Turning back of the tide of Islamic Conquests, illustrated with The case of Sultanate of Nagaur

The Sultanate of Nagaur

The Sultans of Nagaur have left behind a few crumbling mosques and tombs indicating their brief rule over the town—these are overshadowed by the monuments of the Rajput rulers who dominated Nagaur for a longer period. The sultanate does not occupy even a footnote in Indian History since its power was curbed by the politico-military expansion of the Rajputs—the Nagaur Sultans were repeatedly forced to pay tribute to the Sesodias of Chittor while their lands were slowly annexed by the Rathors of Jodhpur. In fact, the case of Nagaur vividly illustrates the turning back of the tide of Islamic conquests in Rajputana[1] in the 14th and 15th Centuries.


The English word jungle is derived from the Hindi jangal, both of which indicate a thick forest. However the original Sanskrit word jangala had a very different meaning—it was actually used to describe land where water was scarce, where khejri trees and ber hedges were abundant, and where roamed deer, blackbuck, and wild ass.

Khejri tree Nagaur

Black Buck Nagaur

The ancient Ayurveda states, “ The land that has less water, trees, and hills are healthy jangala country .”[2] Over the centuries the word jangal was used for any wild or desolate piece of land and eventually became synonymous with forests.

From the descriptions above, the country around Nagaur, north to Bikaner, and up to the border of Punjab, was called Jangaldesh in ancient times. The remains of some of the earliest settlements along the banks of the long dried-up Saraswati River can be seen to this day—at a later age, it came under the Naga rulers after whom the town of Nagaur (Naga-pura) is named.

The name of Jangaldesh was known till a very late period. The Rajput rulers of Bikaner, whose territory eventually embraced the bulk of Jangal country, sported the title Jai Jangaldhar Badshah, which was emblazoned on the state coat of arms during the British Raj.

Islamic invasions

In the medieval era, the town of Nagaur sat astride trade routes coming north from Gujarat and Sindh and those on the west crossing the Indus from Multan. With a dead flat plain all around, the defense of the fort depended on the military and economic power of its rulers—and from the period of the Ghaznavid invasions, Nagaur was under the powerful Chauhan clan[3]. A succession of rulers kept the whole of Jangaldesh free from foreign rule down to the reign of Prithviraj III at the close of the 12th Century.

The story of his wars with the Turk invader Muhammad of Ghor has been related in earlier posts. But the story of what occurred at Nagaur, how the fort was taken, and what horrors the defenders and inhabitants went through is not known from either the Muslim or the Hindu sources. That Nagaur town came under the invaders is clear since Balban, before becoming Sultan, was given an estate centered on this desert town. But just as there were petty Hindu chiefs (of numerous castes) in the vast lands between Ajmer and Delhi, it is reasonable to suppose that such landholders were also present in the lands between Ajmer and Nagaur, paying land revenue to the Muslims and probably joining their army.

Another similarity between Ajmer and Nagaur is the early founding of Sufi shrines at both places. One of the earliest Sufis to come to Nagaur was Sultan Tarkin, whose shrine was established during Hindu rule. After Khwaja Moinuddin established the Chishtiya Sufi order at Ajmer one of his disciples, named Hamiduddin, came to Nagaur. Hazrat Hamiduddin accommodated some Hindu principles in his teachings—he became a strict vegetarian and lovingly reared a cow in his shrine.

In 1306 a Mongol army ravaged Nagaur but as shown in an earlier post, this was one of the last invasions of India by the Chagatai Khanate. The Khalji Turks had begun pushing deeper into the lands of the independent Rajput rulers and even further into South India. Amid this expansion, they lost some of the important Rajput forts like Jaisalmer, Chittor, and Siwana, while guerrilla warfare made the regions of Marwar and Mewar impassable for the Muslim armies. Some of the other forts and towns were lost to the Rajputs after the break-up of the Delhi Sultanate in 1351. With the death of Firuz Tughlaq in 1388, the remaining strongholds like Ajmer and Nagaur came under their own hereditary governors.


Turks of the Dandani tribe became Sultans of Nagaur, ruling over a large but undefined territory in northern Rajputana. These Turks had political relations with the Sultans of Delhi, Gujarat, and Malwa, alternately fighting with and allying with one or the other. The two rising Rajput states, Mewar and Marwar, had a greater impact on the fortunes of this sultanate—particularly the latter since Nagaur shared a long undefended border with Marwar. Other minor Rajput clans, striving for power in the regions west and east of Nagaur, were also a factor in the political kaleidoscope.

The Sultans of Nagaur taxed the money earned by the people from trade, agriculture, and from the vast herds of cattle, goats, and camels. In addition, like in the Delhi Sultanate, jaziya and a pilgrimage tax taken from Hindus brought significant sums to the treasury and enabled the Dandani Turks to match their neighbors in battle.

