Indian History THE GHAZNAVIDS Section I: Years of Uncertainty


Canberra, 22 February 2016

Sultan Mahmud’s death brought about a bitter struggle for succession between two of his sons. Towards the end of his reign, Mahmud had divided his kingdom between these two sons—giving control of the Ghazni and the country of Hind, or the Indian provinces of the kingdom, to Muhammad; and Khorasan, Iraq and Persia to the other son Masud. Further, even though Masud, the eldest was decidedly more capable, the Sultan had nominated Muhammad, the younger son, as his successor. This choice was more an expression of his sentiments than one of clear judgement. It is said that the Sultan told one of his confidants that he was appointing Muhammad as the heir apparent so that at least during his (the Sultan’s) lifetime, Muhammad could enjoy the trappings of being a prince. This clearly indicates that Sultan Mahmud was in no doubt that there would be a succession struggle at his death. If he had nominated the more capable and elder Masud as the crown prince, he could have avoided the ensuing bloodshed. Therefore, the Sultan’s reasoning seems a bit misplaced and overtly selfish in comparison to other pragmatic decisions that he had made during his long rule.

It is mentioned that Mahmud was almost always on bad terms with his eldest son Masud and contrived to keep him away from Ghazni as much as possible. He also had a poor opinion of most of his sons and expressed a bleak view of the future of the empire, especially towards the later part of his reign. Considering his own struggle to gain the throne, the decision to appoint Muhammad as the successor seems even more inexplicable. However, Masud was very clear in his mind that he would take the kingdom by the sword, irrespective of his father’s wishes. A sentiment that he was not afraid to express and prepare for, even during his father’s reign.

When Sultan Mahmud died, Masud was in Iraq and the Ghazni court elevated Muhammad to the throne. Masud immediately marched to Ghazni, reaching about seven months after Muhammad had ascended the throne. In the ensuing battle Masud was victorious and Muhammad was captured and imprisoned. Some later-day records mention that Muhammad was blinded after being captured. This is questioned by a number of scholars who have failed to see any mention of the blinding in the many contemporary records that are available. One of the chronicles even states that Muhammad himself read a letter that was written to him by Masud after being imprisoned. In fact, the report of being blinded after capture comes up only in later sources and therefore its authenticity should be treated with reservation. It is possible that Muhammad’s eyesight deteriorated in the decade of his captivity, during which time he may not have been treated very kindly.

Masud I

Masud ascended the throne but proved to be a poor ruler, bereft of the energies of his father who had forged a large and wealthy empire almost single-handedly. Inevitably, the empire declined in stature and richness, although it continued to exist for more than a 150 years after Masud. In a holistic study of the Ghaznavid Empire, its decline and diminishment can be charted clearly in every decade.

At the time of Masud’s accession to the throne, the Indian provinces were under the control of the Governor of Punjab, Ariyaruq, who was an appointee of Sultan Mahmud. Over a period of time and because of Mahmud’s indulgence of an old ally, Ariyaruq had become a tyrant and was oppressing the people of his territory. Masud removed him from the governorship and appointed Ahmed Niyaltigin as the governor.

The Removal of Ariyaruq

Ariyaruq was powerful enough to defy the newly installed Sultan in Ghazni and could have continued to evade the Sultan’s orders to report to Ghazni. However, he decided to go to Ghazni after many summons had been issued. It is said that Ariyaruq was overly found of drinks, which had been identified by both friend and foe as his weakness. He was lured into the court by proffering drinks to him and making him inebriated. He was then was imprisoned and put to death on Masud’s orders.

According to Baihaqi, a contemporary chronicler of Masud’s court, addiction to alcoholic drinks was a common feature amongst the courtiers.

