The Invasion Of Timur
A.D. 1388 TO A.D. 1389
There is one cry of terror which from time immemorial has echoed out
over the wide wheatfields of Northern India. Sometimes it has come
when the first sword-points of the new-sprouted seed give a green
shading to the sandy soil, and the flooding water from the wells which
cease not night or day follows obedient to the naked brown figure with
a wooden spud which directs
it first to one patch of corn, then to
another. Sometimes, again, it has come when the village has emptied
itself upon the harvest field, when men are cutting and threshing, and
women winnowing, while the children lie asleep in the great heaps of
chaff, or make quaint images out of the straw.
At times, again, but not often, it has come, as it did in the Mutiny
days, when the bare burnt fields lie idle, resting against next
crop-season, and the peasant women sit outside the breathless village,
picking and carding and spinning. But the cause is always the same: a
knot of hurried horsemen showing on the level horizon, messengers, as
it were, from the outside world beyond village ken.
"The Toork! The Toork!" rises the cry, and in an instant jewels are
torn off and hidden, everything that can be concealed concealed, and
with a wild prayer to some god for protection, the ultimate atom of
India awaits destruction or dishonour or death in apathetic despair.
It must have needed a bitter biting indeed to have engraven this fear
so indelibly on the Hindu heart.
Yet looking back on the four hundred years of Mahomedan inroads which
we have just followed, small wonder can be felt at the persistence of
this terror. How many times had not this knot of horsemen appeared,
done their worst, and disappeared, leaving behind them miserable,
dishonoured women, maddened by the sight of their murdered husbands,
and the very dead boy-babies at their breasts.
A horrible legacy of fear, in truth!
And of late, in addition to the endless incursions of the Mahomedans
proper, there had been persistent appearances and reappearances of the
yellow-skinned Moghuls. From north, from east, from west, this rising
race had ridden, had ravaged, and had returned whence they came.
In truth they were more of a rising race than these poor peasants
knew; more so than the effete monarchies and nobilities of Mahomedan
India realised. Close on a hundred and fifty years before, Chengiz
Khan, a Moghul chief, had barbarously swept through the plains of
North-Western Asia, and now his descendant Timur--though born in
comparatively civilised times, and by profession a Mahomedan--was to
carry on the destruction which his ancestor had begun. History hardly
presents a more terrible personality than that of this man, as judged
by the autobiography he left behind him. It is one of the most
remarkable records ever written. Here is no mere rude barbarian, but a
wily man of the world, ready to practise on every weakness of his
fellows, ready with cant, with real devotion, full of courage as well
as full of address, and with and through it all the most unscrupulous
selfishness, the utmost admiration for his own perfidies.
But he was a great man; in his way, a genius. There is nothing in its
way finer than the record he gives in this autobiography of his--which
he entitles, "Political and Military Institutions of Tamarleng," or
the Lame Timur--of his reasons for advancing on India, and his
"I ordered 1,000 swift-footed camels, 1,000 swift-footed horses, and
1,000 swift-footed infantry to bring me word respecting the princes of
India. I learnt that they were at variance one with the other.... The
conquest appeared to me easy, though my soldiers thought it dangerous.
"Resolved to undertake it, and make myself master of the Indian
Brief to the point almost of bathos; but surely a brevity which brings
with it a shiver as at something inhuman in its strength.
So in September 1398 the "admirably regulated horse and foot post"
which Mahomed Toghluk had given to India, brought news that a huge
host of Turks and Tartars and Moghuls, led by Timur in person, had
crossed the river Indus by a bridge of rafts and reeds.
The tidings seem to have brought about no concerted action in India.
It was too much given over to anarchy for cohesion. And so the
celebrated march of the "Lame Firebrand of the World" began in
It is a horrid record of brutal butchery. As if fascinated by some
unholy spell, the inhabitants of India seem to have yielded their
necks to the smiter, without, as Ferishta puts it, "making one brave
effort to save their country, their lives, or their property."
His first halt was at Talumba, a strong fort and city at the junction
of the Chenab and the Ravi rivers. He plundered the town, but as the
fort was strong, left it comtemptuously alone and went forward on his
path of desolation and destruction. Not a village was left unburnt,
not a male left alive, not a female unravished. The next pause was at
a town famous for the shrine of a Mahomedan saint, for whose sake he
spared the inhabitants, and after (doubtless) saying his prayers,
dutifully pressed on to Bhatnir, the headquarters of the Great Lunar
Race of Rajputs. This he reached in two days by forced marches, the
last being one of close on 100 miles. Here his ferocity broke beyond
bounds. He slew by thousands the helpless country folk who had fled
for protection to their Rajah, and who, overcrowding the city, were
huddled together like sheep beyond its walls. The garrison gave
battle, but, hard-pressed, sought refuge in the citadel, and Timur,
gaining the gates of the town ere they could be shut, drove the
unfortunates from street to street. Overmastered by numbers, by sheer
terror, the place capitulated on terms. To no purpose. For, even while
the Tartar was receiving the delegates and accepting their presents,
orders were given to sack and slay. Whereupon, struck with horror,
with despair, the cry, "Johar! Johar!" arose from the men, wives and
children were slain, and the Rajputs sought nothing but revenge and
death. "The scene," says Ferishta, "was awful. The inhabitants in the
end were cut off to a man, though not before some thousands of the
Moghuls had fallen."
