Sayyids and Lodis: Guardians of Delhi till the Dawn of Mughals

For centuries, the Indian peninsula was somewhat protected from invaders and conquerors who were constantly marching between Manchuria and Arabia: it was protected by unfathomable seas on two sides and the mighty Himalayas on its northern border. The only access to the dusty lands of Hindustan was through the deadly Khyber pass. In the same way that waves cover the beach and then retreat back into the ocean, conquerors from Central Asia, like Mahmud of Ghazni, would appear in India and soon vanish after they satisfied themselves with blood and treasures that had been untouched for centuries. Muhammad of Ghori came from a ramshackle village near Khandahar. With the help of his Turkish lieutenants, he installed the Slave Dynasty in Delhi, by which he threw his net of power over India for the whole of the 13th century. The next to rise to power were the Khlijis and Tughluqs.


Thereafter, the death of Firoz Shah Tughluq in 1388 heralded the onset of hard times in Delhi as another restless invader appeared on its horizons, hell bent on a mission to be remembered for time immemorial. Timur – “An old, white-haired cripple from the far east, an intellectual specialist in chess, theology and conquest, and perhaps the greatest artist in destruction known in the savage annals of mankind.” Timur had just passed through India, but the incomparable uproar of his massacres and lootings, for example, his slitting of 100,000 throats in Delhi alone, amazed the people and would continue to do so for generations. On December 17, 1398, Timur entered Delhi after crossing over the Khyber pass with 90,000 Tartar nomads: his troops plundered, sacked, and burned Siri, Jahanpanah, and Firuzabad; they looted and killed with abandon before leaving with wagon loads of loot and captured artisans and architects to build the finest mosques in Samarkand, the heart of his kingdom. It is said that Timur had named the villages around Samarkand with the names of the cities he had plundered, such as Cairo, Shiraz, Delhi, Baghdad, and Damascus.

Timur writes in his memoir that the gold, silver, and jewels looted from Delhi defied accounting. As per Clavijo, the accumulation of wealth in Samarkand from his various war spoils was astounding: within the premises of Timur’s chief wife stood a golden tree, tall as a man, laden with fruits of rubies, sapphires, and emeralds with little multi-colored golden birds. The military expedition to Persia, India, and Asia Minor was his third major conquest: the first two being that of Transoxiana and that of the “Golden Horde,” ranging from Lower Volga to the Gobi desert. China under the Ming Dynasty would have been his fourth conquest, on the way to the place where he would succumb to death.

Of the unfortunate people massacred by his army in Delhi, he notes “Although I was desirous of sparing them, I could not succeed, for it was the will of God that this calamity should befall the city.”

The death and massacre unleashed by Timur’s conquest was followed by famines: cattle perished, and fields were abandoned. It is said nothing moved in Delhi for two months.

The Sayyids: Claimants to a Fallen City:

When Timur attacked Delhi’s feeble Tughluq dynasty, the governor of Multan, Khizr Khan, who was appointed by Sultan Firoz Shah Tughluq, quickly shifted his loyalties and joined Timur in his raid on Delhi. Pleased with this act, Timur appointed Khizr Khan as his representative in Multan and Punjab. In the subsequent chaos and uncertainty after the plunder, in 1414 Khizr Khan laid claim to Delhi as the new emperor, calling himself “the Descendant of Prophet” or the “Sayyid,” ruler of an empire that would evaporate in merely 37 years.


He remained a the vassal of Timur and subsequently that of Timur’s grandson, Shah Rukh. Four members of the Sayyid family ruled Delhi, starting with Khizr Khan, followed by his son Mubarak, and then Muhammad Shah, and finally Shah Alam, the last sultan.

A case of history repeating itself, just like Khizr’s rise against his Tughluq emperor, one that would disrupt the Sayyid dynasty, was that of the governor of Sirhind, who was appointed by none other than Khizr Khan himself.

Bahlul Lodi, the Light of the Lodi Dynasty:

Taken out of the womb of his dying mother, the orphaned Bahlul Lodi, founder of the Lodi dynasty, was raised by his uncle as the successor of Sirhind.The story goes that Bahlul once visited a holy man who asked him if he would like to buy the throne of Delhi for 2,000 tankas, and the gullible Bahlul paid up 1,300 tankas, all that he had. Although it did not earn him any throne at that time, certainly the idea of sitting on Delhi’s throne became etched in his mind.