Almost immediately on taking up his official position, Niyaltigin started a quarrel with Abu-l-Hasan, the Qazi, who was the revenue collector and administrator of Punjab. However, Niyaltigin prevailed on Masud to support him and was able to secure his position above the Qazi. He was later to pay a great price for this belittling of Abu-l-Hasan. After settling his position, Niyaltigin launched an expedition into India. In 1034, he extracted tribute from the Thakurs in eastern Punjab, crossed the River Ganga and arrived at Benares, then within the kingdom of Gang, ruled by Kalachuri Gangeyadeva. He plundered Benares and returned to the Punjab. Niyatigin’s troubles started from here.

The Qazi, smarting under the humiliation that he had suffered, sent a report to Masud that Niyaltigin had deposited only part of the captured treasure to the Sultan and had kept most of it for himself. At the same time Masud had also received some reports that Niyaltigin was establishing friendly relations with Turkmen and some troublesome chiefs of the territories around Lahore. Masud, aware of the capacity of powerful governors to rebel and even seize power, responded to the reports by sending an army under a Hindu commander called Tilak into the Punjab to bring Niyaltigin to book. [This is perhaps the first report of a Hindu military commander being trusted to enforce a Muslim king’s will on a rebellious subject. The tradition of Hindu generals serving ably within the Muslim army was to become a norm just a few centuries later.] The fact that the commander of this force was a Hindu also is indicative of the progress of the integration between Muslims and Hindus that was underway at this time. This process of integration was to continue for a long time, although it never reached a level wherein mutual distrust could be fully discounted. In this instance, General Tilak is reported to have been the son of a barber.

The Enigma of Tilak

Baihaqi, the most reliable source of the time, describes Tilak as ‘Tilak the Hindu’. Some other chroniclers name him as Tilak bin Jaisen (Husain). From this difference in naming the general it has been inferred by some historians that Tilak was a Hindu who had converted to Islam. However, careful perusal of the Baihaqi writings makes it clear that Tilak was a Hindu and did not convert at any stage in his life to Islam.

Since Tilak has to be assumed to be a full-fledged Hindu, it is remarkable that at this early stage in the onslaught of Islam, the Ghaznavid army had elevated a Hindu to the position of commanding general, which in turn indicates that the army also contained sufficient numbers of Hindu troops. The inference to be drawn is that demoralisation and disillusionment amongst the Hindus because of the repeated plundering invasions by the followers of Islam were at levels that made the common Hindu ready to fight against their own countrymen in order to avoid the hardships that accompanied a successful Islamic raid.

After a severe battle Tilak defeated Niyaltigin who fled from Punjab and was subsequently captured and killed by some local Jats. After settling Punjab, Tilak returned to Ghazni. Masud appointed his son Majdud as the governor of Punjab and in the following year prepared a huge army to invade Hindustan and expand the kingdom eastwards. At the same time, the northern part of the Ghaznavid Empire was being threatened by the Seljuqs. Masud did not give enough importance to this Seljuq incursion and proceeded to Punjab, initially camping on the banks of the River Jhelum near Dinarkotah. He then moved to the Hissar district and captured Hansi Fort in a hard fought battle. (The ruins of the Hansi Fort can be seen about 14 kilometres to the east of modern Hissar.) The Ghaznavid army then captured Sonpat. At this crucial stage in the expedition Masud was forced to return to Ghazni since the threat from the Seljuqs was becoming increasingly severe and there were also rebellions taking place in the far-flung Persian provinces. The Indian expedition was resource-intensive and the traditional treasures that were the result of victory in battle were not commensurate with the expenditure. Therefore, while this ambitious invasion of Hindustan was somewhat of a limited military success, it drained the royal coffers more than enriching it.

By 1040, while Masud was still on his way back from his Indian expedition, the Persian provinces of the empire were declaring independence and at the same time the Seljuqs attacked Khorasan. This gave the impression of the empire breaking up and Masud’s nerve failed him at this critical juncture in the history of the Ghaznavid dynasty. He felt that the fall of Ghazni was imminent and decided to move east into his Indian provinces. This was a momentous decision and one which had the most far-reaching consequences for the future of the Ghaznavid Empire and more broadly for the Indian sub-continent.

