Indian History Part 53 Genghis Khan marches through the Khyber Pass

Canberra, 26 July 2016

Of all the armies that have passed through the Khyber Pass over the centuries, none was imbibed with as much hurried determination as the great, all-conquering Mongol army of Genghis Khan. The presence of the Mongols in this region raises two interesting questions. What made Genghis Khan’s command so powerful that the Mongols, avowed nomads from Central Asia, were willing to move and fight wars thousands of miles from home and pasture? How did the Mongols, divided into small tribes that were constantly at war with each other, mould themselves into an overwhelming conquering force of steely determination? To answer these questions, the rise of Genghis Khan to power has to be briefly examined, because the historically famous Mongol conquests start with him. Before Genghis Khan, the Mongols were a disunited people who did not trouble the outside world and were almost invisible to the more ‘civilised’ kingdoms.

The creation of the Mongol nation is the remarkable triumph of one man’s focused effort, against inordinate adversities. As a boy, Genghis Khan was called Temujin and while growing up in the nomadic tradition, he is reported to have displayed merciless ruthlessness to achieve his goals. The same temperament would eventually help him to bend the Mongols to his iron will and set them on a path to savage and shattering victories, destroying comparatively far more advanced civilisations in the bargain. At the height of his power, Genghis Khan the founder of a great dynasty and emperor of millions of people, would rule a very large swath of territory that included areas of the ancient and powerful empire of China in the east and Iran to the west. He would strike deep into Europe and effortlessly march through the Khyber Pass to raid India.

Early Mongol History

Even in late 12th century, the Mongols were divided into clans and tribes and were confined to the northern Mongolian region. Mongolian and Turkic are two branches of the family of Altaic languages. This common origin of the languages indicate close ethnic affinity between the Turkish tribes like Naiman and Kerait and the Mongols, who bordered each other in the western side of the Mongol territory. To the east of the Mongols were the Tartars and Manchus with whom they shared a common cultural heritage. They all had the same, horse-reliant migratory life style—hunting and tending their livestock, the peaceful existence regularly interrupted by tribal wars and predatory raids on neighbours.

Early in the 12th century, the Mongols had briefly united under a chief called Kabul and fought against the Jin dynasty of China and the Tartars in the east. Kabul was the great-grandfather of Temujin. However, in 1160, the united Mongol army was comprehensively defeated by the army of the Jin dynasty, forced to break up into tiny family groups and compelled to return to their original pastoral way of life. The period following this defeat is remembered in Mongol history as particularly trying and one of discord, disunity and internecine conflict within the broader community. The principle source of information of this period and also the rise of Temujin is the book, The Secret History of the Mongols, whose authorship is unknown. Conjuncture is that it was probably completed in 1230 and is the work of a number of bards, not of one individual.

The Rise of Temujin

Temujin’s father was a minor tribal chief and died when Temujin was only eight years old. The boy grew up to manhood through years of privation. However, he was skilled in the art of war as was common amongst the Mongols, especially amongst the aristocracy. In his formative years he had also acquired political acumen and was adept at manipulation through negotiation. Through the display of his leadership in minor skirmishes, Temujin gradually gained the adherence of a number of smaller Mongol tribes and over the years improved his dominance as a leader. By the turn of the century he was accepted as a tribal chief with a sizeable following. By this time he was ready to legitimise his hold on power.

In 1206, Temujin called a mass gathering of almost all tribes of the Mongol nation. In this conclave he was declared the undisputed ruler of all Mongol people and acclaimed as the great ‘Khan’. He was bestowed with a newly coined title, Chingis Khan, the meaning of the term is disputed even today. This title has been transliterated into the commonly used Genghis Khan. Temujin, now Genghis Khan, completely dominated the Mongols. As a ruler he was marked with strident ambition and commanded the undivided loyalty and devotion of a huge, committed army. Those who were not blindly loyal to him, gave him terrified respect because of his sheer strength of presence and also ruthlessness in enforcing his will.

