Timeline: Sultanate (Delhi Sultanates) {1200-1526}

In general, the term ‘Sultanate’ refers to a princely state in which the rulers and ruling class are Muslim. Within the context of Islamic architectural history, however, it is most often used to refer to a series of Muslim princely states within South Asia (referring to present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Kashmir, Bangladesh and Nepal) that existed between 1206 CE/602-3 AH and c.1700 CE/1111-2 AH. Of these, the Delhi Sultanate, so-called because their capital city was Delhi, at its greatest extent ruled over almost the entire South Asian peninsula. The focus of this entry is the ‘Delhi Sultanate’, a term used to refer to a series of five consecutive but distinct sultanates (the Mamluk (Slaves), KhaljisTughluqs, Sayyids, and Lodis) that collectively reigned between 1206 CE/602-3 AH and 1526 CE/932-3 AH.

The Advent of the Delhi Sultans

Although Arabs merchant communities had been established in Sind (historically defined as the region in southern Pakistan on the Indus River) from 711 CE/92-3 AH, it was not until the 11th century CE that Islam became a ruling power in South Asia. This was due to the military advancements of the Ghaznavids and Ghurids; in the late 10th/early 11th centuries CE the Ghaznavids had conquered northeastern provinces of the region, including Peshawar, Sialkot and Lahore. However, between 1179 CE/574-5 AH and 1186 CE/581-2 AH the Ghurids, under the rulership of Muizzuddin Muhammad Ghuri and his able general, Qutbuddin Aibek, conquered the Ghaznavid’s holdings in South Asia. Once this had been accomplished the Ghurid army was well placed to challenge the local Rajput clans, the ruling Hindu warrior class who became the kings of Rajasthan. In 1192 CE/587-8 AH the Ghurids defeated the Chahamana Rajputs, the reigning Rajput clan in and around the provinces of Ajmer and Delhi, absorbing their domain, and by 1196 CE/592-3 AH they had captured the region of Bayana from the Bhatti clan. Political unrest meant that it was difficult for the Ghurids to maintain cohesive power over their newly conquered lands so when Muizzuddin returned to his capital city of Ghazna in Afghanistan, Qutbuddin remained in South Asia as his vassal to maintain control over the new Ghurid territories. Establishing his headquarters in Delhi, Qutbuddin ordered the construction of necessary architectural spaces and monuments for the Muslim community now based there.1


The establishment of the Delhi Sultanate can be dated to 1206 CE/602-3 AH, when Muizzuddin was assassinated in Ghazna and Qutbuddin Aibek continued to rule the Ghurid South Asian territories in his stead. Although never officially invested with the title of ‘Sultan’, Qutbuddin’s actions created a self-governing political authority that led to the establishment of an independent sultanate in South Asia. His successor, Shamsuddin Iltutmish, was officially invested as Sultan by the Caliph of Baghdad in 1229 CE/626-7 AH and was thus recognized as an independent Muslim sovereign. From 1206 CE/602-3 AH until 1526 CE/932-3 AH, when the last Delhi Sultan, Ibrahim Lodi, was defeated at the battle of Panipat, a decisive confrontation at that city between the Lodi army and that of the Timurid princeling Babur, large swathes of South Asia were ruled by the Delhi Sultans. Ibrahim Lodi’s defeat by Babur led the latter to claim the Sultanate lands as his own, leading to the establishment of the Mughal Dynasty. Collectively, the Sultanate kings were thirty-four rulers from five successive dynasties: the so-called eponymous ‘Slave’ Sultans- named as such because the rulers were, for the most part, Mamluks (military slaves) (1206-90 CE/602-89 AH), the Khaljis (1290-1321 CE/689-720/1 AH), the Tughluqs (1321-1414 CE/720/1-816/7 AH)), the Sayyids (1414-44 CE/ 816/7-847/8 AH) and the Lodis (1451-1526 CE/854/5-923/3 AH). 

