From a Chandella king of Khajuraho wearing Mahmud of Ghazni’s robes to Muhammad Ghori’s Lakshmi coins, the reality of medieval Turks—at the frontiers of both the Persianate and Indic worlds—is far more complex than any modern political binary would have us believe. After all, perhaps the most pervasive idea about Indian history is that it was constantly subject to brutish invasions from West and Central Asia, which were valiantly resisted by “Hindu” kings until “Muslim” invaders eventually succeeded in breaking through and establishing the Delhi Sultanate in the 12th century. From VD Savarkar and RC Majumdar to recent Bollywood films and TV news anchors, this telling of history has been received as gospel and is considered a justification for discriminating against Indian Muslims today.
Of course, just because something is endlessly repeated about the medieval world doesn’t automatically make it true. Even if we were to accept this simplistic Hindu king-Muslim invader binary as a means to interpret our past, “Hindu” kings could and did conquer and raid outside the subcontinent and Muslims along India’s coast arrived there peacefully and were a major reason for its trade dominance in the Indian Ocean. But so far, this column hasn’t really touched upon the question of invasions from Central Asia. Exploring this strange medieval world reveals to us just how futile it is to project modern political biases onto a cosmopolitan past.
Mahmud of Ghazni’s Indian soldiers
Mahmud of Ghazni was the son of one Sabuktigin, who was a Turk slave-soldier working for the Persian princedoms of this diverse, violent region. Having pried the city of Ghazni away from the “Hindu” Shahis (in reality, a group from present-day Pakistan that we’ll revisit in a future column), the father-son duo sought to build a kingdom of their own on the frontiers of the moribund Abbasid Caliphate.
Expansion in all directions was Mahmud’s primary policy: As much as his “jihad” against the “Hindu” Shahis is remembered, he was also responsible for destroying the Saffarid Emirate of Iran. He was the first ruler to declare himself a sovereign Sultan—a sovereign independent of the Caliph. As others began to follow his lead, it would, over time, lead to the complete marginalisation of the Caliphate. He also conquered and despoiled the Ismaili town of Multan in 1005–1006, as well as several other Muslim towns in present-day Afghanistan, which were conveniently declared as heretical in order to justify his “religious” war.
It is certainly possible (and likely) that Mahmud’s expansionism was not separate from his religious beliefs. But religion is not the only lens we should look at medieval rulers—to do so would be to continue in the footsteps of ham-fisted British divide-and-rule tactics. In reality, Mahmud lived at the crossroads of Eurasia at a time when Turko-Persian identity was consolidating, and he made use of cultures and peoples from across this landmass to advance his interests. For example, he had a particular love for Asian elephants and used them much like an “Indian” king would, parading around on them in Ghazni and deploying them with drums and trumpets to intimidate Central Asian rivals such as the Kara Khanids, as depicted in the feature image of this article.
Historian S Jabir Raza writes in Hindus Under the Ghaznavids that the second-largest ethnic/cultural grouping 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 being 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 around this time, suggesting that military labour markets in the subcontinent were expanding in geographical scope.) South Asian infantry, cavalry and elephantry are recorded fighting 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 officials with high ranks in Mahmud’s court. They could be just as brutal as anyone working for the Ghaznavid army: In Sistan in 1003, they sacked a mosque and a church, and massacred both Muslims and Christians.
Between violent kings and peaceful ones
In 1024, Mahmud of Ghazni led a campaign in Bundelkhand, ostensibly to punish the Chandella dynasty of Khajuraho for attacking the king of Kannauj, his vassal. Both armies entered a stalemate at the Kalinjar fort: The Chandellas could not beat Mahmud, but he didn’t succeed in taking the fort either. And so, according to a number of medieval chroniclers such as Ibn al-Athir, Ibn Zafir, and Sibt ibn al-Jawzi, both sides negotiated. In return for a hefty tribute, the Chandella king Vidyadhara was granted one of Mahmud’s robes and belts—it symbolised a sharing of royal substance and an acceptance that Mahmud was his overlord. This reminds us of a dynamic from elsewhere in India: The coronation of defeated kings by conquerors upon the agreement of a tribute.
Historian Finbarr Barry Flood argues in Objects of Translation that the gifting of robes was clearly Mahmud’s attempt at translating elite cultural practices to build new, heterogenous political networks. The underlying violence of raids and conquests remained the same, but the ruling class of 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 1027–28 coin with the legend ‘Avyaktameka muhammada avatara nripati mahamuda (the Invisible is One, [Prophet] Muhammad is the Avatar, Mahmud the king)’.
So where does this leave us as far as the “Islamic invasions” of India are concerned? The ‘Hindu vs Muslim’ binary is as simplistic as the ‘bad conquering Turk vs good syncretic Sufi’ binary that our politics have been reduced to. There is no need to fit these tiresome mental gymnastics to people who lived a thousand years ago and who were responding to their own now-vanished political circumstances. A violent king is just as capable of acts of cultural accommodation as a ‘peaceful’ one, and neither is a model to follow in a modern democratic nation-state.
At the end of the day, the arrival of Turkic warlords and troops in Northwest India was a multicultural and multi-ethnic process, involving flows of peoples and ideas in both directions between two cultural zones. These zones were more distinct and the exchanges larger in scale than earlier centuries, but they were not fundamentally unique in character. Interactions were more about 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 much more about us than they do 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 a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval‘ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)