By any yardstick, this is a stupendous accomplishment. Even so, there is one aspect of Genghis Khan’s achievement that stands out and requires to be specially mentioned. He is considered the greatest Mongol emperor. However, unlike other emperors throughout history in all other parts of the world, he had to build his own ‘state’ and make it into an empire since none existed before he came to power. Other great emperors acquired power through either inheriting an extant state or conquering one, thereafter employing the systems that were already present to expand the holdings into an empire. Genghis Khan had to start from scratch and create his own systems and then an empire. There is no parallel to this triumph, making it a remarkable achievement.

Genghis Khan the Conqueror

After becoming the undisputed ruler he detribalised the Mongol nation by encouraging loyalty to the Khan above tribal affiliation. He achieved this through instituting a system of promotions based purely on the loyalty and merit of the person, irrespective of the tribe to which he belonged. This was a stroke of genius and created the impetus to mobilise the nomadic people into the Great Mongol Nation. The system forces the Mongols to abandon age-old tribal loyalties and rivalries and bring in a cohesion unknown till then. The social structure was re-built around the army. The army itself was organised on a decimal system, with the lowest unit being ten soldiers, building up to a unified group of 10,000 men. The Mongol army consisted of many such independent groups.

Genghis Khan always held a Universalist world-view. However, after becoming Khan and effecting the unification of the nation, it became imperative for him to start a conquest abroad for universal rule, the claim on which he had come to power. Since the wealth of the nomadic Mongols were only cattle and horses, conquest also became necessary to pay for the large army and to reward loyalty. Always in possession of an acute appreciation of emerging challenges, Genghis Khan planned his next move.

At the turn of the 13th century when Genghis Khan was consolidating his hold over the Mongols, China was divided into three major kingdoms—in the north the Jin dynasty ruled from Beijing; in the south was their archrivals the Song dynasty; and to the west of the Jin were the Tanguts, a mixed people of Tibetan, Turkish and Mongol origins. The Tanguts were wealthy and had a sophisticated culture, but were militarily vulnerable. In 1209, Genghis Khan advanced against the Tanguts. The Mongol army had no experience or understanding of siege warfare and so was not able to capture the Tangut capital Yinchuan. However, the invasion was partially successful with the Tanguts being forced to pay tribute and the Khan marrying a Tangut princess.

In 1211, the Mongols advanced against the Jin dynasty, swarming across the entire landscape, ranging all the way to Manchuria. Beijing was captured in 1215 after being besieged for a full year. By 1216, Genghis was in total control of North China, Manchuria and Korea. The Jin dynasty was nevertheless never fully subdued and their war with the Mongols continued sporadically even after Genghis Khan’s death. In 1217, Genghis turned west. The Khan had old enmity with the Naiman tribe and had destroyed them in one his earlier raids. At that time a Naiman princeling had fled the Mongol attack into Central Asia and had now re-established the Turkic state called Kara-Khitai. The territory of this state included modern Kyrgyzstan and parts of Kazakhstan. In 1218, the Mongols invaded Kara-Khitai and easily captured it. The greatest significance of this victory was that the Mongols now had a common border with Khwarizm and the emerging Muslim world. At this stage however, conflict was not inevitable.

Since the war with the Jin dynasty was still on-going, Genghis Khan sought peaceful relations to his west. As a conciliatory step he send an embassy of officials and merchants to Khwarizm in order to further trade and commerce. However the Khwarizm Shah, Muhammad, was scornful, dismissive and intemperate in his dealing with the Mongol embassy. He had all of them killed. This ill-considered action by a single haughty ruler could be thought to have changed the course of medieval history. In 1219, the year of the hare according to the Chinese calendar, Genghis Khan went to war with the Muslim world. By now, within a span of one decade, the Mongol army had transformed into a gathering of more than 150,000 battle hardened horsemen, with experience in employing siege engines and other technology gathered during the Chinese campaigns. Khwarizm was rapidly overrun. Muhammad, the intemperate Shah, fled and was chased by the Mongols all the way to the Caspian Sea. He died there in penury as a refugee. The Mongol advance was ferocious, perhaps an understatement of the truth. Otrar, the city in which the Mongol embassy had been put to death was reduced to rubble. The devastation was such that never again was the city to emerge as an urban centre; it ceased to exist forever.

