Indian History Part 49 The Ghaznavids Section IV: The Beginning of the End


Canberra, 8 April 2016

In 1118, Bahram Shah settled down to rule the Ghaznavid kingdom, having conclusively dealt with the challenges that were mounted against his coming to the throne. He assumed a number of honorifics—some of which compared him, in a flatteringly favourable manner, to the status and titles that were assumed by his grandfather Mahmud, the founder of the dynasty. Some of these honorifics were also minted into the coins that were released during his reign. The events of his reign are commemorated in a number of poems, which form the main source of information for the period. Since poems written in praise of the ruling monarch are notoriously hyperbolic in their descriptions, of both the individual characteristics of the king and regarding the successes he is supposed to have achieved, these poems regarding the rule of Bahram Shah also must be treated with caution. Where possible, they must be authenticated with other sources.

Even though he assumed all the symbols, paraphernalia, pomp and pretensions of an independent monarch, the reality was that Bahram Shah remained a direct vassal of Sanjar and through him, of the Seljuqs. This dependency on Seljuq power is confirmed by the writings on the coins minted for use in the core part of the kingdom, which state the relationship in very clear terms. However, in the coins that were minted for use only in the Indian provinces, only Bahram Shah’s name is seen to appear. Further, in the early part of Bahram Shah’s reign the vassal status of the Ghaznavids was clearly demonstrated with his son Daulat Shah being send to the Seljuq court in Merv, ostensibly to be mentored in the art of ruling, but in actuality as a hostage to ensure his father’s good behaviour. It is reported that Daulat Shah was later send back to Ghazni. There is no detailed information available that could determine whether the release was the result of another hostage being send in lieu or just a magnanimous gesture on the part of the Seljuq Sultan. Around 1119, Sanjar became the supreme Seljuq Sultan on the death of Muhammad who was till then the head.

Rebellion in the Indian Provinces

Muhammad of the Shaibani family was the governor of the Indian provinces, ruling from Lahore, when the succession struggle between Malik Arslan and Bahram Shah was taking place. He had sided with Malik Arslan and even after Malik Arslan had been defeated and killed, refused to recognise Bahram Shah as the sultan. This started yet another rivalry that had to be reconciled on the battlefield. A number of poems, especially the Adab al-Harb, provide great anecdotal details about this rivalry and the events as they unfolded. Muhammad resisted all attempts by Bahram Shah to establish control over the Ghaznavid Indian provinces and finally rebelled in an attempt to declare independence from the Ghaznavids.

In January 1119, Bahram Shah marched to Lahore. He easily defeated and captured Muhammad. Considering that Muhammad was a proven military commander and also extremely knowledgeable about India, Bahram Shah pardoned and reinstated him as the governor of Lahore. However, on Bahram Shah’s return to Ghazni, Muhammad and his son Mutasim rebelled again. They built a fortress at Nagor, in the neighbourhood of Bhita in the Siwalik Hills, as their centre of power. Here Muhammad is supposed to have gathered a mixed Muslim-Hindu army of about 70,000 men with the support of some Indian princes. Bahram Shah once again marched into the Indus Valley towards Multan with an army of 10,000 men. For the inevitable battle that was to ensue, Muhammad selected a marshy area. Bahram Shah also flooded the area near Multan, the area being reported as the confluence of the Rivers Sutlej and Jhelum or the Chenab. The exact location of the battle is not specifically mentioned in any of the records.

It is reliably learned that Bahram Shah tried to negotiate and wanted to avoid battle—offering a robe of honour to Muhammad and recalling the Shaibani family’s history of honourable service to the Ghaznavids. However, the peace offering was rebuffed by Muhammad who obviously felt that he was in a better military position than the invading army. In the ensuing battle, Muhammad made a frontal attack at the centre of the Ghaznavid army. The attack was halted by the Ghaznavid army and Muhammad was killed in the battle that followed. His sons were also killed in this battle, barring one named Ibrahim who had defected to the Ghaznavid side before the battle. A poem by Sayyid Hasan (Ashraf ad-Din Abu Muhammad Sayyid Hasan) that was written to commemorate this battle while Hasan was in India mentions the season as being autumn, which dates the battle to about eight months after Muhammad’s first rebellion. Having achieved an undisputed victory, Bahram Shah appointed Salar Husain Alawi as governor in Lahore and returned to Ghazni.

