A Mongol India, a pagan India?

On Twitter there was a thread which posited what “might have been” if the Mongols had forthrightly smashed the Delhi Sultanate and added India, at least its north, to their vareigated domains. After the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire split into four broad political-geographical zones.

– to the north and west, was the Golden Horde. These Mongols and their Turkic subjects battered Europe held suzerainty over the principalities which succeeded Kievan Rus and bickered and battled with the Il-Khanate to their south.

– The IlKhanate centered around modern-day Iran, and for much of its early period controlled the Levant, much of Anatolia, and Mesopotamia.

– The Chagatai Khanate, which occupied Central Asia, to the west and east of the Altai and Tien Shan (roughly, Transoxiana and modern Xinjiang)

– The Yuan, which encompassed China and Mongolia

Genghis Khan’s conquests occurred in the early 1200s. By the 1300s all of the three “western” domains took up Islam as the primary religion of the Mongol elite. The Yuan in the east remained non-Muslim, mixing patronage of Tibetan Buddhism with the Mongols’ customary shamanist Tengrism. When they were expelled from China they retreated to Mongolia and the descendants of the Yuan ruled Mongolia until their integration into the Manchu Empire in the 17th-century.

One thing that is illuminated in Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road is that the eastern Mongols flirted with adopting Islam before they finally shifted to Tibetan Buddhism in the 16th-century. Some of their leaders took Muslim names and seem to have adopted the trappings of Islam, before falling away.

Though the transition of the western Mongols toward Islam differed across the three Khanates. The IlKhanate ruled over mostly Muslims. The fact that for several generations Muslims were ruled by Tengrists, Buddhists, and Christians (Persian Christianity had a foothold in Mongol in the 12th-century) was always a tension. Ultimately, the IlKhan conversion to Islam was not of major consequence because the IlKhanate collapsed earlier than the other domains.

The Golden Horde adopted Islam in large part because that was the religion of the Turks who comprised the majority of the nomads in the confederation. But, in the early period, the Golden Horde was hegemonic over many Christian regions, and the majority of its subjects may have been nominally Christian. And yet the Mongol elite was naturally assimilated into the Turkic elite, not the Christian princes (though they did intermarry with the Christian nobility, and some Lithuanian and Russian noble lineages have Mongol ancestry from the Golden Horde).

The Chagatai Khanate’s adoption of Islam in the 14th-century was ironic, because Chagatai, one of the sons of Genghis Khan, was a fierce Mongol traditionalist who personally detested Islam. As with the Golden Horde, the Islamicization of the Chagatai lineage seems to have been a function of the reality that the non-Muslim Mongols swam in a sea of Turkic Muslim subjects.

Which brings us to India. Most readers of this post will know that the Mongols had various military encounters with the nascent Delhi Sultanate, but ultimately India never truly became a part of their empire. But what if it had?

The person who initially posted this counterfactual fantasized about the destruction of Islam in India because the Mongols were against Islam. This is objectively not so. In the 13th-century, the Mongols were religiously peripatetic and latitudinarian. The only “higher religion” that they were initially familiar with was the Persian Christianity of their Kerait and Naiman neighbors. Most of Genghis Khan’s sons married Christian women from these tribes.

Though Genghis Khan himself took to developing a special relationship with a Daoist adept, repeatedly the early Mongols seemed to exhibit a strong affinity toward Tibetan Buddhism, prefiguring the Mongol mass conversion of the 16th-century. Buddhist lamas were presences in both the Golden Horde and the IlKhanate, and Persia in the 13th-century saw a renaissance of Buddhist temple building.

My initial thought about the counterfactual is that the Mongols would surely have become Muslim, as they did in the Golden Horde, because of the large number of Turkic Muslims present in India. The analogy here is with the Golden Horde. In the Golden Horde Mongols and Turks shared the same mode of production, as pure pastoralists and rent-seekers. Mongols who lived a sedentary lifestyle may have eventually simply been absorbed into the Russians.