The unprovoked act of the Shah in belittling the great Khan had immense consequences and greatly influenced future events. Decades after the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongols struck deep into Islamic lands, destroyed the Caliphate of Baghdad, installed a new dynasty in Iran and spread an unmistakable and at time overpowering veneer of Mongol influence over Islamic Central Asia. From this pervasive Mongol influence rose the Timurid dynasty that at one time ruled the entire Muslim world. At a later time, it also gave rise to the Mughal Empire, the most powerful Islamic state that the Indian sub-continent has ever seen.

The Mongol army under Genghis Khan continued their conquering march and captured the cultural centres of Bukhara and Samarkand in 1220. In this campaign, the Khan razed to the ground the cities of Ugrench and Merv, two cities that had offered resistance to the Mongol advance. A million people were methodically slaughtered as a lesson to would be resistors. At this stage, the Khwarizm Shah Muhammad’s son Jalal al-Din who was earlier the governor of the lands that now form Afghanistan, forged an army of about 60,000 soldiers from the hill tribes and mounted a counter offensive. At a place called Parvan about 50 miles north of Kabul, he won a battlefield victory over the Mongol army. Even though the defeated Mongol army was not commanded by Genghis Khan, this was the only defeat that his army suffered throughout the life of the great Khan.

In towering rage, Genghis Khan set out to avenge this defeat and marched into Afghanistan with his Grand Army. On the way, he destroyed the Buddhist community of Bamiyan. It is reported that in the city even cats and dogs were slain. Only the great Buddha statues of Bamiyan were left to look out over a completely dead and desolate city. [It is noteworthy that even the ruthless Mongols had left the great Buddha statues of Bamiyan untouched. It took a more uncouth and no less ruthless group called the Taliban to achieve the near-impossible and destroy them for ever in the 21st century, using TNT to blow them up.] When Genghis Khan reached Parvan, it is said that dead Mongol soldiers were still littering the battlefield. This testifies to the speed of his advance and the thirst for revenge. Fearing the Mongol advance, Jalal al-Din had already fled to India and Genghis Khan continued the chase. An invasion of India had never been part of the Khan’s calculations till now. This is a classic case of the wrath and the impulse to seek revenge triumphing over planning, calculations and grand strategy.

In 1221, Genghis Khan led his Grand Mongol Army into the Khyber Pass through the Torkham Gap. [In contemporary geo-strategy, the Torkham Gap continues to be an entry point of contention between Afghanistan and Pakistan, specifically because it provides an inlet into the Khyber Pass.] By this time the Mongol army had changed its appearance and characteristics as compared to the original that had started its conquering march a little more than a decade back. While the bow and arrow remained the primary weapon, the army and its leadership had gradually adopted the culture, dress, armour and weapons of the conquered tribes and kingdoms. They were a rich and resplendent force, in appearance and attitude. Through a series of forced marches, relying on the inherent speed and mobility of the predominantly horsemen-based army, Genghis caught up with Jalal al-Din at the western banks of the Indus River.

Yet another battle to decide the future of the Indian sub-continent was fought on the banks of the great River Indus. Jalal al-Din was defeated by the Mongols and at the end of the battle jumped into the river to escape being captured. Genghis Khan permitted him to cross the river and escape into the sub-continent, in recognition of his personal bravery in battle. Genghis Khan then send some probing raids into Multan and the Punjab. However, before any further actions could be initiated, there was a rebellion in Afghanistan and the great Khan withdrew through the Khyber Pass to quell it and then pursue other conquests. India was spared the first Mongol onslaught.

The Fall of Jerusalem – The Indian Connection

After escaping from the battle with the Mongols, Jalal al-Din reassembled the remnants of his army and formed a force of wandering mercenaries. For the next few years the band followed its fortunes in Iran and greater Punjab. In 1231, Jalal al-Din was murdered by a Kurd in contemporary northern Iraq. The band continued to follow the same pattern as a group of fighting mercenaries.

