Indian History Part 50: The Ghurids


Canberra, 1 June 2016

The Sansabani clan of Ghur (also known as Ghor) were of Tajik Iranian origin as can be derived from their original name Al e-Sansab in Persian, which in the colloquial language of Afghanistan became Sansabani. There are recent claims that the Ghurids were Pashtuns, which is an incorrect assertion not based on any tangible proof or fact. They were never ‘Pashto’ speaking like the current natives of the region, and the claim has to be discounted as the fanciful avowal of biased historians who want to claim the ‘greatness’ of the Ghurids as their own. For nearly 150 years, till about the early 12th century, they remained local chieftains of Ghur acknowledging the supremacy of the Ghaznavids and the Seljuqs, content with their vassal status.

In the 1140s, the Ghurids erupted out of their mountain stronghold and made war against the waning power of the Ghaznavids, which culminated in Ghazni being sacked and burned to the ground in 1150. Allaudin Hussain, the Ghurid clan chief who led the pillaging was given the title ‘Jahan Suz’ that roughly translates to ‘World Burner’, because of the ferocity of the sacking of the Ghaznavid capital. By 1175, the Ghurids were completely independent and had also sacked Ghazni a second time. The second sacking of Ghazni forced the Ghaznavids to move permanently to their Indian capital in Lahore and also marked the beginning of the eastern expansion of the Ghurids under Muizz-ud-din Muhammad. Muhammad was the brother of Giyaz ud-Din and had been installed as the Ghurid ruler of Ghazni after it had been conquered a second time. The Ghurid army was similar in composition to that of the Ghaznavids, formed around the nucleus of Turkish ghulams and reliant on the swiftness of the cavalry. It was well-trained and went on to play an important role in the entrenchment of Ghurid control of the Punjab.

The army of Ghur under Muhammad captured the Khyber Pass in 1180, control of this vital inroad to India passing from the Ghaznavids after two centuries of exclusive control. Even with the Khyber Pass under his control, Muhammad held back from entering India proper, biding his time to do so till the capture of Lahore. In 1186, Muhammad captured Lahore and brought to an inglorious end the Ghaznavid dynasty—the last of the Ghaznavid sultans being murdered sometime around 1191 (Described in detail in the previous chapter). At the zenith of their power, the Ghurids controlled the entire Afghanistan, eastern Iran, Pakistan, and North-West India as far as Delhi.

Muhammad of Ghor

The Ghurid dynasty threw up a number of sultans but from an Indian perspective it is Muizz-ud-din Muhammad, commonly known in the sub-continent as Muhammad of Ghur (Ghor), who has to be studied since he had an inordinately high impact on the subsequent history of the Indian sub-continent. Muhammad was the second son of a minor local chieftain, born in 1149 in the Ghur territory. In 1163, his elder brother Giyaz ud-din claimed the throne of Ghur. It is mentioned in some sources that Muhammad assisted his elder brother to defeat a rival to the throne, another local chief called Abdul Abbas. He would have been only 14 years old at this stage and therefore it is difficult to imagine his contribution to any fighting that would have taken place. However, it is recorded that the brothers went on to form a formidable combination in enforcing their will on the kingdom. A few years after coming to power, the brothers defeated an uncle of theirs, Fakhr ud-din Masud, who also had laid claim to the throne. Masud had been supported by the Seljuq governor of Herat and the fact that he was still defeated by the brothers speaks volumes about their capabilities and strong hold on power. Muhammad was placed as ruler of Ghazni by his brother and focused his attentions towards the east, and the lucrative provinces nesting in the Indian sub-continent.

The Indian Campaigns

The famous Muhammad of Ghur started his Indian conquests with a resounding defeat at the hands of an Indian potentate. After establishing himself in Ghazni, Muhammad attacked and defeated the Ismaili rulers of Multan in 1178. After consolidating his gains, he opted to turn south rather than attack the Ghaznavids who were now entrenched in Lahore. He marched his armies across the desert towards the kingdom of Gujarat and its capital Anhilwara (modern day Patan). At this time the king of Gujarat, Bhimdev Solanki II (ruled 1178-1241), was a minor and his mother Naikidevi was the regent as well as the commander of the army. The Ghurid army, which had suffered greatly in the desert crossing, was soundly defeated at the Battle of Kayadra near Mount Abu. The Ghurids suffered enormous casualties and were forced to retreat to Multan, once again across the desert and being subject to the same privations as the earlier crossing. In 1190, Muhammad returned to Ghur and joined his brother, the sultan, in defeating Sultan Shah of Merv.

