A timeless, tragic and brutal lesson of history is that weakness invites aggression. The invasion of India by Nadir Shah in 1739 would be an emblematic example.
After the long turbulent rule of Aurangzeb, the Mughal Empire was torn asunder in unrelenting ruinous wars of succession. The central authority became weak, provinces were mismanaged, civil strife was rife and palace intrigues were rampant. The jurisdiction of the Emperor was increasingly restricted.
Two predatory powers were watching the implosion of the Mughals: the British East India Company – from Bombay and Madras – and Nader Shah from Iran. The former was not yet secure enough to seize the decaying empire but the latter was strong enough to plunder it. And that is precisely what he chose to do.
Nader Shah, arguably the greatest soldier of his day, started his career as a Turkoman robber-chief and eventually, by deposing the last of the Safavids, became the Shah of Persia. Before he invaded India, he had routed the Afghans and Ottoman Turks in many battles – and forced the Russians to give up the Iranian provinces they had seized! He extended his rule to the Caucasus and the ruler of Georgia became his vassal. He was fond of wine – the legendary product of Shiraz – and was extremely addicted to women, who he had gathered in great variety during his military campaigns. At the same time, he was extremely energetic and slept for only four to five hours a day.
His sack of Delhi, that I am going to discuss here, possibly ranks as the greatest armed robbery in the annals of history.
At the battle of Karnal, the Persian losses were some 400 killed, whereas the Indians lost 17,000 lives
James Fraser, a Scot, stayed in Surat from 1730 to 1740, and observed Nader Shah’s invasion from close quarters – as the East India Company must have been doing with great interest. His contemporaneous account of Nader Shah, published in 1742, is in the present tense. I have primarily relied on him for this article.
The Mughal Emperor at the time was Muhammad Shah – commonly known as Rangila. He was a great-grandson of Aurangzeb and took over the throne at the young age of 17 through a conspiracy. He presided over the dissolution of the Mughal Empire. During his reign, many of the governors became independent, the Marathas became resurgent and Sikh warriors became powerful in Punjab. The imperial army was completely de-motivated, salaries had not been paid and its commanders were involved in palace intrigues.
This was the state of the empire on the eve of invasion by Nader Shah, who was aware of the turbulent state of the Mughal Empire and had secretly been invited to attack Delhi by some of the disgruntled courtiers – an act that these traitors were to regret.
In the spring of 1738, Nader Shah seized Kandahar and continued to march to Ghazni and Kabul. His forces included Turkomans, Qizilbash, Afghans and Georgian Christians. The future king of eastern Georgia, Erekle II commanded a large contingent and Ahmed Shah Abdali – then a young boy 17 years of age – commanded a 4,000-strong cavalry unit. From Kabul, Nader Shah wrote to the Mughal Emperor that he was ready to send an army to his aid, so as to rid India of non-Muslim influences. A second messenger then arrived by the end of August, demanding 4 crore (40,000,000) rupees and four provinces!
When Nader Shah sacked Jalalabad, Nasir Khan, the governor of Peshawar and Kabul, appealed to the Mughal emperor for reinforcements. This was, however, seen at the Mughal court as a ploy to extort money. Nader Shah was led through an alternate route by his allied Safi tribe, bypassing the Khyber Pass and advancing straight to Jamrud. Nasir Khan was defeated and taken prisoner. Peshawar was occupied in November 1738, and the region between Peshawar and the Indus was thoroughly looted.
The Mughals did wake up somewhat after the fall of Kabul and a council of war was held with Nawab Saadat Khan of Awadh. It was decided that the nobles should march north to Karnal and wait for the enemy there. The Emperor released ten million rupees for the war effort and decided to accompany the army. Urgent messages were also sent to Rajput princes for help, but no positive response was received.
Nader Shah, with about 40,000 horse, crossed Attock and, making rapid progress, sacked Eminabad, a prominent town at the time. He besieged Lahore and defeated the Mughal governor Zikaria Khan. It is reported by an eye witness that the Qizilbash and the Georgians made a great slaughter while taking the city in early January 1739. He recommenced his march and found the Mughal force blocking his way at Karnal, 120 km north of Delhi.
