The Fortress of Daulatabad

in Article
Published on: 12 December 2016


In one of the finest illustrations in the Padshahnama, the Mughal miniaturist Murar masterfully depicts the fortress of Daulatabad. The rich tapestry of colours captures on the faces of the Mughal besiegers the expression of both awe and determination that the uphill fortress rising precipitously over the barren landscape commands. In a celebration of victory, Murar splendidly portrays the tortuous walls of Daulatabad for what they really were: one of the finest examples of human endeavour in medieval Indian history, both for the besieged and the besiegers.


Forts in India were closely connected to networks of trade and communication (Gommans 2002). Daulatabad or Deogiri is positioned on a conical granite hill rising about 200 metres above the landscape. The site certainly was of symbolic value to the Yadavas (9th-14th centuries CE), who after asserting political independence from their Western Chalukya overlords (1187 CE) under Bhillama V, established their capital at Deogiri (literally, 'hill of the Gods').



The Yadava Period


Our story of the enigmatic fortress begins with the illustrious scion of the Yadava family Ramachandra (r. 1271-1309). After the fall of the Chalukya Empire in the 13th century, three regional empires, namely Yadava, Hoysala and Kakatiya, roughly corresponding to linguistic zones of Marathi, Kannada and Telugu, were embroiled in an internecine conflict to succeed the imperial Chalukya hegemony.


As a crown prince, Ramachandra had many daring raids and conquests against the rival neighbours to his credit. However, the situation got complicated when in an unprecedented move, his cousin Ammana usurped the throne and Ramachandra suddenly found himself fleeing the capital. But public opinion and important officials supported his claim to the throne and very soon Ramachandra gathered a following. An opportunity of a counter-coup presented itself in the form of a musical gathering patronised by Ammana who was fond of the fine arts. Disguised as an itinerant group of musicians, Ramachandra and his hand-picked band of followers gained access to the citadel. At the crescendo of an enchanting performance, as masks were discarded and glistening swords flashed at the necks of Ammana and his coterie, Ramachandra became king by a successful coup d’état (Yazdani 1960).


Deogiri under the Yadavas served as a Giri-Durga or 'mountain fort' (in the classic Arthashastrian terminology), but had not yet acquired the aura of impregnability. Instead something else churned in the imagination of the northerners about the region of Deogiri. Ibn Battuta, writing about 150 years after the events described captures the fascination of the bazaar gossip in Delhi around Deogiri’s most prized possession: gold.


The Khaljis had usurped power in Delhi (1290 CE) with the mild septuagenarian Jalal al-Din as Sultan. However, in the province of Kara-Manikpur, his nephew and the future Sultan Ala al-Din, had just embarked upon a brilliant and daring raid to the south. During the course of this expedition, Ibn Battuta tells us that at a certain place the hooves of Ala-al-Din’s horse recovered a ring from the stony terrain that on being dug up unearthed huge treasures (Gibb 1993).


As fantastical as the anecdote is, it nonetheless captures precisely the motive of Ala-al-Din’s dashing raid to the south and brings us back before the walls of Daulatabad where an edgy Ramachandra, bereft of his army and provisions, encountered the forces of Ala al-Din (1296 CE). Ramachandra’s son, Singhanadeva was away with the bulk of the army, and Ala-al-Din had cornered Ramchandra in the fort in a very precarious position. Ramchandra bid for time and negotiated as Ala-al-Din plundered the city below capturing royal elephants and levying large sums from the merchants. In a diplomatic exchange the sagacious king offered both carrot and the stick to the young adventurer, offering him 50 maunds of gold and a large quantity of pearls and jewels in addition to the captured animals while also reminding him of the combined strength of the armies of Malwa, Khandesh and Gondwana that would step in if the adventurer failed to withdraw (Husain 1976).


The threat materialised as Singhanadeva with an army that was said to be thrice the number of that of the enemy marched to relieve the siege of the fortress. We find multiple versions of the aftermath. Amir Khusrau’s Khazain al-Futuh (ca.1311/12) completed about 15 years after the event does not mention any encounter with Singhana. Rather, in a lyrical eulogy he describes the future Sultan as a ‘victorious wind which hits the trees, and having stripped it of all its splendour…uprooted Rai Ramdeo who had been a tree of lofty origin in that garden' (Mirza 1975). Zia Barani’s Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi (ca.1354) also does not mention any second encounter.


