History has its own heroes, whose story has survived the onslaught of time and become immortal. For hundreds of years their stories are told and retold again, and are passed down generations after generation. The life of Historical heroes is shrouded in legend and folklore, which makes it difficult for writers and historians to represent their life and deeds based on real facts. In these circumstances the writer has to heavily rely on whatever available sources and carefully separate facts from fiction. If the hero was a charismatic person, leaving his footsteps in the dangerous field of battle to the rosy path of romance, the issue grows more complex. He invariably becomes the perfect character on whom hundreds of poems can be written, numerous plays can be staged and volumes of novels can be penned. One such imposing character in medieval India was the Rajput legend Prithvi Raj Chauhan.
Eight hundred and thirty years ago during the late twelfth century A.D there would be no one in North India who wouldn’t know Prithvi Raj. There are reasons to believe so; by that time the legendary Rajput had become the most powerful king of North India, with Ajmer and Delhi under his dominion. With his charismatic personality he had rallied under him several nobles but also made several enemies who wanted to put him in the dock. However, the danger at home was perhaps less serious than the threat which was coming to India crossing the Khyber Pass. Muhammad of Ghor, originally Muizz-ud-dīn Muhammad Bin Sām was following the sequel which was directed 350 years ago by Muhammad Bin Qasim- the assault on India. From the beginning of the eighth century A.D the Arab World and the rulers of India’s North-Western frontier started to develop terrible animosity against each other. There are number of reasons for these issues, it is wise not to go to the muddy water and make the article lengthy. What is necessary to understand is that as the Arab world improved their strength, conversely Northern India was becoming powerless. The Arabs actually benefitted from this weakness, and that is why we see Muhammad Bin Qasim kicking off the campaign (in the early eight century), reaching as far as Sindh. In the two decades of 1010-20 another man from Gazni whom we call Mahmud of Gazni attacked Northern India destroying any army in his way causing massive demolition and plunder. Muhammad Bin Qasim was an Arab and Mahmud of Gazni was basically a Turk. The Tajik who followed these two guys was Muhammad of Ghor, but he was different than the other two. He wanted to have a long lasting impression of his hard earned conquest and left his slave to rule in his name, and this slave founded the Slave dynasty, we know him by the name Qutub-ud-din Aibak.
The First Battle of Tarrain (1191)
That was a briefing about the pre and post history before the two armies of Prithvi Raj and Muhammad of Ghor meet. In fact they meet two times, it was one-one, in the former battle Prithvi won, Muhammad of Ghor suffered serious wound, in the next Prithvi lost two most important thing- the battle and his life. Now let’s go to the battle-field. So Muhammad of Ghor passed Khyber Pass, entered Hindustan, and took the fort of Bhatindah. He left the fort under his lieutenant with 1200 horsemen and was about to return when he heard of Prithvi Raj and his army heading towards him. With Prithvi Raj was his commander in chief Khandi Rae, joined by several Rajput Nobles and several thousand men. Muhammad of Ghor, (commonly called Ghori) on hearing the news set out to meet Prithvi Raj. The two armies marched towards each other and arrived at a place called Tarrain, near Thaneswar a town in present day Haryana. The two armies deployed their men in battle, and the valiant Rajputs succeeded in destroying the right and left flank of Ghori leaving him with few horsemen in the centre. There was so much panic in Ghori’s ranks that a messenger came running to him and said, “Master, your ranks have broken, the Amirs who sung your praises now have taken to flight, the commanders who always boasted of their merit in war are not to be found, in this situation you must flee towards Lahore or you will not be saved.” Ghori however was undaunted to these warnings he unsheathed his sword and with what was left charged the Rajputs with determination. While Ghori was making his final stand, the eye of Khandi Rae the commander in chief of the Rajput army fell on him, the valiant general who was riding on a huge elephant, immediately ordered his rider to take the beast close to Ghori. Ghori seeing Khandi Rae approaching, seized a spear, charged towards him and smote him in the mouth with such force that two teeth of Khandi Rae fell. The enraged commander shot an arrow back at him and inflicted a heavy injury to Ghori’s shoulder. With such grave wound Ghori was unable to hold the reigns of his horse and was about to fall, when a brave attendant appeared form nowhere and carried off Ghori from the battlefield. The young man reunited Ghori to his runaway soldiers who recognized the Sultan and after thanksgiving to the Almighty went back where they came from. Prithviraj and his men did not follow Ghori and this battle took place in the fifteenth year of his reign.
The Second Battle of Tarrain (1192)
For thirteen months Ghori remained silent, “never sleeping with ease, over sorrow and anxiety”, and then reassembled his army to once again attack Hindustan. As he entered Hindustan and Prithivraj obtained the information he sent Ghori a message, “return to your own territory and we will not follow you.” Ghori in order to deceive him and throw him off his guard replied,” I am here by the order of my brother, who is my sovereign, and it is because of his command that I undertook the journey. Give me sufficient time to send him back a messenger to conclude a peace treaty, between him and you. Under the new treaty Tabarhindah (Sirhind), Punjab and Multan shall be ours and the rest of the country shall be yours.” By this time Ghori for the second time had taken the fort of Tabarhindah and pitched his camp at Tarain. It can be argued that Prithviraj had become a little too confident after his victory in the first battle. Actually he could have used the victory in his great advantage. He could have pursued Ghori and completely destroyed his army or he could have conquered the greater portion of Punjab and block the gates of entrance to Hindustan. These he did not do, and that is why we see the strong fortress of Tabarhindah falling twice inside thirteen months. Compared to Prithviraj, Ghori’s position was much difficult, he had grave wound to recover from, had to assemble a large army, then of course he had to cross five huge rivers and end up in Hindustan to find the deadly Rajputs waiting for him. The decision to attack at the right time also was to be chosen very carefully. The extreme climate in Northern India was a major survival threat to Ghori and his men. So he had to plan all very carefully, but above all he had to find the causes for his defeat in the first battle and invent a fool proof strategy this time.
