This Week in History

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This Week in History
March 1739: Nadir Shah invades Delhi

  T C A Raghavan

Over the spring and summer of 1739, Nadir Shah, the ruler of Persia, marched into North India. On 24 February he had defeated a large Mughal army in Karnal- about 75 miles north of Delhi. With the 14th Mughal Emperor Mohammad Shah now effectively his captive, Nadir Shah entered Delhi on 20 March 1939 and camped in the city for about two months, occupying the royal residence in the Red Fort. He was now the Shahanshah, the King of Kings, an honorific and title that had been reserved for the Mughal emperors of Delhi. To outsiders, as equally to the shattered remnants of the Mughal empire, the unthinkable would have appeared to be happening- the all-powerful Mughals were being dismantled. In retrospect, it appears self-evident that Indian history was once more at a turning point.

Writing a century ago, the great historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar saw Nadir Shah’s invasion as part of a process. The invasion was “not a cause of the decline” of the Mughal empire but rather a “symptom of the decline.” The defeat of the Mughal army in Karnal, Nadir Shah’s triumphal entry into Delhi with the Mohammad Shah receiving him as a supplicant was to Sarkar the breaking of a spell - “revealing to the world a fact accomplished long before”.

The accumulated structural weaknesses and contradictions of the Mughals had caught up with their vanities. In addition, their internecine feuding and bloodletting, the weakening of the central structure of the nobility and the neglect of the military meant that by the 1730s, the Mughals were already quite advanced in their erosion barely a quarter century after they had reached their zenith. The Maratha expansion across Central and Western India from the 1720s had become a kind of barometer of Mughal decline.  In 1738, a year before Nadir Shah’s invasion, the Marathas had campaigned up to the outskirts of Delhi. Nadir Shah was a powerful external opponent who would outmatch the Mughals even more comprehensively.

From humble beginnings, Nadir Shah had emerged as a major warlord in Persia amidst the collapse, largely parallel to the Mughals of the once great Safavids. By the 1720s, that dynasty had been reduced to a shadow of its once formidable power. The Afghans, once Persian vassals, had after rebelling in Qandahar, moved westwards and captured the Safavid capital Isfahan. The Safavid collapse also meant the Ottomans and the Russians, old imperial rivals of Safavid Persia, had made major encroachments into its territory.

Persia was in real danger of disappearing. But within a decade, in a dramatic reversal of fortune, Nadir defeated all these powers and established Persia as the predominant power from the Caucasus to southern Afghanistan. In 1736, he proclaimed himself the Shah or the King of Persia. 

Having defeated the Afghans and, by mid-1938, reincorporated Qandahar in Persian control, Nadir Shah next turned his gaze to Mughal India. He was conscious of its divided nobility and the shrinking power and prestige of the emperor. Many premier Mughal nobles were of Persian and Central Asian extraction, and some were regularly in touch with Nadir Shah. In some accounts, Nadir Shah was even invited by some of them to intervene and settle the impending chaos in Delhi due to Maratha incursions.

Incapacity and disinterest sum up the Mughal response as Nadir Shah marched into the important Mughal centres of Kabul and Jalalabad and then crossed the Khyber Pass to take control of Peshawar. Such resistance was caused by the local Mughal governors and was put down relatively easily. By January 1939, he was crossing the Indus and was soon in Lahore, which also quickly capitulated.

The fall of Lahore finally shook the Mughal court out of its slumber. A large army began to be assembled. Appeals were made to different powers in North India- this included one to the Marathas. The Peshwa Baji Rao did despatch a force but it did not arrive. A great Mughal army was, however, assembled, and it met the Persians in Karnal.

Nadir Shah won the ensuing battle – he employed superior tactics, showed better generalship and had superior forces in terms of artillery, musketry and cavalry. Almost immediately thereafter negotiations began with the defeated Mughals. From the start, Nadir Shah’s priority was ransom and money rather than territory, and the haggling was over the amount that would induce Nadir Shah to withdraw. The negotiations continued in Delhi- they were largely one-sided with the Emperor, a prisoner of the Persians.

By the time Nadir Shah began his withdrawal in mid-May 1739, he had collected a vast booty in the form of plunder and ransom. Gold and silver, Jewellery, the famous Peacock throne, the famed Koh i Noor and Darya i Noor diamonds all formed part of this booty. This booty was so large that it enabled Nadir Shah to remit taxes in Persia for three years and also prepare for further military action against the Ottomans- these, in fact, had been his aims of the India campaign from the beginning.  A Mughal princess was married to a son of Nadir Shah- the integration of the families suggesting also the establishment of a channel for further Persian interventions if so required. 

 But the central event of this time was a massacre that happened soon after Nadir Shah had first entered the capital. On 22 March, there was an uprising in the city, which led to some significant numbers of Persian troops being set upon by mobs and killed. On the morning of 23 March, Nadir Shah ordered a massacre in the areas where his troops had been attacked. It would appear between 20000 to 30000 persons were killed. The slaughter- ended only in the afternoon when following entreaties by Mohammad Shah, Nadir Shah sheathed what had been a drawn sword to symbolise his retaliation.

Nadir Shah marched out of the city on 16 May 1739 and then made his way back to his kingdom. The Persian onslaught heralded the terminal decline of the Mughals to all. The Marathas, premier Mughal nobles, and the European trading companies all drew the obvious conclusion that a geo-political vacuum now existed in India and further contests would decide which force or combination of forces would fill this vacuum. The territorial implications of the invasion were also significant. Mohammad Shah was forced to concede to the Persian ruler all the areas West of the Indus. This meant that the northwest was no longer safe from further invasions. 

The fall of Delhi in March 1739 has been reckoned as similar to the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942- both events heralded that an older imperial system was now giving way to new forces.

This Week in History is a new addition to our research publications, looking at the history, its importance, consequences/legacies, and relevance today. We hope this will add historic value to two of our flagship publications- Conflict Weekly and The World This Week. A shorter version of the above will be published in Conflict Weekly/The World This Week.

About the author

T C A Raghavan is a former Indian High Commissioner to Singapore and Pakistan. His latest book is: Circles of Freedom: Friendship, Love and Loyalty in the Indian National Struggle (Juggernaut, 2024).

In the series:

17 March 1992: The end of Apartheid in South Africa
18 March 2014: Russia annexes Crimea
14 March 1879: Albert Einstein born in Germany
14 March 1849: The Sikh Army surrenders to the British
12 March 1918: Lenin shifts the capital to Moscow
11 March 1985: Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
09 March 1776: Adam Smith publishes “The Wealth of Nations”

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