Indian History Part 49 The Ghaznavids Section VI: A Brief Appraisal


Canberra, 19 May 2016

Rising from obscure origins, the Ghaznavids managed to conquer lands and carve out a viable kingdom in the north and east of Afghanistan and North-West India. The kingdom, actually a sultanate, remained intact for almost a century before the Seljuq invasion deprived it of its Persian territorial holdings. The Ghaznavids also managed to maintain a hard won status quo after the initial crisis of the Seljuq attack, averting a disaster with a stalemate achieved after the Seljuq defeat at Toghril. However, the continued Seljuq presence in the north and west forced the Ghaznavid sultans to pay more attention to extending their territorial hold into North-West India, which in turn became the foundation for the later spread of Islam into the Indian sub-continent. After the loss of the great provincial centre of Khorasan, Ghazni and later Lahore became the principal cities of the empire. The loss of the western territories had the unintended consequence of indirectly making the kingdom more manageable for the lesser capable sultans who followed Mahmud. Throughout their dynastic rule, the Ghaznavids continued to use the interior of India as an abundant source of resources, wealth and slaves.

The relative success of the Ghaznavid expeditions into India as compared to their continual defeat in the north and west by the Seljuqs and other Turkmen makes one question the military prowess of the frontier kingdoms of India. Why were they uniformly unable to staunch the flood of Islamic invasions? There is no conclusive answer to this. The reason for the easy defeat of the Indian armies was a combination of a number of factors—the disunity between the mutually warring kingdoms; the prevalent archaic concepts of warfare, such as fighting only during the day, that were still being practiced; and the largely unchanged battle tactics of the Indians, based on the prowess of the elephant corps that was demolished by the swift cavalry of the invading Muslims. Further, the Islamic forces were driven by the acceptance that there was nothing for them to fall back upon and therefore victory or death were the only two options. The religious zeal that has been superimposed on these armies by later day historians is a myth, the invading armies in this instance could have been of any religious hue and would have behaved in the same manner.

Although Mahmud conquered and held on to a large swath of land that straddled Afghanistan and the Punjab, he was not a great administrator. Instead he relied on his yearly plundering raids into India to create the wealth needed to keep the empire in a state of enforced stability. Further, his own personal bravery and deliberate and forceful enforcement of his writ, made him a formidable ruler. Even so, Mahmud was not able to ensure that the fringes and outlying territories of his empire was fully under central control and neither was he able to ensure the safety and security of the people under his nominal control. Military prowess and the promise of plunder alone does not constitute the fundamentals of creating a lasting empire. The volatile history of the dynasty that he created bares testimony to this fact. In the final analysis, Mahmud of Ghazni comes out only as an opportunistic plunderer, who managed to cloak his more base activities within the more insidious religious proclamations of Islam. That the current state of Pakistan worships him as the precursor of the ‘great’ Islamic rulers of the sub-continent is an opportunistic misinterpretation and does not alter this fundamental fact.

It was Masud I who established the basics of administration to rule the kingdom within some semblance of order. Maudud, his successor, continued to employ the same senior personnel, starting a tradition of family loyalties to the Ghaznavids that the dynasty followed till the end. In doing so he set up the core of a bureaucracy that looked after the practical running of the empire with some of the more prominent families—like the Shirazis and Maimandis—being in dedicated to the service of the Ghaznavids for generations. The practical running of the empire became set to a certain extent, leaving the king free to pursue more ‘important’ issues such as the next military expedition and looking towards further territorial expansion. Masud had an advisor from Turkharistan who was the head of the Shirazi family—Abu Nasr Ahmad b. Abd as-Samad Shirazi—who went on to become the third vizier or prime minster of Maudud and served him capably throughout his reign. He is also credited with having exercised a moderating influence over both Masud’s more erratic decisions, although he was obviously not always successful in doing so; the fateful Indian retreat being one such.

Relations with the Abbasid Caliphate

The ethos of the dynasty from the very beginning was strongly aligned with orthodox Sunni Islam, although in a broader analysis this acceptance seems to have been a cynical ruse to provide moral and religious sanction for the rapine and plunder that was visited on the conquered lands. Naked military power, which was the foundation for authoritarian rule was carefully couched in religiosity that provided it with righteous sanction. In order to obtain the religious sanction required to commit the more outrageous of his exploits, Mahmud assiduously cultivated good relations with the Abbasid Caliphate. Mahmud managed to successfully don the mantle of the enforcer of orthodox Islam against ‘heretics’ of other Islamic sects, and more importantly against the non-believers in Hindustan. In order to achieve this he was careful to send regular presents to Baghdad from his plundering expeditions to India.

