Kashmir’s medieval Sultan Zain-ul-Abideen was tolerant, secular, humane and lover of knowledge and art. He built Kashmir and faced challenges as any other ruler did. He fought his elder brother initially and later had protracted battles with his two sons in battlefield on succession issue. Despite culling all males of a rebelling tribe and almost creating a small minaret of skulls comprising the mercenaries of his son, why Budshah is still immortal, more than 550 years after his death


Since May 12, 1470, Kashmir’s Budshah, Sultan Zainulabideen lays resting outside his mother’s tomb. But more than half-a-millennium later, he is still the last reference on governance in Kashmir. He is a legend nobody has come even closer within the Sultanate that his forefather Sultan Shahmir founded or the Chak rulers and the subsequent occupiers including Mughals, whose reign was not considered bad.

Post-1947 when a situation helped ethnic Kashmiris to take over the governance, for the first time after Hindu era ended with the mysterious death of Kota Rani in prison in 1339, no ruler could come even closer to Budsahah, the sovereign.  There was hugely popular ruler like Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and builder Prime Minister like Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad, but nobody was a match to Zainulabideen, who ruled for slightly more than half-a-century between 1420 and 1470.

Why this medieval king is still immortal in Kashmir? Why has not his reign permitted any of his successors in last more than 540 years to replace him in the folklore? Why is he the lone legend in the governance ring? As ruler of Kashmir, he faced Himalayan challenges – floods, fires, famines; he even fought his sons in battlefield, culled a rebelling tribe and created minarets of skulls in Srinagar, but he still is topping the list. Why? All these questions – the subject matter of this special anniversary issue- requires deconstructing the king and his reign on basis of the written record and the physical assets, he created.

Eighth ruler of 222-years long Kashmir Sultanate, Zainulabideen has been the longest ruling king of that era. His great-grand son Muhammad Shah ruled for 35 years in five terms.

Zainulabideen, named Shah Rukh by his parents, and known as Shahi Khan to the people, was the youngest son of Sultan Sikander (1389-1413), whose reign was the most interesting period because, after Kashmir’s transition to Islam, the faith had started impacting the governance structure. In Sikandar era, the new faith exhibited its physical symbols – from Jamia Masjid in the heart of city, to a chain of Khanqah’s within and outside the capital. A great host and facilitator of the central Asian Muslim preachers, Sikander’s governance structure and systems had a huge impact from these learned men.

A king who banned dancing of women, gambling, most of musical instrumentation, stayed away from wine and women, Sikander kept his harem strictly as per the limitations enforced by Shariah. He was the only king in Kashmir’s history who almost attempted creating an Islamic state. He established the office of Shaikh-ul-Islam, an immigrant from central Asia, and gave him a say in the governance. However, he survived as a controversial figure in history, mostly for the doings of his Commander-in-Chief, Saifuddin.

Saifuddin was Suhabutta, a key adviser to Sikander who converted to Islam at the hands Mir Mohammad Hamadani, son of revered Amir-e-Kabir. The neo-convert was the key force responsible for a series of measures that shrunken the space for Hindus, made them pay taxes and in certain cases attempted undoing their temples. A section of hardcore Brahmins did migrate out of the Jaziya-regime to retain their way of life.

Zainulabideen, named Shah Rukh by his parents, and known as Shahi Khan to the people, was the youngest son of Sultan Sikander (1389-1413), whose reign was the most interesting period because, after Kashmir’s transition to Islam, the faith had started impacting the governance structure.

Sikander had four sons from two wives, Mira and Shoba Devi. But he had literally banished his two sons from Shoba Devi to protect the succession rights of his sons from Mira: Mir Khan (alias Ali Shah), Shahi Khan (Zainulabideen) and Bahram Khan.

