Indian History Part 56 The Tughluq Dynasty Section IX: A Typhoon Called Timur


Canberra, 26 August 2017

The story of the Mongols as an all-conquering force begins with the rise of Genghis Khan. The creation of the Mongol Nation, as recorded in history, is the work of this one man. His story that started in the 12th century is a remarkable tale of an individual’s triumph over extraordinary adversity. Stories regarding his exploits from early childhood abound, having been written about in many languages and also made into movies, some of which have taken cinematic licence to exaggerate some aspects of the great Khan’s character. However, the story of Genghis Khan and his march of global conquest that made him, forever, the archetype of murderous ferocity in world history is not germane to this narrative and is not detailed further.

The only defeat the Mongol army suffered throughout the reign of Genghis Khan was at the hands of Jalal ud-Din, the son of Muhammad then ruling Khwarizm. The defeated Mongol army was only a contingent and was not commanded by the great Khan himself. After this battle, even though victorious, Jalal ud-Din fled to India because he feared the vengeance that was sure to be wreaked on him by Genghis Khan. He was not wrong; Genghis pursued him through the Khyber Pass to exact revenge. This was the first Mongol incursion into the sub-continent.

When Genghis Khan died in 1227, his realm stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific Ocean and was within riding distance from the heart of both Europe and India. Even after his death, Mongol conquests continued, expanding the Nation in all directions. However, as has been the case throughout history following the death of a great king, the empire did not stay united for long. Although the great Mongol Nation was divided into separate kingdoms, each one of them remained powerful in their own independent manner. While the Mongols were not united anymore, the conquered regions did not return to status quo ante—the Mongol conquest had altered Asian politics irreversibly. A powerful Turko-Mongol aristocracy spread across Central Asia and from this group ruling dynasties would continue to spring for centuries, dominating the heart of Asia.

From this Turko-Mongol elite another great conqueror would emerge, Timur—Amir Timur Gurgan. The title Gurgan was derived from the word ‘gurg’ meaning wolf, which was the insignia of the family.

Timur’s Early Days

Timur (meaning ‘iron’) was born in 1336 near Kish in Transoxiana, a town about 40 miles south of Samarkhand. He belonged to a noble Turk family that was part of the Barlas clan, ruling a small principality around the town of his birth. His father was the chief of the Gurgan branch of the Barlas clan and his mother was a princess who claimed the same ancestry as Genghis Khan. Her grandfather was a minister in the renowned Mongol Chagtai Khanate. Timur’s boyhood was spent in an atmosphere of feud and strife, since this was a period of anarchy that preceded the fall of the Asiatic dynasties that in turn opened the region to new adventurers.

When Timur was 25 years old his father died and Timur was forced to flee the country, compelled to wander around Central Asia for the next seven years. Sometime during this period of wandering he served as a commander in the army of the Khan of Sistan in north-east Iran. Timur was a natural leader and his battlefield skills brought him higher command positions.


Timur sustained an injury while fighting with the Sistani army in southern Afghanistan that was to change his known name in world history. He sustained a wound on the leg by an arrow that maimed and made him lame for life. Timur limped for the rest of his life. Because of his limp, he started to be called ‘Aksak Timur’, meaning limping Timur if Turkish; translated to ‘Timur-e-Leng’ in Persian; which was subsequently anglicised to ‘Tamerlane’, a name by which the Western historians continue to refer to him.

Timur was ambitious and had not forgotten that he was the scion of a ruling family. He gradually recovered control of Transoxiana and in 1370, at the age of 34, he ascended the throne. He then emulated his illustrious ancestor, Genghis Khan, and embarked on 40 years of continual warfare, claiming the honour of never having been defeated in battle throughout his rampaging conquests. In this continuous military campaign he subjugated all the kingdoms in the region from the ‘Dardanelles to Delhi’.

Timur – The Conqueror

After coming to power, Timur spend the next decade consolidating his power in Central Asia. There are striking similarities between the lives of Genghis Khan and Timur—early in their lives both were forced to flee from their ancestral inheritance, having to live in reduced circumstances for a number of years; after coming to power, both spent nearly a decade consolidating their position and enforcing authority at home; then both erupted out to conquer the world.

