Emperor Nadir Shah, the Shah of Persia (1736–47) and founder of the Afsharid dynasty, invaded the Mughal Empire with a fifty-five thousand strong army, eventually attacking Delhi in March 1739. His army had easily defeated the Mughals at the battle at Karnal and would eventually capture the Mughal capital in the aftermath of the battle.
Nadir Shah's victory against the weak and crumbling Mughal Empire in the far East meant that he could afford to turn back and resume war against Persia's arch rival, the neighbouring Ottoman Empire, but also the further campaigns in the North Caucasus and Central Asia.
Nadir Shah became the Persian ruler in 1736, his troops captured Esfahan from the Safavid dynasty and founded the Afsharid dynasty in that year. In 1738, Nadir Shah conquered Kandahar, the last outpost of the Hotaki dynasty, he, then, began to launch raids across the Hindu Kush mountains into Northern India, which, at that time, was under the rule of the Mughal Empire.
The Mughal empire had been weakened by ruinous wars of succession in the three decades following the death of Aurangzeb. The Muslim nobles had asserted their independence whilst the Hindu Marathas of the Maratha Empire had captured vast swathes of territory in Central and Northern India. Its ruler, Muhammad Shah, proved unable to stop the disintegration of the empire. The imperial court administration was corrupt and weak whereas the country was extremely rich whilst Delhi’s prosperity and prestige was still at a high. Nadir Shah, attracted by the country's wealth, sought plunder like so many other foreign invaders before him.
Nadir had asked Muhammad Shah to close the Mughal frontiers around Kabul so that the Afghan rebels he was fighting against, may not seek refuge in Kabul. Even though the Emperor agreed, he practically took no action. Nadir seized upon this as a pretext for war. Together with his Georgian subject Erekle II (Heraclius II), who took part in the expedition as a commander leading a contingent of Georgian troops, the long march had begun. He defeated his Afghan enemies fleeing into the Hindu Kush and also seized major cities such as Ghazni, Kabul and Peshawar before advancing onto the Punjab and capturing Lahore. Nadir advanced to the river Indus before the end of year as the Mughals mustered their army against him.
At the Battle of Karnal on 13 February 1739, Nadir led his army to victory over the Mughals, Muhammad Shah surrendered and both entered Delhi together. The keys to the capital of Delhi were surrendered to Nadir. He entered the city on 20 March 1739 and occupied Shah Jehan’s imperial suite in the Red Fort. Coins were struck, and prayers said, in his name in the Jama Masjid and other Delhi mosques. The next day, the Shah held a great durbar in the capital.
The Persian occupation led to price rises in the city. The city administrator attempted to fix prices at a lower level and Persian troops were sent to the market at Paharganj, Delhi to enforce them. However, the local merchants refused to accept the lower prices and this resulted in violence during which some Persians were assaulted and killed.
When a rumour spread that Nadir had been assassinated by a female guard at the Red Fort, some Indians attacked and killed Persian troops during the riots that broke out on the night of 21 March. Nadir, furious at the killings, retaliated by ordering his soldiers to carry out the notorious qatl-e-aam (qatl = killing, aam = publicly, in open) of Delhi.
On the morning of 22 March, the Shah rode out in full armour and took a seat at the Sunehri Masjid of Roshan-ud-dowla near the Kotwali Chabutra in the middle of Chandni Chowk. He then, to the accompaniment of the rolling of drums and the blaring of trumpets, unsheathed his great battle sword in a grand flourish to the great and loud acclaim and wild cheers of the Persian troops present. This was the signal to start the onslaught and carnage. Almost immediately, the fully armed Persian army of occupation turned their swords and guns on to the unarmed and defenceless civilians in the city. The Persian soldiers were given full licence to do as they pleased and promised a share of the booty as the city was plundered.
Areas of Delhi such as Chandni Chowk and Dariba Kalan, Fatehpuri, Faiz Bazar, Hauz Kazi, Johri Bazar and the Lahori, Ajmeri and Kabuli gates, all of which were densely populated by both Hindus and Muslims, were soon covered with corpses. Muslims, like Hindus and Sikhs, resorted to killing their women, children and themselves rather than submit to the Persians.
In the words of the Tazkira:
"Here and there some opposition was offered, but in most places people were butchered unresistingly. The Persians laid violent hands on everything and everybody. For a long time, streets remained strewn with corpses, as the walks of a garden with dead leaves and flowers. The town was reduced to ashes."
Muhammad Shah was forced to beg for mercy. These horrific events were recorded in contemporary chronicles such as the Tarikh-e-Hindi of Rustam Ali, the Bayan-e-Waqai of Abdul Karim and the Tazkira of Anand Ram Mukhlis.
Finally, after many hours of desperate pleading by the Mughals for mercy, Nadir Shah relented and signalled a halt to the bloodshed by sheathing his battle sword once again.
It has been estimated that during the course of six hours in one day, 22 March 1739, something like 20,000 to 30,000 Indian men, women and children were slaughtered by the Persian troops during the massacre in the city. Exact casualty figures are uncertain, as after the massacre, the bodies of the victims were simply buried in mass burial pits or cremated in grand funeral pyres without any proper record being made of the numbers cremated or buried.
The city was sacked for several days. An enormous fine of 20 million rupees was levied on the people of Delhi. Muhammad Shah handed over the keys to the royal treasury, and lost the Peacock Throne, to Nadir Shah, which thereafter served as a symbol of Persian imperial might. Amongst a treasure trove of other fabulous jewels, Nadir also gained the Koh-i-Noor and Darya-ye Noor ("Mountain of Light" and "Sea of Light," respectively) diamonds; they are now part of the British and Iranian Crown Jewels, respectively. Persian troops left Delhi at the beginning of May 1739.
The plunder seized from Delhi was so rich that Nadir stopped taxation in Persia for a period of three years following his return. Nadir Shah's victory against the crumbling Mughal Empire in the East meant that he could afford to turn to the West and face the Ottomans. The Ottoman Sultan Mahmud I initiated the Ottoman-Persian War (1743-1746), in which Muhammad Shah closely cooperated with the Ottomans until his death in 1748.
Nader's Indian campaign alerted, as a far off foreign invader, also the British East India Company to the extreme weakness of the Mughal Empire and the possibility of expanding to fill the power vacuum.
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- This section: Axworthy pp.1-16, 175-210
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- Axworthy p.xvi
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