Sacking the Subcontinent Part 1

Mahmud attacks Somnath – a fanciful description


In the first part of a four-part series, Parvez Mahmood focuses on the raids of Mahmud of Ghazni.  


This is a series of articles on the atrocities committed by raiders who came to the Indo-Pak Subcontinent primarily for the purpose of plundering the treasures of this land. The first figure in our series is Mahmud of Ghazni.


Alexander of Macedon invaded the areas now comprising Pakistan in 326 BC, fought several battles, destroyed some towns and killed a few thousand people but did not indulge in pillaging these lands for booty. The White Huns, too, invaded India from 450 CE to create a kingdom of their own. They, like the latter-day invaders of Turk and Afghan heritage, stayed back and some of us in Pakistan and North India are likely to be carrying their genes.


The advent of Mahmud of Ghazni to the region in the early years of the 11th century AD marks him as the first recorded marauder who raided the Subcontinent for the express purpose of looting its riches and hauling them back to his land of origin.


Mahmud’s father Sabuktagin was a slave-general turned Emir under the disintegrating Samanid Sultanate. Mahmud succeeded him in 998 CE and quickly expanded his empire. At his death in 1030, the Ghaznavid empire extended over Iran, parts of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Punjab.


At that time, north-western India was being ruled by feuding Hindu Shahi states, who failed to appreciate the danger posed to all of them by the ambitious and energetic warrior across the Khyber Pass. A Janjua clan known as Kabul Shahi and headed by Jaipal, ruled over a vast state encompassing modern-day Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and northern Punjab, and extending up to Jalalabad. In south Punjab, Multan was under the control of Qaramita Ismaili rulers. Further south, across the deserts of Thar and Rajputana, lay the rich coastal state of Gujarat with its fabled, sacred temple of Somnath – rumoured to contain untold riches. Mahmud had his eyes on these; however, the route to Somnath was long and he required a secure logistical line to his home base in Ghazni. Like a seasoned campaigner, as he no doubt was, he made his way to the temple gradually over the next quarter century, securing his flanks, placing trusted governors at pivotal points, systematically plundering the towns along the way, ruthlessly obliterating expected antagonists, enslaving the local population and, of course, collecting abundant booty to finance his wars.


The Hindu writers have used a bitter pen to record accounts of pillaging and destruction wrought by Mahmud and some might argue that they may have been exaggerating. However, contemporary Muslim writers, including Al-Beruni, Utbi, and Juzjani have also written details of Mahmud’s pillaging raids. In modern times the History of Sultan Mahmood Ghazni published in 1908 by the political officer of Khyber Pass, Capt G. Roos-Keppel, and The life and times of Sultan Mahmood of Ghazna by Dr. Muhammad Nazim, published in 1931, are authentic referenced histories. They all tell a similar tale of rapine and carnage. I have relied on all these sources as well as on material available on the internet.


Mahmud’s first raid into India was aimed at small towns, including Jalalabad, along the route from Kabul to the Khyber Pass to secure this vital passage. In these forays, he collected booty of half a million dinars. This confirmed to him the riches that awaited him further inland.


After defeating and capturing Jaipal in the Battle of Peshawar in November 1001, Mahmood collected enormous booty. The value of wealth looted from the royal household and nobles alone was worth 400,000 gold coins, each weighing 120 grams. The necklaces belonging to Jaipal, his sons and relatives weighed another 200,000 gold coins. To gain his freedom, the Raja had to pay a ransom of 250,000 gold coins. The total loot thus ranged in value from a half to one billion US dollars in today’s money.


The Hindu causalities are reported to have been between 5,000 and 15,000 dead with thousands of captives including children.


Jaipal secured his own and his family’s release by paying a huge ransom and then committed suicide by self-immolation. He was succeeded by his son Anandpal. As Mahmud was harried by Anandpal’s forces during his attack on Multan, he came back in 1008 in his fifth raid to punish him. The two forces met at Waihind – probably modern Attock Khurd – and Anandpal was defeated. Mahmud marched on to Nagarkot/Bhimnagar fort and pillaged it for 70 million silver coins (Hindu Shahiya-Punjab), gold and silver ingots weighing a few hundred kilograms, and a large amount of jewellery embedded with precious stones. A collapsible house, 30 yards in length and 15 yards in breadth with a silver canopy, two golden poles and two silver poles, were also captured from the fort of Bhimnagar. The booty was displayed for three days in Ghazni.


Having faced numerous defeats at the hands of Mahmud, Anandpal entered into a peace treaty with him but died within the year and was succeeded by his son Trilochnapal. Mahmud attacked the latter’s seat of power at Nandana close to Pind Dadan Khan. Trilochnapal defended the fort with the help of the Raja of Kashmir but was overwhelmed at the Battle of Bulnat. The fort was destroyed and pillaged. Al-Beruni had accompanied the Sultan on this expedition and, at Nandana, found a suitable place to carry out his experiment to measure the radius and circumference of the Earth. Trilochnapal was succeeded by his son Bhimpal, the last ruler of the dynasty, whose sons later fled and joined the Raja of Kashmir.


The Janjua clan, and perhaps descendents of Jaipal, now converted to Islam, living in the Chakwal and Pind Dadan Khan area. Ironically, most of them may now be claiming Mahmud to be a hero, while considering Jaipal’s dynasty as the infidel enemy!


