Post-classical history

Chapter Seventeen


Conquest of the Willing

Between 1150 and 1202, the Hindu dynasty of the Sena overthrows the Buddhist kingdom of the Palas and, in its zeal, accidentally opens the door to Islam

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CENTURY, a subject prince in northeastern India named Vijay Sen finished throwing off the restraints of his masters.*

This was nothing new. For at least a thousand years, the kingdoms of the subcontinent had preserved a family likeness in the manner of their rising and falling. A warrior would conquer himself a kingdom by beating the nearby clan leaders into submission; he would found a dynasty, and his sons and grandsons would rule the stitched-together realm by continually persuading, bribing, and bashing the restless chiefs under them to fall back into line. The kingdom would expand; the king would hand over more and more governing power to his deputies in the far-flung areas of his land; and, inevitably, one of those deputies would rebel against his distant overlord and conquer himself a kingdom by beating the nearby clan leaders into submission.

As often as not, the new dynasty was a cousin of the old; and so sharp lines of distinction between them are hard to draw. More often than not, the new kingdom shared its language, its customs, its religion, and its stories with its predecessor. But Vijay Sen gave the ancient pattern a tweak.

His overlord was Ramapala, king of the Pala empire. The Palas had ruled in the eastern Ganges delta (an area often given the geographical name of “Bengal”) since the eighth century. Tradition held that the dynasty’s founder, Gopala, had been elected by his fellow commoners to bring peace and justice to the delta; it had been, says an inscription commemorating Gopala’s reign, a state ruled only by “the Law of the Fishes,” with the large and powerful devouring the weak in a sea of chaos.1

Gopala was a devout Buddhist and spent a good part of his twenty-five-year rule building temples and establishing religious schools to guide his people into the right path. The Buddhism of the Palas was wide and flexible. Like the classical Buddhism of earlier centuries, it taught that all physical things are transient, and that only enlightenment could reveal the physical world as the unreal and passing thing it is.* But the Palas also followed teachings and practices from several different strands of Buddhist thought, made use of sacred scriptures written in many different languages, and drew rituals from Hinduism into the circle of their Buddhist orthodoxy.2


17.1 The Ghurid Advance

Although the Pala kings who followed Gopala were more often Hindu than Buddhist, their Hinduism was as flexible as Gopala’s Buddhism. They continued to build Buddhist temples and to give lavish gifts of land and money to Buddhist monasteries. Monks came from China, from the far southern island of Sri Lanka, and from the mountain kingdom of Nepal to study in the Pala realm. The Odantapuri monastery, built under the patronage of Gopala and his son, had a thousand regular residents; according to a later sixteenth-century historian, as many as twelve thousand monks might gather there for special occasions.3 The Pala realm became an oasis for Indian Buddhism, which over the last centuries had been losing ground to traditional Hinduism.*

Vijay Sen did not take after his Pala overlords. His grandfather was a stern Hindu warrior from the south who had moved into the delta to live out his declining years; his father had claimed the right to rule a small patch of land around the old man’s settling place. Vijay Sen himself was a devotee of the gods Shiva and Vishnu, rigidly devoted to the practices and rituals of his Hindu upbringing. In his eyes, Buddhism was an aberration.

He began his career of conquest early in the twelfth century, still a very young man, using his father’s estate as his base of operations. At first, he maintained a façade of loyalty to his king, conquering the local chieftains in the name of Pala domination. But when his overlord Ramapala died in 1120, he abandoned this fiction. Ramapala, a competent administrator and experienced warrior, had ruled for forty-three years; his successors were weak and ineffective, and lost more and more of their territory to Vijay Sen.

By the late 1140s, Vijay Sen was in his early sixties. He had spent his entire life at war, and he could claim the rule of a realm that spread across the delta. His son Ballal Sen was his heir, his grandson Lakshman Sen one of his chief generals. In 1150, Lakshman Sen led his grandfather’s army in an attack against the Pala capital city of Gaur, and against the Pala king himself.