In 1440, Delhi was under the third Sayyid ruler, Muhammad Shah Sayyid, whose tomb is of interest in this walk, while Bahlul Khan was the recognized jagirdar of Sirhind. That year turned out to be the turning point for Bahlul Lodi, when Muhammad Shah, the sultan of Delhi, frightened by a military attack, called upon Bahlul for military support. When Bahlul Lodi successfully crushed the attackers, he was awarded the title of Khan-I Khanan, “like a son,” and Lahore and Dipalpur were added to his jagir.

Meanwhile, the Sultanate of Delhi was fast disintegrating, with province after province shrugging off their alliances with Delhi. When Muhammad Shah died in 1445, leaving the empire to his son Shah Alam, the Sultanate consisted only of Delhi and Badaun, and it was being said:

“Emperor Shah Alam

[Holds only] from Delhi to Palam!’

The writing on the wall was obvious to Shah Alam, perhaps, for he shifted permanently from Delhi to Badaun in 1448, giving the excuse of “a better climate.” The time was ripe for the eagerly awaiting Bahlul Lodi, and soon he captured Delhi to put an end to the 37-year long Sayyid Dynasty. In the place of the former dynasty he established the 75-year long Lodi Dynasty, which lasted until Babur – in whose veins flowed the blood of Timur and Genghis Khan – made his triumphant entry with only 12,000 Mughal troops, decimating the 100,000 Indian soldiers of Ibrahim Lodi at the village of Panipat in 1526.


The Life and Times of Sikandar Lodi:

Bahlul’s son, Sikandar Lodi, is considered one of the greatest rulers of India – he may not have been as idealistic as Akbar, but he was a practical man. He was known for his impartial justice, general peace, and stability that he enforced after decades of anarchy. He established an extremely efficient intelligence setup and created a strong  governance framework.


One story concerning his justice says that once, he was annoyed with a long, pending case that was going on for months, and one day he asked his ministers not to leave the palace unless the case was settled. Additionally, he used to send two farmans every day to his army no matter how far they are camped, – one in morning and one in night, – and so strong was his intelligence network, and so updated was he on the army’s news and happenings in his parganas, that it was believed he possessed a secret lamp of Allaudin with two guardian Djinns.


Unusually merciful to fallen foes and averse to shedding blood, his love for poetry, architecture, and music is often overlooked. An author of excellent poems under the pen-name of Gulrukh, he convinced the Sufi poet and scholar Jalal Khan, or Maulana Jamali – whose tomb today lies near Bakhtiar Kaki’s Dargah in Mehrauli – to come to India, and Jamali remained attached to the royal courts of Sikandar Lodi, Babur, and Humayun. Calligraphists from Bukhara, scholars from Arabia, and poets from Persia and Trans-Oxiana were attracted by Sikandar’s patronage. He enforced a serious study of Persian language by the Hindus, and he also ordered the translation of the Sanskrit medicine book Maha Vaidyak into Persian on the grounds that Unani is not really suitable for the Indian climate.

Under Sikandar Lodi’s rule, the Hindu classes like the Kayasthas and Khattris started studying Persian, and later in the Mughal Empire, they were able to take over as the administrative machinery.


One interesting glimpse of Sikandar’s strong desire to show his power as the ruler to his pathan nobles was demonstrated by a new rule concerning how a noble was to be served a farman. Whenever a farman was sent from the Royal Court, the addressee had to advance a distance of 2/3 kos, receive the farman respectfully with both hands and press it against his lips and head while standing below a platform on which the messenger would take a position. This idea of antagonizing the pathans, known for their peculiar sense of equality and spirit of intolerance, was given a physical shape by Sikandar’s son, Ibrahim, who was the first Lodi King (also the last!) to construct a throne inlaid with precious stones and set on a raised platform before the nobles – a physical manifestation of an idea that the nobles are mere servants to the king-almighty.


The administrative machinery of the Lodi Dynasty was a strong foundation that was handed down unchanged through the rule of Sher Shah Suri and Humayun. Titles and names of government officials might have changed, but the body of the governance remained the same.

Administratively, the whole kingdom was divided into 32 Sarkars headed by a Naib. Each Sarkar consisted of number of Parganas, and each Pargana, in turn, was a collection of villages.

The central government had 27 officers to assist the king. A smaller version of the central government setup was introduced in each of the provincial Sarkars.

