The Delhi sultans lived in great splendour. When the sultan went out, a special umbrella was held over him, and a band of musicians followed. The famous traveller Ibn Battutah, who was from Tangiers in north Africa, visited India in the 14th century, and described what he saw. He wrote that Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq’s court had a huge hall supported by 1,000 polished wooden pillars. Gold, silver, and expensive embroidered cloth and jewels were used by the sultan and the royal household. A single pair of shoes for the Sultan Firuz Tughlaq cost around 70,000 tankas. In comparison, an ordinary family with two children could live on five tankas for a whole month. A tanka was a silver coin, the old form of the rupee.

Even back then, the divisions between rich and poor were considerable. The nobles, ministers, local rulers, and even the merchants lived in huge palatial houses and had every type of luxury you could imagine. Lower government officials and even soldiers could live fairly comfortable lives. In the villages, there were rich farmers who rode horses and wore fine clothes. But ordinary peasants and labourers were quite poor and lived simple lives. A labourer could not have earned more than two to three tankas a month.

The sultan had many officials to assist him. Most important was the vazir. The vazir’s task was to appoint other officials and look after the finances. He made payments and kept accounts. The empire was divided into provinces called shiqs and parganas. There was also an established system of giving iqtas or pieces of land to military leaders (iqtadars), who then amassed a great deal of wealth by collecting the land revenue.

The ariz (or the head of the military) and qazi (the head of justice) were other important officials. The ariz appointed soldiers and maintained records of the armed forces. He controlled every aspect of the sultan’s army. Large stretches of land were cultivated by farmers, who grew cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables, and spices all over the subcontinent. Some of the kings encouraged specific crops. Firuz Tughlaq had 1,200 orchards planted near Delhi, as well as seven varieties of grapes. Sugar, pepper, and oil (drawn from oil seeds) were produced. There were two harvests a year, and sometimes three, if conditions were good. New areas were constantly brought under cultivation. One-third of the produce was taken as land revenue, although in some areas, up to half was taken. Tanks, wells, and canals were constructed for irrigation. Though there was a lot of arable land, there were also many thick forests across the region, where tigers and other wild animals lived.

Textiles of silk, cotton, and wool were made, in a variety of different qualities and colours. New techniques of spinning and weaving were developed. Thread was spun on the newly introduced charkha or spinning wheel, and looms were used for weaving. Metals, stones, pearls, ivory, leather, and sandalwood were made into different objects. Items of gold, silver, and precious and semi-precious stones were also crafted. There were other crafts as well. The art of paper-making, which had been known earlier, now became more common. The practice of bookbinding was initiated. Gunpowder was introduced, which could be used by armies going to war.

Ordinary people bought their wares in markets, but for the kings and nobles, there were karkhanas, or storehouses and workshops, which produced items only for them. Thus, Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq had 4,000 weavers at his disposal, to make special cloth for him, and 500 weavers produced gold brocade for the sultan.

Many ports and towns developed during this period. According to Ibn Battutah, Delhi was the largest city of all the eastern Islamic states. Bharuch, Cambay, Multan, Agra, Kannauj, Lakhnauti, Surat, Debal, Calicut, Quilon, and Sonargaon were among the other major ports and towns.

Firuz Shah Tughlaq is said to have built an additional 200 towns during his reign. Apart from artisans and traders, clerks, shopkeepers, officials, and also slaves and domestic servants lived in these towns. The foot-post system for transporting letters There was both internal and external trade. Broad roads were built from Peshawar (in Pakistan) to Sonargaon (then in Bengal), and from Delhi to Daulatabad. There were rest-houses along the way for travellers and traders. Trade was conducted with Iraq and Khurasan via Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. Jeddah (now in Saudi Arabia) and Aden were the main trading ports on the Red Sea route.

Trade was also with east Africa and regions in Southeast Asia, such as Sumatra, Malaysia, Borneo, and China. India exported silk and cotton textiles, spices, sandalwood, perfumes, indigo, precious stones, sugar, rice, and coconut. Traders returned with gold, silver, and Arabian horses, among other items.

Messages were carried by horses or by runners on foot. According to Ibn Battutah, the horse-post system required that royal horses be stationed at intervals of every 4 kos (1 kos was about 3 kilometres). In the foot-post system, runners were stationed at intervals of every one-third of a kos. Each runner carried a letter and raced at top speed ringing a bell. Once they reached their destination, the next runner took over immediately. This system was also used to bring fruits from Khurasan for the sultan.

There were new developments in architectural styles during this period, thanks to Turkish, Afghan, and Central Asian influences. Mosques, tombs, and other structures were built, and features such as arches and domes began to be used.

One of the most famous monuments built during this time was the 71.4-metre-high Qutb Minar, which was constructed in Delhi by Qutb-ud-din Aibak and Iltutmish. It was made of red-and-white sandstone and marble. Nearby, the Alai Darwaza was constructed during Alauddin’s reign, as well as the large Siri Fort. The local kingdoms had their own regional styles. Paintings adorned the walls of temples and palaces, depicting gods, goddesses, and other scenes. Manuscripts now began to be copied on paper and illustrated with paintings which were sometimes decorated with gold and silver work.

At the court of the sultan, music and dance performances were frequent. Amir Khusrau, the court poet of Alauddin Khalji, combined Persian and Indian styles in his compositions, and introduced new ragas. He introduced the khayal style of classical music, as well as the qawwali. It is believed that he also created the sitar by combining the veena with a Persian instrument called the tambura. The sarod and shehnai were also probably introduced during this time. Now music began to be divided into northern and southern styles, or Hindustani and Carnatic [Karnatak].

The Sangeet Sudhakar, a book written by the king of Saurashtra in the 15th century, describes these styles. In Jaunpur, Sultan Hussain of the Sharqi dynasty (who ruled from 1458 to 1499) was known for his love of music and, composed the Jaunpuri and Sindhu Bhairavi ragas, as well as others. In terms of literary production, books continued to be written in Sanskrit as well as in regional languages. In Sanskrit, more Dharma Shastras (law books) and semi-historical works were produced. Chand Bardai’s Prithviraja Raso, a romantic story centred around Prithviraja Chauhan, was written in Hindi. There were also works produced in Punjabi, Assamese, Odiya, Marathi, Kashmiri, and other languages of the north and south. Among these were stories of rulers and dynasties, as well as poems of Sufi and Bhakti saints. There were books in Arabic and Persian as well.

Amir Khusrau was the best-known Persian writer of this era, and he wrote historical romances and poetry. He also wrote in Hindi and Hindavi (or Urdu). He is said to have written half a million verses of poetry and 99 books on different subjects. Laila Majnu, a famous love story, was written by him. Among the most important historians who wrote in Persian were Ziauddin Barani, Afif, and Isami. Sanskrit works were also translated into Persian.

A Complete History of India

Excerpted with permission from A Complete History of India, Roshen Dalal, Penguin.