February 16, 2010


Islam made its premiere appearance in the Indian Subcontinent when Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the Umayyad governor of Iraq, sent an army under his son-in-law, Mohammed-bin-Qasim to punish Dhar - the ruler of Sindh, for his failure to deal effectively with the sea pirates who had captured the presents sent by the king of Sri Lanka to Hajjaj. Although Qasim managed to establish the Umayyad rule in Sindh (AD 712) and Multan (AD 713), his pre mature death, the division of Multan and Sindh into two separate Arab kingdoms and the administrative incapacity of the Arabs put a temporary full stop on the further expansion of the Islamic rule in India. As the religion of the Prophet ventured into new territories, the baton of Islam passed from the Arabs to the Persians and then, finally, to the Turks. Once a barbaric race of Central Asia, the Turks, transformed themselves into an extremely cultured people after their contact with Islam but retained their war-like spirit. It was this lethal combination that helped them defend many elements of their new religion from the onslaught of the Mongols, in the later period.

It was in this tribe that the first Sultan of the Islamic world, Mahmud of Ghazni was born on 1st November, 971. Although he had participated in many battles along with his father, King Sabuktigin, the throne, after the latter’s death, went to Mahmud’s younger brother, Ismail. However, destiny played its part and Mahmud deposed his brother and ascended the throne in 998 AD. Legend has it that, an year later, when the Khalifa, Al Qadir Billah recognized him as the ruler of the present day Southern Afghanistan and conferred on him the titles of ‘Yamin-ud-Daulah’ and ‘Amin-ul-Millah’, Mahmud took an oath to invade India, the ‘Land of the Kafirs’ every year. True to his word, in his reign exceeding three decades, Mahmud is said to have invaded India at least on twelve different occasions.  

From 1000 to 1014 AD, his invasions were mostly concentrated in regions that fall in modern day Pakistan, where he humbled the mighty Hindushahi kings and the Shia rulers of Multan. The relatively easy victories and the immense booty that he took to Ghazni by plundering cities like the Hindushahi capitals of Waihind (Peshawar) and Nandana in this part of the Subcontinent, made him expand his horizons and fuelled his desire to lay waste the Gangetic valley which, like today, was doted with temples whose riches, he was well aware of. Beginning with the sacking of Thaneswar (AD 1014), Mahmud is said to have looted Hindu religious centres like Mathura, Vrindavan, Kannauj (AD 1018) and finally, he razed the famed temple of Somanath (AD 1024) to the ground. Infact when Mahmud went to his grave, his empire extended from Kurdistan in the west to Samarkand in the north-east and from the Caspian Sea to the Yamuna and was even bigger than that of the Khalifa. Owing to the unprecedented success that he achieved in Central Asia and India, Muslim chronicles regard him as the first Sultan of the Islamic World, a title he deserves more than any of his contemporaries

Mahmud of Ghazni, beyond any doubt, is one of the most controversial figures in history of the Subcontinent, with his character being viewed through the spectrum of region and religion. In Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, Mahmud is celebrated as a hero and a great patron of the arts, architecture, literature, and Persian revivalism as well as a vanguard of Islam and a paragon of virtue and piety who established the standard of Islam upon heathen land. In fact, Pakistan, a state formed for the welfare of Indian Muslims, has christened one of its short range ballistic missile, Ghaznavi, in the honor of the Mahmud. However, in the Hindu dominated India, Mahmud is depicted as a Muslim villain and barbarian, who looted whatever he could, destroyed whatever he could not, took along with him the wealth of Hindu temples, forced lakhs of people to accept the faith of the Prophet, otherwise killed them, took thousands of beautiful women to Ghazni while countless others were dishonored here, burnt hundreds of villages and beautiful cities and destroyed pieces of arts.

Although there is little doubt that the one of the motives behind Mahmud’s repeated invasions into India was the propagation of Islam, new evidence unearthed from the medieval sources seem to indicate that there was more to Mahmud’s invasion than the spreading of the teachings of the Prophet. The following is a list of potential reasons that may have led the Sultan of Ghazni to invade India:

(1) Establishment of the Glory of Islam: Many modern Muslim historians argue that while Mahmud destroyed and plundered Hindu kingdoms of India, he repeated the same story with the Muslim rulers of Central Asia. Professor Havell believes that Mahmud would have also looted Baghdad the same way he looted Indian cities if he could get wealth there. As such, a sizable portion of modern day historians believe that Mahmud’s raids were to acquire the wealth of India, so as to finance his ambitions of expansions in Central Asia.

There is considerable evidence from writings of Al Beruni, Soghidan, Uyghur and Manichean texts that after the initial destruction and pillage, Buddhists, Jains and Hindus were granted protected subject status as Dhimmis. By that time, however, most of the centers of Buddhist and Hindu learning were already destroyed. Also a large number of Hindus were employed as soldiers in Mahmud’s multi-national army.

However, Utbi, the court historian of Mahmud claims that his master’s invasions were jihads to destroy the idolaters, their religion and temples. Contemporary Muslim sources regard Mahmud as a Ghazi (Slayer of the Infidels) and the destroyer of idols. Thus, while religion might have not been the only reason to invade India, yet it was one of the motives behind Mahmud’s raids into the Subcontinent.

(2) Wealth of India: The Indian Society in the early days of the second millennium AD presents a very sorry state and was a reason, tempting enough for any aggressive foreign ruler to aspire the riches of India. Politically, North India was fragmented into several strong and extensive kingdoms, whose rich resources were often wasted in internal conflicts. The caste system had become rigid and Hadis, Doms, Chandalas, Badhatu etc were forced to live in pathetic conditions on the outskirts of the villages. Social evils like Sati, child marriage and polygamy became the norm of the day whereas window re-marriages were not permitted. Deterioration in morals and religion can be concluded from the fact that the practice of keeping devadasis in temples was prevalent. However, the one thing that India possessed in abundance was wealth. The economy, unlike the society and religion was doing well and the wealth was concentrated in the hands of the rich and adorned the temples of India.

