Campaigns Of The Crescent
A.D. 1001 TO A.D. 1200
For close on these two hundred years the northern plains of India were
a battle-field. Winter after winter, as the sun's power declined, and
the curious second spring began of cold-weather crops and fruits and
flowers, which to this day make the Punjab seasons hover between the
tropics and the temperates, there debou
hed from the snow-clad hills,
all along the western and north-western frontier of India, long files
of wild-looking horsemen, followed by camels, by foot soldiers; and
somewhere, in their midst always, was the green flag of the Prophet,
with its over-riding, overbearing crescent, telling its tale of rising
power; the crescent which is an apt symbol of a fighting faith.
What tempted these hardy northern folk into the wide plains of India?
Was it, indeed, zeal for Souls? Hardly. By the way, as a sort of salve
to conscience, such zeal was good to break an idol or two, or an
idolater's head; but au fond, the money bags outweighed all other
reasons for these recurring raids.
For during those three centuries of Chaos, during the dark ages of
degeneracy, India had grown rich-inordinately rich. Overlaid, and yet
again overlaid with finikin fanciful ornamentations, almost incoherent
in their diffuse discursive details, the temples were perfect mines of
wealth; in some cases of useless, buried treasure, since in the
gradual downfall OF the Hindu nation at large, the privileged class of
Brahmans had closed their grip even on the power of the princes. The
only thing which remained comparatively untouched, as in India it has
ever remained untouched, being the slow-moving mass of the peasantry,
who, willing bondsmen to Mother Earth, took no heed of anything save
The first swoop for plunder was made by one Mahmud, King of Ghuzni, in
November A.D. 1001. He must have entered India by the Khyber Pass, for
on the 27th of that month, near Peshawar, he met and defeated King
Jaipal of Lahore. One can imagine the contest. The long-nosed,
long-curled, long-bearded Ghuznivites, rough and ready in their
skin-coats, their burly bosoms aflame with covetousness for creed and
gold, their guttural throats resounding with the war-cry of Islam:
"Kill! Kill! For the Faith!" And on the other side, the clean-shaven,
oiled, scented Hindus lax with long centuries of ease, yet still full
of pride, full of high courage.
It was a foregone conclusion, despite the mailed elephants and the
elaborate old War Office dispositions and compositions of corps and
cadre which had come down, we may be sure, from Chandra-gupta's
days. For once the East gets hold of a thing, it sticks to it.
It was new blood against old--a new faith against one so ancient
that it had almost been forgotten. Almost, not quite, as the story
shows of what Jaipal did, when the Mahomedan conqueror, driven back to
the cool by the approach of a new summer, carelessly gave the royal
prisoner--whom he had dragged about with him in his victorious raid--a
contemptuous freedom. But ere this time came, Mahmud of Ghuzni had to
set one of his many marks--he invaded India no less than twelve
times--as far south in the Punjab as Bhattinda, a town in the Patiala
State. A marvellous place this even nowadays, set as it is amid
deserts of sand, patched with green grain-fields. The low,
insignificant city seems lost in the old fort; a perfect mountain of a
place, visible for miles and miles, a rose-red mass of sun-scorched
bricks with white-edged, crenulated parapets so quaintly stern, so
still more quaintly fragile-looking in its suggestion of some huge
Here, doubtless, in the half-desert land, it was the sound of the
koel knelling his sonorous note in the kikar trees, or the sudden
transformation, mayhap, of the uncanny, witchlike, gnarled thickets of
the low dhak trees into coral-pink stretches, showing like sunset
clouds on the gold of the sun-saturate sands, that warned Mahmud he
must be up and away from the oncoming of the heat.
As he passed up the Peshawar valley, laden to the last limit with
loot, the peach gardens must have been a-blossom; and, being a man
with the odd strain of imagination in him, which all have had who have
left their mark on India, he must, despite his plunder, have regretted
leaving so much beauty behind him.
But he left tragedy also; for Jaipal, the beaten king, went straight
back to Lahore, and having formally proclaimed himself unworthy to
reign after having suffered defeat at the hands of the unclean,
mounted a funeral pyre, and burnt himself in sight of his people,
leaving his son Anang-pal to reign in his stead.
Truly Indian history is provocative of picture-making. We have one
here which would tax most painters' power. Yet the look which must
have been on the proud king's face, as, remembering his name, "The
Guardian of Victory," he defied defeat, defied disgrace, by defying
death, is worth recording, worth recalling in these later days when
the primitive virtues are somewhat overclouded.
So there was peace for three years. Apparently the plunder was
sufficient unto the day until 1004, when Mahmud again appeared with
the return of the wild birds from Lake Mansarawar, on the Siberian
Steppes; but this was more a primitive campaign against a tributary
chief on the western side of the Indus, than a real raid.
The following year, however, things were organised on a larger scale,
and he was opposed by Anang-pal, who met no better fate than his
father, and fled incontinently to Kashmir. But Mahmud's progress
southward was checked by the news of revolt in Ghuzni, and he had to
return in order to count scores with his pet converted Hindu, one Sek
Pal, who, left governor, had resumed his Brahmanical thread, and was
in full swing of conspiracy with his fellows in India.
It took the burly Mahomedan short time to settle his shrift, and send
him to cells for life, so that the next fall of the leaf found Mahmud
ready for his fourth invasion of India.
A real invasion, a real resistance this time. For the Rajas of Lahore,
Delhi, Gwalior, Ujjain, Ajmir, Kanauj, had joined confederacy to rout
the Unclean Stranger. It was a holy war: women sold their jewels, and
men sent their hoards to furnish forth its munitions.
To no purpose. It is true that at the outset Mahmud suffered a
reverse. The Ghakkars, Scythic warrior race of the Salt Range, laughed
at the invader's entrenched camp amongst their bare hills, bore down
on it, overpowered his outposts, and accounted for some four thousand
of his army.
But even that failed to stop these big, burly men, bent on plunder,
bent on proselytising at the sword's point. The result of this raid
was the destruction of Nagar-kot, ancient town hard by the temple
called Jawala-Mukhi, or Flame's Mouth, where, since the beginning of
Time, the jets of combustible gas issuing from the ground amongst the
dark shadows of the sheltering spire have burnt bravely as emanations,
manifestations, of the Goddess Durga, that Fury of Womanhood.
According to native historians Mahmud's returning army must have been
a perfect caravan, for it carried with it about seven thousand pounds
weight of gold coins, six thousand of gold and silver plate, fifteen
hundred of golden ingots, a hundred and twenty-eight thousand of
unwrought silver, and more than a hundred and fifty pounds weight of
pearls, corals, diamonds and rubies.
But the combustible gas must have remained to be re-lit in honour of
Mai Durga, and so have remained to help the memories of the
iconoclasts! A fine trade this, that of smashing golden idols in the
name of the Prophet, and carrying the bits and the diamond and
sapphire eyes away in the name of Mammon!
It found its apotheosis in the twelfth and last expedition to India,
when Mahmud directed all his energy towards Som-nath, a temple
renowned throughout India, set proudly on a peninsula in Guzerat,
surrounded on all sides save one by the sea.
The intervening seven excursions were all marked by noteworthy
incidents, all full to the brim of reckless romance, and each left
India the more helpless, the more ready to let the invader pass to
fresh, more southern conquests. Indeed, a certain suzerainty was
acknowledged by many Hindu rajahs, and on one occasion Mahmud's march
was ostensibly to the relief of a feudatory.
But it would take too long to follow in detail events which were in
general so alike. Swift marching, utter unpreparedness, almost pitiful
submission, and then "a halt at some sacred city, during which the
town was plundered, the idols broken, the temples profaned, and the
whole fired." Yet, as the ravaging raids touched Rajputana, resistance
became more spirited. At one place the garrison rushed out through the
breaches in true Kshatriya fashion to do or die, whilst the women and
children burned themselves in silence in their houses. Not one, we are
told, survived. This is the first mention in history of the johar,
or great war-sacrifice of the Rajputs. It is not the last.
