Tamerlane’s Invasion of India—Part I

Timur, historically known as Tamerlane (1336 – 1405), was a Turco-Mongol conqueror and the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia. Timur rose through the ranks by gaining the respect of local chieftains due to his personal valor in combat and his brigandage. His actions, whether raiding or in combat, caused many to flock to him. It was during a battle that arrows struck his right arm and leg which left him partially paralyzed. Because of this, Europeans referred to him as ‘Tamerlane’ or ‘Timur the Lame.’

Timur was born in Transoxania a member of Barlas tribe. He rose to power among the Ulus Chaghatay. The Ulus Chaghatay was nomadic tribal confederation that formed the central region of Mongolian Chaghadaid khanate. Timur’s story is similar to Genghis Khan; How true these stories are is up for debate.

Portrait of Timur, 15th century. (Public Domain)

Portrait of Timur, 15th century. (Public Domain)

Timur, not being related to Genghis Khan, could not bear the title Khan. Since he could not use the title, he decided to use politics to his advantage. While in the city of Balkh, (now northern Afghanistan), Timur quickly gained allies from among the merchants, peoples, and clergy due to sharing his loot with the locals, while the ruler, Husayn, who also happened to be Timur’s brother-in-law, was not viewed in with such praise. It may be that Husayn was a fine ruler; it is just that Timur had the capital to profit from his ambition.

The Chagatai Khanate and its neighbors in the late 13th century. (CC BY 3.0)

The Chagatai Khanate and its neighbors in the late 13th century. (CC BY 3.0)

Timur challenged and defeated Husayn in 1370 and took his other wife, Saray Mulk Khanum, who was a direct descendent of Genghis Khan. This allowed him to become the indirect imperial ruler of the Chaghatay tribe. To strengthen his position further, he collected a number of princes from the various branches of the Genghisid branches.

Timur also used Islam to legitimize his position by praising and patronizing the Sufi sheikhs and ulama. He built religious monuments to both please the religious faith and at the same time show that he was favored by the supernatural due to his connection to Genghis Khan. Timur understood the power of charisma as well as using the fear of the divine to solidify his position.

Emir Timur feasts in the gardens of Samarkand. (Public Domain)

Emir Timur feasts in the gardens of Samarkand. (Public Domain)

Facing India: Soldiers, Elephants, Destroyers of Men!

By the time Timur had considered invading India 1398, he had already conquered most of the Near East. However, his appetite for conquest had not been quenched. He wanted more, and he desired India.

Timur had focused most of his military career on the west. With the west secured there was no remaining kingdom in that region that could really put a dent into his empire. Therefore, he looked east as he always had a desire to conquer China and bring it back under the fold of the Mongol Empire. However, India was closer; this multi-kingdom subcontinent bordered his empire. The grand prize in all this was the powerful kingdom of the Delhi Sultanate. Timur knew that the Kingdom of Delhi was no pushover, but given that it was weakened due to being in a state of civil war, made Delhi ripe for the sacking.

Asia in 1335, showing including Turco-Mongol culture nations such as the Golden Horde and the Chagatai Khanate. (Public Domain)

Timur’s desired to take Delhi as he felt not only would he secure his southern border, but also he would acquire the kingdom’s extraordinary amounts of wealth. That being said, selling the war was not so easy.

Timur ordered the princes and amirs to meet with him to see what they thought about making a military expedition into India. Most opposed the idea due to the prospective kingdom being of the same faith; others also feared that invading India was too ambitious of a task. Many were bewildered by this and stated “The rivers! And the mountains and deserts! And the soldiers clad in armor! And the elephants, destroyers of men!”

Elephant in Battle, Kota, Rajasthan, India. (

Elephant in Battle, Kota, Rajasthan, India. (Public Domain)

Prince Mohammad Sultan scolded the men and shamed them for such talk. Afterwards, he made a plea to their greed to uplift their spirits by stating:

“The whole country of India is full of gold and jewels, and in it there are seventeen mines of gold and silver, diamonds and rubies, emeralds and tin, iron and steel, copper and quicksilver, and many metals more; and among the plants which grow there are those fit for making wearing-apparel, and aromatic shrubs, and the sugar-cane; and it is a country which is always green and verdant, and the whole aspect of the land is pleasant and delightful. Now, since the inhabitants are chiefly polytheists and infidels and idolaters and worshippers of the sun, it is meet, according to the mandate of God and of His Prophet, for us to conquer them.”

Timur’s son, Shahrukh Mirza also made a statement, reminding the officers that “India is an extensive country. Whichever Sultan conquers it becomes supreme over the four corners of the globe. If under the conduct of our amir, we conquer India, we shall become rulers over the seven climes.”

The World Trembles, but the Khan Does Not

After much debate, Timur decided to go ahead and prepare for a massive invasion. While he readied his forces, he sent Prince Pir Mohammed Jahangir ahead to place the holy city of Multan (located in present-day Pakistan) under siege.

Multan is famous for its large number of Sufi shrines, including the unique rectangular tomb of Shah Gardez that dates from the 1150s and is covered in blue enameled tiles typical of Multan.

