Mahmud Of Ghazni And The Afghans


Early in the eighth century, in 712, the Arabs had reached Sind and occupied it. They stopped there. Even Sind fell away from the Arab Empire within half a century or so, though it continued as a small independent Moselm state. For nearly 300 years there was no further invasion of or incursion into India. About 1000 A.C. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni in Afghanistan, a Turk who had risen to power in central Asia, began his raids into India. There were many such raids and they were bloody and ruthless, and on every occasion Mahmud carried away with him a vast quantity of treasure. A scholar contemporary, Alberuni, of Khiva, describes these raids: ‘The Hindus became like the atoms of dust scattered in all directions and like a tale of old in the mouths of people. Their scattered remains cherish of course the most inveterate aversion towards all Muslims.

This poetic description gives us some idea of the devastation caused by Mahmud, and yet it is well to remember that Mahmud touched and despoiled only a part of north India, chiefly along the lines of his marches. The whole of central, eastern, and south India escaped from him completely.

South India at that time and later, was dominated by the powerful Chola Empire which controlled the sea routes and had reached as far as Srivijaya in Java and Sumatra. The Indian colonies in the eastern seas were also flourishing and strong. Sea power was shared between them and south India. But this did not save north India from a land invasion.

Mahmud annexed the Punjab and Sind to his dominions and returned to Ghazni after each raid. He was unable to conquer Kashmir. This mountain country succeeded in checking and repulsing him. He met with a severe defeat also in the Rajputana desert regions on his way back from Somnath in Kathiawar.* This was his last raid and he did not return.

Mahmud was far more a warrior than a man of faith and like many other conquerors he used and exploited the name of religion for his conquests. India was to him just a place from which he could carry off treasure and material to his homeland. He enrolled an army in India and placed it under one of his noted generals, Tilak by name, who was an Indian and a Hindu. This army he used against his own co-religionists in central Asia.

Mahmud was anxious to make his own city of Ghazni rival the great cities of central and western Asia and he carried off from India large numbers of artisans and master builders. Building interested him and he was much impressed by the city of Mathura (modern Muttra) near Delhi. About this he wrote: ‘There are here a thousand edifices as firm as the faith of the faithful; nor is it likely that this city has attained its present condition but at the expense of many millions of dinars, nor could such another be constructed under a period of 200 years.

In the intervals of his fighting Mahmud was interested in encouraging cultural activities in his own homeland and he gathered together a number of eminent men. Among these was the famous Persian poet Firdausi, author of the ‘Shahnamah’, who later fell out with Mahmud. Alberuni, a scholar and traveller, was a contemporary, and in his books he gives us a glimpse into other aspects of life in central Asia then. Born near Khiva, but of Persian descent, he came to India and travelled a great deal. He tells us of the great irrigation works in the Chola kingdom in the south, though it is doubtful if he visited them himself or went to south India. He learnt Sanskrit in Kashmir and studied the religion, philosophy, science, and arts of India. He had previously learnt Greek in order to study Greek philosophy. His books are not only a storehouse of information, but tell us how, behind war and pillage and massacre, patient scholarship continued, and how the people of one country tried to understand those of another even when passion and anger had embittered their relations. That passion and anger no doubt clouded judgments on either side, and each considered his own people superior to the other. Of the Indians, Alberuni says that they are ‘haughty, foolishly vain, self-contained, and stolid,’ and that they believe ‘that there is no country like theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no science like theirs.’ Probably a correct enough description of the temper of the people.

Mahmud’s raids are a big event in Indian history, though politically India as a whole was not greatly affected by them and the heart of India remained untouched. They demonstrated the weakness and decay of north India, and Alberuni’s accounts throw further light on the political disintegration of the north and west.

These repeated incursions from the north-west brought many new elements into India’s closed thought and economy. Above all they brought Islam, for the first time, to the accompaniment of ruthless military conquest. So far, for over 300 years, Islam had come peacefully as a religion and taken its place among the many religions of India without trouble or conflict. The new approach produced powerful psychological reactions among the people and filled them with bitterness. There was no objection to a new religion but there was strong objection to anything which forcibly interfered with and upset their way of life.

India was, it must be remembered, a country of many religions, in spite of the dominance of the Hindu faith in its various shapes and forms. Apart from Jainism and Buddhism, which had largely faded away and been absorbed by Hinduism, there were Christianity and the Hebrew religion. Both of these had reached India probably during the first century after Christ, and both had found a place in the country. There were large numbers of Syrian Christians and Nestorians in south India and they were as much part of the country as anyone else. So were the Jews. And so too was the small community of the Zoroastrians who had come to India from Iran in the seventh century. So also were many Muslims on the west coast and in the north-west.

Mahmud came as a conqueror and the Punjab became just an outlying province of his dominions. Yet when he had established himself as a ruler there, an attempt was made to tone down his previous methods in order to win over the people of the province to some extent. There was less of interference with their ways and Hindus were appointed to high office in the army and the administration. Only the beginnings of this process are noticeable in Mahmud’s time; it was to grow later.

Mahmud died in 1030. More than 160 years passed after his death without any other invasion of India or an extension of Turkish rule beyond the Punjab. Then an Afghan, Shahab-ud-Din Ghuri, captured Ghazni and put an end to the Ghaznavite Empire. He marched to Lahore and then to Delhi. But the king of Delhi, Prithvi Raj Chauhan, defeated him utterly. Shahab-ud-Din retired to Afghanistan and came back next year with another army. This time he triumphed and in 1192 he sat on the throne of Delhi.

Prithvi Raj is a popular hero, still famous in song and legend,for reckless lovers are always popular. He had carried away the girl he loved and who loved him from the very palace of her father, Jaichandra, King of Kanauj, defying an assembled host of princelings who had come to offer court to her. He won his bride for a brief while, but at the cost of a bitter feud with a powerful ruler and the lives of the bravest on both sides. The chivalry of Delhi and central India engaged in internecine conflict and there was much mutual slaughter. And so, all for the love of a woman, Prithvi Raj lost his life and throne, and Delhi, that seat of empire,passed into the hands of an invader from outside. But his love story is sung still and he is a hero, while Jaichandra is looked upon almost as a traitor.

This conquest of Delhi did not mean the subjugation of the rest of India. The Cholas were still powerful in the south, and there were other independent states. It took another century and a half for Afghan rule to spread over the greater part of the south. But Delhi was significant and symbolic of the new order.

* There is a curious passage relating to this defeat in an old chronicle in Persian, the Tarikh -i-Sorath (translated by Ranchodji Amarji, Bombay, 1882) p. 112: ‘Shah Mahmud took to his heels in dismay and saved his life, but many of his followers of both sexes were captured … Turk, Afghan, and Mughal female prisoners, if they happened to be virgins, were accepted as wives by the Indian soldiers … The bowels of the others, however, were cleaned by means of emetics and purgatives, and thereafter the captives were married to men of similar rank.’ ‘Low females were joined to low men. Respectable mm were compelled to shave off their beards, and were enrolled among the Shekhavat and the Wadhel tribes of Rajputs; whilst the lower kinds were allotted to the castes of Kolis, Khantas, Babrias, and Mers.’ I am not myself acquainted with the Tarikh-i-Sorath and do not know how far it can be considered as reliable. I have taken this quotation from K. M. Munshi’s ‘The Glory that was Gurjardesa’ Part III, p. 140. What is especially interesting is the way foreigners are said to have been absorbed into the Rajput clans and even marriages having taken place. The cleansing process mentioned is novel.

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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