Canberra, 09 November 2015

The Rise of the Ghaznavids

On coming to power in 977, Sabuktigin set about placing the Ghazni sultanate on firm footings, laying the foundation for the administration of the land and the raising of revenue on a regular basis. He could be considered the founder of the Ghaznavid dynasty rather than Alptigin his master who left his holdings in a shabby state without establishing full centralising control. Sabuktigin took up arms against his neighbours and others from the very beginning of his rule, sometimes for righteous reasons and at others for the wrong causes. In most instances he was successful in his battles and can be truly considered the epitome of a medieval warring prince. He forged together a remarkable kingdom, located at the confluence of Europe and Asia. If the kingdom had been consolidated in a better manner than it was in later times, it could have influenced the flow and direction of broader world history rather than purely Indian history as it went on to do for the next few centuries.

The 16th century Persian historian Firishta recorded a genealogy of Sabuktigin, which shows him as having descended from the old Sasanian emperors of Persia. This is obviously a made up story and should be considered an attempt to glorify Sabuktigin’s status by connecting him to the older Persian nobility, and therefore must be discarded. Sabuktigin strengthened the throne of Ghazni and placed the sultanate on very firm foundations, also making the succession hereditary. He ruled for 20 years and continually extended the borders of the kingdom, capturing Kabul from the Hindushahi king Jayapala and extending the northern border to the River Oxus. In the west the Ghaznavid kingdom shared a border with Iran and claimed supremacy over Khorasan, till then under the Samanids and the origin of Alptigin’s power base.

Jayapala the Hindushahi King

The Hindushahi kingdom was large, consisting of the upper Indus valley; the whole of the Punjab; northern Sindh; stretched in the west all the way to the mountains; and bordered the River Hakra in the east. The capital of the kingdom was Bathinda (Bhatinda) west of Patiala. Sabuktigin led few expeditions against the outskirts of the Shahi kingdom in 986-7 with limited success. A number of outlying forts were plundered and some booty taken. Jayapala, the ruling Hindishahi king, could not ignore these raids for long and retaliated about two years later by collecting a large army and meeting Sabuktigin in battle somewhere between Lamgham (contemporary Jalalabad) and Ghazni.

Jayapala was conclusively defeated and accepted a somewhat humiliating treaty according to which he agreed to pay a large sum of money to Sabuktigin and also ceded control of four fortresses west of the River Indus. However, on return to his capital he broke the compact. In response, Sabuktigin devastated the frontier of the kingdom and captured Lamgham.

In what can only be termed a rare event in Indian history, Jayapala gathered an army of his allies, creating the first confederacy of Indian princes to oppose an external aggression. [Contemporary analyses attempt to provide a ‘Hindu’ nationalistic and religious twist to this alliance. The alliance was not religious, it so happened that the kings of India arraigned against a common adversary at that time were uniformly Hindus, since Islam had not yet made an entry and Buddhism was almost extinct in India, and the adversary happened to be of a different faith as countless invaders previously had been.] Predominant in the alliance was Ganda the Chandela king and Rajyapala the king of Kanauj.

The Hindu confederacy met with a disastrous defeat near the Kurram valley and fled back to the interior of their kingdoms, while Sabuktigin went on to occupy Peshawar.

It is true that this initial Ghaznavid invasion was a limited thrust into the Punjab, but it signified the first Muslim invasion of the sub-continent through the passes of the north-west and clearly marked the way into Hindustan. Another fact of interest and importance is that the formation of the confederacy refutes the belief and charges levelled regularly against the Hindu rulers of the time by ‘modern’ historians that they could not, or did not, unite against a common adversary. Regrettably, very limited information is available regarding the bringing together of the confederacy and the manner in which it functioned. The only sources are the Islamic records that provide only perfunctory information, stating that a combined army was defeated by Sabuktigin who went on to annex Peshawar to the Ghazni kingdom. [This is not surprising since the Muslim chroniclers would have been at pains to extol the virtues and accomplishments of their patron and therefore given short shrift to the achievements of the Indian princes.] However, considering the acumen and sagacity of the kings of the generation it can be concluded that they were indeed aware of the grave peril posed by the menace of Islam and therefore came together in an attempt to stem the tide. As it often happens in history, it was unfortunate that they were unsuccessful.

Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni

Sabuktigin appointed his eldest son Mahmud, born to the daughter of a Persian aristocrat from Zabulistan on 2 November 971, as the commander of the Khorasan army. The young Mahmud was an excellent military commander and in 994, when the Turkish Qarakhanids attacked the Caliphate, the Samanid amirs relied on him to hold the attack back.

Sabuktigin died in 997 after having divided his kingdom between his three sons and a brother, giving them the status of governors of the provinces allocated to them. This attempt at dividing a kingdom that he has so assiduously gathered and held together leads one to believe that Sabuktigin may not have thought of creating an independent dynasty or sultanate. Mahmud was clearly unhappy with his inheritance. He was ambitious, had his father’s soldierly energy, spirit and flair for command, and also possessed an abundance of restless energy. He also had a zeal for Islam, a dominant trait in all the mamelukes, and matched it with the temper of a zealot. [An uncompromising zeal for upholding the values of their religion is seen to be normal to recent converts in all religious faiths and can be witnessed even today.]

Mahmud’s brother Ismail had been given the area around Ghazni to rule, an area that Mahmud felt was his by primogenital right since it contained the capital. He therefore asked Ismail to surrender the capital, a demand that was obviously refused. In 998, the armies of the brothers met outside Ghazni in battle in which Ismail was roundly defeated and captured, spending the rest of his life in prison. At the young age of 27, Mahmud had become the ruler of the kingdom of Ghazni. He was the first Ghaznavid ruler to be awarded the title of Sultan and because of it, and perhaps more because of his military exploits, Ghazni and the Ghaznavids are perpetually associated with him. [The Gahaznavid kingdom has been referred to in this narrative as a sultanate from the beginning, although correctly it should be called a sultanate only after the time of Mahmud obtaining the title of Sultan.]   His title of Sultan and a string of other honorifics were secured from the Abbasid Caliph Al-Qader, thereby legitimising his rule with the stamp of temporal authority. At this stage the Ghaznavid sultanate consisted of the Samanid lands south of the River Oxus and Khorasan, which was almost the entire Afghanistan and some parts of Pakistan. [It is interesting that the present day Islamic State functioning in the Middle-East has created a Wilayat (province) Khorasan within their so-called Caliphate, which confirms almost exactly to the geographical spread of Mahmud’s Khorasan.]

Mahmud – The Warrior

Mahmud was a staunch and pious Muslim. Following his father’s footsteps, Mahmud decided to wage a ‘Holy War’ against the infidels in Hindustan, vowing to invade the sub-continent every year. Towards this end he put together an army of great prowess. The missionary creed of Prophet Muhammad had by now become a routine fact for the Arabs and Persians. However, the Prophet’s teachings were a source of fiery inspiration for the untutored and ruthless warriors of the steppes. The zest for spreading the faith through war and conquest made these horsemen valorous in battle and eager to achieve martyrdom, making them almost invincible soldiers. Mahmud of Ghazni harnessed this unstoppable force into an army of God.

Even though not keeping to the letter of his vow, Mahmud adhered to its spirit, invading India 17 distinct times between 1000 and 1026. There is continuing debate regarding the number of invasions, some historians stating it as only 16.

Mahmud’s Indian Campaigns

Sir Henry Miers Elliot (1 March 1808 – 30 December 1853) was an English civil servant and historian who worked with the East India Company in India for 26 years. He is best known for eight-volume set The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians based on his works and published posthumously between 1867 and1877 in London. He arranges Mahmud’s Indian invasions as given below:

  1. 1000 – Frontier towns; 2. 1001 – Peshawar and Waihind; 3. 1004 – Bhira; 4. 1006 – Multan; 5. 1007 – Nawasa; 6. 1008 – Nagarkot; 7. 1009 – Narain; 8. 1010 – Multan; 9. 1013 – Ninduna; 10. 1014 – Thanesar; 11. 1015 – Lohkot; 12. 1018 – Kanauj and Mathura; 13. 1021 – The Rahib; 14. 1022 – Kirat, Lohkot, Lahore; 15. 1023 – Gwalior, Kalinjar; 16. 1025-26 – Somnath; 17. 1026 – against the Jats.