But then I began thinking: what about the Yuan dynasty example? Here Mongols used Muslims as an intermediary caste with the local population, and never became Muslims themselves. Additionally, while the Han Chinese did not have a military caste (the military profession had a low status in China at the time), obviously India’s Rajputs were a local group of non-Muslims with whom the Mongols might identify. Many of the Mongols were already nominally Buddhist, and so concepts such as Dharma might be familiar to them.

So let’s imagine a fork where Mongols arrive as non-Muslims, and somehow establish a synthesis with Hindus and eventually assimilate as a Hindu caste. This is not totally crazy. In 1228 the Tai Ahom arrived in Assam. They were already partially Buddhist, though eventually, they became Hindus.

Of course, many Hindus want to know: would this be the end of Islam in the subcontinent? I don’t think so for two reasons.

First, the Mongols were generally religiously tolerant. This often held even after their initial conversion to Islam, which was often quite nominal and practical. It seems unlikely they’d wage a religious vendetta against Islam as such. The Turks and Afghans who arrived in the earlier decades would probably simply go into service with the Mongol Khanate. Eventually, they’d be the core of a religious minority in a post-Mongol but Hindu dispensation. This is what happened in China, where many of the Chinese Muslims clearly descend from Central Asians and Turks who arrived with the Yuan.

Second, there may simply be structural reasons why Muslim Turks would move into India no matter what at some point. India was rich. The Turks and Afghans were not. Additionally, as pastoralists and nomads with ready access to horses, the Central Asians had structural advantages against local polities, who could not mobilize the whole of local economies. I suspect, to be honest that the Mongols would only arrest and delay a process that was inevitable.

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41 Replies to “A Mongol India, a pagan India?”

  1. They would’ve destroyed india and maybe change the genetic makeup of northern India after seeing what they’ve done in Western and Central Asia.
    Also the mongol invasion did occupied the northern part of Kashmir. What were the changes that happened there?
    Older groups like Indo-Partians, Indo -Greeks , Kushanas, Huns etc were dissolved in the society over time. Same would’ve happened to mongols (only if they weren’t islamised).
    Also We Indians collectively have to decide that among the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Dynasty who were the heroes and who were the villians.

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  2. While the putative Mongol rulers of a hypothetical India would not have been anti-Islamic and gone the way of Ahoms, that would have prevented large scale destruction of religious and cultural monuments, which is an issue history has left for modern India.

    They would have become a Hazara like caste with presumably Rajput status. And instead of Hazaras at the brunt of religious persecution in Pakistan and Afghanistan , they would have quitely led their lives even if converted to Shia

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  3. They would’ve destroyed india and maybe change the genetic makeup of northern India after seeing what they’ve done in Western and Central Asia.

    this is a stupid analogy. india is dense like china. so no, they wouldn’t have changed everything.

    the mongols didn’t change west Asian much either, though they did depopulate Iran due to destroying quanats.

    While the putative Mongol rulers of a hypothetical India would not have been anti-Islamic and gone the way of Ahoms, that would have prevented large scale destruction of religious and cultural monuments, which is an issue history has left for modern India.

    what period did this happen? i think it is quite likely in this model that there would have been a turco-muslim intrusion into India as mongol asabiya declines.

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      1. “the mughals were of recent mongol ancestry. babur’s mother was from a mongol background in mogholistan”

        this is factually true, but can be misleading. babar’s self identification was that of a turk. (a chaghtai turk to be precise). in his babarnama he never refers to himself or his tribe as mughals. to him, mughals were the illiterate, uncouth and predatory tribes of eastern mughalistan who were either overtly infidels, or barely muslims.

        chaghtai turks took pride in their civilized ways and literary traditions. (chaghtai turkish was a major literary language in central asia in his times, and rivaled persian in its output of literature for quite some time).

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        1. ” mughals were the illiterate, uncouth and predatory tribes of eastern mughalistan who were either overtly infidels, or barely muslims.”

          For Babar the Afghans weren’t sufficiently “muslim” too.

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  4. Yeah i second Harsh on this. I mean would i rather take a chance that India would have turned out more like China rather than Iran. No thanks.