Masud left Ghazni and moved towards Hindustan with his entire family, including the by now blind Muhammad, his younger brother. Along the way he reinstated Muhammad to royal favour by freeing him and giving him the title of Amir. Muhammad’s four sons who had also been in captivity were also freed and, in return for oaths of allegiance to Masud, were given titles and honoured in court. This magnanimity on the part of Masud could have been an attempt to restore or strengthen dynastic solidarity by endeavouring to reconcile the deposed branch of the family. The underlying and more pragmatic reason for taking Muhammad and his family along was because it would have been unwise to leave Muhammad and his sons in Ghazni as they could easily have become the rallying point for a rebellion.

Although Masud anticipated a rebellion in Ghazni, he misjudged the temperament and morale of the army accompanying him. The troops had lost confidence in Masud because of his over-reaction to the Seljuq invasion of Khorasan and during the passage to Indian territories, at the Pass of Marigula, the Turkish and Hindu slaves who made up the Ghaznavid army rebelled. This pass is situated between the low hills of Attock and Rawalpindi; Marigula being a folk etymology of ‘mari-kala’, meaning ‘fortress to protect travellers’ built by an earlier ruler to house troops meant to ensure the safety of travellers since the area was notoriously full of robbers and brigands. The soldiers took Masud prisoner and declared blind Muhammad, king. It is believed that Muhammad had to be threatened with dire consequences before he would accept the throne, in difference to the oath of fidelity that he had made to his brother.

Muhammad’s short second stint as ruler was almost a farce since it was his sons led by Ahmad, the eldest, who actually wielded power. Masud was placed as a prisoner in the Fort of Giri—about 40 miles north-east of Peshawar. Giri was a place of great antiquity on the ancient Kabul-India trade route. Within a few months of his imprisonment, Masud was killed. Whether Muhammad was aware of the murder or not is unknown. However, it is certain that the murder was instigated by Ahmad, the de facto ruler during this period. There is also petty debate regarding whether Masud was killed, then thrown into a well that was subsequently sealed or whether he was thrown into the well while still alive after which the well was sealed. [This kind of acute emphasis on getting the details right is a peculiarity of many historians, perhaps a characteristic trend that ensures the exactness of the flow of events.] In any case, Masud died on 17 January 1041, at the age of 45.

Sultan Maudud

Masud’s son Maudud was a vigorous and incisive personality. On hearing of his father’s capture and death he marched on Ghazni and established himself on the throne. Almost immediately he established a bulwark in the western border against any possible attempt at expansion by the newly created Seljuq kingdom. Maudud had been closely associated with his father’s military campaigns and was the commander of 4000 cavalry in the earlier expedition to northern Khorasan. He had also been the independent commander of larger military expeditions, having fought valiantly against the Seljuqs during their initial advances. In 1038, Masud had declared Maudud—who was his eldest son and with whom he shared a special closeness, unlike what he had shared with his own father—the heir apparent. Although there is ample written chronicles and also other information regarding Maudud and his rule, his exact date of birth cannot be ascertained with accuracy.

After assuming power in Ghazni, Maudud considered himself the avenger of his father’s murder. He also had a sizeable army at his disposal to initiate any action that he contemplated. His first act on taking the reins of the kingdom was to declare his father ‘Amir-i-Shahid’, or ‘Martyr-king’, an epithet that was henceforth used to distinguish Masud in all dynastic records. Maudud then marched into Punjab at the head of his army to avenge his father’s murder. He met the rebel forces in the district of Nangrahar—currently a province in the post-1964 reorganised Afghanistan, centred on Jalalabad—in March-April 1941. The exact date of the battle differs in different manuscripts by as much as a month. Immediately before the battle was to take place, Abd ar-Rashid, younger brother of Masud and Muhammad, arrived on the scene with a large army. He also had a claim to the throne, being the son of the great Sultan Mahmud. Maudud bought Rashid’s neutrality by promising a power-sharing agreement if the battle was won and also by reminding him of the promise he had made not to harm Masud’s sons.