The discrepancy in the count is because some historians do not count the campaign against the Jats as a separate invasion since it followed at the far end of the Somnath campaign and was not an independent invasion per se. Therefore, both the counts of 17 or 16 can be assumed to be correct.

The first raids were against the frontier towns that were held by Jayapala, who had already been defeated twice by Sabuktigin. Once again the hapless Jayapala was soundly defeated and captured in the battlefield on 28 November 1001. He was set free after an enormous ransom was paid in gold, said to be 90,000 guineas (an Arab gold dinar weighed exactly one half of a gold guinea). Jayapala, refusing to live in disgrace, brought on not so much by the military defeat but because of the dishonour of having been captured by a Muslim, self-immolated himself after handing over the kingdom to his son, displaying in all its glory the proud despair that both his race and religion were going through at that time.

This was the first crossing of the mountain border between the kingdoms of Central Asia and India of any serious consequence and should be counted as an event of global significance in history. It signalled the start of a continuous litany of Islamic invasions, initially by Mahmud himself and thereafter a horde of others, which gradually but with surely converted much of North India to the Islamic faith. The character of the North Indian society changed forever and eventually influenced the rest of the sub-continent; the repercussions of which are felt regularly even today. From this time onwards the Khyber Pass remained under the control of the Ghaznavid dynasty till their eventual decline and disappearance.

Mahmud continued his ceaseless campaigning into the plains of India for 26 years; military success bringing ever more plunder to the Ghaznavid coffer, which in turn brought more eager volunteers looking for easy booty to fight under Mahmud’s banner. Even so, the core of his army remained Arabs and Turks with the Turkish slaves who were also the palace guards forming the inner circle as the most loyal troops.

When Mahmud commenced his invasion in 1008, he was met by the combined armies of a caucus of Indian kings, led by Anandapala, the Hindushahi king and son of Jayapala. The combined Hindu army was almost victorious but at a crucial moment in the battle, Anandapala’s elephant took fright and bolted from the field. Since the army, large as it was, was only a lose confederacy, distrust spread very fast and the entire force fled the field in one great stampede. It is reported in the Muslim chronicles that this debacle took place only minutes before Mahmud was about to sound the retreat to his troops. The tide of battle turned in a very short span of time and Mahmud then went on to breech and capture the fortress at Kangra (Nagarkot) which had so far been considered impregnable. Immense wealth passed to the Ghaznavids, chronicled as 700,000 gold coins, 70 million silver dirhams and thousands of pounds of silver in the form of utensils and artefacts. Even if the quantum of the spoils have been exaggerated, it is certain that the plunder was colossal.

After the defeat of the allied forces led by Anandapala in 1008 there was no concerted opposition to subsequent invasions. Year after year Mahmud descended on the Indian plains, looted and plundered, and went back to Ghazni. It is speculated that several of the powerful kingdoms could have joined hands and defeated Mahmud on the battlefield, but internal jealousies and the inherently suspicious nature of the Indian ruling entity foreclosed any attempt at a unified resistance. The powerful Tomars of Delhi and Kanauj, the Palas of Magadha and lower Ganges in Bengal, the Chandelas of Mahoba, the Guptas of Malwa, and the Kalachuris of Narmada were all individually picked on, defeated and plundered at will by the Sultan of Ghazni, while the others looked on askance. Internecine rivalries and deep-rooted apathy have repeatedly proven to be the undoing of Indian kingdoms, throughout history.

In direct contrast to this disunity of race, geography and even culture that prevailed in the Indian sub-continent was the all-encompassing zeal of the Muslim soldier buttressed with the greed of the robber. These relentless horsemen of the steppes and the hardy mountain men of the Hindu Kush who formed the bulk of the Ghaznavid army were as poor as they were brave, and as covetous as they were devout—a combination to which the treasures of India proved irresistible. Although reliant on the cavalry as the main shock troops, over a period of time Mahmud’s army also adopted the elephant corpse as the heavy arm of an otherwise manoeuvring force.

