Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Battle of Khajwa

Another event associated with the history of the eastern regions is the battle between the usurping Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and his elder brother Shuja, who was viceroy of Bengal. It showcased the tactical use of elephants in war in such a late period—the battle was fought on January 5, 1659.

Aurangzeb had defeated his eldest brother Dara, and his allies, at the Battle of Dharmat and the Battle of Samugarh. He had forced his father Shah Jahan to surrender the capital city of Agra to him and had then put him in confinement—at Delhi Aurangzeb even sat on the throne as Emperor though his father was then still alive. His younger brother and former ally Murad was tricked into imprisonment and executed a few years later. With such a record of filial affection the letter Aurangzeb wrote to Shuja was dripping with hypocrisy, “Like a true brother I shall not refuse you anything you desire, be it land or money.”

Military resources


Shuja took his brother’s words at their true worth and began preparations to fight him. Although earlier even he had crowned himself as an independent king and had also tried to seize Delhi from Dara[1], now he told his officers, “I shall…secure the person of Shah Jahan and restore the old government. And then I shall stay at court as my father’s obedient servant.” He was hopeful of securing the services of the men still loyal to his father on the way to Agra—at Rohtas, Chunar, and Allahabad many soldiers of Dara joined his army. At Varanasi Shuja extorted 300,000 Rupees from the merchants of that rich city—he now had a respectable force of 25,000 cavalry, 114 cannons of all sizes with the infantry to protect them, and the famous naval flotilla of Bengal that sailed up river to Benares.

Aurangzeb had heard of Shuja’s movement from his spies and he rushed down from Punjab joined by subordinate Rajas and imperial officers along the way—Mir Jumla force-marched his army all the way from the Deccan to come to his master’s aid. The usurping Emperor had a huge army of 90,000 cavalry, the bulk of the imperial artillery, and a sum of 10 million Rupees drawn from the Agra treasury. The two armies faced off on level ground near the village of Khajwa in the Fatehpur district[2].

The night before the battle all was quiet in the two camps—but strangely the right wing of Aurangzeb’s army was fully armed and mounted. The commander of this wing was Maharaja Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur who had earlier fought against Aurangzeb in the Battle of Dharmat, but had then joined his side after Dara abandoned his father and escaped to the Punjab. Aurangzeb too was keen to have this large Hindu Kingdom on his side while his position on the throne was still unstable. But Jaswant was not happy with Aurangzeb’s usurpation of the throne nor did he see a happy future for his Rajputs in the bigoted prince’s service.

At Dharmat Jaswant had told his soldiers that he did not engage in treachery or fight with subterfuge—after suffering a bloody defeat in that battle he seemed to have changed his mind. The Rajput king sent a message to Shuja that he would attack Aurangzeb’s camp in the rear and lure him away from the front, leaving behind a disorganized army that Shuja could easily defeat. Just after midnight, when Aurangzeb was engaged in prayers, over 10,000 Rajput cavalry turned around from its position and charged the Mughal camp in the rear. They slaughtered the guards and pulled down the tents, carrying away horses, camels, baggage, and large amounts of money. The tumult in the camp spread to the army, groups of soldiers joined in the plunder or deserted to Shuja, and the entire frontline was in a shambles.

As the plunder-laden Jaswant Singh took the road to Agra, Shuja did not stir from his own camp—no one from his side even ventured to take advantage of the chaos in Aurangzeb’s army. The Mughal prince had received Jaswant’s message and heard the rumble of his charging cavalry at the promised hour, but Aurangzeb’s reputation for deceit and treachery led him to believe that it was his own brother’s scheme to draw Shuja out within range of his artillery! So Shuja did not budge from the safety of his tent——Aurangzeb took advantage of his brother’s indecision to restore confidence in his men, saying to them, “If the infidel (Jaswant) had played traitor in the midst of battle, all would have been lost. His flight is good for us.”

But when day broke the conditions were not so positive—Jaswant had effectively wiped out half the Mughal army as only 50,000 cavalry could be assembled around Aurangzeb. It was still a two to one superiority but now at least the 25,000 of Shuja had some chance of winning the battle. To neutralize the superior numbers of the enemy Shuja did not match his brother division for division, each spread out some distance from the other, but drew his entire army into a single line. His aim was to stake it all on one general attack across the entire front.

The battle



As pointed out earlier the use of elephants in war had begun thousands of years ago in these very eastern regions. But over the centuries, and particularly with the Turk invasions, their role in battle had undergone several changes. The Turks relied primarily on cavalry and archery to defeat their opponents—hence they used elephants in smaller numbers than the older Hindu Kingdoms. These mountainous beasts were placed in the front and sent to initiate the attack—the gaps created by their charge would enable the main Turk cavalry to ride through and cut up the rest of the enemy force. Alternatively they would be used to deter an enemy advance while the cavalry engaged in maneuvers hidden behind them.

Under the Mughals though this role was taken up by the artillery—elephants were now used as mounts by royalty and by army commanders, to get a bird’s eye view of the battle-field, and to be visible to their soldiers at all times. There were very few war-elephants and in fact the total number of elephants used even as mounts had been less than a dozen in all the campaigns of the Mughals.

At Khajwa Shuja sprung a nasty surprise on Aurangzeb by revealing three elephants trained for war, each driven by an experienced mahout and each carrying a huge iron chain in its trunk[3]. These three were placed on the right of his army and behind the artillery, which was dueling with the opposing artillery at long range. When finally the two armies drew closer Shuja ordered a charge along his entire front—the left portion of his army under his son Buland Akhtar shook the opposing right wing of Aurangzeb. A Mughal officer named Islam Khan had taken Jaswant’s place in that wing—while he was rallying his men to stand fast against the enemy, his own elephant was hit by a rocket. Since this was not a war-elephant, it took fright and fled away.
war elephant from Kota

But the greatest damage to Aurangzeb was done by Shuja’s war-elephants. Followed closely by the cavalry the three elephants threw aside the enemy soldiers and horses as they swung the heavy iron chains in their trunks. The entire left wing of the usurping Emperor broke down and fled before their charge—their shots, arrows, and lances had only succeeded in further goading the infuriated war-elephants[4]. Two of the elephants swerved away to the right but one attacked Aurangzeb in the center—one of his matchlockmen shot down the enemy mahout. His officers on their own elephants surrounded the rampaging beast while one of their mahouts jumped on its back and finally brought it under control.

By this time Aurangzeb’s reserves had come up to his rescue and succeeded in repelling the enemy cavalry that followed in the wake of the charging elephants. He now advanced to shore up his damaged right wing and here again the greater numbers finally broke the enemy’s steady advance and pushed them back. All this while his artillery under European gunners had kept its place in the field through all the charges and counter-charges—they concentrated their fire on Shuja’s men in the center. On his officers pleading Shuja stepped down from his elephant to escape being hit by the accurate firing of the Europeans—but this very move alarmed the remainder of the army, which saw the empty howdah and took him to be dead, and promptly ran away from the lost field.

With the rest of his army Shuja fled behind them until he reached the safety of his flotilla in Benares. Even though he managed to escape, there was no rest for the Mughal prince since his dear brother deputed Mir Jumla to hunt him down through the waterways of Bengal——a chase that ended finally with his death in faraway Arakan.

[1] Shuja was defeated by Raja Jai Singh at the Battle of Bahadurpur.
[2] In modern Uttar Pradesh.
[3] In other instances war-elephants were trained to wield long swords with their trunks.
[4] On the basis of superficial evidence it has been held that a few pricks of spears or arrows would frighten elephants who would then flee while trampling their own soldiers. But this battle shows that war-elephants were trained to disregard such pin-pricks, while the wounds of cannonballs only maddened them with anger. Moreover all elephants, even the simple mounts, were coated with armor that protected them from arrows and lances. In the case of Islam Khan’s mount it was a direct rocket hit that forced the beast to turn away—something that a war-elephant would never do.

source: History of Aurangzeb, Sir Jadunath Sarkar.
First painting is a Deccani miniature from the Nasli M. Heermaneck collections.
Second painting is a Rajput miniature from Kota.

Read More......

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Assam and the naval wars

The Turk invaders attacked Assam (as they also did Orissa) in 1205 CE, within a few years of invading Bengal. Although the lone Muslim text that describes the early history of the eastern regions, attributes Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji’s march into Assam as an invasion of Tibet[1]! The warriors of Kamarup destroyed a stone bridge behind the invading army and broke its communication and supply line. Khalji with a few close followers jumped in the river and made their way back with difficulty—the rest of his army was destroyed by the Hindus. The rivers and rains of Assam would more than once prove to be the greatest protectors of the land from future invasions.

