Tughluq, Innovator

By Aditya Dev Sood

Tugluq One day the Sultan was looking from a turret window onto the city of Delhi and he no longer liked what he saw. These people were spoiled and unimaginative. Like the residents of every other large and imperial city, they reeked with the parochialism of the metropolis. Even before he became Muhammand bin Tughluq, the Sultan of Hindustan, he had ridden across the burning plateaus of Mahratta, Warangal and Kampili, down deep into Ma’bar, the Tamilian tip of the subcontinent. He knew what they didn’t — the rest of Hindustan lay to the south — all the unconquered petty kingships, all the riches, all the lands yet to be assimilated into his Sultanate. This city of Delhi was just too far north.

With the precise and strategic thinking that had marked all his successful military campaigns, Tughluq began looking for a place that would be more accessible to the furthest reaches of the Sultanate. It had to be equidistant, more or less, from Gujarat and the Sindh, from Delhi and the Gangetic plains, from Bengal, and from the new territories in the South, which he had himself conquered. In this way, he arrived at Devagiri, a small military encampment, from which he planned more efficiently to administer his empire. In 1327, he ordered his subordinate officers of the court, their families and servants, the artisans and traders who supported and served them, to move to Devagiri.

At first, nothing happened. No one would agree to move. He renamed the city Daulatabad, or Money-Ville. He built a wide and safe road to the new city to encourage his courtiers and the rest of the general public of Delhi to relocate. Frustrated in his several inducements, proclamations, commandments, he force-marched the population of Delhi to Daulatabad in 1330. Miserable in their new surroundings, his people were struggling to come to terms to their new conditions when water ran out at the fort. The Sultan himself never remained in Devagiri, being compelled to ride out repeatedly to whichever distant realm of the empire was in crisis or in danger of being lost to local revolt. It was only years later that Tughluq finally relented, allowing those who still survived in Daulatabad to trickle back to Delhi. About this time the Moroccan travel writer Ibn Batutta arrived in the city to record the anger of the surviving local populace of Delhi. What had once been a large and great city, on the order of Cairo or Baghdad, was now empty, abandoned, deserted.

What was Tughluq thinking?

Or rather, how was he thinking about cities, particularly Delhi, the city from which he had ascended his throne? Perhaps he saw them merely as tools of empire, necessary for the accumulation of people and personnel, like any military encampment. Perhaps he saw that Delhi was, moreover a liability to the Sultanate, falling so far to the north as to be vulnerable to repeated Mongol incursions from the north-west. Better to destroy the city in order to save the realm. There is a cold and rational calculus at the heart of Tughluq’s actions, but it strikes most people as inhuman, then as now. There must have been a maniacal glint in his eye, he must have felt compelled always to transform the world as he had found it, into the image that resided within his totalizing mind's eye.

Tughluq provides the very paradigm of a technocratic innovator, someone who could never cast his eyes on any part of the countryside but to see potential means for building a larger and more powerful State, to be built by transforming it, extracting surpluses more effectively, moving people around, reorganizing their lives and livelihoods as he saw fit. For Tughluq, innovation was something you do to other people, and there appears a direct line connecting him with so many later figures with the same basic approach to innovation. Dalhousie brought India railways, no matter what the peasants thought of this magical and terrifying technology. Nehru brought dams, bridges, public utilities and other temples of modern India. Sanjay Gandhi made it possible for the state to sterilize you for the public good. Since the time of Tughluq, innovation by and for the state has mostly proceeded without the participation or consent of those who are innovated upon.

Along with the forced relocation of Delhi, his memory is most closely associated with his innovations in respect of coinage. A greater variety and number of coins survive from his era than from any other pre-Mughal ruler. He made several innovations in the monetary policy of Hindustan, beginning with a substantial increase in the amount of copper coinage in circulation. Moreover, he decided to create a shiny new coin, an alloy of copper and silver that would be worth a denominated fraction of the silver dinar. Its golden sheen and glint would commend itself to the public, and make it more attractive than a conventional copper coin. The ratios of copper to silver would be managed by the royal mints at Delhi and Daulatabad, and the Sultan’s seal would guarantee the value of the coins. This kind of stratagem had already been successfully adopted by the Mongols in central Asia, who had apparently acquired the idea from the Chinese.

In practice, Tughluq’s innovations in coinage may have fundamentally shaken the people’s trust, both in the Sultan and in his larger vision for the Hindustan he was trying to build. As the contemporaneous historian Barani tells it, Tughluq’s new coins “turned the house of every Hindu into a mint, and the Hindus of the various provinces coined crores and lacs of copper coins.” Barani’s prose is at its florid best in describing the failed consequences of Tughluq’s experiment: “When trade was interrupted on every side, and when the copper tankas had become more worthless than clods, and of no use, the Sultan repealed his edict, and in great wrath he proclaimed that whoever possessed copper coins should bring them to the treasury, and receive the old gold coins in exchange. Thousands of men from various quarters, who possessed thousands of these copper coins, and caring nothing for them, had flung them into corners along with their copper pots, now brought them to the treasury, and received in exchange gold tankas and silver tankas, which they carried to their homes. So many of these copper tankas were brought to the treasury, that heaps of them rose up in Tughluqabad like mountains.”

