Indian History Part 49 The Ghaznavids Sect II: Fragile Equilibrium


Canberra, 8 March 2016

Farrukh-Zad continues to remain a shadowy figure in the firmament of the Ghaznavid dynasty, especially since very little is known regarding his personal preferences and behaviour pattern, making it difficult to build a picture of his personality. However, he managed to induce a sense of peace into the kingdom, which had been in turmoil and civil war for over a decade by then. He is also praised by chroniclers for his demonstrated dispensation of justice and for having brought benevolence back into consideration as part of ruling a kingdom. Unfortunately he died after a seven-year rule and from the universal lamentation that can be viewed in many chronicles, it seems that he was well-liked and his efforts at stabilising the country was appreciated.

There is also a possibility that Farrukh-Zad had managed to conclude a peace treaty with the Seljuqs in North Afghanistan. While this is not a confirmed fact, the defeat of the Seljuqs by Khirkhiz also points towards some sort of a semi-formal peace agreement. Towards the end of his reign Farrukh-Zad launched an expedition into Tukharistan against the Seljuqs who had been troubling the border regions of the Ghaznavid kingdom. Although the Seljuqs were initially defeated, the arrival of Alp Arslan the crown prince of the Seljuqs, with sufficient reinforcements reversed the fortunes of the Ghaznavid army. However, before a formal peace treaty could be signed or agreed upon, Farrukh-Zad died.

Reign of Ibrahim – Establishing Continuity

At this stage Ibrahim, the next senior member of the Ghaznavid clan was in prison, in accordance with the age-honoured tradition of the dynasty. He was released and placed on the throne by the courtiers. The records show that he was 26 years old and the date of his accession to be 6 April 1059. Ibrahim had two immediate tasks to fulfil, which was critically important for continuing the stabilisation process that had been initiated by Farrukh-Zad. First was to achieve some semblance of lasting peace with the Seljuqs and the second to restore tranquillity to the kingdom that was once again going into convulsions at the death of the sultan.

Peace with the Seljuqs

If anything, Ibrahim was a practical monarch. His approach to establishing peace with the Seljuqs was totally pragmatic. Since he did not entertain any vainglorious visions of regaining lost lands of the erstwhile great Ghaznavid Empire, he did not attempt any further expeditions into Seljuq-held lands. It was fortunate that at the same time the Seljuq chief Chagri Beg and his powerful son Alp Arslan also recognised that they had spread their kingdom as far east as practically possible. Therefore, the Seljuqs were also ready to bring peace to their borders. Accordingly, the Ghaznavids and the Seljuqs arrived at a negotiated settlement that accepted the natural boundary formed by the Hindu Kush ranges to be the de facto border between the countries. This peace prevailed till the death of Alp Arslan after he had become the Seljuq Amir.

At the death of Alp Arslan, there were some amount of dissention and minor power struggle in the Seljuq kingdom. Taking advantage of this slight discomfiture of the Seljuqs, Ibrahim send an army and captured the border town of Sakalkhand. The retribution from the Seljuqs was swift and fierce. They invaded and recaptured Sakalkhand and then laid waste the entire township, creating a great carnage. The rapidity of the Seljuq attack and the ferocity of the subsequent sacking and destruction of one of their own towns support the belief that the town had surrendered to Ibrahim without a fight during his initial invasion. Even though Sakalkhand had been easily recaptured, the Seljuq Sultan Malik Shah was dissuaded from attacking Ghaznavid territory and an uneasy peace prevailed. There are different explanations that are given for the Seljuqs being held back—that there was some duplicitous correspondence which made Malik Shah wary of invading further into the Ghaznavid Sultanate; and/or that existing marriage alliances between the two dynasties held him back. After this episode, both the kingdoms treated each other on equal terms with respect. There were social and cultural interactions between the two courts as well as mutual influence in the process for granting lands and in administration.

Ibrahim Looks East

Ibrahim adopted a vigorous policy of rebuilding towns and creating new settlements in order to stabilise the volatile kingdom. Sometime around 1070-80, nearly 15 years after coming to the throne, Ibrahim felt that the country was sufficiently stable for him to look east towards Hindustan. The information available regarding the Ghaznavid initiatives in the Punjab during this period is limited and even what is available is only second-hand retelling of events. The main source of information is the writings of Ibn al-Athir who was residing in Iraq at the time the events that he describes were taking place in faraway Afghanistan and adjacent India. At best they can be considered indicative of the broader events taking place and minor details would have to be discounted as unauthenticated.

During the time of the succession struggle in Ghazni, two powerful dynasties had come to power in India—the Paramaras of Malwa and Kalachuris of Tripuri, both kingdoms located in what is modern day Madhya Pradesh. Perhaps more importantly, the kings ruling in both kingdoms were also the best that their respective lineages had produced, Bhoja in Malwa and Karna in Tripuri. In a combined effort, these kings managed to push the Ghaznavids back from eastern Punjab. They laid siege to Lahore, by now the de-facto second capital of the Ghaznavid kingdom, for a number of months and ensured that no expedition could be mounted from that stronghold. Lahore was the administrative headquarters of the Indian province of the Ghaznavids and also the assembly point for the warriors who wanted to join the periodical ‘holy war’ into Hindustan. Soldiers of fortune from all over the Islamic world came to Lahore, primarily attracted by the loot and plunder that was on offer in the expeditions into Hindustan. Religion was the last thought in the minds of these so-called holy warriors, who desecrated Hindu holy sites overtly in the name of Allah and Islam, but actually to plunder and enrich themselves.

