10 of the most brutal invasions and massacres inflicted upon medieval India

Wow- that’s specific. Won’t even talk about the Brits- they were Johnny Come-Lately.

Writing this essay has been inevitable since I began doing research on medieval India for my book- You can find the tab for Liam, Maj and the Star Fishes where you found this.

(Added note: The commentary I received from the r/India subreddit before they took down the post was “everyone talks as though there were no invasions before bin Qasim when there were….” etc. That is a valid criticism of the state of historical knowledge. However, I state at the offset that it’s a really specific topic and that the reason is because of the research I did for my book. For the record, India has been basically a highway for invaders for thousands of years, notably the Persians and Greeks in near antiquity. 10/1/2021 rs)

Just delving into the period I found it rich with brutal, catastrophic invasions and massacres that were often not carried out to capture territory but were explicitly about slaughtering people, enslaving survivors and taking their treasure.

Lately, watching the fall of Afghanistan following the American retreat, I kept hearing about Ghazni as an important city now in the hands of the Taliban. I knew about it from my research: Mahmud of Ghazni was possibly the most successful looter of the medieval period.

Ghazni today

(I want to note that the city of Ghazni was ancient when Islam arrived. In 644 AD a Buddhist monk on pilgrimage from China mentioned stopping there when it was a monastic center and library. It had enjoyed a tolerant, multi-religious society for a long time.)

From the late 9th century much of what is now Afghanistan was firmly in the hands of Muslim invaders who then proceeded to spend a century fighting among themselves before finally using Ghazni to try to fulfill an Islamic dream- destroy Hinduism and take it’s treasures.

In truth, the 17 invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni could have provided an easy 10 best by themselves and you could make a case for that being correct but there were different kinds of significance that I felt needed inclusion.

By going beyond the atrocities of Mahmud, you can see the longer history that sapped the Hindu nations over hundreds of years leaving the invaders an open door to occupy one of the richest regions of the world. The most amazing thing is that it is still such a thoroughly Hindu country.

Keep in mind that all of the surviving accounts come from the invaders themselves who may have had reason to inflate the numbers. Still, there is enough evidence to show that the level of treasure and loss of life was staggering.

In chronological order, not by historical importance:

10- Muhammed bin Qasim

“The men say they’re looking forward to the invasion, sir.”

As the first, Muhammed bin Qasim’s conquest of the Sindh in the 8th century needs a mention. He certainly started the trend. He looted and leveled many temples, slaughtered or enslaved many non-combatants. In the end, though, what sets him apart is that he was aiming to occupy the rich Sindh on behalf of his Caliph. He was driven by religious fervor to spread Islam but had no real personal greed.

He didn’t even try to kill all the infidels and didn’t destroy all the temples. He extracted as much as he could and then used Hindu advisors to rule in a relatively tolerant way. He is considered the first Pakistani.

One of the reasons he was successful in overcoming local resistance was that the very large merchant class of Buddhists were convinced by bin Qasim to look the other way. (That grudge didn’t get worked out until the Hindus turned the other way as Muslim armies destroyed Buddhism in India and burned Nalanda to the ground. Hinduism collectively yelled “Karma’s a bitch, ass-hats!” at the fleeing Indian Buddhists who went on themselves to transform and establish Tibetan Buddhism.)

Another reason for his success was that Islam offered a really good alternative to many in the lower castes of Hindu society. Conversions swelled the ranks of his armies as they defeated the Hindu kings of the region one by one. In the end he established a base that, with a couple hundred years of consolidating could be used to get into India proper.

In a cruel twist, bin Qasim died the victim of a malicious per-internet social-media-like prank at the hands of his patron, having made his Caliph the richest man in Islam.

He sent the daughters of the defeated Hindu king to the Caliph along with literally tons of gold and gems. The Caliph made the girls his personal servants and they complained to him that bin Qasim had raped and deflowered them before sending them. The Caliph was so mad he ordered his loyal servant to be seized and transported at once. Bin Qasim was packed in a wooden box for the trip and apparently suffocated. When this news reached the Caliph the women gleefully revealed that they had made it up so that the man who murdered their country would be killed himself. Wracked by guilt and anger, the Caliph had them executed by being dragged through the streets by horses.

