The Punjab Problem

The Punjab problem

200 years before Muhammad Ghori’s invasion of Ajmer and Kannauj had occurred the invasions of Mahmud Ghaznavi. From his base of Ghazni, this Turk invaded the neighboring Kingdom of the Shahi dynasty in Punjab and carried out cavalry raids deep into other parts of North India. Mahmud’s descendants made the town of Lahore their base—just as the lieutenants of Ghori later made the town of Delhi their base.

The Sultans of Delhi remained locked in battle with the Rajput chieftains for centuries, as described in previous posts, and couldn’t convert the local people by force or persuasion. In Punjab too the Ghaznavid rulers were in conflict with local powers but managed to convert large numbers of Punjabis to Islam. Why was it so? From epigraphic records, it appears that the kingdoms of this region had the same political and administrative organization as in regions south of the Sutlej River—and yet the inhabitants of the Punjab plains did not (or could not) resist the converting zeal of Islam.

The problem gets worse when we consider later events. In the 19th Century when the British rulers first carried out a census of the Indian people, the landowning classes in Punjab laid claim to being Rajputs! To accommodate these claims the British rulers coined the oxymoronic term *Mussalman Rajput *. The ferocious resistance of the early Rajaputra families and the willingness of their descendants to die rather than abandon their ancestral faith negates the use of such a term.

The conflicts of the Ghaznavid rulers with the Indians in Punjab are known only in superficial form—it is not clear what military changes the Indians made to resist this menace as they did later in Ajmer and Kannauj. Unlike these kingdoms, the region of Punjab in an earlier period was divided into numerous small powers, with an all-powerful overlord in the shape of the Shahi dynasty. But a cursory glance is needed at the regions of Sindh and Afghanistan to put the history of Punjab in perspective.

Kannauj, Kashmir, and Sindh

The Pratihar rulers of Gurjara province defeated the Arab invaders from Sindh in the 8th Century CE. After they had captured Kannauj, the Pratihars advanced north and captured a large portion of Punjab—they left a representative of their clan to consolidate this conquest. This conquered region acquired the name Gurjarat (Gurjar-rashtra) since its rulers had their original home in the region of Gurjar[1] (southwestern Rajasthan and northern Gujarat).

The ruling dynasties of Kashmir (Karkota and Utpala) had their periods of rise and fall. Lalitaditya of the Karkota dynasty defeated an Arab raid into Punjab—the later dynasty of Utpala fought against the neighboring chieftains of Darvabhisara (modern Poonch) and Trigart (modern Kangra). The chief of Gurjarat[2] Alakhan was defeated and his territories reduced in extent while his allies, the Shahis of Kabul, subsequently faced an Utpala invasion. Their history will be related later.

The Pratihar campaigns reduced the Arabs in Sindh to the status of tributaries and confined their power to small states like Mansurah and Multan. When driven to desperation by a Pratihar invasion the Arabs in Multan would threaten to demolish an ancient Sun Temple, which was frequented by thousands of Indian pilgrims and the Pratihars would immediately retire.

The Arab administration included a large number of Hindus and they tolerated their religious practices and temples. But the Turks, who were new converts to Islam, and who eventually captured the regions west of Kabul had none of this toleration.

The Shahis

A dynasty of Buddhists, with the title Shahi, had been ruling over Kabul and the adjoining Swat valley—they were described as being of foreign origin. At the time of the Arab expansion into what is now called Afghanistan, there was a Kingdom of Zabul to the west of Kabul. For almost 200 years these two kingdoms resisted the Arabs—some parts of their kingdoms were annexed but most of the time they would pay tribute and maintain their independence.

Finally, at the close of the 9th Century, Zabulistan and the Kabul valley were conquered by the Arabs—the king of Zabulistan was killed and his people were converted to Islam. Who this king was and what was the ethnic make-up of his people remains a mystery since information on this region comes only from Arab historians. Unlike in other parts of India, no coins or inscriptions have survived and no member of the ruling family (like the Rajaputras in India) could carry on the resistance.

