Timur, historically known as Tamerlane (1336 – 1405), was a Turco-Mongol conqueror and the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia. After having conquered much of the Near East, Timur decided to on a massive invasion of India. As he pushed across the lands, conquering, he declared:
“The people of Samana and Kaithal and Aspandi are all heretics, idolaters, infidels, and misbelievers. They had now set fire to their houses and had fled with their children and property toward Delhi, so that the whole country was deserted.”
In late December 1398, Timur left from the fort of Aspandi. After marching twenty miles, he arrived at the village of Taghlak-pur, which is opposite the fort of that same name. When the people of the fort heard of the approach of Timur’s army, they abandoned it and scattered throughout the country. Timur would learn that the people who fled were called Sanawi [that is, fire-worshippers, Zoroastrians, or Ghebers]. Timur saw these people as misbelievers and ordered that their houses be burned and their fort and buildings to be razed to the ground.
The next day, Timur marched to Panipat, where he encamped. There he found that, “in obedience to orders received from the ruler of Delhi, all the inhabitants had deserted their dwellings and had taken flight.” After his soldiers entered the fort, they reported to Timur that “they had found a large store of wheat, which I ordered to be weighed, to ascertain the real weight, and then to be distributed among the soldiers.”
Timur receives envoys during an attack on Balkh (Afghanistan) in 1370. Representational image. (Public Domain)
To Plunder and Destroy and Kill
From that day on, Timur and his forces continued to make their way through India where they pillaged, raped, and plundered, or in the words of Timur: “Their orders were to plunder and destroy, and to kill everyone they met.” The next day, his forces proceeded to the palace of Jahan-puma, which is five miles (eight kilometers) from Delhi. As they progressed “They plundered every village and place they came to, killed the men, and carried off all the valuables and cattle, securing much booty; after which they returned, bringing with them a number of Hindu prisoners, both male and female.”
After much fighting and bloodshed, Timur held a court and summoned the princes, amirs, and officers to his tent. Timur likely informed his men after all the information had been gathered and considered as to what their next move was. He praised his men for their obedience and bravery. Besides praising his men, he also cautioned them, stating:
“I therefore gave them instructions as to the mode of carrying on war; on making and meeting attacks; on arraying their men; on giving support to each other; and on all the precautions to be observed in warring with an enemy. I ordered the amirs of the right wing, the left wing, the van, and the center to take their proper positions, and cautioned them not to be too forward or too backward, but to act with the utmost prudence and caution in their operations.”
Afterwards, his men gave many blessings as they proceed from the tent. Timur knew that his men needed to hear some uplifting and cautionary words. It gave the officers confidence which could be distributed on down to the lower ranks and they were going to need it since Timur was very cautious.
The Problem of Prisoners
Before proceeding further, Timur had to make a decision on the one hundred thousand prisoners under his control. Timur feared that once he engaged the main enemy force, he would have to leave the prisoners in the rear with the gear. This was too dangerous, for the prisoners could revolt, find arms, and attack Timur from the rear during the battle. Therefore, Timur “immediately directed the commanders to proclaim throughout the camp that every man who had infidel prisoners was to put them to death, and that whoever neglected to do so, should himself be executed and his property given to the informer. When this order became known to the champions of Islam, they drew their swords and put their prisoners to death. One hundred thousand infidels, impious idolaters, were slain on that day.”
Timur’s army attacks the survivors of the town of Nerges, in Georgia, in the spring of 1396. Representational image. (Public Domain)
On 17 December 1398, Timur prepared his army for battle. His grandson, Prince Pir Mohammed was placed in charge of the right wing. Prince Sultan Hussein and Khalil Sultan, were placed in command of the left wing. The rear was placed on Prince Rusam, while Timur held the center. The Delhi Sultanate ruler Mahmud Tughluk (Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughluq) commanded the opposing army, which consisted of 10,000 horsemen, 40,000 infantry, and 125 elephants covered with armor, “most of them carrying howdahs in which were men to hurl grenades, fireworks, and rockets.”
Elephant with howdah of the Golconda Sultanate, Qutb Shahi dynasty. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Two Powerful Armies Clash
The two armies confronted each other, the drums beating; shouts and cries were raised on both sides and the ground trembled. Part of the enemy force separated from the vanguard, “and when they perceived that Sultan Mahmud’s forces were approaching, they moved off to the right, and getting secretly behind the enemy’s advance-guard as it came on unsuspecting, they rushed from their ambush, and falling upon the foe in the rear, sword in hand, they scattered them as hungry lions scatter a flock of sheep, and killed six hundred of them in this single charge.”
Prince Pir Mohammad, who commanded the right wing, moved his forces forward, and with Amir Sulaiman Shah and his regiments, attacked the left wing of the enemy, which was commanded by Taghi Khan, and showered arrows upon them, which compelled them to take refuge in flight.