9- Mahmud’s first expedition- 1001 AD

Mahmud on his way to kick some infidel butt

Looting was not the point of this invasion, though invaders took and robbed the city of Peshawar. Muslim armies had been kept out of the bulk of India for over 200 years by the Hindu Shahis, the kingdoms of the Indian frontier. The most powerful of these, ruled by Jaipal, had defeated the invaders twice before. Mahmud of Ghazni wanted him out of the way and punished for his resistance.

They met on the battlefield and Jaipal’s previously impeccable strategies and intelligence failed him. His armies were over-run and he was captured along with a dozen or so rich and powerful relatives. The bodies of 15,000 of his soldiers had been laid in rows on the battlefield to drive home the defeat. This was a decisive point in what became hundreds of years of purely destructive invasions.

Mahmud paraded Jaipal in the slave markets of of what is now Afghanistan along with what credibly could have been 50,000 other Hindu prisoners. Jaipal is said to have been driven to despair by the circumstances. He committed suicide by self-immolation.

A huge ransom was paid by Jaipal’s remaining family for the other royal hostages even though Jaipal was dead. Ghazni was becoming a shining star in the firmament of Islamic Holy War. The city was about to become rich, to become for a time a center of scholarship and wealth. The Hindu Shahis, frontier guardians of the heartland, could be defeated.

8- Mahmud of Ghazni’s sixth expedition

The death of Jaipal left his son, Anandpal, as ruler of Kabul, the gateway to India. A rare level of cooperation among the clannish rulers of the Punjab was uniting the opposition to Mahmud’s forces in the face of his repeated attacks and Anandpal was the beneficiary of increased support. Women were said to have sold their jewels to offer money to help the war effort.

Anandpal’s forces included tens of thousands of well prepared armed infantry, another 10,000 cavalry and 50 war elephants when they met those of Mahmud. The armies met on opposite sides of the Indus River, facing each other for 40 days. The Muslims were outnumbered. Mahmud had his archers send volleys of arrows across the river at the Hindus to try and provoke a break in their lines with little effect. After over a month without advance, it looked like he was going to fail when a stray arrow hit Anandpal’s war elephant causing it to panic and kill many of his own army. Portions of the Hindu army, seeing this confusing scene at a distance, thought the king was retreating and began to run from the field. Mahmud’s army took the advantage and they broke the resistance and they surged ahead. Anandpal surrendered, signed a treaty with Mahmud paying him “a king’s ransom” to spare his life and watched his enemy’s soldiers go on to despoil the kingdom.

The Holy Warriors of Ghazni poured into the Hindu kingdoms. Everyone who did not surrender was killed. Everyone who wasn’t killed was given the opportunity to convert to Islam and was killed if they did not. Women would be raped and enslaved. Children and strong men could be raped and enslaved if they did not convert. The number killed was probably around 50,000 with an even greater number going to the slave markets and to Mahmud’s soldiers for their personal use.

This win gave Mahmud his first taste of real wealth. While raping and killing the infidels they came upon a sacred temple near Nagarkot which held the riches of the Shahis. From its vaults alone they brought home 700,000 gold coins, 26,000 kg of gold ingots, 75 kg of precious gems and 10,000 kg of gold melted down from idols. They kept meticulous records.

There was no attempt to hold territory. He returned to Ghazni.

It was such a vast collection of riches that it exceeded the treasures of the wealthiest kings. Mahmud made a point of displaying his wealth to everyone- he loved their expressions of astonishment. He brought the best artists, philosophers and scholars to Ghazni. He began to try and figure out how to get more and he planned many more expeditions deep into Hindu territory to loot and level their rich temples. He wanted to be the biggest “idol-breaker” since Muhammed and if he could also be the richest man in the world, that’s okay, too.

7- Mahmud’s 9th expedition

Mahmud became fabulously wealthy and loved showing off his loot

In 1012-1013 Mahmud set his sights on the holy city of Thaneshwar and it’s temple. The kingdoms of Anandpal and his allies were ravaged and incapable of resisting. For Mahmud it was a cakewalk. He encountered no resistance on his way and shortly after his arrival the holy city of the Hindus was an abject waste of decay, debris and rotting corpses.

Not having had to deal with armies or soldiers resisting them, the forces of Mahmud put all they encountered to the sword if they did not immediately convert to Islam. The historian Mahmud brought to record the expedition said, “The blood of the infidels flowed, washed the roads and turned the stream red. Fifty thousand were cut down on the first day in Thaneshwar.”

