If ever awards for stupidity were to be handed out, it is highly likely that Aurangzeb would confer one for himself and award the rest to his incompetent descendants. By the end of his reign, Aurangzeb who had waged war with the Marathas for twenty-five years and had only pyrrhic victories to his credit undid all that his ancestors particularly Akbar and Shah Jahan had achieved. The treasury was depleted and many generals who had been quiet when he was alive now claimed their independence on the pretext of being loyal to the sitting Mughal king.
As the administrative policies that had been put into place by Akbar and his successors had been set aside by Aurangzeb in his quest to conquer the Deccan, there were serious threats to the empire from the far-off provinces of Qandahar, Kabul and Peshawar. These were a part of the Mughal empire and were supposed to be guarded by those who were on a regular payroll of the Mughals but, either during the time of Aurangzeb or perhaps the successors, the payment was not made for years and thereby the men abandoned their posts leaving the Mughal empire open for attack.
Meanwhile, the throne at Delhi saw a number of kings termed as wastrels who led a life of pleasure and debauchery with little or no interest in the administration of the kingdom. In 1719, Muhammad Shah was crowned the king. He appointed Chin Qilich Khan called as Nizam-ul-Mulk, who was in charge of the Deccan at that time to become his Wazir. The Nizam on the other hand preferred his independence in the Deccan and reluctantly took charge of the position. He arrived in Delhi to find the entire court in a state of disarray with rival factions plotting against each other and the king itself who was called Rangeela (colourful) spending all his time hunting, drinking good wine, enjoying dance and music and indulging in frivolous activities with young men.
The Nizam had been heavily influenced by the discipline enforced by Aurangzeb and soon became an object of ridicule in the court of Muhammad Shah and his coterie. The social etiquette that he followed, the clothes that he wore and his mannerisms that were of the time of Aurangzeb were mocked by the young men of the court. One particular insult where he was called “the old baboon of the Deccan” when he bowed three times in the traditional way on entering the court rankled him which would set in motion events that none could have foreseen.
By 1738, the Mughal court had four men in important positions – Sadat Khan who was in charge of Awadh who had recently entered the bad books of Muhammad Shah, Khan Dauran, a minister who was favoured by the king, the Wazir Qamruddin Khan who preferred a life of leisure and encouraged the king to indulge in one as well and the Nizam who had suffered a humiliating defeat in the hands of Peshwa Baji Rao I at Bhopal on account of poor military strategy despite having a formidable army of Bundelas, Rohillas, Narwar, Khechi, Jaisingh and his own men and artillery.
The defeat saw all his honorary titles and respect as an experienced military strategist washed away in Delhi and with it the embers of humiliation suffered in the hands of Muhammad Shah and Khan Dauran would become a blazing fire. Both Sadat Khan and the Nizam decided to seek the help of Nadir Shah to teach the king and his aides a lesson.
Born as Nadir Quli in 1688, Nadir Shah rose rapidly to power becoming Shahanshah Nadir Shah in 1736. He had skirmishes with the Turks and Russians, took the island of Bahrain from the Arabs and set off to recapture Qandahar that was once a part of the Mughal empire but had been lost to Persia who then lost it to the Afghans. Nadir Shah attacked Qandahar in 1737 with an eighty thousand strong army and captured it in 1738 and the Afghans sought refuge in the Mughal provinces of Kabul and Peshawar.
Nadir Shah then sent a most extraordinary message with the Ambassador of the Mughals. The gist of the message was that the Mughal general sent by the Persian king along with twelve thousand men never returned from India. Persia demanded that all the descendants of those men should be sent home immediately and the king is to reimburse all the arrears due to these men for the last 200 years! And should the king fail to do so, then he would find his own way to deliver justice. He made a counter offer that if the king were to pay him 1,20,000 Persian Rubles annually for 20 years, then he would disregard all other arrears. The last line was that if the king were to not respond, then Nadir Shah would come to Delhi.
Meanwhile, letters from Sadat Khan and the Nizam informing him of the state of affairs in the Mughal court and an open invitation to attack Delhi also reached Nadir Shah. Nadir Shah responded with assurances, protection and privileges that would be awarded to them when he succeeds.
Muhammad Shah’s lack of response and disinterest to diffuse this situation quickly would become his downfall. Nadir Shah began his preparations to invade India in April, 1738. He overran Kabul, Peshawar and Lahore securing tributes and treasure of inestimable value. Meanwhile, Muhammad Shah who had till then neglected the threat of Nadir Shah, finally responded in December, 1738 by gathering an army.
Nadir Shah crossed Attock while Muhammad Shah with his army joined the rest at Panipat. They decided to camp at Karnal and Sadat Khan with his army was on his way to Karnal from Awadh. Nadir Shah sent an army to intercept Sadat Khan before he could join the Mughal camp but Sadat Khan managed to evade his army.
