Indian History Part 49 The Ghaznavids Section V The Whimpering End of the Dynasty


Canberra, 2 May 2016

The Ghurid expedition into Ghazni was led by Alauddin Husain, the brother of the slain Saif ad-Din Suri. The dates of the invasion cannot be determined accurately and vary in different sources from 1152 to 1155 and can probably be placed at 1153. The Ghurid army was primarily infantry, whereas the opposing Ghaznavid army was a mix of cavalry and infantry, once again built around the elephant corps. It also contained the soldiers and commanders of Hindu vassal rulers. The composition of the army built around the elephant corps is a distinct indication of the overbearing Indian influence on the Ghaznavids.  The armies met in battle at Tiginabad. The Ghurid resorted to their old tactics of attacking the underbelly of the elephants and managed to neutralise them. Obviously, the Ghaznavids had not learned any lessons from the earlier defeat of the elephant corps. [The inability of commanders to learn from earlier mistakes and to be taken in by the same ruse again is demonstrative of the decline in military prowess and the scant regard being paid to developments in the battlefield. An overwhelming sense of one’s own superiority leads to a fatal disregard for battlefield innovations.]

Bahram Shah’s son Daulat Shah, leading a contingent of cavalry and one elephant, was isolated by the Ghurids and killed and the entire contingent annihilated. The morale of the Ghaznavid army crumbled at this setback and they were easily defeated, withdrawing to Ghazni in disorder. Bahram Shah made a last stand outside his capital but was soundly defeated and thereafter fled to India in despair. [Although some contemporary chronicles depict Bahram Shah as a great ruler, that assessment is far from the truth. The fact that he was repeatedly defeated in battle and had to flee to the safety of his Indian provinces makes him a weak and ineffective ruler. His status as a vassal of the Seljuqs is rightly deserved.]

The Sacking of Ghazni

The Ghurid army once again entered Ghazni in triumph and for the next seven days plundered the city. Even the historian Juzjani, avowedly pro-Ghurid, was constrained to record, ‘In these seven days, there was rapine, plundering, killing and overbearing behaviour’.

A loose estimate puts the number of men killed at 60,000. All the tombs and mausoleums of the Ghaznavid royal family, other than those of Mahmud, Masud and Ibrahim, were broken open, the bodies exhumed and burned. The reason for sparing the tombs of the three more important rulers is not explained even by Juzjani, who would have found it a sliver of magnanimity in an otherwise horrid tale. The three tombs may have been left undisturbed because the Ghurids feared a popular uprising at the sacrilege. It could also be speculated that if this was indeed the case, then the later Ghaznavid rulers were not as popular as they have been made out to be in contemporary accounts.

Great buildings were destroyed and the royal library partially burned. The great library of the philosopher scientist Ibn Sina, brought in its entirety from Isfahan in 1034 when the scientist himself was ‘imported’ to Ghazni, was burned down fully. This was an irretrievable loss of erudite knowledge and an act of vandalism that marauding armies have committed repeatedly in history.

The Ghurids vent the full measure of their vengeance, on all who were even suspected of having humiliated Saif ad-Din Suri or assisted Bahram Shah in capturing him and Musawi, in an orgy of bloodletting.

Alauddin Husain declared himself the Sultan of Ghazni—he was no longer a petty chieftain of an obscure province tucked away in the mountains. He had also absorbed the mistakes that his brother had committed in taking over the throne of Ghazni. He knew that there could be retribution from Sanjar, since Bahram Shah was under Seljuq protection as a vassal; and also appreciated that Bahram Shah could gather an army from his Indian provinces and mount a counterattack as he had done previously against Saif ad-Din Suri. Accordingly, he appointed one of his military commanders, Amir Khan probably a Turkish soldier in Ghurid service, as the governor of Ghazni and returned to Ghur.

On his return to his own stronghold, now victorious and obviously with an inflated sense of his own status, he turned against Sanjar the Seljuq Sultan who was also his nominal overlord. He stopped paying tribute to the Seljuqs and advanced towards Herat. Alauddin Husain had overestimated his own military prowess and he was decisively defeated by the superior Seljuq forces and taken prisoner. Sanjar released him two years later when a large ransom had been paid.

On hearing of Alauddin’s capture, Bahram Shah ever the opportunist, returned to Ghazni, overthrew the Ghurid governor and resumed his rule. However, he died about a year after his return, sometime in 1157 or thereabouts. The exact date of his return or death is confused by different sources, but it is definite that his death was very soon after reclaiming the throne from the Ghurids.