Early Royal Architecture in Delhi- The Qutb Complex

The first architectural projects in South Asia patronized by the Ghurid conquerors needed to be constructed quickly and so local materials, local craftsmen, and spolia were utilized in their first wave of building campaigns. No site better encapsulates this than the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque at the Qutb complex in Mehrauli, New Delhi. Meaning ‘Might of Islam,’ the Quwwat-ul-Islam (c.1192-97/8 CE/587/8-594 AH), built on the site of a conquered Rajput citadel, was one of the first architectural commissions of Qutbuddin Aibek after defeating the Chahamanas in 1192 CE/587-8 AH. Built using the stones of twenty-seven destroyed Hindu and Jain temples that were within the citadel, the political significance of the mosque in many ways outstrips its religious significance. Not only was Islam now declared to be the superlative religion of the region, but the political supremacy of the Ghurids was stated in no uncertain terms. This point was even more explicitly stated in Qutbuddin’s planned construction of the commemorative Qutb Minar, a tower built adjacent to the Quwwat-ul-Islam that was constructed in the tradition of Afghan and Central Asian victory towers. Heavily carved with floral and calligraphic decoration, one of the inscriptions reads that the tower was meant to ‘cast the shadow of God over the East and the West.’2

The craftsmen responsible for these early Muslim structures were in fact local, Indian craftsmen, traditionally versed in the construction of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist architecture. As such, for the construction of the Quwwat-ul-Islam they employed the trabeate system of architecture as they did not know how to create true arches. In 1199 CE/595-6 AH, in order to make the structure more aesthetically pleasing and to make it look more ‘Islamic,’ the qibla-side prayer hall was faced with an arched screen. Despite the appearance of the screen’s slightly pointed ogee arches of the screen, they were created by corbeling rather than by the use of voussoirs and keystones, indicating that the craftsmen were still local at this time. However, their superlative ability to work in stone is on full display on both the Quwwat-ul-Islam and the Qutb Minar, which exhibit highly decorated stone surfaces with intricate floral, geometric, arabesque and calligraphic designs. As the predominant mode of construction for buildings was the creation of a rubble core faced with finer material, it was this dressed stone which became the primary medium of architectural decoration.

The local artisans and craftsmen at work for their new royal, Muslim patrons were thus given ample opportunity to exhibit their skill and mastery at working in stone, adapting their architectural and decorative techniques to the practical and aesthetic requirements of their new patrons. Other local South Asian elements of architecture entered the repertoire of Sultanate constructions, including the use of chattris (little domed pavilions, ‘kiosks’); chajjas (wide, overhanging eaves); jalis (pierced stone screens); engaged colonnettes; and the juxtaposition of red sandstone and white marble.


One of the most iconic of Islamic architectural structures in South Asia was first constructed at this time, the royal mausoleum. The first fully extant example of this is Iltutmish’s tomb at the Qutb complex (1235 CE/632-3 AH), constructed during his expansion of the mosque. It exemplifies many features which became typical of royal Muslim burials in South Asia, including the use of a commemorative cenotaph in the main tomb chamber and the sarcophagus in an underground crypt, the inclusion of mihrabs on the qibla wall, a dome above the structure (no longer in situ), highly decorated wall surfaces of red sandstone and white marble (the latter used to delineate the most important/significant spaces within the funerary monument), and the inclusion of Quranic inscriptions

For much of the early period of Sultanate architecture in Delhi the trabeate system was in use and it was only at the end of the ‘Slave’ period that true arches began to be constructed, the first known example being at Balban’s tomb in the Qutb Complex (1287 CE/685-6 AH). The creation of true arches continued from this point, appearing in the architecture of the Khaljis, the second of the Delhi Sultanate dynasties. The advent of the Khaljis saw further enhancements planned for the Qutb complex as Sultan Alauddin Khalji (r.1296-1316 CE/695/6-715/6 AH) intended to quadruple the size of the Quwwat-ul-Islam and build a minar that was twice the dimensions of the Qutb Minar. The only aspect of this grand plan that was actually completed was the construction of a single gateway into the complex, but what a striking architectural feat it is, giving a glimpse of the projected whole that Alauddin planned. Known as the Alai Darwaza (1311 CE/710-11 AH), this structure gives the appearance of being a two-storied, domed building but when entered it is instead a single vast, open, domed chamber (http://archnet.org/sites/5614). The transition zone is dominated by squinches in each corner created by a series of recessed arches. The highly worked surfaces that were seen in the first incarnations of the Qutb mosque complex are again on exhibit here, although more use of white marble is made as an accenting, decorative feature against the predominant material of use, red sandstone. Also of note on this gateway is that secular Persian inscriptions were utilized rather than religious Arabic ones.