The great rivers of North India rise from the snows and glaciers of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau to pour their water on the Indo-Gangetic plain. One such river though continues flowing in Tibet, parallel to the Himalayas, and crosses them far in the east where it flows into Assam—this river is the Brahmaputra. The river flows west and joins the Gangetic delta where the plains of Bengal meet the plains of Assam. On the south the Brahmaputra valley is protected by hill ranges inhabited by Nagas, Cacharis, Khasis, Garos, and other local tribes.

The Turks of Bengal led repeated, but unsuccessful, raids into Assam until the major invasion of 1257 under Yuzbak. The Raja of Kamarup withdrew his forces from his capital and offered to pay tribute but the Muslims occupied Guwahati and declared their own rule over Kamarup. A few weeks later the Raja cut the embankments of the upstream rivers and flooded the plains—destroying the standing crops and breaking the invader’s supply lines. The Turks withdrew towards Bengal but were bottled up by the Kamarup forces and the local tribes in the hills of modern Meghalaya, where they were taken prisoner.

After this splendid victory the Kamarup Kingdom went into decline and was replaced by the Kingdom of Kamata, which possessed lands up to the Karatoya River in modern Bangladesh. Eastern Kamarup was divided into small landholdings under the local Bhuya chieftains. This Kingdom of Kamata continued the conflict with the Bengal Sultans, in the south, and the Ahom Kingdom, in the east. It came under the Khen tribe in the 15th Century and expanded up to Sylhet in the east—Hussain Shah of Bengal defeated the third Khen King Nilambara, and annexed the Kingdom of Kamata. The town of Hajo in Assam became the headquarters of the invaders—several local people were converted to Islam and Bengali Muslim immigrants were also settled around that town.

The Ahoms – concurrent with the first Turk invasion in western Assam, a new kingdom was established in eastern Assam by a prince of the Ahom tribe from upper Myanmar. The Ahoms were a branch of the Thai race that had established the ancient kingdom of Gandhara in South-East Asia—from ancient times they had been under the influence of the Vedic civilization. In a later period, when Buddhism became popular in eastern India, the kingdoms of this adjoining region also saw the spread of this new religion—Indian influence was supreme in South-East Asia till the 14th Century.

The Thai Kings bore the title of Maharaja and claimed descent from the dynasty of Ashok Maurya. Their Kingdom of Gandhara[2] was victorious over China and their ambitious princes had formed small kingdoms in Siam and upper Myanmar—in 1253 CE the Mongol Kublai Khan destroyed Gandhara and pushed out the Thais south into Siam (later called Thai-land). Branches of the Thais like the Shans and Ahoms also went west (into upper Myanmar) and north (into Assam) respectively.

The Ahoms[3] absorbed several local tribes in upper Assam and came into conflict with the Chutiyas of the upper Brahmaputra valley and the Cacharis of southern Assam—their initial battles with the Kingdom of Kamata were concluded with peace treaties and a matrimonial alliance. The secluded Kingdom of Manipur retained independence, as did Tripura[4] and the tribes of Meghalaya and Mizoram. The Naga tribes inhabiting the hilly regions remained a thorn in the side of the Ahoms for a very long time.

Just as their Thai ancestors had imbibed first the Vedic civilization and later the Buddhist teachings, the Ahoms now came under the influence of the Vaishnav religion then popular in Assam—this process was hastened by the royal marriages with the Kamata and Cachari families. Socially the Ahoms were organized into the fluid caste system of the Vedic era and their entire population could be called upon to perform military service—the Ahom nobility had titles like Barua, Gohain, and Phukan. From their time in South-East Asia the Ahoms had become experts in plying boats and building bamboo bridges and forts—their main army comprised of infantry with the nobles riding elephants.

With their new base of Hajo, the Sultans of Bengal came into direct contact with the Ahom Kingdom—in 1527 Sultan Nusrat sent an army to invade the Ahom Kingdom. The Ahom King Swarg Narayan repulsed the invaders and his men captured forty horses and some cannon from them—two years later they assumed the offensive against the Muslims but did not gain any major victory. Such to and fro battles continued for the next five years, by which time Sultan Nusrat was assassinated and the Bengal Sultanate was convulsed by internal troubles. The local Muslim governor of Hajo continued the war against the Ahoms but was finally crushed in 1533 and the entire land up to the Karatoya River in Bengal came under the Ahoms.

In a land of dense undergrowth and innumerable rivers and ravines, the Muslim cavalry was ineffective, and after all these centuries the Ahoms had adapted to the use of cavalry themselves. In this campaign they had also captured some cannon from the invaders and learnt to use it in their own wars—in particular against the Naga tribes in 1535-36.

The most extraordinary fact of all these battles though is that they were naval clashes on the Brahmaputra and its many tributaries!

Naval wars

The rivers in Bengal carry a huge volume of water and have a gentle pace—they meander on in loops, break up into channels, form junctions with other rivers, and leave behind estuaries, lakes, and marshy lowlands in their wake. It was impossible for trade and transport to move efficiently without boats—it was equally impossible for an army to march through the land without the aid of ferries, bridges, or boats. From ancient times it had been the practice of the local kings to maintain a flotilla of boats—this practice was also adopted by the Turk invaders[5].

Their fleet of ships was called the nawwara and it was used for three purposes:
1) As a defence against their Turk overlords of Delhi,
2) To fight coastal wars against the Rajas of Arakan[6] (western Myanmar),
3) To invade Assam along the Brahmaputra River.

The best illustration of the first was the invasion of Bengal by Sultan Firuz Tughluq in the middle of the 14th Century. His crossing of the Kosi River was blocked by the Bengal nawwara[7] that patrolled the rivers and defended every crossing point—at last Firuz marched north and took the aid of a local Raja in crossing the shallow river at the foothills. The Bengal ruler fled to the island-fortress of Ekdala, which was built of clay and lay between two looping rivers. Firuz made two efforts to take this fort but failed each time since he did not have any naval capability.

After their first fierce encounter with the Ahoms the Bengal Sultans were convulsed by internal conflicts and foreign conquest by the Mughals—in this time the situation in Assam had changed appreciably. Between 1540 and 1584 the Koch tribe took advantage of the disturbed conditions to seize the old Kingdom of Kamata and the Muslim territories in eastern Assam—they even forced the Ahoms to pay them tribute. While the Mughal conquest of Bengal was being completed, there was an internal quarrel in the Koch ruling family, which led to the break-up of the kingdom into two. The Koch ruler Lakshmi Narayan took the aid of the Mughal governor of Dacca to defeat his rival—the lands of the latter were annexed by the Mughals and were called Koch Hajo since they were in eastern Assam. The lands of Lakshmi Narayan on the other hand, lay near Bihar, and his kingdom was now called Koch Bihar[8].

The Ahoms gave refuge to a prince of Koch Hajo and the Mughals continued the war with the new enemy, which ended with the recognition of the Bar Nadi as their boundary. In the long war of succession fought by Aurangzeb and his brothers to gain the Mughal throne in the middle of the 17th Century, the government of Bengal under his brother Shuja fell into disarray. The Koch and the Ahoms took full advantage of the changed conditions.

The Koch ruler Pran Narayan sent an army to occupy Hajo while from the east the Ahom ruler Jayadhwaj advanced into Mughal Kamrup—crushed between two invaders the Mughal governor fled from Guwahati in his boats. Pran Narayan sought friendship and an equal division of the Mughal territory with the Ahoms but Jayadhwaj refused and pushed the Koch army out of Assam. By this time (1660) Aurangzeb had defeated Shuja and had appointed the Persian adventurer Mir Jumla[9] as his viceroy of Bengal.

Mir Jumla took 12,000 cavalry, 30,000 infantry, and a fleet of 323 ships and boats up river towards Koch Bihar—the naval contingent comprised Portuguese, English, and Dutch sailors. Faced with these overwhelming odds Pran Narayan left his capital and fled to Bhutan, his soldiers and people following in his wake. Koch Bihar was now occupied and renamed Alamgir-nagar while the Muslim azaan was cried out from the roof of its palace—the main temple was demolished and a mosque was ordered to be constructed in its stead. Mir Jumla himself broke the murti of the God Narayan with an axe[10].

After a few days stay in the city, Mir Jumla sailed up the Brahmaputra on 4th January 1662 to oust the Ahoms from Hajo and Guwahati. The army marched along the south bank of the river and defeated the Ahom formations along the way while the ships bombarded every bamboo stockade and fort built along the banks. Against this force the Ahoms fled into the mountains while their subordinate rulers, the Rajas of Darrang and Dimarau, joined the victorious Mughals—even the Ahom navy was defeated on 3rd March and 300 of its boats were captured by the Mughals. The Mughal nawwara sent detachments up the many tributaries of the Brahmaputra while the land army captured the Ahom capital Garhgaon on 17th March.

But the Ahoms had not been routed. Their skill in jungle warfare, familiarity with every stretch of forest or knot of hills, and ability to attack in complete darkness, soon gave them the upper hand. Their dispersed infantry units and elephant forces would make hit and run attacks on the Mughal posts and then combine together whenever the Mughals came out in the open—this is today called ‘loose formation fighting’. But another ally now came to their aid.