Emperor Muhammad Shah with a force of as many as 200,000 troops and 5,000 guns was defeated by Nader Shah’s force of about 40-50,000 horsemen at Karnal on the 24th of February. The Persian losses were some 400 killed, whereas the Indians lost 17,000 lives. The marauding Persians killed an additional 14,000 in the countryside around the battlefield. The defeated Emperor was brought before the Shah and it was agreed that the former would pay indemnity worth 20 crore (200,000,000) rupees to the Persians.
Nader Shah entered Delhi on Friday, the 20th of March 1739 and occupied Shah Jahan’s imperial suite in the Red Fort. Coins were struck, and prayers said in his name in the Jamia Masjid and other Delhi mosques. The next day, the Shah held a great durbar in the capital.
The plunder enabled Nader Shah to stop taxing his Iranian subjects for the next three years
The exact events thereafter are not clear. However, a city taken by an occupation force is not really under anyone’s control. Fearful of the uncouth soldiers from amongst the Turkomans, Afghans and Persians, the traders were not brining in regular provisions. The arrival of 40,000 Persian troops had strained the grain supply. As a result, the price of grain had shot up but the Persians wanted to make procurements at a price of their liking. The traders resented this and in the ensuing scuffles, some of the Persian soldiers were killed.
Next day was Sunday and the skirmishes in the city continued. At 8 o’clock in the morning, Nader Shah rode out of the fort and entered Chandni Chowk, which was greatly disturbed. He saw the bodies of his murdered men lying on the street. He ordered his soldiers to restore order. But lenient treatment of the civilians further emboldened the rioters.
Nader Shah proceeded to the Sunehri Mosque. This is a small first-floor mosque with shops at the ground floor on the bazaar side. It is in a dishevelled condition today and overshadowed by a much larger and better decorated Gurdwara. But at that time, it was a newly constructed structure with delicate artwork.
People on the surrounding terraces saw the Shah and, oblivious to their precarious status as a conquered people, began throwing stones at Nader. A musket was fired at him, hitting an officer accompanying the Shah. This infuriated the Shah, who sensed that the situation may be going out of control and, unsheathing his sword, ordered a general massacre.
The soldiers immediately forced their way into homes, plundering and slaughtering. Many places were set on fire, and anyone found on the streets was put to the sword. Several women were taken prisoner. Nader Shah himself returned to the fort to his quarters. The massacre continued till three in the afternoon. Treasures were plundered and a great deal was destroyed by fires.
When the slaughter began, those who had raised the commotion in the first place disappeared – and left the innocent shopkeepers and families to be butchered by the enraged Qizilbash. Several persons, jealous of their honour, not only killed the women of their family, but also themselves. One of the unfortunate wretches in particular, when the soldiers came near his house, burnt about twenty women of his family and then killed himself also. A great number of people, especially women and children, were burnt in their houses in the violence. Thousands of women threw themselves into the wells to save their honour. Close to 50,000 people were taken prisoner. Many areas of Delhi such as Chandni Chowk, Dariba Kalan, Fatehpuri, Faiz Bazar, Hauz Kazi, Johri Bazar and the Lahori, Ajmeri and Kabuli gates – all of which were heavily populated areas – were ravaged. Muslims, like Hindus, resorted to killing their women, children and themselves rather than submit to the enemy soldiers. Next day, the streets of Delhi were strewn with corpses.
It is estimated that during the course of six hours that day, over 100,000 Indian men, women and children were slaughtered by the Persian troops in the city. Exact casualty figures are uncertain, as after the massacre, the bodies of the victims were simply buried in mass burial pits or cremated in grand funeral pyres without any proper record being made of the numbers cremated or buried.
On Tuesday, a contingent of soldiers was sent by Nader Shah to Roohullah Khan’s serai to seize cannon in the Mughalpura area but it was ambushed by locals. In reprisal, the Shah sent a strong body of soldiers who slaughtered 5-6,000 persons in the area.
On Sunday, when the city was still burying the dead, Nader Shah demanded, and was granted, the marriage of his son to a great-granddaughter of Emperor Aurangzeb. The mourning court was forced to celebrate the marriage with music, lighting and fireworks.