The expansion of the Delhi style

Of the five dynasties that ruled during the Sultanate period, the Tughluq Sultans, who followed the Khaljis, were perhaps the greatest architectural patrons of them all, commissioning a prolific amount of buildings and spaces despite ruling for less than a hundred years. One of the great contributions to Indo-Islamic architecture (and Indian architecture in general) was their notion of town-planning and urban and rural development. They were collectively responsible for the creation of four cities within the environs of Delhi, including Tughluqabad and Firozabad, and three further afield-Daulatabad, Hissar and Jaunpur.3  In addition, they constructed the accompanying roads, bridges, caravanserais, stepwells, hospitals and orchards deemed necessary for their creation and maintenance. Their models for such constructions were based on western Asian and Iranian urban centers, but were adapted to the requirements of the Tughluqs South Asian regional holdings.4  The Tughluq ruler most associated with architectural patronage, Firoz Shah (r.1351-88 CE/751/2-90 AH) was responsible for the creation of several of these new urban centers.5


One of the identifying features of Tughluq architecture was its fortified nature; this was something confined not only to city walls or military defenses, but is present also in the battered nature of the walls of their mosques, palaces and tombs. Some of the most overt examples of such architecture include the tomb of Ghiyasuddin Tughluq (1231-3 CE/628/9-630/1 AH) and the Begumpuri Masjid (c.1370 CE/771-2 AH), both in Delhi. Other manifestations of this included the self-contained palatial quarters that were located within their fortified citadel and more austere decoration. Whereas the preceding Delhi Sultans made lavish use of carved surface decoration for their architectural commissions, the Tughluqs did not.


The Tughluqs were responsible for expanding the borders of the Delhi Sultanate to their greatest extent, capturing control over almost the entire South Asian peninsula. Their fall, and the rapid shrinking of their borders, was precipitated by the sacking of Delhi by Timur in 1398 CE/800-01 AH. Timur, of Mongol origin and a descendent of Chinghis Khan, was the founder of the Timurid Empire (http://archnet.org/timelines/48/period/Timurid/year/1400). After this catastrophic event the Tughluqs were never able to fully politically recover and some of the more politically astute, wealthier provinces broke away and declared themselves independent sultanates.  

The Sayyids and the Lodis

Ultimately the Tughluqs were replaced by the Sayyids in 1414 CE/816-7 AH, a dynasty who ruled as vassals of the Timurid ruler Shah Rukh. The Sayyids had a very brief reign, but their contribution to Delhi Sultanate architecture was the construction of many octagonal tombs in the surrounds of the city. These were all domed structures, typically with a verandah that had three arched openings per side. These tombs also at times made use of exaggerated chattris and chajjas, as exemplified by the tomb of Muhammad Shah Sayyid in Delhi’s Lodi Gardens (c.1434 CE/837-8 AH), indigenous architectural forms which by this time had become a ubiquitous part of Delhi Sultanate architecture, along with the use of jali screens and engaged colonnettes.


The Sayyids were quickly supplanted by the Lodi dynasty, of Afghani extraction, who were to be the last of the Delhi Sultans. The most famous construction from this series of rulers is the tomb of Sikandar Lodi (c.1517 CE/922-3 AH), also within the Lodi Gardens. While continuing in the vein of octagonal tombs popularized by the Sayyids, Sikandar Lodi’s tomb was groundbreaking in that it was constructed within the confines of its own walled-in funerary garden, complete with its own entrance gate and prayer space. The tomb itself was placed within the center of this garden and crowned with a double-shell dome- the first instance of this within South Asia. This allowed for a taller dome than that achieved by the Sayyids without increasing the weight of the dome itself. While octagonal tombs remained the style of choice for rulers during this time, square tombs were constructed for important nobles. 

The Evolution of the Mosque

In terms of religious architecture, mosque architecture under the Delhi Sultans was fairly basic. The first mosques constructed were hypostyle mosques with large open, arcaded courtyards and a decorated qibla wall. During the Tughluq era there was an introduction of Persianate iwans into the simpler hypostyle plan, as seen at the Begumpuri Masjid. Although a novel feature that was repeated a few times, iwans did not become a consistent addition to mosque architecture patronized by the Delhi Sultans. Interestingly, minarets were not a feature of Sultanate mosques; in fact, they did not become a regular feature of South Asian mosques until the reign of the Mughal emperor Jahangir (r.1605-27 CE/1013/4-1036/7 AH). Other variations of mosque architecture were built, but they were short-lived and it was the hypostyle mosque which predominated during the Delhi Sultanate until the reign of the Lodis. They altered the paradigm of mosque architecture as they eschewed the hypostyle mosque in favor of a simpler style- a small, single-aisled mosque with either three or five arched openings leading into the prayer hall.6


