Centuries before Mahmud of Ghazni, the Shahs of Kabul had been one of the great powers of present-day Afghanistan. From the 7th to 10th centuries CE, they warred with Arabs and Afghans and allied with Kashmiris and the Khotanese. Their name might conjure up images of staunchly Islamic rulers, but in reality, the Kabul Shahs confound our binary expectations of the medieval world. Most Kabul Shahs were Buddhist or “Hindu” and descended from ethnic groups based in present-day Pakistan and portions of Central Asia. They coexisted with elephant-riding Multani emirs and Sindi Arabs who wore earrings inspired by Deccan Shaivite and Jain kings.
The last edition of Thinking Medieval explored this world in a slightly later period (the late 10th and early 11th centuries) through the unexpected cosmopolitanism of Mahmud of Ghazni, the Turk who conducted jihads against Hindu and Muslim alike, commanding armies of South and Central Asians. But Mahmud’s activities, as we’ll see, were not particularly out of place in the multicultural world of medieval Afghanistan—one of the great crossroads of Eurasia.
Also read: Mahmud of Ghazni had Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka soldiers. History is not as simple as you think
Fluid royal identities in Kabul
In the 6th century CE, an earthquake devastated the region of Gandhara, in present-day northwest Pakistan. Once the seat of the Hephthalites, Kushans, Indo-Parthians and Indo-Greeks, it had been the gateway through which the peoples of Central Asia entered the subcontinent. It was also a major centre of Buddhism and trade, frequented by pilgrims from as far away as China. Not the “frontier” of the subcontinent, Gandhara was, in fact, integral to major developments of the culture we now think of as Indian. It was here that the earliest known courtly Sanskrit text, the Buddhacharita of Ashvaghosha, was composed. Professor Richard Mann of Carleton University has also shown that the iconography of Hindu gods such as Skanda reached its recognisable form in Gandhara before spreading through the rest of the subcontinent.
Networks of exchange adapted in response to the collapse of Gandhara. Flows of people and goods now moved through the cities of Kabul and Ghazni in Afghanistan, entering the subcontinent through the southern portions of the Hindu Kush mountains. Simultaneously, groups of Turkic language speakers conquered the region, adapting to its existing religious culture. Known today as the Turk Shahis or Kabul Shahis, the rulers worshipped both Buddhist and “Hindu” gods popular in the region. They ruled over a cosmopolitan society and were responsible for commissioning remarkable works of art, such as a marble statue of the god Surya, depicted as a Turk wearing a long robe and boots.
The Kabul Shahis—and other local chiefs—had a complex relationship with the growing power of the Abbasid Caliphate in neighbouring Iran. On occasion, when sufficiently impressed with Abbasid power, these rulers might “convert” to Islam and adopt elements of Persian culture (while still using Sanskrit in their coins). Buddhist or Hindu rulers arranged marriage alliances with local Muslim chiefs against external threats, as noted by Deborah Klimburg-Salter in The Kingdom of Bamiyan. But identities and modes of worship were fluid: In her 2009 paper Corridors of Communication Across Afghanistan, 7th to 10th Centuries, Klimburg-Salter notes that many cities in the period had communities that coexisted and shared practices, sacred sites, and pilgrimage networks.
Historian Finbarr Barry Flood provides an interesting example of the porosity of boundaries in Objects of Translation, mentioning a merchant who worshipped idols when in Afghanistan (then the frontier of the Islamic world) but reverted to visiting mosques when he returned to Iraq. Merchants like this man, moving between frontiers and identities, were crucial to the prosperity of the Kabul Shahis, whose kingdom grew to encompass parts of present-day Punjab, undertaking alliances with rulers in Kashmir and Xinjiang.
Fluid royal identities could be found throughout the frontier of South Asia and West Asia. Flood further discusses the cases of the Muslim emirs of Multan and Sind, both of whom adopted elite cultural practices from Shaivites and Jains. The emir of Multan visited the congregational mosque of the town in a weekly elephant-back procession, just like a maharaja might. The emir of Sind, a close trading partner of the Rashtrakuta empire of the Deccan, wore earrings and sported long hair like South Asian royalty. And yet they seem to have considered themselves very much Muslim.
Also read: ‘Historic hurt’ is a modern phrase. Muslims were integral to South Indian gods
Not a uniformly Hindu or Muslim region
By the 9th century CE, other Turkic groups from Central Asia, especially the Oghuz Turks, began to play a role in the affairs of West Asia. They were the primary source for military slaves serving in the Abbasid Caliphate, but the Caliphate’s authority in Iran nevertheless declined through the 10th century. It was replaced with aggressive Persian princedoms such as those of the Saffarids and Samanids, who had considerable demand for such soldiers in their battles against each other and local tribal chiefs, often Buddhists. The wealth collected from such activities helped gradually consolidate a new Turko-Persian cultural complex in this frontier region. Mahmud of Ghazni, a century later, was a product of this world.
Around this time, the Turkic Shahis were overthrown by a dynasty popularly called the “Hindu” Shahis and today imagined as some sort of “Indians”. In reality, according to historian Abdur Rehman, they were probably a now-vanished ethnic group called the Odis, a Gandharan group native to present-day Pakistan. These Odi Shahis were one of the dominant powers of the Kabul region, participating actively in the geopolitical entanglements of the northwest frontier of the subcontinent, battling and intermarrying with local chiefs and kings, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim. The famous Kashmiri queen Didda was of Odi Shahi descent. Their coins, renowned for high silver content and marked with a horseman on one side and a recumbent Nandi on the other, spread through much of eastern Eurasia.
The 9th century saw major clashes between the Odi Shahis and the Saffarid emirate, which eventually culminated in the loss of Kabul to the Saffarids. Seeking to legitimise themselves, the Saffarids sent large quantities of looted idols to the Abbasid capital in Baghdad—while still issuing Shahi-style silver coinage with the minor addition of an Arabic word or two. Rather than see these actions merely as Islamic iconoclasm or appropriation, we must interpret them as the actions of a self-interested multicultural elite with little incentive to impose homogeneity.
Klimburg-Salter notes that there is no archaeological evidence of rapid conversion to Islam in the aftermath of Kabul’s conquest. Instead, the cosmopolitan city continued to be contested by the Shahis, Saffarids and Samanids—all multicultural local polities—until they were wiped out by Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century. Their world of Indianised Hindu and Buddhist Turks would not return, as Afghanistan now became firmly Turko-Persian.
Rather than simplistic narratives of “Islamic invasions” of a uniformly Hindu region, the reality of the medieval world is one of fluid, complex interactions between many simultaneously-evolving cultural zones. As we’ll see in the next edition of Thinking Medieval, these seismic shifts in Afghanistan poised Northern India for even stranger interactions in the 12th century: Kashmiri kings with Turkish wives, Turkish maharajadhirajas with golden Lakshmi coins, and more.
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)