Indian Expeditions. It is clear that Bahram Shah undertook a number of expeditions into India, although very limited information is available from the Ghaznavid records regarding their timing and consequences. The Indian sources are also very vague and inexplicit, which is not surprising since such has been the norm so far. Bahram Shah’s reign in Ghazni coincided with the time when some great dynasties of North India—the Paramaras of Malwa, Kalachuris of modern Madhya Pradesh, Gahadavalas of Kanauj—had raised a strong barrier against further Islamic incursions from the west. There is definitive information available that confirm that the Chahamana ruler of Sakambhari, called Arnoraja (ruled from before 1133 to around 1153), defeated a Turushka invasion of Eastern Rajputana that had been mounted through the Thar Desert. The timing indicates a raid by the Ghaznavids. Although it is highly unlikely that Bahram Shah was personally involved in the battle, it can be safely assumed that he instigated the invasion.

The Spread of Persian Literature

It is a fact that Bahram Shah reigned over a declining kingdom, controlling territory that was a mere slice of the once-mighty Ghaznavid Empire. Even so, his reign is noted for the spread of good Persian literature and a notable increase in their output. The outpouring of lyrical poetry during this period rivalled that of the glorious first Ghaznavid period. The older renowned poets wrote only during the early part of Bahram Shah’s reign. Three younger, but equally great writers produced a number of mystical ‘mathnawi’ poems that discussed morality and ethics. These became decisive influences in the subsequent development of mystical Persian poetry for centuries to come.

Sayyid Hasan, was a poetic genius who excelled in the fields of ‘quasida’ and ‘ghazal’. He undertook most of his great poetic activity and flourished during Bahram Shah’s rule. Court intrigue however, brought the Sultan’s displeasure on Hasan, who was forced to leave Ghazni on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. He subsequently lived in the courts of various Seljuq rulers and amirs and died sometime between 1160 and 1162.

The most notable literary figure in Bahram Shah’s court was Abu al-Maali Nasrallah, the son of the vizier to both Ibrahim and Masud III. His greatest contribution to Persian literature was the elegant Persian prose version of the collection of the animal fables, ‘The Fables of Bidpai’. The Persian original into an original Indian version as ‘Kalila wa-Dimna’, which was subsequently translated into Arabic. The enormous popularity of Nasrallah’s work meant that a large number of translations and versions were produced, making it difficult to distinguish the original from embellished copies. Although a literary genius, Nasrallah went on to demonstrate his intellect and pedigree by becoming a vizier himself later in life.

Relationship with the Seljuqs

The Seljuqs extracted a large tribute from Bahram Shah in return for having propped him up on the throne, which became a serious drain on the Ghaznavid treasury. In 1135, unable to bear the financial burden any further, Bahram Shah took the extraordinary step of renouncing his allegiance to Sanjar, by now the supreme sultan of the Seljuqs. It was obvious that Sanjar could not let this affront to his authority pass unpunished and therefore, he decided to take action. Seljuq records also mention that Bahram Shah was an oppressive ruler and that this was an impelling motive for the Seljuq intervention. However, this altruistic reason given for the Seljuq action can be discounted since Sanjar and the Seljuqs has not been recorded as taking any action unless it furthered their own interests.

The Seljuq army marched east in the winter of 1135-36, via Sistan and Bust. Although it suffered greatly from lack of food and fodder during the march in the bleak winter months, the army continued towards Ghazni. Bahram Shah realised the gravity of the situation and send an envoy to meet Sanjar’s representative, Amir Mihtar Jauhar the governor of Ray, and offered his submission. However, before any decision was forthcoming, he panicked and fled to the Indian territories, finally reaching Lahore. Running away to his Indian holdings at the slightest indication of trouble is a recurrent event in Bahram Shah’s eventful reign.