While Russia has its General Winter whose bitter cold defeats enemies that attempt to occupy that country; Assam has its General Rain. From the month of May in the words of the Mughal historian, “The rain fell from the sky and water swelled up from the ground; the flood spread over the encampment. The tents looked like bubbles on the surface of water; the horsemen sat all night on their chargers and the infantry stood in water.”

Garhgaon was built on the River Dhiku, which is joined to the Brahmaputra by the River Dihing—unlike the other rivers the Dhiku was too shallow for the Mughal ships and Mir Jumla was now trapped in Garhgaon. The Ahoms began recapturing their posts and stockades along the rivers and had full command of the countryside—Raja Jayadhwaj appointed the Baduli Phukan as prime minister and commander-in-chief of the army. All nobles, subordinate kings, and soldiers were ordered to obey him. The Baduli Phukan made several attacks on Garhgaon and burnt down its bamboo wall and many houses—Mir Jumla thereafter had a mud wall built to deter further attacks. The Mughals lost their horses, draught animals, and many soldiers to famine—in this period the Raja of Koch Bihar recovered his capital and expelled the occupying Mughals.

In the meantime the Mughal nawwara under Ibn Hussain kept up the communication with Dacca and protected the forts along the banks of the Brahmaputra. When the rains finally ceased Mir Jumla built a bridge over the Dhiku and resumed the offensive, receiving fresh supplies from the naval fleet. The Mughal cavalry and artillery could operate freely on the dry ground and the entire force advanced eastwards—on the 30th November the Baduli Phukan came over to the Mughals with 3000 men. Practically the entire kingdom was occupied by Mir Jumla.

But a severe epidemic was raging in the land and both sides suffered from it—Mir Jumla himself contracted a raging fever. The desertions were growing on the Ahom side and at last Raja Jayadhwaj proposed peace[11]. The Mughals annexed the land up to the Bharali River and Mir Jumla retreated to Dacca by boat, dying on the way from high fever.

Later developments

Disputes over the payment of tribute and the grasping nature of the Mughal commander at Guwahati broke down the peace a few years later. The new ruler Raja Chakradhwaj appointed Lachit Barphukan as his commander-in-chief and constructed several forts and posts along the river in preparation for the war. The Ahom navy and army moved in tandem and after capturing several Mughal posts along the way, assaulted Guwahati from all sides in November 1667. The Mughal commander was captured and many of his soldiers were massacred—Chakradhwaj did not repeat the mistake of his predecessor and wisely established friendly relations with the neighboring ruler of Koch Bihar.

At this time the Mughal Subahdar of Bengal and his naval fleet had been employed in fighting against the Raja of Arakan and the firengi pirates of Chittagong. So Aurangzeb appointed Raja Ram Singh to recover the Mughal possessions in Assam—unlike Mir Jumla the Raja was not made viceroy and had no control over the local forces in Bengal. His army was surprisingly small, comprising 4000 Rajput cavalry of his own Kachhawa clan, with 1500 Mughal cavalry and 500 artillerymen supplied by Aurangzeb—it was speculated that he had been sent to Assam as a punishment for his having helped the Maratha King Shivaji in escaping from the Mughal capital Agra[12].

At Patna Ram Singh took the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur[13] along with him and also hired 15,000 archers from Koch Bihar, whose real military value and loyalty was minimal. The Mughal officer on the Assam border was secretly in league with the Ahoms and Raja Ram Singh first defeated him before leading the invasion. Unlike Mir Jumla the Rajput king was provided only 40 ships for this operation, which began in February 1669.

To everyone’s surprise Raja Ram Singh was initially successful and captured the lands up to the frontier of Bar Nadi—but he was deluded by the organized Ahom withdrawal. The Ahoms regrouped and began their loose formation fighting while the river town of Guwahati still held out under Lachit. Ram Singh fell back to Hajo while Assam’s ‘General Rain’ again came down to torment the invaders. A surprise attack on Darrang through the southern hills was defeated and negotiations were opened for restoring the old border.

At this time Raja Chakradhwaj became suspicious of Lachit Barphukan and exhorted him to take the fight to the enemy. Attacking from the land the Ahoms were defeated by the Rajput cavalry and the Mughal artillery. Chakradhwaj died in 1670 and Ram Singh threw his small navy to oust the demoralized Ahoms from Guwahati—though suffering from a severe fever Lachit Barphukan led the Ahoms to victory in this Battle of Saraighat before his own death. The negotiations between the two sides failed and indecisive fighting continued for a few months—Ram Singh though did not receive any compensation for his material losses from the Mughal Emperor and he retired back to the border in March 1671.

For by this time the Mughal Empire was involved in continual warfare that would take it down to a dismal end. Beginning with the rebellion of the Afghan tribes (from 1667-77), to the Rajput war from 1679-81 that drained all the empire's resources, and which in turn became linked with the southern wars against the Marathas and the Deccan Sultanates. These southern wars lasted a quarter century and ended with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and the break-up of his empire.

Unfortunately the Ahoms too were suffering from internal dissensions through this period and could not take full advantage of the Mughal weakness—the internal conditions worsened to such an extent that the Barphukan ruling Guwahati went over to the Mughals in 1679. Finally in 1681 Raja Gadadhar Singha restored order in his kingdom and ousted the Mughal force in that town. The wars of expansion ceased in the tottering empire and the Monas River now became the boundary with the province of Bengal.

[1] The Tabaqat-i-Nasiri of Minhaj-ud-din claims that this medieval army crossed the dense jungles and rivers of the lower Himalayas and the towering snow-clad mountains of the upper Himalayas in only sixteen days! The description of Tibet in that work is also very vague and it is erroneously believed to be inhabited by Turks.
[2] The Chinese called this kingdom Nan-chao, which had defeated the Tang dynasty in the 9th Century. Another Thai kingdom was Annam, which was more under the influence of the Chinese civilization.
[3] The provincial name Assam is an anglicized form of Asom, which in turn is derived from Ahom.
[4] The Bengal Sultans made several attempts to conquer the hilly kingdom of Tripura—on one occasion the Tripura general Rai Chaichag broke the dam on the River Gumti and swept away the invading army.
[5] They also had Afghans, Arab Sayyids, and Abyssinians among them in later periods. The last two were more familiar with the use of ships than the land-based Turks and Afghans.
[6] The conflict with the Rajas of Arakan was over the region of Chittagong, which changed hands frequently between the two sides. In the wars the Arakan forces would ply their boats along the coast and upstream through the mouths of the Gangetic delta to attack cities and villages in Bengal. In the Mughal period they also employed the Portuguese pirates to boost their own capabilities—the Mughals could capture Chittagong only after they had bribed the Portuguese pirates to their own side in 1666.
[7] The Nawarra had big ships called ghurab, faster attack vessels called jalia and row boats called kosas…smaller huri boats were attached to the bigger ships and were used for landing men on shore. Besides these there were also merchant vessels for carrying supplies and provisions.
[8] This kingdom survived till the British Raj and was then called the princely state of Cooch Behar.
[9] Mir Jumla had an interesting career. He came to South India and took service with the Sultan of Golconda; in the Sultan’s jehad against the Hindus of Carnatic, Mir Jumla accumulated much treasure in jewels and gold taken from the desecrated temples. Shah Jahan recruited him into his administration and during the Mughal war of succession Mir Jumla was on Aurangzeb’s side.
[10] Unlike the age of Akbar there was little toleration under Aurangzeb for the indigenous Hindu states or the Hindu religion. There were several other instances of attacks on small states and the demolition of temples. And even while making peace proposals, Aurangzeb would insert the condition of the rulers converting to Islam—this was never done under Akbar.
[11] His daughter was sent to Mir Jumla to be eventually married to the Emperor's son; the Baduli Phukan became a Mughal officer and his family was sent to him; a war indemnity in gold and silver was to be paid by the Ahoms and subsequently an annual tribute of 20 elephants.
[12] Ram Singh’s father Jai Singh had defeated and made peace with Shivaji and had sent him to the Mughal court. The Maratha King hoped to be appointed the Mughal viceroy of the south, instead he was imprisoned. Some Brahmins in Ram Singh’s employment helped him to escape and the prince was thus deprived of his rank and was banished from court. On the death of his father, Ram Singh became the head of the Kachhawa clan and ruler of Amber (later called Jaipur) and was again restored to all his ranks and privileges.
[13] Assam had a reputation for being the home of witchcraft and magic spells and Ram Singh probably realized the need for some spiritual strength on his own side to counter these. Read More......

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bihar, Nepal, and Orissa

At the time that Bihar and Bengal were under the Palas (8th Century CE), both Nepal and Orissa were split into numerous states. The Tibetan rulers had attacked Nepal in the same period when Dharmapala led his armies to that country—the Tibetan records speak of conflict with the Pala rulers. Though the details are not available, ultimately Tibetan influence was removed from Nepal.

Just before the Turk invasion, the land of Bihar was contested between the Gahadvals and the Senas—Jaichandra Gahadval attempted to expand further into the east but was repulsed by Lakshmansena sometime in 1192. Two years later Jaichandra died fighting against the Turk invaders—in 1202 the same invaders, based in Jaichandra’s kingdom, conquered portions of Bihar and Bengal from the Senas.

At that time Bihar was split into a few large states that paid tribute to the Senas—these were Mithila, Jayapura, Pithi, and Japila. Of these only Mithila survived well into the 16th Century, although smaller Hindu principalities continued in Bihar down to the Mughal and British conquests. This accounts for the dominant Hindu population—in the areas under direct Muslim rule conversions were done of prisoners of war and civilians brought from the neighboring Hindu states. Unlike other parts of India, there is little in either Muslim literature or Hindu inscriptions to describe the early history of the invaders and their local opponents.

The following reasons can account for the differing fates of Bihar and Bengal and the existence of a large Hindu population in the former:

1) The Turks targeted the wealthy Sena Kingdom and its flourishing towns and cities. The smaller states in Bihar were left alone as long as they submitted and paid tribute. The subsequent Turk wars with the Senas ended in the occupation of eastern Bengal and the conversion of its people to Islam—the Turk capital also shifted to the east. In Bihar the larger kingdoms were extinguished over time but their successor states were left alone on account of their modest wealth.

2) Bihar was the battleground between the Turks of Bengal and their overlords in Delhi. Armies from either side were guided and fed with supplies by the local chieftains in Bihar and West Bengal—when they provided such valuable services these states were mostly left alone. Moreover since direct control of Bihar by either side kept changing, the local people never came under one authority for any length of time.

3) All the main cities established by the invaders lay in eastern Bengal where a large immigrant population settled down. Bihar never became the center of any Muslim dynasty until briefly in the 16th Century when it saw the rise of the Afghan Sher Shah.

Nepal, unlike in the Pala period, had become united under the Gunakama and Malla dynasties. In the early 14th Century Harisimha of Mithila captured Nepal after losing his kingdom in the plains to the Turks. Mithila, located between the Kosi and Gandak Rivers as they fall into the mighty River Ganga, had kept its independence thus far by cooperating with the Turks or by paying them tribute. Its rulers are said to have helped Ala-ud-din in his war against the Rajputs of Ranthambore.

But when the Khaljis suffered losses in Rajputana and the death of Ala created internal conflict, Harisimha took full advantage of the conditions to raid the Turk lands in Bihar and Awadh. Consequently Ghiyas-ud-din Tughluq, the new Sultan of Delhi, invaded and annexed Mithila forcing Harisimha into Nepal. The later Sultan Firuz Tughluq, in his invasion of Bengal, created a new king in Mithila from a member of Harisimha’s family. These rulers became tributary to the Sharqi Sultans of Jaunpur and survived in the cross conflicts between the Lodis of Delhi and the Bengal Sultans. Ultimately though, after the Lodis had fallen to the Mughal invader Babur, Mithila was finally annexed by Nusrat Shah of Bengal in the 16th Century.

Harisimha’s descendants ruled Nepal[1] for over a century. Members of the same family divided the land into the four principalities of Bhatgaon, Banipa, Kathmandu, and Patan—conflicts between these continued till the rise of the Gorkha Kingdom in 1768.

Under the Ganga dynasty Orissa became a large kingdom, coinciding with the Islamic invasion of Bihar and Bengal. This large kingdom inspired the greed and vandalism of the Turks who began sending expeditions from 1205—these were largely unsuccessful. In 1243 Narasimha Ganga of Orissa sent his army to invade Bengal but the Turks mustered their forces and the Orissan army retreated to their own frontier. They were chased by the Turks to the fort of Katasingh, surrounded by dense jungles and cane-bushes where the Hindus now lay concealed. While the invaders were besieging the fort the Orissan army emerged from the jungle and attacked from all sides—the routed Muslim army fled and the victorious Narasimha captured the entire West Bengal. The region was recaptured ten years later with assistance from the Turks of Delhi.

Orissa never possessed an indigenous breed of horses, nor is the land suited for raising horses. Like Bengal the hills and jungles of Orissa were teeming with elephants, which formed a large corps of the Orissa army supported by infantry and some imported horses. In the conflict of predominantly elephant forces with the cavalry and archery of the Turks, the local terrain of jungles and hills proved to be a boon for the Gangas and their successors the Gajpati Kings.

The pattern of the Islamic invasions over the next few centuries was the same—their armies would invade to break idols, loot coastal cities or border forts, and capture elephants. The Orissan forces would use the terrain to conceal their infantry and make surprise attacks when the Muslims were besieging forts or camping. Their broken forces would then be crushed by the regular charge of hordes of towering elephants.

Most of these invasions were from the south, the east, and the west, which allowed for the easiest approaches. But in the middle of the 14th Century Sultan Firuz Tughluq of Delhi, while returning from his invasion of Bengal, suddenly attacked Orissa from the north. He first invaded the state of Sikhar in Bihar, passed through intervening hills and forests and then attacked Mayurbhanj, after which he emerged into the coastal region. The Ganga King Bhanudeva III had no intelligence of this movement and was unable to muster his forces in time—he fled while Firuz plundered Cuttack, sacked Puri, and desecrated the temple of Jagannath. Large numbers of civilians who had taken shelter in an island at the Chilka Lake were slaughtered without compunction by the bigoted invader. Bhanudeva offered to pay tribute in the form of elephants and Firuz returned by the same path, his army suffering terribly when it lost its way in the thick jungles.

Orissa fought wars in the south (against Vijaynagar) and the west (against the Bahmani Sultans) while being also involved in conflicts with its feudatories. In the midst of these conflicts Hussain Shah of Bengal raided the kingdom in 1509 to desecrate temples and plunder the coastal cities—Prataprudra Gajapati hastily returned from his southern campaign and chased the invaders to the border fort of Mandaran. But the internal conflicts sapped the revenue of Orissa and began a process of disintegration, which was hastened by the brief Afghan occupation[2] and the Mughal conquest[3].

The Hindu states forming a major part of Orissa, and left independent by the Mughals, accounted for the large Hindu population. The few Muslim converts were found in the cities under direct Mughal rule. These states did not have the resources to raise or maintain large elephant forces and they did not have any cavalry—hence their armies were rustic levies of infantry and these did not count for much in the hierarchy of military power in the Mughal Empire.

[1] Sultan Ilyas Shah is said to have invaded Nepal in 1350 to destroy the Swayambhunath temple and plunder Kathmandu. But Nepali sources assert their victory over the invading Muslims.
[2] The Afghans had been convulsed by Babar’s invasion in 1526 and had taken shelter in Bihar, from where they usurped the Sultanate of Bengal. In the reign of Akbar these Pathan chiefs briefly occupied coastal Orissa.
[3] The Mughal conquest of the eastern regions was directed mostly against the Afghan usurpers and was successfully completed by Raja Man Singh. The Raja also unseated the Afghans from Orissa and promised independence to the Hindu states in the hilly regions—in the process contracting matrimonial alliances with these fellow Hindus. Read More......

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Eastern Regions




Like Punjab in the northwest, the region of Bengal in the east saw large-scale conversions to Islam[1]. The causes of the Punjab conversions have been discussed earlier…before discussing the causes in Bengal it is appropriate to study the politico-military background of Bengal.

The Palas

In the latter half of the 8th Century CE, while the Pratihars were rising to power in the west and the Rashtrakutas had emerged in the south, the family of Palas came to dominate the east. The first King Gopala was one of the many chieftains in the former kingdom of Gauda that had disintegrated a century ago. To end the prevailing anarchy, the chiefs and people of Bengal elected Gopala to be their sovereign in the light of his military and leadership abilities.

It was an event unique in the history of India and afforded a striking contrast to the rise of the other two contemporary powers—the Rashtrakutas usurped power from their Chalukya overlords while the Pratihars emerged as leaders of a confederacy of clans[2] that defeated the Arab invaders. And unlike the other two, the Palas[3] were devoted to Buddhism, which had first risen to prominence more than a thousand years earlier in this very region.

A running conflict between the Rashtrakutas and the Pratihars created a political vacuum in North India, which was temporarily filled by Dharmapala who led his forces up to the Punjab (in the west) and Nepal (in the north), and is said to have held a grand durbar at Kannauj. But these campaigns did not add any lands to the Pala dominions which remained around Radha (West Bengal), Vanga (East Bengal), Magadha (Bihar), and Gopala’s ancestral lands of Varendri (North Bengal). Dharmapala suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Pratihars in a battle fought at Monghyr, deep in his own dominions—but a Rashtrakuta invasion of the Pratihar lands again saved the Palas.

