Few figures from the Indian past strike most Hindus with as much revulsion as the Turkish conqueror, Mahmud of Ghazni. Mahmud succeeded his father, a warlord who had carved out an empire in central Asia and had established his capital at Ghazni, south of Kabul, in 998 AD at the age of 27. He launched aggressive expansionist campaigns, and is said to have invaded India no less than 17 times between 1000 and 1025 AD. His campaigns invariably took place during the hot summer season, and on each occasion Mahmud left India before the onset of the monsoons, which would have flooded the rivers of the Punjab and possibly trapped his troops.

Mahmud’s invasions of India, which never extended to the central, south, and eastern portions of the country, were doubtless exceedingly bloody and ruthless affairs. He is said to have carried away huge amount of booty on each visit, and among other Indian dynasties, the Chandellas of Khujaraho, the Pratiharas of Kanauj, and the Rajputs of Gwalior all succumbed to his formidable military machine. Places such as Kanauj, Mathura, and Thaneshwar were laid to ruins, but it is the memory of his destruction of the Shiva temple at Somnath, on the southern coast of Kathiawar in Gujarat, which has earned him the undying hatred of many Hindus. Muslim chronicles suggest that 50,000 Hindu died in the battle for Somnath, and it is said that the Shiva lingam was destroyed by Mahmud himself; after the battle, Mahmud and his troops are described as having carried away across the desert the equivalent of 6.5 tons of gold. The famous, intricately carved, doors of the temple at Somnath were also carried away, and there is an interesting story to be told about Somnath [see entry].

There can be no doubt that Mahmud of Ghazni waged ruthless campaigns and terrorized the people who came in his way. The Arab geographer and scholar, Alberuni, who wrote an account of India and spent much time at Mahmud’s court, wrote of his raids that “the Hindus became like the atoms of dust scattered in all directions and like a tale of old in the mouths of people. Their scattered remains cherish of course the most inveterate aversion towards all Moslems.” Nonetheless, the communalist interpretation of Mahmud, first initiated by British historians and then adopted by nationalist Hindu historians, is without merit and must be rejected. This interpretation represents Mahmud as someone who harbored a special hatred for Hindus, but in point of fact there is nothing he did to Hindus that he did not also do to Muslims, especially Muslims he considered to be heretical. The Muslim ruler of Multan, an Ismaili, and his subjects were dealt with just as ruthlessly. Though Mahmud destroyed Hindu temples and broke Hindu idols, he acted as any ruthless warrior bent on conquest and pillage might do; indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find other conquerors at that time who behaved any differently. Many of his deeds struck even later Muslim historians as indefensible, and they become comprehensible, though emphatically not justifiable, when one considers him within a framework which recognizes the ‘politics of conquest’. If Mahmud pillaged Hindu temples, he did so because wealth was hoarded in these temples; but there is little to suggest a particular animus towards Hinduism. Contemporary records suggest that one of his most notable generals was a Hindu by the name of Tilak.

Mahmud’s ferocity and barbarism scarcely prevented him from cultivating the great minds of the time. He was animated by an ambition to make turn his court at Ghazni into a haven for scholars and artists, and he turned Ghazni into one of the cosmopolitan cities of the world. The famous Persian poet, Firdausi, author of the national epic the Shahnamah, was enticed to make his home in Ghazni, as was the Arab geographer Alberuni. The more substantive questions pertain to why India fell so easily to Mahmud’s sword on so numerous occasions, though even here it is worthy of note that he met stiff opposition in Kashmir and could never establish his rule over that fabled land. He doubtless had a more efficient military than any Indian ruler could muster, and the most formidable of the Hindu kings, the Cholas, were too far removed from northern India to offer any resistance, or even to have any interest in the affairs of the north. Caste divisions in Hindu society also played their part in weakening the resistance of Hindu kings, and the professionalism and egalitarianism of Muslim armies, many of which allowed slaves to rise to the top, was nowhere to be seen among the Hindus. These are among the pertinent considerations raised by Mahmud’s raids into India, and scholarship would do much better in directing itself towards the ‘politics of conquest’ and the political structures of north India around 1000 AD than in being derailed by communalist readings of Indian history.