    I mean already we fight innecantly while throwing terms like genocide and all. Dont know what would have happened in case of real genocide (like Timur/Nader Shah but now in whole of N-India, not just Delhi)

    Also didnt much of victories in China; came during Kublai rather than Temujin? Perhaps that had to do with comparable less harsh treatment of Chinese.

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  5. side note, how genetically close do you think Attila and Genghis were in terms of general makeup? There seem to be varying phenotypic descriptors of the former. If the Huns were from a homeland as far away as Eastern Mongolia, I think it is likely they picked up some West Eurasian DNA as they traversed the steppe westwards.

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    1. What matters more physical appearance or genetic makeup?
      I think the former matters more so the depiction of Attila and Genghis khan will be different because of the same reason you stated.

      Do you see the gradient of genetic haplogroup percentage from upper caste to the lower caste groups of India in any other population except the region of south asia?

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  6. India has been far too populous, decentralised, accessible to Western and Central Asia to have never had Islamic proselytisation within its geographical limits – Mongols or not.

    That said, I don’t think Indians could have hoped for a better outcome than the British plug-and-play model and the severance of Pakistan. Indians could have been far more civilized about the Partition of course and not behaved like brutes, but then we are talking about a rather stratified culture here to begin with.

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  7. kublai co-opted the chinese more than temujin. tho is sinophilia is overdone. his closest advisors remained mongols and Muslims from c asia.

    re: genocide. the worst of it seems to have been turan and Iran. really they totally ripped turan apart. but china as a whole didn’t change too much even though mass deaths in the north clearly happened (xia xia kingdom was obliterated).

    side note, how genetically close do you think Attila and Genghis were in terms of general makeup? There seem to be varying phenotypic descriptors of the former. If the Huns were from a homeland as far away as Eastern Mongolia, I think it is likely they picked up some West Eurasian DNA as they traversed the steppe westwards.

    there is enough ancient DNA to say you are correct.

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  8. In the Golden Horde Mongols and Turks shared the same mode of production, as pure pastoralists and rent-seekers.

    I assume the rent-seeking aspect is key here, not the pastoralist aspect; if so, in what way do you distinguish this life-style from that of the Indian Brahmanas and Kshatriyas?

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    1. I have been curious to know who the Kshatriyas are in modern India. There don’t seem to be any around. Where did they go? They are not the Khatris of Punjab, who are fhe trader class of Punjab, or the Rajputs, who seem to be a later claimant to the role.

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      1. Well just as a wild theory.

        Kshatriyas seem to be just the imaginary friends that Brahmins brought with them atleast deep in India. Then they transferred the role to local chieftains/warrior groups with some genetic exchange. That makes the Iranian aryan cousins as last people having kshatriya group intact. By now after multiple population movements and turnovers dont know what remains of that group.

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      2. Brahmins just promoted who ever was royalty. So very mixed ancestry. Vaishya are the most consistent ancestry trend wise after Brahmins

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        1. Or perhaps they demoted every Kshatriya group there ever was because of disobedience to their rituals or failure to pay due respect. Brahminical social epistemology has been failing for centuries, even millennia perhaps, but the discourse in India continues to be framed in those terms. Because it won’t work with Indians settled abroad as Americans, or elsewhere, Indian society may become an anthropological curiosity in times to come.

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          1. / Or perhaps they demoted every Kshatriya group there ever was because of disobedience to their rituals or failure to pay due respect. /
            Outside conspiracy theories I dont think any group holds that much power to demote whole groups of people that too influential ones at whim (conspiracy akin to jewish people controlling almost everything and rest being puppets).

            / Indian society may become an anthropological curiosity in times to come./
            Isnt it already one since 100+ years? Dont need Indians going abroad for that.

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          2. On the contrary, the only history Brahmins have is of “uplifting” groups (some would say non deserving ones as well) to Kshatriyas. Perhaps they might have demoted some other groups to lower levels, but at least not in case of Kshatriyas.

            Entire S-Indian and E-Indian kingdoms have sourced UP Brahmins to make them “Kshatriyas”. The Rajputs and Marathas were some of the famous ones to use them to legitimate their lineage.

