The treatment meted out to the slaves depended upon the temperament, whim and caprice of the master. Some masters were kind hearted and treated their slaves kindly, many others cruelly, a few abominably. But one class of slaves who were very well looked after were ghilman and mamalik. The eunuchs also, because of the nature of their duties, received sort of a special treatment.

Ghilman va Mamalik

Muslim sultans were very fond of handsome young slaves whom they kept close to their persons as pages, service-boys, bodyguards, special troops and as gay companions. Infatuation for such slaves was a bane of the life of Muslim royalty and nobility in particular, although they considered it to be a fashion.  P.K. Hitti has this to say about them, “Ghilman, who might also be eunuchs, were the recipients of special favours from their masters, wore rich and attractive uniforms and often beautified and perfumed their bodies in effeminate fashion. We read of ghilman in the reign of al-Rashid; but it was evidently the caliph al-Amin who, following Persian precedent, established in the Arabic world the ghilman institution for the practice of unnatural sexual relations. A judge of whom there is record used four hundred such youths. Poets did not disdain to give public expression to their perverted passions and to address amorous pieces of their compositions to beardless young boys.”1

Muslim rulers and nobles in India were not lagging behind in these ‘perverted passions.’ Muhammad Hindu Shah Farishtah in his Tarikh and Khondamir in his Dasturul Wuzra relate the following incident about Mahmud Ghaznavi. Sultan Mahmud had a passion for slaves possessing handsome faces. His Wazir Abul Abbas Fazl bin Ahmad followed his example. “Fazl, on hearing the reputation of the beauty of a boy in Turkistan, deputed a confidential person to purchase that boy (whose countenance was beautiful as that of the planet Venus), and bring him to Ghazni, according to the mode of conveyance usually adopted for females. When an informer represented to the king these circumstances, his most august Majesty demanded that slave (who was as white as silver) from the minister… The minister made evasive replies, and pertinaciously refused to part with the slave, notwithstanding His Majesty’s absolute power. The king one night visited the minister at his house (without prior notice), where the minister entertained him with respect and hospitality due to the dignity of a sovereign. When the slave (who looked as beautiful as a virgin of paradise) came into the presence of the king, high words passed between him and his minister, and so greatly was the king’s anger kindled, that he issued orders to seize the minister and plunder his house. Soon after this the king departed for Hindustan, and certain evil-disposed amirs tortured the minister so severely with the rack that he lost his life.” After him the old Khwaja Ahmad bin Hasan Maimandi was appointed to the office of Wazir.2

Sultan Mahmud’s “court was guarded by four thousand Turkish good looking and beardless (ghulam turk washaq) slave-youths, who, on days of public audience, were stationed on the right and left of throne,- two thousand of them with caps ornamented with four feathers, bearing golden maces, on the right hand, and the other two thousand, with caps adorned with two feathers, bearing silver maces, on the left… As these youths attained into man’s estate and their beards began to grow, they were attached to a separate corps, and placed occasionally under the command of rulers of provinces.”3 Shams Siraj Afif’s description of acquisition and distribution of handsome slave boys by Sultan Firoz Tughlaq points to similar arrangement.