Some contemporary sources mention Bahram Shah’s love of learning and extol his liberal support for men of letters. Although a vassal without doubt throughout his rule, he could have become a good ruler leaving an outstanding legacy behind had he been more diplomatic in his dealings with his tributary state in Ghur. His antipathy to the Ghurids under the Suri rulers tainted his reign, bringing to the fore his fatal flaw of decamping from the capital at the slightest indication of an external invasion. No king or sultan of the time could claim greatness if he was not brave and decisive in the battlefield, however benign and glorious his rule. Protection of the sovereignty of the kingdom was a sacrosanct duty of the ruler and defaulting on that primary responsibility time and again diminished the stature of the ruler and brought the status of the kingdom to one of a failed state. The situation is the same even in today’s calculations.

In a broader view and historical perspective of the Ghaznavids, Bahram Shah’s rule can be placed as the beginning of a rapid decline and decimation of the dynasty. Blunders in foreign relations and treacherous murders that would always lead to blood feuds combined with the demonstration of his personal cowardice that made him abandon his subjects at the slightest hint of a crisis made him the weakest of the Ghaznavid line. Bahram Shah could be counted as having personally contributed to the disintegration of his ancestral kingdom.

Khusrau Shah

It is reported that Bahram Shah had a large number of sons, by some accounts as many as nine, who could have claimed the throne. On his death, Khusrau Shah, presumably the surviving eldest son came to power and the fate of the other sons are unclear and unknown. There is also a visible discrepancy regarding the date of Bahram Shah’s death and the ascension of Khusrau Shah with a mention of two other rulers on the throne before Khusrau Shah claimed the throne. Although no further details are available, this cannot be discounted as mere hearsay and is a distinct possibility, especially since succession struggles were common in the dynasty.

Khusrau Shah was completely unsuited to deal with the troubles and tribulations that faced the Ghaznavid kingdom and was a weak and powerless ruler. Almost immediately on assuming the throne, he faced another attack by Alauddin Husain, now freshly released from Seljuq captivity. This second invasion would have taken place around 1157-60. Alauddin Husain demanded that Khusrau Shah surrender a large part of the Ghaznavid territory in South-East Afghanistan, which was obviously refused. In the ensuing invasion by the Ghurids, the Ghaznavid army was routed. The area demarcated by Zamin-Dawar and Bust now passed permanently to the Ghurs. By the time of this Ghaznavid defeat, Sanjar had also been defeated in battle and captured by the Oghus Turks who was the rising power in Central Asia. He subsequently died in captivity, leaving Khusrau Shah with no overarching protection unlike that his father had enjoyed throughout his reign.

As was now the custom followed by defeated Ghaznavid sultans, Khusrau Shah retreated to Lahore. Alauddin Husain placed the newly acquired territories under the governorship of his nephew Muiz ud-Din Muhammad and returned once again to Ghur. At this juncture Khusrau Shah started a gradual return to Ghazni, but on hearing the news of Sanjar’s capture and death returned to Lahore. Retreat to Lahore and the territories of the Punjab was now natural for the Ghaznavid sultans when under stress and in times of crisis. The rich resources of the hinterland of Hindustan made it a natural springboard to mount counter-expeditions to recapture the temporarily lost throne of Ghazni. Khusrau Shah died in mid-1160—there is consensus regarding this date—leaving behind three sons. By all accounts he was a weak and powerless ruler who could never get a comprehensive grip over his territories.

The Last Ghaznavid

Khusrau Shah was followed to the throne by his son Khusrau Malik, who is recorded as having come to the Ghaznavid throne, not in Ghazni but in Lahore. The direct implication is that Ghazni was now totally outside the control of the original Ghaznavid dynasty. This situation has also spawned a number of accounts that are not in consonance with the generally accepted narrative. In some accounts Khusrau Shah and his son Khusrau Malik are conflated as the same person; while some other accounts state Khusrau Shah as the last Ghaznavid ruler. It could be that since Khusrau Malik was crowned in Lahore, he is considered a local Indian ruler in Punjab and therefore not worthy of inclusion in the long, and sometimes illustrious, list of great Ghaznavid sultans who ruled an empire that straddled a large swath of land spread across Afghanistan and India. In a realistic assessment, there is some merit to Khusrau Malik being excluded from the ‘Ghaznavid’ dynasty, although he obviously carried the lineage forward.

After Khusrau Shah’s flight from Ghazni, the town fell under the control of a band of Oghuz military adventurers (also referred to as Ghuzz Turkmen in some accounts) from Khorasan for about 15 years. These 15 years were a time of complete anarchy in comparison to the relatively orderly rule of the Ghaznavids and was the end of the opulent stature of the showpiece town of the once-great Ghaznavids. At the same time the Ghurids were encroaching further in the region of Zabulistan. The dates of these events are again conflicting, dependent on the source, although the general chronology is fairly clear.

The Seljuqs

The tribe started their movement from the Kirghiz steppes of Turkistan and in the 10th century settled in the region of Bukhara under the leadership of their chieftain Seljuq.