At the turn of the century, there were five powerful clans of Rajputs who between them ruled the entire North India—the Gaharwars (known later as Rathores) of Kanauj; the Chauhans of Delhi and Ajmer; the Palas and Senas of Bihar and Bengal; the Baghelas of Gujarat; and the Chendelas of Bundelkhand. Of these, the kingdoms of Delhi and Kanuaj were the more prominent.

The Fatal Flaw in Rajput Kingdoms

The Rajputs were perhaps the most warlike race to have evolved in the Indian sub-continent. They forged wealthy and powerful kingdoms in the north and west of India and were always ready to give battle to defend their territories and/or their honour. They were famous for their gallantry and unmitigated heroism; proud of their pedigree, which some clans traced back to the origin of the sun and the moon; and extremely jealous of their honour. War was the element within which the Rajputs thrived and every one of them were dauntless warriors who never considered surrender as a viable alternative to defeat and death on the battlefield.

However, their kingdoms carried forward a fatal weakness in being completely reliant on a feudal societal organisation for their functioning. The king was at the centre of power and the country was divided into a number of districts of differing sizes, each controlled by a petty chieftain, or jagirdar, who was obliged to provide military service to his liege-lord, the king, when needed or demanded. This could be considered a viable organisation. However, the chieftains were divided into different grades, based on their capacity to provide services to the king. This division and stratification led to a situation wherein the connection to the king, in most cases, was through various higher social ranks and not direct. Over a period the kingdom deteriorated to becoming a network of sub-feudatories, in the bargain sacrificing its cohesiveness.

There were two fundamental flaws that emerged from this arrangement, one that was more detrimental than the other. In the feudal set up, only the high-borne could aspire to hold a jagir or fiefdom, which over a few generations of becoming hereditary, created a strata of aristocrats. This aristocracy was obviously selfish and ensured an entrenched exclusivity in the grant of jagirs. Further, the aristocracy avidly supported the invidious cast distinction among the Rajputs that prevented even capable warriors from the inferior classes of society from being amalgamated into the army of ‘nobles’. This insistence on exclusivity deprived the community of the opportunity to recruit from its full strength.

As the exclusivity of command and status became entrenched, the office and privileges of a jagirdar started passing from father to son, becoming embedded as hereditary positions. It became impossible for capable men from the lower strata, of humble birth to rise to higher status and dignity, even if they were exemplary warriors. Ambition and aspiration were not provided any avenues for progress. The chiefs of the so-called ‘noble’ clans and houses, although proved to be of limited ability, merit and efficiency over a period of time, were insistent upon protocol to protect their interests. The second flaw emerged from the complexity of the first. Over just a few generations of the jagirs becoming hereditary, rivalries and feuds between them became common place, at times simply because of a perceived slight to the honour of the family. This antagonism to each other hampered unified military action even at the call of the king.

It is obvious that such a political structure built on an arbitrary and whimsical foundation could not last for long. Not surprisingly the very first shock of the Islamic invasion shook Rajput India to its foundations. The political landscape of the Indian sub-continent would never be the same again.

After defeating and obliterating the Ghaznavid dynasty in 1186, Muhammad ventured further into North India and met the Chahamana king Prithviraj in the two consecutive Battles of Tarain in 1191 and 1192. In the first battle, Muhammad suffered an inglorious defeat at the hands of the Rajput king who used superior tactics to beat the invaders. Having carefully analysed the battle and identified the weaknesses his own as well as that of the Indian army, Muhammad invaded again the next year. This time the Rajput army was over confident and did not pay sufficient attention to the extensive Ghurid preparations. Muhammad attacked before all the Rajput allies could be mustered, and on the day of battle attacked before dawn, going completely against the Rajput tradition of conducting a battle only from sunrise to sunset. The Rajputs were defeated, Prithviraj captured while attempting to flee the battlefield, and executed.

