Amir Khusrau: In the Court of Delhi Sultans

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    Inside Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah Complex lies the tomb of a medieval poet who has as many fans among today’s millennials as he did during the Delhi Sultanate (1192 – 1526 CE). The compositions of Amir Khusrau Dehlavi, who lived between 1253 and 1325 CE, can be heard not only in the qawwalis at Sufi dargahs (mausoleum of a saint) across South Asia but even on today’s social media platforms, music streaming sites and at music festivals.

    His ghazals and poems have even been re-interpreted and remixed, appearing in Bollywood movies and music videos. Amir Khusrau’s timelessness can be gauged from the fact that a post-modern rendition of his most popular composition, Chaap Tilak, by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen has more than 27 million online views. So what makes Amir Khusrau so popular, almost 700 years after his death?

    Perhaps the magnetic allure of his compositions stems from a now lost ‘Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb’, a unique syncretic culture that incorporated elements from Muslim and Hindu traditions that had slowly begun to emerge during Khusrau’s time. In today’s divisive world, it not easy to ‘label’ the life and work of Amir Khusrau. How can you apply labels to a man who was not only one of the great poets of classical Persian, but played a very important role in the development of ‘Hindavi’ that would evolve into the Hindi language? Or a man who was the chief court poet of Sultan Alauddin Khilji, eulogising his conquests across India, but in his text Nuh-Sipihr or ‘Nine Heavens’ (1318 CE), writes:

    Very learned Brahmins are found here (in India) but nobody has taken any advantage of their deep knowledge, with the result that they are very little known in other countries. I have tried to learn something from them and therefore I understand their importance…. Although they do not follow our religion yet many principles of their religion are akin to ours…

    Few realise another interesting fact about Amir Khusrau – he lived through a period that saw a succession of 11 Sultans in Delhi, from Ghiyasuddin Balban to Muhamamd Bin Tughlaq, and he was the poet laureate in the court of five of them!

    Early Years

    To fully understand the works of Khusrau, one must understand the times he lived in and his illustrious career in the Delhi Sultanate. Following the conquest of Delhi by Muhammad Ghori in 1193 CE, the Delhi Sultanate was a magnet for Turkic people from around the Islamic world. The Sultans of the Mamluk Dynasty or the Slave Dynasty (1206 – 1290 CE) ruled Delhi during that time and most of the ruling class as well as the cultural elite were Turkic.

    Khusrau was born in 1253 CE, in the town of Patiyali, in present-day Kasganj district of Uttar Pradesh, into a prominent Turkic family. His father, Saifuddin Mehmood, was originally a tribal chief of a Lachin tribe, from the city of Takash in present-day Turkmenistan, and had been forced to migrate to India due to the Mongol invasions. Saifuddin served Sultan Iltutmish (r. 1121 – 36 CE) as an officer in the police force in Delhi city. Khusrau’s maternal grandfather, Imad-ul-Mulk, too was a prominent noble who served as the Arzi Mumalik (roughly translated as ‘Defence Minister’) in the Delhi Sultanate under Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban (r. 1266–1287).

    Khusrau’s father died when he was just seven years old and he grew up in the house of his maternal grandfather. Being raised in a privileged Turkic household not only gave Khusrau unparalleled access to the Delhi court, it also gave him access to prominent Sufi mystics who had khanqahs (a place where members of the Sufi faith meet). In those conservative times, these khanqahs were centres of intellectual ferment. The most prominent among them was that of Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1335 CE). It is said that Khusrau was the favourite disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin, a bond they shared till their death.

    While Hazrat Nizamuddin maintained a distance from politics, Khusrau had an exceptionally brilliant career in the Delhi court, spanning 50 years, surviving the rise and fall of dynasties.

