1018: Mahmud Ghazni’s invasion of Mathura

1018: Mahmud Ghazni’s invasion of Mathura

Exactly one thousand years ago the ancient city of Mathura was attacked by Mahmud, the ruler of Ghazni, who brought death and destruction of apocalyptic proportions to the beautiful birthplace of Lord Krishna.

On December 2, 1018, advancing further into India than any Muslim ruler prior, Mahmud descended upon the fort of Mahaban on the outskirts of the city. Kulchand, the king of Mathura, opposed the massive horde – comprising mainly Turks and Arabs – and fought bravely alongside his small but powerful army. Swords and spears were used in savage hand to hand combat. After hours of bitter fighting, the more experienced forces of Mahmud overcame the fort’s defenders.

The soldiers and citizens abandoned the fort and tried to cross the foaming river which flowed on the other side of the fort, thinking they would be able to put up better resistance from the opposite bank. But Mahmud’s forces pounced upon them; between 5,000 (1) and 50,000 Hindus (2) were killed, drowned or became the prey of crocodiles. Seeing his position was hopeless, Kulchand took out his dagger, killed his young son, slew his wife and then drove it into his own body. The Muslim army obtained 185 war elephants plus other booty.

This wasn’t Mahmud’s first attack on India; since 1001 he had been pillaging the country, especially eastern Afghanistan (still a Hindu province of India) and Punjab, on an average every 18 months, killing tens of thousands and taking away hundreds of thousands of Hindu men, women and children as slaves. And yet the fragmented Indian kingdoms never prepared for the inevitability that pillaging Muslim armies could penetrate further into the country’s heartland.

Mathura ravaged

With their king dead, and knowing a great pestilence was coming in the form of Mahmud, the defenceless citizens of Mathura fled their beloved city. (3) On the morning of December 3, 1018, the rapacious horde, hungry for loot and slaves, poured into Mathura. Some were battle hardened and disciplined troops; most were unpaid freelancers whom Mahmud had promised a sizeable war booty plus as many beautiful Hindu maidens and child slaves they could get their hands on.

When Mahmud entered Mathura, he saw a building of exquisite structure, which the inhabitants said had been built, not by men, but by heavenly beings. The wall of the city was constructed of hard stone, and two gates opened upon the river flowing under the city, which were erected upon strong and lofty foundations, to protect them against the floods of the river and rains. (2)

On both sides of the city there were a thousand castles, to which idol temples were attached, all strengthened from top to bottom by rivets of iron, and all made of masonry work ; and opposite to them were other buildings, supported on broad wooden pillars, to give them strength.

In the middle of the city there was a temple larger and firmer than the rest, which can neither be described nor painted. It was the legendary temple of Vasudeva. Mahmud wrote: “If any should wish to construct a building equal to this, he would not be able to do it without expending a hundred thousand thousand (100 million) red dinars, and it would occupy 200 years, even though the most experienced and able workmen were employed.”

Wealth of centuries purloined

Among the idols there were five made of gold, each 15 feet tall, fixed in the air without support. In the eyes of one of these idols there were two rubies, of such value, that if any one were to sell such as are like them, he would obtain 50,000 dinars.

On another, there was a sapphire purer than water, and more sparkling than crystal; the weight was 450 miskals (1 miskal = 4.5 grams). The two feet of another idol weighed 4,400 miskals, and the entire quantity of gold yielded by the bodies of these idols, was 98,300 miskals – that’s 442 kilos of pure gold. There were also 200 silver idols, but they could not be weighed without breaking them to pieces and putting them into scales.

After grudgingly admiring the unparalleled beauty of the temple which barbarian raiders like him could never hope to build, and burning up with envy at the advanced civilisation of the Hindus, Mahmud gave orders that the temple should be burnt with naphtha and fire, and levelled to the ground. The work of an estimated two centuries was reduced to smoke and ashes. The blow to Hindu morale was incalculable.

Mahmud camped in Mathura 20 days during which time the city suffered greatly from fire, beside the damage it sustained by being pillaged. Like a ravenous pack, the Muslim army fell upon the citizens of Mathura, killing the men wantonly, separating the women from their children, and sorting them as if they were cattle. “Mahmud took with him such a large number of prisoners from Mathura that in spite of his willingness to sell each one at a price of Rs 2.50, he could not buyers.”