So let us turn to Som- or Soma-nath. Now "Soma" is the Moon-God,
"Nath" is Lord. We have, therefore, a simple Temple to the Moon by
name; but in reality Som-nath, or Som-eswara, is one of the forms of
the God Siva--his self-existing form.
The crescent moon on the forehead with which the God always is
portrayed alludes to this, and to the intimate relation between the
phases of the planet as a measure of time, and the upright stone or
lingam, which as all know is worshipped as a symbol of material Life.
It is customary to condemn this nature or phallic worship in India as
unclean, almost obscene; it is not so, anyhow, in spirit.
Som-nath, then, was a shrine of Life. The idol in its holy of holies
bore no semblance of created beings. It was the symbol of Creation
itself, a tall, rounded, black monolith of stone, set six feet in the
ground, rising ten feet above it. One of the twelve lingams believed
by the Hindus to have descended from Heaven, it was unexpressedly
holy, marvellously mighty in miracle. Small wonder, then, with a
priesthood of clutching hands, that Som-nath stood renowned as the
richest shrine in India.
It must have been fine to see this temple, with its fifty-six pillars
set in rows, all carven and inlaid with gems, its gilded spires above
the dark, unlit sanctuary, where the great bell swung on a solid gold
chain which weighed some fifteen hundred pounds.
Steps led down from it to the sea--that sea which was a miracle in
itself to the ignorant, up-country pilgrim, accustomed to parched
deserts, unwitting of such natural phenomena as tides; for did it not
bow, did it not rise and fall incessantly in constant adoration of the
Great Lord of Life? So, at any rate, said the priests, and the pilgrim
went back to his parched desert with empty pockets, to dream for the
rest of his life of the solemn, ceaseless adoration of the sea. Aye!
even when it raged black with monsoon winds, and spat white with fury
at the temple walls, yet still in subservience, still as a slave.
This was not a place to be yielded up of the Brahmans without a
struggle. So we read of a three days' battle, of scaling ladders,
of heavy reinforcements of the "idolatrous garrison," of an
"idolatrous"--surely there is no better word in the language with
which to fight a foe!--array in the field which withdrew Mahmud's
personal attention. And then there is the crucial moment: Mahomedan
troops beginning to waver, their leader leaping from his horse,
prostrating himself on the ground before the Lord God of Battles, and
imploring aid for the True Faith.
To speak trivially, it did the trick. One wild, cheering rush, and
"the Moslems broke through the enemy's line and laid five thousand
Hindus dead at their feet; so the rout became general." So general
that the garrison of four thousand, abandoning the defence, escaped by
the sea in boats.
Nothing left, then, but to enter the temple in pomp. A goodly
procession of warriors! Mahmud, his sons, his nobles; all, no doubt,
spitting profusely, while keeping their weather eye open on the gems
starring the heavy, carven pillars. Darker and darker! The pillars
close in. No light now, save,--high up in the shadows--one pendent
jewelled lamp, reflected in the glistening stones, showing dimly the
huge, massive golden chain, the swinging bronze bell.
And what more? Only a roughly-polished, black marble, upright boulder,
hung round, doubtless, as such lingams are to-day, with faded
champak chaplets and marigold wreaths.
Was it disappointment which made Mahmud strike at it with his mace?
One could imagine it so, but that he had had experience of the idle
objects of which men make idols. Perhaps the backward swing of the
mace-head hit the bell and sent its last hollow boom of appeal--which
so many worshippers had raised--straight to the ears of the Lord of
It is a rare picture this, of one faith defying another. It does not
need the amplification which legend brings to it, in order to grip
That legend runs thus. When Mahmud had ordered two fragments to be
hewn off the idol, one for the threshold of the mosque at Ghuini,
another for the threshold of his own palace, some of the two thousand
priests of Baal in attendance offered untold gold to arrest further
destruction; an offer viewed with favour by the king's sons, and the
attendant nobles. Smashing one idol out of millions was but mildly
meritorious, whereas the money thus gained might be given to the poor
But the Judas argument failed.