The Sena army overran the city, and the king, Madanapala, fled north into the territory known as Bihar. In exile, he continued to call himself the king of Gaur and to claim rule over the old Pala territory. But most of it now lay in Sena hands.4

The triumphant Vijay Sen celebrated by building the great temple of Pradyumnesvara and celebrating the ancient Hindu ritual of the Great Gift within it. The Great Gift ceremony was a modified form of an ancient kingly ritual, in which Hindu priests—Brahmans—would consecrate a horse and set it free to wander for a year. At the end of that time, the king would kill the horse with his own hands, and his queen would lie down under a golden blanket with the corpse and act out sexual congress. The strength of the sacred horse and the king were one, both passing into the queen so that her sons would also be filled with divine strength.5

By the twelfth century, only the symbolism of this startling ritual remained; Vijay Sen simply gave away a golden horse and chariot, with appropriate prayers and rituals. He also gifted his Brahmans with tracts of land. It was much less dramatic than the horse sacrifice (and less entertaining for onlookers), but the meaning was the same. As a Hindu king, ruling over a land that he now declared to be a Hindu realm, Vijay Sen stood in the gap between heaven and earth, and the kingly rituals over which he presided brought the divine into the world of men. “He was never tired of offering sacrifices,” explains one of his inscriptions, “and through his power Dharma [the rightful cosmic order], though she had become one-legged in the course of time, could move about on the earth.”6

This was not the malleable world of the Palas. It was a world of hierarchy, in which Vijay Sen as king stood in the central and most important place; below him, his Brahmans, his priests; below them, aristocratic warriors and landowners; and under their control, peasants who farmed the land.

This arrangement of classes, or “castes,” was not as inflexible as later Western writers would make out.* Far from dividing society tidily into four classes, caste groupings had scores of subdivisions and minor groups, and the lines between them were often fuzzy; for example, Hindu scriptures forbade Brahmans to use the plow, so priests who were given royal gifts of land became, out of necessity, landowners who controlled peasant farmers (who did the actual work). There was also a certain amount of movement between castes. A local leader could be ritually “upgraded” by his king into a higher caste, increasing his authority; new castes could emerge (as had the kayasthas several centuries earlier, a class of professional scribes who gained almost as much power as the priests).7

But flexible though it was, the caste system gave both Vijay Sen and his heir Ballal Sen, who inherited the throne of the new Sena kingdom in 1158, a way to keep order; and both paid marked attention to the privileges and duties of each class. Marriage between the classes was carefully regulated, to the benefit of the crown; Ballal Sen, who composed several treatises on the subject, passed a law allowing Brahmans, natural allies of the throne, to marry more than once, thus inflating the number of Brahman babies.

The Palas had paid no attention to caste whatsoever; the change was a jarring one for the people of Bengal, as was Vijay Sen’s abrupt halting of all royal patronage of Buddhism. His disdain for the Pala religion, and his son’s strict monitoring of caste, turned the Sena kingdom into a tinderbox of resentment.

When a new army came into view on the western horizon, a spark fell into the fuel.

MORE THAN A CENTURY EARLIER, the Muslim kingdom of the Ghaznavid Turks, founded on the east edge of what we now think of as Middle Eastern land, had pushed its way through the Khyber Pass into India; the Ghaznavids had then lost hold of their Middle Eastern territories, becoming simply a north Indian kingdom. In 1150, the Ghaznavid kingdom was in the hands of Bahram Shah, at the end of a particularly splendiferous thirty-five-year reign. Bahram Shah was a vassal of the Turkish sultan of Khorasan, Ahmed Sanjar, at that time the senior member of the clan (the “Great Seljuk”). Bahram was a patron of poets, mathematicians, and philosophers. At his court, a visitor might find the poet Firdausi, originally from Khorasan, busy composing his epic history called the Shahnameh (now considered the national epic of Iran), or the astronomer Al Biruni, hard at work on one of his 146 books on science and mathematics.

But all was not well on the Ghaznavid borders. The control of the Great Seljuk over his lands was weakening; his superiority over the other Turkish sultans had long been in name rather than in fact. Another of the Great Seljuk’s vassals, a clan known as the Ghurids, was agitating for freedom.

The Ghurids lay on Bahram Shah’s western flank; he feared them as much as the Great Seljuk did. He had attempted to stave off an attack by marrying his daughter to one of the members of the ruling family of Ghur but when intelligence reached him that his son-in-law was planning an attack, Bahram Shah had him poisoned.