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          3. @Saurav

            “On the contrary, the only history Brahmins have is of “uplifting” groups (some would say non deserving ones as well) to Kshatriyas. Perhaps they might have demoted some other groups to lower levels, but at least not in case of Kshatriyas.”

            I was taught there aren’t any Vaishya or Kshatriya in South India. There are of course communities that performed that function (many coastal trading communities; communities like Nairs in terms of military), but they were demoted to Shudra. You see this notion in, for example, the Manu Smriti where it notes that Kshatriyas in the South (as well as certain others) were demoted to Shudra status as a result of failing to adhere to or uphold certain Brahminical rituals. I feel like in the South it’s generally Brahmins / Dalits / everyone else.

            But that said, you’re also right in that long ago brahmins were imported in part to confer royal status through rituals and titles.

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          4. /There are of course communities that performed that function (many coastal trading communities; communities like Nairs in terms of military), but they were demoted to Shudra./

            More like they were shudra by default. Everyone not in their tribe is by default one. That could explain Kshatriya/vaishya absence in South. The stories about demotion is just ways to justify/document the realities on ground.

            On other hand, the influential/resourceful groups then got ‘selected’ with another set of made up stories. More like fake universities handing out fake degrees to people wanting one through shortcut. Takes two to tango !

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          5. iamVY
            “On other hand, the influential/resourceful groups then got ‘selected’ with another set of made up stories. More like fake universities handing out fake degrees to people wanting one through shortcut. Takes two to tango !”
            That of course, presumes that the Brahminical categories were real, i.e. not created from made up stories, and those invented by other groups fake (unless you imply that the Brahmins were the fake universities). That is what I meant by Brahminical epistemology. It was a fake system in its entirety. The Nairs, Marathas and Rajputs were not inventing their categories. They were having Brahmin story tellers make them up as they went along, which they latter did when conditions were appropriate.

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          6. Personally I dont believe any of the creation stories. There could be a shred of truth there but then they have been blown out of proportion to justify the ends.

            In last comment I did mean Brahmins as fake universities and these elevated groups as opportunistic students milking the system to their advantage. On other hand I feel that brahmins have no way of behaving that they were not part of the elite. The middle castes (eg 96 clan Marathas in MH) however were always elite and not some puppets in anyone’s hands. But now claim to be victim of the system to claim benefits from govt. So they successfully gamed the system twice, have always been elite and managed to maintain the real power over time.

            The story is repeated especially all over south India including the great Periyar himself if I am not wrong. He did belong to influential trading community

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  9. The counterfactual is definitely interesting, and one that could have easily come to pass had a few battles gone one way or another. My impression of the Mongols is that while initially very destructive, their practical mindedness enabled them to facilitate the transmission of science and technology across their dominions. This would no doubt have been good for India as part of a more global empire, and would also have reduced the chokehold of the ulemas/brahmins on all aspects of daily life.

    Looking at the map got me thinking, have the boundaries of China always been similar to what they currently are? The Han homeland is maybe only the Eastern half, I always considered Tibet and Xinjiang to be more ‘recent’ additions from the 20th century, like how Nagaland is to India.

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    1. The Han homeland is maybe only the Eastern half, I always considered Tibet and Xinjiang to be more ‘recent’ additions from the 20th century, like how Nagaland is to India.

      yes. basically the peoples’ republic inherited the borders of the manchu empire. the manchus did not rule Xinjiang or Tibet or Mongolia as Chinese emperors, but as manchu warlords. the assimilation of western china into china qua china is retconning.