    In Mongol Captivity

    One of the lesser-known episodes in Khusrau’s life is the time he spent in Mongol captivity. Khusrau’s professional career began at the age of 20, following the death of his grandfather in 1272 CE. His first patron was Kishlu Khan (also known as Malik Chhajju), a nobleman and nephew of Sultan Balban. In 1280 CE, Khusrau attracted the attention of Sultan Balban’s son, the young prince Khan Malik Sultan Muhammad, the Governor of Multan. The prince was a warm, generous and charming young man and he was fond of poetry. He thus gathered the best poets around him. Khusrau stayed in Multan for five years, serving not only as a court poet, but also as an officer in the Sultanate’s army.

    Khusrau’s career in Multan came to an abrupt end when a large Mongol army under Timur Khan attacked Multan. Prince Muhammad was killed and Khusrau was taken captive. Some Islamic historians like Maulana Shibli state that he spent two years as a prisoner in Balkh in Afghanistan, while others like noted historian Mohammad Habib claim he was held captive for only a few days. Habib, father of historian Irfan Habib, in his book Hazrat Amir Khusrau of Delhi (1926), quotes from Amir Khusrau:

    “I was also taken prisoner, and from fear that they would shed my blood, not a drop of blood remained in my veins… My Mongol captor sat on a horse like a lion bestriding the spur of a mountain… If through weakness I lagged a little behind, he would threaten me sometimes with his spear. I sighed and thought that release from such a situation was quite impossible. But, thank God, I did regain my freedom without my breast having been pierced by an arrow or my body cut into two by the sword.''

    Khusrau was released after payment of a ransom and he returned to the court of Delhi. He wrote such a heart-rending eulogy in honour of his fallen patron, Prince Muhammad, that on hearing it, Sultan Balban is said to have wept in open court. But the traumatic experience resulted in a lifelong hatred for the Mongols, which was also reflected in his writing.

    The anti-Mongol slant of Amir Khusrau’s writing made his works ‘not so popular’ in the early days of Mughal rule (The Mughals claimed descent from the Mongols).

    Sultan Kaiqubad and Khusrau’s contributions to Music

    Khusrau spent the next few years with his family in Delhi. Following the death of Sultan Balban in 1287 CE, his nephew Sultan Kaiqubad (r. 1287-90 CE) ascended the throne. The young Sultan was profligate and loved revelry and luxury. At his new capital at Kilokari (near Maharani Bagh in present-day Delhi), Sultan Kaiqubad patronised musicians, dancers and artists from across India. Under his patronage, Khusrau was able to make his own contribution to the field of music. Kaiqubad commissioned Khusrau to compose a text called Quirani's-Sa'dain, which means ‘conjunction of two auspicious towering personalities’ (alluding to Sultan Kaiqubad and his father). This was the first royal commission that Khusrau worked on and included many ghazals. Later, Khusrau would boast:

    "I have composed many a fresh ghazal but I did not include them (in Quirani's-Sa'dain’), as a ghazal is but of seven or nine verses and anyone who can scrawl seven or nine verses would strut like a camel and try to vie with me.”

    It is popularly believed that Khusrau invented the sitar by combining the Indian veena and Iranian tambura. He is also supposed to have invented the tabla by modifying the mridang. Not just this, he is said to have invented the qawwali genre as well. While these are widespread and popularly held beliefs, the absence of any definitive historical evidence makes them very difficult to corroborate.

    Amir Khusrau and the Khiljis

    In October 1289 CE, Sultan Kaiqubad was killed in a palace intrigue. In the chaos that followed, a powerful commander of his, Jalaluddin Khilji (r. 1290 – 1296 CE), became the new Sultan and founded the Khilji Dynasty (1290 – 1320 CE) in Delhi. While the rise of the non-Turkic Khiljis (they were originally from Afghanistan) marked an end to the power of the old Turkic nobility that had dominated the Sultanate, Khusrau not only survived but thrived in the new regime. The 70-year-old Jalaluddin Khilji was an old admirer of Amir Khusrau.

    On his accession to the throne, Sultan Jalaluddin raised Khusrau to the highest courtly position he was ever destined to reach – he was appointed to the office of 'Keeper of the Royal Quran’ and became the chief courtier to the new Sultan. The Sultan presented him with the robe of honour and white waistband, an honour reserved only for the highest nobility, and given an annual salary of 1,200 gold tankas.