His grandsons, Chaghri Beg and Tughril Beg, helped the Samanids, crossed the river Oxus, conquered Merv and Nishapur, and brought Khorasan and northern Persia under their sway.

In 1054, Tughril Beg marched against Baghdad, reviving an almost defunct Caliphate and giving it a lease of another two centuries of life. By now called the Seljuqs, perhaps in recognition of the first strong chieftain of the tribe, they provided the greatest service to the fledgling Islamic religion. They reunited the centre of Asia—from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan—under one religious-political authority. This unification in turn provided the Caliphate with the ability to check the conquering progress of the Byzantine Empire and in later days the Crusades.


‘The appearance of the Oghuz injected a new element into the affairs of eastern Afghanistan for several years to come. The Great Seljuq sultanate in the east had in effect collapsed with the Oghuz rebellion in Khurasan [Khorasan] and the ensuing capture of Sanjar during the years 548-51/1153-6. A forceful former Turkish Ghulam of Sanjar’s, Mu’ayyid ad-Din Ai Aba (d. 569/1174), succeeded to real power in Khurasan [Khorasan] and drove the Oghuz tribesmen out of the main towns there. It was this dispersal of the Turkmens that send certain bands of the Oghuz eastwards and led to their establishment in Ghazna, rather as Alptigin had migrated eastwards two centuries before and halted at Ghazna on the periphery of the Islamic world. The Oghuz in Ghazna are said to have behaved there tyranically [tyrannically], ‘as was the case in every land where they gained control’, and from Ghazna they raided as far as Tiginabad.’

C.E. Bosworth,

The Later Ghaznavids: Splendour and Decay, pp. 124-25

Khusrau Malik ruled for 24 years and to an extent must have been an effective sultan, considering that these were the years of fierce Hindu resistance in North India. The general collapse of Hindu kingdoms and the fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable conquest of their kingdoms by outsiders were still more than half a century away.

Poets in Khusrau Malik’s court have written about the wars he fought against Hindu kings and of his successes. Even catering for poetic hyperbole, these poems would have been written based on actual wars that were fought. There is an inscription in Benares of the Gahadavala ruler Jayachandra that refers to the repulse of a Muhammadan attack by his father Vijaychandra. Since Jayachandra came to the throne in 1170, this event would have been before that and the Muslim ruler in question would most certainly be Khusrau Malik.

Khusrau Malik continued the ancestral tradition of ‘war against the unbelievers’ and extended his rule to the hill regions of northern Punjab and the fringes of Kashmir. Here, he allied with the Hindu tribe of Khokhars against their suzerain, the Raja of Jammu. However, in the broader narrative of history, these activities, by no means trivial at that time, is overshadowed by the Ghurid advances and the massive victories that they were starting to win.

The Coming of the End

After having subsumed the Afghanistan part of the Ghaznavid kingdom, the Ghurs started to expand west into Khorasan and east into the Indian sub-continent. By 1173-74, the Ghurs were in full control of eastern Afghanistan, having evicted the Oghuz from Ghazni. In their move east, the remnant of the Ghaznavid Empire, now whittled down merely to its Indian possessions, was the first one to be encountered. By this time when the Ghurids were expanding their hold over the region, Alauddin Husain had been succeeded by his nephew Ghiyas ud-Din Sam as the sultan in Ghur. He had retained his brother Muiz ud-Din Muhammad as the governor of the conquered lands and now placed Ghazni under his rule. Muiz ud-Din, who had an inborn aptitude for war and adventure, was to become known in Indian history as Muhammad of Ghur.

Ghazni once again became the springboard for expeditions into India, ironically now against the same Ghaznavid dynasty that started it all. The first Indian expedition of Muhammad of Ghur was an abject failure. He led his army through the Gomal Pass to the Indus valley at Dera Ismail Khan (now the territory of the Mashud Pathans). In 1178 he moved through Multan and Uchh across the Thar Desert and encountered the powerful Chalukyas near Mount Abu. The Ghurids were soundly beaten by the Chalukya king Mularaja II. Muhammad thereafter concentrated his efforts against the Ghaznavids in the Punjab, although even in this effort, the first two attacks resulted in failure.

In 1179, the Ghurids captured Peshawar. In 1185-86 Muhammad attacked Ghaznavid Punjab and devastated the area around Lahore, but could not capture the town itself. In this effort, he was instigated and assisted by the King of Jammu Chakradeva, who had old enmity with the Ghaznavids to avenge. Under the Ghaznavids, the tribe of Khokhars had become a troublesome element in his kingdom. Since Lahore could not be captured even after prolonged and bitter struggle, Muhammad retreated to a strong fort built in Sialkot, essentially so that he would be safe from the Khokhar tribe allied with the Ghaznavids. Sometime later Muhammad returned and captured Lahore with the help of Vijayadeva, the son of Chakradeva and the heir apparent of the Kingdom of Jammu. The main source of information regarding this phase of the Ghaznavid-Ghurid conflict is the chronicle of the Jammu dynasty, maintained in the Devanagari script.

