Part 49 The Ghaznavids Section III: Incipient Decline


Canberra, 22 March 2016

For the next fifty years after Ibrahim’s stable rule, the Ghaznavids were on a slope of gradual decline, ultimately culminating in a fatal struggle with the Ghurids for supremacy and then mere survival. This insipient decline could also be noticed in the domestic affairs of the State. Ibrahim was succeeded by Masud III. The details of the transfer of power are unavailable to verify some suggestions of a fratricidal succession struggle. However, Ibrahim had many sons and it is highly likely that there was one or more challenges to Masud on his being raised to the throne. A serious contender could have been Prince Mahmud who was the governor in India and had led a successful campaign into interior India that had brought splendid treasures to the Ghaznavid kingdom. However, there is a lack of mention of Mahmud in the chronicles that are available, which tends to support the belief that at the time of Masud’s accession, he had either already been killed or was imprisoned in some obscure fortress in conformity with the Ghaznavid custom. There is also an unconfirmed rumour that Mahmud had been imprisoned towards the end of Ibrahim’s reign. This could well be true since Mahmud would not have accepted Masud’s claim to the throne without a challenge if he was still free and able to do so.

Masud continued the traditional policy of the Ghaznavids of acknowledging the religious and moral supremacy of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, which is confirmed by the Caliph’s name being mentioned in Masud’s coins. His reign of 16 years was relatively stable and Masud maintained reasonably good relations with the Eastern Seljuqs. His being married to a Seljuq princess would obviously have helped. There is a report of a minor skirmish between the two kingdoms, although this does not seem to have escalated, created any noticeable rift, or upset the relationship greatly.

Masud – The Military Commander

Masud engaged in some punitive expeditions against local rebels, which are pragmatically reported as not always being successful. Even though there is no report of any breakaway tribe or region, this internal dissention requiring military action to subdue is the first clear indication of the gradually diminishing capacity of the Ghaznavids to maintain the integrity of their core territory. Masud, like other sultans who preceded him, focused on raiding expeditions to India, reinforcing the perception that the Ghaznavids were gradually becoming rulers of an Indian kingdom located in the north-west of the sub-continent rather than continuing as a Central Asian dynasty.

Masud has been described as a great and fearless warrior. It is more important to note that Masud is also celebrated as a great warrior of the ‘faith’. It is obvious that the Ghaznavids continued to masquerade their plundering raids in the guise of enforcing the faith on the non-believing idol worshippers of Hindustan. The religious justification for the raids was also necessary to raise the profile of the Ghaznavid sultan in the eyes of the Caliph in Baghdad. During these raids during Masud’s reign, the Ghaznavid army was led by General Hajib Tughatigin, most probably a slave general.

There are poems that allude to the capture of the king of Kanauj during one of these raids, which also states that he was subsequently ransomed by his son. The timeline of these episodes indicate that the captured king was Gahadavala Madanachandra and the son, the prince Govindachandra. However, the Gahadavala inscriptions celebrate the defeat of the Islamic army by Govindachandra in the process of freeing his father. This account is more believable, especially since the Ghaznavids did not raid India again during Masud’s reign. It also becomes clear that the Gahadavalas had lost the privileged position as allies of the Ghaznavids that they had enjoyed during the reign of Ibrahim. They had however continued to be strong rulers.

Masud also made an incursion into Central India. The intent must have been to go against the Paramara king Naravarman ruling from Ujjain, perhaps as a vague retribution for the part that dynasty had played in the siege of Lahore in earlier times. This intent cannot be confirmed. However, it is obvious that Masud was definitely egged on by knowledge of the wealth accumulated in Ujjain. In this instance it is recorded that the Ghaznavids were defeated. There is an inscription in Nagpur, dated 1104, that clearly mentions the defeat of the ‘Turuskas’ (Turks) by the king’s brother Laksmadeva. This defeat made the Ghaznavids deflect their military thrust towards Kalinjar in Bundelkhand and to Malwa. The Kalinjar Fort was famously difficult to lay siege to or capture and the Ghaznavids were repulsed and defeated by king Kirtivarman. The Ghaznavids then returned north, through the Jammu valley into their own territories in the Punjab.

Even though defeated a number of times, it is certain that Masud returned with sufficient treasure from the plundering raids into India and also that he was victorious in small battles and skirmishes. The fact to be noted is that the Ghaznavid army was unable to defeat any of the established kingdoms of the time and nor did it attempt to return to challenge kings who had defeated them. The opportunistic change of military thrust, almost like water finding the path of least resistance, is indicative of the waning power of the Ghaznavids, manifest in their inability to enforce their will on any of the established kingdoms that were attacked.

Masud – The King

The descriptions of Masud’s rule is available more from poems than factual historical records. However, it is confirmed that he retained the services of a number of senior officers who had served Ibrahim faithfully, in both the military and administration.  This could have ensured sufficient support for Masud during the early days of his rule when challenges to his claim over the throne may have been mounted. Further, to some extent this continuity also accounts for the relative stability that prevailed even during the brief period of the succession struggle.