Like Genghis Khan, Timur was also extremely ruthless and his forces committed devastating outrages across all subdued lands. However, the similarity of their actions did not percolate to their motivation for carrying out brutal, cold-blooded, and barbarous atrocities. Genghis Khan was motivated by the need to ensure security of the captured lands and was indifferent to the suffering being inflicted upon the conquered people to achieve this objective. Timur, on the other hand, carried out the brutal actions purely out of anger, celebrating and even revelling in the acts of cruelty that were perpetuated in his name. One was the crime of omission, while the other of commission.

An example of Timur’s attitude towards conquered lands can be gleaned from the manner in which he treated the Iranian town of Isfahan after the local population rebelled against his rule. He had the entire population of the town put to death and made 120 towers of 70,000 human heads outside the city walls as a lesson for would-be rebels. Similarly, after the re-conquest of Baghdad, he made a pyramid of 120,000 human heads at the city gates. Timur’s swift and violent conquests and manifest cruelty are legendary.

Almost two centuries after Timur’s explosive conquering marches, Christopher Marlowe (1563-1594), the famous English poet, playwright and translator of the Elizabethan era, wrote in his play, Tamburlane the Great:

And till by vision or by speech I hear

Immortal Jove say, ‘Cease, my Tamburlane’,

I will persist a terror to the world,

Making the meteors that, like armed men,

Are seen to march upon the towers of heaven,

Run tilting round about the firmament

And break their burning lances in the air

For honour of my wondrous victories.

Quoted in Paddy Docherty, The Khyber Pass, p.157

There is no doubt that Timur dreamed of world conquest. It is said that astrologers tried to win favour with Timur by declaring that at his birth the planets had moved away from their natural orbits, indicating that he would be a great conqueror. Timur was eager to be recognised as much for his intellect as for his military capabilities. Therefore, he conceived the idea of subjugating all the regions that Genghis Khan had conquered. Timur started his journey of conquest by invading Khorasan in Persia that had been under the misrule of a number of petty chiefs for some time. The people of Khorasan welcomed the invasion hoping that the new rule would bring about some order and stability to the turbulent times of the recent past. The small-time chiefs were jealous of each other and opposed Timur independently instead of putting up a joint resistance. As a result, they fell one by one to the might of the Mongol army, individually being swallowed by Timur. Of the chiefs of Khorasan, a few capitulated without a fight and some fought valiantly to the death. After bringing the whole of Persia under his control Timur went on to conquer all the kingdoms along the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates, including Iraq and Syria.

He then subjugated the Ottoman Turks in Anatolia, at one stage even having the Sultan Bayazid as his captive. Thereafter he captured Georgia, subjugated Kashgar and ventured into Siberia. The pursuit of a defeated and fleeing adversary took Timur to the tributary provinces of Russia. He reached very close to Moscow, almost capturing the capital of the Tsarist Empire. However, ambition trimmed with prudence becomes an all-conquering force. Realising the pitfalls of attempting to capture Moscow, with the vast hinterland of Russia that could be utilised to wage a deadly rear-guard action, Timur turned back to the south to continue his conquests. At this stage, Timur’s control spanned all the regions from the Great Wall of China in the east, to Moscow in the west and the lands of the entire Middle-East in the south.

The Indian Interlude

Timur granted the provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan, Kabul, Ghazni and Kandahar to his favourite grandson Pir Muhammad, who was then 15 years old. Further, he encouraged the young prince to march east into India. Accordingly, Pir Muhammad crossed the River Indus, stormed the fortress at Uchch and reached Multan. Here his progress was checked by the governor of the province, a Tughluq appointee. Although the Multan fort was besieged, even after multiple attempts Pir Muhammad was unable to capture it. Grandfather Timur, monitoring the progress of his grandson’s campaign into India decided that the youngster needed assistance and prepared to move east. This was the immediate and tangible cause for Timur’s march towards India.

Even though coming to the rescue of his grandson was perhaps the catalyst for Timur’s invasion of India, the offensive was also motivated by the fabled riches of India. Contemporary chroniclers have attempted to drape a veneer of piety over the more base instincts of the lure of loot and plunder that must have been a great motivation for Timur. They claim that Timur was annoyed by the degeneration of Indian Islam and was therefore enthused to punish the Indian Muslims who were reported to be verging on apostasy. In these reports Timur is portrayed as a champion of pure Islam, pursuing a desire to punish and destroy infidels and idolaters.