Devpala in the 9th Century repeated his father’s feat by leading an army into Punjab and further north into the lands of Kamboja (near the Indus). But no territory was gained in this campaign—even the neighboring kingdoms of Kamarupa (Assam) and Utkal (Orissa) were only compelled to render tribute. The two successors of Devapala were more religious-minded and in that period the Pratihars annexed both Magadha and Varendri while Kamarupa and Utkal also resumed independence.

To make matters worse feudatories of the Palas also carved out their own states like the Chandras of East Bengal and the Kambojas of Radha—the latter are believed to be descendants of the Kamboja officers and men that had joined the army of Devapala during his campaign in their country near the Indus. A small Pala state was all that was left of the former empire.

More than a century later in 988 CE this small state recovered some of its power under Mahipala. This was the age of the Ghaznavid invasions in the north and of the Chola expansion in the south—Rajendra Chola defeated several kings then ruling in Bengal and took the holy water of the River Ganga to purify his dominions. The later Palas did not reach the power of their forefathers and political unity to the eastern regions was provided by a new family, the Senas.

The Senas and the Sultans

These were feudatories of the Palas and had come from the south (Karnata-Kshatriyas) but became independent around 1050 CE. Vijaysena acquired complete control over Bengal and Bihar and fought with the neighboring kings of Kamarupa and Kannauj (the Gahadvals)—he also established a second capital at Navadwipa (Nadiya). The Sena rulers continued the tradition of tolerance and practiced Shaivism and Vaishnavism while also patronizing other religions. In 1178 Lakshmansena ascended the throne and completed the subjugation of the last Pala kings—interestingly he also fought against Jaichandra Gahadval[4] of Kannauj.

This period coincided with the invasion of Kannauj by Muhammad Ghori (1194)—one of his ambitious Turk officers, Muhammad Bakhtyar Khalji, was posted in the newly-conquered region of Awadh. From this base in 1200 CE he raided the Sena lands and gradually built up his wealth and recruited more soldiers—taking permission of Qutb-ud-din Aibak he invaded the town of Odantapuri, which had several Viharas (monasteries) that he destroyed and shaven-headed monks (Buddhists) whom he slaughtered. The region was henceforth given the name of Bihar (a corruption of Vihara). Within a year he entered the Sena capital Nadiya in the guise of a horse-merchant and cleared the way for the 10,000 Turk cavalry that had surreptitiously laid siege to the city.

Lakshmansena abandoned this capital and retreated to eastern Bengal where his descendants continued to resist the Turk incursions for another half century. By this time the Delhi Turks had become engrossed in the war against the numerous Rajput chieftains in the former kingdoms of Ajmer and Kannauj—from his new capital of Lakhnawati, Khalji and his men sought to establish an independent state but were defeated. Subsequent governors of the eastern regions were appointed by the Delhi Sultans but some founded their own dynasties and others were overthrown by their ministers—what was common between these dynasties was their desire for independence from the Delhi Sultanate.

In the continuing conflict with their overlords in Delhi, the Sultans of Bengal founded new cities further east like Satgaon (Hooghly district) and Sonargaon (Dacca district). They also annexed portions of Sylhet and Tripura and carried out attacks on other regions of the east with little success. The old feudatories of the Palas and Senas must have been part of the Sultanate administration because, in another unique event, one of them usurped power briefly from the Muslim ruler. Raja Ganesa, pronounced Kans in the Muslim records, continued the old administration of Bengal for seven years in the early 15th Century with the help of other Hindu and Muslim nobles[5].

Until the Mughal conquest though, the control of the Sultans remained firm only over the eastern plains of Bengal. But in this region the people were completely converted to Islam.

Cause of conversions

The large Muslim populations in Punjab and Bengal, as against the lesser proportions in the UP region, which was the center of Islamic power, have been the basis of heated debates from the 19th Century. Qazi Abdul Wadud, in his book The Mussalmans of Bengal, claimed that large numbers of foreign Muslims came to Bengal as soldiers and administrators and that the Pathans in a later age also colonized large areas in Bengal. In his view then the Bengali Muslims were of foreign origin—but the reason why many local Muslims claim foreign origin has been given in this earlier post.

The leftist view, voiced by Richard Eaton, is that ethnic groups only lightly exposed to “Brahmanical culture” converted to Islam. In the northwest it were the Pathans and the Baloch, in Punjab the Jat clans, and in Bengal it were the Rajbanshi, Koch, Pod, and Chandal communities. But this does not explain why the same Koch or Rajbansis remained true to their ancestral faith in Cooch Behar, Assam, Tripura? And in the case of Punjab why did the same Jat clans east of Lahore not convert to Islam?

In fact the conquest of the Shahi lands (in Punjab) was successfully completed and the conquest of the Sena lands (in Bengal) was also completed by the end of the 13th Century, major resistance ceased and the people were thus forcibly converted to Islam. By contrast the conquest of Ajmer and Kannauj remained unfinished for a long time—these two kingdoms and the adjoining regions formed the heartland of the Rajput resistance. The entire land was an arena of the “back and forth” battles—the Turks would capture a fort, then lose it to the Rajputs, capture it again, and lose it again[6]. Such contests were repeated in a hundred forts spread across the heart of North India. As has been shown in another post all resistance is linked together, and so in this region the resistance of villagers was far stronger than in Punjab or Bengal. For these reasons, even though the sword of Islam was active in this region, there were few conversions to Islam because that sword was not successful.

As has been shown in the case of Punjab, only the regions where Hindus were politically dominant and militarily strong did they remain true to their ancestral faith. Politically, eastern Bengal was completely conquered by the Turks but we need to see the reasons why the local warriors could not continue a military resistance? Or why the plains of Bengal had an entirely different history than the plains of Bihar?

Military developments

The renowned historian Jadunath Sarkar, a Bengali himself, wrote[7], “Bengal has no indigenous race capable of the long continued exertion, the ready submission to discipline, the concerted action in large bodies, and the cool and steady fighting that are required in resisting the hardier races of invaders.”

This was of course written for a later age because the Palas and the Senas had comparable military power with their contemporaries in other parts of India—what is interesting is the varying composition of this military power. In the Gwalior inscription describing their victory over the Palas, the Pratihars have recorded the Pala army as having dense masses of elephants, horses, and chariots. Chariots! The vehicle of war that had disappeared from most parts of the world was still being used by the rulers of eastern India.

The Arab merchant Sulaiman (850 CE) has recorded that the Pala kings were at continuous war with their neighbors and that they took 50,000 elephants in each campaign. By contrast the Pratihars are described by the same author as having the best cavalry in India augmented by elephants, camels, and infantry. The Arab writers describe the Rashtrakuta troops as mostly infantry but with units of elephants and cavalry—the latter being imported through the Arab merchants.

Horses have been bred in the relatively dry parts of western and northern India, which was the home of the Pratihars, but were never found in the humid regions of the east, the land of the Palas. That area has been the breeding ground of the best elephants found in India and quite naturally has been home to empires that fielded large squadrons of elephants, beginning with Magadha and the Mauryas. Before the elephants became important, the kingdoms in northern India had relied on chariots, and the eastern empires continued this reliance even though they had to import horses to pull these chariots.

So it isn’t surprising that the Palas a thousand years later had large elephant forces but it is puzzling why they continued using chariots when those horses could have been used to boost their limited cavalry. But this tradition of using chariots continued in the east—the later Palas in the 11th Century defeated the Varman kings of eastern Bengal and took from them chariots and elephants as booty. For this same reason the cavalry of the Sena kings was very deficient and proved to be their doom against the heavy cavalry and mobile archery of the Turk invaders.

By contrast the kingdoms of Ajmer and Kannauj had adequate cavalry, but they also had large contingents of elephants and infantry—these varying arms proved difficult to coordinate when faced by mobile archery and cavalry maneuvers. But their proficiency in cavalry allowed the Rajputs to continue the resistance from the innumerable forts and strongholds. This did not happen in the east.

The broken remnants of the Sena power continued to resist the Turks who had established their capital in Lakhnawati—in one such battle the Turks are said to have captured a few elephants from the Senas. Concurrent with foreign invasions the Sena Kingdom was also breaking from within, and the Deva dynasty that usurped power from them is said to have cooperated with Sultan Balban against the Turks of Lakhnawati. But they were ultimately defeated, their kingdom was annexed, and their people were converted to Islam.