Tughluq simultaneously drove several other innovative projects of public administration. During his reign, a department of agriculture was established, which set up and ran state-owned farms. Tughluq introduced a variable and progressive system of agricultural taxation that extracted more tax from those farmers that were able to generate more agricultural surplus, a policy that he first implemented in the fertile lands falling between the Yamuna and Ganga rivers. He planned and coordinated convoys of grain to be sent from farmlands to the citadels, forts, and camping armies of the empire that had to batten upon them. Once he had stretched the empire to its geographical limits to the south, the east and the west, he set his sights on a northward expansion towards the Mongols and towards China, on the other side of the Himalayas. This expedition never reached the territories it was meant to conquer, for it was waylaid by highwaymen and rebels within Tughluq’s own districts and provinces. Tughluq had just raised this vast expedition against central Asia and China when his Indian empire began coming apart, and much of the remainder of Barani’s bitter account of Tughluq's reign is a litany of insurrections and revolts by local governors against his overlordship.

Tughluq’s approach to statecraft appears to have been one of perpetual campaign, the art in which he had always excelled. Having conquered most of the Indian subcontinent, the rest of his reign was spent in continuously reconquering and quelling the gathering mutinies that raged all around his empire. The Turkish, Afghan, Mughal, Persian and other assorted noblemen that made up Tughluq’s court represented a heterogenous and extremely small cadre of non-local non-convert Muslim elite, whose allegiances Tughluq seems to have sought to demand and buy, never really being able to command and organize their ambitions and energies into his larger vision for the larger, greater and contiguous Hindustan that only he seems to have had at the time. Despite the central location of Daulatabad, Tughluq never found a way of being everywhere in his empire at once, and no sooner had he quashed a rebellion and installed one of his Muslim noblemen as governor, but that he would rebel against the Sultanate and declare himself independent. Ibn Batutta painted a vivid and quixotic portrait of the Sultan, yet seems only partially to understand him: “He was a man who, above all others, is fond of making presents and shedding blood. There was always to be seen at his gate some poor person becoming rich, or some living one condemned to death. His generous and brave actions, and his cruel and violent deeds, gained notoriety among the people.” Tughluq was himself the cause for the greatest amount of instability in his realm, and his boundless energy and numerous innovation projects kept his kingdom continuously on edge, disrupted nearly to the point of dysfunction, fatigue and collapse.

The scope of Tughluq’s territorial ambitions were unprecedented in the prior history of the subcontinent. For these different peoples, with different languages, disparate narratives, and disaggregated forms of regional and collective consciousness to be unified under a single administration would turn out to be a near impossibility, only indirectly accomplished in the later periods of the British Raj, and then, still only partially, with the birth of the modern Indian nation-state. The years of his reign were tumultuous because India’s societal landscape was not already well-disposed to single centralized administration, but that such rule forced a painful social transformation of the people of Hindustan in the image of the Sultanate state. The fever of this social change, which Tughluq’s military and administrative programs jointly set into motion, were both symptom and secondary cause of the unrest that plagued his reign.

The contemporaneous accounts of Tughluq by Barani and Ibn Batutta have differing polemical, rhetorical and ideological investments, and yet they agree on the inscrutability, autonomy, and willfulness of Tughluq’s character. He seemed to be a cipher to those around him, and yet he absorbed and synthesized information from all parts of the world, he debated with scholars on an series of topics in array of languages, he was a fine calligrapher and known poetaster. He was, in short, a geek and a wonk with only a limited sense of how others might be perceiving him or responding to the propositions that he found to be obviously and manifestly true. He was a philosopher-king whose contemporaries perceived him to be a fabulous failure at his day job. He could never comprehend the logic of social and cultural flows, nor admit to the existence of complexities in the universe that were not amenable to his intellect and reasoned action.

With the hindsight of the last seven hundred years, we can see that Tughluq’s innovations mostly make sense in terms of the larger direction in which state and society would have to progress for one to support the other in a stable way. For instance, token or symbolic forms of currency, progressive taxation, a robust agricultural policy, internal travel and transit are all necessary and good ideas, and in various ways and at various points later administrators have brought such initiatives to pass in India and in other parts of the world. Sher Shah Suri would adopt his focus on coinage and roadways, Akbar would build an inclusive and meritocratic court like his, and Aurangzeb would run campaigns in the Deccan, absorbing so many petty principalities originally founded by Tughluq. Although, despite Tughluq's best efforts, the city Delhi continues to serve as India’s capital, logistical planners have often gravitated towards central Indian towns of the Deccan for purposes such as military headquarters (Indore), aircraft maintenance and repair (Hyderabad and Nagpur). At the time of India’s independence some neo-Tughluqs with a similarly logistical-analytical bent of mind also proposed that Hyderabad serve as the capital city, arguing once again on the basis of its centrality and strategic depth with respect to the new nation's land borders. The confounding truth of Tughluq's life, of course, is that there is no point in being right if you have lost the power of suasion, and cannot bring others around to join you in your course of action.

Tughluq’s failures — within the terms of his own incredible ambitions — appear to center around the inability to seek, receive, and value feedback and other kinds of social and market signalling. His grand projects could have co-opted the ambitions of the many men from the Muslim world who arrived into India to seek their fortunes if they had proceeded more as dialogues, or as social experiments, the way we now think of new start-ups, pilot projects, and new ventures, rather than with the imperial fiat and advance assumption of success that seems to have been Tughluq’s style. His run of administrative projects demonstrate not that he was unafraid of failure, but that he could not comprehend it, and so had no way of planning for it, and no way of learning from it either.

No new project or enterprise can be imagined nor get started without someone getting a bit Tughluq. That’s the glint of madness necessary for new things to become possible. For those new things to also be successful, of course, is entirely another matter.