The loot and killing were extraordinary but the real take from this expedition was slaves. Reliable accounts state that 2,00,000 Indian slaves crashed the marketplace. Even poor Muslims could afford Indian slaves. All of Ghazni’s soldiers had their own slaves. Captives who had been wealthy were often offered as slaves to petty shopkeepers. People came from all over to purchase cheap Indian slaves. Ghazni was high rolling.

6- The 12th expedition of Mahmud of Ghazni

In 1018 or so Mahmud set out to attack the wealthy city of Kannauj. Such was the terror he inspired in the smaller kingdoms he encountered on the way that many surrendered without a fight and converted to Islam to avoid execution. King Kulchand refused to let the armies of Mahmud pass through their territory and lost an estimated 50,000 soldiers before the king and his wife killed themselves to avoid capture, leaving Mahmud unfettered access to the realms of the Gurjara Empire.

The king of Mathura having resisted and losing so bitterly brought Mahmud’s attention to the pilgrimage city of Mathura, sacred to Krishna, god of the heathens. The opportunity to desecrate such a place and smash its idols was impossible to resist, not to mention the treasures sure to be there.

After eliminating issues with the remaining population through execution or conversion, Mahmud’s forces took some time to pry the gems from the idols, melt all the gold from the shrines. That being accomplished, the temples were “burned with naphtha and leveled with the ground”, in the words of one of Mahmud’s historians.

This 12th expedition lasted 2 years as Mahmud wanted to try and pillage more than one major city. He accomplished this when he sacked Kannauj, the capital of the Gurjara Dynasty for hundreds of years.

The king of the Gurjara Empire, Rajpal, had fled the fight when Mahmud showed up on his doorstep. Mahmud captured him and got him to convert for his life and he was appointed governor of the territory.

In this one expedition his armies destroyed up to 10,000 temples. The amount of loot included tons of gold, silver and gems. When he concluded this incursion, Mahmud returned to Ghazni with a reported 200,000 new slaves.

Idols or people, when in doubt, cut off their heads

An unknown number of civilians were put to the sword. Besides leveling the city it was Mahmud’s pleasure to leave an enormous pyramid of human heads as the highest remaining structure.

And Rajpal? He was assassinated at the orders of his own vassal states for his cowardice.

5- Mahmud of Ghazni’s 15th expedition, the plunder of Somnath

He had been hearing for years about the opulence and riches of Somnath along with the boasting of it’s rulers that because the city was sacred to Shiva, its pious inhabitants were protected from Mahmud and his hordes. When he arrived the residents gathered on their rooftops to see the invaders defeated.

The Hindu army was vanquished in a three day battle leaving 50,000 dead. Mahmud then faced literally thousands of priests who tried to defend the temples but were not well armed- they were killed in hours.

The Great Temple to Shiva was plundered of tons of gold and gems. The idols were destroyed, the stones of the temple brought down and thrown in the river. Some pieces of the temple were taken back to Ghazni and incorporated into the foundation of a mosque.

The wealth he brought back from Somnath truly brought him fame and influence. He spent it to cement his place in the Muslem world. Three fifths of the treasure went to his soldiers- he had split with his men this way from the beginning. He then sent half of his share to the Caliph of Basra as a gift. He was incredibly famous and many flocked to his city, perhaps the richest in the Muslem world at the time.

The destruction of Somnath is considered to be the pinnacle of the jihad “temple bashing” expeditions.

He never held all this territory at once- he was a raider

4- The Invasions of Muhammed Ghori

In the late 12th century Ghori spent a couple decades invading India every few years. He took on the strongest of the remaining Hindu kingdoms that were not already vassals of his empire. His aim was to consolidate Islamic control over the area from what is now Afghanistan to the whole of northern India.

In those situations where he felt he needed to make an example he was ruthless. When he entered the rebuilt city of Somnath historians say the entire population of 50,000 was put to the sword. He followed the same playbook as Mahmud but did not level all the temples after looting them. His win percentage on the battlefield was roughly 50% but he was tenacious. He secured treaties where possible, generally driven by terror.

Under Ghori, the Islamic empire took hold firmly in northern India.