The number of royal slaves (bandgan-i-Khas) was usually very large. They were invariably good looking, bought or captured at early age. Many foreign purchased slaves were also similarly chosen. Out of these, a few became favourites of the sultans and sometimes rose to the highest positions in life like Kafur Hazardinari under Alauddin Khalji and Khusaru Khan under Qutbuddin Mubarak Khalji. During Alauddin Khalji’s invasion of Gujarat, his generals had brought immense booty from there including Raja Karan’s consort Kamla Devi and the handsome slave Malik Kafur Hazardinari. The Sultan fell in love with both. In the words of Farishtah, he converted Kamala Devi to Islam and married her, and treating Kafur as a favourite “tied the sacred thread (zunnar) of his love in his own waist.”4 Khusrau Khan was brought from Malwa under similar circumstances. The rise of these catamites was due as much to their ‘beauty’ and nearness to the king as to their ambition and conspiratorial genius. So long as Alauddin held a firm grip on the administration, Malik Kafur served him with loyalty and won victories on his behalf in lands far and near. Once the king’s health declined and he became dependent upon his dear slave-noble, the latter managed or at least attempted to poison him.5 After Alauddin’s death he gathered all political power into his own hands. Mubarak Khalji in his turn fell in love with his favourite Khusrau Khan. Like Malik Kafur, Khusrau Khan also provided pleasure to Qutbuddin and at the same time marched with armies to preserve and extend his master’s dominions. But when an opportunity came handy he killed his patron. Mubarak Khalji lost his life because of his degenerate nature. In 1318 his favourite slave and Wazir Khusrau Khan led an expedition to the south where he seized much booty. As had happened in the case of Prince Alauddin, the wealth of the Deccan inflamed the ambition of Khusrau Khan and he began to plan to occupy the throne of Delhi. His plans fructified soon enough because of the Sultan’s depravity. Qutbuddin was blinded by the infatuation he had for Khusrau Khan, and unable to bear his separation any longer sent for him from the Deccan. Khusrau Khan was taken in a palanquin post-haste from Devagiri to Delhi where he arrived in a week’s time. One day Khusrau engaged the king in his intimate company and got him killed.6 The custom of taking favourite slaves in palanquins seems to have been common so that Sultan Sikandar Lodi (1489-1517) could boast that “If I order one of my slaves to be seated in a palanquin, the entire body of nobility would carry him on their shoulders at my bidding.”7 This statement incidentally conveys an idea of the importance of handsome favourite slaves and also reflects on the status of nobles under autocratic Muslim rulers.

Instances of love of ghilman abound in the history of medieval India and hence we need not narrate many of them or dilate upon them. Suffice it here to note that love of slave-boys sometime made kings blind and provided not only Turkish or foreign slaves but also Indian slaves with opportunities to strive to grab the crown through the well-known methods of intrigue, poison and sword. Indian-born converted slaves were never considered equal to their foreign counterparts. They were always looked down upon by the foreign Muslims. But handsome favourites fell into a different category. Besides ambition and intrigue there were some other reasons for their reckless acts. The masters were often sodden and depraved.8 They used their ghilmans for unnatural carnal acts. The humiliation engendered by such acts made the slaves sullen and revengeful. These slaves also derived encouragement from the examples before them. If Balban could poison Sultan Nasiruddin and Alauddin Khalji openly kill his benefactor Jalaluddin Khalji, why could Malik Kafur not try to kill his master? If Malik Kafur could strive for the throne, why not Khusrau Khan? The abuse was so widespread that Barani writes with a sense of delight that Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq was free from this vice and he did not allow “handsome, beardless boys” to come near him and looked upon all immoral persons as his enemics.9 According to Ibn Battuta one of the reasons for estrangement between the Sultan and his son Muhammad was the Prince's extravagance in purchasing slaves.10

But all slaves, all ghilmans, could not attain to such high positions because they were there in thousands and they could not all be equal. Alauddin had a corps of 50,000 personal slaves, Muhammad Tughlaq 20,000 and Firoz Tughlaq 40,000.11 Muhamad Tughlaq maintained such large numbers of them that he set apart a day of the week to manumit some of them and to confer them in marriage.12 Such was the situation throughout the medieval period, although the detailed description of Shams Siraj Afif about the reign of Firoz Tughlaq gives the impression that Firoz excelled all the kings of the Delhi Sultanate in collecting and maintaining beautiful slaves.  Afif needs to be quoted at some length.

“The Sultan was very diligent in obtaining slaves, and towards that end he issued a farman to his amils and jagirdars to capture slaves whenever they were at war, and to pick out and send the best for the service of the court. When the feudatories went to the court, each one according to his ability took with him beautiful slaves, dressed in clean attire, elegant caps, turbans and socks, in short, ornamented in the most splendid style. They also, when they paid annual visits brought, together with other things, slaves for the Sultan… This regulation remained in force for forty years throughout the reign. The chiefs who brought many slaves received the highest favour, and those who brought few received proportionately little consideration. When the chiefs perceived the Sultan's eagerness for slaves, and that their efforts to get them were highly appreciated, they exerted themselves in providing them, and the numbers brought every year exceed description.

