Incredible India - Part 8 | Timur – Destroyer of India - Sacking the Subcontinent

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

The Mongol Empire existed during the 13th and 14th centuries, and was the largest contiguous land empire in history. The empire began to split due to wars over succession, as the grandchildren of Genghis Khan disputed whether the royal line should follow from his son and initial heir Ögedei or one of his other sons, such as Tolui, Chagatai, or Jochi. The Toluids prevailed after a bloody purge of Ögedeid and Chagataid factions. After Möngke Khan died (1259), rival kurultai councils simultaneously elected different successors, the brothers Ariq Böke and Kublai Khan, who fought each other in the Toluid Civil War (1260–1264) and also dealt with challenges from the descendants of other sons of Genghis. Kublai successfully took power. Hulagu Khan was a grandson of Genghis Khan and brother of Ariq Böke, Möngke Khan, and Kublai Khan. It is recorded however that he converted to Buddhism as he neared death.

The Ilkhanate, Golden Horde, and the Chagatai Khanate - three of the four principal khanates (except for the Yuan dynasty) - embraced Islam, as the Mongol elite favored Islam to strengthen their rule over the Muslim majority populace. Non-Muslim Mongols also employed many Muslims in various fields and increasingly took their advice in administrative affairs. For example, Genghis Khan's advisor, Mahmud Yalavach, and Kublai Khan's financial minister, Ahmad Fanakati, were Muslims.

Still, the mainlands of the Mongols remained staunchly Buddhist and Shamans. notable Mongol converts to Islam including Mubarak Shah and Tarmashirin of the Chagatai Khanate, Tuda Mengu, and Negudar of the Golden Horde, Ghazan, and Öljaitü of the Ilkhanate. Berke, who ruled Golden Horde from 1257 to 1266, was the first Muslim leader of any Mongol khanates. Ghazan was the first Muslim khan to adopt Islam as the national religion of Ilkhanate, followed by Uzbek of the Golden Horde who urged his subjects to accept the religion as well. Ghazan continued his non-Muslim forefathers' approach toward religious tolerance. When Ghazan learned that some Buddhist monks feigned conversion to Islam due to the earlier destruction of some of their temples, he granted permission to all who wished to return to Tibet where they could freely follow their faith and be among other Buddhists. Though in Chagatai Khanate, Buddhism and Shamanism flourished until the 1350s. When the western part of the khanate embraced Islam quickly, the eastern part or Moghulistan slowed Islamization until Tughlugh Timur (1329/30-1363) who accepted Islam with his thousands of subjects.

Timur (1336–1405), later Timūr Gurkānī, sometimes spelled Taimur and historically best known as Amir Timur or Tamerlane, was a Turco-Mongol Persianate conqueror who founded the Timurid Empire in and around modern-day Iran and Central Asia, becoming the first ruler of the Timurid dynasty.


Through his father, Timur claimed to be a descendant of Tumanay Khan, a male-line ancestor he shared with Genghis Khan. Timur himself described his mother's descent from the legendary Persian hero Manuchehr. Ibn Arabshah suggested that she was a descendant of Genghis Khan. The 18th century Books of Timur identify her as the daughter of 'Sadr al-Sharia', which is believed to be referring to the Hanafi scholar Ubayd Allah al-Mahbubi of Bukhara. 

After the death in 1357 of Transoxania’s current ruler, Amir Kazgan, Timur declared his fealty to the khan of nearby Kashgar, Tughluq Temür, who had overrun Transoxania’s chief city, Samarkand, in 1361. Tughluq Temür appointed his son Ilyas Khoja as governor of Transoxania, with Timur as his minister. But shortly afterward Timur fled and rejoined his brother-in-law Amir Husayn, the grandson of Amir Kazgan.

They defeated Ilyas Khoja (1364) and set out to conquer Transoxania, achieving firm possession of the region around 1366. About 1370 Timur turned against Husayn, besieged him in Balkh, and, after Husayn’s assassination, proclaimed himself at Samarkand sovereign of the Chagatai line of khans and restorer of the Mongol empire.

For the next 10 years Timur fought against the khans of Jatah (eastern Turkistan) and Khwārezm, finally occupying Kashgar in 1380. He gave armed support to Tokhtamysh, who was the Mongol khan of Crimea and a refugee at his court, against the Russians (who had risen against the khan of the Golden Horde, Mamai); and his troops occupied Moscow and defeated the Lithuanians near Poltava.


In 1383 Timur began his conquests in Persia with the capture of Herāt. Fars, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Georgia all fell between 1386 and 1394. In the intervals, he was engaged with Tokhtamysh, the khan of the Golden Horde, whose forces invaded Azerbaijan in 1385 and Transoxania in 1388, defeating Timur’s generals. In 1391 Timur pursued Tokhtamysh into the Russian steppes and defeated and dethroned him; but Tokhtamysh raised a new army and invaded the Caucasus in 1395. After his final defeat on the Kur River, Tokhtamysh gave up the struggle; Timur occupied Moscow for a year. The revolts that broke out all over Persia while Timur was away on these campaigns were repressed with ruthless vigor; whole cities were destroyed, their populations massacred, and towers built of their skulls.

In 1398 Timur invaded India on the pretext that the Muslim sultans of Delhi were showing excessive tolerance to their Hindu subjects. He crossed the Indus River on September 24 and, leaving a trail of carnage, marched on Delhi. The army of the Delhi sultan Mahmud Tughluq was destroyed at Panipat on December 17, and Delhi was reduced to a mass of ruins, from which it took more than a century to emerge. 


It is estimated that his military campaigns caused the death of some 17 million people, amounting to about 5% of the world population at the time. He also carried hundreds of thousand artisans, women, and children as slaves to Samarkand, in addition to untold riches. Timur found time amidst his constant nonstop campaigning to write his history, the Tuzuk-i-Timuri, in which he justified massacres in Muslim lands as ‘killing bad Muslims’ and in non-Muslim lands as ‘slaying infidels’. In this autobiography, he admits rather proudly the crimes that he committed in his Indian campaign. 


These acts of slaying, plunder, destruction, and enslavement are the story of Timur’s career. After crossing the Indus, he entered Punjab on the 24th of September 1398. Many villages and towns were razed to the ground. Destroying several habitations, taking prisoners, and collecting plunder, Timur and his army marched towards Panipat. He states that local people on the route of his approach were deserting their habitations. They must have heard the news of his pillaging, murdering, and enslaving practices. Halting five miles from Delhi and having sent out armed parties with instructions to plunder, destroy and kill, he records that, “They (his forces) plundered every village and place they came to, killed the men, and carried off all the valuables and cattle, securing much booty; after which they returned, bringing with them several Hindu prisoners, both male and female.”


The ill-prepared and strife-stricken Tughlaq army was no match for the battle-hardened Turks. Timur took the city on the 17th of December 1398 and set up his camp on the banks of Hauz-e-Khas, the water tank for Delhi’s water supply. The Tughlaq Sultan with his close associates fled towards Udaipur. Timur sent a contingent after them, killing some and driving away the others.


After ten days of rest, Timur was ready for the return journey. However, the city was still standing intact. On the 26th of December, due to some opposition from the city’s inhabitants on the rough treatment being meted out to them by the ransom collectors, Timur records the events leading to the sack of the city. He absolves himself of any blame and puts it on his troops in the city. However, he did nothing to stop the plundering of the city. On Thursday, 15,000 of his troops were engaged in slaying, plundering, and destroying the city. On Friday, he says that his entire army was out of his control and went into the city to collect their booty.


Timur crossed the Yamuna, laden with plunder and prisoners, and made slow progress to Meerut. This region lying between the Yamuna and the Ganges, and joined by scores of smaller tributaries, offered the most promising source of sustenance for his troops, horses, and prisoners. He was also apprehensive of being harassed along the more populous regions in the Punjab.


His first stop was in Meerut which he pillaged and destroyed completely, carrying out a frightful slaughter of its inhabitants. He looted the area around Hardiwar, Kangra, and Jammu. He then continued his march to Samarkand, sparing not a soul that he found on his route.

Timur’s conquests of India brought untold devastation to the country. Thousands of villages were burnt and destroyed completely. The cities with riches were extensively plundered. The towns of Jahanpanah and Siri in Delhi were completely demolished by him.


The invasion of India led to the destruction of the agricultural fields, the plunder of granaries, and the interruption of commerce. There was a terrible famine in Delhi after the war. The suburbs of towns became infectious due to the rotting bodies of the dead. The north-western provinces were ravaged and laid to waste. The Tughlaq Empire was completely liquidated. Delhi lost its richness, its glory, its people, and its rule. All builders, stone-masons, and craftsmen were taken as prisoners to build Timur’s capital of Samarkand. It is said that Delhi took almost a century to recover and emerge again from this great loss.


Part 9- Rajputana

Part 7 - Delhi Sultanate


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