Sanjar now occupied Ghazni and for the second time within a span of two decades, the Seljuq army looted and laid waste the magnificent township. However, Sanjar send word to Bahram Shah that he had no intention of annexing either Ghazni or the kingdom permanently to the Seljuq Sultanate and returned to Balkh with the majority of his army. A chastened Bahram Shah returned to Ghazni and reclaimed his throne. There is a visible irony in the behaviour pattern of Bahram Shah. At the sight of the Seljuq or another Turkman army, he flees from Ghazni and takes shelter elsewhere; a trait that he repeatedly displays during his reign. However, he goes on expeditions against the local Indian princes in the Indus Valley and beyond. This could be a considered the manifestation of the general disdain felt by the Turkmen regarding the military capabilities and fighting prowess of the Hindu princes and kings then ruling in India.

Bahram Shah presumably went back to being an obedient tributary of the greater Seljuq Empire, although there is no precise information available to provide details of the sacking of Ghazni or whether or not the annual tribute to be paid was increased by Sanjar. This episode of Bahram Shah attempting to break free of the Seljuq yoke is the only one that is detailed and indicative of the Seljuq-Ghaznavid interaction before the start of the Ghaznavid-Ghurid rivalry and conflict.

The Concept of Atabeg

An anecdote in the chronicle Adab al-Harb mentions a Christian physician, who was part of the retinue of Mihtar Jauhar, treating some nobles in the Ghaznavid court. In this record, Mihtar Jauhar is reported as being Bahram Shah’s Atabeg.

Traditionally the office of Atabeg was instituted as a tutor or guardian for a young prince who was not yet capable of ruling independently. This custom had evolved in its classic form in Persia, Iraq, Anatolia and Syria and been adopted by the Seljuq Sultanate. However, it had not been practised by the Ghaznavids and this is the first mention of the term Atabeg in relation to this dynasty. Since the concept was obviously new to the Ghaznavids, the term can be assumed to have been used in strict accordance with the Seljuq interpretation.

It would therefore seem that Jauhar, a high level Amir within the Seljuq Sultanate, was left behind in Ghazni as the representative of the Seljuq Sultan, much like a military governor. The reason is obvious—he was a constant reminder to Bahram Shah of his decidedly vassal status ad obligations to the great Seljuq Sultan and that maintaining the allegiance was essential to continue on the throne.

The Beginning of Ghaznavid-Ghurid Rivalry

At this stage Bahram Shah’s empire consisted of modern eastern Afghanistan, adjoining Punjab, probably the whole of Sind and some parts of Baluchistan. The extent of the kingdom is approximated because the contemporary historians from the central Islamic lands, who were the ones that kept meticulous records of the greater empires, did not consider the Ghaznavid Sultanate of sufficient importance to record their boundaries accurately. They were pre-occupied and consumed by chronicling the gradual break-up of the Great Seljuq Empire and the oncoming menace from Central Asia.

There are two sources that provide details regarding the rise of Ghurid power and the ensuing, inevitable rivalry with the Ghaznavids. First are the records of Ibn al-Athir who continued his chronicle. Second, the annals written by Juzjani, who was a local historian from Guzgan, a mountainous region in northern Afghanistan between Heri Rud and Balkh. Juzjani claims to have been born in the royal palace of the Ghurs in their capital Firuzkuh, perhaps to cement his affiliation with the Ghurid dynasty. He migrated to Uchh in India and then moved on to Delhi, where he wrote the Tabaqat-i-Nasri in 1259-60. He is considered the dynastic historian of the Ghurs in India and it is only natural that his narrative is biased in favour of the Ghurs.

The Ghaznavid-Ghurid rivalry came to the fore when the Shansabani line of chiefs ruling their small and insignificant holdings in the mountains gained prominence in the Ghur region. Their increasing strength saw them gradually start an outward expansion, primarily in search of better economic prospects from the bleakness of their own territorial holdings. Initially they made incursions to the west where they encountered the might of the Seljuqs. Thwarted, they veered south and then east and came up against the Ghaznavids. At this time, the first two decades of the 12th century, both Ghazni and Ghur were under the influence of Sanjar, the Seljuq Sultan. It is also a fact that till now Ghur was traditionally a Ghaznavid tributary.

