Today in South Asian history: the Battle of Karnal (1739)

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Nader Shah (d. 1747) is often considered the last of the great (in the sense of “impressive,” not “good”) Central Asian conquerors, after Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane), and (depending on who’s making the list) assorted other figures like the first Mughal Emperor Babur. He’s also the man who kept Iran more or less intact after the collapse of the Safavid dynasty in the early 18th century. After a Ghilzai Afghan army under Mahmud Hotak (d. 1725) defeated the Safavids and ousted them from power in 1722, it fell to the Safavids’ Qizilbash army to restore order. It was Nader Khan, leader of the Turkic Afshar tribe, who overthrew the Afghans and restored nominal Safavid rule in 1729. I say “nominal,” because from that point forward Nader was the real ruler of Iran.

This mostly-for-show Safavid revival lasted all of seven years before Nader got tired of the charade and had himself crowned Nader Shah in 1736. At a time when Iran was vulnerable to outside invasion, Nader’s commanding—and yes, violently authoritarian—reign and considerable military prowess not only fended off those threats, it restored Iran to the status of a true regional power. Among other achievements, Nader boasted considerably more military success against the Ottomans than any Safavid ruler save possibly Shah Abbas I (d. 1629). Though, to be fair, the Ottomans were a lot weaker in the 1730s than they were in, say, the 1550s.

In addition to formally closing the book on the Safavids, one of the three Islamic “Gunpowder Empires” of the early modern (16th-18th century) period, Nader also helped hasten the downfall of a second: India’s Mughal dynasty, in one dramatic and brutal invasion in the late 1730s. The Safavids and Mughals had been close allies at one time, which is something you can mention the next time you find yourself being told that Sunnis and Shiʿa Muslims have never gotten along. Safavid military aid helped Babur found the Mughal dynasty in 1526 and helped restore Babur’s son, Humayun, to the throne in 1555. But as the Safavids had waned and the Mughals had gotten stronger, the two empires began to feud, albeit never too intensely, over the cities of Kandahar and Kabul. Nader conquered Kandahar in 1738, as he was chasing the remnants of the Ghilzai Afghans out of Iran. When those Afghans sought refuge in Mughal territory, and the Mughals didn't take any steps to intervene, Nader decided to keep marching his army right on into northern India.

By 1738 the Mughals were in steep decline, just as the Safavids had been in 1722. The apex of Mughal power and success had come under Akbar (r. 1556-1605), Jahangir (r. 1605-1627), and Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658), rulers who went to great lengths to treat India’s Hindu majority (“majority” doesn't really do it justice—the Mughals were always vastly outnumbered from a religious perspective) with respect. Under Awrangzeb (r. 1658-1707), however, that pluralism was replaced by a heavy emphasis on Islam and the exclusion and even persecution of Hindus and Hinduism. Consequently, there was a major increase in Hindu revolts against Mughal rule and an overall weakening of Mughal authority.

While drained militarily and politically by these rebellions, the Mughals still controlled considerable wealth (India, because it did a lot more selling than buying in the east-west trade network, accumulated wealth for most of its history until modern times). Thus they presented a very appealing target for somebody like Nader, who was militarily strong but a bit cash poor, at least as far as he was concerned.

It took the Mughals, under Emperor Muhammad Shah (d. 1748), a while to assemble their army to meet Nader’s invasion. In the meantime, Nader helped himself to several cities, including Kabul, Peshawar, and Lahore. The two armies met on February 24, 1739, at Karnal, just 75 miles north of the Mughal capital, Delhi. The Mughals had left Delhi in December, but their army was so large and immobile that it took two months just to get to Karnal, and once there it could go no further.

Sources claim that the Mughal army was 300,000 men strong, which sounds large. But considering how large and wealthy the Mughal Empire was and that this army was fighting on its own turf, it’s probably not that outrageous. Nader Shah certainly had far fewer men with him, probably 50,000-100,000 real fighting troops (as with any army on campaign, there would have been thousands more support personnel). Still, Nader’s army was better equipped, better trained, and had considerably more experience fighting together than Muhammad Shah’s army did. Muhammad Shah was also out of his depth as a commander—he rarely sent out any reconnaissance, for example, while Nader was constantly sending riders out to bring him new information.

Muhammad Shah had his army build large earthen works and stationed his heavy artillery (the Mughals had to bring big siege guns with them because they lacked nimbler and ultimately more useful field artillery) all around it. This made a formidable target for Nader, but unfortunately for the Mughals it was also an irrelevant target—Nader could simply march around it and continue on to Delhi. He decided to take a course through a plain to the east of the Mughal camp, reasoning that he would either draw Muhammad Shah out to fight him in the open field or, if Muhammad Shah wouldn’t come out, simply keep marching on to the Mughal capital, and the vast treasures contained therein.

As luck would have it, As Nader’s army was marching by, a column of maybe 30,000 men was heading to join the Mughals from the east, under an official named Saʿadat Khan. Nader saw this coincidence as a chance to have the battle he wanted on his terms, so after the bulk of Saʿadat Khan’s force had arrived at Karnal, the Iranians attacked his lagging supply train. Saʿadat impetuously turned around and led a few thousand of his men back out of Karnal to drive the Iranians off. Another force of several thousand Mughal cavalry rode out to support him. Nader sent out two units of his own cavalry to attack the two Mughal forces and then immediately retreat, which drew the Mughals toward two different points along the main Iranian line. Both Mughal columns were virtually wiped out by the main Iranian force, though Saʿadat Khan’s men put up quite a fight despite being outnumbered.

Considering that the Mughal army may have been 300,000 strong, Karnal could have been a much bigger fight. As it was the Mughals lost in the neighborhood of 20,000 men (between 10,000 and 30,000 seems to be the range of estimates), compared to around 1000 lost to the Iranians. And while that was less than 10% of the Mughal army, it was enough for their leader to call it quits. Muhammad Shah presented himself before Nader on February 26, and, after what appears to have been a very cordial meeting, surrendered his empire to the Iranian ruler, who magnanimously settled for becoming its “master” while leaving Muhammad Shah on the throne as his vassal. Still, Nader refused to allow the Mughal army to leave its encampment, and gradually it ran out of supplies and people began to starve. On March 7, Nader forced Muhammad Shah to pay him a massive tribute, then he disbanded the Mughal army after confiscating its artillery pieces and its officers.

Nader Shah’s India campaign wasn’t over. His army now did march to Delhi, where it perpetrated a massacre that is notorious even by the standards of those Central Asian conquerors I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, none of whom ever shied away from a good massacre. But that’s a story for another time.