The capture of Lahore was the culmination of a three-cornered struggle with Khusrau Malik and the Khokhar tribe on one end, the Raja of Jammu on the second, and Muiz ud-Din Muhammad of Ghur on the third. Temporary, opportunistic and lucky alliances let Muhammad of Ghur come out on top.

The Story of the End of the Ghaznavids

The details of the last days of Khusrau Malik are anecdotal in nature and not directly verifiable. It is said that on besieging Lahore for the second time, Muhammad promised Khusrau Malik ‘aman’—a traditional guarantee of protection for the king and his family—and in addition he was to be permitted the preservation of his wealth and also offered the hand of one of Muhammad’s  daughters for Khusrau Malik’s son. In effect the Ghaznavid would be granted a pardon. In return, Khusrau Malik was to yield and accept the supremacy of the Ghurids, recognising the supreme Ghurid Sultan Ghiyas ud-Din as his overlord.

Very obviously this offer was rejected and the siege of Lahore commenced in earnest. As the Ghaznavid position became increasingly precarious, Khusrau Malik sued for peace and surrendered, accepting the original terms laid out by Muhammad. For the first two months after his surrender, Khusrau Malik enjoyed the honoured status that he had been promised in the peace terms.

Then Ghiyas ud-Din, the Sultan in Ghur, asked for Khusrau Malik to be send to his court. Whether this was a ploy on the part of Muhammad to get rid of his ‘royal’ guest or the Ghur Sultan actually asked for Khusrau to be send to him is not known. In any case, Khusrau Malik instinctively knew that this would be the end; since his peace treaty was with Muhammad and Ghiyas ud-Din was not obliged to be bound by it, the Ghaznavid would have no protection the court of Ghur. Therefore, he attempted to persuade Muhammad not to send him to Ghur, unsuccessfully as it transpired. Khusrau Malik and his son reached Ghur and did not even obtain a face-to-face meeting with Ghiyas ud-Din, being incarcerated in some obscure castle immediately on arrival. They were never heard of again, although there is one report of their having been put to death after about five years of imprisonment.

Thus ended the once-mighty Ghaznavid dynasty, unsung, unknown and unrecognised—a common fate of many dynasties before and after them.

More than half a century of rivalry finally ended with a clear victory for the Ghurids, with the Ghaznavid dynasty completely wiped off the surface of the earth. The ancient capital of the Sultanate of Ghazni was partially destroyed and never again regained its ancient glory and neither did it again enjoy the status of being the centre of a thriving empire. Perhaps it would have been some solace to Khusrau Malik had he known that the Ghurids, who had condemned him and his dynasty to oblivion, would also perish within three to four decades, falling prey to another more powerful dynasty that was originating in the north-west even as he and his son were being put to death.


In a span of a mere two centuries the empire founded and nurtured by Mahmud of Ghani disappeared from history. It was an empire that was founded on military prowess alone and could not last long when the leadership started to lose warrior-like qualities. Mahmud was a great warlord but established no institutions or devised no laws to govern the kingdom in an orderly manner. There was no principle of cohesion or unity that welded the empire together, and even outward security of life and property was not guaranteed in the more remote parts. This is illustrated by the anecdote of an old woman remonstrating with Mahmud that he had no right to conquer lands that he was unable to manage effectively.

The untold wealth plundered from India during repeated raids fostered a life of indolent luxury that made successive Ghaznavid princes rapidly degenerate in character. They did not possess the qualities necessary to forge an empires of stature and so were unable to keep in check the turbulent tribes whom Mahmud had brought under his sway and kept fully in control through displays of sheer will power. The gallant chiefs of these tribes had followed Mahmud across icy mountains and burning deserts to distant and unknown lands. With the Ghaznavids falling prey to degrading sensuality that sapped and killed their martial spirit, these chiefs stopped paying homage to the dynasty and became semi-independent and a rule unto themselves. The rot within the political system encouraged the spread of anarchy and disorder within the empire. The profligate Ghaznavids could not offer even token resistance to more powerful and ambitious men like Tughril Beg and Sanjar.

On the other hand, India the source of the Ghaznavid wealth, could not be ruled from faraway Ghazni—the distance being too great to have any effective control. The Ghaznavids, avaricious as always, paid more attention to the wealthy Indian provinces in their control and neglected their northern and western borders from where the primary threat to the empire emanated. The Ghurs were better equipped as leaders to command the unruly but valorous and energetic Afghan tribesmen. When they emerged to challenge the ruling house for supremacy, the older and by now spent Ghaznavids had no answer to give.

© [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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