The Ghurid Empire in India

The Gurids and the beginnings of the Delhi Sultanate

When Qutbuddin Aibak was still a young boy he was captured and sold as a slave. He was purchased by the chief judge of Nishapur. The judge treated Qutbuddin as a son, and raised him as an educated man skilled in archery and horsemanship. Upon the judge's death, Qutbuddin was placed on the market again and was bought by the Sultan of Ghowr’s brother, Muhammed Ghuri.

Central Asia during the 11th and 12th centuries was a succession of Turkish Kingdoms which rapidly grew in size under a skilled ruler, only to rapidly declined in size not long afterwards. Muhammed Ghuri was a capable commander if not just an efficient administrator. He fought his neighbouring rulers, including the Ghaznavid Empire. It was in this atmosphere of warfare that Qutbuddin and other slaves such as Iltumish and Bakhtiar Khilji found themselves. Qutbuddin was a talented general and became one of Muhammed Ghuri’s most trusted commanders.

In 1173, Muhammed Ghuri captured Ghazni, the capital of the Ghaznavid Empire located south of Kabul in modern Afghanistan. From his new base, he was able to attack the northern subcontinent. In 1175 he passed through the Gomal Pass into the Punjab capturing Multan and Uch. After securing northern Sindh, he attempted to establish control of Gujerat but was defeated in 1178 by Chaluka Raja while crossing the deserts of Rajasthan. A year later Ghuri launched a new raid into India, this time through the Khyber Pass, to attack the former Ghaznavid Provinces in what is now northern Pakistan. He managed to capture Peshawar in 1179 and, despite fierce resistance from the Gakkars and Ghaznavids, Sialkot six years later in 1185. In either 1186 or ’87, Lahore fell to the Ghurids and thus the last of the Ghaznavid provinces had been mopped up by the Ghurid Empire. Qutbuddin took part in many of these campaigns as a commander and was personally responsible for many of these victories.

The rulers of northern India, often called the Rajputs, were a disunited group of rulers who looked upon war as a gentlemen’s sport with rules of gallantry and chivalry. Their armies were organised on feudal lines and relied on heavily armoured elephants. Man to man, the Rajputs were often stronger. The Afghan-Turkish forces of the Ghurids held no illusions about warfare, and centuries of brutal conflict in central asia had honed their skills. They relied upon speed, supplied by their light cavalry, and just like the Mongols in a few years to come, were able to defeat much larger and well equipped Rajput armies.

In 1191 the rulers of north India united behind the ruler of Delhi and Prithviraj in order to stop the advance of Ghuri. They engaged him at Tarain that year. Known as the first battle of Tarain it was a decisive defeat for Ghuri. While sources conflict on the issue, it is certain that Ghuri personally suffered during the battle. Many Indian sources claim that Ghuri was captured by Prithviraj and subsequently released as per the Rajput code of honour, while some Pakistani sources claim that Ghuri either fainted during the battle, or was badly wounded. Either way, Muhammed Ghuri retreated to Ghazni afterwards to regroup and await reinforcements. A year later he marched back into India to confront Prithviraj in the second battle of Tarain. This battle was a victory for the Ghurids which resulted in the capture of Prithviraj. Ghuri returned to Ghazni but  was back in the subcontinent in 1193 to defend his newly acquired possessions from the raja of Kanauj. After a fierce battle, this domain was also added to the Ghurid empire. In the meantime Qutbuddin had marched on Delhi and upon capturing the kingdom, Qutbuddin was appointed the ruler of Delhi and the Viceroy of India.

The Ghurids, and by inheritance the Delhi Sultanate later secured their territory via a system known as Iqta. The Iqta system involved assigning strategically important land to one of the slave generals. The Iqta holders could support themselves by taxing the local population, and were expected to secure and expand their Iqta if they could. This meant that life in the countryside didn’t change much after the Ghurid conquest, with only the highest section of the feudal system being replaced, along with a few rebellious chiefs.

Muhammed bin Bakhtiar of the Khilji tribe was assigned an Iqta in Oduh (modern Uttar Pradesh). With the small revenue he earned from his land he enlisted a small force of Khilji horsemen and turned his sight towards Bengal. Until the beginning of the 12th centaury, Bengal had been ruled by the devout buddhist Pala dynasty, who built many colleges and monasteries, called viharas, from which the province of Bihar was named. Only 80 years before Bakhtiar, the Pala dynasty had been conquered by the Hindu Sena dynasty. Disguised as a horse dealer, Bakhtiar with only 18 horsemen entered the capital of Bengal. Overpowering the royal guards they literally walked into the palace, surprising the elderly raja so much that he fled barefoot without even finishing his dinner. Shortly afterwards the rest of Bakhtiar’s army arrived and completed the conquest of the Kingdom. Bakhtiar was awarded the position of governor of Bengal. His ambitions did not end there though. In about 1200, he attempted to open up a new route to the Turkish homelands in central asia by attacking Tibet. This adventure was not so fortunate, he was defeated by the Tibetans, who harassed his army all the way back to India. They frequently destroyed precious alpine bridges before Bakhtiar’s men could reach them. When Bakhtiar finally made it back to India, he was killed by his own lieutenant.

By 1203 the Ghurids had established control over the whole Gangetic Basin, and it was at around this time that Muhammed Ghuri’s brother who had been looking after affairs in Central Asia died. This meant the Muhammed, who had previous been able to concentrate on his conquests in India, now had to shift his attention to central asia. In 1205, Ghuri made the mistake of attacking the Khwarizm Shah. His forces were defeated and then his army was all but annihilated by the Karakhitai while it was retreating. This defeat encouraged the Gakkar tribes of the salt range to rise in rebellion. They defeated the governor of Multan and plundered Lahore. This cut the Ghazni-Lahore route that allowed revenue from India to reach Ghuri in Ghazni. Ghuri hurried into the Punjab to confront the Gakkars and managed to defeat them with the timely arrival of Qutbuddin’s troops from Delhi. Muhammed Ghuri was assassinated in 1206 by either a Gakkar or Ismaili fanatic on his return to Ghazni.

Following Muhammed Ghuri’s death the more powerful Iqta holders in India declared independent sultanates. In 1206, the slave, Qutbuddin Aibak proclaimed the Delhi Sultanate and became the first sultan. It took twenty two years for Qutbuddin and his successor, Iltumish, to establish control over the other breakaway sultanates. The areas of the Ghurid Empire in Afghanistan and Central Asia were permanently lost to the Mongols. The Delhi Sultanate would go on to be the dominate power in India, controlling all the way to the southern tip.


J. Hussain, An Illustrated History of Pakistan, Oxford University Press, Karachi, Pakistan

“The Establishment of the Delhi Sultanate” <>

“Lal Kot” <>

"Slave Dynasty" <>

“Qutub-ud-din Aybak” <>

“Establishment of Muslim Rule” <>