Ghaznavids from 1021 to 1186


The following is a set of pictures from Major Amin (a well known military history specialist in Pakistan) that give the flavor of the 200 year run of loot, plunder and internecine warfare that characterized the Ghaznavid dynasty (including alliances with Indian rulers and officials who were willing to work with them). These are just headlines, interested readers will have to look up more detail in other articles and books (or in wikipedia, which is always helpful). There is a volume 1 that I will post when i get some more time.

By the way, this topic reminded me of a little episode from our school days. We had a Christian history teacher (a Mr Lawrence) who had written a kind of guidebook that all of the students used to study 8th grade history. In the chapter on Mahmood Ghaznavi, he had listed the reasons for his attacks on India. The list included items like spreading Islam and putting down miscreants and point number X was “loot and plunder”. Our Islamic studies teacher found out and started a campaign against Mr Lawrence for bringing Islamic heroes into disrepute. This led to the inevitable excision of this chapter from the book, but students had copies that had already been printed; they had to have the offending passages either torn out or crossed out. So it goes..










21 Replies to “Ghaznavids from 1021 to 1186”

  1. Omar Bhai

    Are you familiar with the lore of Suhaldev, who is also sort of connected to the Ghaznavid raids.

    Suhaldev is a legendary Indian king from Shravasti, mentioned in the 17th century Persian-language historical romance Mirat-i-Masudi. According to the text, he defeated and killed the Ghaznavid general Ghazi Salar Masud at Bahraich, in the early 11th century.

    Rumor has it that Ajay Devgan is making a movie on it, on lines of Tanhaji

  2. Very well researched post. Maps per campaign are satisfying in a way that no amount of prose can do justice to. Looking at the maps left me thinking about the long supply chains and how they were supplied. In several maps, Mahmud exposes his flank in a longitudunal fashion. Perhaps local geographic features not visible on the maps are natural cover.

    I have always wondered how much of a inspiration did Alexander and his Satrapies proved to these latter day Ghaznavids. If the Indian sheet anchor is correct, then Alexander preceded these Ghaznavids by about 1400 years – short enough for institutional memories to be retained. All of these campaigns show a classic “L” dog-leg manouever. A short thrust into the hinterland followed by a right turn following the course of the various Indus tributaries. Which was what Alexander did as well.

    On balance it looks like that terrain played a heavy role in influencing these tactics. A geographical overhang looks more likely than inspiration.

    1. Supply chains weren’t strictly necessary before industrial warfare. Food was procured locally, and most equipment could be repaired or replaced on campaign as well. Even new soldiers could sometimes be recruited, by force or by promise of loot.

      1. Not sure if this is true. Accounts of the campaign preceding the third Panipat war (in 1761) speak of complications involving supply routes (‘rasad’ in Hindustani) affecting both armies as they wandered about North Indian plains.

  3. 2 questions from a complete novice in military history and any military-related stuff:

    1) Why do Pakistani military people like Major Amin, General Khalid Kidwai (the nuclear program guy), Arshad Malik(PIA chief) punch so much above their weight in history, policy, business and such? Are these people objectively better than civilian think-tank people(Nasim Zehra, Moeed Yusuf), wannabe-veterans(Ejaz Haider, Wajahat Khan types) and other professionals? I have a friend working in a major think tank in Delhi and the impression I got from him about the kind of ‘research’ that goes on in these ‘geostrategy’ circles is not impressive.

    2) Why no counter raids? Why do Indians almost always play defensive? This is true even for invader Sultans and Mughals too who made India their native_server (videogame language). I read Mughals under Aurangzeb couldn’t even get Kandahars back from Safavids, after wasting quite a fortune, forget ever sacking Tehran like Nader sacked Delhi. Did our side (including regions of India and Indians that are now part of the acronym Pakistan) never have good generals (possible exception Khilji, Hari Singh Nalwa) or balls? Or was it that the invaders preferred hating/mistrusting/preying-on the natives rather than getting territory in the west. Granted lack of horses is a major problem but other people have evolved gameplay to counter such threats like Scotts under Robert the Bruce used pikemen to rout heavily armoured knights etc.