In the meantime, the collection of the indemnity was being carried out with great cruelty. Nobles and emirs were beaten and disgraced, many of whom committed suicide. The Bengal representative, when told to arrange 7 crore (70,000,000) rupees, said that it would make a wagon line from Bengal to Delhi. He went home and killed his family before killing himself.
Nader Shah appointed nobles from the Mughal court to collect a designated amount, a few crore rupees, from the city notables. He also assigned some Qizilbash soldiers to punish these nobles if the money was not remitted within the assigned time. Traders and rich persons in the city were then taxed in an arbitrary manner, on pain of strict punishment, irrespective of whether they were in a position to pay or not. Those who couldn’t were beaten badly; some were killed while others lost their limbs. All day, nothing was done or thought of but gathering money – in which no barbarities were left unpractised. This work went on until the day Nader Shah left the city, having collected of nearly 4 crore (40,000,000) from the people.
Even when the soldiers bought them, several goods – including horses, shawls and jewels – were taken away from the populace at low prices.
From the Battle of Karnal until Nader Shah’s departure from Delhi, the losses sustained by the Emperor and the people within and without the city, in jewels, treasure, goods, effects, and destroyed fields, amounted to nearly one billion rupees, of which Nader Shah carried away to the value of 70 crore (700,000,000) in jewels and other effects; his officers and soldiers took another 10 crore rupees. Losses due to fire and the expenses of his army amounted to nearly 20 crore.
There is no direct way of translating mid-18th century money into today’s money. However a billion would be at least 200 hundred billion today, without adding historic value to items like famous jewels and thrones. It was quite likely to be the most colossal heist in the history of mankind. It enabled Nader Shah to stop taxing his Iranian subjects for the next three years!
The detailed list of his loot has been recorded by Fraser – working with the East India Company – as jewels, including the Koh-i-Noor, Darya-i-Noor etc, valued at 25 crore (250,000,000); utensils and handles of weapons set with jewels – with the Peacock Throne included – worth 9 crore; money coined in gold and silver for 25 crore; gold and silver plates – which he melted – valued at 5 crore; fine cloths and rich material of all kinds valued at 2 crore; household furniture and other valuables worth 3 crore and weapons, cannon etc. worth 1 crore. This list adds up to 70 crore rupees. He also carried away 1,000 elephants, 7,000 horses and10,000 camels.
A proper description of the renowned jewels and thrones traced back to this plunder and their current location needs a separate article.
When leaving Delhi, Nader Shah directed that all women taken by his troops be returned except those – as he put it – who were legally married to his soldiers. He took away several hundred builders, masons, stone cutters and other artisans on the condition that they would work in Kandahar for three years and then would be free to return. Most of these reportedly escaped on the Shah’s return journey through Thanesar and Lahore, as confirmed by Sikh sources that claim that their bands had resolved to resist Nader Shah’s return through the Punjab. The sources claim that the Sikh warriors freed many of the slaves being carried back through hit-and-run tactics.
An exact figure for Indians of all religions killed during this raid can never be known. During Nader Shah’s march from Lahore to Karnal, some 7,000 were killed in the pillaging raids around the route. 17,000 were killed in the battle and 14,000 during the space of three days after the battle until reaching Delhi. 7,000 were killed in the sack of Panipat and Sonipat, the two towns between Karnal and Delhi. Conservatively, 110,000 were killed in the general massacre of Delhi and 25,000 around Delhi. On the return march, Nader Shah sacked Thanesar, killing 12,000. The women who committed suicide and persons who died of general hardship amounted to about 7,000. This conservative figure puts the slaughter at 200,000 people during this invasion by Nader Shah’s hordes.
The invasion destroyed the decaying Mughals. Central authority ceased to exist. There were no revenues left to administer the Empire. The provinces became independent. The history of Indian states – over 500 in number – can be traced back to this period.
Nader’s Indian campaign alerted the British East India Company to the extreme weakness of the Mughal Empire and the possibility of expanding to fill the power vacuum. Within twenty years of his sack of Delhi, Lord Clive fought the Battle of Plassey (1757) and launched the British conquest of India.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org