On 11 February, 1739, Nadir Shah sent his Qizalbashes to attack the Mughals. They did so with such fury that the Mughals were caught unawares in a battle between their arrows and Persian guns. Khan Dauran was grievously wounded and carried away from the battlefield. Sadat Khan was surrounded and taken as prisoner and thus, the battle was over.
Nadir Shah, well acquainted with Sadat Khan from his correspondence asked for the best way to get a ransom from the king and then promised to leave India to fight the Sultan of Turkey. Sadat Khan asked him to meet the Nizam who was asked to pay an exorbitant ransom and an amount of fifty lakhs was agreed to be paid in instalments.
Nadir Shah decided to proceed to Delhi along with Muhammad Shah who had been assured that his kingdom will not be taken from him. As Khan Dauran died from the injuries, his position was given to the Nizam’s son which did not go down well with Sadat Khan who in a fit of rage and petulance sought a meeting with Nadir Shah. He told Nadir Shah that fifty lakh rupees was a mere pittance and he should instead demand twenty crores!
Nadir Shah’s eyes gleamed with pleasure and he demanded the same of the Nizam who was flabbergasted. Now, the treasury would have hardly had fifty lakh of rupees and both Muhammad Shah and the Nizam were now in a quandary. Muhammad Shah was imprisoned and so was the Wazir.
Sadat Khan along with Nadir Shah entered the city of Delhi on 28 February, 1739. By 9 March, 1739, Nadir Shah occupied the imperial palace chamber of Shah Jahan while Muhammad Shah moved to a smaller palace in the fort. Sadat Khan was questioned about the promised twenty crore ransom and threatened with dire consequences if he failed. Sadat Khan went home that night after the royal dinner and committed suicide by poison.
On 10 March, 1739, Nadir Shah fulfilled his desire of becoming the Emperor of Delhi. The city was in a state of unease since the time the traitor Sadat Khan had accompanied Nadir Shah to Delhi. Incidents of violence began to erupt between the locals and the Persian soldiers. On the afternoon of 10 March, a rumour that Nadir Shah had been assassinated spread like wildfire. Persian soldiers were overpowered by the armed gatherings and these occurrences continued throughout the night.
Nadir Shah was informed and sent his Qizalbashes to subjugate the gathering crowds. On 11 March, 1739, Nadir Shah rode out to Chandni Chowk and reached the Sunehri mosque. He was greeted with a shower of stones and bullets though he escaped unhurt. These petty clashes then led to the infamous massacre and loot of Delhi on the auspicious occasion of Holi.
Nadir Shah unsheathed his sword and ordered a slaughter of the residents of Delhi. Qizalbashes led the attack from the front and the carnage that began at nine in the morning continued for five hours. Finally, Muhammad Shah, the Nizam and the Wazir had to beg for mercy on behalf of the citizens. Nadir Shah relented, sheathed his sword and sent orders to stop the bloodshed. It is estimated that about eight to fifty thousand men and women were killed on that dark day.
On 21 March, 1739, Nadir Shah ordered that the Nizam and Wazir were no longer permitted to sit in a palanquin or on an elephant. The Nizam started coming to court on a mule. Nadir Shah in the meantime extorted wealth from all the rich men of Delhi, grain merchants and the traders in the Jama Masjid area. The Wazir had managed to elude payment and was finally made to sit in the blazing sun which is one of the worst kind of punishments inflicted. Nadir Shah extorted a crore of rupees from him.
When the summer arrived, Nadir Shah made plans to leave. He obtained the entire territory west of the river Indus and the provinces of Sindh, Kabul and a part of Punjab. As he was riding out one day, he chanced upon a fakir. Nadir Shah asked him to show him some miracles. The fakir asked him to show his first. Nadir Shah very proudly asked him to shut his eyes and see all that he had. The fakir closed his eyes and saw the fine army of Nadir Shah that spread from Delhi to Attock. The fakir then told him to shut his eyes. Nadir Shah did as he was told and saw all his soldiers lying headless. Shocked at this vision, Nadir Shah sought the blessings of the fakir. The fakir asked him to march towards Kabul at that very instant and the reason for that was the mighty army that was gathering under the leadership of Peshwa Baji Rao I!
Nadir Shah did as he was told and left India on 5 May, 1739. He left with treasure that is valued between fifteen and seventy crore rupees that included gold, silver, cash, jewels, thrones, bejewelled swords and weapons, the famous Peacock throne and the sparkling Koh-i-Noor diamond. But what he left behind was a humble Nizam, a king who had lost his throne and title of Emperor, streets strewn with corpses and the glorious city of Delhi reduced to ashes and in ruins.
An invader inviting another invader to invade his kingdom will go down in history as one of the stupidest things that the Mughals did in their long stay in India.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)
* Information about Nadir Shah and The Battle of Karnal is taken from archives