    I mean why has there been no expeditionary power projection and land-grab capability in Indians to take the fight to the Persian heartlands? Cholas were raiding/empire-building in Jawa, Malaya why didn’t they give Arabs a taste of their own medicine? Were Cholas substantially weaker than Arabs or just not interested?

    I get it that we have had to deal with historical Pakistanis who deny being Indians, live to the east of Pakus river, have been mentioned in book Pakistanica and have traded with British/Dutch/French East-Pakistan Company and played at geopolitics (like the modern-day acronym Pakistan does with its Iron brother currently and Saudis, Americans and British before them) to destabilize and grab-land in the rest of India but still why has no ‘ruler of India’ (different from ‘Indian ruler’) never managed to send out expeditionary raids into the west?

    1. ” Why no counter raids?”

      What will they raid? The resource laden lands of Afghanistan/Baluchistan?

      1. But I remember you telling me that people like Timur and Mahmud of Ghazni were quite accomplished generals in their native_server. They must have had something worthwhile for which there has been so much bloodshed in Afghanistan throughout history. There could have been the usual jazz of securing flanks/trade-routes and geostrategic importance to justify the land-grab. Why did the Chinese take the Tarim basin? or Tibet? or why did Pakistan take Balochistan? They took it because they had the spare strength to take it and historians retrofitted the need/reason to justify it.

        If nothing else westward expansion could have satisfied appetite for man-power for administrators (Syed, Nishapuri, Tehrani fair, tall and inherently noble Muslim lords descended from saints) and warriors (equivalent to ten Hindu, tall, muscular and handsome ghazis from Afghanistan) the DNA(and skin) of whose progeny has been sunburnt in India and somehow currently looks identical to us poor native Hindus (and native Muslims who have been peacefully converted by noble peace prize-winning ‘Hazrats’ like Amir Khusru).

        1. @Saurav
          People grab land because they have spare strength to do it not because they have any reason. Chinese took Tarim, Tibet etc just like that. Geostrategy (trade routes, connectivity, some random resource, securing flanks, etc) is a handy tool to justify almost any land-grab. I can’t think of even a single place in Asia that is geostrategically not important. The Middle East, Pakistan, India, Malaya, Indonesia and other islands, East Asia, Japan, Caucasus, Black sea, Mediterranean sea, Caspian sea, Central Asia etc everything is geostrategically important if one wants to think it is. I don’t think people waged wars and conquer only to get resources many a time they did it just because they can.

    2. @Bhimrao

      The answer is in two parts….

      You are comparing events in the limited time frame of 900 CE to 1600 CE. Its a rather short window looking into the events of the subcontinent. Just a 400 years earlier, Indian administrators taxed the land all the way till Bamiyan….further than Kabul. And 600 years before this, Ashoka’s influence and trade administration extended all the way till Macedonia and Egypt (Refer Rock Edict No 13). In fact India has the only trilingual proclamations containing Prakrit, Greek and Aramaic in the ancient world (the Pillars in Afghanistan). Not one ancient king spanned the Eurasian landmass like Ashoka (yes, not even Alexander).

      The period after 900 CE for Indian kingdoms is one of somnolence barring for the mighty Cholas in the South who colonized the largest swath of SE Asia possible. I cannot explain this period with any sort of rational coat-hangers – yes administration improved with the Khiljis first and then the Mughals – but there is simply no reasonable explanation for inward looking rulers. The closest explanation I got from someone was that the Muslim kings advised by their Ulema did not consider outward expansion as correct since this would involve thrusting Hindu armies on to Muslim populations (approx 65 percent of Akbarś allies and standing armies were Hindu).

      From a strategic perspective, I do consider 900 to 1600 CE as the lost centuries for Indic expansion. We would have played a tremendous role in the Persian, Arabian and Grecian areas. The core of the Indian engine was always firing and strong. It only needed a firm direction.

      I see another “lost” era in the Indic strategic context – The period from the end of the “Harappan Mature Era” 1300 BCE to the rise of the Mauryas 300 BCE. Writing was non-existent during this period. This tells volumes of a breakdown in administration and governance.

    3. Muhammad bin Tughlaq did attempt to capture regions in Central Asia as well as China but failed before he could even reach there. Bad economics and management perhaps.