The mosque, tomb and palace became archetypal buildings commissioned by royal Muslim rulers during much of the Delhi Sultanate, structural forms which came to have an impact on the architecture of the next, and last, great Muslim dynasty to rule over South Asia, the Mughals.

by Mehreen Chida-Razvi, Department of the History of Art & Archaeology, SOAS


1 For a more detailed history see Hardy, P., ‘Dihli’ Sultanate,’ Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd Edition, Brill. http://referenceworks.brillonline.com.ezproxy.soas.ac.uk/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/dihli-sultanate-SIM_1848?s.num=0&s.f.s2_parent=s.f.cluster.Encyclopaedia+of+Islam&s.q=Sultanate

2. The Qutb Minar was started by Qutbuddin Aibek in 1199 but at his death in 1206 only the first story was complete. The second, third and fourth stories were completed by Iltutmish by the end of his reign in 1236; this was the original minar. In 1369, the minar was struck by lightning and the reigning Sultan, Firoz Shah Tughluq, ordered not only the repairs but a fifth story to be added to the structure. As it is seen today, the Qutb Minar reaches a height of 238 feet, has a diameter of 48.33 feet at its base and is 9 feet in width at its apex.

3. In addition to the impact the creation of these cities had on urban planning within South Asia, the provincial cities of Daulatabad, Hissar and Jaunpur helped to spread the royal architectural style of the Delhi Sultans, sometimes referred to as the ‘Delhi style’, beyond the vicinity of the capital. For an in depth study of Tughluqabad and Tughluq urban planning, see Shokoohy, Mehrdad and Shokoohy, Natalie, Tughluqabad: A Paradigm for Indo-Islamic Urban Planning and its Architectural Components (London: Araxus, 2007).

4. Jain-Neabauer, Jutta, ‘The Many Delhis: Town Planning and Architecture under the Tughluqs (1320-1413),’ The Architecture of the Indian Sultanates, (eds.) Narain Lambah and Alka Patel (Mumbai, 2006): 31-2.

5. Ibid. Merklinger writes that Firoz Shah was also a great restore of buildings: ‘He did much restoration work at the Jami Masjid of Old Delhi, the Minar of Delhi, the Shamsi Tank, the Alai Tank, the Madrasa of Iltutmish and the completion of Jahanpanah walls. Firoz Shah remained a prolific builder, credited with some 50 canals, 40 mosques, 30 colleges, 100 palaces, 200 public inns, 150 bridges, 1200 gardens and 30 towns, many in places far off from the capital.’ See Merklinger, Elizabeth, Sultanate Architecture of Pre-Mughal India (New Delhi: Munishiram Manoharlal, 2005): 28.

6. Merklinger, Sultanate Architecture, p. 36.

Learn more:

Architecture and Urban Development of the Deccan Sultanates. An Archnet collection Developed by Soumyen Bandyopadhyay

Crane, Howard, and Anthony Welch. "The Tughluqs: Master Builders of the Delhi Sultanate." Muqarnas I: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture 1 (1983): 123-66. Accessed December 13, 2016. http://archnet.org/publications/3053.

Hardy, P. “Dihlī Sultanate.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs, eds.. Accessed 13 December 2016 http://referenceworks.brillonline.com.ezproxy.soas.ac.uk/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/dihli-sultanate-SIM_1848?s.num=0&s.f.s2_parent=s.f.cluster.Encyclopaedia+of+Islam&s.q=Sultanate.

"India: From Sultanate to Mughal Empire." In Islam: Art and Architecture, edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius. Cairo: American University Press, 2007.

Jain-Neabauer, Jutta. "The Many Delhis: Town Planning and Architecture under the Tughluqs (1320-1413)." In Islam: Art and Architecture, by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius, 31-40. Mumbai: Marg Publishers, 2006.

Merklinger, Elizabeth Schotten. Sultanate Architecture of Pre-Mughal India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2005.

Shokoohy, Mehrdad, and Natalie H. Shokoohy. Tughluqabad: A Paradigm for Indo-Islamic Urban Planning and Its Architectural Components. London: Araxus Books, 2007.

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