Masud removed a number of oppressive financial practices from the administration and this prompted the writing of a number of poems glorifying his concern for the welfare of his subjects. However, the unwitting description of an event during his reign gives away the lie regarding Masud’s concern for the well-being of his subjects. The anecdote states that during a time of acute famine, the sultan released grain from his royal granary to be sold to the population at 70 per cent of the normal price. Would not a ruler who was genuinely interested in the welfare of his subjects have given away the grain for free in these circumstances? As opposed to proving the generosity of the sultan, the episode only demonstrates Masud’s ruthlessness, not concern for the welfare of the people. [There is some merit in debating whether or not the poem was written tongue-in-cheek as a sort of left-handed compliment to the sultan, especially in a court where stating something derogatory regarding the ruler could cost the poet his life.]

There are clear indications that the Ghaznavids had adopted the Iranian monarchical ethos by the time Masud came to power. Archaeological excavations have unearthed Masud’s palace and the obvious splendour and opulence of the court is visible. The sultan led a lavish lifestyle. There is no doubt that the extravagant lifestyle and magnificent structures were almost fully financed by the spoils from the plundering expeditions into India. A statue of Brahma, the Hindu god, has been discovered amongst the ruins, providing irrefutable proof of the source of the Ghaznavid wealth.

Masud III died in March 1115 at the age of 55, having ruled for 16 years. He left behind a large number of children, the fundamental reason for all the succession struggles that the Ghaznavids, and other dynasties before and after them, have suffered.

The Succession Struggle

Masud had also followed the by now hallowed tradition of the Ghaznavids, of imprisoning all potential rivals to the throne; which meant all the brothers as well as almost all male relatives who were capable of mounting a challenge. He was succeeded to the throne by his second son Shir-Zad, who ruled for only one year. Not surprisingly Shir-Zad is not mentioned in any of the Seljuq sources or even in accounts written by local historians of the time. This could have been because of the extremely transient nature of his rule. Only comparatively later sources mention Shir-Zad as having been the acting governor of Lahore sometime during his father’s reign. However, even they do not mention his one-year rule.

Shir-Zad was killed by his brother Malik Arslan, the third son of Masud from a Seljuq princess, who then became sultan. On coming to the throne, he imprisoned and blinded all his brothers barring one. His half-brother Bahram Shah was spared only because he was not in Ghazni at the time that Malik Arslan was usurping power. Almost immediately Bahram Shah also staked a claim to the throne, proving the fundamental wisdom inherent in the Ghaznavid tradition of imprisoning all male relatives as soon as an individual came to power. Both Bahram Shah and Malik Arslan send a succession of diplomatic missions to the Seljuqs, asking for their support to their individual claims to the throne. Even so, Malik Arslan did not waste any time to confront the challenger and Bahram Shah made a stand at Tiginabad. [The connection of this place to the Ghazni slave generals whose names generally ended in ‘tigin’ has not been established.] Bahram Shah was soundly defeated in the ensuing battle and he fled west, finally taking shelter at the court of the Seljuq Amir, Arslan Shah.

Bahram Shah requested Arslan Shah for military support to continue his quest for the throne of Ghazni. However, Arslan Shah demurred, stating that he needed the permission of the head of the Seljuqs in Eastern Persia, Sanjar, to undertake such an expedition. Accordingly, Bahram Shah was despatched to the court of Sanjar. On reaching Sanjar’s capital at Merv, Bahram Shah was well-received and quickly became a confidant of the sultan. The Seljuqs had for the previous sixty years or so adopted a hands-off policy towards the Ghaznavid kingdom, refusing to get drawn into the intermittent succession struggles or to take advantage of the chaos that ensued during such civil strife. However, Sanjar was ambitious and wanted to create a powerful empire. He envisaged the Ghaznavids becoming a dependent power within the greater Seljuq Empire’s orbit. Therefore, Sanjar now decided to implement a more activist policy and prepared to intervene in the internal affairs of the Ghaznavids. This was the first time such a decision was taken after Ibrahim had come to power in Ghazni, more than half a century back.

Sanjar initially took a conciliatory approach towards Malik Arslan, writing and sending emissaries to him as king, suggesting that he compromise with Bahram Shah. It is clear that these overtures were refused and Sanjar then fully supported Bahram Shah’s claim to the throne. There is an unconfirmed report that Malik Arslan ill-treated his mother, who was a Seljuq princess, which offended Sanjar. This is supposed to have made Sanjar throw his support behind Bahram Shah. This titbit has to be considered the figment of imagination of some fanciful chronicler since it is highly unlikely that Malik Arslan would have committed such a tactical blunder during the delicate stages of the on-going diplomatic efforts.