There is no doubt that Timur had materialistic ambitions foremost in his mind, but used the religious angle as an expeditious cover and reason for the conduct of the campaign. In the Malfuzat-i-Timuri, his autobiography, Timur piously states the principle objective of the expedition as destruction of the unbelievers and the plunder of wealth is mentioned only as a secondary aim. To put this in perspective, it has to be understood that plunder in war was a lawful practice within the Islamic tenets of warfare and therefore does not rate any special mention in the autobiography. Even if Timur subscribed to the religious calling, the loot of the legendary wealth of India was the primary motive for his soldiers.

‘My principle objective in coming to Hindustan, and in undergoing all this toil and hardship, has been to accomplish two things,’ he candidly stated once in the midst of his Indian campaign. ‘The first was to wage war against the infidels… and by this religious warfare acquire some claim to reward in the life to come. The other was a worldly objective, that the army of Islam might gain something by plundering the wealth and valuables of the infidels. Plunder in war is as lawful as their mothers’ milk to Muslims who wage war for their faith.’

Abraham Eraly,

The Age of Wrath, p. 194.

Ever since Alexander of Macedonia crossed the River Indus and encountered the massed army of King Pururuvas (named Porus in western histories) all great military commanders of the ancient and medieval world had dreamt about conquering India and capturing its legendary wealth. Timur was no exception. Timur’s nobles had expressed their misgivings at the plan to invade India. Timur by this time was, in relative terms, an old man but still vigorous and driven by great ambition. The timidity and apprehension of his nobles was brought about through ignorance and apprehension. Timur’s iron will easily prevailed over the opinion of his nobles. An analysis of his campaign indicates that Timur had by this time detected the fundamental weakness in the ruling house in Delhi. He realised that the rebellions and discord that prevailed in the Indian Sultanate had paralysed the ability of its princes and nobles to initiate decisive action in the face of a concerted invasion.

Like so many previous Muslim invasions, Timur had also cloaked the real objective of his invasion within the Muslim religious exhortation to oppose any religious malpractice. The perceived deterioration in Indian Islamic practices was sufficient to provide a plausible reason. Even though Timur’s Indian campaign shared the objective of earlier Mongol invasions, to plunder the wealth of India, it differed considerably in its secondary aims as well as its conduct. Timur clearly meant to capture Delhi, purely for the prestige attached to doing so, because he never intended to annex any territory. In contrast to the regular Mongol attacks, Timur’s campaign was an invasion by a king, not a raid by a pillaging horde tinged with religious fanaticism. The earlier Mongol raids were conducted when they were still heathen, not having converted to Islam and therefore only meant to pillage and capture wealth.

In March 1398 at the age of 62, Timur left Samarkhand with an army of 92,000 drawn mainly from the Turko-Mongol tribes from beyond the River Oxus. The Mongol army reached the banks of the River Indus in September of the same year and crossed the great river at Dhankot. Timur started to receive many envoys from various rulers who professed submission because of the fearsome reputation of Timur that had preceded him. One such ruler was the king of Kashmir, Sikandar Shah, who was asked by Timur to join him in his invasion of the Delhi Sultanate. The king was instructed to join the Mongol army at Dipalpur.

Although he was only about 600 miles from Delhi, Timur turned south-east instead of proceeding directly to the capital. It is obvious that he wanted to aid his grandson who was still stuck at Multan without having achieved any break through. Timur marched to Multan through the shortest route. During the march many petty chieftains of the region sent presents to Timur in order to buy peace. In all the conquered areas, the option given to the populace was stark and simple—embrace Islam or be prepared for death.

