Reflections on Nadir Shah’s exploits in India

By srikanth 21 Comments

Last year marked the 280th anniversary of Nadir Shah’s invasion of the city of Delhi – an event as catastrophic as the invasion of the city by Timur in 1398.

It is worth reflecting on this remarkable event in early 18th century – an episode that underscores the perils of a weak state.

Source : wiki images

State of the Empire in the 1730s

What’s remarkable about this invasion is that it happened barely 32 years after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 – a time when the Mughal Empire was still very formidable and pan Indian in extent (albeit a tad over-extended). By 1739, the decline of the empire was well underway. The Mughal emperor at the time of Nadir Shah’s assault was Muhammad Shah, Aurangzeb’s great grandson.

Now it is well known that Aurangzeb was just the 6th Mughal emperor, between 1526 and 1707. But Muhammad Shah who ascended the throne in 1719, was the 12th!

So you had six new emperors in the ten years following Aurangazeb’s death – as many emperors as the number between 1526 and 1707 – a commentary on the chaos at the head of the empire in the years succeeding Aurangzeb.

Now let us do a quick summary on the state of the region just before Nadir Shah’s assault –

  • Bengal was already semi-independent, with Murshid Quli Khan becoming the first Nawab of the region circa 1720.
  • Avadh was on its way to autonomy with Saadat Khan becoming its first Nawab in 1722.
  • The Marathas were clearly in the ascendant. By 1737, they had gained tax collection rights in Deccan, Gujarat, Bundelkhand. In 1737, two years before Nadir Shah’s raid, Baji Rao attacked Delhi and scored a remarkable victory – despite having an army half as large as the Mughals. Post the battle of Delhi, Malwa was ceded by the Mughals to Baji Rao’s Marathas. In 1738 on the eve of the Nadir Shah invasion, the Mughal crown was already weakened considerably.

The other point to note is that even after 2 full centuries of Mughal rule, the nobility of the land was largely foreign born. So power was wielded by men who felt no patriotism for India, and had no affinity to the traditions and culture of the land.  Let’s take some examples –

      • Nizam Ul Mulk, perhaps the most influential noble in early 1700s, was of Uzbek ancestry. His grandfather had migrated from Samarkhand
      • Saadat Khan, the Nawab Avadh, was a native of Nishapur (north eastern Iran), who had moved to India in early 1700s

This goes contrary to the perception pushed by many historians today that Mughals shouldn’t be regarded as foreigners as they were “thoroughly assimilated” and “rooted” in the Indian soil. Hardly the case.

The foreign origins of much of the creme-de-la-creme of the nobility meant a somewhat weak affinity to the land, and susceptibility to treason against the state. Saadat Khan in fact later advised Nadir Shah to assault Delhi, and ask for a large ransom.

Now let’s examine the situation in Persia in the decades leading up to Nadir Shah’s invasion of India.

The Safavid empire ended in 1722 following an Afghan rebellion. But this proved shortlived, with Nadir Shah defeating the Afghans and establishing his rule over Persia starting 1736.

With respect to Afghanistan – Mughals had lost Southern Afghanistan (including Qandahar) to Persia in the mid 1600s. However they retained control of Kabul / northern parts of the country.

Right from the start of his reign, Nadir evinced great interest in the Mughal Empire. He could see the waning power in Delhi as an opportunity. Also the Persian hold over Qandahar meant a strategic advantage for Persia, lost to the Mughals for nearly a century.

Failed Diplomatic efforts

What’s interesting though is that Nadir didn’t simply launch an assault on India with a savage horde. He engaged in extensive diplomacy, with multiple communications with Mughal crown!

E.g. in 1736, Nadir Shah sent an envoy to Delhi, informing of his intent to expel Afghan rebels from Qandahar, and requesting that the Mughal power in Kabul should obstruct these Afghans and not give them refuge. The Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah responded agreeably. But when the expulsion of Afghans happened from Qandahar in early 1737, the Afghan rebels did flee to Kabul. The Mughals breached on their promise!

When Nadir Shah sought an explanation for this breach through an envoy, Delhi gave him no reply. And on top of that detained the Persian envoy!

Even communication between Delhi and Kabul was terribly slothful! When the Mughal governor in Kabul sought funds for his troops, his repeated requests were turned down by Muhammad Shah the emperor. So clearly you had a situation when the frontier regions of Afghanistan and Punjab grew gradually defenceless through neglect, at a time when Persian power under Nadir Shah was on the rise.

This was an empire waiting to be assaulted.