At the time of its conquest, the Shahi family ruling Kabul had been overthrown by their Brahmin minister named Lalliya. The new ruler continued with the title of Shahi and founded a new capital on the banks of the Indus called Udabhand (modern Ohind)—he also continued the fight against further Arab expansion. Lalliya further became drawn into the politics of the regions to the east where a power vacuum had developed.

The ruling dynasty of Kashmir had become debased through internal conflicts and their recent acquisition of Punjabi land from the Pratihars was now lost. The branch of the Pratihar family ruling over Gujrat (in Punjab) had earlier lost their power in the conflict with Kashmir and a new ruling family had founded the town of Lohur (modern Lahore) and had control over central Punjab under their chief Bharat. Further to the east were the Kingdoms of Durgar (modern Jammu) and Trigart (modern Kangra), which latter kingdom may (or may not) have included the adjoining region of Jalandhar.

Through the course of the 10th Century CE, the Shahis extended their power over this politically fractured region. Coins and inscriptions of Lalliya’s grandson Bhim and the later rulers like Jaipal and Anandpal have been found mostly in the mountains of the northwest. Other literary and epigraphic evidence suggests that they had imposed tributary claims over the rest of Punjab and had matrimonial alliances with the ruling families in the neighboring regions.

At about this time the empire of the Pratiharas passed, although their descendants continued to rule Kannauj till 1019 CE. Their place was taken by the rising new clans like the Chauhans, Parmars, Gahadvals, and Chaulukyas. To the west of the Shahi lands the Samanid dynasty of Transoxiana, and their Turk slaves unseated the Arabs from Zabulistan and captured their capital of Ghazni. Jaipal Shahi sent an army to aid the Arabs in fighting these Turks but the allies were defeated and eventually the Turk slave Sabuktigin established his rule over Ghazni and became independent of the Samanids.

Before the long conflict between the Shahis and the Ghaznavids is described as a comparable summary of the political situation in Punjab is necessary.

The Kingdom of Ajmer represented the steady rise of a single clan over the course of several centuries—the chieftains and inhabitants of this region thus had the necessary self-belief, unity of purpose, and determination to fight the alien interloper. Similarly, the Kingdom of Kannuj had an imperial tradition, established by Harshvardhan in the 7th Century and continued by the Pratihars and Gahadvals, for its warriors and civilians alike to take inspiration from—successive generations continued to challenge the foreigners well into the 15th Century[3].

Punjab and the northwest contained a hotchpotch of clans and kingdoms that had no imperial tradition to speak of. Almost a thousand years earlier the foreign Kushans had created an empire from this region but their capital had shifted to Mathura—and in time these foreigners were overthrown by the indigenous clans. Imperial claims on Punjab were made by rulers from Kannauj, Kashmir, and Sindh. Only with the rise of the Hindu Shahis did a semblance of an empire emerge after a long gap—but by then the powerful Ghaznavids were already breaking through their western frontiers.

The Ghaznavid-Shahi struggle

Sabuktigin died in 997 CE and out of paternal affection left the throne to his younger son. His eldest son Mahmud defeated this younger brother and the very next year also crushed the power of the Samanids—in 999 CE Mahmud was recognized by the Arab Khalifa as the ruler of a vast dominion covering Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of Central Asia.

The resources of Mahmud had increased greatly, particularly in the number of horsemen recruited from these countries, and these were now employed in making the further expansion of the Ghaznavid lands. In the year 1000, Mahmud captured some frontier forts and amassed his army at Peshawar—Jaipal advanced to fight him but was defeated and taken prisoner along with his grandsons. Mahmud advanced on the Shahi capital of Ohind and defeated another army of the Shahis—subsequently, Jaipal was succeeded by his son Anandpal.

