The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Mar 10, 2010


What was founded by a chap called Chach, was once a distant vassal of the Sassanians, and promoted piracy in the Arabian Sea? And so incurred the wrath of the newly resurgent Arabs, and was invaded, and was the earliest part of the Indian subcontinent to be occupied by the Muslims?

In a word, Sindh.

King Chach, the progenitor of what was to be a rather short-lived dynasty, lived between AD 632-671, and wasof the Brahmin caste. He reigned in a city called Al-Rur by the Arabs, and the country’s principal port was Daybul, neither of which is readily identifiable today owing to the large shifts in the delta of the river Indus in the ensuing centuries. There had been proposals by the Arab garrisons of the farthest east to invade Sindh as early as 644, but it appears that the Caliphs of the time were not keen on the idea, mindful as they were of the rumours of a land of utter lawlessness. By 710, however, the Arabs were ready to extend their eastern frontier, and they concocted a neat economic and political ruse to do so.

It is said that the king of Ceylon sent some beautiful women to Hajjaj, the Muslim governor of Iraq, and en route, their ship was captured by pirates out of Daybul. One of the women, distressed, cried out to Hajjaj for help, and he decided to oblige. He ordered the Sindhi king, Chach’s son Dahir (c. 679-712), to free the prisoners. Dahir explained that he had no control over the pirates, and couldn’t oblige. Hajjaj then sent a couple of naval expeditions, both of which were destroyed by the pirates.

There was little else to do but launch a full-fledged invasion. For this, Hajjaj tasked a young cousin, Muhammad bin al-Qasim al-Thaqafi. al-Thaqafi arranged a force of 6000 Syrians, and they set out through southern Iran and Makran, investing the city of Fannazbur on the way.

The first engagement of the war was the siege of Daybul. al-Thaqafi set up a large catapult, a swing-beam hand-pulled weapon, to bombard the city. The artillerymen targeted a big Buddhist stupa atop which a red flag fluttered; when it was brought down, the spirit of the defenders wilted, and the Arabs penetrated the city and slaughtered the inhabitants for three days. Dahir’s governor fled ignominiously, but hundreds of priests were murdered, and their temples laid waste.

It must be pointed out that the Arabs always offered terms to their enemies before engaging them in war. Accept Islam, they would say, and be spared. Submit to our rule and pay tax, and be spared. Fight, and we will reduce you to rack and ruin. Many cities preferred to accept the suzerainty of the invaders rather than resist, especially those with little affection for their own rulers. Such cities faced little change in their fates other than a new master. Those that fought back were invariably shattered and suffered miserable consequences.

In keeping with the then custom, al-Thaqafi reorganised the civic planning of Daybul, and, having established the foundations for the central mosque, apportioned land for four thousand Muslim settlers.

Continuing his campaign, al-Thaqafi headed inland. He was accosted by two Buddhist monks who informed him that the towns on his route would be willing to submit to him. He spared such towns. Where he met with resistance, he saw that there were serious divisions between the ruling Hindu class and the commoners: the former were determined to outmatch him, whereas the latter, supported by the pacifist Buddhists, were keen to avoid bloodshed. Siwistan, for example, fell to him after such a political divide; he allowed his soldiers to loot the rulers but the Buddhists and the farmers and the artisans were spared.

Four thousand Zutt tribals then abandoned the Chachs, and entered into al-Thaqafi’s service. (Who were the Zutt? That was the Arabic name for the Jats, agriculturists of the Indus, and there are songs sung about them. But that’s another story.)

Dahir continued to oppose the Muslims, and met their main force across the banks of the Indus. It is said that he arrayed sixty elephants and twenty thousand infantry against the Arabs. al-Thaqafi ordered boats to be arranged on the western bank of the Indus in a row as wide as the river; soldiers clambered aboard the row and swung it across the river; this became a bridge over which the cavalry could cross, which they did and decimated Dahir’s defenders.

Dahir himself, atop a great war elephant, fought valiantly. He was accompanied by two slave girls in his howdah: one to pass him betel leaves to chew, and the other to pass him arrows. A furious fight ensued. The Arabs set fire to Dahir’s howdah and his elephant threw himself into the river. Dahir was seized and beheaded, his body later identified by his slave girls.

That was the end of the Hindus’ resistance. Many of Dahir’s women immolated themselves. Those that didn’t were enslaved and sent to Iraq as gifts to Hajjaj, who passed the choicest ones on to the Caliph. al-Thaqafi insisted on sparing all the artisans and workers and farmers. Then he realised that he needed skilled locals to administer his new dominions. He established a bureaucracy in charge of the collection of the poll tax (for those who refused to convert to Islam), and he noted that the best administrators were the Brahmins. It is apparent that the arriviste Muslims found it advantageous to ally themselves to the erstwhile ruling dynasties to give themselves some sort of legitimacy among the populace. The Brahmins negotiated freedom for Dahir’s wife (who, it is said, then became al-Thaqafi’s wife) and the surviving members of his family. Then they explained that they had been much honoured in the country, and would appreciate the opportunity to serve al-Thaqafi if they were once again restored to their privileges. He obliged them, and they became the tax collectors for the new state.

Much of the information of the fall of Hindu Sindh and the rise of Islam is in the Chachnamah, a book considerably influenced by Arabic literary tradition. This was written by Ali bin Hamid al-Kufi nearly five hundred years after the events it describes. While its historical authenticity has been questioned, there is literary evidence of some of its sections deriving from eighth century Arabic and Persian literature, and it serves to illuminate at least some of the aspects of the early Arab efforts at conquering Sindh.

There are excerpts of martial poetry extant from the time. The chronicler Mada’ini writes about the Arab who killed Dahir at the Indus, who is supposed to have announced:

The horses at the battle of Dahir and the spears
And Mohammed bin Qasim bin Muhammad
Bear witness that I fearlessly scattered the host of them
Until I came up on their chief with my sword,
And left him rolled in the dirt.
Dust on his unpillowed cheek.

[All details in this blog are from Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests: How The Spread Of Islam Changed The World We Live In, Orion Books, London, 2008.]


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