‘The treasures of India, heaped up round the colossal figures of obscene idols, appealed irresistibly to these hungry fanatics. It was no wonder that they carried all before them, devoured the rich lands like a cloud of locusts, and returned to their frozen homes with a welcome such as meets the mooring of an argosy.’

Stanley Lane-Pool

Medieval India under Mohammadan Rule (AD 712-1764) p. 22

The most famous of Mahmud’s raids was on the shrine of Shiva in Somnath in Kathiawar in 1025-26.

The Sacking of the Somnath Temple

The temple in Somnath was dedicated to Shiva, the third entity in the Hindu triumvirate of Gods, located on the coast of the Arabian Sea in what is today the State of Gujarat. Its location itself was part of its security since it was many miles from the Punjab and Gangetic valley that bore the brunt of the external incursions and invasions into the Indian sub-continent. It was also outside the regular ambit of the Muslim raids that tended to pan out around the north-west and Rajasthan.

The temple was considered to be the wealthiest of all the Hindu establishments with 3000 Brahmins praying there daily and dances being performed continually throughout the 24 hours of the day, almost in perpetuity. The revenue from 10,000 villages was given to the temple as endowment.

Mahmud undertook the hazardous desert crossing with a large train of which 30,000 camels were loaded only with water and reached Somnath in January 1025. Two days of hard fighting followed, in which the Hindu army was defeated after suffering more than 50,000 people killed and many more incapacitated. The idol, a huge gold Shivalinga, is said to have been personally smashed by Mahmud and the pieces send to Ghazni to be used as steps for the palace and the great mosque there. The large gates of the temple were also hauled back to Ghazni to be displayed as part of the bounty brought back from the raid.

The sacking of the Somnath temple made Mahmud of Ghazni the unquestioned champion of Islam in the eyes of the Muslims for generations, a veneration that continues even today. Not only did the raid yield uncalculated wealth and immense treasure, but it also led to Mahmud’s exploits being publicised across the growing Islamic world, earning him the sobriquet ‘the hammer of idolaters’. Over years of glorified recollection of this victory, the feat has been embellished with fantastic stories and legends. What has often been left unsaid in these accounts is the fact that Mahmud met with a severe defeat at the hands of the local Rajput chieftains in the Rajasthan deserts on the return trip from Somnath. The Persian chronicle, Tarikh-i-Sorath, translated by Ranchodji Amarji in 1882, provides a graphic description of this defeat. This was also Mahmud’s last raid into India, the Sultan electing to not return to his favourite land for any further plunder. Since he ruled for a further four years before his death, the reason for this sudden reticence can only be guessed.

Mahmud was a great warrior and battlefield tactician. In 1026, in his famous action against the Jats who had rebelled and opposed his armies, he built a grand fleet of river boats and used naphtha, known as Greek fire, innovatively to gain victory. Mahmud is reported to have built 1400 boats to oppose the 4000 being sailed by the Jats, both the numbers being obvious exaggerations. The River Indus could not have held 5000 boats together at the same time and the Jats being primarily mountain and plains people could not have started a grand naval warfare. However, it is certain that some kind of a battle of boats did take place, which has become the origin of this legend.

Mahmud ruled for 32 years, a long reign by the standards of the day. The last four years of his reign was spent countering the increasing influx of the Ozhuz and Seljuk Turks from Central Asia into Ghaznavid territory. Although they were repulsed initially, the Seljuks continued their harassing raids trading territory for peace with Mahmud’s successors. Mahmud died on 30 April 1030 and is buried in a mausoleum located at Ghazni in Afghanistan.