For many years after the invasion, visitors to Ghazni commented that it appeared like a mini Hindustan because of the large number of Indian slaves everywhere. It was a great tragedy – once proud and free men, happy women and carefree children, now reduced to working as slaves or concubines in the homes of illiterate barbarians. Persian historian Jabadkani gloats: “Slaves were so plentiful that they became very cheap, and men of respectability in their native land were degraded by becoming slaves of common shopkeepers. But this is the goodness of God, who bestows honours on his own religion and degrades infidelity.”

Endless loot

Their blood thirst not slaked by the destruction of Mathura, the Muslim army continued its march along the course of a stream – the Ganga – on whose banks were seven strong fortresses, all of which fell in succession. Nearly 10,000 temples were built in these fortresses, which the local residents told Mahmud had existed for 200,000 to 300,000 years. (4)

Having sacked these temples and destroyed the fortresses, the troops were led against the fort of Manaj. “This fort was full of Rajputs, who held out for 25 days; but finding the place no longer tenable, some rushed through the breaches on the enemy, and met that death which they no longer endeavoured to avoid; others threw themselves headlong from the walls, and were dashed to pieces; and others, again, burned themselves in their houses, with their wives and children, so that not one of the garrison survived.”

Mahmood, having secured what was valuable, next invested the fort of Raja Chandpal. But he had sent off all his treasure to the mountains, and at the approach of the Muslim army evacuated the place; there, however, still remained much spoil and provisions, which Mahmud divided among his troops.

Mahmud then marched against another raja, whose name was Chand Rai. This king, after some skirmishes, finding himself unable to cope with the invaders, sent off his treasure and other valuable effects, and retreated to the mountains.

At this point, Mahmud decided to turn back as the mountains forts were not only too daunting to storm, but the Muslim horde also had to protect its large war booty and prisoners.

Mahmud, loaded with spoil and encumbered with captives, returned to Ghazni, where he caused the objects of his plunder to be displayed. They consisted of 20,000,000 dirhams of gold and silver bullion, 5,300 captives, 350 elephants, besides jewels, pearls and precious effects, which could not be properly estimated. Nor was the private spoil of the army less than that which came into the public treasury. “They ravaged the country and collected so great an amount that water and fire could not consume it, and it could not be reduced to the compass of calculation or to the order of account books.” (2)

There were so many slaves that the drinking places and streets of Ghazni were too narrow for them, and the eatables and victuals of the country sufficed not for them. Undoubtedly, many of the captured Hindu men, women and children must have died due to hunger and exposure under such circumstances.

Ghazni transformed

Mahmud, on his return, ordered a magnificent mosque to be built of marble and granite, of such beauty as struck every beholder with astonishment, and furnished it with rich carpets, and with candelabras and other ornaments of silver and gold. This mosque was universally known by the name of the Celestial Bride.

In its neighbourhood the sultan founded a university, supplied with a vast collection of curious books in various languages. It contained also a museum of natural curiosities. For the maintenance of this establishment he appropriated a large sum of money, besides a sufficient fund for the maintenance of the students, and proper persons to instruct youth in the arts and sciences.

When the nobility of Ghazni perceived the taste of their king evince itself in architecture, they also endeavoured to vie with each other in the magnificence of their private palaces, as well as in public buildings which they raised for the embellishment of the city. Thus, in a short time, the capital was ornamented with mosques, porches, fountains, reservoirs, aqueducts, and cisterns, beyond any city in the East. (2)

Some authors affirm that among the curiosities which the sultan brought from India, was a bird resembling a dove, which possessed the peculiar faculty of discovering poison however secretly conveyed into any apartment in which the bird lived. It is said, on such occasions, the bird was affected with the smell of the poison in such a way, as to fly distractedly about its cage, while tears streamed involuntarily from the eyes. This bird, with other curiosities, was sent as a present to the Caliph of Baghdad, Alkadir Billah.

Bribing the caliphate

In return for caliphal recognition and blessing, Mahmud used to send large amounts of money and presents to the caliph from his plunders and tributes obtained in India, consisting of “all kinds of wealth”. According to the Tarikh-i-Alfi, Mahmud kept one-fifth of his booty, which included 150,000 slaves, for sending to Baghdad. This means his kingdom was a full province of the Baghdad Caliphate. His son and successor, Sultan Masud, also received the endowment and recognition of the caliph, after promising to send him every year a sum of 200,000 dinars, 10,000 pieces of cloth, besides other presents. (5)

Vast treasures were sent to Arabia too, for that country was the fountainhead of Islam. A year after the Mathura raid, Mahmud sent a caravan of pilgrims comprising “many thousand individuals of all classes” to carry a considerable war booty to Mecca. The exact amount is unknown but one gets a measure of the size of the offering from the fact that the caravan was protected by a “considerable force” and was given 30,000 dirhams to pay off robbers and procure a safe journey.