The left wing under Prince Sultan Husain, Amir Jahan Shah, Amir Ghiyas-ad-din, and other amirs, attacked the enemy’s right wing, which was commanded by Malik Mu’in-ad-din and Malik Hadi. They pressed with the “trenchant sword and piercing arrows that they compelled the enemy to break and fly. Jahan Shah pursued them, and attacked them again and again until they reached the gates of the city of Delhi.”
Simultaneously, Sultan Mahmud’s army at the center was more numerous and with its strong war elephants, made an attack upon Timur’s center, “where Prince Rustam, Amir Shaikh Nur-ad-din, Gateway of the mosque of Ala-ad-din at Delhi and their colleagues met it with a brave and resolute resistance. While they were thus engaged, Daulat Timur Tawachi, Mangali Khwaja, and other amirs came up with their respective forces and assailed the enemy.”
Timur then gave the order to a party of “brave fellows who were in attendance upon me, and they cut their way to the sides of the amirs, who were fighting in the forefront of the battle. They brought the elephant drivers to the ground with their arrows and killed them, after which they attacked and wounded the elephants with their swords. The soldiers of Sultan Mahmud and Mallu Khan showed courage in the fight, but could not withstand the onslaughts of Timur’s army. Seeing that the situation is bleak their “their courage fell and they took to flight.” Mahmud Tughluk army was defeated; “part was slain, and part had found refuge in the fort, toward which I marched, exalted with victory.” With the main threat vanquished, Timur made his way to Delhi.
The Devastating and Bloody Sack of Delhi
After this victory, Timur soon entered Delhi. At first, everything was going fine; many officials came forward to offer Timur gifts. While the regal ceremony and the state of affairs were taking place within the court, problems in the city were about to erupt. Below is the devastating recorded account of what happened to citizens of Delhi in 1398:
“On the sixteenth of the month (Dec. 26), certain incidents occurred which led to the sack of the city of Delhi and to the slaughter of many of the infidel inhabitants. One was this.
A party of fierce Turkish soldiers had assembled at one of the gates of the city to look about them and enjoy themselves, and some of them had laid riotous hands upon the goods of the inhabitants. When I heard of this violence, I sent some amirs, who were present in Delhi, to restrain the Turks, and a party of soldiers accompanied these officers into the city. Another reason was that some of the ladies of my harem expressed a wish to go into the city and see the Palace of a Thousand Columns which Malik Jauna had built in the fort called Jahanpanah.”
Ruins of East gate entry in to Begumpur Masjid (CC BY 2.0), Jahanpanah. The grand palace with its audience hall of beautifully painted wooden canopy and columns is vividly described but it does no longer exists.
“I granted this request, and I sent a party of soldiers to escort the litters of the ladies. Another reason was that Jalal Islam and other officials had entered Delhi with a party of soldiers to collect the contribution laid upon the city. Another reason was that some thousand troopers with orders for grain, oil, sugar, and flour had gone into the city to collect these supplies. Another reason was that it had come to my knowledge that great numbers of Hindus and infidels had come into the city from all the country round with their wives and children, and goods and valuables, and consequently I had sent some amirs with their regiments into Delhi and directed them to pay no attention to the remonstrances of the inhabitants, but to seize these fugitives and bring them out.”
“For these various reasons a great number of fierce Turkish troops were in the city. When the soldiers proceeded to apprehend the Hindus and infidels who had fled to Delhi, many of them drew their swords and offered resistance. The flames of strife thus lighted spread through the entire city from Jahan-panah and Siri to Old Delhi, consuming all they reached. The savage Turks fell to killing and plundering, while the Hindus set fire to their houses with their own hands, burned their wives and children in them, and rushed into the fight and were killed. The Hindus and infidels of the city showed much alacrity and boldness in fighting. The amirs who were in charge of the gates prevented any more soldiers from entering Delhi, but the flames of war had risen too high for this precaution to be of any avail in extinguishing them.”
View of Tohfe Wala Masjid in Siri Fort area near Shahpur Jat village (CC BY-SA 3.0)
“All day Thursday and throughout the night, nearly fifteen thousand Turks were engaged in slaying, plundering, and destroying.”
Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi. (Public Domain)
Stripping Wealth and Life from the Land
“When Friday morning dawned, my entire army, no longer under control, went off to the city and thought of nothing but killing, plundering, and making prisoners. The sack was general during the whole day, and continued throughout the following day, Saturday, the eventeenth (Dec. 27), the spoil being so great that each man secured from fifty to a hundred prisoners, men, women, and children, while no soldier took less than twenty. There was likewise an immense booty in rubies, diamonds, garnets, pearls, and other gems; jewels of gold and silver; gold and silver money of the celebrated Alai coinage; vessels of gold and silver; and brocades and silks of great value. Gold and silver ornaments of the Hindu women were obtained in such quantities as to exceed all account. Excepting the quarter of the Sayyids, the scholars, and the other Mussulmans, the whole city was sacked.
The pen of fate had written down this destiny for the people of this city, and although I was desirous of sparing them, I could not succeed, for it was the will of God that this calamity should befall the city.”
By Cam Rea
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