Fun fact: the Pakistani military has named it’s 3 nuclear armed ballistic missiles after Ghori.

Mohammad Ghori rocked the ‘stache

3- The final destruction of Indian Buddhism

Once northern India had been brought fully under Islamic control, a Sh’ia general named Muhammed bin Bhaktiyar Khalji showed up looking for a job. The then sultan of India, al-Din Aibak, turned him down because he was short. The same thing had happened to him in Ghazni. But Khalji had a ferocious temperament and unbridled ambition so he eventually found a job in charge of the region of Mirzapur.

He used this base to begin raiding the Hindu kingdoms to the east, the west being already under the control of the Delhi Sultanate. He acquired the horses and men he needed to launch guerrilla attacks and as he had success he brought in more.

He spent years looting the small neighboring provinces, enlarging his army and perfecting his plans. Finally he believed he had enough of an army he could conquer the eastern region and he set out.

Khalji hated those damn Buddhists

As much as he hated the Hindu infidels, Khalji was even more offended by the Buddhists. Yes, the Hindus had too many gods but the Buddhists claimed to not even need one. And they all appeared to worship an idol of a man. Still stinging from what they felt was a betrayal by the Buddhists in Afghanistan, the Hindus looked the other way as Khalji killed every Buddhist he found and then burned the ancient Buddhist university at Nalanda.

He killed plenty of Hindus, too, as he swept through the northeast provinces all the way to what is now Bangladesh. He fancied himself a holy warrior in the mold of Mahmud. But Hindus survived and his destruction of Buddhism in the region was essentially complete. The few survivors escaped into Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet.

The Library of Nalanda was said to be 9 stories tall and filled with the complete works of Buddhist scholarship. It took 3 days to burn completely.

One of the results of this campaign is that Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan monastic libraries today are the last remaining vestiges of the University at Nalanda.

2- Sikander the Idol-Breaker, Butcher of Kashmir

Sikander wasn’t an invader. He came from a long line of Kashmiri royalty.

At the beginning of the 14th century, Kashmir was still controlled by Hindu and Buddhist kings. One Turkic army under Zulcha Khan conducted an extensive raid with an army of 70,000 Ghazni zealots in 1320 and massacred thousands, taking loot and slaves but on their return trip they were caught in a storm in a mountain pass and all were said to have perished. The region was decimated with temples and infrastructure badly damaged and in the wave of the raid descended into anarchy. During this period one of the royal houses converted to Islam and over the next generation, with more conversions, Kashmir became as thoroughly dominated by Islam as the provinces of the Delhi Sultanate without any large scale invasions after Zulcha.

Under a relatively mild system, Hindus paid a tax that was not paid by Muslims but the rulers were not initially anti-Hindu and most were not bothered by it. The level of tolerance made some more conservative elements fume but the situation continued for years. The converted eventually came under the influence of a fanatic Sufi named Hamadani and his son. In particular, Sikander, the hereditary prince of his kingdom, fell for the preaching of the junior Hamadani.

He declared that every Hindu in Kashmir was to be given the option of conversion or death. Initially the lower caste people gladly converted- they would be free of the social oppression under Hindu society. Sikander made these his generals and administrators. The majority of the remaining population was eventually convinced to convert by the certainty of death as the only other option. While some fled, most remaining were the priestly class, the Brahmans or Pandits. Those who did not get away were burned alive at Rainawari in a place now still called Bhatta Mazar- “the graveyard of the Pandits”.

The next several years in Kashmir included an almost competitive zeal to out-do the previous massacre or temple destruction by the newly converted who wanted to show what good Muslims they were.

For Hindus of the region it was the end of the world.

Sikander is not well remembered by Hindu historians

1- Timur of the Mongols

The Mongols invaded India several times and had some success in Kashmir and even further south. At the end of the 14th century, their final invasion came from Timur. It would be run of the mill, cut and dried except that one of Timur’s descendants was Babur and he would go one to found the Mughal Empire and have his family run India for hundreds of years.

Hero of Uzbekistan and father of the Mughal Empire

I read a lot of Wikipedia articles preparing this. I also bought several books including History of India by Captivating History, History of Medieval India by Satish Chandra and most especially, Swift Horses and Sharp Swords by Amit Agarwal. The last one is especially recommended, I get no kickback from any of them.

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