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Evaluating Mahmud of Ghazvanid: Great but Sadistic Conqueror

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.


The Muslim world has thrown up many conquerors that were fired by the zeal of Islam. They felt it their bounden duty to spread Islam and conquest was one of their tools. Many of the conquerors were unfortunately also looters and abductors of women and this fact cannot be glossed over by apologists. One of the conquerors who is perhaps not known in the west is Mahmud of Ghazni. He was from what is known as Turkmenistan and his period was the 10th century millennium. A thousand years have elapsed and many of his apologists talk of his better qualities, like his love of books, the arts, and architecture. With all these traits he is also responsible for the death of almost 17 million people during his campaigns. This is a sad reminder that though a great general he was a sadistic man who reveled in death to his opponents.


Mahmud of Ghazni and Hindustan

Mahmud of Ghazni was a man who at a later stage of his conquest needed gold and silver to finance his army. He learned that Hindu temples had great riches and unknown quantities of gold and silver. This enthralled him and led to 17 marauding invasions of India.

Ghazni, however, was not entirely a bigoted man and there are reports that he also used some Hindus as soldiers. These Hindu soldiers were commanded by their own leaders. Conversion to Islam was never a condition of service. He used these Hindu soldiers to telling effect in his campaigns in Central Asia against his co-religionists. So long as they obeyed him he let them practice their beliefs. But many times sadistic streaks seized him.

His raids on Hindustan were however not for setting up any permanent settlement or rule. He was content in just coming down and looting the Hindu temples and carrying away the riches of gold, silver, and gems, which were the property of the temples.

That is the reason that Mahmud of Ghazni is a much-reviled character in Hindu literature, though Muslims extol him as a man who defeated the " Hindus". His most famous campaign was against the rich Hindu temple of Somnath, which he looted and denuded. he also killed all the priests and took the wealth back home to Ghazni.

Early Life and Crowning

Mahmud of Ghazni was born in 971 AD and his real name is so long that he is known only as Mahmud of Ghazni. However, for the record, his name was Yamin Abdul Kasim Mahmud Sabuktagin. Not much is known about the childhood and teenage years of this man. Records are scanty of that period, but we know that he was a fierce fighter and seized power by defeating and imprisoning his brother for life. The fact that he did not execute him is a rare example of his benevolence.

He ascended the throne at the age of 27 and before that, he had defeated all his opponents and became undisputed leader and ruler of what is modern Afghanistan. and Central Asia. He founded the Ghaznavid Empire which lasted till 1187.

Ghazni holding court

Ghazni holding court

The Ghazni empire

The Ghazni empire

Campaigns of Ghazni

Apart from his 17 expeditions into India, which were primarily looting expeditions, Ghazni also led some breathtaking military campaigns that shook Central Asia and sent tremors as far west as Europe. His hordes captured Moscow and in a series of battles defeated the Turks and occupied entire Persia. These areas formed the core of his empire. He however never incorporated the Indian areas in his empire.

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Ghazni and killings

The looting raids and military campaigns led to a great calamity to the defeated. His actions were indeed chilling, even in an age when life was cheap.

Ghazni at a conservative estimate executed 17 million people. In terms of percentage historians estimate that it amounted to 5% of the world population at that time

The Tactics of Ghazni

Mahmud of Ghazni for all his cruelty and massacres is recognized as one of the great captains of warfare. In an age when Clausewitz and his Principles of War were unknown, Mahmud followed most principles of war in his campaigns. His biggest asset was speed and surprise. It was not uncommon for him to ride at the head of his troops and cover 150-200 miles in a day. Such relentless speed was his greatest asset. He always surprised his opponents.

His force was basically mounted, archers. He hardly had any infantry, relying on his horsemen and archers. This gave him mobility and concentration of force. It also allowed him great flexibility as he could change the focus of attack at any time.

When Mahmud conquered Turkey, ripples of fear spread in Europe. His treatment and massacres of his defeated opponents, as well as the villages occupied by him, created an element of awe and fear in Europe.

The Last Years

Mahmud took the last campaign against the temple of Somnath in 1026 in Gujarat. He looted the temple and took the riches back to Ghazni. However, the empire founded by him lasted barely 50 years after his death in 1030. Ghazni knew his end was near and he summoned both his sons and asked them to rule jointly. But his death triggered internecine warfare and slowly the empire ceased to exist. One reason was that Ghazni was so intent in conquest and looting that he failed to lay the foundation of a government and state.

Despite the lack of permanence of his rule, his military campaigns stand out and mark him as a more than able captain of the art of war. Where do we place Mahmud Ghazni in the pantheon of military generals? One can safely say he is in the top bracket with Chengiz Khan and Alexander the Great.



MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 27, 2020:

Thanks, Tom, very true the `Hindu general was Tilak Raj. I wonder what happened to him later.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 01, 2015:

Thank you for commenting

madugundu krishna from Yemmiganur on September 29, 2015:

The very first ruler in history to assume the title of `Sultan'

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