Ibrahim moved towards Lahore accompanied by two of his sons. Once again the full picture of this expedition has to be pieced together from scanty information available from snippets and poems that were written to commemorate the Sultan’s journey. One of the poems describes a night raid on Jalandhar in which a local ruler Sair Sambra was defeated and killed. Ibrahim is supposed to have personally led this battle and the poem extols his bravery. Some other poems praise Ibrahim’s overall leadership of the expedition and in particular mention the victory at Tabarhinda (most probably Sirhind in the former State of Patiala) as well as his move further south-east to a place called Buria near the River Yamuna in Ambala district (the name is now spelt as Buriya). It is obvious that there would have been battles and skirmishes throughout the entire path of the expedition.

Native Indian historical narratives of the time are uniformly inaccurate and lacks firm dates to establish the flow of events. Even more exasperating to a researcher is the pervasive tendency in Indian sources to club all invading Muslims together within the common terms Turuskas and Hammiras. They also do not provide the names of the Muslim rulers who were invading or the identity of the generals who were in command. [This could be attributed to the local princes and kings having a condescending attitude towards the Muslim invaders as people of a lesser stature, even though the Muslims were evenly more successful in battle. This is a dichotomy, if ever there was one.] On the other hand, even scanty records from Muslim or Arab sources are full of details and pinpoint dates of events. It is far easier to draw a chronological thread from these accounts.

The actual dates of Ibrahim’s Indian expedition and its duration is unclear, but from a number of celebratory poems written about the event, it can be placed to have occurred between 1070 and 1086. The expedition was large, although the 40,000 cavalry mentioned in some poems seem a bit of an exaggeration. His invasion is supposed to have reached into the heart of what is Uttar Pradesh today, reaching Agra and capturing the fortress there from the Raja Jaipala after several days of intense fighting. This king has been identified as Gopala of the Rashtrakuta dynasty although Agra only seems to fit into the Rashtrakuta kingdom if the known and authenticated borders of the kingdom are somewhat stretched. Therefore, this assertion of the capture of Agra, derived from the available poems is questionable and should be considered a flight of poetic imagination. However, it is certain that this Ghaznavid invasion reached much farther into the interior of India than most previous expeditions.

The Gahadavalas ruling from Kanauj were apparently on friendly terms with the Ghaznavid sultan and was spared the ferocity of plunder and pillage that usually accompanied such expeditionary raids. It is also possible that the Gahadavalas used their friendship with the Ghazni ruling house to their advantage and extended their influence and power. The presence of Ghaznavid forces so deep in the interior was cause for considerable turmoil in the kingdoms of the region. An inscription of the Gahadavalas dated to around 1090 mentions a tax levied on all the people called ‘Turuskadanda’, meaning a tax for the Turuskas or Turks. This could have been a tax levied to prepare defences to resist the anticipated Islamic invasion or a tax to raise the money required to be paid as tribute to the invaders in order to ensure that the kingdom was spared from attack.

One fact comes out clearly from the information regarding the ‘tax’ for the Turks—the Ghaznavid invasion was a mere plundering raid that could be bought off. However, the ambiguity regarding the ‘tax’ and its purpose does not let the analyst fathom the strength of the Gahadavalas and the manner in which they dealt with foreign invasions. If the tax was meant to build defences, then the conclusion is that they were capable of resisting small-scale invasions without suffering much harm. A corollary is that the Ghaznavid army was not the invisible force that the Muslim poets make them out to be. However, if the tax was meant to collect tribute, then the Gahadavalas could not have been the powerful rulers as their inscriptions claim. The confusion regarding the actual purpose of the tax continues without any clarity.

Ibrahim’s incursions were, like other Ghaznavid invasions, plundering raids and not aimed at capturing territory. Around 1076-77, Ibrahim appointed his son Saif ad-Daula Mahmud the Governor of India and returned to Ghazni some years later. The appointment and the Sultan’s return to Ghazni are commemorated in poems. However, Mahmud soon fell from favour and was imprisoned, although the reasons for the reversal of his fortunes are only speculations. It is rumoured that he entered into some treasonable communications with the Seljuqs—no doubt with the ulterior motive of usurping power from his father—which was discovered. There is absolutely no confirmation of this from any source. In fact the circumstances under which the governorship was relinquished is clouded in secrecy and impossible to decipher. It could also be that his successful governorship of Indian provinces kindled his ambition and drove him to seek independent status, especially since the territory was relatively rich and self-sustainable. Irrespective of the reasons for his dismissal, there is no indication of what happened to Mahmud after his imprisonment. He fades into history as yet another minor player who had his brief moment of glory.