    Sultan Jalaluddin loved the good life and threw fabulous parties (mehfils), where there was a great deal of drinking, jesting and exchange of poetry, accompanied by music, singing and dancing by women and cup bearers (saqis), who would also serve wine. In fact, the figure of the saqi or cup bearer is a frequent character in Khusrau’s ghazals. The 13th century historian Ziauddin Barani, in his chronicle of the Delhi Sultanate, Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi, writes: ‘Amir Khusrau would bring new ghazals daily to those mehfils and the Sultan (Jalaluddin) became enamoured by his poems and rewarded him handsomely.

    Sultan Jalaluddin, although a good-natured man, had one fatal flaw – the love for his nephew Ali Gushasp. In 1296 CE, Ali treacherously murdered his uncle and ascended the throne under the name ‘Alauddin Khilji’. While more interested in military conquests than music and poetry, Sultan Alauddin Khilji (r. 1296 – 1316 CE) continued to employ Khusrau as his chief court poet.

    Ziauddin Barani complains that Alauddin failed to recognize Khusrau’s talents: ‘‘If a poet like Amir Khusrau had lived in the time of Mahmud or Sanjar, those monarchs (of Central Asia) would have bestowed territories and governorships on him and raised him to high dignity and office. But Alauddin paid no regard to the honour due to such a poet and was content to give him his one thousand tankas.’

    Ironically, the 20-year reign of Alauddin Khilji was the most productive period in Khusrau’s life. In just five years (1298 to 1300 CE), he completed his five romantic masnavis (long, poetic tales) — Matla'ul Anwar, Shirin Khusrau, Majnun Laila, Aina-i Sikandari and Hasht Bihisht — which are collectively known as the Panj Ganj. All these masnavis were dedicated to Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya and presented to Sultan Alauddin.

    Apart from numerous poems and ghazals, Khusrau also wrote two works of prose. The first was Khazainul Futuh, a short volume of the history of Alauddin Khilji’s conquests. Khusrau wrote extensively about Alauddin’s campaigns against the Mongols, Chittor, Gujarat, Devagiri and the deep South. Interesting, while talking about Chittor, he makes no reference to the existence of Queen Padmini, a source of great controversy 700 years later. The second work of prose is Ijaz-i-Khusravi, a long text in five volumes on figures of speech.

    Khusrau was not on good terms with Malik Kafur, a military commander and favourite of Alauddin Khilji, whom he trashes in his famous poetic work Deval Rani Khizr Khan. Written at the end of Alauddin Khilji’s reign, it is a tragic love story of Khizr Khan, the handsome and capable eldest son of Alauddin Khilji, and Deval Devi, the Princess of Gujarat. Like Khusrau, Khizr Khan too was a follower of Hazrat Nizamuddin. However, due to palace intrigues, he was blinded by his father and imprisoned in Gwalior, where he was later murdered. Khusrau had great sympathy for the tragic prince and wrote that the love story had been personally narrated by the prince to him.

    Amir Khusrau – A Nationalist and a Survivor

    Khusrau’s career survived the intrigues and alliances that followed the death of Alauddin Khilji and he remained the court poet for his son and successor Sultan Qutb-ud-din Mubarak Shah (r. 1316-1320 CE).

    It is in ‘Nuh-Sipihr’ or ‘Nine Heavens’ (1318 CE) dedicated to the then ruling monarch, Sultan Qutb-ud-din Mubarak Shah, that Amir Khusrau listed ten reasons why India was the greatest country on Earth.

    The reasons varied from the climate and flora found here, to India’s contribution to the field of Mathematics. In Nuh-Sipihr, he justified his love for India, saying:

    “I have praised India for two reasons. First, because it is my birthplace and in my country, patriotism itself is a great religion.”