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  10. for me a much more interesting idle speculation is to wonder how would a mongol conquest of india have impacted hinduism. i think it is a safe guess to assume that mongols would have merged into hinduism.

    hinduism is famously assimilative, provided that the incoming religious tradition does not have any ideological hang ups against getting assimilated in hinduism. in this regard mongol shamanism seemed to be situated perfectly to exchange ideas with hinduism.
    the tradtion of nature worship of pagan mongols was in sync with hinduism (they revered sacred mountans like burkhan khaldun, and many streams and forests).

    for whatever reason whenever any tribal gods or heros get assimilated in hinduism, they transform into some form of shiva. (think khandoba of maharashtra, tanginath of kharkhand and many others ). it is not far fetched to think that Tengri would have transformed into a manifestation of Shiva..

    the possibilities are endless and immensely interesting, though mongols’ penchant for leaving the towers of heads in their wake sobers one up quite a bit…

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    1. There is a limit to assimilation. The closest parallel i can think of Mongol-Hinduism construct is of Alchon Huns. Regardless of Huns being ruled by a Hindu (Mihirakula) and his opponent being Buddhist (Gupta’s Baladitya) , there is hardly any text talking favorably of Huns. Unlike the Ahoms example (who dominated other non Hindus) , the people who the Mongols would have pulverized would be Hindus

      The initial destruction caused by the Mongols would have been so vast that it would forestalled any goodwill generated from their eventual “assimilation” .

      Its not always “He was a Bastard, but he was our bastard” world

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      1. Hammiradeva of Ranthambore (who historically committed saka and whose queen did the real Jauhar against Khilji) gave refuge to Mongols provoking Khilji. But in any case, I think after Khilji, Mongols would have gone after Rajputs. Everyone (who earns a mention in history) beats the Delhi guy first and then beats the Rajputs of Rajasthan: Ghori, Babur, Maratha, (English?). Not many reasons to think Mongols would have been much different.
        Every time I read of Hazara persecution in Afghanistan I wonder how the tables have turned. So, not quite sure about how Mongols would have fared under hundreds of years of Muslim rule that might have followed.

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  11. A relatively unexplored area of research is how did the Delhi Sultans managed to keep the Mongols at bay when most Asian and European powers buckled under. I had read somewhere that the Mongol bows did not perform well in humid conditions. But North India is not humid all year round, so I take that theory with a pinch of salt.

    As to the counterfactual, Mongols would have decimated Northern India at the outset. From parts of Northern India the “Mongol” yoke would have been enforced over the rest of India. India’s geography – especially the Deccan may not have been easy to control, just as it was a challenge even for the Mughals. Similar to China, it would have taken Mongols many decades if not a couple of centuries to establish rule over all of India. They would have played one Indian ruler against another just as the Sultans, Mughals and British did.

    Given India’s demographics and deep cultural herutage, the Mongols over time would have intermarried with and become part of the the Indic world in different parts of South Asia – Hindu (Kshatriya) and Muslim.

    Undoubtedly, Mongol India would been better connected to other parts of the Mongol dominated world. This connection would not have been mediated by the Islamic world, at least for a period of time.

    Given that most of the Mongols in the Khanates embraced Islam, in the absence of a powerful Hindu-Mongol dynasty, I think that Islamic dominance over South Asia would eventually have come about any ways. Just that it would have happened a century or two later.

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    1. Two points

      “A relatively unexplored area of research is how did the Delhi Sultans managed to keep the Mongols at bay”

      Reasons could be the Delhi Sultans were the inheritors of the very same traditions which the Mongols were. Cavalry war fighting. Also Mongols were just following the Delhi Sutanate steps towards India. Afghanistan-Attock-Punjab. So Sultanate sort of had an idea of the playbook.

      Regardless i think the real reason was that there was never a conscious push towards India like the ones they had in Europe or other parts of Asia. It was more of opportunist raids which rose due to Khwarezmia Shah running away to India. No big name general or sons of Temujin was ever assigned to the “Indian front”, so you can guess Mongol seriousness.

      “Given that most of the Mongols in the Khanates embraced Islam, in the absence of a powerful Hindu-Mongol dynasty, I think that Islamic dominance over South Asia would eventually have come about any ways”

      So here i sort of disagree. I think unless Indian-mongols actually embraced Islam, Islamic dominance would not have come about. All the Mongol kingdoms which eventually did embrace Islam had their population being muslims. Golden Horde, ilkhanate etc. India was not. So chances were 50-50.

