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Srimad Muhammad Ghori: orthodox maniac in West Asia, promoter of Sanskrit, Lakshmi coins in east

Govindaraja, son of Muhammad Ghori’s rival Prithviraj Chauhan, was appointed as the ruler of Ajmer. He accepted robes of honour from Ghori and sent him golden statues as tribute.

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Imagine a world where medieval Kashmiri kings invited Turk artisans to gild Shiva temples; a world where Ladakhi nobles admired and wore Turko-Persian textiles; a world where individuals like Muhammad of Ghor ruled as a maharajadhiraja with Indian, Afghan and Turk vassals, and issued gold coins marked with the goddess Lakshmi. It might seem a figment of the imagination, but a growing body of evidence reveals that this is what our history was really like. Far from the political caricature of “evil invaders” from Central Asia, the reality of how Sultanates came to be established in northern India is one that dazzles and excites with its subtle politics and multiculturalism.

Over the last two editions of Thinking Medieval, we’ve taken a deep dive into the crossroads of medieval Eurasia. We saw Muslim emirs wearing costumes like those of Deccan Shaivite kings. From the 7th century CE, we witnessed Kabul’s Hindu Turk rulers gradually replaced with Hindu Gandharans and then Muslim Turko-Persians—the Ghaznavids—by the late 10th century. The latter exchanged elephants, robes, and mercenaries with various kingdoms in northern India, warring with them just as they warred among each other. They issued coins with the name of the Prophet Muhammad in Sanskrit. By the mid-11th century, the vast North Indian and Turko-Persian cultural zones were interacting more intensely, translating ideas of royalty and rulership between each other, raiding and conquering when they could.

In 1149, something drastically altered this balance. Within the space of barely 50 years, an obscure tribal chiefdom in present-day Central Afghanistan—that of the Shansabanids of Ghor—erupted to global superstardom. They burned the glittering city of Ghazni, were acknowledged by the Caliph in Baghdad, and conquered half of Persia and northern India, briefly uniting them—for the first but not the last time—into a single transregional, multicultural imperial world. As we explore it, we will see once again that medieval South Asia always defies any attempt to reduce it to a comforting modern binary.

Also read: Muslim Coins with Shiva’s bull: The strange world of the Hindu Turk Shahs

Ghaznavids and Hindu temples

We often believe—thanks in part to British colonial historiography—that there were such things as a medieval “Muslim” world and a “Hindu” world, that rulers conceived of themselves in only religious terms, and that all their actions were driven by this.

Such ideas were based on the texts that these rulers commissioned, which describe their destruction of temples and idols in bombastic terms. Taken at face value, they are usually seen as evidence of a genocidal, iconoclastic mania. But politicians lie. And when they lie, we can only understand the reality of a situation by checking other sources of evidence, and verifying the facts on the ground.

One such example comes from a medieval shrine known today as the Kashmir Smast, situated in a natural limestone cave in Northwest Pakistan. Once called the Maha Guha (Great Cave), it featured a blue stone idol of Bhima Devi and attracted pilgrims from as far away as the Gangetic Plains and Afghanistan. The shrine had shops and facilities for pilgrims including a unique local currency made of base metal. Used only in the cave temple complex and its environs, these coins were marked with various Greek, Shaivite, Vaishnavite, and Iranian motifs, as well as portraits and inscriptions of rulers who controlled the region from the 3rd to the 12th century CE.

The area was conquered by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1019–1022: the same time that his Hindu-Turk armies were carrying out raids against heterodox Muslim shrines as well as major Hindu pilgrimage centres elsewhere in northern India. And yet there is no evidence that the Maha Guha pilgrimage centre was attacked or otherwise stopped functioning. As historian Waleed Ziad shows in “Islamic Coins” from a Hindu Temple, Ghaznavid authorities seem only to have requested that the names and titles of their rulers be added to the local currency as well. They circulated alongside coins bearing Vishnu’s feet, royal elephants, Nandi, and cavalrymen. Mahmud of Ghazni’s court-produced propaganda text wanted to impress pious audiences with overblown violence against those outside his kingdom. And yet his state acted with much more nuance in his own territory. In this aspect, he does not perhaps differ too much from modern politicians—or even from his South Asian contemporaries, including the Cholas and the kings of Kashmir.

Also read: Mahmud of Ghazni had Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka soldiers. History is not as simple as you think

Admiring the Turkic Sultans?

The Kashmir kingdom neighboured Ghaznavid territories for nearly a century. Far from reviling them, however, there is evidence that Kashmiri court culture was actually receptive to Turkic influences. In Book VII of the Rajatarangini, the 12th century Kashmiri chronicler Kalhana provides two examples of this. In verses 528–531, he mentions that the Kashmiri king Kalasha (r. 1063–1069) hired a Turkic goldsmith to create a golden cupola for his temple to Shiva Kaleshvara. And in verses 921–924, he describes how king Harsha (r. 1089–1101) introduced various Turkic modes of dress, including coats and hair-braids, which were, according to Kalhana, “dress which was fit for a king”.

The Royal Drinking Scene in the Dukhang at Alchi Monastery, depicting a king wearing a Turko-Persian robe and armband | Commons

It would be easy to dismiss this as an isolated incident, but for the fact that the Kashmiris were not the only people in the region with an inclination for Turkic costumes. The Dukhang monastery at Alchi in Ladakh, dating to somewhat after this time, depicts Buddhist nobles from West Tibet in its wall murals. These nobles are invariably shown wearing a Turkic coat, armband and boots, with the slight modification of an absent lapel on the coat. The painters of the mural probably came from Kashmir, suggesting that Harsha’s innovations were part of a larger elite fad. This reminds us of the emirs of Sind from a slightly earlier period, who wore earrings and tunics similar to those of the Rashtrakuta kings of the Deccan—a major cultural power whom they had close ties with. As historian Finbarr Barry Flood puts it in Objects of Translation, these are not merely examples of syncretism or tolerance. Rather, they are modes of image construction, wherein elites sought to depict themselves using whatever happened to be the most commonly accepted idea of what a ruler should look like “regardless of the ethnic or religious associations”.

Also read: How Cholas, Mings dominated Indian Ocean before INS Vikrant

Srimad Muhammad of Ghor

“Image construction” is a compelling way to think about historical evidence, because it allows us to appreciate medieval rulers on their own terms instead of ours. Instead of blandly stating “this was who a king was because his texts agree with our modern notions”, we can instead ask “this is who a king wanted his contemporaries to think he was, but why?” All of a sudden we are confronted not with a caricature of a person, but someone who is capable of fooling us, and our ancestors, from a thousand years away.

This applies to Mahmud of Ghazni’s pragmatic temple policy, of course, but it also applies to the 12th century Sultan Muhammad ibn Sam, known to us as Muhammad Ghori. From a world historical context, Ghori was Afghanistan’s equivalent of Alexander the Great (a title which he also claimed for himself). Within a few decades, he and his brother conquered much of eastern Iran and northern India, initiated the movement and interaction of ideas and people at unprecedented scale, and then completely vanished leaving behind a world irrevocably transformed.

In his own time, Ghori claimed a host of titles which seem to suggest that he was, indeed, a murderous orthodox maniac, such as “victor over the unbelievers and the heretics, suppressor of heresy and the seditious”. But why did he want his contemporaries to think that? Ghori was a product of a brief renaissance of the Sunni Muslim world, marked by the defeat of the European Crusaders in West Asia by the Egyptian Sultan Saladin; the rise of the Khwarezmian Empire in Central Asia; and the meteoric ascent of his own Ghurid clan from a chiefdom to an empire. For these parvenus to claim parity and prestige within such a world required symbolic and financial wealth, both of which Indian kingdoms (and heterodox Muslim sects) could provide (after some degree of violence). Thus the title, which was geared towards audiences to his West.

Lakshmi coin of Muhammad of Ghor, inscribed with “Sri Mahamada Vin Sam” in Nagari script | British Museum | IOC.657

And yet, in the east, in his Indian territories, Ghori presented himself in a very different way. There is little mention of “victory over the unbelievers”. Instead his coins are stripped of all the bombastic titles, replaced with simple Sanskrit titles in Nagari script: Srimad Hammir Mahamad Sam (Emir Muhammad ibn Sam, who is possessed of Fortune). The goddess Lakshmi appears on them, just as she did in those of earlier Shaivite and Vaishnavite dynasties. And his empire-building reminds us of those of earlier South Asian kings: rather than conquer and erase kingdoms, he preferred to reinstate the sons or relatives of defeated rulers as his vassals. Indeed, Govindaraja, son of Ghori’s celebrated rival Prithiviraja Chahamana III (Prithviraj Chauhan), was appointed as the ruler of Ajmer after the Second Battle of Tarain in 1192. He accepted robes of honour from Ghori in 1194–1195, and sent him golden statues as tribute. Such public acts were intended to depict Muhammad as a South Asian king with practices similar to those of the South Asian ruling classes, and thus to make his overlordship more acceptable to them.

None of these activities—Ghori’s coins, Harsha’s robes, Ghaznavi’s temples—should be seen as a historical justification for modern religious (in)tolerance, or a dismissal of the violence that such rulers could and did inflict. It merely shows us that medieval politicians, like modern politicians, could (as Flood puts it) speak out of both sides of their mouth at once, and that we should be far less credulous while reading them. Whether Hindu or Muslim, royals expanded and ruled through violence that was experienced the same way by commoners. These rulers were intelligent and pragmatic, and could wear many faces. They are compelling and unique to us, but there is no need to see them as modern role models.

Having seen the interactions and conquests of the 12th century from the Central Asian perspective, the next edition of Thinking Medieval will flip the script and see how South Asian rulers perceived these aggressions—and question whether they are really the “Hindu” role models that nationalist historians have made them out to be.

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 Prashant)

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