Multan is famous for its large number of Sufi shrines, including the unique rectangular tomb of Shah Gardez that dates from the 1150s and is covered in blue enameled tiles typical of Multan. (Junaidahmadj/CC BY-SA 3.0)

While this was ongoing, Timur ordered for the assembly of ninety thousand troops. To make sure everyone was on board, Timur called for a qurultay, which is a meeting with all the princes, chiefs, and other officials to inform them what his intentions were.

Timur stated:

Although the true faith is observed in many places in India, the greater part of the Kingdom is inhabited by idolaters. The Sultans of Delhi have been slack in their defense of the Faith. The Muslim rulers are content with the collection of tribute from these infidels. The Koran says that the highest dignity a man can achieve is to make war on the enemies of our Religion. Mohammed the Prophet counselled like wise. A Muslim warrior thus killed acquires a merit which translates him at once into Paradise.

Timur also made it clear that they should fear him and his army for “most of Asia are under our domination, and the world trembles at the least movement we make.” Timur also saw destiny on his side and believed he had been blessed with favorable opportunities. Because of this, his armies rode “south, not east. India through her disorders has opened her doors to us.”

Timur sent a letter addressed to Sarang Khan of Dipalpur with a possible deal:

If the rulers of Hindustan come before me with tribute, I will not interfere with their lives, property, or kingdoms; but if they are negligent in proffering obedience and submission, I will put forth my strength for the conquest of the realms of India. At all events, if they set any value upon their lives, property, and reputation, they will pay me a yearly tribute; and if not, they shall hear of my arrival with my powerful armies. Farewell.

Sarang Khan replied:

It is difficult to take an empire to your bosom, like a bride, without trouble and difficulty and the clashing of swords. The desire of your prince is to take this kingdom with its rich revenue. Well, let him wrest it from us by force of arms if he be able. I have numerous armies and formidable elephants, and am quite prepared for war.

Preparing for War

The armies of Timur were unlike those of the 14th-century Muslim states and closer to that of Genghis Khan and his successors. Timur’s military leadership may have started with an arban at the bottom of the chain. The next part is pure speculation. One can assume, without certainty, that every Timurid warrior belonged to an arban. An arban consisted of 10 men with one being the commander. Ten arbans equals one jagun (plural jaghut) consisting of 100 men. Ten jagunt consist of 1,000 men and form a minqan (plural minqat). Ten minqat form one tumen (plural tumet) consisting of 10,000 men.

10 men = 1 arban

100 men = 1 jagun

1,000 men = 1 minqan

10,000 men = 1 tumen

100,000 men = 1 tuc

A Mongol melee in the 13th century.

A Mongol melee in the 13th century. (Public Domain)

While Timur decidedly used the old Mongol system, it is uncertain as to whether or not he used the same traditional names. As for the size of Timur’s army marching into India, this remains debatable. Some say the army prepping for invasion into India was roughly between 90,000-100,000 or 40,000-45,000 troops. It might be safe to say that the army that sacked Delhi was roughly 60,000 strong.

If Timur’s army was purely cavalry based (and no infantry as some sources suggest), one can speculate that the number of horses each warrior had; perhaps five mounts at his disposal. If so, an army of 40,000 to 45,000 would have required 200,000 to 225,000 mounts, while an army of 90,000 to 100,000 would have needed 450,000 to 500,000 mounts. Two hundred thousand mounts would many square miles of grass per day on the plains. Hydration was also crucial, and the horses would require millions of gallons of water a day. To ensure that the horses had food and water, Timurid scouts, far ahead of the main army, searched for suitable grazing ground that supplied ample food and water. Timur’s best option to feed his army in areas less suitable was to raid nearby villages in enemy territory.

Timur’s army battles Egyptian forces.

Timur’s army battles Egyptian forces.  (Public Domain)

Heretics, Idolaters, Infidels, and Misbelievers

Once Timur and his forces pushed out in March 1398, his advanced guard and right wing were under the command of his grandson, Pir Mohammed. Pir Mohammed moved his forces into a less confined area as he pushed into Punjab. Once in Punjab, his mission was to capture Multan. With Pir Mohammed was busy in Punjab, Timur’s other grandson Mohammed Sultan, marched by way of Lahore. Timur, took a more difficult route, with a much smaller force into the Hindu Kush before making his way south to join his main force east of the Indus by September.

Once December arrived, Timur declared:

For my intended attack on Delhi in this same year 800 A.H. (1398 AD), I arranged my forces so that the army extended over a distance of twenty leagues. Being satisfied with my disposition of the troops, I began my march on Delhi. On the twenty-second of Rabi’-al-awwal (Dec. 2) I arrived and encamped at the fort of the village of Aspandi, where I found, in answer to my inquiries, that Samana was seven leagues distant.

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.

Top Image: Bust of Timur ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ), and Timur standing with cane (Public Domain); Deriv.

By Cam Rea


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Manz, Beatrice Forbes (2002). “Tamerlane’s Career and Its Uses”. Journal of World History. 13: 3.

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