Having secured the route to the plains of Punjab, by pillaging Bhera in 1004, Mahmud next raided Multan in 1005-06 in his fourth raid. The area of Multan was then under the rule of Fateh Daud, an Ismaili Muslim. Mahmud collected treasure worth 20 million silver coins. Mahmud let Fateh Daud remain Emir on condition that he would convert to the Sunni sect. He appointed Sukhpal alias Nawasa Khan, a new convert, as the ruler of the area in his absence. Sukhpal may have been a grandson of Raja Jaipal.


A little later, Both Fateh Daud and Nawasa Khan rebelled and reverted to their previous faiths. Mahmud came back in 1010 in his sixth raid to deal with the revolt. He destroyed the city including some of the mosques. Sukhpal was taken prisoner and released on payment of 400,000 dirhams. Fateh Daud was confined to a fort close to Kandahar where he died a few years later. Thousands of Qaramita soldiers were put to the sword or taken prisoner.

Thanesar is an ancient town – associated with the epic battle of the Mahabharata – and an important Hindu pilgrimage centre on the banks of the Ghaggar river in the modern state of Haryana. In his seventh raid to Thanesar, Mahmud plundered the city and broke all the idols. One idol was placed in the stairs of the grand mosque of Ghazni, to be trodden under the feet of the faithful. A ruby weighing 450 miskals or nearly 2 kilograms was found in one of the temples. It is recorded: “On this occasion, Mahmud’s army brought to Ghazni 200,000 captives, and much wealth, so that the capital appeared like an Indian city – no soldier of the camp being without wealth, or without many slaves. The ruler of Thanesar did not surrender to the wishes of Mahmud. The Sultan marched against him to set the standard of Islam….The blood of the infidels flowed so copiously that the stream was discoloured and the people were unable to drink its water…” The great temple of Chakraswamin was destroyed and its man-sized eponymous bronze idol was removed, taken to Ghazni and, according to Al-Beruni, thrown in the hippodrome.


In the next few raids, Mahmud sacked Lahore, Kannauj, Meerut, Bulundshehr, Mathura, Saharanpur and Gawalior. Mahmud obtained one million silver coins from Bulundshehr, five idols amounting to 98,300 misqal (10 mounds) of gold and 200 silver idols from the temple of Mathura. In addition, he collected 3 million silver coins from Kannauj, Munj, Asni, Sharva and other places. A great number of slaves were also taken to Ghazni.


Having subdued northern India and placed his trusted persons at key points, the path to Somnath was finally secured. Somnath was the holiest of all temples and devotees came there from the whole of India. Mahmud attacked the temple in 1024 in his sixteenth raid. It is said 50,000 Hindus laid down their lives in an attempt to protect the holy place. Mahmud overcame all resistance and broke the main idol. All other idols were also broken and Mahmud returned with wealth of gold, silver, diamonds and precious stones, estimated at 20 million gold coins. This was the largest booty collected by him in all of his raids.


On the way back, his path was contested by Jats and Bhattis, causing much damage. Mahmud returned in 1026 to punish these tribes and again collected a large amount of booty. This was his last foray into India before his death in 1030 at the age of 59 due to malaria contracted during his last invasion.


The complete list of Mahmud’s raids in India in chronological order is now available on the internet.


Suffice it to say that Mahmud left a trail of blood and destruction in the wake of his invasions. India lost enormous wealth, and the flower of its youth was killed and enslaved. The plunder was so complete that no gold coins of Jaipal’s era are now found. Besides Somnath, many important and rich temples in northern India were looted and destroyed.


In the process, he turned Ghazni from a provincial town to a rich city and one of the greatest capitals of the Muslim world. However, the eminence of the city was short lived. Barely a century after the death of Mahmud, Alauddin Ghauri took control of the city. In his Tabakat-i-Nasiri, Jazjuni writes that, “For seven nights and days, the city was burnt with wantonness. The days turned as black as night from the blackness of the smoke. Rapine, plunder and massacre were carried on with the utmost vindictiveness. Around 60 thousand people were killed, and women and children were made captive. The graves of Ghazni’s rulers, except that of Mahmud, were exhumed, the bones collected and burned.” The looted wealth of the Indus-Ganges basins and Gujarat was thus turned to stones and ashes.

Lahore, Peshawar and Multan, towns that he sacked, are now thriving metropolises. The temple of Somnath that he destroyed has been resurrected as a magnificent waterfront complex. Ghazni remains a small forgotten derelict town.


We are living in 1000-year anniversary of Mahmud’s seventeen Indian raids. He remains a divisive figure in Indian history. He has firmly secured his place as a (literal) iconoclast in Muslim history and as a looter in the Indian histories. His career cleared the path for penetration of Islam in the northern Subcontinent but his persistent pillaging, and treatment of the people and their places of worship has left a lasting impression on the memory of the Indians that has forever poisoned the relations between the followers of two great religions in northern India.


About Author: Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad. 

This article was first published

Article is courtesy and copyright has obtained written permission from the author to publish this article.

Also read

1. How India became a poor country

2. Frustrating the GHAZNAVIDS by Sita Ram Goel  

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