In 1005 when Anandpal refused to grant Mahmud passage to attack the Ismaili rulers of Multan, another battle was fought near Peshawar with the inevitable result. The ruler of Multan also submitted and paid tribute—to govern these new conquests Mahmud left behind the captured grandson of Jaipal, named Nawasa Shah (real name Sukhpal), who had been converted to Islam. While Mahmud was involved in subduing other Turkish enemies in Khurasan, Nawasa Shah embraced his ancestral faith once again and declared independence—the Ghaznavids had to return to finish his power.

In 1008 Mahmud once again attacked Anandpal and defeated him—two years later he also defeated the Ismailis and captured Multan. Subsequently, Anandpal concluded a treaty with Mahmud and the latter agreed not to invade his lands. On the death of Anandpal the conflict between the neighboring powers resumed—in 1013 from their new capital of Nandan on the Salt Range the Shahis defied the attacks of the Turks. Emboldened by their success, and on the reported arrival of allied armies, they came out of the rugged hills and were defeated in the open plain. Their ruler Trilochanpal escaped to Kashmir but was followed by the enemy who captured many slaves from the valley.

In 1015 Mahmud returned to these hills to subdue a revolt and attempted to conquer Kashmir but the winter snow blocked the passes and foiled his object. In 1021 Trilochanpal, from his new capital at Sarhind, made an alliance with the Chandellas of Kalinjar and fought against Mahmud but was defeated and killed. All his lands were annexed by the Turks and his son Bhimpal also died a few years later without a royal title to his name. Mahmud subsequently campaigned in the hills around Peshawar to kill or convert the inhabitants to Islam.

Before his death in 1030 CE Mahmud had decided to divide his empire among his sons to prevent a fratricidal struggle—the decision actually created the conditions for that inevitable conflict. The Ghaznavids, while fighting each other, also attempted to imitate Mahmud’s cavalry raids to accumulate resources but were not successful and the empire fell apart. They lost Ghazni to the Turk rulers of Ghor and had to shift their capital to Lahore in Punjab. A continuous conflict is described with the local powers and many cities and towns changed hands repeatedly between Hindu and Muslim. The Ghaznavid lands south of the River Sutlej were conquered by the Chauhan clan, as described above, while the Ghori Turks took Peshawar.

The Ghaznavid ruler Khusro Malik continued the fights of his forefathers with the local powers—one of these was with the ruler of Jammu, in which the Gakkhars of Potohar sided with the Muslims. The Raja of Jammu made a pact with Muhammad Ghori who was preparing to invade Punjab—after three campaigns the Ghaznavid dynasty of Lahore was finally extinguished. The Jammu chief had to continue the alliance against the Chauhans and was killed in the First Battle of Tarain.

Muhammad Ghori became Amir in 1202 CE—his defeat three years later by the Khwarazim Turks prompted a revolt by the Gakkhars who plundered both Multan and Lahore. Subsequently, Qutb-ud-din Aibak from Delhi and Muhammad Ghori from Ghazni converged on the Gakkhars and defeated them in a battle fought between the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers. Large numbers of Gakkhars were taken prisoner and those that escaped into a dense forest were burnt alive when the Muslims shot flaming arrows into the trees.

Muhammad first settled the administration at Lahore and returned to Ghazni—but on the way, he was stabbed to death while camping on the banks of the Indus by some Gakkhars (or by Shia Ismailis from Khurasan).

What was the composition of the armies following the Shahis and what tactics did they use? Who were their generals and allies? What amount of control did they have over eastern Punjab and how did they shift capitals with such ease? And most importantly why couldn’t the inhabitants of the Punjabi forts continue to resist the Muslim invaders as the Rajputs later did in Ajmer, Kannauj, and other parts of India?

These questions will be tackled after the composition of Punjabi society has been fully discussed in the next post.


  1. The claim that Gurjar was the name of a foreign race and that the modern-day pastoral Gujjars are their descendants will be discussed in the next post. ↩︎

  2. The remains of this kingdom is the modern city of Gujrat in Punjab. ↩︎

  3. Refer to the history of the Rajput kingdoms like Etawa. ↩︎