Meanwhile, Mahmud was an ambitious ruler and patronized arts. He aimed to use the spoils he amassed from India to sponsor his Central Asian campaigns and to make his capital, Ghazni, an important centre of Islamic learning in the eleventh century. Al beruni - the scholar of Sanskrit, Turki and Sciences, Firdausi – the author of Shahnameh, Utbi, Farabi, and Ujari etc endowed his court. It was from the money that he got from his Indian campaigns that Mahmud constructed several mosques, tombs, a university, a library and a museum in his capital, which made Ghazni, one of the most beautiful cities of this period and a hub of fine arts and culture.

(3) The Isolation of India and the Ignorance of the Hindus: The attitude of the Hindus of this era is correctly captured by Al Beruni when he says 

“The Hindus believe that there is no country like theirs, no nation like theirs,
no king like theirs, no religion like theirs, and no science like theirs.”

As such the Hindus were completely cut off from the events that unfolded in the rest of the Old World and this led to the development of a false pride in them. The Indians had lost the vigor and intelligence that they were once known for and were not in a position to improve themselves or to absorb new things from the rest of the world. Over the last few centuries, the Indians failed to make much progress in the spheres of combat and strategic planning. The sword continued to remain their chief fighting weapon and the north-west frontier was not sufficiently fortified.

As such the Turkish forces with their superior fighting skills and weaponry, coupled by their fast moving cavalry routed the slow moving Rajputs in more than one occasion. In fact, Rajyapala, - the Prathihara ruler of Kannauj, Vidhyadhar – the Chandela king of Kalinjar and Bhima I – the ruler of Gujarat seem to have fled at the sight of Mahmud’s mighty forces without offering any resistance. After the collapse of the Hindushahis, Mahmud found no real challenge in rest of the Subcontinent and invaded and looted it at his will as the people, from the common man on the streets to the ineffective Rajput kings of the North looked on helplessly and prayed that the man who had tormented them, destroyed their temples and looted their wealth would not come back to haunt them again.

(4) The Aggressive Policy of the Hindushahis: The rivalry between the Hindushahi kings of North Western India and the Ghaznavis dates back to the days of Mahmud’s father, Sabuktigin. When the Hindushahi king Jayapala invaded Ghazni during the reign of the cruel king Pirai, it was Sabuktigin in his capacity as the commander of the Ghazni forces who defeated him. On his ascend to the throne, Sabuktigin repulsed another two invasions by the Hindushahi kings. Thus, it was the kings of India who first took an aggressive stance against the growth of Islam in Afghanistan region. But the strength of the Turks and the military incapacity of the Hindus meant that the latter were beaten back and they ended up giving enough excuses for the Turks to try out their luck in India.

When he came to the throne, Mahmud pursued an aggressive policy against the Hindushahis. The defeat that he inflicted on Jayapala (AD 1001) was so humiliating that he is said to have committed suicide by walking into the funeral pyre, unable to come in terms with magnitude of his loss. His successors, Anandapala and Trilochanapala tried to defeat the Ghaznavis by enlisting the support of various other chiefs but failed on more than one occasion. During one of the battles (AD 1009), the confederacy formed by Anandapala faced an unfortunate defeat as his elephant turned back from the battle in a crucial moment, turning the tide into Mahmud's favor once more. Thus Mahmud was single handedly responsible of extinguishing the once powerful Hindushahi dynasty and its last ruler is said to have died as petty chieftain.

Also some of Mahmud’s invasions were to quell the revolts that had taken place in his absence or to prevent Rajput states from forming alliances against him. He raided and annexed Multan (AD 1008) after its ruler Abu-i-Fath Daud and Mahmud’s governor, Nawasa Shah rebelled against the Turks when the Sultan was busy fighting the Seljuk-Turks. The primary motive of his invasion of Chandela territories (AD 1019) was to break up the alliance that the Chandela, the Prathihras and the Hindushahis had formed against him. Mahmud came back to India for the last time (AD 1027) to punish the Jats who had troubled him o his way to Ghazni after sacking the temple of Somnath.

(5) Elephants: Dr A. B. Pandey has opined that the search for the great pachyderms may have been one of the reasons for Mahmud to invade India. In fact, all throughout the medieval period, the elephants were used in wars. A herd of well trained elephants was enough to put the enemy army in a state of utter confusion and chaos. Mahmud is said to have released Jayapala (AD 1001), the Hindushahi ruler after he agreed to a humiliating treaty that included a clause by which the Sultan got 25 elephants. He said to have got a further 300 elephants from the Chandela ruler, Vidhyadhar (AD 1020-21) as a tribute in return of the right of governing 15 fortresses. Hence, there is enough historic evidence to support Mahmud wanted Indian elephants so that they could be utilized in wars against his enemies in the west.

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once said, “Civilizations, like empires, fall, not so much because of the strength of the enemy outside as through the weakness and decay within.” In fact, the sharp social differences and corruption that plagued contemporary India had made the society hollow and it was in no position to resist their powerful invaders. The arrogance of the Hindus and their inability to make breakthroughs in the fields of combat and weaponry added to the miseries already present in the society. On the contrary, the Turkish armies, inspired by their new religion, were more determined than ever to establish the glory of Islam and routed the Rajput armies by their fast moving cavalry. As such, the wealth of India was like the wealth of a weak person which could tempt any strong man, like Mahmud to possess it.


(1) History of Medieval India 1000 - 1740 AD by L. P. Sharma (3rd Edition)

(2) Wikipedia – Mahmud of Ghazni (Link