Some Hindu principalities remained in the western portion of Bengal bordering Orissa and Jharkhand—this region had outcrops of hills covered with jungles. Their military power was inadequate because of the lack of cavalry—they did not even have the resources to maintain elephant forces and consequently their troops were mostly infantry. These principalities were of no consequence to the Bengal Sultans who fought mostly against outside independent powers like Orissa, Assam, Myanmar, and their own overlords of Delhi. But they were useful in guiding armies through the jungle roads, providing supplies to those armies, and in defending their own homes from invaders. Late in the 17th Century Shova Singh, the Zamindar of Chatwa-Barda in the Medinipur district plundered the lands of his neighbors and the Mughal territories before he was killed and his army defeated by the Mughal prince Azim-ush-shan.

So even when politically inconsequential, these principalities at least had minimal military strength to keep their own people free. For this reason people in the western areas of Bengal remained with their ancestral faith and traditions.

Under the Sultans the forts of the region, though built of mud or clay, were effective in design in repelling invaders. The Rajputs in upper India adapted to the improved construction of forts that had taken place in Muslim and Christian lands and built some magnificent forts of their own in this period, but the indigenous Bengalis in the east could not do the same. The Bengal Sultans also adapted to the use of naval flotillas in the numerous rivers, and in defensive wars against armies from upper India or in the invasions of Assam—these naval wars will be described later. The Turks in Bengal also adapted the use of elephants in their own armies as they had done earlier in Punjab and Delhi.

It remains to study the use of infantry. Jadunath Sarkar again wrote “the army of the Nawabs of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa…was filled entirely with Afghans and Hindu foot-musketeers of Buxar, with a sprinkling of Sayyids of Barha…and Bahelia musketeers from Awadh.” In other words the indigenous Bengalis did not form any part of the army of the Nawabs or of the British who succeeded them. On the other hand Hindus from Bihar and UP dominated both the Nawab’s and the British infantry—which again brings up the question of why the plains of Bihar were different from the plains of Bengal when both were under the same rulers?

[1] The eastern portion of Bengal and parts of Assam are today’s Islamic state of Bangladesh.
[2] The other clans were the Guhilots, Chauhans, Parmars, and Chaulukyas.
[3] The descendants of Gopala (cow-protector) turned the latter part of his name into a hereditary family surname. In the same way as the descendants of Chandra Gupta had made Gupta a hereditary surname in an earlier age.
[4] Jaichandra’s contemporary Prithviraj fought against the Muslims, the Chaulukyas of Gujarat, and the Chandellas of Kalinjar (in Madhya Pradesh state). In a later work, Jaichand and Prithviraj were considered enemies whose “infighting” caused their defeats against the Turk invaders!
[5] But the fact that he was not a Muslim was repugnant to a local Muslim saint, Nur Qutb-ul-Alam, who called on the neighboring Sultan of Jaunpur to invade Bengal and “save Islam”. Raja Ganesa met the saint who agreed to ward off the invasion only after Ganesa’s son converted to Islam and became Sultan Jalal-ud-din.
[6] In another version of these “back and forth” battles the Turks would fit out a large army and besiege a Rajput fort. Failing to conquer the fort they would impose tribute and march away, and immediately the Rajputs would stop payment of that tribute, forcing the Turks to again go through the same cycle with little hope of ultimate success.
[7] Fall of the Mughal Empire, Volume I. Read More......

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Kangra Fort and Mahmud Ghaznavi

After winning the Battle of Ohind in 1008 CE, Mahmud is said to have chased the army of Shahi Anandpal to the fort of Bhimnagar. After a siege of only three days the people in the fort opened the gates and surrendered to Mahmud—an incredible amount of wealth, from the Shahi treasury, was taken away to Ghazni. The Shahis later shifted their capital south to Nandan, in the Salt Range.

Bhimnagar was probably founded by Shahi Bhimdeva, the grandson of Kallar, and ancestor of Anandpal. Al-Utbi describes it as, “the fort called Bhimnagar, which is very strong, situated on the promontory of a lofty hill, in the midst of impassable waters.” Bhimnagar would have been located close to the capital Ohind since the army defeated at that latter place took shelter in this fort—Anandpal though did not stop to make a stand at that strong fort, suggesting that the garrison was either inadequate or had been pulled out to fight the Battle of Ohind.

Instead of chasing after him, Mahmud invested the fort, probably because it contained the Shahi treasury. Since the defences could not be prepared in time by the refugees from the battle, Bhimnagar surrendered within three days to the Turks. Mahmud left one of his officers to garrison the fort—subsequently the name Bhimnagar does not appear in any history, implying that the fort was renamed by the victors.

The historian Fersihta, writing in the 17th Century, suggested that Bhimnagar was actually Nagarkot—better known as Kangra Fort in Himachal Pradesh. His version was accepted by colonial historians since the geographical description of Bhimnagar is similar to Kangra, which is built on a hill on the confluence of the Manjhi and Banganga Rivers. However, since Kangra is located hundreds of miles from Ohind, a defeated army could not have outpaced the Turk cavalry for such a long distance to take shelter in that fort? And moreover, as is clear from the Rajatarangini and contemporary inscriptions, Kangra, Jammu, and Jalandhar were all independent of the Shahi Kingdom—it would be highly unlikely for the Shahi army to abandon all the forts of their own kingdom to take shelter in a fort of another kingdom.

Even if we assume that the Shahi army did not have any confidence in its own forts, or that its soldiers were unconcerned about the fate of their families and homes, why would they flee to such a faraway place like Kangra? When we have seen that after losing their second capital of Nandan the Shahi kings eventually sought refuge in nearby Kashmir rather than Kangra, which was too distant from their base.

Al-Beruni is a more reliable authority since he began writing only a few days after Mahmud’s death and had an opportunity of exploring all the newly conquered territory—it will be clear from his writing what places were under the direct control of the invaders. More importantly he actually uses the accurate name Nagarkot for the Kangra Fort. In his monumental work[1] on Indian religion, society, science, and geography, Al-Beruni mentions Nagarkot twice. First he describes some of the rivers of India, “The river Biyˆah[2] flows east of Multˆan, and joins afterwards the Biyatta[3] and Candarˆaha[4]. The river Irˆava[5] is joined by the river Kaj, which rises in Nagarkot in the mountains of Bhˆatul. Thereupon follows as the fifth, the river Shatladar[6].” This appears to be a mistake since the rivers rising in Nagarkot go on to join the Beas and not the Ravi River.

At another place he gives a more detailed description, “The Hindus had kings residing in Kabul, Turks who were said to be of Tibetan origin…Unfortunately the Hindus do not pay much attention to the historical order of things, they are very careless in relating the chronological succession of their kings… I have been told that the pedigree of this royal family, written on silk, exists in the fortress Nagarkot, and I much desired to make myself acquainted with it, but the thing was impossible for various reasons.”

Al-Beruni is talking of the pedigree (vanshavali) of the foreign rulers of Kabul and is castigating the Hindus for not maintaining the chronology of their rule—but he is told by them that this document, written on silk, is present in Nagarkot. Now if this fort had been conquered and garrisoned by the Turks under Mahmud, all articles would have been already carried away to Ghazni. More importantly Al-Beruni should have not found it “impossible” to travel to a place under direct Muslim control…as he states in his book only places under Hindu rule were closed to a mlechcha like him. Lastly Al-Beruni does not use the name Bhimnagar that had been used by Mahmud’s secretary Al-Utbi—that place seems to have declined in importance along with Ohind and Nandan.

At another place he mentions Jalandhar as an independent kingdom with its capital Dhamal (modern Dhameri) at the foot of the mountains—the implication is that Nagarkot, lying deeper in those same mountains was also independent. This also confirms the statements of the Rajatarangini and the contemporary Chamba inscriptions. And from Muslim texts it appears that Jalandhar, which was on the plains, was conquered by Ibrahim Ghaznavi more than half a century later.

Returning to Ferishta, he also states that Mahmud carried away the great idol of Nagarkot to Ghazni—and that in 1043 the Indian princes recovered Hansi, Thanesar, and Nagarkot from the Muslims and introduced an exact copy of the older idol at the last place. There seems to be some confusion in this statement since Mahmud did not take any idol from Nagarkot, but he definitely carried away the idol of Thanesar, which is also confirmed by Al-Beruni:

The city of Tˆaneshar is highly venerated by the Hindus. The idol of that place is called Cakrasvˆamin, i.e. the owner of the cakra, a weapon which we have already described. It is of bronze, and is nearly the size of a man. It is now lying in the hippodrome in Ghazna, together with the Lord of Somanˆath…”

Al-Beruni also mentions the other great idols of North India but that of Nagarkot is not in the list—it appears that Kangra was not so important as a place of pilgrimage at that time. While in the time when Ferishta wrote his history, Kangra (both the Goddesses Vrajeshwari and Jwalamukhi) had become one of the leading pilgrimage centers for North Indians. Thanesar on the other hand was then only a small town under direct Muslim rule and Ferishta naturally confused the ancient idol and pilgrimage center of Thanesar with the latter-day Kangra—and it is for this reason that he also substituted Bhimnagar with Nagarkot.