"The King"--to quote the text--"acknowledged there might be reason in
what they said, but replied that if he should consent to such a
measure his name would be handed down to posterity as 'Mahmud the
idol-seller,' and he wished it to be 'Mahmud the idol-breaker.' He
therefore directed the troops to proceed in their work. The next blow
broke open the belly of Som-nath, which was hollow, and discovered a
quantity of diamonds, rubies, and pearls of much greater value than
the amount which the Brahmans had offered."
Very dramatic, no doubt, but, unfortunately, none of these lingams are
hollow. It is possible, however, that the story found base in the
discovery of sacred vaults.
Be that as it may, Mahmud, "having secured the wealth of Som-nath,"
apparently fell in love with the country round about it; so much so
that he proposed remaining there and sending his son Masud back to
reign at Ghuzni. It needed pressure on the part of his officers to
induce him to stir; but after some difficulty in securing a Governor
for Guzerat, he started to march direct towards Ghuzni by way of the
This same difficulty gives us another picture.
Apparently there were two cousins Dabeshleems--fateful name, of what
nationality or family absolutely uncertain--one a hermit, the other a
rajah. The hermit was made governor, the prince became pretender.
Mahmud, ere leaving, reduced the latter, and handed him over prisoner
to the former. To this the hermit objected. But one course, he said,
was open to him, since by the tenets of his religion no king could be
put to death; he must build a vault under his throne and place the
unfortunate gentleman therein for life. This would be inconvenient,
therefore he prayed the conqueror to carry the rajah back with him to
So Mahmud, his army, and his vast loot, set out for the desert, set
their faces for the last time away from the wealth and idolatry of
India. Set them, as it turned out, very nearly away from all wealth,
all faiths; for in the desert the whole army was misled for three days
and three nights by a Hindu guide, "so that many of the troops died
raving mad from the intolerable heat and thirst." A Hindu guide who,
under torture, confessed exultantly that he was one of the priests of
Som-nath, and so died, satisfied with his measure of revenge.
Mahmud, however, had only to prostrate himself once more, and lo! a
guiding meteor, and after a long night-march, water! Water, even
though it must have been the Great Salt Lake.
After this, time passed in comparative uneventfulness, until on the
23rd of April A.D. 1030, in the sixty-third year of his age, "this
great conqueror gave up his body to death and his soul to immortality
amid the tears of his people."
One of his last recorded remarks was his exclamation when, in answer
to his enquiry, the Lord High Treasurer told him that before becoming
extinct, the last dynasty had accumulated seven pounds weight of
precious stones. "Thanks be to Thee, All-Powerful Being!" cried
Mahmud, prostrating himself yet once more. "Thou hast enabled me to
collect more than a hundred pounds."
What did he do with all the vast wealth which in the course of his
missionary work he managed to annex? We know that he built a
magnificent mosque at Ghuzni called "The Celestial Bride"; but that
could not have absorbed it all.
Indeed we know much of it was still in the treasury; for two days
before his death he ordered all the gold and the caskets of precious
stones to be brought before him, and "having seen them, he wept with
regret, ordering them to be carried back, without exhibiting his
generosity at that time to anybody."
Gold had evidently gripped at the heart and soul of this middle-aged,
well-shaped, ugly man, who was strongly pitted with the smallpox. His
was not a lovable personality in any way. Gifted with a touch of
genius, gifted above all things with that marvellous vitality which is
always as magic to the Indian, he was just, curiously callous, and
He openly doubted if he was really the son of his father, and scoffed
at the idea of a future state. Certainly annihilation would be a
kinder fate than the one which the poet Sa'adi gives to him in the
Gulistan, and which may be paraphrased thus:--
"The King of Khurasan saw in a dream
Mahmud the son of Subaktigeen,
Dead for this hundred years or more,
His head and his heart, his arms and his thighs
Dissolved to dust, and only his eyes
Moved in their sockets and saw
His gold, his empire, everything
He loved in the hands of another King."