Sacking the Subcontinent Part 2 TAIMUR

Courtesy - The Friday Times


Of all the sobriquets and noms de guerre assigned to him, none describes Emir Timur better than the one he reportedly chose for himself, in the tradition of Attila the Hun and others: ‘the scourge of God’. Indeed we can say with certainty about Timur that he brought death, destruction and untold grief to a large part of the world.


Throughout his life, year after year, Timur campaigned against some part of the known world around his capital city of Samarkand. He swept across the Mongol Khanates; first demolishing the Chagatai states up to the lower Siberia in the Lake Balkhash region and then the Kipchak states across the Urals and the Don River to eastern Ukraine and Crimea. He then turned south to devastate Delhi, Baghdad, Damascus and Aleppo, and defeated the Ottomans, the Mamluks and the Christian Knights Hospitallers amongst others.


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. Here I will only narrate his Indian campaign of 1398-99.


Timur found time amidst his constant nonstop campaigning to write his own 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. I have relied mainly on his writings for this article.


As a prelude to this campaign, he states that, “About the year 800 A.H. (1398 A.D.), there arose in my heart the desire to lead an expedition against the infidels and to become a Champion of the Faith, for it had reached my ears that the slayer of infidels is a Champion and that, if he is slain, he becomes a martyr.” He states that he was undecided whether to attack China or India. He had already ravaged Persia but was yet to invade the Levant, Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. And this was well before he attempted the conquest of Ming China near the end of his life, in 1405.


Clearly Timur was playing with the facts. He had heard of civil wars in the weakened Tughlaq Sultanate of Delhi and wanted to pillage it so that he could finance his future wars. This is confirmed by the fact that by then, his grandson Prince Mohammad Jahangir, who was entrusted with the rule of Kabul-Kandahar, had already besieged Multan but could not break through on his own. On receiving a letter from the prince about his activities in the Punjab, Timur collected his army and began his march, which was to leave a trail of blood and rubble in his wake.


Dividing his force into two parts, Timur himself crossed the Hindu Kush Mountains and proceeded to pillage the Bajaur-Chitral-Swat-Buner area. He writes that, “The people (in this area) eat swine’s flesh, and cattle and sheep abound in the country. Most of the inhabitants are idolaters; they are men of a powerful frame and fair complexion.”


He crossed the high snow-covered mountains with great courage and determination, and having subdued an important fort, he writes that, “I obtained a booty of many sheep and some other things here, and ordered my soldiers to set fire to the houses and buildings of the city, in the midst of which the fort was built, and to level it to the ground.” Continuing his march against stiff resistance, he then killed some men that he had taken prisoner: an atrocity that he was to perpetuate later at a much larger scale. He then writes that, “I ordered my troops to attack on all four sides at once, to force their way into the defiles, and to kill the men, imprison the women and children, and plunder and lay waste their property. In obedience to these orders, my nobles and troops put the remnant of the infidels to the sword, after which they made prisoners of their women and children and secured an enormous booty. I directed towers of the skulls of those obstinate unbelievers to be built on the mountain.


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. Obviously 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 a number of Hindu prisoners, both male and female.”


Finding poor pasture for his horses on the east side of River Yamuna during the winter months, Timur crossed over and attacked the historic fort of Loni where he could find fodder. Many of the Rajputs in the area placed their wives and children in their houses and burned them. Timur’s forces once again destroyed the buildings in this town, killing all its male inhabitants and enslaving the women and children.


Timur was now ready to re-cross the river Yamuna again, to invest Delhi itself. He was faced with the Tughlaq forces that fared well on the first day of the battle. Timur was carrying a hundred thousand prisoners that he had captured during the course of his march to Delhi. These prisoners, in his words, had rejoiced at the good fight put up by the Indian forces. Timur called in his council and it was decided that these prisoners couldn’t be trusted on the eve of the battle the next day.


What followed was, perhaps, the worst cold-blooded massacre in history. Timur ordered that all prisoners be put to sword. In the words of Timur, “… and I immediately directed the commanders to proclaim throughout the camp that every man who had infidel prisoners was to put them to death, and that whoever neglected to do so, should himself be executed and his property given to the informer. When this order became known to the champions of Islam, they drew their swords and put their prisoners to death. One hundred thousand infidels, impious idolaters, were slain on that day.” Even the sheikh/maulana accompanying the troops, who had never killed a man in his life, slew fifteen prisoners. In reality, the massacred persons included Muslims as well. The dead were left as carrion, to rot or to be consumed by the scavengers. Delhi, indeed the Subcontinent, had not witnessed this scale of savagery in the course of its long existence.


Timur had piled up so much booty that before the battle, he deputed some 10% of his force for guarding the ‘property, horses and cattle’. Pillaging of Delhi, Meerut and Hardiwar was still to come. Timur then went into battle against Delhi’s force of some 10,000 cavalry and 40,000 infantry.


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. His troops collected a vast amount of booty.


A city taken by force is at the mercy of the invading army. Even if the victor grants peace, the terms of this mercy are at his whims. The slightest protestation or objection of the populace draws the grim wrath of the occupiers. This is what happened to Delhi.


Timur writes that he granted peace to the city and held the sheikhs, sayyids and scholars in high esteem. He spent several days of pleasure in the city, “holding feasts, listening to music and singing” and was served with wine, sherbet and meat of all kinds. His troops needed rest and merriment after the long strenuous campaign. He also let some of his troops loose in the city to gather ransom money from the city inhabitants, which is not surprising given that it is always the vanquished that pays for the war expenditure of the victor.


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. 


The city was pillaged for five days. He writes that, “…spoil being so great that each man secured from fifty to a hundred prisoners, men, women, and children, while no soldier took less than twenty. There was likewise an immense booty in rubies, diamonds, garnets, pearls, and other gems; jewels of gold and silver; gold and silver money of the celebrated Alai coinage; vessels of gold and silver; and brocades and silks of great value. Gold and silver ornaments of the Hindu women were obtained in such quantities as to exceed all account.”


He laments that the pen of fate had written down this destiny for the people of this city, and though he was desirous of sparing them, he could not succeed, for it was the will of God that this calamity should befall the city. Of course, the agent of God’s wrath had come a long way to deliver this destined calamity!


He goes on to proclaim that, by the will of God, and by no wish or direction of his, all the three cities of Delhi – Siri, Jahanpanah, and Old Delhi – had been plundered.


In between his campaigns, Timur would build Samarkand, his capital city. He had gathered artisans from the conquered lands and brought them to this city. Accordingly, he ordered that all the artisans and clever mechanics who were masters of their respective crafts should be selected from among the prisoners captured in Delhi and set aside. Thousands of craftsmen were distributed among the princes and emirs to build a Friday Mosque in Samarkand. He wanted the seat of his empire to be without a rival in any country.


For his return to Samarkand, Timur opted for a northerly route along the base of the Himalayas. Before he set out on his pillaging campaign, he had heard about, and wanted to investigate, gold dust at the several sacred ghats in the holy city of Hardiwar, on the banks of the River Ganges as it leaves the hills and enters the plains.


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, plunder of granaries and 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.


Timur remains greatest of all the world’s conquerors, never losing a battle in his in his three decades of warfare. His invasion of India should serve us with a reminder that civil strife and poor governance invite barbarians who sweep away everything before them.


About Author: Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad.

This article was first published

Article is courtesy and copyright has obtained written permission from the author to publish this article.


Also read

1. Sacking of the Sub-continent Part 1 Mahmud of Ghazni

2. The Magnitude of Muslim atrocities

3. How India became a Poor Country


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