Zain-ul-Abidin: The ‘Akbar’ of Kashmir

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    If you ask a Kashmiri about Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin (r. 1420-1470), they will probably tell you he was a ‘Bud Shah’ or ‘Great King’. Often compared to the great Mughal Emperor Akbar, the Sultan earned this popular title for his tolerance, and the stability and prosperity he brought to his kingdom. He patronized Sanskrit and even banned cow slaughter!

    This is even more surprising because Zain-ul-Abidin was the son and successor of the notorious Sultan Sikandar Shah, also known as ‘Sikandar Butshikan’ (the iconoclast) for his persecution of Hindus and Buddhists in Kashmir, and the destruction of hundreds of temples, including the famous Sun Temple at Martand in Kashmir.

    Zain-ul-Abidin belonged to the Shah Miri dynasty (1339-1561) founded by an adventurer, Shah Mir, who was probably an Afghan warrior from the Swat region. It was Kashmir’s first Islamic dynasty and lasted around 200 years.

    Zain-ul-Abidin was born Shahi Khan in 1395 CE, the second son of Sikandar Shah (r. 1389-1413). While we know little of his early days, we do know that in 1403 CE, his father sent him to Samarkand (in present-day Uzbekistan) to the court of Central Asian ruler Timur, where he studied for eight years. At the time, Samarkand was a great centre of arts and sciences and this had a profound influence on the young Prince.

    Interestingly, the most comprehensive account of Zain-ul-Abidin’s life comes from Sanskrit texts Rajatarangini Dwitiya (second part) and Rajatarangini Tritiya (third part). While the text Rajatarangini (first part) composed by the 12th century CE scholar Kalhana is famous, few realize that there are two more Rajataranginis (second and third parts) written by Sanskrit scholars Jonaraja and Srivara, contemporaries of Zain-ul-Abidin. These two texts provide a window into the society, administration, and culture of the people at the time and are foundational to understanding Kashmir’s history.

    Zain-ul-Abidin Takes The Throne

    Sultan Sikandar died in 1413 CE, and was initially succeeded by his eldest son Ali Shah. But the weak-willed Ali Shah did not wish to rule, crowned Zain-ul-Abidin and left for Mecca for the Hajj. But midway through his journey, he changed his mind and returned to reclaim the throne. A war of succession ensued but Zain-ul-Abidin won.

    Zain-ul-Abidin took over the administration of the kingdom that comprised of the Kashmir valley and ushered in a sea change. One of his first tasks was to bring back Hindus and Buddhists, who had fled under the tyrannical reign of his father. But there was also some real politick behind this decision – the Turks and Persians were largely illiterate and the Iranis were too few. He also brought in many progressive developments such as allowing people the freedom to follow any religion they chose. Several Hindus occupied high positions in his court like Siryabhatta, who was minister for law, Jonaraja, Srivara, Prajyabhatta and Shuka.

    The administrative system had broken down due to years of misgovernance and rampant corruption, so Zain-ul-Abidin instituted a system where village communities would check local crime. He also regulated the price of commodities and stabilized the currency, which had depreciated during the reign of his predecessors.

    Zain-ul-Abidin was an incredibly progressive Sultan and realised that the root cause of crime in his kingdom was unemployment.

    So he proceeded to develop various industries and many of the handicrafts for which Kashmir is famous were initiated during his reign.

    The Sultan invited teachers and artisans from Samarkand to set up industries in Kashmir and teach his people crafts like the art of paper-making, book-binding, paper maché, silk production, carpet weaving, stone-cutting, stone-polishing, jewellery making, and most importantly firearms production. During his reign, Kashmir became a major manufacturer and exporter of firearms. Srivara recounts that he was personally asked to compose a Sanskrit verse praising a canon by the Sultan himself.

    In time, the crime rate plummeted and art and culture started to flourish. The famous 19th century Central Asian Mirza Haidar of Kashgar says in his famous Tarikh-i-Rashidi: (A History of Central Asia):

    "In Kashmir, one meets with all those arts and crafts which are in most cities uncommon, such as stone-polishing, stone-cutting, bottle-making, window-cutting, gold beating, etc. In the whole Maver-ul-Nahr except in Samarqand and Bukhara, these are nowhere to be met with, while in Kashmir they are even abundant. This is all due to Zain-ul-Abidin."

    Not just art but Zain-ul-Abidin left behind a rich musical legacy for the Kashmiris to be proud of. Due to the kind of remuneration given to fine performances, artists from all over flocked to his palace to display an array of musical and theatrical skills. Among them was Srivara, author of the Rajatarangini (third part), and an accomplished musician who gave some fine performances before the King.

    Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin was also a prolific builder though few of his buildings survive. He built canal systems that continue to be in use in Advin, Nandashaila and Utpalapur in the Anantnag district of Kashmir.

    His palace Rajdan, in Srinagar, was considered unique in the east, as mentioned by Mirza Haidar in Tarikh-i-Rashidi. It was 12 stories high with stairwells, verandahs and exquisite architecture. Another palatial building to his name was Zain Dab in Zainagiri (which later merged into Srinagar), which was later burnt down by invaders.

    Notable also was the patronage given to scholars by Zain-ul-Abidin. His contribution to the academic growth of Kashmir is exemplary, not just in terms of schools and residential colleges but also the translation of Hindu epics including the Mahabharata in Persian for deeper study for himself.

    It was under his patronage that Jonaraja and Srivara wrote the later Rajataranginis. Among the noted Persian and Arabic scholars who benefitted were Maulana Kabir and Mulla Hafiz Baghdadi. Not just translation, the Sultan also maintained a library that was one of the finest in the Islamic world. Sadly, due to the vagaries of time, almost nothing of this great library survives to this day.

    Despite all his impressive achievements, there was one thing Zain-ul-Abidin failed to accomplish. It was something that eluded even the most successful and innovative rulers, and that was a smooth and peaceful succession to the throne.

    Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin had three sons – Adam Khan, Haji Khan and Bahram Khan – and during the last days of his reign, all of them wanted the throne. He died in 1470 CE and was succeeded by his son Haji Khan, who took the title ‘Haidar Khan’.

    Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin was buried in a tomb in the old city of Srinagar near the shrine of Khanaq-i-Moula. Remains of his tomb still exist. In these times, when divisive forces often win over tolerance, we can take inspiration from Bud Shah of Kashmir. He was truly Indian in character.


    Yaghika Beniwal is a student studying Political Science and Economics at Gargi College, University of Delhi and Sarthak Dalal is a History (Hons.) student at Hindu College, University of Delhi. Both of them hold a deep interest in international relations and believe that history is an important part of world politics and diplomacy.
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