Instead of heading off hostilites, the murder ignited them. The dead man’s brother, ‘Ala’ al-Din Husain, took revenge by leading an army into Bahram Shah’s territory. The Ghaznavid army tried to face the Ghurid clan down with a vast front of elephants, but Husain and his men triumphed. The Tabakat-i-Nasiri, written by the Persian historian Minhaj Siraj Juzjani, tells of Husain’s rallying of his warriors, tasking each with the job of bringing one elephant to the ground. “Each of those champions attacked an elephant,” Juzjani writes, “and got beneath the armour of the animals, and with their poniards [daggers], ripped open the bellies of the elephants.” At least one champion was crushed beneath his falling prey, but the Ghurid infantry advanced behind this offensive, protected by the karwah, a mobile breastwork made of bull hide and coarse cotton cloth. “When the foot-soldiers of Ghur place this screen upon their shoulders,” says the Tabakat-i-Nasiri, “they are completely covered from head to foot by it . . . like a wall; and no missile or arms can take any effect on it, on account of the quantity of cotton with which it is stuffed.”8

Pushing steadily forward, the Ghurid front chased the retreating Ghaznavid army all the way back to Bahram Shah’s capital city. For seven days, Husain and his army sacked, burned, stole, and destroyed. As a final touch, Husain had the bodies of the previous Ghanznavid rulers dug out of their tombs and burned in the streets. The raid earned him the title of Jahan-Suz, World-Burner.9

Husain had never intended to conquer Ghaznavid land, and with his feelings relieved, he returned home. But Bahram Shah never recovered from the attack. He died in 1152, a little more than a year later.

The Ghurids did not launch a second campaign until after Husain’s death in 1163. Under another member of the clan, Ghiyas ad-Din Ghuri, they made their first move in the opposite direction, towards Khorasan. With the help of his brother Muhammad, Ghiyas spent over a decade expanding his borders west of the Himalayas, freeing himself from the domination of the Great Seljuk and systematically taking away the land that had once belonged to his overlord.

Finally, in 1175, the Ghurids began an eleven-year push into the north Indian lands of the Ghaznavids, led by Muhammad in the name of his brother Ghiyas. The Ghaznavid sultan Khusrau Malik, grandson of Bahram Shah, was forced back, year by grim year, until his kingdom had shrunk to a tiny patch of land around the city of Lahore. Muhammad, says the Tabakat-i-Nasiri, “used to advance every year from Ghazni” with his Ghurid army, “and to possess himself of portions of Hind and Sind, until in the year 577 A.H. [AD 1181] . . . he appeared before the gate of Lahore, and extorted a son and an elephant from Khusrau Malik, and then retired. Thus matters went on until the year 583 A.H. [AD 1187], when he brought an army against Lahore and reduced it.” Khusrau Malik was executed, as was his son and heir; and the Ghaznavid kingdom came to a final end.10

The Ghurids had defeated the Muslim enemy, but there was no reason for the sultan Ghiyas and his brother Muhammad to give up the conquest of India. With Lahore reduced to rubble, they turned their men towards the Hindu kings farther east.

The center of northern India was home to a cluster of warrior clans, each ruling its own small kingdom: the Rajputs, “sons of kings.” The Rajput rulers had invented wonderful myths for themselves, claiming to have been created from a cauldron of fire, in ancient times, to replace a warrior race that had grown corrupt and evil; the truth was that they had grown up from the remnants of empires overthrown by the Ghaznavids themselves, on their first advance into India 150 years before. The four most powerful of the Rajputs were the Parihars, Ponwars, Solankis, and Chauhans, and the Chauhan ruler Prithvi Raj stood directly in the Ghurid path.11

In his first foray against the Chauhan king, in 1191, Ghiyas ad-Din Ghuri was badly defeated and fled. Prithvi Raj, encouraged by the ease of his victory, did not shore up his defenses; his army, reinforced by his Rajput allies, was numbered at 300,000 horsemen and 3,000 elephants, twice the size of the Ghurid force, and he was unworried. But when Ghiyas returned a year later, the outnumbered Ghurids—meeting the Rajputs in the Second Battle of Tarain—outmaneuvered and outfought the Hindu defenders. Prithvi Raj was taken captive and executed.