While Nagaur was still swearing a nominal allegiance to Delhi, two ominous events occurred in the neighborhood within a short period. One was the campaign of Rana Lakha (1389-1404) of Mewar, which saw a Rajput army ravaging Ajmer and pushing on to the Jhunjunu region near Delhi. The second was the capture of Mandor by Rao Chunda (1390-1422) of the Rathor clan—this city henceforth became the Rathor capital and gave Rao Chunda a convenient base for attacking Nagaur.

At about this time (circa 1416) Muslim records state that Firuz Khan Dandani, Sultan of Nagaur, sought the aid of the Sayyid ruler of Delhi in the face of an invasion from Gujarat. But since an army from Gujarat could not reach Nagaur without first tackling the intervening Rajput states, it is probable that this invasion was actually led by Rao Chunda who had made an alliance with the Gujarat Sultans. On hearing reports of the march of the Delhi army, Rao Chunda retreated while Firuz Khan paid tribute to the Sultan of Delhi. Only two years later he entered into an alliance with the powerful Sultan Ahmad of Gujarat.

Rao Chunda also changed horses mid-stream and formed an alliance with Mewar, where the Rathor princess Hamsabai was married to the old Rana Lakha, who in turn promised to make her son the next Rana. On the strength of this alliance, Chunda subdued Rajput clans like the Bhatis and Mohils and again invaded Nagaur, forcing Firuz Khan to make peace by paying him tribute. The tables were turned in 1422 when these three defeated powers made an alliance and killed Chunda on the outskirts of Nagaur—Chunda’s son Ranamall was then at Mewar and his brothers sought to capture the throne at Mandor.

With the help of the Mewar army, Ranamall defeated his brothers and became the head of the Rathor clan. In 1428 he led this joint Sesodia-Rathor army to punish the Turks of Nagaur where he stormed the fort and killed Firuz Khan. The next Sultan of Nagaur Qiyam Khan paid tribute to Mewar till 1438 when Ranamall Rathor was killed at Chittor and the Sesodias invaded Marwar[4]. The conflict between the two Rajput clans was the opportunity for the sultanates that had been smarting under their dominance—the Sultans of Gujarat and Malwa fought Mewar for almost twenty years and were ultimately compelled to form an alliance against the strong Rajput state[5].

With its two Rajput enemies simultaneously in trouble, Nagaur regained independence and its Sultans their former power, which was reflected in the internal politics of the neighboring Delhi Sultanate. In 1451 the minister of the last Sayyid ruler invited Qiyam Khan to seize Delhi and become Sultan—at the same time he sent a similar invitation to Buhlul Lodi, the Afghan governor of Sirhind. The latter, being closer to Delhi, reached first and established the Lodi dynasty, while the disappointed Qiyam Khan retired with his army to Nagaur.

After his death in 1453, the succession to the Nagaur throne was disputed between the brothers Mujahid Khan and Shams Khan. Rana Kumbha, who had emerged victorious in the long war with the Sultan of Malwa and the Rathors, sent his army to aid Shams Khan who was installed as the Sultan. As a price of his support, Kumbha demanded that a portion of the Nagaur fort be demolished, but this Shams Khan Dandani would not do—instead, he formed a matrimonial alliance with Sultan Qutb-ud-din of Gujarat.

In 1456 Rana Kumbha defeated the allied Muslim army and again captured Nagaur. On this occasion, the great mosque at Nagaur, built by Firuz Khan, was demolished by the Rajputs to signify Kumbha’s displeasure against Shams Khan and to impose the status of a vassal on him. This was also retaliation for the practice of Muslim invaders who demolished temples in their wars against the Hindus—but unlike the Muslims, the Hindu rulers did not destroy mosques indiscriminately and never sought to forcibly convert Muslim civilians.

For the next two years, the Sultans of Gujarat and Malwa formed an alliance to fight against Rana Kumbha, but by this time Mewar had again become the dominant power in North India—not the least because of a peace treaty with the Rathor clan.

Rao Jodha, the head of the Rathor clan, had founded a new capital called Jodhpur and had recovered most of his other forts from the Sesodias. The war between the two clans was brought to an end in 1458 by a treaty, the details of which are unfortunately not known, but the subsequent events provide some clues. It appears that Mewar gave up its claims on the Sultanate of Nagaur, which was in any case located in the Marwar region. But this did not make Nagaur independent—rather its territory became food for the hungry and fast multiplying Rathor clan.

