Home Muslim culture Mahmud of Ghazni had soldiers from Punjab, Haryana and Karnataka. The story is not as simple as you think

Mahmud of Ghazni had soldiers from Punjab, Haryana and Karnataka. The story is not as simple as you think

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Ffrom a Chandella king of Khajuraho wearing the robes of Mahmud of Ghazni to the Lakshmi coins of Muhammad Ghori, the reality of the medieval Turks – bordering the Persian and Indian worlds – is far more complex than any modern political binary would like. make us believe it. After all, perhaps the most common misconception about India’s history is that it was constantly subjected to brutal invasions from West and Central Asia, which “Hindu” kings valiantly resisted until that the “Muslim” invaders finally succeeded in breaking through and establishing the Delhi Sultanate. in the 12e century. From VD Savarkar and RC Majumdar to recent Bollywood films and TV news presenters, this account of history has been received as gospel and is seen as vindication of discrimination against Indian Muslims today.

Of course, just because something is repeated endlessly about the medieval world doesn’t automatically make it true. Even if we were to accept this simplistic Hindu king-Muslim invader binomial as a way to interpret our past, “Hindu” kings could conquer and attack outside the subcontinent and Muslims along the Indian coast arrived there peacefully. and were a major reason for its commercial dominance in the Indian Ocean. But so far, this column hasn’t really touched on the issue of invasions from Central Asia. Exploring this strange medieval world reveals to us how futile it is to project modern political prejudices onto a cosmopolitan past.


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The Indian soldiers of Mahmud of Ghazni

Mahmud of Ghazni was the son of a Sabuktigin, who was a Turkish slave soldier working for the Persian principalities in this diverse and violent region. After wresting the city of Ghazni from the “Hindu” Shahis (actually a group in present-day Pakistan that we’ll get to in a future column), the father-son duo sought to build their own kingdom on the borders of the moribund Abbasid Caliphate.

Expansion in all directions was Mahmud’s main policy: As much as one remembers his “jihad” against the “Hindu” Shahis, he was responsible for the destruction of the Saffarid emirate of Iran. He was the first ruler to declare himself sovereign sultan – a ruler independent of the caliph. As others began to follow his example, it would, over time, lead to the complete marginalization of the Caliphate. He also conquered and plundered the Ismaili city of Multan in 1005-1006, as well as several other Muslim cities in present-day Afghanistan, which were conveniently declared heretical in order to justify his “religious” war.

It is certainly possible (and likely) that Mahmud’s expansionism was not divorced from his religious beliefs. But religion isn’t the only lens we should be looking at medieval rulers – to do so would be to continue in the footsteps of ruthless British divide-and-rule tactics. In reality, Mahmud lived at the crossroads of Eurasia at a time when Turkish-Persian identity was consolidating, and he used the cultures and peoples of the entire continent to advance his interests. For example, he had a special love for Asian elephants and used them much like an “Indian” king would, parading over them in Ghazni and deploying them with drums and trumpets to intimidate Central Asian rivals. such as the Kara Khanids, as shown in the feature image in this article.

Historian S Jabir Raza writes in Hindus under the Ghaznavids that the second largest ethnic/cultural group in Mahmud’s army were South Asians, including warriors from present-day Punjab and Haryana, officers from Kashmir and mercenaries from distant Karnataka – the latter supported by the Persian polymath Al-Beruni, who witnessed Mahmud’s activities and worked closely with Brahmin scholars. (Mercenaries from Karnataka are also known to have served Sri Lankan kings at this time, suggesting that the subcontinent’s military labor markets were geographically expanding.) Infantry, cavalry, and elephants south -Asians fought for Mahmud in multiple battles. They worked in his palace guard and lived in a dedicated quarter in Ghazni, reporting to South Asian commanders and high officials in Mahmud’s court. They could be as brutal as anyone working for Ghaznavid’s army: in Sistan in 1003, they ransacked a mosque and a church, and massacred Muslims and Christians.


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Between violent kings and peaceful kings

In 1024, Mahmud of Ghazni led a campaign in Bundelkhand, apparently to punish the Chandella dynasty of Khajuraho for attacking the king of Kannauj, his vassal. The two armies entered a stalemate at the Kalinjar Fort: the Chandellas could not beat Mahmud, but he also failed to take the fort. And so, according to a number of medieval chroniclers such as Ibn al-Athir, Ibn Zafir and Sibt ibn al-Jawzi, the two sides negotiated. In return for a heavy tribute, King Chandella Vidyadhara received one of Mahmud’s robes and sashes – this symbolized a sharing of royal substance and an acceptance that Mahmud was his overlord. This reminds us of a dynamic that came from elsewhere in India: the crowning of conquered kings by the conquerors in exchange for the agreement of a tribute.

Historian Finbarr Barry Flood argues in Translation objects that the gift of robes was clearly Mahmud’s attempt to translate cultural practices of elites to build new heterogeneous political networks. The underlying violence of the raids and conquests remained the same, but the ruling class in this region was becoming more diverse. Similar attempts at cultural translation can be seen in Mahmud’s use of South Asian vassals and officials to administer his territories in Punjab, and his coin 1027–28 with the legend ‘Avyaktameka muhammada avatara nripati mahamuda (the Invisible is One, [Prophet] Muhammad is the Avatar, Mahmud the king)’.

The bilingual dirham of Mahmud of Ghazni | Wikimedia Commons

So where does this leave us in terms of the “Islamic invasions” of India? The “Hindu versus Muslim” binary is as simplistic as the “bad conquering Turk versus good syncretic Sufi” binary to which our politics has been reduced. There is no need to adapt this tedious mental gymnastics to people who lived a thousand years ago and who were reacting to their own now vanished political situation. A violent king is just as capable of acts of cultural accommodation as a “peaceful” king, and neither is a role model for a modern democratic nation-state.

Ultimately, the arrival of Turkish warlords and troops in northwest India was a multicultural and multi-ethnic process, involving two-way flows of people and ideas between two cultural areas. . These areas were more distinct and more traded than in previous centuries, but their character was not fundamentally unique. The interactions were more acts of elite accommodation and friction than a major transformation in the material lives of most of our ancestors. The stories we make up about medieval kings say a lot more about us than they say about them.

Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.

This article is part of the “Thinking Medieval” series which delves into India’s medieval culture, politics and history.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)