Today in South Asian history: Nader Shah sacks Delhi (1739)
The Iranian conqueror humiliates the declining Mughal Empire and makes off with a massive amount of loot.
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The story of the late middle/early modern Islamic world is dominated by the three so-called “Gunpowder Empires”—the Ottomans with their vast empire circling the Mediterranean; the Safavids in Iran and, at various times, parts of the Caucasus and Central Asia; and the Mughals in South Asia. They’re called “gunpowder empires” because two former University of Chicago professors, Marshall Hodgson and William McNeil, dubbed them so back in the 1970s.
Hodgson coined the term for his seminal work, The Venture of Islam, defining it as the final form of what he called the “military patronage state,” a concept that arrived in the wake of the Mongol conquests of the 13th century. Basically it means the state flows from its military, and in “gunpowder empires” that characteristic is heightened because of the expense of building and maintaining an army based on gunpowder artillery. It’s a concept that gained a lot of academic purchase before scholars started to realize that it didn’t do very much to explain those empires and did a lot to gloss over their many differences. But by that time its use had become entrenched, so the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals will forever be lumped together as this One Thing, like it or not.
While the Ottomans captured European attention and therefore are the best known of the three, and the Safavids were known for their religious revolution (or forced conversion if you prefer) in Iran, the Mughals are perhaps best known for being rich. They were indeed rich, easily the richest of these three empires. In the patterns of east-west trade in the Eurasian/North African world, until modern times, India was a seller far more than it was a buyer. Its goods (along with China’s) moved west, while everybody else’s money moved east until much of it wound up in Indian royal treasuries.
Indian products were in such demand that they helped spur the Age of Exploration, which was a remarkable time when rich merchants were so desperate for the products of the East that they crammed working and lower class people onto wooden ships to sail for months at a time in terrifying conditions, often (at least initially) into uncharted waters, just on the hope that they might eventually find a direct route from, say, Portugal to India. So clearly people were willing to go to some lengths—or make other people go to those lengths—for whatever India was selling, and as a result of all that consumer demand the Mughal court was, by all accounts, a pretty opulent place.
There was no greater symbol of that opulence than the “Peacock Throne,” a dazzling regal chair reportedly constructed for the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (d. 1666). For context, Shah Jahan was the emperor who also, for the burial place of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, commissioned the construction of the Taj Mahal. He was a big spender, is my point. Allegedly cast in solid gold and covered in countless diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls, and other gems, this throne...well, it probably looked completely ridiculous, and it’s a wonder the Mughals’ subjects didn’t beat the French Revolution to the punch by a century or so, but now I’m ranting. It was probably a great tool for a Mughal emperor to make other emperors jealous, which is the main reason why emperors and kings have always prized these kinds of silly things in the first place.
The Peacock Throne got its name from the bejeweled, carved peacocks (there may have been one, two, or more—the various descriptions of the throne don’t seem to agree) that sat atop its canopy. Did anybody ever actually sit on this thing for anything other than ceremonial royal events? Would it have been at all comfortable? Who cares? When you’re a fancy monarch who needs to let the world know just how fancy you are, physical comfort becomes irrelevant. I don’t get it, personally. Once they name me Emperor, which should be any day now, I’ll be ruling things from some kind of massaging chair. But I suppose if you could afford a chair that looked like the Peacock Throne, there was some societal expectation that you would have one.
Anyway, the Peacock Throne was lost to history sometime after 1739, which is coincidentally when it was also lost to the Mughals, courtesy of Nader Shah (d. 1747), the founder of Iran’s Afsharid dynasty. Following the Battle of Karnal in February of that year, when the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah (d. 1748) surrendered his army and his empire to Nader, the Afsharid army continued on to Delhi and set itself up in the Mughal capital. After Karnal, Nader had promised Muhammad Shah that he could continue being the Mughal Emperor, and had said that all he wanted was to restore the traditional friendship between the Mughals and the Safavids (obviously Nader was not a Safavid, but he portrayed himself as that dynasty’s heir). Of course, Muhammad Shah would have to acknowledge Nader as his overlord and, why, yes, Nader would like to stay in Delhi for a few days, thanks for asking, and while he was there he figured he might as well mint some new coins, in his name, and have the Friday prayer said, also in his name, no big deal, it’s just a formality, you know how it is.
Well, needless to say that Delhi wasn’t really prepared to have tens of thousands of foreign soldiers suddenly taking up residence. Goods, in particular food, started running out, and so prices started going up. Nader’s men complained about this to Nader, so Nader ordered that prices be frozen, and Delhi’s merchant community told him to get bent. Since food is a life or death commodity, these tensions eventually came to blows, and for some reason a rumor broke out that Nader himself had been killed in the scuffling. In the ensuing confusion, the Indians in Delhi rose up against Nader’s army, and some of his soldiers were actually killed. Nader, who was very much alive, then gave his men the green light to make the city pay. The surviving sources don’t give us a good handle on exactly how many people were slaughtered by the Iranian army in the violence that followed, but the most conservative estimates put the number at roughly 20,000 men, women, and children, killed in only a few hours after Nader gave the go ahead.
The massacre of Delhi was only coincidentally related to the loss of the Peacock Throne, and much of the rest of the Mughals’ wealth, to Nader and the Afsharids, in the sense that both things were the result of Nader’s presence in the city in the first place. Had there been no massacre, Nader still would have left Delhi, as he did in May 1739, with vast plundered wealth. Michael Axworthy, in The Sword of Persia: Nader Shah, from Tribal Warrior to Conquering Tyrant, puts the haul at 700 million rupees, which he estimates would have been worth about 90 million English pounds at the time. That’s equivalent to around 20 billion or so British pounds today, as far as I can tell, or probably more by the time you read this. Nader is supposed to have cancelled taxes in Iran for the next three years because of the windfall he brought back with him.
We know for sure that the Peacock Throne was included in that windfall, but what happened to it after that is unclear. Nader seems to have used it as his throne, and may even have had a duplicate made because he was so fond of it, but when he was assassinated in 1747 it’s likely that the throne was broken up and looted by his killers. We know of another throne, the “Sun Throne,” built for the second Qajar ruler of Iran, Fath-Ali Shah (d. 1834), that may have been crafted party from remnants of the Peacock Throne though that’s never been conclusively proven. The Sun Throne was/is sometimes called the “Peacock Throne,” but there’s no peacock to be found on it. Today the Sun Throne sits on display with the other Iranian crown jewels (many of which can definitely be traced back to Nader’s plunder of Delhi) in Tehran. The Mughals made a new throne to replace the one that Nader carted off, and really thank goodness because it would have been awful if the Mughal Emperors had to just stand all the time, or sit in a regular chair even. But that new throne was lost sometime in the 19th century, probably during the Indian revolt against British rule in 1857.