The Battle at Karnal

Nadir conquered Northern Afghanistan in 1738. Peshawar and Lahore soon followed. Then the Shah marched to Karnal, where a decisive battle awaited him. In the great battle that ensued at Karnal (February 1739), the Persian army numbered at 55K cavalry. The Mughal army was likely larger, but heavily reliant on elephants – a ponderous and outmoded carrier.

What’s also remarkable is that the Mughal armies took for ever to assemble at Karnal! Saadat Khan, the noble from Awadh, took a whole month to arrive with his troops in Karnal.

It took him 3 days to travel from Delhi to Panipat – a mere distance of 55 miles! This is in sharp contrast to the blitzkrieg raids that Marathas were undertaking elsewhere in India at the same time. The Mughal army (in part perhaps because of its reliance on elephants) was not mobile enough. Not nimble enough.

The other major difference was in the familiarity and comfort with fire-arms. The Persian army revelled at fire-arms. The Mughal army still relied a great deal on swordsmanship and “felt a contempt for missile weapons” (to quote Jadunath Sarkar)

Here’s Sarkar elaborating on the Indian inefficiency at fire-arms

So the result at Karnal was a resounding victory for Nadir Shah. But what followed was not a raid on Delhi rightaway, but extensive negotiations for peace!  This included face-to-face conversations between Nadir Shah and the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah at the Persian camp near Karnal.

Negotiations post battle

Here’s an account from Sarkar drawing on the primary sources of Harcharan, Anandram et al on the first meeting between Nadir Shah and Muhammad Shah.

But the emperor reneged on his word and did not pay the requested ransom of Rs 20 crores! This angered Shah and eventually led to a second meeting with the emperor and the latter’s house-arrest

Raid on Delhi

What followed was the famous raid on Delhi, which lasted about 50 days. But a point to note is that the provocation for this trigger came from the Mughal side. Saadat Khan in particular – the Nawab of Oudh.  While Nadir originally had an indemnity of 50 lacs in mind, it was Saadat who told Nadir after the Karnal battle, that if he were to go to Delhi, he could get 20 crores! As opposed to 50 lacs.

Nadir’s raid on Delhi was focused mainly on collection of ransom. Not just from the treasury, but also from private mohallas, with the consent of the Mughal emperor. But he did not intend to engage in a massacre. What triggered the massacre was an uprising in Delhi against the stationed Persian soldiers. Some 3000 Persian soldiers were killed by Delhi-ites. Nadir had to retaliate with a massacre, which likely claimed some 20K Delhi civilian lives in a span of a few hours. This is a conservative estimate, with other estimates as high as 4 lacs.

Consequences and Takeaways

So that brings us to the end of this brief account of Nadir Shah’s raid of Delhi. What were its consequences?

First of all the raid did not trigger the empire’s decline per se. The Mughal empire’s decline had started long before Nadir Shah set foot.  But Nadir Shah’s invasion unlike Timur had some political consequences – it resulted in the loss of Afghanistan and the modern Frontier province to Persia. Eventually it led to the loss of Punjab to the Afghans (under Ahmed Shah Abdali) a few decades later. The Maratha raids on Bengal too ensued a few years after Nadir’s raid.

So it could be said that Nadir Shah’s invasion hastened the decline of the empire, though not necessarily the cause of it.

More importantly it has some lessons for our times. We tend to think of “invaders” as ravaging hordes lacking in civilization and human values. But Nadir was a shrewd diplomat. He engaged in multiple diplomatic overtures, though the Mughals bungled every one of them.  Even the ransom amount to him was suggested by a Mughal insider, Saadat Khan. So was the idea to raid Delhi. Even the massacre at Delhi that ensued was in large measure a retaliation of the massacre of his own soldiers by Delhi civilians

We live in an age of constitutional patriotism, where deference to the state has to transcend ethnic ties. But Nadir Shah’s episode has lessons for us in this respect.

The reason the invasion was facilitated was because of high treason, which in turn was caused by the fact that much of the Mughal nobility was of foreign origin, and felt little patriotism towards India.

Some 30 years ago, there was a debate in India around “Foreign origin” of Sonia Gandhi and whether this should bar her from public office and electoral politics. The debate settled in Sonia’s favor

But then when we reflect on episodes like these from the past (Saadat Khan’s treason for instance), you wonder if an ethnic connect to the land is a pre-requisite to expect a high degree of patriotism.

We will conclude on that note.

References: Jadunath Sarkar’s “Nadir Shah in India”.