So from the military point of view, and from the evidence provided in Al-Beruni’s work, Bhimnagar must have been a Shahi fort located on a hill near the innumerable streams between the Indus and Jhelum or somewhere on the Salt Range. It is also clear that Kangra was not conquered by the invaders until 1621 when the Mughal Empire under Jahangir captured it after a siege of more than one year. In his Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri the Emperor remarks:

Kangra is an ancient fort to the north of Lahore…from the time that the voice of Islam and the sound of the established religion of Muhammad reached Hindustan, not one of the Sultans of lofty dignity has obtained victory over it.”

In Kangra itself there is no tradition of the fort ever being called “Bhimnagar”. The most popular names for the fort were Nagarkot, Kot Kangra, and Susarmapura[7], while the surrounding country was alternatively called Trigarta[8], Katoch[9], and Kangra. While the independence of the Kangra Rajas is evident from contemporary literature and inscriptions, their power really emerged with Raja Prithvi Chandra who issued coins for his people in the 14th Century, and which were continued down to the reign of Maharaja Sansar Chandra II in the 19th Century.

A 17th Century Lithograph of the Kangra Fort from the website run by the descendants of the Kangra Royal Family. The fort today is not so impressive since it suffered extensive damage in the 1905 Kangra earthquake...several bastions that had defied the might of invaders were brought crashing down.

[1] Available as a PDF file at http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/h_es/h_es_alberuni_frameset.htm.
[2] River Beas…the ancient Vipasha.
[3] River Jhelum…the ancient Vitasta.
[4] River Chenab…the ancient Chandrabhaga.
[5] River Ravi…the ancient Iravati.
[6] River Sutlej…the ancient Satadruh.
[7] Named after Susarma Chandra, one of the ancestors of the Kangra Rajas who fought in the Mahabharat War and is called the ruler of Trigarta.
[8] Suggested meaning is land of three (Tri) river valleys (garta). The adjoining region of Jalandhar was also part of Trigarta in ancient times but had become independent subsequently—or so it is assumed.
[9] The Katoch were the ruling Rajput clan of Kangra. Read More......

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Punjab conversions

That the Shahis changed their capitals from Kabul to Uddabhanda to Nandan has been shown above. However Trilochanpal is shown ruling briefly from Sarhind in the eastern region—between Sarhind and Lahore lay the Kingdom of Jalandhar whose princess Suryamati was married into the Kashmir royal family (circa 1028), as described in the Rajatarangini. Hence Jalandhar was independent from, or probably only tributary to, the Shahi monarchs. The independence of Durgar (Jammu), Trigart (Kangra), and Jalandhar is confirmed by the Rajatarangini and contemporary inscriptions found in Chamba. This is one reason why the east remained a Hindu majority land.

In fact Sarhind came into the Shahi hands because of Mahmud Ghaznavi—he had an alliance with Anandpal for about three years as show above. In this time Mahmud invaded Thanesar, lying to the other side of the River Sutlej, to destroy its main deity and to loot and slaughter its inhabitants. After the successful campaign the conquered territory would have been garrisoned by his Shahi allies since their kingdom was close to the region. When the alliance between the two was broken and the renewed wars with the Ghaznavids drove the Shahis from Nandan in 1013, they first went to refuge in Kashmir, and later to this eastern region. Mahmud was involved in other campaigns for the next five years—in this time the Shahis established a new kingdom at Sarhind, which was finally extinguished with the death of Trilochanpal in 1021.

So politically the Shahis had direct control over the northwest and central Punjab. The neighboring kingdoms were their allies while the eastern Punjab was the place of their final refuge. From the family chronicles of the Jammu Kings written in the 19th Century[1], the younger brother of one of their ancestors is said to have fought in the army of Anandpal Shahi in 1008. This is confirmed by the Muslim sources, which state that the various kingdoms of the region joined hands with the Shahis to fight the Islamic invaders. It is but certain that the inhabitants of the Salt Range, the Potohar plateau, and Peshawar[2] formed the army of Hindu Shahis and even of the earlier Shahi monarchs.

The fact that the minister Lalliya was able to take over his master’s kingdom without any rebellion breaking out suggests that the majority inhabitants of even the Kabul valley were Indians—had they been of the same race as their foreign monarch they would have fought to preserve his family’s rule against the usurping Indian. Under the Ghaznavids the inhabitants of this region remained true to their ancestral faith—until Mahmud led a campaign around the hills of Peshawar to slaughter or convert the local warriors.

These conversion campaigns seem to have occurred around the cities and towns and not deep in the countryside since the local chiefs are regarded to be Hindus in the chronicles of the later Ghaznavid monarchs—these Punjabi Hindus were even present in the Turk army where one named Tilak rose to the highest rank. The Gakkahrs and other tribes of Potohar, who had fought gallantly in the army of the Shahis now transferred their allegiance to the Ghaznavids. They had suffered tremendously in the succession of battles for over a decade and presumably did not have the resources to carry on further resistance. The Gakkhars in particular seem to have become allies of the later Ghaznavids—they fought on behalf of these Muslims against their fellow Hindu, the Raja of Jammu until the clever Raja pit Muslim against Muslim by making an alliance with the Turks of Ghor.

Addressing the political background again, the Ghaznavids chose Lahore as the capital of the conquered region even though it lay far in the east. The two capitals of the Shahis, Ohind and Nandan, previously had a large population and adequate resources—but they had been destroyed and looted during the recent wars. The Shahis had conquered the region of Lahore from a local dynasty only a decade ago and never made a stand against the Ghaznavids at this place—preferring to take refuge in Kashmir and later founding a new capital at Sarhind. For the Ghaznavids Lahore became the ideal base for fighting the kingdoms of the eastern regions and for attempting to repeat Mahmud’s cavalry raids in the south.

The military face of the Ghaznavid-Shahi struggle reveals the usual triumph of cavalry maneuvers and archery of the Turks over the elephants, infantry, and cavalry of the Punjabis. In a head-on clash the Hindus would prevail until the maneuvering cavalry and archery of the Turks broke the links of the different military units—the broken units would then be cut down piecemeal or would simply escape from the battlefield. The failure of these warriors to continue the resistance from the numerous forts of the region is attributed to the repeated defeats they suffered and to their forcible conversion to Islam. But added to this are causes that were beyond their control—the lack of a single dominant clan (as in Ajmer) whose cadets had a common goal to continue the resistance, and the lack of an imperial tradition (as in Kannauj) which could motivate different clans to fight the alien interloper to the death.

Cause of conversion

Mahmud Ghaznavi’s secretary Al-Utbi states frankly, “Islam or death was the alternative that Mahmud placed before the people.” The Muslim chroniclers repeat this story when describing the deeds of later Sultans…even the African traveler Ibn Batuta states, “Other nations embraced Islam only when the Arabs used their swords against them.” In the case of Punjab some other reasons are also claimed by its inhabitants for embracing Islam.

The sword of Islam – beginning with Mahmud Ghaznavi’s campaign around Peshawar where the inhabitants of the nearby hills and valleys were slaughtered and forced to convert to Islam (in the year 1021). At the end of the bloody fight with the Gakkhars (1205) Mohammad Ghori is said to have forced their chieftain to recite the kalima, in revenge of which the Gakkhars murdered him. Other Sultans carried out bloody campaigns among these tribes, killing the men and enslaving the women and children. In early 13th Century the region came under the shadow of the mighty Mongols—the Khwarazim Turks who fled into India are said to have fought against and forcibly converted many warrior Hindus in Punjab (see the Mongols in India).

As the Mongols of the Chagtai Khanate sent recurring raids against the Delhi Turks throughout the 13th and early 14th Centuries, the warriors of Punjab would have repeatedly embraced their ancestral faith or converted to Islam in line with whichever power gained dominance in their lands. By the time of the invasion of Timur (1398) the inhabitants of the western regions were considered to have converted to Islam. In his autobiography Timur uses the word Rajput only for the Hindu warriors that opposed his invasion—at Jammu he describes several battles during which the “Raja of Jammu with fifty Rais and Rajputs was captured”. Timur then forced him to convert to Islam, declared victory and marched away, having failed to capture the fort.

Since it is very unlikely that a Raja would have only fifty soldiers with him, and since Timur did not name this important convert to his faith, it is assumed that this man was a Rajput officer who portrayed himself as the Raja and went through the conversion to induce Timur into retiring from Jammu. The chronicles of the Jammu Rajas mention the invasion but state that Timur failed to capture the fort and only plundered the villages before retreating.

It appears that wherever Islam gained an outright victory the rulers and warriors were forced to embrace that faith—subsequently their people belonging to the agricultural classes would follow suit. But wherever Hindus were politically dominant and militarily strong, they retained their ancestral faith in spite of all the invasions and massacres. The people living in the regions close to these strong kingdoms took inspiration from them and also retained their ancestral faith—in the case of eastern Punjab the plainsmen had the option of retreating into the hills whenever threatened by invasions (see the parallel case of the later Sikhs in the same region). Babur in his memoirs speaks of the Jats and Gujjars taking shelter in the hills of these Rajput Kingdoms and coming down to plunder whenever they saw a chance. Such raiding elicited a brutal response of slaughter and enslavement and the inevitable conversion to Islam.

