Sher Shah, Ghilzais and the name “Suri”

Sultan Sher Shah Suri of Delhi

Research has proven beyond doubt that “Suri” was the adjective of the House of Suren — the royal house of ancient Sistan in eastern Persia. The House of Suren was also one of the Seven Royal Parthian Clans of ancient Persia, being the most powerful and turbulent among them.

Sistan was originally known as Sakastan, because that is where the invading Saka Scythians had settled — and fused with the powerful Parthians to form the Saka-Parthian confederacy. The Sakas were responsible for the language now called Pashto — and Sistan figures in Persian epic history as being the land of Zal, Rustam and Sohrab. The Parthians were known as Pahlavis and that is where the term “Pahlawan” comes from. So perhaps there are more linkages between all these things than we can see…

It is also known that the actual family name of the Ghoris was also “Suri”. (They were additionally known as Shansabani, so either word could have denoted a clan subdivision of the other — or Suri could have been their assumed title. There were other Iranian princes also known as Suri). Be that as it may, the area later known as Ghor was the central part of Sistan. The use of the name “Ghori” by these Suri princes seems to have been a much later addition, and related to their belonging from the Ghor area. They eventually came to be known only by that name and Suri was forgotten.

The Ghori princelings were Iranian, but were known to practice Hinduism. That was a result of 350 years of Hindu “Shahiya” rule in Khorasan. For a while, they used Muslim names while retaining their older faith, to please the Caliph of Baghdad. With their complete conversion to Islam at the hands of the Ghaznavid Sultan Bahram Shah in the 1030s, they began their ascendancy. They gradually conquered not only Khorasan, but also northern India by 1190.

The armies of the Suri Sultans of Ghor were made up of Turkish Khalaj (Khilich or Khallukh) mercenaries who had settled in Khorasan over the last few centuries. These people were now known as “Khilji”. With the addition of other Afghans to the victorious Ghori-Khilji armies, this compound of Suri-Khalji-Afghan began to fuse together and came under the sway of the Afghan culture and its Pashto language. Thus they all became Pashtunised and another branch of the Pashtuns-Afghans was born, called the “Ghalji” or “Ghilzai”. These new “Afghans” were the people who established and ruled the Delhi Sultanate throughout its existence. But this branch of “Afghans” was forming during the time of their rule in India and had acquired its final shape by the time the Delhi Sultanate was ending in the 1520s. The Swati Dehqans who ruled the regions north of the Delhi Sultanate — were also subordinates and allies of the Ghoris and later Ghaljis.

Sher Shah Suri lived at the time that the Ghalji ethnic identity had freshly solidified. He belonged to the same original Suri clan of Ghoris, which was now part of the new Ghalji Pashtun tribal pool. Before him, another Ghalji clan, called the Lodhis had formed the last dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate — which had been ruled by other Suri-Khilji allies including slave (Mamluk) Turks, Tughlaq Turks and Syeds also.

In effect, Sher Shah Suri was the last real Sultan of Delhi. The Ghaljis later went on to gain fame (or notoriety) when another of their tribes known as the Hotaks managed to conquer and hold Persia for 20 years about 150 years after Sher Shah himself.

POSTSCRIPT: ON THE ROLE OF PASHTO

As said above, the language now called Pashto is very likely to have been an underlying influence that was present in the Ghoris from ancient Sassanian times (from 1000 years before the Ghori times at least) — but during their rise to glory it seems that this influence emerged from obscurity and “snowballed” manifold in its importance. But even if this was so, it happened in a certain manner: for there is no record to prove that the business of either the Ghori Empire nor its successor the Delhi Sultanate — were ever conducted in Pashto; as always, this language remained on an obscure, secondary level of function — limited only to a spoken role on the informal and private levels of certain sections of the social milieu. Till very recently, that was the case with most of the Afghan elite. There does not exist any written body of literature of this language till at least the late 16th Century onwards — contrary to the pathetic and comical efforts of Afghanistani nationalist historians to fabricate evidence in this regard — such as the “epic” called “Putta Khazana”. The language is definitely ancient, linked as it is to the Saka nomads — but has remained lurking in the shadows of history, so to speak, till the previous century (and there were reasons for this which I will discuss elsewhere and separately).

Finally, it can be said that in causing the formation of the Ghaljis, the Ghori Suris can be said to have laid the very foundations of “Afghani statehood”.