture.

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In 1290, the Mamluk Dynasty in Delhi fell, and the Khilji Dynasty arose in its place to become the second of the five families to rule the Delhi Sultanate. The Khilji Dynasty would hang on to power only until 1320.  

1298: Battle of Jalandhar

Kot Diji Fort, Sindh Pakistan
Ruins of Kot Diji Fort in Sindh, Pakistan. SM Rafiq / Getty Images

During their brief, 30-year reign, the Khilji Dynasty successfully fended off a number of incursions from the Mongol Empire. The final, decisive battle that ended Mongol attempts to take India was the Battle of Jalandhar in 1298, in which the Khilji army slaughtered some 20,000 Mongols and drove the survivors out of India for good.

1320: Turkic Ruler Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq Takes Delhi Sultanate

Tomb of Feroze Shah Tughluq
Tomb of Feroze Shah Tughluq, who succeeded Muhamad bin Tughluq as Sultan of Dehli.

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In 1320, a new family of mixed Turkic and Indian blood seized control of the Delhi Sultanate, beginning the Tughlaq Dynasty period. Founded by Ghazi Malik, the Tughlaq Dynasty expanded south across the Deccan Plateau and conquered most of southern India for the first time. However, these territorial gains did not last long. By 1335, the Delhi Sultanate had shrunk back down into its accustomed area in northern India. 

Interestingly, the famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta served as a qadi or Islamic judge in the court of Ghazi Malik, who had taken the throne name of Ghyasuddin Tughlaq. He was not favorably impressed with the new ruler of India, deploring the various tortures used against people who failed to pay taxes, including having their eyes torn out or having molten lead poured down their throats. Ibn Battuta was particularly appalled that these horrors were perpetrated against Muslims as well as infidels.

1336–1646: Reign of Vijayanagara Empire, Hindu Kingdom of Southern India

Vitthala Temple against blue sky
Vitthala Temple in Karnataka.

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As Tughlaq power quickly waned in southern India, a new Hindu empire rushed to fill the power vacuum.  The Vijayanagara Empire would rule for more than three hundred years from Karnataka. It brought unprecedented unity to southern India, based mainly on Hindu solidarity in the face of the perceived Muslim threat to the north.

1347: Bahmani Sultanate Founded on Deccan Plateau; Lasts until 1527

sepia photo of mosque at Gulbarga Fort
Photo from the 1880s of the old Bahmani capital's mosque, at the Gulbarga Fort in Karnataka.

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Although the Vijayanagara were able to unite much of southern India, they soon lost the fertile Deccan Plateau that stretches across the subcontinent's waist to a new Muslim sultanate.  The Bahmani Sultanate was founded by a Turkic rebel against the Tughlaqs called Ala-ud-Din Hassan Bahman Shah. He wrested the Deccan away from the Vijayanagara, and his sultanate remained strong for more than a century.  In the 1480s, however, the Bahmani Sultanate went into a steep decline.  By 1512, five smaller sultanates had broken off.  Fifteen years later, the central Bahmani state was gone. In countless battles and skirmishes, the little successor states managed to stave off total defeat by the Vijayanagar Empire.  However, in 1686, the ruthless Emperor Aurengzeb of the Mughals conquered the last remnants of the Bahmani Sultanate.

1378: Vijayanagara Kingdom Conquers Muslim Sultanate of Madurai

carved relief of army
Vijayanagara soldiers carved in stone.

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The Madurai Sultanate, also known as the Ma'bar Sultanate, was another Turkic-ruled region that had broken free from the Delhi Sultanate.  Based far south in Tamil Nadu, the Madurai Sultanate lasted only 48 years before it was conquered by the Vijayanagara Kingdom.

1397–1398: Timur the Lame (Tamerlane) Invades and Sacks Delhi

equestrian statue of Tamerlane against blue sky and clouds
Timur the Lame (Tamerlane) statue in Uzbekistan.

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The fourteenth century of the western calendar ended in blood and chaos for the Tughlaq Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate. The blood-thirsty conqueror Timur, also known as Tamerlane, invaded northern India and began to conquer the Tughlaqs' cities one by one.  Citizens in the stricken cities were massacred, their severed heads piled into pyramids.  In December of 1398, Timur took Delhi, looting the city and slaughtering its inhabitants.  The Tughlaqs held on to power until 1414, but their capital city did not recover from the terror of Timur for more than a century.