Ahmed Shah Durrani’s First Invasion of India — 1747/48
After the death of his master, Nadir Shah, King of Persia in June of 1747, his faithful attendant and general Ahmed Khan declared independence from the Persian rule. He was a sagacious leader, who had received military and administrative training under the guidance of Nadir Shah himself and took part in his military expeditions since childhood. When his master was fatally attacked, Ahmed Khan tried to save his king, however, he was unsuccessful in his attempt as his assailants had already murdered the King. Ahmed Khan realized that there would be a state of chaos and turmoil preceding the untimely death of Nadir Shah and taking advantage of the situation, he was able to unite various Pashtun chiefs, who proclaimed him as their new leader at a Jirga (meeting) held amongst the leading Pashtun tribal overlords.
Ahmed Khan proceeded towards Qandahar and captured it without much resistance. He was coroneted as the King of the Afghans and was bestowed the title of Durri-i-Durran (Pearl of Pearls) at a simple ceremony presided by his loyal friends and comrades. His name was changed to Ahmed Shah Durrani following his coronation and his tribe was called Durrani instead of Abdali (or Sadozai). Prior to his ascension as the ruler, Afghanistan as a country did not exist, its eastern provinces were ruled by the Mughal Empire and the western provinces was ruled by the Persian Empire. Durrani desired to establish a land for his people by uniting the disparate tribes by creating a nation for his fellow clansmen who had been under foreign rule and subjugated for centuries. Ahmed Shah had sent friendly letters to Nasir Khan who was the governor of Kabul and Peshwar and offered him to come under his dominance and pay tribute to him. Nasir Khan, however was loyal to the Mughal Emperor, Muhammand Shah and knew that we would not be able to face the mighty and powerful Ahmed Shah along with other Pashtun chiefs. He therefore decided to leave for Delhi in late 1747 to warn the Mughal Emperor of the impending danger and possible invasion from the new Afghan King.
Meanwhile in Punjab, the governor of Lahore, Zakariya Khan had recently passed away. Zakariya Khan was the son of Abdus Samad Khan who was of a Turani descent. He was the brother of Prime Minister of Delhi, Wazir Qmar-ud-Din Khan. These three leaders had defeated the combined armies of Sikh General Banda Singh Bahadur in 1715, who had overthrown the Mughals and had occupied most of Punjab during his short rule. Zakariya Khan had three sons, two of them were: Yahiya Khan and Shah Nawaz Khan. Yahiya Khan succeeded his father as the new governor of Lahore. He was also the son-in-law of Wazir Qmar-ud-Khan of Delhi, who was also his uncle. During this transition of power, Shah Niwaz Khan became the governor of Multan. Yahiya Khan, however, lacked the administrative, diplomatic skills and experience of his father, Zahaya Khan and there were signs of revolt in the province. The Sikhs had been persecuted since 1710 by the Mughal authorities and were constantly in a state of revolt against the government as they were deprived of making a living while practicing their Sikh religion and customs ever since the revolt of Banda Singh Bahadur. They incessantly harassed the government officials, deprived them of their treasures while the government in turn persecuted them severely and mercilessly executed them. The financial situation and economy of Punjab was on the decline due these unending confrontations as there was instability and decline in revenue from agriculture and import duties. The untimely death of an experienced administrator and internecine conflict amongst his sons didn’t help in the descending situation of the province.
Shah Niwaz Khan, was ill-tempered, impatient and impulsive man, with an erratic demeanor. He became the new governor of Multan, however, he had aspirations of becoming the governor of Lahore. After his father, Zakariya Khan had died, his property was transferred over to his elder brother, Yahiya Khan, since he was Qmar-ud-Din’s son-in-law. Due to preferential treatment shown to his brother, there was rivalry between the siblings to gain power, wealth and prestige. Being an impulsive person, Shah Niwaz Khan surreptitiously attacked Lahore and imprisoned his brother along with his loyal ministers and administrators. After Shah Niwaz Khan usurped the governorship of Lahore, he was severely reprimanded by his uncle, the Wazir of Delhi Qmar-ud-Din Khan and was ordered to release and restore his brother to this former position. Meanwhile, Yahiya Khan was able to bribe the prison staff and escaped to Delhi. Fearing a backlash from Delhi, Shah Niwaz Khan on the advice of his wily advisor, the Faujdar (Chief) of Jalandhar, Adina Beg Khan sent an appeal to Ahmed Shah Durrani for help and invited him to invade India and enrich himself of the wealth of the rich nation. He offered his personal help and support to the Afghan King and in turn asked for the Prime Ministership of Delhi once he captured the throne of India.