During this time Malik Arslan also sought the assistance of the supreme head of the Seljuq family, Sultan Muhammad ruling Western Persia. Sultan Muhammad tried to influence Sanjar, but it is obvious that the effort was only half-hearted since Sanjar continued with his own plans. Bahram Shah, now at the head of a large Seljuq army, defeated Malik Arslan’s forces at Khorasan and Sistan, forcing the Ghaznavids to withdraw to their capital. At the same time Sanjar personally arrived with another army in eastern Afghanistan. Sensing imminent danger, Malik Arslan resorted to diplomatic means to avert an invasion. He send his mother, who is now reported as Sanjar’s sister (most probably some distant relation and not an immediate sibling), with 200,000 dinars as a tribute to the Seljuqs. There is a story that on reaching Sanjar, she urged him to support Bahram Shah, which cannot be discounted considering the rumour of her ill-treatment at the hands of Malik Arslan. The flow of events leading to the ultimate battle is unclear, it can only be stated with certainty that the narrative is incomplete and there are some facts that are missing.

In the event, the diplomatic overtures did not bear fruit and a decisive battle took place between the Seljuq forces under Sanjar and the Ghaznavid army of Malik Arslan on the plains of Shahrabad outside Ghazni.

The Battle of Shahrabad

By the 1100s, the Ghaznavid army was built around the elephant corps, a clear manifestation of the influence of numerous Indian expeditions undertaken for over a century. Different accounts put the number of elephants in the corps of Malik Arslan between 50 and 120. The elephant corps had archers on the elephants’ backs who were chained to the animals in order to secure them from falling off during battle.

As the battle was joined, the elephants broke through the Seljuq centre and then wheeled around to attack the left wing. Just when the Seljuq army was on the verge of retreating under this massive attack, the commander of the left wing, Amir Taj ad-Din, rallied his troops with a display of great personal bravery. He demonstrated to the troops how the underbellies of the elephants were vulnerable, attacking an elephant personally with a dagger. His forces rallied and attacked the elephant corps. With daggers being thrust into their underbellies, the elephants panicked and started to run amok with the group of archers chained to their backs now becoming a liability rather than an unassailable asset.

Taj ad-Din’s personal bravery in this battle has been lauded in poetry and he was richly rewarded by Sanjar at the end of the battle. While the elephant corps was being devastated, the right wing of the Seljuq army under Amir Unar swept behind the Ghaznavid army, which was then encircled and defeated.

Malik Arslan fled the battlefield and shut himself up in the fortress at Ghazni. However, he was delivered to Sanjar by the Ghazni citizenry without a fight, perhaps in response to Sanjar’s threat to raze the township if he was not handed over.

Malik Arslan managed to escape and fled to Lahore, placing himself at the mercy of the governor who belonged to the Shaibani family. By this time Malik Arslan had ruled for a mere three years. Although there is no conclusive evidence to prove it, it has been reported that the Ghazni markets were completely gutted by a devastating fire that started after a lightning strike in the first year of Malik Arslan’s rule. This was taken as an omen of an ensuing short rule for the sultan. [This assertion could have been done after the fall of Malik Arslan, as is the case of such omens and the descriptions of these prophesies.] The fact that the Shaibani clan was governing Lahore also indicates the declining influence and power of the Ghaznavids, since Lahore had long been governed by princes of the realm, a custom that seems to have been discontinued from around this time.

It is also noteworthy that Malik Arslan as the sultan did not have the opportunity to invade Hindustan, by now almost a scared mission for all Ghaznavid sultans of calibre—always covering their naked avarice with the cloak of religious sanction. Not mounting an expedition to India could have been because of the lack of time that he had to settle as the sultan, since the challenge to his seizing power came almost immediately after the event.

Sanjar entered Ghazni in triumph. It is reliably reported that Bahram Shah led Sanjar’s horse, walking in front, which clearly indicated his vassal status. Bahram Shah was declared sultan and ascended the throne, but only as a tributary to Sanjar and the Eastern Seljuqs, agreeing to a tribute of 250,000 dinars per annum. The vassal status and impotency of Ghaznavid power was then demonstrated as the Seljuq army went on a rampage and plundered Ghazni for 40 days. Although Sanjar intervened to stop his forces, at the end of the looting frenzy, Ghazni had been stripped to bare bones. Ghazni was a virgin city, never having been overrun by anyone since the time of Sultan Muhamad, for nearly two centuries. This devastation of the capital was a portent of things to come, Ghaznavid power was definitely in decline and the writing was already on the wall that they could not last for long. Sanjar returned to his kingdom with the plunder, leaving behind a Seljuq representative to oversee the collection of the annual tribute.

Meanwhile Malik Arslan had been busy in the Indian provinces, collecting an army to reclaim his throne. As soon as Sanjar departed Ghazni, he advanced into Ghaznavid country. Bahram Shah did not even pretend to put up any resistance, once again fleeing north and asking Sanjar for help. Once again the Seljuq forces defeated Malik Arslan, who took refuge in the mountains of Ughnan, modern day Urgun district situated at the border of Ghazni and Pakhtiya. Here he was captured by a Seljuq commander. Bahram Shah bought him from the Seljuq commander and had him put to death. Malik Arslan is said to have been 27 years old (35 years in some reports) at the time of his death.

Bahram Shah then settled down to rule, as a tributary of the Seljuqs, but with undisputed power to reign over a much diminished kingdom—diminished in size, status, wealth, capacity and capability to defend itself.

© [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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