The rebel army of Muhammad and his sons are reported to have been undisciplined and a force that was reluctant to obey the Sultan, not being fully under his control. After all, they had placed him on the throne! Maudud, decisive as always, personally led his army and achieved a pivotal victory over the rebel forces. Muhammad and all his sons were captured and put to death, actually slaughtered according to one of the witnesses to the battle. Maudud built a settlement at the place of the battle to commemorate his victory and called it Fathabad.


Fathabad, (now called Fatehabad, a village in Surkh Rod District, Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan) prospered as a new town and went on to become a favoured resort for the military commanders, called ghazis. It was located 12 miles from Jalalabad and was mentioned in the travel diary of Charles Mason in the 19th century. Further, it is reported as having been occupied by British forces during the First Anglo-Afghan War. In 1879, a battle during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80) was fought at Fatehabad in which the British forces were victorious.

At the end of the battle, Maudud broke his promise to his uncle Rashid and arrested him. Rashid was imprisoned in the fortress of Mandish—the traditional place of incarceration of would be usurpers to the throne.

Maudud’s Western Campaign

While Maudud was in the East, putting down the rebel army and settling succession issues, the Seljuqs were attempting to take over Sistan and also to outflank the Ghaznavid holdings. During the time that he was securing Punjab, Turkmen had also plundered Balkh. However, with Maudud’s victory in the Indian provinces, confidence in Ghaznavid power was enhanced in the outlying areas of the kingdom. Accordingly, the people of Herat rebelled against the invaders and reasserted their allegiance to the Ghaznavid dynasty. However, this was short-lived and Herat fell back into Seljuq orbit a bit later.

Maudud, well aware that a large portion of Ghaznavid territory had been lost to the Seljuqs in the West, entertained a vision of regaining these territories. Towards this end, he send a large army into Turkharistan in 1043-44. However, the Ghaznavid army was defeated and suffered considerable losses. Maudud then attempted to create a coalition to defeat the Seljuqs, expending considerably large sums of money in trying to buy alliances and promising semi-autonomous rule to parts of Khorasan where anti-Seljuq tribes were in tumult. However, even this ‘diplomatic’ initiative did not result in any noticeable success.

Towards the end of his reign Maudud again attempted to regain control of Sistan, which had become an almost independent province by that time. This attempt was also not successful and the Ghaznavid forces were defeated. This Sistan campaign was notable only for the valiant bravery of the leading general of the Ghaznavid army, a slave commander called Toghril, who subsequently played a maleficent role in the dynastic history. After this Ghaznavid defeat Sistan became an independent state under the rule of Saffarid Amirs who accepted ultimate Seljuq suzerainty. Although unable to regain lost territory, Maudud managed to stabilise the northern and western flanks of the kingdom. The township of Bust in southern Afghanistan became a Ghaznavid bulwark of power, continuing to hold till the empire crumpled at a much later time.

Maudud in India

At the time of Masud I’s murder, another son Majdud was the governor of Punjab. Majdud’s attitude towards his uncle Muhammad, the new Sultan, is unknown but he refused to recognise his brother Maudud’s accession to the throne of Ghazni as the Sultan. He orchestrated revolts in Multan and Lahore, the two major cities of Ghaznavid India. However, he was mysteriously found dead in August 1941, leaving Maudud firmly in control of the entire Ghaznavid areas in India. Nothing much has been reported regarding the mysterious death of Majdud and it can be surmised that some sort of foul play was conducted, although the perpetrator or the instigator has never been ascertained with any accuracy.

Although Majdud’s death had put an end to the insipient rebellions, Multan continued to be in turmoil. Multan was the stronghold of the Ismaili sect of Muslims who recognised the supremacy of the Fatimid Caliphate, ruling in North Africa and Cairo. Their rebellion had started almost immediately on Masud being removed from power and was assisted by Majdud’s accepting the rebellion as directed against Maudud becoming the Sultan. The Ismaili sect had been slaughtered earlier by Sultan Mahmud but considered the confusion accompanying the succession struggle an opportune time to establish their independence. Maudud had already send his general Faqin Saliti to Punjab, to curtail his brother’s rebellion. Saliti now marched on Multan. The Ismaili army fled the field and Maudud was reinstated as Sultan in Multan under the Abbasid Caliphate.