“Some of the slaves spent their time in reading and committing to memory the holy book, others in religious studies, others in copying books. Some were placed under tradesmen and were taught mechanical arts, so that about 12,000 slaves became artisans (kasib) of various kinds. Altogether, in the city and in the various fiefs there were 180,000 slaves. In fact there was no occupation in which the slaves of Firoz Shah were not employed. When the slaves became too numerous, some of them were given into the charge of Amirs and Maliks. These nobles treated them like children, providing them with food and raiment, lodging them and training them, and taking every care of their wants…”13

It would be pertinent here to add the observation of Major Raverty. “For the information of the general reader uninitiated in Oriental lore, I would mention that the words Mamluk and Ghulam, signifying ‘slave’, must not be understood in the sense ‘slave’ conveys in our language. These slaves were sometimes captives, but more often boys of Turkish origin were purchased by kings and their great nobles from traders - slave-dealers - and trained for the highest offices. They were sometimes adopted by their master, and were frequently made governors of provinces and leaders of armies…”14

Captured or purchased, Indian slaves may not always fit in with this description, but in all cases provision was made for the ghilman and mamalik in a liberal manner with salaries, provisions, stipends and jagirs. In the time of Muhammad bin Tughlaq, according to Al Umari, “the slaves of the Sultan each receive a monthly allowance for their maintenance of two mans of wheat and rice, and a daily allowance of three seers of meat, with all the necessary accompaniments. Besides, he received ten tankahs per month, and four suits of clothes every year.”15 Under Firoz Tughlaq, “those who were stationed in the city (capital) were given cash salary, some a hundred tankahs, others fifty, or thirty or twenty-five. But no one was paid less than 10 tankahs.” The Sultan took special care of his slaves, writes Afif. There was a distinct muster-master (majmu’-dar) of the slaves, and a Ministry of Slaves (Diwan-i-Bandgan) which was established as a separate and distinct unit from the Diwan-i-Wazarat or Ministry of Finance.16

This ‘pampering’ of slaves by sultans and nobles aroused jealousy all around. To jealousy was added ethnic rivalry. Kindness on the part of the master was reciprocated with loyalty by the slaves. Often this proved to be harmful to the slaves in the long run. After the death of Alauddin Khalji many of his slaves were murdered in cold blood.17 After the death of Firoz Tughlaq a similar fate awaited his loyal slaves. The newly crowned Prince Muhammad gave the slaves of Firoz three days to leave Delhi. Those who escaped, survived. Others, and particularly those who spoke the ‘Purbi and Bengali’ language, were done to death. These ‘impure’ rebels had put the crown into commission and behaved like virtual king makers - such was the impression of warring princes who succeeded Firoz. The fault of these slaves seems to be that they were firstly not asl (or pure) Muslims and secondly they were loyal to Firoz Tughlaq and his progeny.18 This is Farishtah’s version. Whatever the real reason, after Firoz’s death, “the heads of these his favoured servants were cut off without mercy, and were made into heaps in front of the Durbar.”19 “For a decade after Firoz’s death the princes manoeuvered, the nobles intrigued and the people suffered.”20 Each new sultan - and they came to power in kaleidoscopic succession - wanted his own cadre of nobility, his own set of slaves, and destroyed those of the earlier ones. In short, slaves were made slaves for no fault of theirs and they were massacred for the fault of being slaves to their masters.


Many if not most of the slaves were eunuchs. A Muslim king was unthinkable without his harem; a harem was inconceivable without eunuchs. Eunuchs were the guards and guardians of the harem. The seraglio of the size of the Mughal harem could be a security hazard for its inmates and even for the king, if not properly supervised by eunuchs. They guarded the gates of the palace, checked and regulated ingress and egress of persons male and female. They also served the inmates of the seraglio even while keeping surveillance over them.21 Harem was the largest Department under Muslim rule. There was no sphere of court and administration which was not concerned with the harem in one way or the other. Therefore thousands and thousands of eunuchs were needed to serve the Muslim king and his harem. Their cadre was hierarchical. Senior eunuchs were known as Nazirs and Khwaja Saras. Each one of them had a number of junior eunuchs under him.22