    Like the preceding Slave Dynasty, the Khilji Dynasty too ended with copious bloodshed and dubious alliances, and a distinguished military commander of the Khiljis, Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, seized the throne and established the Tughlaq Dynasty (1320 – 1413 CE). A staunch conservative, Sultan Ghiyasuddin thoroughly disapproved of the free exchange of ideas taking place in the Hazrat Nizamuddin Khanqah. There was a lot of tension between the two men. But surprisingly, Nizamuddin’s favourite disciple Amir Khusrau, continued to enjoy royal patronage. As a mark of gratitude, Khusrau composed the Tughlaq Nama, a detailed account of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq’s reign and the new city he built, ‘Tughlaqabad’.

    Khusrau, who was extremely close to Hazrat Nizauddin, was inconsolable and depressed when he passed away in April 1325. His patron, Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, too had died in a mysterious accident, probably at the hands of his nephew, in February 1325, and had been succeeded by the ‘mad monarch’ – Muhammad Bin Tughlaq (r. 1325 – 1351 CE). Khusrau’s five-decade-long career in the Delhi court ended in October 1325, when he died at the age of 70. His tomb was built near that of his spiritual guide, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.

    Amir Khusrau’s enduring legacy

    “Khusrau, darya prem ka, ulti wa ki dhaar,
    Jo utra so doob gaya, jo dooba so paar.”

    English translation:

    “Oh Khusrau, the river of love, Runs in strange directions,
    One who jumps into it drowns, And one who drowns, gets across.”

    At a time when ‘purity’ has become so important in the Hindi and Urdu languages, Amir Khusrau’s works stand out. His works contributed enormously to the development of Persian, Urdu and Hindi in India.

    In classical Persian literature, three distinct styles have been recognised by Iranian scholars, and the Indian style (Sabk-e-Hind) is one of them. Khusrau was the founder of this style, which led to Persian scholars around the world conferring on him the title ‘Tuti-i-Hind’ or ‘The Parrot of India’. Khusrau’s famous Persian poem – Muflisi az padsha’i khushtar ast’, or ‘Poverty is more pleasant than majesty’, reads:

    “Since kings let no one approach them,
    being needy among the poor, is more pleasant.
    When pride gets into someone’s head,
    being pals with a dog from the streets, is more pleasant.”

    But many of his compositions were in ‘Hindavi’, a dialect of Braj Bhasha that was spoken around Delhi and what is now Western Uttar Pradesh. Following the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in North India by Muhammad Ghori in 1192 CE, a new ‘urban’ language emerged in Delhi. It combined elements of the local Braj Bhasha with those of Persian and Turkic settlers. This language was called ‘Dehlavi’ or ‘Hindavi’ and it would in the 19th century evolve into Hindi and Urdu. Interestingly, while Amir Khusrau kept the company of Sultans, intellectuals and Sufi mystics, he also composed dohas (sayings) and riddles which were popular among the masses:

    'Beeson ke sarkaat liya
    Na Mara , Na Khoon Kiya'
    Jawaab: Nakhoon

    I cut off 20 heads and still,
    no blood did I shed, no one did I kill
    Jawaab: Nails (trimming)

    The legendary Hindi poet, Dr Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’, heaped praise on Amir Khusrau for his contributions to Hindi and his ‘nationalist’ outlook. In one of his essays, Hindi Sahitya Mein Nigamdhara, published in the Sahityamukhi journal (Patna, 1968), Dinkar writes:

    It is worth remembering that this stream of unity [in language] was not only from Hindus, but Muslim poets and saints contributed, without any prejudice, to it. Amir Khusrau is considered the father of both Khari Boh Hindi and Urdu. In reality, he was the pioneer in this movement of unity. In his Persian masnavi Nuh-Sipihr, he calls India as his land of birth and praises her. Quoting the Prophet, Khusrau said that the love of one’s country is a part of his love of religion.”

    Khusrau may have been a towering poet in medieval times but the popularity of his works has not diminished an iota. No Holi is complete without Aaj Rang Hai and no Sufi music festival is complete without Chaap Tilak. From the Sultans of yesteryear to millennials of today, the love for Hazrat Amir Khusrau flows like a river.

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