This so exasperated Timur that every living soul in the city was
massacred, and the place itself reduced to ashes.
To Saraswati, to Fatehabad, to Rajpur, he carried his flaming sword;
then at Kaitul he rejoined the main body of his army--for he had only
commanded a flying column hitherto--and settled his face fairly
towards his goal--Delhi.
But now abject fear was beforehand with him, and he marched through
desolate fields, deserted houses, empty cities.
A strange march of Death indeed! The young green wheat showing green
as ever, the hearth fires still burning bravely, the litter and
leavings of human life lying about in the sunlight; but life
itself?--nowhere! Everything, gold, gems, home, country left, but that
had gone. It must have angered the horde of butchers to find no blood
with which to wet their swords, to hear no piteous cries for mercy as
they rode. The very hands must have grown listless as they gathered in
the unresisting spoils.
Perhaps that was the reason why Timur, arriving within touch of Delhi,
sought to revive his soldiery by an order for the wholesale slaughter
of all prisoners.
And all this time at Delhi the puppet-king Mahmud, the last degenerate
scion of the House of Toghluk, had sate in the massive palace of his
"Delhi dur ust."
["It is a far cry to Delhi."]
This had been his hope as he waited. But early in January an old
man--for Timur was now past sixty years of age, and his life had been
a strenuous one--crossed the river with a small body of seven hundred
horse, and calmly reconnoitered Toghlukabad.
Seven hundred horse only! Mahmud took courage, sallied out with five
thousand, was contemptuously driven within the walls again, until
Timur, "having made the observations he wished, repassed the river,
and rejoined his army."
A good general this, trusting to no Intelligence Department, but to
his own eyes.
That night the one thousand prisoners (the figure is that given by
Mahomedan historians) were slain in cold blood. Next day, 13th
January, he and his army forded the river without opposition and
entrenched themselves close to the gates of Toghlukabad. Despising the
astrologers, who pronounced the 15th of January to be an unlucky day,
Timur chose it for his attack, and drew up his army in order of
battle. His foes were barely worthy of such trouble. They certainly
returned the challenge by marching out, elephants covered in mail,
warriors in armour, pennants flying, drums sounding; but at the first
charge of Moghul horsemen, the elephants' drivers were unseated, and
leviathan in terror fled to the rear, communicating confusion to the
So almost without a blow the Tartar found himself by nightfall at the
very gates of the city.
A fateful night! The king fled in it, the chief men in the city
resolved during it on submission, and were promised protection on
payment of a heavy indemnity.
Next morning, Timur was proclaimed Emperor in every mosque, guards
were placed at Treasury and gates, and troops sent to enforce
What followed may have been due to insubordination on the part of the
pillaging soldiery; on the other hand, it occurred far too often in
Timur's career to make us quite unsuspicious of perfidy. Anyhow,
whether by collision between the populace and the troops, or by mere
wanton violence, resistance was aroused even amid the panic-stricken
inhabitants, and the greatest tragedy Delhi has ever seen began. Once
more the cry, "Johar! Johar!" echoed out helplessly, the gates were
overpowered by mob-force and closed, the houses were set on fire, and
while women and children perished in the flames, the men fought
desperately to death in the streets, hand to hand with their butchers.
The lanes were barricaded by the bodies of the dead, lives were sold
dear, and a scene of carnage beyond description ensued; until the
gates being once more forced, the whole Moghul army was let loose, to
deal inevitable death on the almost unarmed crowd.
Five days afterwards Timur offered up to God "his sincere and humble
tribute of grateful praise for his victory" in the splendid mosque of
marble which Feroze Toghluk had built on the banks of the Jumna.
Once more we are reminded of that idle rhyme--
"Three thousand Frenchmen sent below,
Praise God from whom all blessings flow."
The primitive passions change very little.
After that he departed, his work accomplished, his task done. He took
with him plunder inconceivable, and with a few minor excursions to
"put every inhabitant to the sword," made his way back to Samarkhund
by the Kabul route. To the last exposing himself to every fatigue,
every privation which he imposed upon his army.
So he quitted India, taking no trouble to make provision for holding
the empire he had won. He left anarchy, famine, pestilence, behind
him. For two months Delhi was a city of the dead, and for thirty-six
years India owned no government either in name or in reality. Dazed,
depopulated, despairing, she dreamt evil dreams--dreams almost worse
than the nightmare of the past.
No greater proof of the totality of Timur's destruction is needed than
this--a whole generation had to pass away ere men could be found with
hope enough wherewith to face the future.