Today in South Asian history: the Battle of Delhi (1398)

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The Turco-Mongolian warlord Timur is usually portrayed as a fairly one-dimensional figure, a brutal conqueror who had no broader ambitions beyond building piles of his enemies’ skulls and amassing a vast empire. He’s usually just lumped into a collection of Asiatic despots in a line starting with Genghis Khan, or Attila the Hun if you want to reach back into ancient history. Even the descriptor I just used for him, “Turco-Mongolian,” reads like shorthand for “exotic Oriental man.” Its actual meaning can vary a bit, but for our purposes I’m going with “an ethnic Mongol who spoke a Turkic language and practiced Islam.”

Not that Timur was a devout Muslim by any means. Most of the places he invaded were ruled by Muslim potentates and most of the people he killed were Muslim, which is deeply problematic from a religious standpoint in addition to its bigger moral issues. There was a legend that circulated about a holy man named Sayyid Ali Hamadani, who died in 1385 and was famous for never sitting with his back toward Mecca. Timur sought an audience with Hamadani, who in this case did sit with his back facing Mecca. When Timur asked why, Hamandani replied that any man who took an audience with the great warlord Timur must necessarily turn his back on Mecca. So Timur wasn’t known for his piety.

Still, Timur I think gets a bum rap as a brutal thug, when in fact his career shows him to have been a tenacious fighter, a fantastic military mind, and a patron of the arts—at least, of those arts his wars didn’t destroy. Timur forcibly relocated artists and artisans from the places he conquered to help build a glorious capital at Samarkand…which, OK, when you put it that way is kind of thuggish. But artistically so! It’s also not fair to say that Timur had no interests other than conquest, because he definitely did. OK, so admittedly his one other major interest was in making money, and that’s not really much of an improvement, but still! It’s another interest!

Man this isn’t going well. What about the piles of skulls, you ask? Well, uh…a lot of those people could have had it coming. You can’t prove they didn’t. And in that legend we recounted above, he didn’t kill Hamadani despite the insult. That’s something, right? Or would be, if the story were true? Which it probably isn’t? Damn this is hard!

I’m going to bail out here, because today’s anniversary doesn’t really do much to rehabilitate Timur’s image. It was on December 17, 1398, when the warlord led his armies into battle against the forces of the Delhi Sultanate, then under the Tughlaq dynasty, at the Battle of Delhi. Timur’s victory here was both brutal, in that it kicked off a multi-day pillage and slaughter spree by his army inside Delhi, and greedy, in that his motives for invading India were mostly about looting the place (I refer you back to his interest in making money). Like I said, it’s not much of an image booster.

The Delhi Sultanate was a pretty long-lived kingdom, lasting from its establishment in 1206 until the nascent Mughal Empire overthrew it in 1526. But that’s a little misleading. What scholars call the “Delhi Sultanate” today was actually a succession of five kingdoms under five different dynasties—the Mamluk (1206-1290), the Khalji (1290-1320), the Tughlaq (1321-1414), the Sayyid (1414-1451) and the Lodi (1451-1526). They get lumped together because for the most part they all ruled from Delhi and because, unless you make one of them the specific object of your academic pursuits for some reason, there’s not enough that distinguishes one from another to treat them separately. The sultanate was the first Islamic principality to rule from within what is today India, rather than ruling parts of modern India from elsewhere, and they get credit for surviving both the Mongol invasions (the Mongols apparently found the Indian climate abhorrent, so that helped) and the general regional chaos that followed the Mongol invasions.

In 1398 the Delhi Sultanate was under the Tughlaq dynasty, and if you notice those dates above the Tughlaq dynasty didn’t last very much past this incident. That is not a coincidence, just to get that out of the way up front. The dynasty had been founded by Ghiyath al-Din Tughlaq (“Tughlaq” appears to have been his given name rather than some sort of title or nickname) in 1321 or so. He was a palace guard for the last Khalji sultan, Mubarak Shah, who was murdered in a coup by one of his generals, Khosrow Khan. Tughlaq in turn overthrew Khosrow Khan and the rest, I suppose, is history. In 1394, Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughlaq, a great-grandson (I think) of the original Tughlaq, assumed the throne, but he was challenged by a cousin and the kingdom plunged itself into civil war. That civil war was, as many Muslim civil wars in India were over the centuries, exacerbated by the many Hindu vassal principalities that either chose up sides or decided that this was their big chance to overthrow Islamic rule and tried to break away entirely.