Isami’s Futuhu’s Salatin (ca. 1350) contains interesting information in this regard. Isami’s family had migrated to Daulatabad as it had briefly become the capital of Hindustan (1326/27-1335/36 CE) under Muhammad bin Tughluq. He writes that on getting wind of Singhana’s approach, Ala al-Din summoned Ramachandra down from the citadel to a private audience and threatened to decapitate him if his son intervened. The sagacious Ramachandra thus sent word to his son not to obstruct the negotiation but submit, as his life was at stake. After this Ala al-Din is said to have moved north with his head showered with pearls, jewels and his train laden with war elephants (Husain 1976).


Writing about three centuries after the events, Firishta’s Gulshan-iIbrahim (c.a 1606) takes a different trajectory. Ala al-Din is said to have tricked Ramachandra into believing that his small force was just the advance division of a larger Sultanate army that was on its way. He is presented as fuming with indignation at Ramachandra’s threat and instead of withdrawing north, fighting Singhanadeva’s forces. The battle was a dusty affair. The Yadava army misinterpreted the Sultanate numbers and fearing that the main forces had arrived to help Ala al-Din decided to disperse and desert. This brilliant victory strengthened Ala al-Din’s hand and he pressed for a greater mortgage. The future Sultan then is said to have returned victoriously to Kara with ‘600 maunds of pearls, two maunds of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires, 1000 maunds of silver, 4000 pieces of silk, besides a long list of other precious commodities to which reason forbids us to give credit' (Briggs 1829).


It is safe to say that Firishta’s account of a double victory should be taken with a pinch of salt as it does not find any mention in either Barani or the contemporary Khusrau, who writing a eulogy of the future Sultan would not have missed such an opportunity to bolster the exploits of his hero. Moreover, what is interesting is that both Isami and Firishta’s versions have similar elements where Ala al-Din is seen to have tricked Ramachandra first, threatening him with death, and later successfully disguised his small numbers through a propaganda campaign.


After Ala al-Din usurped the throne killing his uncle, Ramachandra continued paying a regular tribute to Delhi until, in the words of Khusrau, ‘He (Ramachandra), like the unbridled horses, forgot the rein of obedience' (Mirza 1975). However it is more likely that a failed Sultanate campaign against the Kakatiyas of Warangal (1302/03 CE) provoked a suspension of payment (Jackson 1999). It also saw the ascendancy of the more vigorous young prince Singhanadeva vis-a-vis his elderly father to the helm of affairs.


Before long this brought about a reaction from Delhi in the form of a 30,000-strong cavalry force commanded by the Sultan’s favourite Malik Kafur Hazardinari (1306-07 CE). The Yadava forces commanded by Ramachandra and his son moved out of the fortress and entrenched themselves in a mountain site but were easily overrun. Ramchandra fell captive while his son along with a few followers managed to escape back to the fort. The city was plundered a second time. Ala al-Din however extended his courtesies towards the defeated king who was brought to Delhi. Ramachandra was awarded the title of Rai–yi Rayan and kept in full royal gratification for six months before he was sent back to Deogiri (Husain 1976 a). The aura and splendour of the Sultan seems to have stayed with Ramachandra as he turned into a valuable ally of the Sultanate in its campaigns against the Hoysalas and the Kakatiyas.


Ramchandra’s death in 1309 CE marked a transition both in the history of the fortress as well as of the Yadava domain. Singhana, the new ruler, promptly stopped paying tribute and Malik Kafur towards the end of Ala al-Din’s reign once again marched in force to the south. The forces of Singhana melted in sight of the Sultanate army and Malik Kafur occupied the citadel virtually unopposed. Unlike on previous occasions, Kafur stayed back reorganising the revenue administration of the region for its incorporation into the Sultanate. A mosque was established and Deogiri also started minting coins in the Sultan’s name (Jackson 1999).  From a subject of raids to incorporation into the Sultanate, this transition ultimately culminated in Deogiri briefly being the capital of Hindustan under the Tughluqs. In the words of Isami: ‘the land flourished like a garden, hawthorns being replaced by roses…’ (Husain 1976).



