Within a few minutes, the flower of Mughal chivalry lay dead on the ground

Tuesday, March 14th, 2023

William Dalrymple titled his book The Anarchy, because India was torn apart just as the East India Company started to grow:

On 21 May, Nader Shah with a force of 80,000 fighting men crossed the border into the Mughal Empire, heading for the summer capital of Kabul, so beginning the first invasion of India for two centuries.


Less than three months later, at Karnal, one hundred miles north of Delhi, he defeated three merged Mughal armies — around a million men, some half of whom were fighters — with a relatively small but strictly disciplined force of 150,000 musketeers and Qizilbash horsemen armed with the latest military technology of the day: armour-penetrating, horse-mounted jazair, or swivel guns.


Nader Shah lured Sa’adat Khan’s old-fashioned heavy Mughal cavalry — armoured cuirassiers fighting with long swords — into making a massed frontal charge. As they neared the Persian lines, Nader’s light cavalry parted like a curtain, leaving the Mughals facing a long line of mounted musketeers, each of whom was armed with swivel guns. They fired at point-blank range. Within a few minutes, the flower of Mughal chivalry lay dead on the ground. As a Kashmiri observer, Abdul Karim Sharistani, put it, ‘the army of Hindustan fought with bravery. But one cannot fight musket balls with arrows.’


Having defeated the Mughals in an initial engagement, Nader Shah then managed to capture the Emperor himself by the simple ruse of inviting him to dinner, then refusing to let him leave.


On 29 March, a week after Nader Shah’s forces had entered the Mughal capital, a newswriter for the Dutch VOC sent a report in which he described Nader Shah’s bloody massacre of the people of Delhi: ‘the Iranians have behaved like animals,’ he wrote. ‘At least 100,000 people were killed. Nader Shah gave orders to kill anyone who defended himself. As a result it seemed as if it were raining blood, for the drains were streaming with it.’135 Ghulam Hussain Khan recorded how, ‘In an instant the soldiers getting on the tops of the houses commenced killing, slaughtering and plundering people’s property, and carrying away their wives and daughters. Numbers of houses were set on fire and ruined.’


The massacre continued until the Nizam went bareheaded, his hands tied with his turban, and begged Nader on his knees to spare the inhabitants and instead to take revenge on him. Nader Shah ordered his troops to stop the killing; they obeyed immediately. He did so, however, on the condition that the Nizam would give him 100 crore (1 billion) rupees before he would agree to leave Delhi. ‘The robbing, torture and plundering still continues,’ noted a Dutch observer, ‘but not, thankfully, the killing.’


‘Now commenced the work of spoliation,’ remarked Anand Ram Mukhlis, ‘watered by the tears of the people… Not only was their money taken, but whole families were ruined. Many swallowed poison, and others ended their days with the stab of a knife… In short the accumulated wealth of 348 years changed masters in a moment.’


Among the sequestered objects was the Peacock Throne whose imperial jewels were unrivalled even by the treasures of ancient kings: in the time of earlier Emperors of India, two crores worth of jewels were used as encrustation to inlay this throne: the rarest spinels and rubies, the most brilliant diamonds, without parallel in any of the treasure of past or present kings, were transferred to Nader Shah’s government treasury.


Nader never wished to rule India, just to plunder it for resources to fight his real enemies, the Russians and the Ottomans. Fifty-seven days later, he returned to Persia carrying the pick of the treasures the Mughal Empire had amassed over its 200 years of sovereignty and conquest: a caravan of riches that included Jahangir’s magnificent Peacock Throne, embedded in which was both the Koh-i-Noor diamond and the great Timur ruby. Nader Shah also took with him the Great Mughal Diamond, reputedly the largest in the world, along with the Koh-i-Noor’s slightly larger, pinker ‘sister’, the Daria-i-Noor, and ‘700 elephants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses carrying wagons all laden with gold, silver and precious stones’, worth in total an estimated £ 87.5 million in the currency of the time.


Many observers, like the nobleman Shakir Khan, put the blame on the corruption and decadence of society under Muhammad Shah, and turned to a more austere form of Islam in reaction to the Emperor’s careless hedonism: ‘At the beginning of this period,’ he wrote, ‘there was music and drinking, noisy entertainers and crowds of prostitutes, a time of foolery and joking, effeminacy, and chasing after transvestites.’


In just a few months, the Mughal Empire, built up over 150 years, shattered and fragmented like a mirror thrown from a first-storey window, leaving in its place glinting shards of a mosaic of smaller and more vulnerable successor states.

The days of huge imperial armies, financed by an overflowing treasury, had ended for ever. Instead, as authority disintegrated, everyone took measures for their own protection and India became a decentralised and disjointed but profoundly militarised society. Almost everybody now carried weapons. Almost everybody was potentially a soldier. A military labour market sprang up across Hindustan — one of the most thriving free markets of fighting men anywhere in the world — all up for sale to the highest bidder. Indeed, warfare came to be regarded as a sort of business enterprise.143 By the end of the eighteenth century, substantial sections of the peasantry were armed and spent part of their year as mercenaries serving in distant locations.


  1. Adar says:

    That use of gunpowder in warfare hardly relegated to the “western world”.

    Those central Asian powers adopting firearms quite readily and having “European” officers to command the armies.

  2. Deeg says:

    Sounds like the decadence in the west today. If the USA fragments it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The only question is how much or how little violence will accompany it. It will be an internal war as there isn’t a country capable of invading (unless you count Mexico). China is a decade away from demographic collapse so they aren’t a threat, Russia is bleeding itself white in Ukraine and India is too poor.

  3. Clive says:

    Mughal Empire seems prescient of the present West

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