Ahmed Shah received the invitation and was delighted to have been asked to invade Punjab and subsequently Delhi as he needed money to consolidate his new found kingdom. He was also in the vicinity of the Indian Empire as the governor of Kabul and Peshwar, Nasir Khan had recently vacated his office and left the provinces defenceless. Ahmed Shah realized that the bordering provinces were devoid of any strong leaders and he could easily cross over the Indus River with his well-disciplined and maneuverable army and enter the Punjab without facing much opposition. He immediately prepared his army and even though had no heavy guns or artillery, proceeded to invade India in December 1747.
Meanwhile, Wazir Qmar-du-Din was informed by the former governor of Kabul, Nasir Khan about the new Afghan King, Ahmed Shah and his rising power. Qmar-du-Din Khan was an experienced administrator and realized the importance of keeping unity amongst his family members and tried to amicably resolve the dispute between his nephews. He asked Shah Niwaz Khan to reach a friendly settlement with his brother and offered amnesty to him if he returned the governorship to him. He also informed him that it was in the best interests of his family to remain loyal to the Mughal Emperor as his ancestors had been faithful subjects of the Empire and their family honour was at stake at this critical juncture of time. Shah Niwaz realized his mistake and decided to oppose Ahmed Shah, who was on the outskirts of Lahore. Ahmed Shah was a skilled military leader and with his light artillery, movable firing columns and infantry was able to easily gain control of Lahore while Shah Niwaz Khan fled the capital.
After capturing Lahore, Ahmed Shah marched towards Sarhind, which was the next major province of Punjab and was able to occupy the city when its governor Ali Muhammad Khan Ruhela decided not to oppose the Afghan King and left for his native land. Ahmed Shah had meanwhile acquired immense wealth by capturing the rich provinces of: Kabul, Peshawar, Lahore and Sarhind. He was in the possession of large quantities of armour, ammunition, rockets, horses, elephants and camels, which augmented his military and financial bearing to undertake major campaigns. During the course of his invasion towards Delhi, he acquired wealth and equipment and had an advantageous position to face the army of the Mighty Mughal Empire, which was meanwhile making preparations to confront him near Sarhind, at a place called Manupur.
After the death of the mighty Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, the Mughal Empire was in the state of decay and the once indomitable kingdom was in the state of steady decline. The provincial governors had become semi-independent kings and practiced absolute authority over their provinces and ruled in the name of the Mughal Emperor, without giving him regular revenue or supplying him soldiers for his army. The Mughal Empire was Muhammad Shah and he was an indolent, person who preferred the company of the harem instead of administering the vast empire established by his forefathers. Nadir Shah, the king of Persia had invaded Delhi in 1739 and had ransacked the capital and had left the city with most of its riches including: the Kohinoor diamond, peacock throne and thousands of camels loaded with gold, silver and precious stones. In spite, of the setback, the Mughal Emperor still possessed immense wealth, however he lacked the initiative and skills to manage the Empire. He was informed of the impending attack by Ahmed Shah months before, however, his ministers didn’t sufficiently prepare to meet its adversary and it was only in January 1748 that the Emperor was persuaded by his Wazir Qmar-ud-Khan to hasten the logistics and confront the powerful Afghan King before it was too late. The Mughal Emperor, after vacillating, assigned the overall command of the campaign to his son Ahmed along with his Wazir, Qmar-ud-Din Khan. They were able to assemble their army, which consisted of Rajput warriors under the command of the King of Jaipur, Raja Ishri Singh, Safdar Jung of Oudh who had Persian soldiers under his command and a host of other chiefs. The huge Mughal army slowly marched towards the North to meet the invading Afghans.