The central governmental setup was as follows:

    1. Chief Minister (Wazir)
    2. Minister for War and Pay Master to Army(Ariz-I Lashkar-I Mamalik/Bakshi-I Mamalik)
    3. Commander-in-Chief (Sipah-salar)
    4. Chief of the Correspondence Department (Dabir)
    5. Chief Justice (Mir-I ‘Adl)
    6. Minister of Religious Endowments and Charity (Sadr)
    7. Chamberlain (Hajib)
    8. Prefect of the City Police (Kotwal)
    9. Censor of Public Morals and Overseer of Markets (Muhtasib)
    10. Superintendent of Posts and Chief Secret Intelligence Officer (Darogha i-Dak-Chowki)
    11. Superintendent of Irrigation and Agriculture (Amir-i-Kohi)
    12. Judge of the Canon Laws (Qazi)
    13. Master of the Royal Hunt (Mir-I Shikar)
    14. Superintendent of Royal Buildings (Mir-I Imarat)
    15. Chief of the River Fleet (Mir-I Bahr)
    16. Chief of the King’s Cavalry (Khassa Khail)
    17. Palace Mayor (Wakil-I Dar)
    18. Head Armor bearer (Silahdar)
    19. Chief of King’s Mounted Bodyguard (Sar-I Jandar)
    20. Head Eunuch of Women’s Apartments (Sarapardah-dar)
    21. Master of the Royal Stables (Akhurbeg)
    22. Superintendent of Royal Elephants (Shahna-I Pil )
    23. Grand Usher (Barbak)
    24. Royal Librarian (Kitabdar)
    25. Royal Ink Stand Holder (Dawatdar)
    26. Reciter of the Holy Quran (Quran Khwan)
    27. Court Astrologer (Munajjam)


Sikandar was a creator; however, his passion for destruction was also never wanting. His obliteration of temples and cities – sometimes compared to that of Mahmud of Ghazni in its thoroughness – saw the total uprooting and destruction in Gwalior, Dholpur, Rewa, and that fine city of Jaunpur (once compared to the Garden of Eden). Obnoxious as he was, his rule required Hindus to tie a blue cloth on their shoulder to “pay homage to Islam,” and the story goes that once hearing a Brahmin proclaiming that both Islam and Hinduism are true religions, the Sultan convened a special court to debate the issue. Ultimately, the man was asked either to accept Islam or face execution.

Babur (meaning “Panther” in Turkish) was a direct descendant to Timur the Turk and Genghis Khan the Mongol. At 12 years old, after taking over as a warlord of Ferghana (present day Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) – a land of meadows, rolling hills, cool climes, apple, apricot and almond orchards – he was fascinated with reclaiming the lands once conquered by his ancestral grandfather, Timur. This meant in particular the beautiful city of Samarkand, which was the epitome of luxurious life, a sophisticated city of egg-shaped domes, slender minarets, and tiled gateways…where palaces were floored with inlaid black ebony and pale ivory and decorated with marble sculptures. These palaces were where royals were treated with golden cups and flasks encrusted with emeralds, turquoises, and rubies of Kabul, which he captured in 1504 after crossing the deadly Khyber Pass and finally entering the land of Dust and Diamonds: Hindustan.


Hindustan, Babur notes after conquering it in 1526, was a land of few charms, its people not very handsome, and a place with no good horses or dogs, meat, grapes, or fragrant melons…but at the same time a land full of great treasures, gems, and stones, and above all, the Koh-i-Noor.

The vindictive Ibrahim Lodi:

If Sikandar’s predecessor Bahlul Lodi, as a “Citizen King,” was a symbol of humility to such a fault that if any noble got offended, he would visit his house and take off his turban to seek his forgiveness, Sikandar’s successor son, Ibrahim Lodi, is known for his vindictive cruelty and lack of statesmanship. Although he could strike and conquer, he could never win and conciliate. In contrast to Sikandar’s hatred of the acquisition of riches, Ibrahim was obsessed with piling up treasures.

Ibrahim’s vindictiveness alienated all the provincial governors, causing total uproar in the country when he imprisoned and murdered his fabled Wazir from his father’s times, Mian Bhua, holding him accountable for his military reverses. Provincial governors saw the writing on the wall and what awaited them at the hands of the tyrant ruler in Delhi.


When Ibrahim summoned the governor of Lahore, Daulat Khan Lodi, to the court, he abstained and sent his son Dilawar Khan to Delhi. In Ibrahim’s court, Dilawar was suitably threatened, thrown into the prison for a few days for good measure, where he was made to witness bodies of rebels hanging from the walls.