    4. Why no counter raids? Why do Indians almost always play defensive?

      In addition to the lack of incentive angle already mentioned (there wasn’t all that much to the West or above NW) another angle is what the Chinese also faced and remarked on. Civilization (and settling-down) makes people docile, physically weaker & less volatile/aggressive/ruthless. We even have studies which show how socio-cultural practices changed in many European places with the introduction of fine-China for food utensils. People become more delicate in their actions.

      Central Asia was a unforgiving zone, not everyone survived but those who did were peak specimens so to speak.

      India even if it had wanted would barely had made any inroads into NW and Central Asia for this reason(militarily). Even the Chinese barely if ever conquered their Northern territories, they were just content with playing the barbarians off each other. They came upon NW China, current Xinjiang because of how powerfully rich the Han Dynasty eventually became, Scale was too great and the Northern Barbarians were in a low-power status at that time.

      Tibet is also different. Chinese didn’t bother with them till Tibetans started sacking mainland plains and even then the Chinese had to rely on people from the far NW to fight for them. They didn’t do it themselves and Tibet was also contained by geography, it lacked enough people because it couldn’t grow enough food to sustain a high enough population like the Central Asia regions could. Chinese also had abysmal record against Koreans in the various wars they have had.

      Ancient Chinese are like ancient Indians in this regard. Too much agricultural capacity makes for weak people if the world is so tuned for war and conflict. This holds true even today one can say. Why are so many of Indian military’s best fighting soldiers from the North or rather those who lived in mountains as children. Or those who had rough childhoods relative to those who had everything growing up (provided there wasn’t some surmountable nutrition negative-angle).

      This is on a statistical average. Obviously this doesn’t mean No One from elsewhere in India or no one from ancient India was a great fighter. That is not what this is saying, it is about bell curve distribution for a given sample population.

      1. All empires in India (perhaps the world over) followed the same model.

        While conquering they use innovative methods because they are underwhelmed by numbers. Ghori/Ghazni vs N-Indian kings, Bajirao’s Marathas vs Mughals, initial VijayNagar vs Sultanates.

        Then they get used to the comforts and began corrupting and then the next invader shows along continuing the same cycle. Babar vs Delhi, Afghans vs Marathas in Panipat, Sikhs vs Afghans/Mughals., Deccan Sultanates vs Vijaynagar at talikota

  4. it is amazing that even after 1000 years of muslim rule in punjab, there were still hindus in punjab till 1947. wiki says that only 54% were muslims. amazing!
    i now have to consider that, many converted to islam for shear convenience.

  5. I like the style of explaining with maps too. Just makes things clearer.

    Also he used ‘Invasions into India’ and not ‘Invasions to northwest to north center of south asia.’

  6. Razib khan,
    I am very new to this site, I have small doubt,
    Why 23 and me is including central asian with Northern Indian and Pakistani, but not southern indian?

    Thank You

  7. Those maps are self explanatory. I wish we could learn geography through maps.

    Not one ancient king spanned the Eurasian landmass like Ashoka (yes, not even Alexander).

    Firstly, Alexander(ruled Bactria) didn’t have satrapies.
    But Darius, the king of Iran had satrapies (Ansan+east Iran+till Northwestern India(steppe hordes which turned up in India are Kubja+ Gautama+ Cobryas +Palas) , had extended the influence all the way till Egypt.
    The rock mentions Brahmi, Greek, Kharosthi ( Aramaic script used by Darius).
    The trade influences has always been in South Asia from Indus times. (If interested please read Rachael Mair from University of Reading)

    1. The period from 1300 BCE to the rise of the Mauryas 300 BCE is unfortunately a silent age. There are no epigraphic inscriptions – we have the IVC coded seals, then a gap of 1000 years and then suddenly Brahmi.

      Somehow the Persians did not have an impact on the socio-political-material scene in India. There are papers stating aesthetic influence on Indian in the form of Royal symbols (the Sarnath lions etc). Yavanas (Ionians/Greeks) are the most referenced north-western people in all of ancient Indian literature along with Gandharis (Kandahar), Bahlikas (Bactrian) and Sakas (Scythians).

  8. @Roma Bhatt,
    kindly explain. any references?
    (steppe hordes which turned up in India are Kubja+ Gautama+ Cobryas +Palas) , had extended the influence all the way till Egypt.

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