The Tughluq Period


Before the transfer of the capital in 1326/27 CE, a last attempt at resistance by Harpaldeva, cousin of Ramachandra, and his aide Raghava came to nought as the last Khalji Sultan Qutb al-Din Mubarak Shah personally led his army to Deogiri, reoccupied it and even renamed it Qutbabad in 1317 CE (Jackson 1999). The vestiges of the Sultanate fortress city acquired prominence under the patronage of Muhammad bin Tughluq. Responding to a revolution in military architecture in the Islamic world and prompted by new technologies of siege brought on by the Crusades and the Mongol movement, Muhammad bin Tughluq introduced substantial changes to the fort now known as Daulatabad ('city of fortunes').


With the round bastions, a deeper and wider moat, combined with the counterscarp and glacis, the fort gradually acquired the much vaunted aura of an unbreachable stronghold (Gommans 2002). Ibn Batutta visiting Daulatabad on a tour of Malabar from Delhi in 1342 CE remarks that the fort has no equal in Hindustan in terms of impregnability. The fort already had three divisions: the lower city, the middle ‘kataka’ and the uppermost citadel which was insurmountable, besides a leather ladder that was withdrawn at nightfall. To add to this sense of invincibility, Batutta spices up his account with a dash of exotic anecdotes about rats as large as cats that fed on human flesh abounding in the dungeons of the fort where criminals awaiting capital punishment rotted away (Husain 1953).


The transfer of the capital also involved the migration of the state officials and the entire population that drew patronage from the imperial court. For most families like Isami’s, who had been living in Delhi for generations, the change brought about untold physical and mental tribulations. In a chain reaction of misfortune, adversity and disaster, the failed Khurasan project (an offensive assault against the Chagadayid Mongols) resulted in an increased revenue demand that in a period of drought in north India led to peasant rebellions.


The political unrest in the north triggered a series of rebellions in the outlying areas of the empire, especially Gujarat and the Deccan. The Sultan was particularly suspicious of the amiran-i-sadah (centurions) who held important positions in the provincial administration. The breakdown of royal command is aptly recorded by Barani as he quotes the Sultan: ‘Thou seest what troubles these traitorous foreign amirs have excited on every side. When I collect my forces and put them down in one direction, they excite disturbances in some other quarter' (Elliot and Dowson 1872). An attempted purge led to an open revolt of the group in these two regions. In Daulatabad, royal officials were killed and the amiran-i-sadah chose Ismail Afghan as their Sultan.


One of his important lieutenants was Hasan Gangu, also known as Zafar Khan, the future Ala al-Din Bahman Shah. The enraged Sultan Muhammad Tughluq marched from Gujarat to take on a strong rebel cavalry force (30,000 according to Firishta) outside the fort. In an unpredicted encounter, the rebel left wing commanded by Zafar Khan pushed back the royal right. The Sultan with a strong elephant corps reinforced the offensive and ultimately carried the day. Zafar Khan made off while Malik Afghan retreated to the citadel.


The Sultan then set to lay siege to the fortress. The outer defences fell before long and many of the rebels surrendered begging amnesty. However before he could settle affairs suitably, the rebellion of Taghai in Gujarat distracted him again. Leaving a garrison behind at Daulatabad, no sooner had the Sultan marched away than the rebels under Zafar Khan regained lost ground and chased away the royal forces to the north of the Narmada. Malik Afghan abdicated in favour of the victorious warrior Zafar Khan, who was enthroned as the first ruler of the independent Bahmani dynasty (1347 CE).



The Bahmanid Era


Under the Bahmanis (1347–1527 CE), Daulatabad became more formidable with added ramparts, a steeper scarp and a massive ditch at the base of the fortress about 15 metres deep and nine metres wide. It was of great strategic importance in guarding the northern frontier of the Bahmani state against the rising power of the post-Tughluq regional states, namely Malwa (1392–1562 CE) and the Gujarat Sultanate (1407–1573 CE).


However, the political focus of the Bahmanis had shifted southwards. Gulbarga became the new capital and the Vijaynagar empire (1336–1646 CE) the new archenemy. The Raichur doab between the Krishna and the Tungabhadra rivers became a heavily contested zone between the two states and most Bahmanid Sultans frequently mounted raids into the territories of their southern neighbours.


On one such occasion during the reign of Muhammad Shah (1358–75 CE), a rumour of the Sultan’s death gained prominence and induced the commander of the Daulatabad fort Bahram Khan Mazanderani to revolt. He was supported by certain local power holders like the Maratha chief Govind Dev, the Raja of Baglana and some chiefs of Berar. The Sultan immediately wrote to Bahram Khan to dispel any doubts about his health and promised to reprieve him and his followers. However, daggers were drawn and Firishta here specially blames the Maratha chief in poisoning Bahram Khan’s mind. To dissociate the fort from the support of the hinterland, Muhammad Shah sent troops north against the Raja of Baglana who gave in easily. Once the alliance was broken, the rebel chiefs submitted in despair before the venerated Sufi Shaikh Ainuddin who advised them to make off to Gujarat.


Muhammad Shah regained Daulatabad but the rebels had managed to escape. The furious Sultan summoned the Shaikh to attend on him at court. The saint was given a choice between pledging an oath of allegiance to the Sultan and vacating the city. The Shaikh refused to bow down and instead repaired to the tomb of the most acclaimed Chishti saint of the Deccan, Shaikh Burhan al-Din Gharib (d. 1344 CE) at Khuldabad. Muhamad Shah, Firishta tells us, was struck with admiration at the resolve of the Shaikh and in reconciliation sent him a message, ‘I am submissive to thee, be thou submissive to me' (Briggs 1829).


The Bahmani Sultans ruled over multi-ethnic elite groups, most importantly the Deccanis (the descendants of the initial migrants from north India under the Tughluqs), the Afaqis (the Persianized immigrant elites from the Middle East, Iran and Central Asia) and the Habshis (military slaves from the Ethiopian highlands). These groups frequently clashed over resources and political patronage. The growing power of these elites with their fiefs and armies led to a gradual decentralisation of power until in the period between 1490–1528 CE, when the kingdom split into five successor Sultanates, namely the Nizam Shahis of Ahmadnagar, the Adil Shahis of Bijapur, the Barid Shahis of Bidar, the Imad Shahis of Berar, and the Qutb Shahis of Golconda.


The fortress of Daulatabad was in the hands of the ‘servants’ of Mahmud Gawan (the great Afaqi chief minister of the Bahmanis), the brothers Malik Waji and Malik Ashraf. The brothers had matrimonial alliances with the Nizam Shahis of Ahmadnagar with the sister of Ahmad Nizam Shah (r. 1490–1510), Bibi Zeenat being married to the elder brother Malik Waji. However, the ambitious young brother Malik Ashraf usurped power by assassinating both his brother and his young son.


In retribution Ahmad Nizam Shah besieged the fort (1493 CE) for two months but was unsuccessful. Shortly after this he laid the foundation of his capital Ahmadnagar (1494 CE) and, as Firishta says, mounted annual raids on the fort and its environs. In desperation Malik Ashraf solicited the help of Mahmud Shah Begarha (r. 1458–1511 CE) of Gujarat promising to hold the fort in his name. The Nizam Shah formed an alliance with Adil Khan Faruqi of Khandesh and Imad al-Mulk of Berar. In a night sortie, small numbers of the allied army managed to create havoc in the Gujarat camp causing them to flee. However, before long they returned, persuaded by Malik Ashraf’s repeated appeals, and the Nizam Shah had to relieve the siege.