In 1244, in the final days of the Christian Crusades when the Hospitaller Knights were defending Jerusalem, Jalal al-Din’s soldiers were deployed to attack the Holy City. In Christian chronicles it is recounted that mercenaries called ‘choermians’, an English/French rendering of ‘Khwarizmians’ were used in the attack. The chronicles also record the ferocity of the attack and state that the mercenaries were brought to the fight by the Sultan of Babylon. Jerusalem was captured by the Kwarizmians who put to death all living souls there.

Jerusalem remained in Muslim hands from then till it was captured by the British in 1917 during World War I.

Genghis Khan conquered parts of Punjab and established a common border with the fledgling Sultanate forming in Delhi at this time. In defeating the Shah of Khwarizm, he did a great favour to the nascent Delhi Sultanate. The Indian Sultanate was on the verge of being swallowed by the raging Khwarizm army that had already swept across Ghaznavid and Ghurid lands. They were on the verge of knocking on the doors of India. The Mongol defeat of the Khwarizm Shah meant that the fleeing princes came into India not as conquering heroes but as refugees. The entire complexion of their arrival had been changed by the Mongol onslaught. This, along with Genghis Khan’s forced retreat to Afghanistan, granted the Delhi Sultanate a respite and the time necessary to develop as a distinct Muslim State in North India, devoid of any external influence. Genghis Khan’s conquest of Afghanistan did not impact the progression of sub-continental history in any other material way.

By the end of 1221, the Mongols had subdued the Afghan uprising. During the process they also destroyed the irrigation system that had been the mainstay for making Afghanistan a self-sufficient agricultural society. The impact of this destruction lives on to this day and was one of the primary reasons for impoverishing the country for centuries. By 1227, the on-going war with the Jin dynasty had intensified and the Mongols concentrated on that front. Genghis Khan fell sick during the renewed campaign with the Jins and died, bringing to a close one of the most audacious military and political careers the world had ever seen or would see in the future. At the time of his death his realm stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific Ocean and consisted all of Central and Inner Asia and much of the Far East. The borders of the Empire was within raiding distance of Europe and India.

Conclusion – After the Great Khan

The sons and grandsons of Genghis Khan continued the conquering expansion that he had initiated and sustained throughout his eventful reign. By the end of the 13th century, most of the known world was under Mongol rule, although not under one great Khan. The Mongol Empire was now divided into four realms—of the Khan who ruled China and Mongolia; the Il Khanate of Iran; the Golden Horde in the West; and Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia.

The Mongols had also started to assimilate the culture and ethos of the people whom they had conquered and ruled, possibly at a faster pace than in some other cases. The reason for the ready assimilation could be attributed to the lack of a deep-seated cultural development amongst the original nomadic Mongols. The China-Mongolia part of the realm became entrenched with and absorbed completely into the traditions and culture of China, while the Il Khanate adopted Islam as its religion and the Muslim way of life. The cultural divisions were invariably accompanied by competition between the four factions, which in turn also started the inevitable decline in Mongol power. By the mid-14th century, the power of the Mongols was definitely on the wane.

The dilution of power however did not mean that the conquered territories returned to the pre-Mongol status quo. The entire complexion of the Asian political landscape had been changed for ever in a span of two short centuries. A powerful Turco-Mongol aristocracy emerged and spread across Central Asia, spawning a number of dynasties for centuries after the decline and fall of the actual Mongols. At the zenith of this movement, three centuries after the death of the great Genghis Khan, it reached into India to establish one the most powerful dynasties that the sub-continent had ever seen.

Genghis Khan’s concept of rewarding loyalty above origin, unique for the time that it was instituted, produced a diverse elite. This aristocracy was not based on ethnic or geographic origin and at the gradual breakup of the Mongol Empire, established local kingdoms and dynasties of varying prowess. From this Turco-Mongol aristocratic elite another conqueror rose, comparable in ambition, battle acumen and ferocity to the great Khan himself—Timur.


© [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)

One Response to “Indian History Part 53 Genghis Khan marches through the Khyber Pass”

  1. This is a fantastic chronicle highlighting tye interconnectedness of the world politics of the time, something that is skipped in many accounts. Thanks for this.

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