When he reached the banks of the River Jhelum, Timur came to know that Shihab ud-Din Mubarak Shah Tamimi the governor of Uchch, who had initially surrendered to Pir Muhammad had rebelled and was opposing the Mongol army. He also did not pay homage to Timur. However, on the arrival of Timur on the scene, Tamimi fled back to Uchch. Timur followed and burned down the citadel. Timur then marched along the River Jhelum, defeating several minor chieftains along the way, without having to exert himself. Cities and towns across the Punjab were ransacked at will. Multan capitulated out of sheer terror and the two armies, of the grandson and the grandfather, were reunited. Timur now turned towards Delhi, his ultimate goal. During this march the countryside was scoured and towns and cities laid waste—Timur’s advance was truly a scourge.

Timur initially proceeded to Bhatnir (modern Hanumangarh), which was the location of a strong fort then ruled by a Hindu chief mentioned as Dul Chand. He is also mentioned as being a Rao of the Rajputs. The name is obviously erroneous since ‘Chand’ is a Vaishya name and not in consonance with that of a Rao of the Rajputs. Further, some chronicles have named this chief Duljin, Dulchin, Jaljin and also as Rao Khalji. It is highly likely that his name was Daljit and that he was a Bhatti Rajput. The reason for Timur targeting Bhatnir was that some chiefs and nobles of the city of Dipalpur had rebelled and then taken refuge in the Bhatnir fort. Timur captured Bhatnir, but not before a group of Rajputs guarding the fort offered ferocious resistance, even resorting to vicious hand-to-hand combat. Rao Daljit finally surrendered. During the peace negotiations there was some unexplained altercation between the Hindu chiefs and the Muslim ransom collectors that irked Timur. Timur had the population of the entire fort put to the sword and the fort itself razed to the ground.

Timur describes what followed the dispute that arose about the collection of ransom money ‘between the collectors and the evil-minded rais.’: ‘In a short space of time all the people of the fort were put to the sword, and in the course of one hour the head of 10,000 infidels were cut off. The sword of Islam was washed in the blood of the infidels, and all the goods and effects, the treasure and the grain which for many long years had been stored in the fort became the spoils of my soldiers. They set fire to the houses and reduced them to ashes, and they razed the buildings and the fort to the ground.’

Malfuzat-i-Timuri, Timur’s Autobiographical Memoir,

Translated in History of India as told by its own Historians by H.M. Elliot and J. Dowson, Vol III, pp.  420-27.

March to Delhi

Timur now moved eastwards towards Delhi. From Bhatnir, till he reached the areas surrounding Delhi, he continually targeted the Jats. The reason for singling out this ethnic group is unknown. The fact remains that they were continually attacked, irrespective of whether they were Hindus or Muslims. The Jats were killed in the thousands and their territories annexed to be placed under Muslim governors.

Timur’s passage through North India was marked by extreme savagery. He had passed orders for the soldiers to kill any infidel that they encountered; uncompromising and ferocious brutality was one part of the military tactics that Timur employed in his campaigns. The use of brutality as a tactic served a dual purpose—it instilled and nurtured bloodlust in his soldiers and terrified the adversary, making them more prone to flee than resist. His clever blending of the religious fervour of Islam with the inherent human characteristic of the lust for plunder was critical to forging an invincible army, particularly during the Indian campaign. Timur clearly understood the psychology of his soldiers in battle and also that victory and defeat hinged on the spirit of the soldiers. Therefore, he consciously and carefully nurtured and encouraged extreme brutality and the blood lust that it invoked, in his army.

The most important factor in Timur’s continuous stream of victories was that he was a brilliant commander and a master tactician. He provided innovative solutions to every military challenge that the army faced; he was cautious without being meek; he was audacious while not being reckless, not taking any unnecessary risks; and he was able to maintain a careful balance between caution and daring. He made use of a network of spies to assess a potential adversary’s strengths and weaknesses. Timur was a good general and ensured the welfare of his soldiers and they repaid him with fierce and personal loyalty. He fostered this loyalty through equitable distribution of plunder to all soldiers. Timur was also religious, considering God responsible for the battlefield victories. He was prone to seeking divine guidance by opening and reading the Quran at random when decisions of importance had to be made.

On the march from Bhatnir, Timur had divided his army, sending one part to move towards Delhi through Dipalpur. When Timur arrived at River Khagar, this part of the army rejoined him, bringing the force to its original strength of 92,000. He started to re-organise the army for the assault on Delhi and obtained abundant supplies, securing them in the captured fort at Loni. On 10 December 1398, Timur held his customary council of war that was always done on the eve of all major assaults.