In 1193, when the state of Ajmer refused to fulfil the demands for tribute, Muhammad invaded captured it, an event that marked the beginning of Ghurid control of north and central India. He appointed a favourite Turkman Ghulam general, Qutb ud-Din Aibek as the governor. A number of smaller Hindu kingdoms—Saraswati, Samana, Kohram and Hansi—were easily subjugated and amalgamated into the Ghurid territorial holdings. Muhammad then returned to Ghazni after confirming Aibek as the regional governor for Northern India. Aibek then went on to attack and defeat Jaichand of Kanauj in the Battle of Chandwar, capturing Delhi in the process. Almost immediately after this victory, Delhi was established as the capital of the Indian possessions of the Ghurid kingdom. Aibek’s army was commanded by Turkish generals, a tradition drawn from the Ghaznavids, and conducted raids as far away as Bengal in the east.

Sultan Muhammad of Ghur

The Ghurid brothers were extremely ambitious, demonstrated by the rapid increase in their territorial holdings. In a continuation of this expansionist policy, they entered Khorasan when the reigning sultan died, with Muhammad leading an expedition to Ray. In 1202, Giyaz ud-Din died and Muhammad was crowned Sultan of the Ghurid empire in Firuzkuh. Around the same time, Sultan Muhammad II of Khwarezmian attacked the Ghurids. Although the invasion was repelled, Muhammad of Ghur’s allies did not let him pursue the enemy after they were defeated. This was perhaps the result of a pragmatic assessment by Muhammad’s allies of the inherent power of the Khwarezmian forces. Almost as if to prove this assessment right, in a subsequent encounter that followed the transient peace, the Ghurid army was defeated at Andkhud in 1204 and Muhammad was forced to withdraw to Ghur.

In 1204-05 a rebellion in the Punjab was ruthlessly quelled and Muhammad once again confirmed Qutb ud-Din Aibek as the ruler of the Indian possessions before returning to Ghur to deal with enemies attacking from the north and the west of the kingdom. On his way back to Ghur, Muhammad was assassinated on 15 March 1206 by the Khokhar tribesmen of Kashmir who had been defeated by the king of Kashmir earlier with Muhammad’s assistance. There is also a claim that the assassination was the work of the followers of a radical Ismaili sect who had been persecuted by Muhammad in Multan. There is also an Indian folklore that he was killed by Prithviraj Chahamana (Chauhan), which is just a far-fetched myth since Prithviraj had been executed much earlier. [The full story as extolled in Indian folklore is given as a boxed item in Chapter…]

Inevitably, the Ghurid Empire broke up on Muhammad’s death, especially since he had no off springs to succeed him. The kingdom was carved up between his more powerful Turkish Ghulam ‘slave’ generals. Tajuddin Yildoz became the ruler of Ghazni, after some sort of succession struggle between the generals; in 1210, Nair ud-Din Qabacha became the ruler of Multan; in 1206 Qutb ud-Din Aibek proclaimed himself the ruler of Delhi, establishing the Sultanate of Delhi and laying the foundation of the Slave dynasty; and Bhaktiyar Khilji became the ruler of some parts of Bengal.

Muhammad of Ghur – An Appraisal

Contemporary chroniclers commend favourably on Muhammad’s moralistic character, justness as a ruler and his patronage of literati. He was also not a religious fanatic as Mahmud of Ghazni had been, irrespective of the warped reason for the latter to have pursued such fanaticism. Unlike Mahmud of Ghazni who was blinded by the wealth of ‘Hindustan’ and focused on plunder rather than conquest, Muhammad of Ghur was politically more astute. He instinctively understood the political rot that had become entrenched in the North Indian system of feudatories and was able to use it to his advantage. Muhammad of Ghur was a real conqueror and aimed at permanent settlement of the captured areas, bringing extensive territories within the Indian sub-continent under Muslim sway for the first time in history. While complete annexation was at that time an impossibility because of the Rajputs who revelled in their warrior blood and continued to rebel, he can be credited with laying the first foundation of Muslim power in India.

Muhammad did not stay even on a semi-permanent basis in India and charged his governor Qutb ud-Din Aibek with the task of extending Ghurid domination further, commencing the process of Islamic domination of the north of the sub-continent. He definitely had imperialistic ambitions and aided first his brother and later himself took up the fight against the Khwarezmian sultans, although the attempts were never successful. The possibility of expanding the kingdom to the west thus having been thwarted, he was impelled to look east towards India to fulfil his ambitions. This led to the reestablishment of contact between India and Central Asia. Further, over a period of time the multi-state system that had fractured the political system in north and central India was gradually replaced by a centralised Muslim administration. The feudal system that had served the bickering Rajputs was proven to be flawed and untenable.

© [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 Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. 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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