The author tweets @shrikanth_krish


21 Replies to “Reflections on Nadir Shah’s exploits in India”

  1. I was expecting the conclusion to end with a note of wariness for Islam which reveres the globalist concept of Ummah and has a tendency to incite mutiny among Ms, was surprised how we changed from Islamic invaders to the Gandhis, lol.
    No desi languages are used in the Gandhi household, or probably even by the Wadras for that matter. Never checked but their accents surely suggest that it is at least not an indigenous one. I am reluctant to compare the Gandhi’s patriotism with that of invader regimes just because of bloodline. Many indigeneous Marathas and Rajputs weren’t united enough by religion or culture and betrayed their groups too to secure better political positions. What concerns me is the internationalist attitude that the party tends to bend towards instead of an indigenous civilisational one.
    I have heard this a number of times from the Americans : “America represents the world”. This statement is used with pride, usually by the ‘internationalists’ that American patriotism/nationalism isn’t confined to the idea of a civilisation but is open and expansive towards accomodating the outside unknown world into it. A lot of Indian liberals often point to this attitude with expectations to turn India into a similar open world. Yet, even by a conservative view, India seems like a big exception from West in the sense that it is probably fair to say that we already have a diverse world of our own with us and also the necessary tools to sustain and grow it, and hence don’t need to import external diversity nor are forced to consider it with our ample population levels. We aren’t united enough like theological republics but still more united via a culture at least compared to West.

  2. Nadir Shahs raid signalled to Europeans that the core was rotting – and was ready for picking. Darlymple makes this point. The English specifically set in motion, a variety of stratagems, in Bihar and Bengal, that would eventually culminate in conquest.

    Regarding your point that Mughals were just foreigners in India, Kapil Komireddi (recently enlightened) made the point in 2019 that the period preceding the 19th century (till the 13th) was also imperialism, but only by Asians instead of Europeans. The populace of India in those times had no illusions about it either. Its only after 1947, that the Nehruvian State began to indulge in revisionism that while European imperialism equated exploitation, the Asian imperialism was enrichment (!!).

    1. “The populace of India in those times had no illusions about it either. ”

      I would say that depends (again) on which ‘Indian’ you are talking to. Did the Punjabi, Bengali, Indian Muslim saw them as ‘foreigners’ ? Do they today see them as ‘foreigners’ ? I am not even going into Commies and liberals.

      1. Shivaji coined the term Hindavi Swarajya. What did that mean in the context of those times?

        Hakka Bukka in the South founded the Vijayanagara empire with explicit Hindu imagery in their sigils and constructions.

        A lot of Rajput stories revolve around saving Dharma (in spite of leftist revisionism)

        Never seen any modern Delhi folks talk proudly about Qutb Minar. These all point to, in Naipaul’s words, a wounded civilization.

        1. It just reinforces my point that the answer changes to which ‘Indian’ we are talking to.

          Unless u are insinuating that folks who DON’T see them as foreigners are not really ‘Indian’…. 😛

  3. Please write one on the depredations of Ahamed Shah Abdeli too. . Recent Hindi film has disappinted many Afghans who consider him as father of Afghanistan

    \Some 30 years ago, there was a debate in India around “Foreign origin” of Sonia Gandhi and whether this should bar her from public office and electoral politics.\
    The liberal media is so intellectually bankrupt that Sonia’s foreign origin discussion was considered ‘right wing’ and ‘hindu fundementalist’ . Morons

  4. Saadat Khan had absolute power in his domain (ok, to the extent that he could keep his close followers loyal to him); that was the intrinsic nature of an 18th century Nawaabi! If Sonia Gandhi were in any position to acquire absolute power to the same extent, then yes, we ought to be extremely concerned. But fortunately, we have a system of checks and balances, right? If Sonia did want to sell out India to her Italian compatriots, exactly how would she be able to do it?

    If there’s something we need to worry about, I’d place the whittling away of our constitutional checks and balances under Modi’s rule higher in my list than an unlikely stab-in-the-back by a widow of foreign origin who has Indian kids.

  5. \But fortunately, we have a system of checks and balances, right? \
    You must consider the system not only when things are going well and also in times of crisis or weakness. If you are so sure of the robustness system of checks and balances in India , why bother about Modi whittling it down.
    Any system is only as good as the people running it.
    Even in the USA, the model of constitutional democracy and a robust system of checks and balances Donald Trump has been able to slice through the system and come on top. There are strong rumours that Russsian FSB has him in a honeytrap and he is under their control . Even the US elections have come under a cloud . If that is the fate of beacon of mature democracy, what to speak of India

  6. Whoever is marching across mountain ranges with a giant army must have had skill and balls. It is obvious that no one can win by defending, Hemu, Suris, Marathas and Sikhs clearly show that (a) winning or loosing a few pitched battles makes all the difference (b) Expeditionary warfare is key, saying defender always has advantage is BS.