Attack and Sack of Delhi

In the war council his commanders expressed concern regarding the fear that the soldiers had about the Indian war elephants and the apprehension that there would be scarcity of provisions. The concern regarding provisions was genuine since scarcity could ensue once battle was joined, especially since more than 50,000 prisoners also had to be fed. To neutralise the menace of the war elephants, Timur had iron claws made and given to the foot soldiers to scatter in front of the advancing elephants. He asserted that the provisions stored in the fort at Loni would be sufficient to last till victory was achieved. The next day Timur personally led a scouting party of about 700 cavalry towards Delhi. Mallu Iqbal Khan, the commander in Delhi, had been observing the scouting party and attacked it with a superior force at an opportune moment. Timur immediately withdrew, leaving a contingent to fight a rear-guard action. On reaching safety, he send reinforcements to assist the force that had been left behind to hold back the Delhi forces. With the arrival of the reinforcements, Mallu Khan was forced to withdraw.

Some historians consider this minor skirmish as a defeat of the Timurid army by the Delhi Sultanate. It is impossible to support this assertion—the Delhi forces attempted to ambush a scouting party and was unsuccessful in doing so; the skirmish was nothing more than that. However, Mallu Khan’s attempt to pre-empt Timur’s attack had unforeseen indirect and brutal consequences for the Sultanate.  It so happened that during this skirmish, the prisoners in Timur’s camp had celebrated Timur’s hurried retreat in what they presumed to be a defeat of the Timurid army. Timur then realised that when the entire army was committed to the on-coming battle, his rear would be vulnerable to a concerted revolt by the large number of prisoners who would be left behind. He therefore gave orders to kill all the prisoners. Estimates of number of prisoners murdered vary between 50,000 and 100,000.

Timur now instructed his commanders that he did not want a long-drawn war against Delhi. He had obviously studied the Multan campaign and assimilated the lessons, mainly the failure of a strategy of long sieges and the extraordinary resources needed to capture a strong fort or walled city that was occupied by a determined adversary. This lesson was reinforced by lessons from earlier Mongol campaigns. Accordingly, Timur aimed to conduct a battle in the open and manoeuvred to achieve this end. An open battle clearly played on the strength of the fast and free-wheeling tactics of the ferocious Mongol cavalry. Timur crossed the River Yamuna and encamped on the plains of Firuzabad. Sultan Mahmud, came out of his capital with a well-equipped army of 10,000 cavalry, 125 elephants and more than 40,000 accompanying infantry.

The commencing manoeuvre of the battle was initiated by Timur’s commanders who managed to circumvent the Delhi army’s advanced guard and attacked the left wing. Pir Muhammad commanding this skirting force, crushed the left wing, which started to flee in disarray. Sultan Mahmud then attacked the centre of the Mongol army with great vigour and commendable courage. However, the attack was fended off and the Delhi army was defeated, with both Mahmud and Mallu Khan fleeing the battlefield. The army of Hindustan had once again failed to defeat the army of yet another invader. The Delhi army had fought bravely, eliciting reluctant praise from Timur himself for their courage and tenacity. Praise from the enemy on the battlefield is the ultimate compliment for a soldier, cohort or army. The ‘Indians’ had fought bravely, but were outnumbered and outmanoeuvred.

Timur hoisted his flag from the ramparts of Delhi. The noblemen, religious leaders and prominent traders of the city approached Timur and pleaded for mercy. Timur granted Delhi his protection and freedom from ransack in return for a very large indemnity. However, events did not adhere to this ‘well-meaning’ promise made by the conquering general.

The Mongol soldiers were permitted to enter Delhi in small groups at a time. One such group became rowdy during one of these excursions and looted a shop. Other soldiers followed suit and soon there was wholescale looting going on in the market place. Obviously, the traders and other local people put up resistance, especially since Timur had promised them his personal protection. Timur was appraised of the situation and characteristically was enraged at the citizens of Delhi for putting up resistance and did not find fault with his rampaging and plundering soldiers. He ordered the massacre of the citizens of Delhi, which was carried out with great alacrity by his soldiers. The entire city was given over to rapine and plunder in very short order.