Masud’s death and the succession struggle had also emboldened various Indian kings to rebel and also attack Muslim-held territories. The Ghaznavid army was able to contain most of the minor rebellions without much trouble. The wealth of India was important for the well-being of the Ghaznavid Empire—the importance being underlined with the loss of the rich Khorasan province in the north-west. Therefore, plunder of Indian principalities and small kingdoms for the financial benefit of the Ghaznavid Empire continued unabated.

There is a distinct possibility that at this time of internecine strife in the Ghaznavid kingdom, a confederacy of Hindu kings reconquered Hansi and Thanesar and laid siege to Lahore for nearly seven months, although they were not able to capture the city. It is highly probable that the confederacy was led by the Raja of Delhi of the Tomara dynasty and joined by the Paramara king Bhoja, the Kalachuri Karna and the Chahamana Anahilla. This information can be gleaned from the records of these dynasties. However, the explicit constitution of the confederacy as well as the details of the events that took place cannot be verified with complete accuracy. There is a surprising lack of information regarding this episode from the Ghaznavid chroniclers.

Maudud reigned for only about nine years and is mentioned as being only 29 years of age at his death, around 1048. There is a disparity of almost a full year regarding the date of his death in different accounts and even the duration of his reign is difficult to accurately assess. There continues to be a general sense of incompleteness in recounting Maudud’s reign. It is also mentioned in some records that he died while preparing to lead an expedition against the Seljuqs into Khorasan.

Succession Struggle

Maudud left behind three minor sons, which is not surprising considering his own young age. A son named Masud who was five years old was placed on the throne and some accounts state that he was replaced by Maudud’s brother Ali, who is an obscure figure with almost no details being available to define him. It is more probable that this was a regency arrangement that went wrong and both nephew and uncle were removed from power. The reign of the infant Masud and Regent Ali combine lasted for less than two years. Around 1051-52 Ali was imprisoned and is not heard of again.

Imprisonment of Male Relatives: The Start of a New Tradition

It was only ten years back that the Ghaznavid Empire had witnessed a traumatic succession struggle that had almost led to the disintegration of the kingdom. Possibly because of this collective trauma and the fervent wish to avoid a similar situation, the ruling kings started to nurture paranoid suspicion of all male relatives. They started to practise a precautionary policy of imprisoning all male relatives of reasonable capability in some faraway fortress to avoid any challenge to the king. The remoteness of the fortress also ensured that an alternative centre of power did not eventuate. This practice is corroborated by the Ghaznavid chronicles that almost always states that a ‘new’ Sultan was brought out of imprisonment from the fortress to assume his role.

In the immediate aftermath of Maudud’s death, the powerful Turkish military commanders became the real power behind the throne. The ease with which Ali was removed and imprisoned is an indication of their having assumed the role of ‘king makers’. At this stage Maudud’s uncle Abd ar-Rashid, the sixth son of Sultan Mahmud, was placed on the throne by a faction of the Turkish commanders. He was probably chosen because he was the senior-most surviving Ghaznavid at that time and therefore was required to stabilise the country that was gradually becoming turbulent. Rashid had the support of senior ministers who wanted to avoid the anarchy that invariably accompanied lengthy succession struggles. Almost immediately on assuming power, Rashid brought the rebellious Indian provinces under control. There are only scanty details available regarding this episode, and there is no information regarding the actions that were taken to revert the Indian provinces to Ghazni control. However, they cannot be dismissed as historically incorrect.