There’s a pattern to most of Timur’s military campaigns, in that they fit into one of two categories (which could overlap): one, rebuilding the Mongolian Empire as it had been in its glory days, and two, making money. Conquering Iran, Iraq, and Central Asia was about rebuilding the empire (as was a later attempted campaign against Ming China, which was interrupted by Timur’s death in 1405). Defeating and subjugating the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt and Syria was about protecting his conquests and maybe a little about revenge. Defeating and smashing the early Ottoman Empire was similarly about protecting what Timur had already conquered. Invading the Golden Horde, the Mongolian Khanate that ruled the area north of the Caspian Sea, was partly about rebuilding the empire, but seems to have been more about destroying one of the several Eurasian Silk Road routes in order to drive more commerce through places that Timur controlled. In other words, it was about making money.

Timur’s invasion of India was definitely not about rebuilding the old empire, since the Mongols had barely even set foot beyond the Hindu Kush before turning around and heading north again. It was, instead, about money. India was a phenomenally wealthy place and its internal political struggles were just the thing for a guy who was good at invading places and wanted some quick cash. So Timur invaded the Delhi Sultanate in late September. He may have used as a pretext a claim that Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah was too lenient with his Hindu subjects, which you have to admit was pretty funny coming from a guy who was infamous for his lack of piety. Any claim like this would have been intended only to justify an invasion of a Muslim-controlled principality—which, to reiterate, was not great from a religious perspective.

For one reason or another Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah opted to do nothing while Timur pillaged much of his sultanate, though given how things eventually worked out an earlier battle would have presumably ended the same way this one did, just earlier. It may have been the Tughlaq shah’s hope that Timur and his army would gorge themselves on so much booty that they’d decide enough was enough and head home of their own accord. To be honest, this wasn’t a bad theory, because on the eve of the Battle of Delhi Timur’s army was indeed overloaded with the spoils of war. Timur decided to alleviate this problem by…ordering his men to slaughter the people they’d carted off as slaves. Remember how I said we wouldn’t be rehabilitating his image here? At the high end of the various estimates of this massacre he may have killed around 100,000 people. The actual figure was probably a bit lower than that, but still plenty heinous.

Their baggage thus…oh, let’s say “lightened,” Timur and his army advanced on the sultanate’s capital, leaving Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah no choice but to take the field. The Delhi Sultanate had one war making trick in its bag with which Timur was unfamiliar—war elephants. But true to form, he figured out how to deal with them. Timur had his men dig trenches to slow the elephants’ charge and then loaded camels with piles of flammable material, set the material on fire, and sent the camels running into the elephants’ midst. The easily spooked elephants spooked, and began stampeding in all directions, rendering them useless or downright dangerous to the Tughlaq army. Once the elephants were out of the way, the rest of the battle seems to have been a mere formality. In winning a major victory against the dominant power in India, Timur achieved something even Genghis Khan had never done, though to be fair Genghis Khan’s resume doesn’t really suffer much for the lack of an Indian campaign.

With the sultanate’s army defeated and Delhi open to him, Timur sent his forces into the city and basically turned them loose. What followed is poorly documented but probably stands as one of the most destructive pillages in the history of warfare. Over the next several days Timur’s men carried off whatever they could find of value and killed pretty much anybody they saw. It’s impossible to estimate the financial impact but the human impact was vast. Tens or even hundreds of thousands may have been killed. It’s possible that 100,000 dead figure I mentioned above may have been a total death toll for the Delhi campaign, but it’s likely that the death toll was much higher than that. It’s said the city of Delhi took decades to recover from the damage.

One thing that did not recover from the damage was the Tughlaq dynasty. While Timur helped himself to part of the Delhi Sultanate, he couldn’t absorb the whole thing. When he was finally satisfied and decided to head back north, he appointed a new vassal to govern the region for him, a former governor of Multan named Khizr Khan who had gone over to Timur’s side early in the invasion. Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah was still around and tried to reassert his claims after Timur’s withdrawal, and it took Khizr Khan several years before he was able to put down the remnants of the Tughlaqs and take control of Delhi. Khizr Khan claimed descent from Muhammad (such claims were and are obviously difficult to prove conclusively), which allowed him to use the honorific “Sayyid,” and so the dynasty he founded is called the Sayyid dynasty.