Mahmud was probably replaced by his brother Masud, who appointed his own son Shir-Zad as governor in Lahore on becoming the Sultan after Ibrahim in 1099. Two important factors emerge from this move. First, the fact that consecutive sultans were appointing their own sons as governors to oversee the Indian provinces establishes the importance of these provinces to the well-being of the Ghaznavid kingdom. Second, it also shows that by this time India had become the focus of Ghaznavid military activity. This preoccupation with India could have been at the cost of neglecting the northern and western borders of the kingdom; a carelessness which was to have a detrimental impact a few years later.

The Awakening of Ghur

Ghur was a remote, mountainous and almost inaccessible area in Central Afghanistan inhabited by fiercely independent warriors. The Ghaznavids realised the importance of Ghur as a buffer state between their own and the Seljuq empires and accordingly Sultan Mahmud and after him Masud led expeditions to bring Ghur under their influence. The Ghaznavids also sowed the seeds of Islam in the region, which gradually replaced the indigenous paganism that was prevalent. They were successful in creating a vassal state and set up a local chief Abu Ali Suri of the Shansabani family as the ruler. Ghur also had the advantage of being strategically placed to harry the trade routes that passed through the fringes of its territory. The Shansabanis continued to be ‘attached’ to the Ghazni rulers although the strength of this attachment waxed and waned with the personal power that was resident in the sultan ruling at Ghazni.

It is reliably reported that during the two decades of succession troubles in Ghazni, starting with Toghril’s usurpation of power, Ghur was almost completely independent. However, they did not interfere in the Ghazni struggle, studiously keeping a neutral stance regarding the outcome of the semi-civil war. After stabilising his own kingdom, Ibrahim wanted to re-establish control of Ghur. By this time Abu Ali Suri had been replaced by his nephew Abbas who had led a coup d’état against his uncle. Abbas was a powerful but tyrannical ruler and there was widespread discontentment in his province. At this time, Ghur could not yet be classified even as a minor kingdom, since real independence had not yet been achieved. The oppressed people of Ghur appealed to Ibrahim to relieve them, which could have been the tipping point for Ibrahim to decide on intervention.

Ibrahim marched to Ghur, deposed and imprisoned Abbas and placed Abbas’s son Muhammad on the throne. This sequence of events sounds simple and straightforward. However, the chronicles describe the strength of the Ghur fort and the extreme difficulty faced by the Ghaznavid forces in subjugating it. Mountain warfare, then as now, is one of the most exhausting enterprises that an army can undertake, and often success and failure hinge on very fragile threads.

Muhammad proved to be the antithesis of his father, becoming a virtuous and humanitarian chief. He remained a faithful tributary of the Ghaznavids throughout his life, regularly paying the stipulated tribute as acceptance of his vassal status. However, from a political perspective, the amount of control that the Ghaznavid sultan exercised over the Shansabanis as a clan is uncertain. The clan remained politically fragmented up to the early part of the 12th century with a number of chieftains controlling small fiefdoms. By the end of Ibrahim’s regime, Ghur had become a recognisable entity with a well-defined status of its own.

Ibrahim – An Assessment

Ibrahim died on 25 August 1099 after a 40-year rule during which he stabilised a kingdom on the verge of fragmentation through internecine wars and petty succession struggles. Court poets and chroniclers depict him as the ideal ruler, ensconced in Islamic virtue and celebrate him as the Maecenas of the age. [Gaius Cilnus Maecenas was an ally and political advisor to Octavian, who became the first emperor of Rome as Caesar Augustus. He is better known as an important patron of contemporary poets including both Horace and Virgil. His philanthropy gained him a great reputation and his name has become a synonym for a wealthy, generous and enlightened patron of the arts.]

In reality, Ibrahim was not a pious simpleton or a religious fanatic. He was a hard-headed and pragmatic realist. He was also a despotic sultan—an absolute ruler—who brooked no questioning of his authority. He demanded unquestioning loyalty and was ruthless against any individual who showed the slightest signs of a rebellious nature. Further, he also did not tolerate any incompetence in his administrative and military officials. This part of his character was clearly demonstrated when he dismissed his own son from the governorship of Lahore.

Ibrahim recognised the critical importance of the Indian territories to the financial stability of the larger Ghaznavid kingdom. However, this realisation was tempered with the understanding that it could also become a trouble spot if the loyalty of the governor in Lahore was not absolute. During Ibrahim’s reign, it is indeed true that the empire was politically stabilised. However, even though a sizeable part of the original kingdom had been irretrievably lost to the Seljuqs, the administrative cost of running the empire had not reduced and continued to be a very heavy burden on the state. On top of this, Ibrahim was a fairly generous patron of scholars and literary men whom he tended to collect around himself. He also led an opulent lifestyle. It is seen that fiscal prudence was definitely not one of Ibrahim’s strong points. During his rule, the empire stayed in a state of fragile equilibrium and induced stability, but this was soon to shaken to the foundation—storms that would engulf it soon were gathering around the weakened kingdom.


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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