It is a very significant fact of Muslim history that some of the greatest nobles in the Sultanate of Delhi and the Mughal Empire were eunuchs. Imaduddin Rayhan, the chief minister under Sultan Balban, Kafur Hazardinari, the army commander and vice-regent of Alauddin Khalji, and Khurau Shah the favourite of Qutbuddin Mubarak Khalji who rose to be king, were all eunuchs. Khwaja Jahan Malik Sarwar, a black eunuch, was appointed Wazir of Sultan Mahmud, a successor of Sultan Firoz Tughlaq. In 1394 he was sent as governor of Jaunpur with the title of Malik-us-Sharq (Master of the East). Within a short time he brought under his control the vast region stretching from Kol (Aligarh) on the west to Tirhut in Bihar in the east and became known as Sultan-us-Sharq. On his death his adopted son Qaranful (the Clove i.e. Black) took the regal title of Mubarak Shah and issued coins in his own name.23 Under the Mughals many important eunuchs, who were known as Nazirs and Khwaja Saras, rose to the position of Mansabdars, commanders of armies and governors of Subahs. The chief Nazirs or Khwaja Saras generally enjoyed the title of Aitmad Khan or Aitbar Khan (the Trusted Lord). One Aitbar Khan, who served under Babur and Humayun, was appointed Governor of Delhi by emperor Akbar.24 Another Aitmad Khan was made commander of one thousand and entrusted by Akbar to improve the finances of the state. He took part in the conquest of Bengal in 1576 and was later appointed Governor of Bhakkar. Another Aitmad Khan in Akbar’s service went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and brought a huge stone which was said to contain an impression of the foot of the Prophet.25 He was appointed Governor of Gujarat and held the command of four thousand.26 Aitbar Khan, the chief eunuch of Jahangir, was the Governor of Agra city. A eunuch, Firoz Khan, was conferred a mansab of 1500/600 by Jahangir.27 Bakhtawar Khan (d. 1698), the superintendent of eunuchs under Aurangzeb, held the rank of 1000. He was a great scholar and historian. He prepared an abridgement of Tarikh-i-Alfi and Akhbar-ul-Akhyar and wrote the Mirat-ul-Alam also known as Mirat-i-Jahan Numa.28 During the time of the Later Mughals three eunuchs, Mian Khushfahan, Mian Arjmand and Mian Mahabat ruled the state on behalf of Mughlani Begum (1754-1756).29

According to Manucci, the chief Nazir of the seraglio “is highly esteemed by the King. He has a large allowance, has charge of the treasury, is master of the wardrobe, decides on the details and the pattern of Sarapas (robes) to be prepared; in short, it is he who has charge of all the Mughal expenditure of the clothes, the linen, and the precious stones, of the jewelry, of everything that goes into or comes out of the palace.”30 Manucci gives a list of about forty Nazirs of the time of Aurangzeb, each of whom had a separate tide bestowed upon him by the king. By their service to the kings and queens, the eunuchs could wield great influence and amass large amounts of wealth.31 Some indeed were so trustworthy and powerful that they kept even grown up princes under strict disciplines.32

The senior eunuchs or Khwaja Saras had a number of junior eunuchs under them. According to Manucci, “there is always one set above the rest who directs and looks after everything that goes on in the Mahal.”33 Of the subordinate eunuchs, some worked as messengers in the harem. Others were posted at the doors to keep a watch on those who came or went out of the palace and saw to it that no unauthorised person entered the seraglio.34 Some others looked after the education of princes. Bernier writes that Mughal princes “instructed from infancy to the care of women and eunuchs, slaves from Russia, Circassia… Gurjustan (Georgia), or Ethiopia, whose minds are debased by the very nature of their occupation; servile and mean to superiors, proud and oppressive to dependants these princes… leave the walls of the seraglio quite ignorant.”35