The Hindu chroniclers blamed Muslim ferocity for the victory; the Islamic historians suggested that the rivalry between Rajput kingdoms led the combined army to fight with weakened intensity. The credit probably goes to the well-trained Ghurid horsemen, who overwhelmed the poorly armed, sketchily prepared Chauhan foot soldiers, drafted from the peasant ranks to pad out the defense. But with the Chauhan army scattered, the Rajput kingdoms had lost their strongest defense. One by one, they began to fall. The Ghurids took Delhi in 1193; a Hindu king would not rule there again for four hundred years. In 1199, a Ghurid army reached Bihar, where the last Pala king still clung to the illusion of his power, and destroyed even the last remnants of Pala power.12

In 1202, the Ghurid front reached the empire of the Sena.

Lakshman Sen, son of Ballal and grandson of Vijay Sen, had finally been crowned king, in 1179 at the age of sixty; he had spent his life watching his vigorous grandfather and father rule the Sena kingdom. Now he faced a greater threat than any they had known.

The confrontation was an anticlimax. Lakshman Sen had inherited not just the Sena empire but the resentment of its people. Oppressed by the overregulation of caste and the slighting of the traditional Buddhist institutions, his subjects welcomed the Ghurids as their deliverers.13

The Ghurid army had not even reached the capital city of Gaur before Lakshman Sen fled. He retrenched himself in the city of Vikrampur, and—as the Pala had before him—continued to claim the name of king, even as his realm shrank away to nothing.

The Ghurids entered Gaur in triumph, claiming it for their sultan Ghiyas. They faced almost no opposition. The people of Bengal knew little of Islam, but too much of the rigid Hinduism of the Sena; they were ready to embrace the Muslim sultan, if only to rid themselves of the Hindu king.


*Vijay Sen is also written Vijayasena; his immediate successors, Ballal Sen and Lakshman Sen, are also known as Ballalsena and Lakshmanasena.

*By the fifth century, Buddhism had divided into two main schools, known as Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism emphasized reasoning and wisdom, downplayed the importance of rituals in favor of private meditation, and valued monasticism as the highest path; Mahayana Buddhism elevated compassion, laid great weight on the importance of ritual, and saw enlightenment as accessible to all (laypeople included). A useful introduction to the difference is found in Huston Smith and Philip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), pp. 63–73; see also Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, pp. 98ff. The Buddhism of the Palas tended towards the Theravada school but incorporated many other elements. “Classical Buddhism” is a shorthand phrase for those elements held in common by Theravada, Mahayana, and most other practitioners of Buddhism.

*“Hinduism” is a term that covers a vast range of beliefs and practices which developed over five thousand years. Most forms of Hinduism share the following beliefs: one divine essence, that can, however, be manifested in multiple ways, so that the gods and goddesses of Hindu practice are to be understood as many faces of the one divine; life as a cycle that repeats again and again; humans as two-part beings, containing both an unchanging essence of the divine (the atman) and a personality (jivatman), which is made up of experience, character, and all those things that differentiate us from one another. In Hindu practice, the actions of the jivatman produce karma: good actions and intentions produce good karma, bad choices produce bad karma. The Hindu believer strives to produce good karma by living by dharma, what is good and right. A life lived by dharma produces good karma, with the result that the believer’s reincarnation in the next cycle of life will be as a higher and better being. Ultimately, the believer hopes that, after many reincarnations, he will perfect the ability to live by dharma; as a result, he will finally be freed from his jivatman, his personality, and consist only of atman, the essence of the divine. At that point, he will become one with the divine “like the river merges into the sea”—he will lose his distinctiveness as a single person and be freed from the cycle of reincarnation. Jeaneane D. Fowler’s Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices (Sussex Academic Press, 1997) is an excellent nontechnical introduction to the basics of Hinduism and its many variations.

*“Caste” is an immensely complicated system, and the subject of too many detailed scholarly studies to list here. I have here taken the position of Bernard S. Cohn, who held that although caste has always been a essential element of Hindu culture, the British, in their attempts to understand a strange and foreign system, “reduced vastly complex codes and their associated meanings to a few metonyms.” See his Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 162. For our purposes, it is enough to note that, although Indian caste wasless flexible than European socioeconomic categories, the move from peasant to landowner in the north of India was not much more difficult than, say, the move from peasant to knight in twelfth-century Germany.

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