Mahmud’s motives

Members of India’s secular circus play down Mahmud’s genocide and loot as mere temple raids, and that he was a patron of arts and lover of books (ironic since he was illiterate). According to Jawaharlal Nehru, “Mahmud was far more a warrior than a man of faith.” And he went on to write: “Mahmud was much impressed by the city of Mathura near Delhi.” He was an “admirer of art and architecture”. (6)

To most Muslims of the subcontinent Mahmud is a hero. Pakistan has named one of its nuclear tipped missiles as Ghaznavi. Prime Minister Imran Khan, not the brightest spark in South Asia, tweeted: “Mahmud Ghaznavi’s raid was aimed against local oppressors of the poor & downtrodden masses of Sindh.2day we c same oppression across Pak.” (7)

It is fitting that the sanest opinion on Mahmud comes from an Afghan. Muhammad Ghobar, a 20th century Afghan historian and diplomat wrote: “Sultan Mahmud was a prejudiced Muslim and his military expeditions originated from his prejudice. What some people say that it was because of gaining the war spoils that he invaded India cannot be correct because he spent them in the construction of mosques and religious schools. His real aim had been Islam propagation. But nowadays, exerting force and pressure for the sake of spreading a religion cannot be justified. Historical realities show that he did not do anything to those idols and temples which were not used for religious purposes and were considered as signs of historical culture, such as Buddha idols of Bamyan which existed in the heart of an Islamic domain, but he destroyed those idols of temples which were worshipped. Naturally, breaking the idols, destroying the temples and forcefully forbidding the people of other religions or sects, made them annoyed.” (8)

In stark contrast to the first successful Muslim invasion of India, in 712 CE, when the Arabs took Sindh, is the fanaticism of Mahmud’s army. “The Musalmans paid no regard to the booty till they had satiated themselves with the slaughter of the infidels. The friends of Allah searched the bodies of the slain for three whole days, in order to obtain booty.” (2)

Loot was the prime motive but the destruction of an entire civilisation was always on top of his mind. Like Adolf Hitler’s much cherished lebensraum (living space for the Germans by wiping out the Slavs), Mahmud wanted to establish an Islamic homeland by first destroying the country. As Jabadkani noted, Mahmud “utterly ruined the prosperity of Hindustan”.

Says Lal, “With such achievements to his credit, there is little wonder that Mahmud of Ghazni has remained the ideal, the model, of Muslims – medieval and modern.” (9)

Mathura avenged

Late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee once recounted an incident that happened during his state visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1978. Vajpayee (who was India’s Foreign Minister) expressed his desire to visit Ghazni. His bewildered Afghan hosts said, “Ghazni is not a tourist spot, it has no five-star hotel. What will you do in Ghazni? What is there to see in Ghazni?” (10)

Today, Ghazni is a poor, dusty village where the Taliban hide amidst the rubble, trying to escape American bombers at night and snipers by day. Previously, the Soviets had bombed the city to rubble so the Americans are merely rearranging it.

Baghdad, the once mighty caliphate, which encouraged the countless Islamic invasions of India, is a dystopian nightmare. In contrast, places in India that Mahmud razed to the ground are thriving. Mathura is alive with 6,000 temples. A local priest told this writer earlier this year: “You could visit one historical spot a day and still not be able to see everything in Mathura in your lifetime.”

Many of the cities that Mahmud destroyed never recovered their original glory, but they continue to exist. Each of these cities – Mathura, Thanesar, Bhimnagar, Kannuaj, Baran (Bulandshahr), Munj, Asni, Saharanpur – deserves a fitting memorial to the Hindu victims of genocide that took place a millennium ago.


  1. Jabadkani, ‘Tarjuma-i-Yamini’, Infinity Foundation,
  2. Al Utbi, ‘Kitab-i-Yamini’,
  3. S. Lal, ‘The Legacy of Muslim Rule in India’,
  4. ‘Kitab-i-Yamini’, page 457
  5. A. Khan, ‘Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism, and Slavery’, page 161
  6. Jawaharlal Nehru, Glimpses of World History
  7. Imran Khan, Twitter,
  8. Kurosh Salehi, Fatemeh Amir Shekari, ‘Reasons and Consequences of Ghaznavids’ Invasion of India’,
  9. S. Lal, ‘The Legacy of Muslim Rule in India’
  10. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, YouTube,

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Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.