However, the Maratha garrison under Malik Ashraf was, as Firishta tells us, so ‘indignant at the idea of becoming tributary to the King of Guzerat that they sent word to Ahmud Nizam Shah of their devotion to him' (Briggs 1829). Upon receiving this information, Nizam Shah immediately surrounded the fort. Bereft of legitimacy and force, Malik Ashraf is said to have died in shock at this betrayal by the garrison. The garrison consequently delivered the keys of the fortress to Nizam Shah (1499 CE).



The Nizam Shahi Era


The Nizam Shahi sultanate, true to its status of a successor kingdom, inherited the multi-ethnic factional struggle of the Bahmanis. This had far-reaching consequences as Ahmadnagar and the other Deccan Sultanates soon had to encounter one of the largest imperial formations of Asia, the Mughals from the north. For the Mughals the opportunity came in 1595, after the death of Sultan Burhan Nizam Shah II, as one of the feuding factions invited Prince Murad, son of Jalal al-Din Akbar, to intervene.


The Ahamadnagar fort was immediately besieged and would have fallen but for the gallant defences by the sister of the late Sultan, Chand Bibi. As matters reached a stalemate, a particular Habshi slave of Chengiz Khan (the Peshwa of Ahmadnagar) mounted a daring sally and broke through the Mughal lines. Although it came to nothing, as Ahmadnagar finally fell to the Mughals in 1600, this daring raid won a lot of followers for Chapu, the Habshi slave better known as Malik Ambar. In this power vacuum Malik Ambar promoted the cause of a scion of the Nizam Shahi family. As a result Murtaza Nizam Shah II was installed as the Sultan. Malik Ambar gave his daughter in marriage to the Sultan and himself became the regent to a revitalized Nizam Shahi kingdom with its headquarters in Junnar.


With Jahangir on the throne, the Mughal assault became more vigorous and frequent. Armies were repeatedly sent to dislodge Malik Ambar and the puppet Sultan, but the guileful regent managed to frustrate the Mughal efforts and even drove them off the Ahmadnagar fort in 1610. Shortly after, Malik Ambar transferred his court to Daulatabad to bolster his defence as well as Marathi pride and hold off the Mughals. The increasing success of Malik Ambar invited Jahangir’s ire and envy as the Habshi is maligned in his memoirs by repeated references to ‘Ambar the black faced’ and ‘Ambar, the black-fated one’. The most striking display of Jahangir’s obsession with Malik Ambar is perhaps best illustrated in the Mughal painting commissioned by Jahangir (image in Frontline) where the emperor standing on top of a globe aims at a decapitated black faced Ambar impaled on a spear (Eaton 2005).


Though Malik Ambar had spiritedly resisted the Mughals, he only managed to delay the final inevitable blow to the Deccan Sultanate. After his death in 1626, ‘the Maratha-Habshi joint enterprise’ broke down under his son and successor Fateh Khan who buckled under the superior Mughal might. It was again a fight over resources that prompted Shahji Bhonsle (father of Shivaji) to seek Adil Shahi help against Fateh Khan, who committed the blunder of soliciting assistance from Khan-e-Khanan Mahabat Khan, an important Mughal official posted in Deccan. The Mughal force discouraged Shahji and the Adil Shahis who promised to pay off Fateh Khan and also to stock the fort. This however encouraged Fateh Khan to break off the deal with the Mughals.


This brings us back to where we had started: the Mughal siege of Daulatabad (March 1633) so tellingly portrayed by Murar. Recent historiography has tested the Gunpowder Empire hypothesis (a strand of medieval historiography articulated by Marshall Hodgson and W.H. McNeill that argues for a strong centralised Mughal state backed by a monopoly over new gunpowder-propelled artillery) and instead argued that the Mughal success on field was much more a result of coordinated attacks of the artillery with mounted archers. Whereas, in the case of siege warfare, the new artillery played a secondary role with greater salience on older techniques like mining, sapping and above all, by the economy of intimidation (Gommans 2002).


The Mughal siege of Daulatabad proves this hypothesis. After a reconnaisance mission, Khan i-Khanan and his son Khan Zaman placed the heavy artillery on top of a nearby hill and ordered a constant bombardment. A 5000 strong cavalry force guarded the trenches. The defences inside the fort were arranged likewise. The scion of Nizam Shahi dynasty stayed put within the strongest layer, the citadel or Kalakot, while Fateh Khan oversaw the Mahakot, the secondary layer, with the bulk of the army guarding the outer defences, referred to in the Padshahnama as the Ambarkot.