The Sufis – In the wake of the Ghaznavid conquest of Punjab several Sufis from the other parts of the empire traveled to the new capital Lahore and founded their religious orders. The first few were Shaikh Ismail, Shaikh Ali (popular name Data Ganj Baksh), and Sayyid Ahmad Sultan (popular name Lakhi Data)—in a later period came Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti[3] and Baha-ud-din Zakariya (propagator of the Suhrawardi order).

These Sufis were in fact mystics who aimed to instill moral and spiritual values into the masses. They lived a simple life, performed exercises similar to Yoga (like the holding of breath), chanted sacred words, were ordained by an existing Sufi (Guru) and ordained others in their turn. These Sufis[4] were so similar to the Hindu Yogis and Sadhus, with whom they freely interacted, that they usually aroused the suspicions and hostility of an orthodox ruler or Qazi. Even their spiritual message that love and devotion to the supreme soul would lead to salvation was similar to the Indian concept of nirvana and moksha.

Although they lived within the bounds of the Sharia, these Sufis were always nudging away its rigidity by including music and dancing in their spiritual lessons[5]. They were also reputed to perform miracles and possessed the power to heal the sick. Such ideas were contrary to the message of Islam but the worst sin of the Sufis in orthodox eyes was the excessive devotion shown to them by the people, which led to the dangerous path of man-worship. Some Sufis were oppressed but mostly they were suffered to exist since they never challenged the basic tenets of Islam.

It is suggested by some that the tolerant Sufis did more to spread Islam than the fanatic invaders. But the whole point of tolerance is to respect one another’s religion without converting! This is further proved by the presence of large numbers of Hindus at the Sufi shrines of modern India—they respect the saints but will not abandon their ancestral faith.

Even in that earlier period, and in that very region, a Muslim saint named Roshan Wali settled down in the Hindu city of Jammu. The people respected his message but they did so without abandoning their own faith since there was no one to force them into embracing Islam. So even if the Sufis sought to convert people, they could only do so in regions where Hindus had lost political and military power.

The Sufis came to Punjab in the 11th Century but from the Tarikh-i-Jahan-Kusha and other texts it is clear that Hindu clans and communities inhabited large parts of that province till late in the 14th Century. So the Sufis could not have converted large numbers to Islam, especially since it was not their agenda to do so. In this same period and region there lived a Hindu saint of similar greatness named Gugga Chauhan[6] (Gogaji Chauhan in Rajasthani), a Rajput prince who fought against the Ghaznavids but became a saint to both Hindus and Muslims. Again his teachings were not for any religion but for all human beings, as in the case of Sufis.

The Sufis mostly lived and preached in the cities and towns. The Sultans brought prisoners from their battles against the Punjabis to these towns and converted them to Islam—to these unfortunate people, torn from their family and religion, the uplifting music and dancing of the Sufis would have been a great change from the dreary militarism and formal rituals that had been brutally imposed on them.

Power and position – ambitious rulers and warriors were always engaged in improving their station in life and increasing their power. For this purpose, claim many Punjabis, their forefathers embraced Islam to gain power from the victorious Muslim invaders. They also believe that their ancestors were impressed by the fighting abilities of the Turks and for this reason embraced their religion.

In fact contemporary literature does show the Punjabis fighting in the Ghaznavid army—but they did so as Hindus, as seen above. When Muhammad Ghori later invaded their lands these same Hindus fought ferociously against him—weren’t they impressed by his fighting abilities?

In fact the reason the Hindu clans of the Salt Range and nearby regions joined the Ghaznavid army was a clear lack of resources. They had suffered losses[7] while fighting on behalf of the Shahis for a decade, and when that dynasty passed they did not have any unity of command, or the determination, or the resources in men and money to continue the resistance. After submitting to Mahmud these clans gradually rebuilt their strength over the decades and were thus able to challenge Muhammad Ghori and later Sultans in several battles. They were eventually converted after suffering repeated defeats at the hand of these Sultans.

The position of converts

The Turk invaders of Punjab sought to convert the inhabitants to Islam and were confident of accomplishing this task. Around the world great civilizations and large countries had fallen to the advance of Islamic armies and their inhabitants had embraced the new faith until, in a few generations, no trace of the earlier religion remained. The Ghaznavids occupied Punjab for several generations but they could not complete the conquest or convert all the inhabitants in this time. Their administration and army were filled with Muslims of foreign origin—these people thus developed a system of racism against the local converts who were usually prisoners of war.

In other countries there was competition between the various Muslim quams (ethnic groups): Arab vs. Turk, Turk vs. Iranian, Kurd vs. Arab, etc. but in India the foreign quams practiced racism by refusing to inter-marry with the Punjabi converts, by not showing them equality in employment opportunities, and by not praying alongside them. The foreign classes were the Ashraf (nobility) while the local converts were called Ajlaf.

The only way for local converts to gain the respect of the foreign quams was by claiming foreign origin for their own clans. In the later Mughal Empire the Rajput generals attained a higher position than any of the Punjabi converts, even though the latter had been practicing Islam for centuries. The bigoted Mughal ruler Aurangzeb was married to Nawab Bai, the daughter of the Muslim ruler of Rajouri (in modern J&K). When Nawab Bai’s son Bahadur Shah became the next emperor a false pedigree was invented for her to show that she was actually a Sayyid[8]—the fact that her family were locally converted Muslim was not good enough.

It thus became a fashion for every Indian convert to claim foreign origin and several conflicting stories of descent from saints, or from Persian monarchs, or from the Prophet himself, were told. Until the late 18th Century, even though the Mughal Empire had ceased to exist, there was still a Mughal royal family in whose name the Maratha general Scindia ruled Delhi and Agra. So until this time the Punjabis continued to claim foreign origins—but when the British finally extinguished the Mughal dynasty and later conquered the Punjab from the Sikhs, the Punjabi Muslims began claiming descent from Rajputs.

The reasons are not far to seek. In the British Raj the Maharajas and Nawabs (rulers of the protected princely states) represented pomp, grandeur, and wealth—in proportion the Rajputs outnumbered any other community in this galaxy of princes. Some of that pomp and grandeur rubbed off on the common Rajputs and all those who could claim descent from them.

The Rajput Kings had preserved their genealogies going back several millennia and had made a mark on Indian History with their ferocious resistance to the converting zeal of Islam—more importantly even their bitterest enemies acknowledged the valor and nobility of the Rajputs. For these reasons many Indian communities claimed descent from Rajputs.

With the events leading to the formation of the Muslim League and its demand for Pakistan, the Punjabis once again renewed their foreign origin claims…claims that had been boosted by the speculations of the colonial historians. With the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, and later the employment of many Pakistanis in the oil-rich economies of the Middle East, the Punjabis laid stress on descent from Arabs.

The official Islamic Republic of Pakistan position is that its citizens are mostly descended from foreign Turks and Afghans.

With such conflicting views of their past, the lack of adequate historical evidence, and their government’s preference for all things foreign, it appears that the Punjabis in Pakistan have a clear and pervading identity crisis. This is made worse by the racism that also infects their thinking as shown in this post.

[1] The Gulabnama of Dewan Kirpa Ram, edited by Professor Sukhdev Singh Charak.
[2] Then called by its original name Purshapur.
[3] Came to Lahore in 1161, is said to have traveled to Multan and Lahore before settling in Ajmer. This must have happened after the Tarain battles but the descendants of the Chishtis claim that the Khwaja came to Ajmer in the reign of Prithviraj. They claim that he had religious debates with a Yogi at that place who became his disciple. Prithviraj had previously honored the Yogi but even after the Yogi’s acceptance of the Khwaja’s message of divine love, the Chauhan King remained hostile to all Muslims.
[4] Another class of mystics were the Qalandars; these did not establish any orders or shrines and aimed purely for individual salvation.
[5] The spirited song and dance induced the Sufis to go into a trance, which they claimed was a kind of union with God. They were however careful to sing only devotional songs.
[6] His shrines are found throughout Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh.
[7] Al-Utbi while describing Mahmud’s battles with the Shahis states, “The victors slew the vanquished wherever they were found, in jungles, passes, plains or hills.” The numbers of the Hindu clans would have been severely reduced after this succession of bloody battles.
[8] The following story was told: a venerable Sayyid saint visited Rajouri and married the Muslim Raja’s daughter. Afterwards he went away on pilgrimage to Mecca—the Rajouri chief passed on his throne to these maternal grandchildren but did not reveal their Sayyid ancestry to anyone. Read More......