Jodha’s son Bika, with a portion of the Rathor clansmen, captured the northern portions of Nagaur and founded a new city called Bikaner[6]. Another son named Duda captured Merta[7] lying to the east of Nagaur—the Sultanate of Nagaur was now shrunk to the main town and a few surrounding villages. The policy of the sultans was to maintain independence by either paying tribute to the head of the Rathor clan or to the Lodis of Delhi.

In 1500 Sultan Muhammad Khan Dandani, fearing the ambitions of his younger brothers Ali Khan and Abu Bakr, paid tribute to Sikandar Lodi who took these brothers into his own service. Encouraged by this alliance with Delhi, Muhammad Khan tried to recover his lands from the Rathor ruler of Bikaner, Rao Lunkaran, in 1513 but was defeated and compelled to pay tribute—subsequently, Rao Lunkaran protected Nagaur, as his vassal state, from an attack by his own kinsman Rao Ganga of Jodhpur. The territory of the Sultanate had now shrunk to just the town of Nagaur.

Later rulers

In the next few decades, revolutions of power occurred with bewildering rapidity at Delhi between the Afghans and Mughals, finally ending with the accession of Sultan Sher Shah Sur. In his campaign to Rajputana Sher Shah obtained the alliance of smaller states like Bikaner against the parent branch of Jodhpur——though victorious in the battle of Sumel he could not establish real control over any part of the vast territory because of his death within a year at Kalinjar.

In Nagaur though, the powerless dynasty of the Dandani Turks was formally ended and an Afghan army was left in control of the fort and town. This force was ousted by the Mughals under Akbar in 1562. Akbar also captured the fief of Merta—the Rathor ruler of Merta, the famous Jaimal took up service with the Rana of Chittor and died defending that fort from Akbar in 1569. Akbar’s campaign in Rajputana had some similarities with Sher Shah’s in that he made alliances with the smaller Rajput states like Bikaner and Amber and used them against the bigger states[8].

Nagaur remained under Mughal control but was actually administered by one of the nearby Rajput rulers. In the time of Shah Jahan the heir of the Jodhpur throne, Amar Singh, was disinherited by his father and was granted Nagaur as compensation by the Mughal Emperor. Many of the buildings in the town date from this period. During Aurangzeb’s war against the Rathors in 1679, the headship of the clan was given to Indra Singh (grand-nephew of the dead Maharaja Jaswant Singh) of Nagaur—but he was overthrown by Jaswant’s son Ajit Singh and his general Durgadas who permanently annexed Nagaur to the Kingdom of Jodhpur.

Credits: Original Post by Airavat Singh on his blog, "Horses and Swords"

  1. As also happened in South India with the rise of the Vijaynagar Empire in the same period. This turning back of the tide occurred later in Maharashtra and Assam in the 17th Century and in Punjab in the 18th Century. ↩︎

  2. The Shabad Kalpadrum also describes the jangala desh as; “ a country in which there is less water and grass, where there is ample wind and sun, and where grains are abundant .” ↩︎

  3. The Muslim chroniclers mention in passing that one of the Ghaznavid chiefs named Bhilam had garrisoned a fort at a place called Nagaur from where he raided the neighboring Indian kingdoms. However this is not sufficient evidence to conclude that the place in question was in Jangaldesh—it could have been the name of another fort located in Punjab. ↩︎

  4. When Ranamall was invading Nagaur his nephew Rana Mokal was assassinated by Chacha and Mera, the illegitimate sons of Rana Lakha. Mokal was succeeded by Rana Kumbha, but since he was a child the administration was in the hands of Ranamall—this was resented by the Sesodia nobles who revolted against him and killed him. They followed up this success by invading the Rathor kingdom and capturing their capital Mandor. ↩︎

  5. Rana Kumbha’s policy against these hosts of enemies was to fortify his kingdom—almost 32 forts were built around Mewar, the most important of which was Kumbalgarh in the western extremity of the Aravalli Range, overlooking the activities of the Rathor clan in the plains of Marwar. Kumbha assumed the offensive against the southern Sultans after making a peace treaty with Rao Jodha, the successor of Ranamall. ↩︎

  6. Rao Bika also subdued Rajput clans like the Bhatis of Pugal, the Sankhlas, and the Mohils. The Jat and Mina villages of the region, which had been subject to the Nagaur Sultans, also came under the Rathors. ↩︎

  7. The Rathors of Merta captured lands from the Muslim governor of Ajmer, but unlike Bikaner, they could not emerge as an independent state. ↩︎

  8. But such an alliance was unnecessary against Jodhpur, which was in the grip of internal conflict between the brothers Chandrasen, Udai Singh, and Ram Rao. The first crowned himself ruler while the other two took up service with Mughals—Jodhpur was conquered from Chandrasen who then fought a guerrilla war against the invaders till his death. Finally, in 1583, Udai Singh was recognized as Raja of Jodhpur by Akbar. ↩︎