Instances of South Asian polities exerting power into Central Asia are extremely rare. The other way around was far more common: in fact, the history of the Indus Basin and North India has largely been shaped by invasions from Central Asia and the subsequent dynasties that were formed when these invaders were amalgamated into the Indic cultural milieu.
The two most famous instances of South Asian power projection into Central Asia are also, in fact, examples of descendants of Central Asians returning to the steppes to reassert themselves in their former homelands across the mountain barrier of the Hindukush-Karakoram.
The first was in antiquity when Kanishka, the Kushan Emperor, sent an army from Taxila across what is now Gilgit-Baltistan to capture the Tarim Basin cities of Khotan and Yarkand. The second was the Mughal push into Central Asia led by Shah Jahan which resulted in the Mughal conquest of Balkh. That even these great empires were unable to keep their holdings in Central Asia for long shows what a difficult task it is.
On a smaller scale, there is another example of a South Asian kingdom invading Central Asia: and that, too, an indigenous one. This happened when the Chitrali king Shah Katoor II launched a punitive campaign in Wakhan.
To call Chitral South Asian may not be entirely accurate and this war can be viewed as a conflict between two neighbours on the southern fringe of Central Asia but the fact that the East Iranic Wakhis along the Oxus and the Indo-Aryan Kho of the northernmost part of the Indus Basin are linguistically members of these two different cultural spheres does nominate this scenario as an invasion of Central Asia by South Asia.
Nonetheless, Chitral and Wakhan have always been interlinked and share much of the same culture. The Wakhis have historically been a very peaceful people but the post-Timurid collapse in Central Asia turned the entire region quite violent and the nomadic Turkic peoples asserted themselves over the sedentary Iranic ones. Thus the Wakhan that entered into this war with Chitral was a militaristic one.
The Wakhis have historically been a very peaceful people but the post-Timurid collapse in Central Asia turned the entire region quite violent and the nomadic Turkic peoples asserted themselves over the sedentary Iranic ones
The only existing source which we can draw upon for this conflict is the Tarikh-e-Chitral of Mirza Ghufran which allocates a few pages to Shah Katoor’s expedition. Shah Katoor II, whose given name was Mohtaram Shah, has the distinction of being the most impactful Katoor ruler before Aman-ul-Mulk. The Wakhan expedition occurred in the latter part of his rule in the late 1700s. Theoretically this entire region would have been considered to be part of Afghanistan at this time and the Mir of Badakhshan was indeed an Afghan vassal – and the Mir of Wakhan was in turn a vassal of Badakhshan. Despite falsified Afghan claims to the contrary, Chitral has never been an Afghan dependency and Shah Katoor II was too proud a man to have become anyone’s vassal. What set him apart was his understanding of regional politics. He knew who to play off against each other to maintain his independence. He himself came to the throne of Lower Chitral only after playing kingmaker and letting two of his younger brothers rule, who unfortunately were not able to survive in a turbulent Lower Chitral constantly at war with Badakhshan and the Khoshwaqt kingdom in Upper Chitral and Gilgit, while being subject to raids by the Pashtuns of Dir and Kunar. By this time Shah Katoor II was firmly in control of his kingdom and had entered a period of stability. The traditional Katoor domains based in Lower Chitral also included the vast and populous Mulkho Valley of Upper Chitral and at this time extended to the Torkho Valley. Torkho often changed hands between Katoor and Khoshwaqt rule but the nobility of the valley always favored the Katoors, unlike those of Mastuj and Yarkhun who were pro-Khoshwaqt.
The Torkho Valley lies on the border with the fertile southern part of the Wakhan but the passes between these valleys are extremely high as they constitute the eastern arm of the Tirich Mir spur, the highest point in the Hindukush-Pamir continuum. Given this fact Torkho has had only limited interaction with Central Asia as opposed to the two other parts of Chitral adjoining Badakhshan, Lotkuh and Yarkhun. Thus when Wakhi raiders got into the habit of crossing over and abducting Chitrali women, it became a matter of pride. Shah Katoor II was always in a state of war with Badakhshan so when the people of Torkho complained to him about the raids from Wakhan he did not hesitate to teach the Wakhis a lesson.
The campaign in Wakhan had to be a surprise attack. The Chitralis did not want to alert the Mir of Badakhshan as to their intentions as that would mean fighting the entire army of Badakhshan and perhaps even involving Afghanistan. Thus rather than using the easier route over the Dorah Pass in Lotkuh and then going up the Wakhan Valley from the plains of Badakhshan, Shah Katoor decided to take his army – largely made up of musketeers, archers and swordsmen rather than cavalry – over the spur from Torkho. This feat of mountaineering with an army is unprecedented in the history of the region as invasions mostly take place through the larger more easily accessible passes. Thus Shah Katoor took the Wakhis completely by surprise. The Tarikh-e-Chitral states that the Chitrali invasion was met with limited resistance in the early stages but the Wakhis didn’t seem to have much of a stomach for a fight and soon fled into the mountains, leaving their fields and flocks unattended. The Mir of Wakhan locked himself up in his hill top fortress and prepared for a siege. The timing of the expedition was in autumn, which at that altitude is September. The Chitralis proceeded to burn all of the fields of wheat and barley in the Lower Wakhan as retribution for the Wakhi raids, thus in Khowar folklore this campaign is remembered as “Juo Katoor Wokh o Palaiastai” meaning “Katoor the Second burned Wakhan.”
Knowing that winter was close and that the mountains would soon be unpassable, Shah Katoor then returned after sending the Mir an emissary to convey to him that peace between the two kingdoms would only be possible if the latter sent him tribute. The Chitralis then returned to Torkho with large flocks of sheep and two humped Bactrian camels that they took as war booty. After this incident raids from the Wakhan ceased and the Mir of Wakhan indeed sent the tribute that was demanded of him. A century later the last Mir of Wakhan, Mir Ali Mardan, came to Chitral as a refugee once the Afghans formally amalgamated Wakhan and ended his rule. Shah Aman-ul-Mulk welcomed him with open arms and gave him a large jagir in the easternmost part of his kingdom: Ishkoman in what is now Gilgit-Baltistan.
That was the brief story of how a South Asian kingdom once bested a Central Asian one. It also marked one of the few times that the Katoor Shahs fought a war outside of Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan.
It goes to show that although Chitralis are a peaceful and cheerful people, if you wronged they can make you taste a most bitter retribution indeed!
The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk