Muslim Sultans of Kashmir occupied the throne for more than two centuries and a half. The most remarkable and popular of them all was Shahi Khan, the youngest and favourite son of Sultan Sikandar, the sixth sultan of the Shah Mir dynasty. Named Shahrukh by parents, Shahi Khan was charged with the rule of the kingdom of Kashmir when his elder brother, Ali Shah, left on a pilgrimage to Mecca. It was at this time Ali Shah gave him the title of Zain-ul-Abidin, literally the “Ornament of the Adorers”, or the “Glory of the Devout”. He was the eighth ruler of the 222-year-long Kashmir Sultanate and he ruled from 1420-1470 A.D.
He was noted early in life for his abilities. His accession was, therefore, hailed with joy by both Hindus and Muslims. He ushered in a period of nearly half a century of peace, prosperity and benevolent rule for his people. The first thirty-five years of his reign are described by Jonaraja in the Rajatarangini Dvitiya, while the subsequent years are described by the pupil of Jonaraja, Srivarain, in the Rajatarangini Tritiya. He acquired a halo in popular imagination which still surrounds his name in spite of the lapse of nearly five-hundred years. He was known by his subjects and indeed still is, as Budshah (the Great King). Historian Mohibul Hasan has said that “Of all the Sultans who sat on the throne of Kashmir, Zain-ul-Abidin was undoubtedly the greatest”.
About his physical appearance Srivara says that he was handsome and had a black, flowing beard. He was married to Taj Khatoon, to whom he had been very devoted. He possessed a deeply religious nature, a mild temper and was very rarely provoked to anger. He was strict in performance of his religious duties, praying five times a day and keeping the Ramadan fasts during which he did not take meat.
Although fundamentally a peaceful man, Zain-ul-Abidin was protective of his territory. Operating from Naushehar, the capital he founded, he had a strong army but was not known for conquests like his grandfather Shihab-ud-Din. 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. The Sultan conquered whole of the Punjab. He added Western Tibet between 1460-1470 A.D to his dominion. Here he rescued a golden image of Buddha from destruction in Saya-Desha above Leh on the Indus. He had excellent relationship with most of his contemporary kings within the neighbourhood, especially in Central Asia and mainland India. Available records suggest his impressive diplomacy even with states as far as Mecca.
When Zain-ul-Abidin came to the throne, corruption in the country was rampant. He appointed spies to inform him about the conduct of his officials of all ranks. His spy system was so efficient that the Sultan was able to know “all about his subjects except their dreams”.
To his good fortune the Sultan had a band of trustworthy and able followers like Helmat Raina and Ahmad Raina. He appointed his brother Mohammad Khan as his chief minister. Srivara, his Hindu historian and author of Zainatarangni, says that Zain-ul-Abidin “published a common order that if any theft occurred anywhere, the headman of the village or town where the theft occurred should be held responsible”.
Contribution to Education
Zain-ul-Abidin received a good education at home. He had his education under Maulana Kabir. He took great interest in the spread of education in Kashmir. He opened a school near his palace in Naushehar (Srinagar), and placed it in charge of Maulana Kabir. The Sultan himself occasionally went there to attend the lectures. Another place where education was imparted was the hospice of Sheikh Ismail Kubrawi who later in the reign of Hasan Shah became Sheikh-ul-Islam. He opened many schools, colleges and also built hostels where board and lodging were free for poor students. The Sultan sent his agents to all the neighbouring countries to collect 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.
The Budshah was not only a patron of learned men, he was himself a scholar and a poet. He knew Sanskrit, Persian and Tibetan. Mahabharata and Rajatarangini of Kalhana were translated into Persian on his orders. The Sultan is said to have been the author of two works in Persian, one of them on the manufacture of fireworks in the form of a dialogue, a method which became a model for the Kashmiri writers. In another one named “Shikayat” he discussed the vanity and transitoriness of this world. The Sultan also composed poetry in Persian under the ‘Nom De Plume of Qutb’.
Contribution to Art and Craft
One of the greatest contributions of Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin was in the fields of arts and crafts. He invited trained craftsmen from other countries especially Samarqand to train his subjects. Some of the handicrafts introduced include carpet weaving and embroidery, silver and copperware, papier mache, wood work and carving, Khatam band, etc. He introduced art of making pashmina shawl, from Tibet. In India, the first paper industry was developed in Kashmir, established by the Sultan.
Religious Policy of Zain-ul-Abidin
It is a recognized fact of history that Zain-ul-Abidin was the author of a new chapter of tolerance, mutual good-will and co-existence in the history of Kashmir. He avoided the atrocious precedent of his father who adhered to a policy of religious persecution. Nor was he myopic, narrow minded and fired with religious sectarianism. Living in an age when religious persecutions were the order of the day, his reign shines out as a gem amidst the narrow-minded and short-sighted rulers of his time. He made Kashmir a real paradise in which men of all religions and nationalities mingled together and shared one another’s joy and sorrow. In return for his patronage and love the Hindus vied with the Muslims in turning their homeland into a smiling garden of peace and prosperity. He abolished the Jizya and allowed the Hindus to build their temples and follow the personal law according to the Dharmashastras. He is credited for inspiring the genesis of Kashmiriyat – a socio- cultural ethos of religious harmony and Kashmiri identity.
Public works under Zain-ul-Abidin
Budshah was a great builder. He founded many towns after his name viz., Zainapur, Zainagir. The Sultan built magnificent places at Zainagar by the names of Zainadab. Zainadab was later burned down by Chaks. He also built an artificial island in the Wullar lake by the name of Zaina Lank and two in the Dal Lake viz., Sona Lank and Rupa Lank. At river Jhelum in Srinagar he built a larger wooden bridge by the name of the Zaina Kadal. He opened many dispensaries and employed many Hakims and Vaids there. Medicines were supplied free of cost. He also prevented the local governors from exacting illegal taxes and gave the peasants much needed tax relief.
He took keen interest in agriculture. He built floating islands on which crops were sown. He developed the irrigation system by making a number of tanks, canals and dams. To promote agriculture he built many canals as Kakapur canal, Karla canal, Chakdar canal, Shahkul canal, Awantipur canal, Mar canal, Lallakul or Pohru canal.
For most of the initial 30 years, the king faced no major challenge except the Chak chieftains taking a strong exception to his forced labour and triggering a sort of rebellion. Chaks 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. While Kashmir started getting out of these calamities, his three sons, Adam, Haji and Bahram rebelled against him but he took energetic measures to crush them. He was succeeded by his son Haji khan, who took the title of Haidar Khan.
Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin turned Kashmir into an industrial garden. As a result there was tremendous development in the valley. He was deservedly named Budshah or the great king. No tribute can repay the debt Kashmir owes to him forever. Since May 12, 1470, Kashmir’s Budshah, Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin lays resting outside his mother’s tomb.
Srivara in Rajatarangini says when Zain-ul-Abidin died in 1470 A.D., “No one cooked his food on the day; no smoke arose from the houses; all were dumb with grief. They lamented and said the king was the greatest among all sovereigns.”