When the “weak” and “fickle-minded” Ali Shah took over, it was Saifuddin who was holding power. One of the two sons who were banished by Sikander had come to claim the throne but was routed by Sultan’s military. By then, Saifuddin started hitting every other person who wielded influence in durbar. He assassinated one Laddi Magre. After Saifuddin died, his people got into wider succession war for power and influence. Only three characters were left: Humsabhata, Saifuddin’s Hindu brother, Gauarabhatta, another relative and Laddaraja.

First Humsabhatta imprisoned Laddaraja. It made Gauarabutta powerful. So he set him free and both joined hands and killed Gauatabutta. Then Humsabhatta assassinated Laddaraja. Well before he could assassinate prince Shahi Khan (Zainulabideen), he was killed in Eidgah, which marked the first action of the prince to protect his future. History books suggest it was a key stroke by Budshah that made him popular among people.

Within a few years on throne, Ali Shah handed over power to his younger brother and left for Mecca pilgrimage. As he reached Jammu, his in-laws opposed his idea, forcing him to return and reclaim the throne from Zainulabideen. There are various versions of what happened between the two brothers, with the elder one supported by the Raja of Rajouri and Jammu, the latter being his father-in-law. Eventually, Ali Shah was assassinated and Zainuabideen took over firmly.

Zainulabideen had a strong army but, unlike earlier Sultants, he was not expansionist. He was not a good fighter as well. However, he defended the territory he inherited. Throughout his half-a-century rule, he sent his army to Gilgit and Baltistan many times to retain the desert as part of his state. He was once personally part of the campaign. He had excellent relationship with most of his contemporary kings within the neighbourhood, especially Central Asia and mainland India. A great lover of arts, crafts and literature, he would seek scholars instead of gems as gifts from other kings. Available records suggest his impressive diplomacy even with states as far as Mecca. He would identify the men of learning and invite them. In certain cases, he would send specially identified wise men to pick up skills and return home. There are instances when visitors from other states faced sort of limited coercion to transfer the skill they had.

Operating from Nowshehra, the capital he founded, Sultan’s level of tolerance was exemplary and that was key in encouraging part of the Hindu clergy that had fled during his father’s reign, to return home. His capital, now reduced to yet to another stinking locality of the city, housed a habitation of his courtiers and officials besides a 12-storey palace with every level having 50 rooms. It was surmounted with a golden dome as its halls had glass lining. Besides, he had set up a vast structure for knowledge and education. The local legend is that it housed a university that was almost bordering Aalamgiri Bazaar, a market that came up as a business hub in the latter part of the Mughal era. The palace went up in smoke and lacks any traces now. Many historians attribute it to the ravaging Chak’s who undid what Shahmiris had created. Locals, however, said that it is presumed to have existed on one side of the Nalabal culvert where some excavations were reported earlier.

Historian Mohibul Hassan, the former head of the history department in the University of Kashmir, whose magnum opus Kashmir Under the Sultans, is a major reportage of Kashmir’s medieval era, sees the king as a great human being, who despite not possessing any soldierly traits was an impressive ruler. On basis of the Sanaskrit and Persian histories, the author suggests the king was humble, tolerant, communicative and a concerned ruler. He would move around, talk to people, see how his administration was working, identify the problems and hunt a solution. He had flowing black beard and was sometimes disguising as a commoner to get closer to the people and identify the problems they were facing.

At personal level, he would pray five times a day, observing fast in Ramadhan, respecting the clergy of all faiths, consulting his Shaikh-ul-Islam and stayed away from profane. On basis of certain Sanskrit records, the author, however, says he sometimes indulged in wine but remained within limits. He had his harem restricted as per his faith. He also had a Hindu wife, the daughter of a Jammu Raja. Once, the Raja of Rajouri sent his daughter to the king. As her doli was on way, the king asked: which mother’s doli’s is that? But when it was revealed that it was supposed to be a young princess coming to get into his harem, he refused. This princess from Rajouri later set up Rajouri Kadal. Rajouri Raja is understood to have sent another of his daughter to the king’s harem.