    Indians are always eager to claim greater steppe ancestry because they don’t have any real achievements to distinguish themselves from others in India. If even Bangladeshis with their Indian features and skin-tone don’t feel Indian at all why would a Nishapuri/Uzbek/Afghan 300 years ago feel any loyalty to ‘Indians’, they were obviously here for the land and living the good life, they were no Rana Pratap or Shivaji.

  7. Very nice post! Indeed, there are many interesting things to be learned by studying history.

    I think the caricature that invaders are horse riding barbarians destroying cities has been made popular because historians want to extrapolate the fall of Roman empire narrative to most historical events. Just look at the increased interest in the fall of roman empire post 2016. While there are some specific instances where such a templates does fit to a good extent, like the expansion of Huns and Mongols, rise of Islam, and the Spanish conquest of Americas, it is not always the case. Thanks for the nice post.

  8. Interesting counterfactual would be had Bajirao (who waited in Malwa on repeated advice of Shahu, Chimaji and other Maratha generals (and famously his mother) ) gone up to the North to assist Mughal armies. But the Maratha army was not very large – though Bajirao’s name/tactics still would’ve carried some weight in what happened in Delhi.

    1. Maratha artillery was outdated and Bajirao too would have been routed by a clearly superior general. More importantly people like the Nawab would have had another reason to justify their betrayal of Mughals and Delhi.

      Bajirao’s advisors and his sovereign lord gave good advice.

      1. yes. Marathas didn’t have the numbers as well on there own. But things don’t necessarily work on the sheer basis of numbers or weaponry. The Khilji raid on South (esp Devgiri) being examples. Sometimes even if armies r reasonably matched the raid of Delhi could’ve been avoided with compromise. A lot of treaties are testimony to that.

        I meant in the assistance of Mughals. as there was already a deal between Marathas and Mughals (with Nizam)

      2. The Marathas need not “help out” considering this were not their lands which was being invaded. Communities who cant help themselves should be left to their fate . The folks whose own lands were being invaded coolly stood by the side.

        The Marathas helped later in Punjab and tried to liberate Bengal. In both the regions u know as much as i do what’s the reputation of Marathas. Surely the same would have happened in this case as well. First “help out” and then be branded invaders of your own lands.

  9. The downfall of the Mughal empire was due to Aurangzeb. Not because he overspent and over-extended the empire (although that didn’t help) but because he feared his potential successors would also overthrow him like he did to his own father. Therefore he did not allow them to earn the experience necessary to run an empire by taking important military and administrative posts as he did.

    The point about non-natives lacking patriotism is noted but did this even exist in India before nationalism and the desire for independence became a political force in the 20th century? There was no shortage of high-ranking native Hindu Indians who were happy to serve as generals and administrators for the Mughals and marry off their daughters to them. Even arch-Muslim Aurangzeb boosted Hindu Rajput participation in the government to unprecedented levels. Elites have their own agenda which does not necessarily encompass concern for their countrymen.

    1. “Elites have their own agenda which does not necessarily encompass concern for their countrymen.”

      We have this in the West also where the native elite rarely act in the best interests of their own group and instead view themselves more along class lines rather than ethnic/religious ones. In America you have all these “secret societies” like the Skull and Crossbones or Bohemian Grove, they basically serve as a totem pole around which the Western elites can rally around.
      At the end of the day, people are selfish and look after their own skin and that of their immediate family, true patriots are fairly hard to find amongst the more successful individuals.

    2. very true. Some Handwos were quite quick to turn into Haleems in the face of mighty Kebabs who tempted them with financial rewards

  10. “The reason the invasion was facilitated was because of high treason, which in turn was caused by the fact that much of the Mughal nobility was of foreign origin, and felt little patriotism towards India.

    Some 30 years ago, there was a debate in India around “Foreign origin” of Sonia Gandhi and whether this should bar her from public office and electoral politics. The debate settled in Sonia’s favor.”

    High treason it was, but ascribing it to foreign origin is misplaced. There are enough indigenous examples of treachery in Indian history. Even Maratha history is replete with political infighting and internecine warfare that the Nizam of Hyderabad and the EIC exploited.

    A very interesting blog that shed light on the superior leadership of Nadir Shah was dragged down by the last few paragraphs.

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