Ibrahim released Dilawar and ordered the army to march to Lahore and capture his father. Daulat Khan thought of all options, then sent his son as his emissary to meet Babur – apprising him of the discontentment of the nobles in India and asking him to invade and remove Ibrahim Lodi.

Hindustan had been Babur’s obsession for sure, but at the same time, he was too wise to know anarchy alone cannot justify a military gamble. He remembered how 10,000 brave Rajputs once slaughtered 40,000 Mongols.

Ahmed Yadgar the historian writes how Babur spent the entire night thinking what to do, and finally left it to God – “if only I see the symbols of India, i.e., the betel leaf and mango on the next day, will I consider it as a good signal to invade Delhi.”

In the morning, Dilawar presented himself again before Babur in his court, and offered him the traditional gifts he had brought with him, among these presents were betel leaves and half ripe mangoes preserved in honey. Babur’s mind became instantly made up regarding his southern expedition.

The Kill of Babur, the “Tiger”:

The Memoirs of Babur from 1520 to 1526 are lost, and the story resumes only in the year Babur finally achieved his dream of capturing India. In April of 1526, Babur’s army of 12,000 men arrived at Panipat and stayed put while forming a defensive position: for eight days, the two armies of Babur and Ibrahim Lodi watched each other eyeball to eyeball, feeling restless like prisoners under the hot Indian sun. Ibrahim had 100,000 soldiers with him, but as Babur explained to his generals, they were too clumsy and incapable and without any strategy or plan. On the ninth day of stalemate – the day was April 21, 1526 – Babur sent out a small attacking force to the Indian side, which succeeded in drawing out the full offensive of the massive force of Ibrahim. The heroic and calm Ibrahim Lodi fought the invading Mughals, delivering an attack “like the brazen ramparts of Alexander” with his massive army. But the defensive military strategy and artillery power of Babur was surely unexpected. Center, Left Wing, Right Wing, Vanguard, Reserve, and the flying columns of the disciplined Turks soon enveloped the Indians. By mid-day, it was all over. The Indian attack elephants turned back by the Mughal artillery and musketeers trampled down their own pathan army, causing massive confusion and terrible carnage that killed Ibrahim Lodi with 6,000 loyal troops still around him. At the end, Babur asked for the body of Ibrahim to be located. With great difficulty, he was found under heaps of corpses, and when his head was brought to Babur, he remarked “praised be thy heroism!”


Two weeks later, Babur entered Agra, where he was welcomed by his son Humayun who preceded him in capturing the Lodi capital, with the 790-carat Koh-i-Noor.


After Babur took over Ibrahim’s immense treasures in Agra, he sent one Shahrukhi and one misqal of silver to each resident of Kabul, apart from gifts to his friends and nobles in Samarkand, Khurasan, and Iraq. Had Ibrahim used his vast piled up treasures to amass another 50,000 or 100,000 soldiers, or at least used some of his money to further motivate his forces, 12,000 Mughals could not have overrun his army and country.

Monuments inside Lodi Garden:

The only architectural contribution of the Sayyid and Lodi Empires seem to be tombs, as if to highlight the already gloomy air of a general atmosphere of unrest, and most of them are located in this beautiful garden.

Two types of domes are present in the Lodi Gardens: octagonal colonnaded tombs surmounted with a dome and square based tombs of two tiers where false window openings decorate the upper tier. The four corners of a square room is surmounted by squinches, giving it an 8-sided layout; subsequently, two more layers of squinches make the room 16-sided and then 32-sided. Finally, the rotund dome is conveniently mounted.


© Ravi Batra / TERI Press

This image has been reproduced with the permission of TERI Press. It appears in their book: Batra, Ravi, 2012. The Splendour of Lodi Road: my brush with heritage. New Delhi.

(Click on the picture for a bigger view. Basics Of Architecture, showing Squinches to mount dome on a rectangular base; and development of arches and domes in India. Sincere thanks to author, Ravi Batra for his suggestions for the texts.)

Muhammad Shah Sayyid’s tomb was commissioned by his son Alam Shah in 1444; whereas Sikandar Lodi constructed the Bada Gumbad/Masjid complex, as well as the Shish Gumbad in 1494. Lastly, Sikandar Lodi’s tomb was constructed by his son Ibrahim Lodi in 1517.