      Also with Indian Mongols, India would have had a ruling clan which would stemmed further invasions due to nullification of every muslim invader ultimate weapon , cavalry. With the destruction of Delhi Sultanate, muslim space, which was in its nascent stage would have eventually ended. Like the way with Ming rise, they ended Yuan outposts in Vietnam etc.

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      1. “No big name general or sons of Temujin was ever assigned to the “Indian front”, so you can guess Mongol seriousness.”
        Whoever won in India (modern-day Punjab) would have become a big name General in history. I can’t name any Umayyad generals (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umayyad_campaigns_in_India) who attacked and were defeated so many times but Ghori, Babur, Timur, Nader are big shots in history. Had Timur been routed like Mongols no one would have called him a big name either.

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        1. Disagree. Apart from Babur , all the others were already big names before they came to India. Indian didnt make them great.

          All the others ruled far greater area (and bigger hero in their homeland), than they ever ruled in India

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  12. ” I had read somewhere that the Mongol bows did not perform well in humid conditions.”

    this is actually true. babar complains about it his biography.

    the major problem for mongols was finding pasture lands for their horses. mongols fielded an all cavalry armies. every mongol soldier on average owned 3 horses, to be mounted on a rotating basis. back home they used to graze their horses freely in the wild grassland of the steppes. india simply did not have so much of wild grass land.

    this of course is just part of the story. timur after all conquered delhi leading the same horse archer armies. even babar’s army was primarily cavalry, with artillery wing playing just a secondary, auxiliary role. political leadership mattered. this is where we are forced to acknowledge the strong leadership of allauddin khilji, who played an important role in keeping mongols at bay. allauddin bore the brunt of mongol’s thrust on india. mongols’s repeatedly crashed into india during his reign but he beat them back every time.

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    1. The assertion that artillery played a secondary role in Babar’s army is not borne out by everything I have read. In fact it was the artillery that helped Babar win all the major engagements in the conquest of the Sultanate.

      There is a reason why the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires were known as the “gunpowder empires”.

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  13. Yes, but the Mongols were very adaptable in their campaigns. The Mongol-Chinese armies conquered parts of China that did figure grasslands. They took Chinese siege technology and demolished fortresses in Iran.

    The inexplicable thing is also why were the Mongols not drawn to India by the rich pickings it offered. After all, that is what drew in the Central Asian and Afghan adventurours.

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  14. obv climate+supply lines matter. the yuan battered java, burma, vietnam and japan multiple times with mixed success. the ilkhan tried to get at egypt and the mamelukes a lot too, but kept getting beat back

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  15. So is the consensus that India was a bridge too far for the Mongols? Even though they had subjugated today’s Afghanistan, their supply lines were too stretched? Was it the geography and tribes of Afghanistan that slowed them down?

    Isn’t it interesting that two great conquering armies got to the Indus but essentially fell back – first Alexander and then the Mongols?

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    1. Dont know why assuming supply lines were the issue. The Mongols conquered Kiev and fought on Polish front. Their whole USP was no supply lines or better still , supply lines starts from where we stand. 😛 (Like Amitabh’s dialogue, “Hum jahan khade ho jaate hain, line wahi se shuru hoti hain.”)

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  16. Dont know why assuming supply lines were the issue.

    hey dumbass, i understand that i tolerate a lot of stupidity on this weblog since a lot of you are dumb/lazy, but i said climate+supply lines.

    basically going from hungary to mongolia was feasible for eurasian steppe pastoralists. many did this many times. the ‘problems’ began when they pushed into different climates/topographies. they were pretty successful in e. europe, but started running into problems as they pushed deep into forested territory. victor lieberman calls this the ‘protected zone’. in the east se asia and japan fall into this territory.

    india was probably accessible, but for the yuan se asia and japan were close at hand, and the ilkhan seems to have focused on west asia/egypt tho they had some hegemony over the far west of ind-pak.

    the mameluke case is a bit i think of fighting fire with fire. the mameluke’s were highly optimized fighters and not amateurs. the mongols had a harder time with this.

    even in china it took a generation, in large part cuz they had to assimilate chinese siege-warfare

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