In fact he had learned from his mistakes, I guess he was working at the very basics. He understood that it was dangerous to fight a pitched battle with the Rajputs. The chance of winning was very slim, so he had to do what his predecessor Mahmud of Gazni had done-throw wave after wave of mounted archers. The mounted archers divided in teams of four or five would simultaneously attack the Rajput flanks, after a little skirmish they would withdraw with the Rajput cavalry in pursuit. This way they could divide the Rajput army from their initial deployment, and take them away from the battlefield. When they would be drawn quite far, Ghori with the reserve forces will charge the Rajput centre and make them rout. The plan on pen and paper seems wonderful, but in practice it is one of the most difficult battle manoeuvres. To achieve this, the army had to have extraordinary discipline and integrity, for this Ghori depended mostly on his Turkic contingent than Afghans and Persians. He kept his best men at reserve for his ambitious charge; they were the choicest cavalry, heavy cavalry to be precise. This again was a good move, it was wise to use the light cavalry, mounted archers with minimum armour to intimidate the enemy and employ the heavy cavalry, with full armour to engage the enemy centre. This is the classical battle strategy that the central Asian armies used against Indians with great success. Three hundred years down the line it was used again by Bairam Khan against Hemu in the second battle of Panipat. I think the most fatal mistakes that the Indians made was their reliance on pitched battles, where there will be lot of hand to hand combat, personal bravery etc which could be well exploited by a clever enemy. The Indian armies, some people call Hindu army, (and also Islamic army) I don’t want to label armies in this manner to me these terms are misnomers and highly ambiguous, but in general the military in the Indian subcontinent liked to break through the enemy ranks. It is a classical Indian style of fighting a battle in an open field, where infantry, cavalry and elephants advance simultaneously like the grand French columns and dash against the enemy lines. But the central Asians fought differently, they used the hunting technique which was based on separating enemy flanks and then attacking the centre. No doubt it was quite good, in fact Alexander and Napoleon were great believers in separating the flanks from the centre. As long as the Central Asians were fighting in an open field and using this strategy it was very difficult to beat them. Therefore Ghori choose not to fight the Rajputs united instead he decided to attack at the dawn so that he could well organise his divisions and of course make preparations for what was to be a lengthy war.
Important places of Ghori’s expedition
As a matter of fact the Rajputs were perhaps confused to see the Ghori army ready at the dawn, and they also immediately started to deploy their men. Ghori had issued explicit instruction that the army to be divided into five regiments, each with 10,000 mounted archers, to engage the enemy flanks from a distance and to flee when pursued. As the battle began the cavalry archers showered the Rajputs with arrows and were immediately chased. Skirmish and flight was the order of the day this continued from 9 a.m in the morning to the afternoon, by then the Rajput cavalry had become tired and exhausted. Ghori was waiting for this and as soon as he saw Rajput centre unsafe, he pounced upon them with his 12,000 horsemen and after sometime the entire Rajput army fell like a pack of cards. Prithviraj who was on an elephant descended from it, got upon a horse and fled from the battlefield. He was later arrested on the banks of the river Saraswati and his commander in chief Khandi Rae was killed in the battle field. It is said that Ghori recognized the head of Khandi Rae by the two lost teeth on his jaw, which was because of his severe blow in the first battle of Tarrain. There is a little controversy over the fact whether Prithviraj was taken prisoner and sent to Gazni. However from the various records I referred I personally would like to believe that he was taken prisoner alive and later executed. The story of he being taken to Gazni and blinded doesn’t seem to be realistic.
After this decisive victory Ghori left his commander and his favourite slave Qutub-ud-din Aibak to carry on the conquest while he returned to Gazni. Aibak sacked Meerut and captured Delhi, in the following year Ghori returned again from Gazni and took Kanauj and went as far as Benares. He overthrew Jai Chand and by that victory obtained three hundred elephants which further strengthened his army. Another notable commander in Ghori’s army was Ikhtiyar-ud-din Bakhtiyar Khilji who migrated from Gazni to India. He was given a jagir in Awadh and was appointed to conquer the cities of Bihar and North Bengal. In short time he became a distinguished commander and acquired a large army. With this he sacked the whole of Bihar and conquered Nadia with just eighteen horsemen (Rajah Laksman Sena of Nadia fled). In the year 1206 Aibak was in trouble over the revolt of Khokhars in Punjab, and requested Ghori for help. Ghori came to his “second home” and crushed the revolt and on his way back while in Jhelum he was murdered by Khokhar militias. Strangely all these characters Ghori, Bakhtiyar Khilji and Lakshman Sena died in the year 1206!
1. The Indian Empire: Its People, History and Products by Sir William Hunter.
2. India A History by John Keay.
3. Advanced Study in the History of Medieval India by Jaswant Lal Mehta.
4. Tabakt-i-Nasiri by Minaj-ud-din Abu-Umar-i-Usman.
5. Photo-Wikipedia, and British Library