Muhammad Shah’s Tomb:

This is the only monument of the Sayyid dynasty in the complex, and perhaps in all of Delhi. The monument has an octagonal central chamber surrounded by a verandah, and on each side is a 3-arched beam-and-lintel doorway entirely made from locally available quartzite stone and devoid of any intricate decorations or carvings. The doorway openings and the verandah were originally closed with perforated stone screens. The Islamic-styled dome is crowned by a Hindu-themed lotus filial. The western side was walled later on to allow for its use as a mosque. Royal umbrellas or chhatris, which are small replicas of the main dome itself, sit on the center of each side around the majestic central dome mounted on the 16-sided drum, like little chicks surrounding a hen, symbolizing eight planets surrounding the sun. The corners of the structure are supported and strengthened by buttresses projecting outside. The interior stucco work in green, red, and blue is executed by cutting into a thick layer of limestone and plastering, and this was used mainly due to the hardness of quartzite stone. An eight-pointed star surrounds the central circular stucco design. With its temple-styled corbelled gateways and prominent kalash decorations, this monument beautifully embodies Hindu-Islamic composite architecture.


Bara Gumbad and Masjid:


Termed as the finest gateway of the 15th century, this is a square tomb with turrets at the corners, with two tiers giving a false impression of a double-storied building. This is the tallest structure in the complex, and the absence of a grave inside the tomb suggests it was built as a huge gateway to the mosque, positioned in between the mosque on its right and the “guest house” complex on its left. All of its four sides are open, and there is no mihrab wall. The huge tomb uses temple-style corbelled doorways as well as Islamic-style arches. With time, the inside of the dome has become blackened with fungus, mainly because of the use of organic materials in construction.


This is the most beautiful and striking monument of the complex. The profusely ornamented mosque with three bays has five arched openings with the central opening on a projecting frame. The three bays are surmounted by three domes. Very minute and detailed calligraphic designs adorn the mosque, which has multiple mihrab walls. Small niches used for oil lamps can be seen on the walls. Green, red, and blue calligraphic bands mark the inside of the arched hall. On the back of the Mihrab (the western wall), Hindu-style Jharokhas and five-storied tapering towers are placed, like miniature Qutb Minartype tapering towers.


Shish Gumbad:

Built on the same “double-storied” pattern of Bara Gumbad, its interior ceiling is decorated with Quranic inscriptions and floral patterns. Originally, it was decorated with Persian glazed tiles of cobalt-blue and midnight-blue, leading to its name as the “Glass Dome,” but it is now in a very sad state. In historian Simon Digby’s opinion, this is the tomb of none other than Bahlul Lodi, as opposed to the modest tomb near Chirag Delhi that is now considered his actual tomb. Curiously, the mihrab walls of Shish Gumbad and the Bara Gumbad are offset by 15 degrees from each other while pointing the western direction toward Mecca, which might be due to design errors.


Sikandar Lodi’s Tomb:


This is a structure in the middle of a fortified walled complex, incorporating beginning of the garden-tomb concept. Set in a simplified char-bagh style, the garden is patterned on the octagonal design of Muhammad Shah’s tomb, except that the chhatris are missing. The walled enclosure was perhaps designed to prevent plundering. Built with grey-quartzite, and a bit of red sandstone, the gateways feature a Hindu temple-style corbelled design. Water from the nearby Yamuna-tributary was constantly conveyed to the char-bagh gardens inside the tomb complex through channels on the outer wall. At the middle of the western side of the boundary, there is a Wall Mosque.



Thanks to Moby Zacharia of Delhi Heritage Walks ( for leading the Walk : “Medieval tombs in English landscape”. Thanks to TERI Press, New Delhi for their kind support.


  1. History of the Lodi Sultans, by Abdul Halim
  2. Baber, the First of the Moguls, by Fernard Grenard
  3. Delhi:14 Historic Walks, by Swapna Liddle
  4. Delhi, Its Monuments and History, by Percival Spear
  5. Delhi and its Neighborhood, by Y.D. Sharma, Archaeological Survey of India
  6. Batra, Ravi, 2012. The Splendour of Lodi Road: my brush with   heritage. New Delhi: TERI
  7. Timur :
  8. Raiders from the North, by Alex Rutherford
  9. Aditya Pathak’s Video Blogs of ‘Delhi Heritage Walks’ ( Muhammad Shah Sayyid’s tomb, Bada Gumbad, Bada Gumbad Mosque, Sheesh Gumbad & Sikandar Lodi’s tomb)

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