Both Mahmud and Masud were eager to cultivate and maintain good relations with the Caliphs and declared their intent to rescue the Caliphate from the restrictive influence of the Shiia Buyids. However, it was the Seljuqs who finally managed to displace the Buyids and become the most influential group within the caliphate. Gradually the east-facing Ghaznavids stopped having direct contact with the caliphate and was dealt with by the Seljuq sultans who were the primary support in propping up the Baghdad Caliphate. Even so, successive Ghaznavid rulers continued to regard the acceptance of their rule by the caliphs as a necessary trapping to the legitimisation of their accession to the throne.

Persian Influence

Although the Ghaznavids were ethnically a dynasty of Turkish slave origins, they did not persist for long with Turkish customs and practices. However, their military power continued to be built on the back of a core of Turkish soldiers. During the rule of the early Ghaznavids there is evidence of a Turkish literary tradition and culture, but over a period of time successive rulers encouraged the adoption of Persian culture and themselves became culturally Persionised to a very high degree. The Persian influence can be seen in all aspects of the Ghaznavid rule—in the organisation of the court, the bureaucracy and the penchant for the sultans to be patrons and connoisseurs of art, poetry and culture.

The overarching Perso-Islamic influence is clearly visible in the tradition of statecraft for political power and the administrative apparatus that was put in place by successive Ghaznavid rulers. The royal court was organised formally in the hierarchical pattern that was copied from the Perso-Islamic monarchs, with a coterie of cronies always surrounding the sultan for entertainment during leisure and even to participate in heavy drinking bouts, which were fairly common. Lahore, the centre of government for the Indian territorial possessions, effectively functioned as a second capital to start with and continually increased in importance as the Ghaznavids suffered reverses of fortune in the west and north of their empire. Lahore went on to become the second court within the empire and achieved a quasi-regional status as the capital of the Indian holdings.

As the empire became entrenched, it adopted the pattern of monarchical rule favoured by the caliphs, based on the concept of a distant ruler ruling with divine favour over a population of religious homogeneity in a benign manner. At least this was the narrative that was being propagated, through court writers and poets under the sultan’s patronage, however diverse it may have been from ground realities. The Ghaznavid bureaucracy adopted the Persian administrative traditions of the Samanids and was secular in its leaning. This was at odds with the Ghaznavid zeal for the propagation of Islam with the sword, and shows up the shallowness of their claim to religious and moral high ground as nothing but opportunistic adaption for self-serving interests. All important positions within the court were held by Persians and there is not even one mention of a Turk having been elevated to a position of influence.

With the entrenched Persian administration in place, it was not long before cultural changes were brought about. Both Mahmud and Masud were great patrons of Persian poets with the result that almost all sultans that followed continued to support an array of Persian poets resident in their courts. A large amount of fine Persian poetry was produced over the nearly two centuries of Ghaznavid reign. The imbibing of high culture by the Ghaznavids was in sharp contrast to the other Turkmen tribes like the Seljuqs, who continued to be almost completely illiterate. When looked at in an overarching fashion, the reasons for this break in tradition by the Ghaznavids could be placed at their constant interaction with the thriving culture of India and their attempts to copy the opulence of the Baghdad Caliphate. The spoils from the Indian expeditions made it relatively easy for the Ghaznavids to provide patronage to men of letters and also to become great builders of palaces and gardens in Ghazni.

There is no doubt that the building boom in Ghazni and also in provincial centres like Herat, Balk and Bost were financed mainly by the plunder from India. This enthusiastic patronage for art and architecture was provided not only by the king but also the prominent courtiers who attempted to please the sultan by copying his actions. In fact, the idols and other trophies that were looted from India were displayed prominently in the public space of palaces, mosques and other buildings as a sort of symbolic demonstration of the triumph of Islam over paganism and idol worship.


The literary works that have survived the ravages of time, plunder and sheer wanton destruction provide information regarding the numerous gardens and palaces that were built at the height of Ghaznavid power. The gardens were transient in a brutish culture and the palaces were built of sun-dried bricks, which also does not lend itself to permanence. Even so, some structures have survived—in Ghazni, the tomb of Sebuktegin still stands in splendid disrepair, parts of Masud III’s palace and few minarets of the same vintage can also be seen.