Toghril – The Ghulam (Slave) General

From the scanty information available, Rashid comes out as a strong-willed person with an inordinate love of learning. He has been praised by some biographers for his knowledge, although they were all courtiers with a vested interest in creating an aura around the Sultan. During these unsettled years, the Turkish slave general Toghril had been steadily becoming powerful and rising to prominence, culminating in Sultan Rashid appointing him the commander-in-chief. Toghril was of obscure origin and is said to have been a ‘ghulam’ of one of the older sultans, probably Masud. There is also mention of his switching allegiance to the Seljuqs during the latter part of Maudud’s reign, although there is no evidence to prove this and in all likelihood is an exaggeration on the part of some chronicler. In view of the reports that he was married to Maudud’s sister and also considering later events, this insinuation can be discounted as a fabrication. However, there is no doubt that Toghril was a powerful military commander in the service of the Ghaznavids.

Noticing the political turbulence in the Ghaznavid Sultanate, the Seljuqs decided to invade and envisaged a plan for a pincer attack. The main part of the pincer, to be led by the Seljuq ruler Chagri Beg, was to move through Sistan towards Bust and the other, led by his son and heir apparent Alp Arslan, was to move through Turkhanistan and attack Kabul and Ghazni from the north. Toghril, now the Ghaznavid commander-in-chief, took immediate and resolute action. He defeated the forces under Arslan, which saved the Ghaznavid kingdom from conquest. Thereafter he force-marched the army to Sistan, arriving there unexpectedly, and through the employment of superior tactics defeated the Seljuq army. Having successfully thwarted the Seljuq attempt to take over the kingdom, Toghril returned to the capital Ghazni in triumph.

Before entering Ghazni, Toghril camped outside the city and send a message to Rashid demanding extra pay and treasure for his soldiers. Rashid, realising that this was an attempt to usurp the throne, shut himself up within the fortress in the city. Toghril was able to take over the city, the palace and the treasury without any opposition. Whether it was because of Toghrils’ threats or of their own free volition, the defenders of the fortress surrendered Rashid to the Ghulam general. Toghril went on to slaughter all Ghaznavids in the near vicinity—murdering a total of 11 Ghaznavid princes of various ages. Toghril then assumed the throne, emphasised his marriage to Maudud’s sister as a factor in legitimising his takeover of the Sultanate.

Toghril had however not calculated the influence of the powerful Ghaznavid army stationed in Lahore and the loyalty of its commander, Khirkhiz, who remained faithful to the Ghaznavid dynasty. He had also miscalculated the sentimental loyalty of the people for the Ghaznavids, even though by now they had endured several years of succession struggles and mismanaged, chaotic rule. Toghril asked Khirkhiz for support and to declare his fidelity to the new Sultan. Khirkhiz, refused outright, perhaps because he did not want to serve under a Ghulam general, being himself one. In this instance, Khirkhiz wrote to Toghril and the surviving Ghaznavid princes and princesses condemning the usurpation of the throne and the murder of the princes. He then started to march towards Ghazni.

Khirkhiz’s missive generated a general feeling of revulsion against Toghril among the courtiers and people. Even before Khirkhiz could reach Ghazni, Toghril was murdered. There are different explanations of this murder—that he was killed by a group of conspirators to bring the Ghaznavids back to power; that it was committed by an individual as an act of personal revenge; and that he was murdered by a person loyal to Rashid as revenge for his killing. Whatever the reason and whoever the perpetrator, the fact remains that Toghril was murdered after an extremely short reign.

Succession Struggle Continues

At this stage only two Ghaznavid princes of the Masud line were still alive, held prisoners in the Barghund Fort—Farrukh-Zad and Ibrahim, both Maudud’s brothers. On arriving in Ghazni, Khirkhiz held consultations with the ‘great men’ of the State, set up Farrukh-Zad on the throne, and purged—meaning slaughtered—all supporters of Toghril. This was around 1052-53.

A noteworthy feature in this narrative is that most of the chronicles state the age of successive Sultans to be between 29 and 35 years. This has been questioned by some historians as not being credible since the princes in question happened to belong to different generations in the dynasty. Although it does bring about some doubts regarding the veracity of the information, it must be remembered that belonging to the same generation was never an assured way of establishing age, since a Sultan normally had many sons and some of them could be many years older than one of his own younger brothers.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2016]
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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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