Seeing the start of volatility and increasing influence of the Ghurs, Bahram Shah attempted to strengthen his weak hold over the Ghurs. It is reported that Bahram Shah invited the Ghurid chief Qutb ad-Din Muhammad to his court on some pretext and while there had him poisoned. Muhamad was by then the self-styled Malik al-Jabal, ‘The King of the Mountains’, a clear indication of his ambition as well as growing stature. An unauthenticated source also claims that Muhammad was the son-in-law of Bahram Shah, an unlikely alliance at this juncture in the Ghaznavid-Ghurid relationship. Muhamad was accompanied to the Ghazni court by Saif ad-Din Suri, one of the clan chiefs of Ghur. Suri managed to escape from the Ghaznavid court and went back to the safety of Ghur.

The Ghurids were traditionally intrepid infantrymen of the hills. However, on his return, Saif ad-Din started to assemble an army comprising of both infantry and cavalry. His recruitment of Turkish Mamluks, or mercenaries into the gathering army is a clear indication of his intent to invade Ghazni in revenge for the murder of Muhammad. When he was ready, Saif ad-Din Suri marched into Ghaznavid territory and captured Ghazni in September-October 1148. This was the first major Ghurid victory, a foretaste of things to come. Bahram Shah resorted to his characteristic behaviour and fled to the Indo-Afghan border, camping in a place called ‘Kurraman’, modern day Kurram in the North West Frontier of Pakistan.

Saif ad-Din Suri declared himself Sultan of Ghazni and handed over Ghur to be ruled by his brother. Local officials, under the leadership of one Majd ad-Din Musawi who acted as Saif ad-Din’s vizier or prime minster, collaborated with the Ghurids in establishing the rudiments of a new administration. This swift transfer of allegiance by local officials, some of whom had long been in the service of the Ghaznavids, lends some authenticity to the earlier unconfirmed reports regarding the oppressive nature of Bahram Shah’s rule. It could also be indicative of the opportunistic nature of public officials, as had been demonstrated a century earlier in Ghaznavid history during the brief rule of Toghril.

In the event, the transfer of allegiance of the local officials prompted Saif ad-Din to believe that he had complete control over the Ghaznavid kingdom and he send a majority of the Ghurid army and officials back to Ghur to be with his brother. This tactical move was to prove to be a strategic blunder within the next few months. The Ghurid chief had not bargained for the temperamental Ghaznavid officials and their proclivity to shift allegiances rapidly.

In the meanwhile, Bahram Shah was gathering an army in the Punjab under the command of Salar Ali, also named in some sources as Salar al-Hasan, the governor of Ghaznavid Indian provinces. Bahram Shah attacked Ghazni in the winter of 1148-49, when the northern hills were snowbound and reinforcements from the Ghurid heartland would not be able to get through. Although there is no mention of this being a factor in the planning of the attack, if it had been considered, it has to be accepted as pure military brilliance on the part of the Ghaznavid Sultan. Abandoned by the fickle officials of Ghazni and stranded without sufficient loyal troops to fight back, Saif ad-Din Suri and his vizier Musawi fled to the hills with a few soldiers. They were overtaken by the Ghaznavid forces and captured after a brief battle at a place named Sang i-Surakh, meaning the ‘Perforated Stone’. The date is recorded as 12 May 1149.

Suri and his prime collaborator Musawi were brought back to Ghazni and subjected to a great deal of indignity and humiliation. After being publicly dishonoured in many ways, they were crucified at Pul i-Yak Taq, the ‘One-arched Bridge’. Suri’s head was cut off and send to Sanjar by Bahram Shah, perhaps as an assurance to the Seljuq Sultan regarding the Ghaznavid’s ability to control his own kingdom.

The capture and, more importantly, dishonouring of Saif ad-Din created a zeal for vengeance in Ghur. By the traditions of the hard people living in the harsh mountains, the Ghurs were compelled to mount an expedition against Ghazni to cleanse and redeem the honour of the clan. It is highly probable that had Saif ad-Din been killed in battle and not captured and dishonoured, the Ghurids would not have reacted with such vehemence and the course of history may have been different. With the honour of the clan as the rallying cry, the Ghurids mounted a punitive expedition against Bahram Shah almost immediately. Although it was not clearly evident at that time, this was the first strike of the death knell for the Ghaznavid dynasty. More importantly, this was the beginning of the end of the glory of the great city of Ghazni, which had till then been the imperial capital and the seat of culture of the Eastern Islamic world.

© [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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