The main business of the eunuchs was to guard as well as to keep an eye on the activities of the harem ladies. Since they were always present in the seraglio, they also served and helped them in various ways. The eunuchs guarded the secrets of their mistresses. They smuggled drugs and wines for them into the harem. The ladies sometimes even arranged through the eunuchs to invite men into the harem; Manucci avers that eunuchs were helpful in smuggling men into the women’s apartment.36 In exchange for such delicate and risky services the eunuchs could get from them “whatever they desired”, for they could blackmail their client ladies. Naturally some women of the harem even allowed the eunuchs to enjoy them according to his ability.37 They served princes and their beloveds as go-between.38 It is such errands of secrecy that sometimes made the eunuchs powerful, arrogant and even vainglorious.39

In short, there was hardly any area of Muslim rule in which the eunuchs were not required to play an important role. They fought battles and conquered kingdoms, they held high administrative posts, they were appointed governors and commanders of armies. They rendered invaluable service in the affairs of the harem. They formed dependable escorts of ladies and trustworthy jailers of very important persons like princes and kings. Aitbar Khan who was earlier in the service of Babur and Humayun, once chaperoned Akbar’s mother and other Begums from Kabul to Hindustan.40 In 1565 the eunuch Aitmad Khan escorted the daughter of Miran Mubarak Shah, the King of Khandesh, to the harem of Akbar.41 Aitbar Khan, the favourite eunuch of Jahangir, was placed in charge of the rebel prince Khusrau during his incarceration. Another eunuch-noble with the same title was appointed by Aurangzeb as the jailer of Shahjahan in captivity.

With so many eunuchs needed for so many odd duties to perform, their number in the Muslim king’s harem was very large. Delve deep into the life-story of any important noble and he turns out to be a eunuch. Boys and men in thousands were emasculated to serve the Muslim cities as domestics and guards in the harem primarily, although there was no work which was not assigned to them. In the Middle Ages there were many slave markets in Muslim cities in India and outside, and trade in slaves and eunuchs was a regular commercial activity. Many slaves and eunuchs were imported at high price from outside42, many others were bought within the country. But most of the eunuchs comprised of slaves captured during wars and then castrated.

The practice of converting men into eunuchs was very common in Bengal. “In Hindustan,” writes Jahangir, “especially in the province of Sylhet, which is a dependency of Bengal, it was the custom for the people of those parts to make eunuchs of some of their sons and give them to the governor in place of revenue (mal-wajibi)… This custom by degrees has been adopted in other provinces and every year some children are thus ruined and cut off from procreation. This practice has become common.”43 Bengal in the time of Jahangir was a very large province. Large tracts of Northern Hills, the Sarkar of Orissa and large parts of Bihar were in4dluded in it.44 If the practice of making eunuchs had become common outside Bengal also, then it seems it had spread almost all over the empire. Jahangir issued farmans abolishing the practice and hoped for the best. But a system in which revenue was collected in the form of eunuchs, could not be changed through a few orders. Said Khan Chaghtai, a noble of Jahangir possessed 1,200 eunuchs.45 Besides, eunuchs formed a profitable commercial commodity and, as we shall see in the chapter on Slave Trade, the price of a eunuch in the market was three times that of an ordinary slave. Therefore, some areas, notably Bengal, were regular providers of eunuchs for the Muslim upper classes in Delhi, Isfahan and Samarkand.46 In 1668 Aurangzeb also prohibited castration of young boys “throughout the empire”.47 It appears that in forbidding eunuch-making, Jahangir was apprehensive of decline in Muslim demography while Aurangzeb was prompted by religious motives. Yet, in spite of their orders, young men continued to be turned into eunuchs and Jahangir and his successors themselves went on accepting eunuchs as gifts for duties in the harem.48 In Aurangzeb’s time in the city of Golkunda (Hyderabad), in the year 1659 alone, 22,000 individuals were emasculated.”49

The need for turning so many boys and men into eunuchs and also obtaining them from outside is obvious. The safety, security and surveillance of a large number of beautiful women in the seraglio could not be left only to female matrons. And normal healthy men could not be trusted to serve in the harem in which resided so many sex-starved young women.50 So the safest thing was to make men who were on duty in the harem harmless. The king also lived in the harem, and nobles and servants personally attending on him also had to be eunuchs. The cruelty entailed in this system was nobody’s concern in a despotic regime. On the other hand, it was very advantageous to the master. Once a man was made eunuch, his sensibility for manhood was dwarfed, his spirit of assertiveness destroyed, and he was perforce turned into a loyal and devoted slave; it did not matter to the master if his loyalty and devotion were fruits of compulsion. So the practice of making eunuchs went on and on under Muslim rule. If eunuchs were denied “the greatest pleasures attainable in this world,”51 they were compensated by sometimes performing great feats of bravery, by showing great loyalty to the master or by just piling up great wealth.