Administration of justice, infused tolerance and trust in the ruling space apart, the king had two major jobs cutout for him. First was to improve the produce while prevented the floods from destroying the sultanate. He laid a chain of canals across Kashmir from south to north making people, located far away from the water source, till their lands. Even in Srinagar, mostly marsh, he set up a couple of canals to reclaim the land otherwise devoured by the dumps and wetlands. This had a massive impact on the food security and gradually pushed the place to prosperity. To help the people living in water bodies, he introduced the art of floating gardens so that they produce part of their requirements within the spaces they live. History has recorded plenty of food being produced and less taxes being levied by the king.

A music lover, the king had great appetite for arts, crafts and the knowledge. He formally set up an institution where the Persian written knowledge would be translated into Sanskrit and vice versa.

At the same time, he would identify spots of scenic importance and invest in creating his palaces and even set up towns. Frequently travelling to these palaces helped him to stay in touch with his subjects as the officials housed in and around these palaces would administer justice, encourage talent in arts, skills and knowledge. He had a robust espionage system that would keep him informed round the clock. With this system, the king created an impressive system of overseeing the administration and governance. A firm believer in delivery of justice, the king would ensure it is being delivered.

Srivara, his Hindu historian and author of Zainatarangni, has recorded various instances in which he ordered execution of murderers, which included his relatives and dear ones. This was despite the king was completely not supportive of severe punishment to thieves and cattle-lifters.

Zainulabideen had almost followed Ashoka in getting his orders and the rate lists of various items inscribed on copper plates that were on display in villages. Hoarding of essentials and profiteering was a serious crime.

A music lover, the king had great appetite for arts, crafts and the knowledge. He formally set up an institution where the Persian written knowledge would be translated into Sanskrit and vice versa. He invited great men of learning from various places in the neighbourng states to impart and coach the local talent. Even the skill specialists would be invited to train the natives.

Zainulabideen has created a chain of institutions where formal education was imparted. Some of these medieval schools were located outside Srinagar. Personally speaking four languages, and writing poetry, the king sent his agents to all the neighbouring countries to collect the manuscripts or their copies for a huge library he had set up in his palace. He is personally responsible for getting the natives trained in papermaking, bookbinding and other various skills by sending them to various central Asian kingdoms.

An artist’s rendition of Sultan Zainulabideen

For most of the initial 30 years, the king faced no major challenge excepting the Chak chieftains taking a strong exception to his forced labour and triggering a sort of rebellion. Chak’s set afire his Sopore palace twice and in reaction he got all of them arrested and killed all their men.

However, his last two decades were exceptionally difficult. It initially started with a famine triggered by a mid-summer snowfall. As people were recovering, a flood destroyed Kashmir two years later.

Zainulabideen had almost followed Ashoka in getting his orders and the rate lists of various items inscribed on copper plates that were on display in villages. Hoarding of essentials and profiteering was a serious crime

While Kashmir started getting out of these calamities, his three sons – Adham, Haji and Bahram – engaged in an early succession war and started fighting within and even with their father. Quite early, the king had indicated Haji, his second of three sons, to succeed him. He fought a war each with Haji (in Hirpore Shopian) and Adham (in Sopore in which the town was destroyed). After one such war, he created a minaret of skulls of the mercenaries of one of his sons.

For whole of his life, the king changed his idea of successor-ship from one son to another and finally he left it to destiny. He found faults with his son by insisting that Adham was miser and surrounded by unscrupulous elements, Haji was a drunkard and Bahram was licentious.

Unable to manage himself in the last years of his rule, Zainualbideen was so frightened by the disloyalty surrounding him that he would presume as if his ministers were trying to poison him. He would have his meals quite reluctantly. History has recorded that he was suffering from dementia and would not remember anything at all, at his fag end. He would barely sign papers and later he would not reply and respond vaguely or do not reply at all.

But the question remains: why Budshah is immortal in Kashmir history? Was he because he got good historians? Was it because he managed to get Kashmir out of feudal wars? Was it because he ensured people live happy and prosperous life? While lot of work has been done by researchers, this question still requires re-work.