Initially, the stronghold stood their ground against the Mughal sallies until a mine blast in late April blew up portions of the walls and the bastion. However, the mining had failed to coordinate with the cavalry strike, giving the defenders time to patch up the breach partially. In the severe clash that followed with the Mughal forces led by Nasir Khan and Mahesh Das Rathor, the defenders were slowly pushed back into the ditch of the Mahakot for shelter.


A great many on either side fell that day as did the celebrated walls of Ambarkot. Thereafter, Khan–i-Khanan adroitly wielded the carrot and the stick. While a second mine was in preparation, he staved off a diversion by Shahji and encouraged the Bijapuris to escape by facilitating their safe passage. Fateh Khan, who was being gradually cornered, offered to surrender the fort through the intercession of the Bijapuri general Murari Pandit. However, this would require some time and he requested the Khan-i-Khana not to ignite the fuse. Mahabat Khan refused to buy this and asked for Fateh Khan’s son as insurance. On receiving no reply from the fort, the mine was discharged and it brought down a good part of the wall and a bastion. Unlike on the previous occasion, the Mughal cavalry charge was timed and in spite of a barrage of firearms from atop the bastions, the Mughal forces gained entry into the Mahakot.


As another diversionary attack by Murari Pandit was defeated, Fateh Khan read the writing on the wall and sent his eldest son to the Khan-i-Khana to negotiate a peaceful submission of the fortress. On promise of amnesty to the Nizam Shahis and his family, Fateh Khan delivered the keys of the fortress to the Khan-i-Khana in early June, 1633. Leaving a garrison to guard the fortress under Khan Dauran, Khan-i-Khanan marched to Burhanpur, the Mughal headquarters, along with the Nizam Shah and Fateh Khan. As the bulk of the Mughal army marched away, the Bijapuris made a canny attack hoping to use the Mughal trenches which were still standing against them. However, Khan Dauran took the offensive while the main army turned back to quash the resistance once and for all. This dispirited the Bijapuris as they gave in and retreated post haste (Elliot and Dowson 1877).





The fall of Daulatabad marked the beginning of Mughal imperial expansion in the  Deccan that ultimately culminated in the annexation of all the successor Sultanates of the Bahmanis within a mere 60 years. As for Daulatabad, it emerged to be intrinsically important to this imperial drive as the headquarters for Aurangzeb’s conquest of Bijapur and Golconda. The Mughals however could not sustain their empire for too long.  After Aurangzeb’s death the region was carved up among the Marathas and the Mughal successor states. As for the fort, it passed into Maratha hands briefly but was soon recaptured by the Nizams of Hyderabad in 1724 AD and they held on to it till Independence.


As we come to the end of this remarkable history of a fortress we should recognise and understand that Daulatabad, the impregnable one, was much more than just a stronghold. It represents above all, human history, migration, social mobility and ambition. It truly is a palimpsest which subsequent groups, warlords and armies have etched for centuries to create overlapping layers of architecture, myth and history. It would thus hardly be an exaggeration to say that even today the aura of impregnability that immediately strikes a modern visitor to the fort is not much different from the Sultanate and the Mughal experiences.





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Elliot, H.M. 1872. The History of India, as Told by its Own Historians: vol 3: The Muhammadan Period. London: Turner and Co.


———. 1877. The History of India, as Told by its Own Historians, vol 8: The Muhammadan period. London: Turner and Co.


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———., trans. 1976. Futūh̲u's salāt̤īn: Or, Shāh nāmah-i Hind of Is̲āmī ; translation and commentary, vol. 2. Bombay: Asia Publishing House.


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Mirza, W., trans. 1975. Khazain-ul-Futuh by Dihlavī. Lahore: National Committee for 700th Anniversary of Amir Khusrau.


Yazdani, G. 1960. The Early History of the Deccan. London: Oxford University Press.