Timur displayed no remorse at not having kept his promise to protect the city. In any case, remorse and sympathy were not part of Timur’s character traits. He brushed off his responsibility for the massacre, rape and extended plunder of Delhi in his autobiography with a throw-away statement, ‘By the will of God, and no wish or direction of mine, all three cities of Delhi by name Siri, Jahanapanah and Old Delhi had been plundered’. He then went on to state that the population of the city had brought it upon themselves by offering resistance to his soldiers. History gives Timur a well-deserved reputation for extreme cruelty towards conquered people and his army for its appetite for plunder and rapine. Even by Timur’s standards and the reputation for brutality that preceded him and his army, the sack of Delhi stands out as more monstrous in its ferocity than the plunder of any other city by the Timurid army.

Timur’s Withdrawal

Timur was fascinated by Delhi and enjoyed his stay there. After a fortnight of ‘pleasure and enjoyment’ he decided to continue his campaign. He was anxious to move on. From this decision it is clear that at no time did Timur contemplate a permanent annexation of the Delhi Sultanate—the invasion was purely a wealth-collection expedition.

From Delhi, Timur marched north. Meerut put up resistance but was captured, plundered and the fort burned to the ground. Shaikha Khokhar, chieftain of the Khokhar tribe, who had broken free of the Delhi Sultanate control earlier, proclaimed that he was going to join forces with Timur. However, at an opportune moment he attacked the Timurid army but was defeated. Timur refers to Shaikha and his commanders, all Muslims, as infidels.

Referring to Muslims as infidels is an interesting factor and needs elaboration. It was not Timur alone who named Muslims as infidels; earlier, the invading Ghaznavid and the Ghurid armies had also done the same. The precept for these armies was that they were waging a ‘Holy War’ and anyone, including Muslims, who opposed them were clubbed together under the title infidel. Further, since the formal objective of the war/invasion was to establish Islamic rule, all infidels had to be stamped out—a convenient reasoning for exterminating one’s enemies. The commanders of these armies firmly believed, at least outwardly, that opposition to them was tantamount to opposition to the ‘Most High’ on whose behalf they were waging war. The hypocrisy and duplicity involved in the conduct of these purely plundering raids are laid open in the analysis of this one aspect of the repeated invasions.

Timur reached Hardwar and faced fierce resistance; his attack on the town was only partially successful. He withdrew across the River Ganges the same day as the battle. Timur then decided to withdraw from the sub-continent. It is unnecessary to add the details of other battles that the Timurid army fought on its way back to the Khyber Pass and its final exit from India. The progress of Timur’s armies was one long march of rapine, plunder and massacre of Hindus—adult men were slain, women and children taken prisoner and either converted to Islam or made into slaves.

From Hardwar, Timur turned west and passed through Nagarkot and went on to sack Jammu. It is also reported that as many as 20 pitched battles were fought in a span of 30 days during this march. This indicates the opposition that he faced even though his reputation for extreme brutality towards towns, principalities and kingdoms that opposed him had by now become legendary. [The modern historical belief that the kingdoms of Hindustan were subjugated easily and that the ‘Hindus’ submitted meekly to Muslim invasions is a myth perpetuated by self-serving historical analysts with limited knowledge of actual events. The fact that Timur, the most rapacious of invaders, had to fight his way back from the sub-continent on a daily basis is proof of the ferociousness of the resistance.] He crossed the River Indus to the west bank on 19 March 1399 and departed from India. It is ironic that the rise of Genghis Khan in Central Asia had indirectly saved the independence of the Delhi Sultanate from Khwarazm attacks and ensured its survival and Timur’s savage raid more than a century later was a catastrophe from which the Sultanate never recovered fully. Timur had rung the death knell for the Delhi Sultanate—saved by a Mongol Khan and destroyed by another.

Timur’s Invasion – A Retrospective

Considering the extremely short duration of the invasion, September 1398 to March 1399 a mere six months, the fundamental question that comes to mind is ‘Why did Timur invade India’? There is no clear objective that can be discerned even from the autobiography of Timur. This vagueness of intent leads to the speculative conclusion that the invasion symbolises the fulfilment of a grandiose ambition on the part of a ‘world-conquering’ king. If conquest was intended, it was not achieved. Further, Timur states in his autobiography that his objectives were the destruction of idolatry and collection of rich booty. Out of the two, only plunder of untold wealth was achieved, idolatry was not destroyed. There are no accounts or even mention of any temples being razed to the ground, even though an unaccounted number of Hindus and opposing Muslims were put to the sword without mercy.

