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How Nadir Shah destroyed the Mughal empire

Nadir Shah Afshar came as a proverbial deluge and caused incalculable harm to the tottering Mughal Empire which did not recover from the vicious invasion

Nadir Shah Afshar came as a proverbial deluge and caused incalculable harm to the tottering Mughal Empire which did not recover from the vicious invasion.

Renowned as one of the last ambitious conqueror in the days of unbridled conquests, Nadir Shah followed in the footsteps of other conquerors spreading death and destruction wherever he passed through. His life story follows a tragic curve – from obscure beginnings to ruthless intrigue, military success, splendour and riches; to error, terror, frustration, ferocious cruelty, mental derangement and death.

Nadir Shah started off in the beginning of the 18th century as an obscure warlord of humble origins but came to prominence when he liberated Persia from Afghani occupation, ejected the Ottoman Turks and defeated them. He mounted the imperial throne on his own initiative and campaigned against Afghanistan in return. His marauding continued and he soon held sway in Central Asia. By the mid of the 18th century he commanded a ferocious and well-equipped army and the training he imparted to his officers produced leaders who later went on to establish independent states in Afghanistan and Georgia.

In 1739 he was at the prime of his life and seemed set fair to equal if not surpass the achievements of Timur who had ridden into Delhi as a conqueror 340 years earlier. Although many of his innovations pointed to the future rather than harking backward, Nadir’s thoughts often turned on Timur’s example. Like Timur, he had already decided to plunder the wealth of Delhi rather than attempt to annex the Empire of India. Delhi became the crowning glory of his career when he led the Persian army into Delhi in March 1739 accompanied by 20,000 horsemen and a hundred captured elephants each bearing several veteran musketeers.

As Nadir arrived at the palace the Mughal Emperor, Mohammad Shah received him with elaborate ceremony and pressed expensive presents on him. After his defeat at the battle of Karnal on 24 February, and the scattering of the imperial Mughal army that followed, Mohammad Shah had no choice but to go back to the city with an escort of Persian cavalry to welcome the conqueror with pomp and show.

They met in the elegant Hall of Special Audience constructed by Shah Jahan. The columns, walls and ceilings inside were covered with richly decorated gold and silver leaf which the Persians later stripped away and melted down. The building’s centrepiece was the extravagant Peacock Throne. The huge Koh-e Nur diamond was mounted at the front of the throne, surrounded by rubies and emeralds. Nadir confirmed Mohammad Shah on the throne and in return Mohammad Shah offered Nadir all the imperial treasures comprising of all the enormous wealth accumulated over two centuries of Mughal rule. Nadir and his personal staff took over Shah Jahan’s own apartments in the fortress: Mohammad Shah moved into the women’s quarters.

Another significant incident marked the occasion and that happened due to the intrigues at the Mughal court led by Saadat Khan, the governor of Awadh and the Emperor’s other senior nobles, including the Nizam-ul-Mulk, the viceroy of the Deccan.


The infighting at the imperial court had fatally weakened the Mughal state prior to the Persian invasion. Saadat Khan’s rashness had led directly to the disastrous Mughal defeat at the battle of Karnal and his own capture. Since his capture he had tried to win Nadir’s favour by acting as his adviser, blatantly abandoning his allegiance to Mohammad Shah. He was appointed to collect the tribute that was to be taken from the citizens of Delhi, and rode with Nadir into the city. At the palace, Saadat Khan asked for a private audience, but Nadir, showing contempt for his ingratiating behaviour, replied harshly, demanding why he had not begun collecting the tribute. Saadat Khan could not take this rebuke and the loss of his honour broke his spirit so bad that he took poison and died.

In actual fact only a small proportion of the Mughal army was defeated at Karnal, and Nadir’s dominant position in Delhi was achieved by as much as his cunning manipulation of Mohammad Shah and the Mughal great nobles and by implied threat, as by the direct use of force. The remains of the Mughal army had melted away and the Mughal leaders were slowly manouevered into giving Nadir what he wanted. His task was made easier by the common Turcoman/Persian culture that the Mughals and the invaders shared.

To emphasise their common origin Nadir insisted that he and Mohammad Shah should speak together in the Turkic language.

Very soon it became been common knowledge that the city and everybody in it were going to have to pay a large tribute. Many of the ordinary soldiers had come from Delhi and others from the defeated army had found refuge there. Most of the population was fearful and passive but some were angry, and felt betrayed by their leaders. There were young men in the bazaar who were up for trouble of any kind. They collected together in bands, ready for exploitation by a few rash nobles who thought instability could save their fortunes or who were simply out for revenge.

Soon rumours began to circulate that Nadir had been shot or that he had been poisoned or imprisoned. These rumours started trouble in many areas of the city and angry mob killed the Persian soldiers then fanned out through parts of the city, attacking all the Persians they found and killed them. Nadir initially did not believe what he was told but when he got to know the real situation he mounted his horse and rode from the palace to the Rowshanud Dowla mosque, went to its roof looking out over the houses and shops of the city. He ordered that no-one should be left alive in any part where any of his soldiers had been killed and then drew his sword as a signal that the massacre should begin. The killings began at 9am and as the sun reached its zenith it continued as heaps of bodies piled up in the streets and the gutters ran with blood. Finally Mohammad Shah sent the Nizamul Mulk to plead for the killing to stop and it finally did at 3pm.

It is likely that the contemporary estimate that 20– 30,000 had died was reasonably accurate. The number of Persians killed in the initial rioting is also uncertain but it may have been as low as a few hundred. In Nadir’s terms the savage work was a success – there was no further trouble from the citizens of Delhi. Nadir now set about the main business of his stay in Delhi – collecting the spoils of war. On the strength of the amounts collected so far, and in expectation of what was to come, Nadir sent a decree to be proclaimed in Persia that all his dominions were exempted from taxes for three years and settled his soldiers’ arrears, paid them a year in advance and gave them a bounty worth six months’ pay in addition.

The estimates of the loot is that Nadir carried away with him was worth Rs.70 crores and a large element in this sum consisted of the value of the jewels whether mounted on objects, cut or uncut. Most prominent among the treasures were the Peacock throne and the Koh-e-Nur diamond.

The Mughal Empire was devastated as its economy collapsed, trade came at a standstill, prices for foodstuffs were at famine levels and the value of other goods drastically reduced. Politically it was a death knell for the Mughal Empire and it was not very long when Marathas started invading Delhi which they finally took over in 1771.

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