Mahmud Ghaznavi’s invasion and its consequences

People’s history of the Punjab: Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi’s invasion and its consequences
by Dr Manzur Ejaz, USA
January 15th, 2009

Courtesy and Thanks:
Punjab’s fate started changing in the 11th century when Abu Mansur Sebüktegin, a slave king of Ghazni, began invading Raja Jaypal’s Punjab empire which stretched from Kabul eastwards, covering most of northern India. After two inconclusive wars between Jaypal and Sebüktegin, the latter died and his son Mahmud (971-1030) ascended the throne in Ghazni. It was during Mahmud’s several incursions into the Punjab that Muslim rule was established and Lahore became the province’s capital.

Ghazni and areas around it mainly depended upon trade of various goods as well as slaves for its commerce. Renowned from Ghazni to Central Asia these slave markets dealt mainly in slaves captured in remote parts of Central Asia and Russia and later, most numerously, in India. Mahmud’s father, Sebüktegin was himself a Turk slave captured when he was 12 and sold to Alaptigin. When he grew up, his talents were recognized and he married Alaptigin’s daughter and became his general and then his successor. Ghazni and its adjoining areas needed abundant agricultural products and slaves to prosper. This was one of the main reasons why the Punjab, with its rich resources and large population of would-be-slaves, was such an attractive target for the Ghaznavids.

Legend has it that Jaypal, to uphold his honour, burned himself on a pyre after Mahmud defeated him twice (and according to some thrice). Some Hindutva historians maintain that Jaypal and his family were enslaved and taken to Ghazni but the great Raja committed suicide before he was put on the market. However, this is probably not true because after Jaypal, his son Anandpal took over the reins of the empire and continued resisting Mahmud. Eventually, Anandpal was overwhelmed and Mahmud established a government in Lahore.

Mahmud did not only overwhelm Punjab’s Hindu dynasty, he also attacked Multan’s Muslim state in the same manner. Muslim apologists who consider Mahmud a but shikan (an idol destroyer) and great preacher of Islam forget to mention his destruction of Muslim rulers in Multan and elsewhere. And hardline Islamists go further, and vigorously support his invasions because Multan was ruled by Shias and Ismailis whom they do not consider to be real Muslims. Present-day Taliban are following this same tradition.

Sultan Mahmud may have been made a grandiose Muslim icon by the later historians of the Slave Dynasty to legitimize their own rule in India. Similarly, Hindu nationalists exaggerated his killing and plundering to support their own agenda. Muslim historians claim he looted unbelievably large amounts of gold, silver and diamonds from Hindu temples (as in the alleged two hundred maunds of gold from Nagarkot mandir). Hindu nationalists take the same exaggerated numbers and give it their own spin. Muslims call Sultan Mahmud an iconoclast because of his destruction of Somnath temple while Hindus take it as the greatest insult to their religion. However, Romila Thapar, the renowned historian of antiquity, after examining Persian, Gujrati and Sanskrit texts and manuscripts from the temple itself argues that Somnath may never have been attacked by Mahmud or his attack was of little significance. It was the British House of Commons that brought it to life by demanding that the gates of Somnath be brought back from Ghazni. The funny thing is that when these gates arrived from Ghazni in India it was found that they were made in Turkey. The gates were then put in storage for white ants to feast upon!

Sultan Mahmud’s character may have been idealized or demonized by opposing ideologues but it is clear that he targeted Hindu temples that were known for hoarding wealth. Hindu temples were known as depositories of accumulated wealth because they levied high taxes on worshippers and invested heavily in trade, reaping profits from, in most cases, Arab Muslim traders who had settled in the coastal cities of India much before Mahmud was born. In addition, Mahmud’s conquest of Punjab provided multitudes of slaves for Ghazni’s slave market. These slaves were used for private pleasure and for different craft industries manufacturing for the Silk Route trade.

Mahmud’s duels with Indian rulers and elites were very interesting. High caste Hindus, ready to be co-opted or to spy for him, were left alone to stick to their own religion. Many high caste Hindus opportunistically converted to Islam: we have seen the same phenomenon of opportunism during the Muslim rule that followed and even during the Sikh Raj in the Punjab. Therefore, by and large, the same ruling elite retained power after Mahmud established his writ in the Punjab. Nonetheless, many scholars and skilled and talented people ran away towards the south. Al-Beruni, Mahmud’s chronicler wrote: “Mahmud utterly ruined the prosperity of the country …This is the reason too why Hindu sciences have retired far away from parts of the country conquered by us and have fled to places, which our hand cannot yet reach, to Kashmir, Benaras and other places.”

Al-Beruni also notes the change in gender relations after Mahmud’s conquest of the Punjab. According to his observation, Punjabi men always used to consult their wives about important matters. However, in Central Asian male chauvinistic society, women were not considered worthy of advice or consideration in important matters. After Mahmud’s occupation of Punjab, women began to lose their previous important status.

Most of all, the Hindu peasants, artisans and those belonging to lower castes bore the brunt of Mahmud’s invasions. After every conquest, most of the fighting men were killed and women and children were taken as slaves to be sold in the Ghazni market. Keeping in mind his talent for exaggeration, the famous historian Mohammad Qasim Ferishta claims that after Sultan Mahmud’s Thanesar conquest so many slaves were brought to Ghazni that it started looking like an Indian city. Every soldier of the king owned many slave women, he adds.

Many peasants, artisans, and other lower caste people who escaped slavery chose to convert to Islam. Through conversion they could escape slavery, higher taxes (jazia) and, to some extent, the cruelty of their traditional masters – the higher caste Hindus. Furthermore, they had no stakes in the old society which had done nothing but discriminate against them. As a matter of fact, this was one of the main reasons that they did not want to fight for the system and were indifferent towards the changes occurring at the highest level of society.

In many cases the poor masses converted to Islam after having been enslaved. By 1020 AD many northern warlords had created their own fiefdoms in the Punjab and owned thousands of slaves. Owning converted Muslim slaves was nothing new for the warlords descending from north because they had come from societies where trade of Muslim slaves was common.

Instead of ending casteism, the new Muslim rulers of Punjab added another layer to it: they became a super caste overriding all others. Their attitude towards the converted Muslims was similar to higher Hindu castes. As a matter of fact they co-opted the Hindus and converted Muslims from higher castes into managing the state’s affairs. Peasants, artisans and other poor converted Muslims were not given the opportunity to get education or find jobs in state institutions. While the converted peasantry continued to till the land for the benefit of Muslim warlords from the north, the lower class neo-Muslims were employed in court stables and other lowly jobs. This status quo prevailed for the entire Muslim period and this is one of the reasons that in 20th century Punjab, the Muslim masses were as economically backward as they were in 1020 AD.

Due to lack of interaction with the self-centered foreign elite, the converted Punjabi Muslim masses did not change their traditions, culture and ritualistic practices. Therefore, they had a different view of history from the people who migrated from North and Central Asia. This is one of the reasons that while the Muslim League was a matter of life and death for UP Muslims, the Punjabi masses were apathetic towards it till the last decade before the partition. Ironically, the history of Punjab during the Muslim period has been written from the angle of immigrants from Northern and Central Asia who considered themselves superior to all Indians including the converted Muslim. After Sultan Mahmud laid the foundations of Ghaznavi rule in the Punjab, a new slave market was established in Lahore and the Punjabi masses suffered under this double burden. To a large extent, the Hindu higher castes were still in control of state affairs, having joined hands with the new rulers.

End piece: According to Tarikh-e-Ferishta, Sultan Mahmud had an obsession with buying the most beautiful slave boys wherever he could find them. His Wazir (minister) adopted his boss’s preferences. One the day the minister bought a slave of rare beauty from Central Asia and smuggled him into Ghazni in female dress so Mahmud would not find out. However, when Mahmud discovered the secret he took away the slave boy and fired the Wazir. The poor Wazir was heartbroken and he died prematurely.

Dr Manzur Ejaz taught at the Punjab University, Lahore, for many years and now lives in Virginia
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One thought on “Mahmud Ghaznavi’s invasion and its consequences”

  1. Strange and interesting account. Wonder what’s the truth! The accent is more on the slave markets during Ghazni’s rule.
    The most contrary account of Mahmud Ghazni is his sufistic attitude, which is not found in te above article. In fact, the Panj Sura Books published in India and Pakistan, we find a durood shareef called Durood-e-Lakhi, attributed to Mahmud Ghazni. Also, during his time, there was a great Auliya-Allah, Hazrat Abul Hasan Kharkhani. Mentions are also made in the Tazkiratul Auliya of Hazrat Fareeduddin Attar, translated into English as Mystic Saints of Islam and other English Translations.
    As for Romila Thapar, I had read some of her accounts in the Mid-Day Afternoon news some years back from which I got some very new perspective on Indian History, not taught in the school or college text-books.
    All said and done, it’s sad to read about slaves, the Jiziya, the conversion and the corruption of Muslim rulers and their courtiers.

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