Mahmud – The Sultan

Mahmud’s repeated invasions into India were purely treasure-collecting raids and not conquering marches with the intention to annex territory. Settling a few garrisons manned by Turks before returning to Ghazni started only in 1013, and even then were sporadic in nature. It is certain that Mahmud was content to launch swift assaults, collect treasure and return to Ghazni with the treasure and that he had no intention of staying in India for any protracted length of time. Even so, the North Indian kings were gradually worn down and became weary of the continuous onslaught, with their governance progressively becoming tenuous in the areas that came under repeated attacks. Equally gradually, the Turks started to fill the governance vacuum that was being created. However, it was only in 1021 that Punjab was finally annexed fully as an integral part of the Ghazni sultanate, when the last of the Hindushahi kings, Bhimapala the Fearless fled his kingdom when under attack. [There is some kind of an inexplicability to this king being given the epithet ‘the Fearless’!] This was the beginning of the Indian Ghaznavids, who made Lahore into a prominent centre of political power.

Muhamad was also renowned for his greed and avarice, not only for gold and silver but also for slaves. However, he based his uninterrupted plunder on the exhortations of the Koran and gave his actions a religious sanctity that it did not have in reality.

‘God has promised you rich booty, and has given you this with all promptness. He has stayed your enemies’ hands, so the He may make your victory a sign to true believers and guide you along a straight path…And God knows of other spoils which you have not yet taken. God has power over all things.’

The Holy Koran (48:20)

As quoted in Paddy Docherty, The Khyber Pass, p. 134

At least outwardly, Muhamad claimed that he was doing God’s work by seizing the wealth of the infidel Indians, happily combining plunder and iconoclasm and exploiting the fact that the Hindu temples, considered the seat of idol-worship, also happened to be the wealthiest targets in Hindu kingdoms. It was opportunistic and convenient for Mahmud of Ghazni to lay claim to the title of ‘hammer of idolaters.’

Mahmud – The Connoisseur of Art and Culture  

Mahmud filled his Ghazni court with men of letters and it is claimed that he took poets and scholars from the areas that he overran as live booty back to his capital, and that he even demanded the surrender of court poets as tribute from the defeated kings. Ghazni therefore rapidly became the centre of the rising Persian literature of the age. The most famous of Persian poets, Firdausi, who was the author or the great poem Shahnama, ‘The Book of Kings’, which is considered the national epic of Iran and read even today, lived in the Ghazni court for a considerable period of time.

A Sultan’s Meanness

The story of the relationship between Firdausi and Mahmud goes like this:

It is said that when Firdausi was beginning to write his magnum opus, the Sultan promised the poet a gold coin for each of the couplets that would be written. The finished work amounted to 60,000 couplets and Mahmud reneged on his promise, offering instead one silver coin for each couplet. Firdausi fled the capital and wrote a biting satire on the Sultan’s meanness and miserly nature.

It is further reported that Firdausi was reduced to abject poverty in exile. However the Sultan found it within himself to pardon the poet and despatched 50,000 gold coins as demonstration of his good intent. In the event, when the messenger with the gift and pardon reached Firdausi’s house, the poet had already died and his body was being taken for burial. The poet died as he had lived in exile, in extreme poverty.

The repeated expeditions into India, particularly the one in 1017 across the Gangetic plains, inspired the famed historian and philosopher Al-Biruni to write the text called Tarikh al-Hind in an attempt to understand Hinduism and Indian beliefs. He is reported to have studied Sanskrit, philosophy, religion and the art of the Hindus in Kashmir. Al-Biruni’s observations are remarkably incisive, although the text did not make much headway in creating a tolerant understanding of the complexities of the ancient religion of the Hindus. During Mahmud’s reign, Ghazni developed into a leading cultural centre. The city was architecturally lavish with grand palaces and mosques and developed a distinctive Ghaznavid architecture that combined the brick building abilities of Iran with the marble work from India.

There can be no doubt that the Ghaznavid power was at its zenith under the rule of Mahmud and the decline of the dynasty started almost immediately on his death. This indicates a lack of foresight and vision on the part of the Sultan. At the height of its power, the Ghazni sultanate covered the territory of Afghanistan, Punjab, eastern parts of modern Iran, Seistan, lands beyond the River Oxus all the way to the Aral Sea, to Samarkhand in the north-east, and from the Caspian Sea to the River Yamuna in the east. This is a geographically vast kingdom by any standard. Although the Ghaznavid armies ranged across the entire South Asia, the kingdoms in Kashmir, the Doab, Rajasthan and Gujarat continued to be ruled by Hindu dynasties, indicating the temporary and transitory nature of Mahmud’s raids.


Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni did not entertain any dreams of occupying India or Indian territories or expanding his kingdom into the sub-continent. He touched only a very small part of North India, which came along the path of his numerous incursions, leaving the central, south and east India almost completely untroubled. Further, he could not conquer the territories of Kashmir, adjacent to the Punjab. The very same disunity within the ranks of the Hindu dynasties that smoothed the way for extremely successful plundering raids also acted as direct impediments to actual conquest and permanent annexation of territory. Each battlefield victory was the defeat of one single prince, irrespective of his status, and nothing more. There was no single emperor ruling a large empire with vassal kings and allied chieftains as had been the case a few centuries earlier and so the defeat of a single king did not mean the subjugation of an entire ‘country’. As long as independent kings and even chiefs took up arms to fight an invasion, any permanent occupation of territory was beyond the capacity and means of the Ghaznavid army. Mahmud, for all his lack of vision, was astute enough to realise this ground reality and did not get side tracked from his single minded focus on plunder. Otherwise he would have become enmeshed in the Indian political confusion and been yet another ‘invader’ who got eaten up by the Indian tiger of socio-political and religious inclusivism.

For the Muslims, Mahmud remains the all-time epitome of the god-fearing king and zealous guardian of the faith. He is still remembered as having presided over a high-tide of Islamic power in the Indian context. So much so that Mahmud’s name is seen emblazoned on anti-Indian and jihadist banners in the sub-continent and one of current day Pakistan’s missiles have been named after him. Mahmud however, was not a far sighted or visionary statesman and his legacy suffered for it. He understood the need for external security of the kingdom and therefore created a sense of outward order. He did not attempt to organise or consolidate his unwieldy sultanate, instead relying on the wealth brought through the plundering raids to tide over the resource requirements of a stable state. The sultanate was ill-knit at best and started to unravel on his death.

From an Indian perspective, Mahmud turned out to be yet another bothersome Mlechcha, an outsider, similar to the Shakas and the Huns. Even though the slow process of the customary absorption of the outsider into the Indian fold had not yet taken root, Mahmud’s death in distant Ghazni removed the perceived need for any further vigilance from the Indian mind. This was reinforced by the internal squabbles of Mahmud’s successors on his death and the Indian rulers returned to being preoccupied with their internecine conflicts and petty quarrels. When the next wave of invasions came, the Indian kings were as unprepared for their ferocity as they had been when Mahmud of Ghazni first came knocking on the gates of the Khyber, a little over thirty years back.

There is another side to the Indian perception regarding Mahmud and the religion that he brought with him. For nearly 300 years Islam had washed up on the shores of the Indian sub-continent peacefully, taking its place along with other belief systems that had periodically flowed into the larger and all-encompassing religious and philosophical movements within the sub-continent. Mahmud for the first time brought Islam to the accompaniment of ruthless military violence. His wanton destruction of Hindu temples produced a reaction of extreme bitterness amongst the people of Hindustan who bore the brunt of the privations that followed each invasion. By focusing on destroying temples, whether for gathering easy wealth or because of religious zealotry, he violated the most sacred and fundamental sentiments of the people of the sub-continent. He added to this effrontery by his ardent championship of Islam. The combination degraded Mahmud and more importantly the new religion of Islam, in the eyes of the Indians forever. South Asia still suffers from the aftershocks of this callousness.

‘The Hindus became like 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.’


As quoted in Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, p. 251

From a material perspective, the raids drained India of wealth and manpower, which had a direct impact on the future destiny of the sub-continent. The Hindushahi kingdom of the north-west had so far been the gatekeeper to the wealth and prosperity of the Gangetic plains and greater India. Its destruction by the Ghaznavids was a severe blow to the ability of the Indian kingdoms to continue to maintain their independence into the future. In one fell stroke the route to India, Hindustan, had been laid open. With the annexation of Afghanistan and Punjab into the Ghaznavid sultanate, the road to India was visible to the outsider and traversing it became relatively easy.

The question now was not whether, but when the Islamic flood would engulf India.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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