The battle took place on March 11, 1748 between the massive Mughal Army and the highly mobile, motivated, disciplined army of Ahmed Shah. Even before the commencement of the battle, Durrani had received intelligence of the location of the camp of the Commander-in-Chief, the Wazir Qmar-ud-Din Khan and with his skilled artillery commander was able to position and fire a shot at the tent of the Wazir, who was at that time performing his prayers. The Wazir was hit by the cannon ball around his waist and just before his death was able to call upon his son Mir Mannu and other chiefs. He instructed his son to take command of the Mughal Army and keep his death a secret, otherwise the news would cause commotion in the army and they may leave the battlefield in panic. Mir Mannu was a competent warrior and was respected by his fellow soldiers and their chiefs, except the governor of Oudh, Safdar Jung, who was of Persian descent and resented the Turani courtiers of the Mughal Empire who had occupied positions of importance at the Mughal court.
Mir Mannu took command of the Mughal forces and faced the army of Ahmed Shah Durrani. His Rajput associates under Raja Ishri Singh of Jaipur had come well prepared to face the Afghans. They were on horseback, with their swords and were dressed in yellow robes of ‘victory or martyrdom’. They had made a pledge to fight against the Afghans and if the situation called for, would give their lives and not leave the battlefield with their backs turned towards the enemy. Ahmed Shah sent three thousand infantry and two hundred camel swivels. The army was divided into two divisions which attacked in turns. Seeing the Rajput warriors who wanted to face a pitched battle with their swords, Durrani decided to use his camel swivels and sent them galloping in front of the Rajputs. They fired rapid shots at them and immediately came back, while the next division fired the shots and returned. This continued for some while, and the Rajputs were being decimated with the rapid fire from the Afghans. Seeing that they would not be engaged in a pitched battle, the Rajputs dwindled in their numbers and were about to be annihilated, when Raja Ishri Singh decided to make a retreat and left the battlefield. Unfortunately their outdated battle maneuvers were responsible for their defeat against the modern battle techniques of the Afghans.
Seeing the Rajput warriors leave the battlefield, Mir Mannu consolidated his leaders and made an attack on the Afghans. Most of the Mughal warriors were injured during the course of the battle; however, Mir Mannu’s leadership skills and motivation encouraged his soldiers to face the enemy. He was meanwhile supported by Safdar Jung who along with his Persian soldiers dismounted from their horses and made rapid fire and retreat maneuvers against the camel corps of Durrani. They were able to out-gun the Afghans, who started to retreat and were unable to face the skilled Persian marksmen. While the battle was going on, a depot at Durrani’s camp that contained rockets was hit by an artillery shell and the rockets started exploding within his camp and started firing indiscriminately at his soldiers. This create panic in his army and during the course of the day the Afghans realized that they would not able to face the advancing Mughals and retreated from the battlefield. Ahmed Shah left the field and made a strategic retreat as he wanted to bring back the treasures of Sarhind to his native land. He had already sent back the treasures of Lahore and Kabul to Qandahar. He left a portion of his army to fight against the Mughals, while he, including his generals retreated to safe quarters. He would invade India within a year and make up for his ignominy and defeat against the Mughals. While Ahmed Shah was on his way back to Afghanistan, his army was attacked by the Sikhs under the leadership of Charat Singh Sukharchakia up till the river Indus. They were able to retrieve some of his wealth, his horses and constantly harassed his camp followers. This was the first encounter of Durrani against the Sikhs who would eventually defeat him and became rulers of the Punjab.
Mir Mannu was able to defeat the powerful Afghan King along with his generals and the combined armies of various chiefs. He was recognized for his bravery and leadership skills by the Mughal Prince Ahmed, who recommended him to become the next governor of Lahore. Since the Wazir of Delhi, the veteran Qmar-ud-Din Khan had died at the battle, Safdar Jung became the new Wazir (Prime Minister) of Delhi. Emperor Muhammad Shah had also died due to old age and excessive indulgence and Prince Ahmed became the next Mughal Emperor under the name of Ahmad Shah Bahadur. This was the first invasion of Ahmed Shah Durrani as he subsequently invaded India nine times and was constantly challenged by the Sikhs during his passage through the Punjab. Eventually, he tried to send overtures to the recalcitrant Sikh chiefs, who rejected them and over the years were able to divest Punjab of foreign rulers.
Gurmeet Singh Sandhu from Ottawa, Canada. He is an Information Technology professional with the Canadian Public Sector, an avid reader and writes short articles on Sikh History
History of the Sikhs by Dr. H. R Gupta
Ahmad Shah Durrani by Dr. Ganda Singh