Multan is an ancient city of Asia, with a rich history, full of various episodes of heroism, tragedy and dramatism.
This is, after all, the very city where Alexander the Great’s quest to conquer the world concluded and he decisively turned back to return westward.
The oldest name of the city “Mulasthan” is derived from the Sanskrit language. Interestingly, the actual age of this city remains a matter for lively debate: with various claims being made but a conclusion far from sight.
Having kept so many secrets of history in its bosom, Multan is located on a historically and internationally important route which, throughout history, was considered to be a safe link between South and Central Asia. It was this very strategic aspect that brought conquerors, refugees, traders, holy men and robbers alike to this city.
In the era of the Mahabharata, the ancient Trigarta kingdom held sway over Multan. This kingdom was ruled by the Katoch clan of Kshatriya Rajputs.
In the early period of its history, Multan is said to have been a centre of prosperity – a veritable city of gold. The most prominent temples were Suraj Kund, Prahladapuri and Suraj Mandir. The Suraj Mandir, according to some accounts, was at one point the richest and largest temple of the entire Subcontinent, capable of accommodating thousands of people.
Multan was governed by various native empires in the eras prior to the invasion of Alexandar the Great. The city had been part of the Gupta and Mauryan empires which had been ruling much of Northern India.
And then the great conqueror and adventurer from Macedon, Alexander, arrived on the banks of the Indus and its tributaries. After the fiercely fought Battle of the Hydaspes (modern-day Jhelum river), in 326 BC, Alexander’s forces refused to advance further east, and he had to plan a return to the west. But before that, his march brought him to ancient Multan.
In the fierce fight to take ancient Multan, Alexander personally led the assault on the fortifications, where a poisoned arrow struck him. One of the possible reasons for his eventual, untimely death could well be that very arrow – and so it could be that an archer from Multan changed the course of world history in a most dramatic manner!
By the middle of the 10th century, Multan was caught up in the sectarian, political and dynastic struggles of the Muslim world
In the mid-5th century AD, a new wave of conquerors, the Hephthalite Huns, arrived in the Indus basin. Multan was conquered by powerful nomads under the command of Toramana. Native rulers, though, eventually wrested back control of north India.
The Muslim presence in Multan began with the arrival of Arab armies led by Al-Muhallab ibn Abi Suffrah in the 7th century. Serving the early Umayyad Empire, he launched a number of attacks from Persia into north-western India in 664. The purpose of the incursions, which included Multan in their geographical scope, appears to have been primarily one of pillaging and raiding for captives.
A more permanent Arab presence was established some decades later, with the arrival of the Umayyad general Muhammad bin Qasim. Having taken Sindh, he then proceeded to capture Multan. After the conquest by Muhammad bin Qasism, Multan more or less came under Muslim rule and began to be considered an independent Muslim-ruled state in time.
By the middle of the 10th century, Multan was caught up in the sectarian, political and dynastic struggles of the Muslim world. The Abbassids had defeated the Ismaili Qaramita (Qarmatians) whose zealots had sacked Makkah, outraging much of the Muslim world. Far from having been eliminated after their defeat at the hands of the Abbasids, the Qaramita moved to Multan and established a new emirate, which eventually pledged allegiance to the new and powerful Ismaili empire, that of the Fatimids of Egypt.
The Ismaili doctrines were spread throughout the Muslim world by a network of religious propagandists or Dais. One such Dai, who was dispatched to ensure adherence to the Fatimid-approved doctrines in Multan, was Jalam bin Shayban. He installed the newly converted Katara Rajputs as rulers. This arrangement was not to last very long, however. At this point, the Turkic Ghaznavid rulers from Afghanistan turned their attention towards Multan’s emirate. From their perspective, it provided two major reasons for attack: sectarian difference as well as the possibility of plunder.
Mahmud of Ghazni invaded Multan in 1005. He conducted a number of campaigns to Multan, aimed at its Ismaili rulers, many of whom were killed while others switched their allegiance to the Sunni Hanafi fiqh of which the Ghaznavids claimed to be champions.
Mahmud of Ghazni is reported to have destroyed the most famous and wealthy Sun Temple and smashed in particular an idol known as Aditya. The importance of this idol was apparently such that even Muhammad bin Qasim had been told that its presence was the reason for the prominence and financial success of the city.
Sultan Muhammad Ghori, beginning his Delhi-based dynasty, made Multan an integral part of his empire.
Multan always maintained a special importance for the Mughal emperors. A measure of the importance they gave to this region was that the Emperor Akbar established Multan as one of his original twelve most important imperial provinces. Due to the cooperative attitude of its people, Multan was known as the ‘Abode of Peace’ in the Mughal era.
In the same era the Khakwani nawabs established themselves. Nawab Ali Muhammad Khan Khakwani eventually came to gain particular prominence.
Multan escaped the destruction brought upon India by the armies of Nader Shah in the 18th century. His Iranian empire was succeeded by the Afghans of the Durrani empire.
As the Mughal Empire fell apart, Marathas and Sikhs invaded Multan. The Maratha rule, of course, had been very short-lived as the Durranis drove them out in 1759.
With the fall of Ahmad Shah Durrani’s dynasty, Multan came under the rule of the Khakwani and Sadozai chieftains. In this very period the rise of Sikh power in Punjab began. Eventually, the Sikh warriors attacked Multan, killed the Sadozai Nawab and took over the city – the Khakwanis retreated and moved out of the city.
The particular Muslim identity of Multan, as we know it today, owes a lot to the Sufi saints of India. Their dargahs have always been powerful symbols of this identity.
By the time the British colonialists arrived, Multan was already a very old city, well aware of its long heritage. It was a city which had survived the vicissitudes of fortune and the rise and fall of many an invader. That fact could hardly have been lost on the British as they struggled to establish imperial control over the region – which could only happen after a bloody battle in 1848.