It is not the task of the historian to pity the eunuchs or condemn those who emasculated them. But pernicious was the system in which man could exploit man to this extent. It is another matter that most eunuchs perforce reconciled themselves to their lot, though cruelty and crime could go no farther than deforming and desexing of man by man. Many, people suffered because of the medieval Muslim slave system, but undoubtedly the eunuchs suffered the most.


1The Arabs, 99.

2 Khondamir, E.D., IV, 149-50; Farishtah, I, 38.

3 Minhaj, 83-84 and n.

4 Farishtah, I, 103.

5 Barani, 369.

6 Barani, 390-408; Isami, 353-63; Farishtah, I, 125.

7Tarikh-i-Daudi, passage trs. by N.B.Roy, in his Niamatullah’s History of the Afghans, 134.

8Ibid., pp. 302-307.

9 Barani, 443.

10 Ishwari Prasad, Qaraunah Turks 39-40, citing Ibn Battuta, Defd. and Sang. III, 212-14.

11 Afif, 270, 272; Qureshi, Administration, 67n.

12. Afif, 268.-72. Also Ibn Battuta. 63.

13 Afif, 267-273. Large portions trs. in E.D., III, 340-42.

14 Minhaj, 168 n 2. Also Ibn Khaldun trs. in Bernard Lewis, Islam, 98.

15 E.D., III, 577.

16 Afif, loc. cit.

17 Lal, Khaljis, 288.

18 Farishtah, I, 153.

19 Afif, 273; Farishtah, I, 153.

20 Lal, Twilight, 12.

21 Manucci, II, 352; Finch in Foster, Early Travels, 16, 265.

22 Manucci, II, 350.

23 Yahiya, Tarikh-i-Mubarak Shahi, 156; Badaoni, Ranking, I, 348; Farishtah, I, 154. Lal, Twilight, 9, 68-69. 

24Ain., I, 442.

25Ain, 207, 570. Badaoni, Text, 311.

26Maasir-ul-Umara, I, 93-100.

27 Tuzuk, II, 83.

28 E D, VII, 150.

29 Sarkar, Fall of the Mughal Empire, I, 440.

30 Manucci, II, 350-51.

31 Barbosa, II, 147.

32 Hamiduddin Bahadur, Ahkam-i-Alamgiri, English trs. by Jadunath Sarkar, Calcutta, 1912, 71-72.

33 Manucci, II 350.

34 Bernier, 267; Manucci, II, 352, 357.

35 Bernier, 144-45.

36 Manuncci, II, 80.

37 Pelsaert, 66; Bernier, 131; E.D., VI, 493-516.

38 Lal, Mughal Harem, 158-59, 184-85, 187-88.

39 Saqi Mustaad Khan, Maasir-i-Alamgiri, 73.

40 Ain., I, 443.

41 A.N., II, 351-52.

42 Bernier, 134-36, 426.

43 Jahangir, Tuzuk, I, 150-51.

44 Ibid., 207 and n.

45 Tuzuk, I, 13, 168; Tarikh-i-Salim Shahi, 16; Maasir-ul-Umara, II, 403.

46 Elst, Indigenous Indians, 375-76.

47 Saqi Mustaad Khan, Maasir-ul-Alamgiri, 48; Sarkar, Aurangzeb, III, 61.

48 Tuzuk, I, 247.

49 Elst, op.cit., 376 quoting Michel Erlich, Les Mutilations Sexuelles, Paris, 1991, 59.

50 Lal, Mughal Harem, 179-80.

51 Manucci, II, 78-79.

Back to Contents Page   Back to VOI Books   Back to Home