No doubt that the Ghaznavids endeavoured to achieve cultural refinement to match that of their Indian conquests, which they had to accept—even if reluctantly—as being much more evolved than anything that had been encountered before. This is an uncommon trait for the time, when the spurious religious zeal displayed by the Islamic invaders was all that was required to vandalise ancient monuments and brutalise the conquered people. Conquest for pillage was the primary pursuit of the Islamic invaders, nothing more and nothing less. Any attempt at making these raids into something that they were not should be considered a misguided attempt at altering historic narrative. The veneer of religious zeal has been overlaid on these expeditions by later-day historians who even today continue to cater to the ‘secular’ needs of an imaginary intellectual elite. Starting with the expeditions of Mahmud of Ghazni, the Islamic onslaught on India was and has been continuing and constant. No amount of secular whitewash is going to change this fact of history.

A Note on Available Sources of Ghaznavid History

The sources available to study the Ghaznavid dynasty are many and varied. The verifiable information is mainly collected from Arab journals that have been translated and used in books and papers that have thereafter been published. There are three major authors whose accounts provide great insight into the early Ghaznavids—Utbi, Gardizi, and Baihaqi. Their works, written as chronicles and also historical books, provide an insight into the functioning of the royal courts as well as the decision-making process of the Sultan and his interaction with courtiers at the highest levels. In addition, these records also give detailed accounts of the day-to-day functioning of the administration, providing an indication of how the kingdom was run, from a common man’s perspective. There are also writings regarding the intimate private lives of the courtiers and royalty.

In particular Baihaqi’s Mujalladat is a detailed chronicle of the work of Muslim bureaucrats in their home countries and also in territories that were conquered and annexed. The only surviving volume covers the period of the Ghaznavid rise to power till the reign of Farrukh-Zad. Unfortunately the later volumes have been lost, which leaves an irreplaceable gap in the narrative that could have verified the flow of events during the more intensive days of the dynasty.

The Ghaznavids are also chronicled by the Persian scholar Ibn Baba al-Quashani who covers the period up to the accession of Masud III to the throne in 11th century. This is fortuitous since this work provides details of the uncertain 1050s, the ‘times of trouble’ when the kingdom and the dynasty were racked by succession wars and the population feared an impending crisis of governance. However, direct sources of these times, if they existed, have been lost. Since al-Quashani was resident in Persia during the time of these events, he was reliant on second-hand sources for his chronicles. The veracity of the reports would have to be considered to be limited because of this fundamental flaw.

From the time Ibrahim came to the throne in 1059, and stabilised the kingdom, the sources of information become scanty. Among the available chronicles, Juzjani’s Tabaqat-i-Nasiri although fairly brief, provides acceptably reliable information. Ibn al-Athir’s book Kamil deals in details with the Seljuq-Ghaznavid relationship and also focuses of the rule of Ibrahim and his grandson Bahram Shah. These historic chronicles are also supported by what are termed ‘ancillary disciplines’ in fundamental history such as archaeology and numismatics.

In the case of the Ghaznavids there is also a sizeable amount of poetry that have been recovered, which corroborate the more strict historical records. However, it is certain that a large number of poems have also been lost over a period of time and the available ones are derived from Persian and Indo-Muslim literature. The famous poets of the time were Uthman Mukhtari, Abul-Faraj Runi, Sanai, and Sayyad Hasan. Most of the poems suffer from being difficult to decipher since they were written in an allusive manner. The ponderous nature of the allegories make it difficult to craft out specifics from them. However, some of the poets accompanied the Sultan on his military expeditions and therefore were able to provide intimate details of battles won and lost, from the perspective of an aesthetically oriented bystander. Some of the details that the poems provide would have gone unrecorded if the poet was not physically present in the battlefield.

The later Ghaznavids suffer from not having a coherent story told about them. They do not leave a sufficiently readable archaeological footprint and also lack the support of numismatics since coins of this period are rare. It is probable that the succession of Sultans who ruled briefly and then were either deposed or killed did not create the peace and stability required to mint coins or indulge in nation-building. The analytical historian has to be content with sporadic collections of anecdotes, which unfortunately provide uniformly good pictures of the Sultans, extolling only their virtues and proclaiming all of them to be just and benevolent. This is the lot of all historians.

The majority of Indian sources deal with the Ghaznavid invasions and military expeditions into the Indian heartland in the north of the sub-continent and do not provide any insight into the machinations of the Ghaznavid court before or after the incursions, which were essentially plundering raids. Further, they are also obtuse and do not provide any accurate dates regarding when events took place and the descriptions are also embellished with the story-tellers’ infatuation with creating heroes and villains in all episodes. As such, they are not reliable sources other than to act as corroboratory aid to other, more precise accounts of events, recorded as they unfolded.


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2016]
All Rights Reserved
No part of this website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author. You may quote extracts from the website or forward the link to the website with attribution to For any other mode of sharing, please contact the author @ (



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)

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: