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The Royal Raider: Mahmud of Ghazni, Man who Shook the Sub-Continent

Updated on December 16, 2018


Indian history is a history of invasions, particularly from the North West Frontier. Here the high Hindu Kush Mountains formed an impregnable barrier, but some passes through these mountains made it easy to enter the rich and fertile plains of India. The most famous of these passes is the Khyber pass that connects India (now Pakistan) to Afghanistan and Central Asia., This pass has been the conduit for innumerable invasions of the fertile plains of India. Unfortunately as brought out by Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery in his " History of Warfare", these passes were never guarded by the Hindu rulers of India, who really lacked strategic sense regarding the guarding of these important passes.

These passes, notably the Khyber Pass was the conduit of the first invasion of India by the Muslims and the royal raider who first crossed this path was Mahmud of Ghazni. He was the first Muslim conqueror who rode into India and all along he displayed a shrewdness that stood him in good stead. Now we can analyze and say that he followed Clausewitz Principles of war and was thus immensely successful. Mahmud of Ghazni, never established an empire in India, content to loot the Indian temples and lay waste the countryside, as he moved into India in a number of invasions of the sub-continent

A Royal Raider

Mahmud of Ghazni remains an enigmatic figure. His character envelopes two distinct aspects of life. On one side he was a despotic raider, who looted the temples and the people and on the other side, he was a man who patronized the arts and made Ghazni not only a beautiful city but also the center of Islamic scholarship, fine arts, and culture.

Ghazni was born in 971 and right from his younger days received Islamic education and had a fair knowledge of the Koran as well as the Hadiths. He belonged to the Yamini dynasty, which claimed its lineage from the Persian rulers. He was perhaps destined for greatness as by 994 CE he had made his mark as a ruler. He was only 23 years old at that time. His authority was recognized by all at that time and he has conferred titles like Amin-ul-Millat (protector of People) and Yamin-ud –Daula (right hand of the empire).

When Mahmud assumed these titles he was fired with a zeal that now historians have recognized as an attempt to establish the glory of Islam. It is worth quoting the Muslim historian in the court of Mahmud named Utbi, who has stated that the aim of Mahmud was to end idol worship and spread Islam> perhaps to a point it may be true, but does not explain how and why he looted the Hindu temples for their wealth. Obviously, he was a man who wanted riches and this is something not compatible with Islamic thought. Yet he looted the temples for their wealth.

As per the historian, Henry Eliot in a span of 27 years Mahmud invaded India 17 times. The primary purpose of these raids was not to spread Islam but loot the temples. He looted the temples of Nagarkot and Mathura after he had defeated the Hindu king Jayapala. His most famous loot was the temple of Somnath, which he stripped, bare and carried away the riches to his native Ghazni.

somnath temple after the looting by Mahmud
somnath temple after the looting by Mahmud

Last Word

Ghazni as a Soldier and a Man

Mahmud of Ghazni is certainly one of the great captains of war. He defeated most of the Hindu kings of that period by the dint of his ability. He showed that he had courage and strength which when combined with a sharp brain makes for a lethal combination. He was also a shrewd general and at times left the battlefield to avoid a defeat. This was the reason he did not face the force of Bhoj in 1026 CE as he suspected he would be defeated.

In a few battles, Mahmud just scraped through by the skin of his teeth like in the battle with Baji Ray of Bhatinda in 1005 CE and against Anandpala in 1008-9 CE. It must be conceded that Mahmud was a great motivator and shrewd judge of the situation and on innumerable occasions led his men to victory just by his example. He combined religious zeal with economic motivation and fired his soldiers who followed him blindly.

It is a tribute to Mahmud that he converted his small kingdom into an empire that stretched from the Caspian to the North of India. Mahmud was not interested in establishing an empire in India, content to loot and plunder the wealth of India.

Mahmud no doubt looted India, but he took craftsmen from India to his native Ghazni and erected lovely mosques and places of learning. Ghazni flourished under Mahmud and it is worth remembering that his realm was more extensive than the empire of Khalifa of Baghdad.

Some Unsavory Facts

Some reports suggest that Mahmud was, despite being a devout Muslim, homosexual. His favorite lover was Malik Ayaz, a Georgian slave. Malik Ayaz was beholden to Mahmud and from a slave, he rose to be the governor of Lahore, which had been captured by Mahmud after a long siege. His tomb is still in Lahore.

Mahmud of Ghazni had 9 wives, dozens of concubines as well as male slaves. in all probability he was bisexual. This fact is now overlooked by most historians of that era.

Mahmud passed away in 1030 CE. He left behind 5 sons, but they were unequal to retaining the empire and within a short time, the empire of Mahmud of Ghazni disintegrated. In fact, the last 4 years of his life were spent in fighting invasions from other Turks in Central Asia. By 1040 his son Masud was defeated at the Battle of Dandanaqan, resulting in loss of most of the western territories to the Seljuks. These were the last gasps of the Ghazni Empire.

Mahmud, however, will be remembered as a great general and for Central Asian nations he is an icon. His tomb is a tourist attraction. Perhaps Mahmud was so intent on his campaigns that he never laid the edifice of a stable administrative framework and that led to the collapse of his empire, but as a soldier who fought battles over hundreds of miles and showed his military prowess, he perhaps is to be rated just a shade below Changez Khan.


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    • emge profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Yes Lawrence, but he also was a looter

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      3 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Maybe like Alexander before him he was only interested in the challenge of the conquest?


    • emge profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Thank you Manatita. Its always a pleasure to read your comments. Really nice.

    • manatita44 profile image


      3 years ago from london

      A great fighter and an astute man, by all accounts. Seems that the Temples, hoarded much wealth. Interesting.


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