It is estimated that Timur’s conquering armies killed more than 17 million people during their military campaigns, a number that equalled 5 per cent of global population at that time. He referred to himself as the ‘Sword of Islam’ and converted much of the empire that he conquered to the religion, including the descendants of Genghis Khan. However, Timur’s own religious affiliation remains shrouded in mystery. Timur was an astute politician who spoke Turkish, Mongolian and Persian fluently. Therefore, it is conceivable that he found using the cloak of Islam an easy way to justify his invasions and conquests.

There is a dichotomy regarding his religious policy. While his stated objective was to wipe out infidels—within the broadest definition that the term was given—his army was multi-ethnic and multi-religious. It contained large numbers of non-Muslims, mainly Persians and some other non-believers. They were sufficiently large in number within the army that Timur’s tolerance of these troops led to some contemporary religious purists classifying Timur himself as an infidel. The other side of the equation was that Timur believed he had embarked on a holy war to destroy the infidels, mainly Hindus. There is no doubt that he defeated many Hindu chieftains, but almost all of them uniformly were petty chiefs of limited stature; their defeat was, as a whole in the broader cast of history, inconsequential and its impact temporary. With the result, no serious or lasting impact was made on Hinduism itself.

Viewed from a political angle, the invasion and the temporary overthrow of the Delhi Sultanate, followed by the terrible sacking of Delhi, was a body-blow to Muslim rule in North India. It greatly diminished the strength of Islamic rule in Delhi and the sub-continent as a whole. One aspect of Timur’s Indian foray is that the amount of booty that he collected is not mentioned in any contemporary account. Considering that the wealth collected by the Ghaznis or the Khijis from the Deccan have been described in great detail, this omission in contemporary records seems deliberate. In turn it leads to the belief that even though he was victorious in almost all battles, the wealth that was accumulated may not have been commensurate with the expenditure involved in the invasion.

The other aspect of Timur’s invasion that continues to perplex analysts is his hurried departure from India, which seems almost a withdrawal in the face of determined opposition. No doubt there was some trouble brewing in Samarkhand, but it did not warrant the hasty return march, which was very rapid leading to an almost impulsive exit. As an overall victor in the campaign, it is clear that Timur did not gain very much. However, the vanquished, the Delhi Sultanate, lost everything. After the fall and sack of Delhi, the remnants of the Tughluq dynasty, already in terminal decline for more than a decade, reached a state beyond any hope of redemption.

Even during these bleak hours in the sub-continent, there was a silver lining to brighten the dark clouds that accompanied Typhoon Timur. With very few exceptions, both Hindus and Muslims of the sub-continent stood up to fight the invaders, wherever Timur led his army. The people of India were known for their disunity based on religious, cultural, regional and even linguistic differences, an aspect that Timur had carefully considered in the planning stage of the campaign. Belying this concept and expectation, the Indian population stood united against Timur’s Mongol army.

Throughout Timur’s campaign, he faced opposition from independent and joint forces of Hindus and Muslims, fighting shoulder to shoulder against an invader of their country. The Muslims of India had started the process of integrating into the Indian milieu to forge an Indian Islamic ethos and identity.

Timur – the Man

Timur died on 17 February 1405, at the age of 68. At the time of his death he was fighting against the Chinese Ming dynasty and winning. His body was embalmed and buried in an ebony coffin in Samarkhand, fifty miles north of his birthplace in Kish.

In 1941, Russian archaeologists excavated Timur’s tomb. It was confirmed that he had a debilitating hip injury and that two fingers from his right hand was missing. He had Mongoloid features, was 1.73 metres tall and broad-chested.

Like a number of formidable conquerors, Timur’s legacy is ambivalent. In some of the Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan he is considered a hero, whereas in Iran and the Indian sub-continent he is vilified as a monster for the massacre of millions of innocent people.

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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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