Thursday, January 21, 2010

More on the Mongols

This is a discarded section from a larger piece about the Mughals (the word Mughal is Hindustani for Mongol). Since I've mentioned Chingis Khan in a recent post, I felt it was worthwhile uploading it. It's only for history buffs. The statue of Chingis pictured below is currently the largest equestrian sculpture in the world. Our own Shivaji Maharaj is supposed to beat Chingis sometime in the future.

The history of the Mughals begins with Chingis -- or Genghis -- Khan. Chingis, who was named Temuchin, was the son of a chieftain of the Borjigin clan. He was born in 1167 or thereabouts. When he was nine, a band of Tatars murdered his father in pursuance of a blood feud. Temuchin lived in deprivation for years after this event, then slowly began to forge alliances and rise within the ranks of his clan. It took him two decades to fulfill his aim of uniting ‘all the people who live in felt tents’. A crucial moment arrived when the Chinese kingdom to the south, always intent on keeping the barbarian herders fighting amongst themselves, decided to back him, not realising how strong he would become. In 1204, having defeated the Tatars, the Merkids, the Kereyids and the Naimans, Temuchin took the title Chingis Khan, variously translated as Oceanic Chief or Universal Leader.

Chingis proceeded to create a nation that has lasted eight hundred years. It took its name from the Mongols who were, before his time, just one among the dozens of semi-nomadic tribes of inner Asia . He destroyed clan loyalties, mixing men from different tribes within each army division. He formed an imperial guard of ten thousand soldiers answerable only to himself. The decimal structure of his army, composed of units of ten, battalions of a hundred and divisions of a thousand soldiers, was to persist until the end of Mughal rule in India.

The new society Chingis created was geared for war. The pastoral Mongol economy did not produce the surplus required to support a large standing army. Tribute was required from foreign lands. The Uighurs of north-western China fell in with Chingis’ demands immediately, and their neighbours the Tanguts followed after a little persuasion. Chingis inducted literate administrators from settled communities and adopted the Uighur script for the Mongol language, which could now be written down for the first time. He promulgated a code called the Yasa, a combination of laws and moral precepts. Adultery, sodomy, sorcery, spying, a third bankruptcy and urinating into a running stream were among the crimes deemed punishable by death. On a more liberal note, complete freedom of religion was guaranteed by the new Mongol state. Chingis himself held to traditional shamanistic beliefs, but his mentor Toghril was a Christian, some of his close advisers were Buddhists, and Muslim traders crisscrossed the Mongol dominions unhindered.

The strength of the Mongol army was founded on the extraordinary fitness for battle of the individual soldier, a direct consequence of his lifestyle. He learned to ride a horse as a child, and to hunt soon after. The composite bow he used in hunting and in war had an exceptionally high draw weight of 75 kilograms, providing both power and accuracy. Living on a plateau where the variation in temperature between the hottest day and coldest night was greater than in any other inhabited place on earth, he was accustomed to extreme weather conditions and to alternation between abundance and scarcity. He rode to battle accompanied by a remount, the saddle-bags of which were filled with millet, dried curds, and fermented mare’s milk, called qumiz. These rations allowed him to keep going for days without depending on complicated supply lines. If the food ran out, he might slit open a small blood vessel on his mount and drink enough to fortify himself without weakening the horse. The individual Mongol soldier was difficult to beat for hardiness and mobility.

To these traditional skills, Chingis added perfect coordination and discipline; a system of promotion based entirely on merit; an effective communications network; and the latest technology, like siege machines built by Chinese engineers. The Mongol army of the early thirteenth century, unified and revamped, was the most powerful fighting force ever assembled. It lost barely a battle for two generations and underpinned what became the largest land-based empire in history.

When Chingis took on great kingdoms with settled populations, first in China and then in Transoxania and Persia, enemies were completely outfoxed by the manouevres of his troops. The Mongols frequently influenced the movements of enemy forces to their own advantage. Typically, a division of soldiers, a virtual suicide squad, would be sent ahead to meet the enemy. After a brief skirmish, the horsemen would appear to panic, break ranks and retreat. Opposition forces could rarely resist chasing a fleeing enemy, and would ride into a trap where they were surrounded and decimated. Outflanking moves sometimes took months to carry out. During Chingis’ campaign against the empire of the Khwarazm Shah, he sent an entire division of soldiers through the supposedly impassable Qizil Qum desert, to appear behind enemy lines at Bokhara on a previously appointed day. The Shah’s army, secure in its massive numerical strength, found that numbers counted for little when you were surrounded.

What bewildered the opposition even more than the Mongols’ tactics were their actions after a battle was won. At an order from Chingis or one of his generals, soldiers would begin pillaging the conquered district. Long after their saddle-bags were filled with loot, they would continue burning down homes and slaughtering civilians. As China, Transoxania, and Iran were stormed, chroniclers ran out of metaphors to describe a devastation the like of which had never been experienced in their lands. Towns which submitted without struggle had some hope of being spared. But cities which chose to fight like Utrar, Nishapaur, Balkh, Herat, Bamiyan, Merv, Rayy, Qum, Zanjan and Qazvin were ravaged, in some cases obliterated from history. On occasion the Mongols spared the lives of women, children, priests and craftspersons, sending many of these to Mongolia as slaves. However, it wasn’t unusual for the invaders to kill everything that moved: men, women, animals, babies.

The Mongols valued the skills of artisans, encouraged trade, and waived taxes on lawyers, physicians, scholars, and priests. But they could see no merit whatsoever in farming. A living eked out on a small patch of brown earth seemed to them entirely spiritless. They massacred farmers by the thousands wherever they campaigned. In Iran, the entire countryside was emptied out. The complex system of qanats built for irrigation, many of them running underground, silted up and became nearly useless. The population of Georgia took six hundred years to return to levels recorded before the Mongol invasion of that country. Genocidal acts of comparable magnitude were committed everywhere the Mongols turned.

When the conquest of China was completed, the dominant view in the Mongol camp was that all Chinese farmers should be killed or driven from their homes, and the land converted to pasture. One of the Khan’s Chinese advisers, Yeh-Lu Chu-Tsai, whom Chingis had inducted after the first phase of the campaign, explained the value of taxation as a source of regular revenue. He argued that the peasants might be more useful alive than dead. The suggestion was accepted, and a tax of 10% levied on agricultural produce, but a few Mongol generals grumbled about the baneful new influence of foreign thinking.

Having defeated the Chin empire of northern China, and destroyed the power of the Khwarazm Shah who had ruled an area covering much of modern Uzbekistan, Iran and Afghanistan, Chingis called a halt to his battles, and returned to his homeland. He conducted one more brief campaign, against the Tanguts, vassals who had refused to supply troops in the Central Asian war. Here he was seriously injured, and died soon after, in 1227. A successor had already been chosen. His eldest son Jochi could not hope to take over, because his paternity was in doubt: Chingis’s wife Borte had been abducted and raped soon after their wedding, and was pregnant with Jochi when Chingis rescued her. Borte’s third son, Ogedei, was chosen heir, though he was only a nominal emperor. In keeping with Mongol tradition, the kingdom was divided among all of Borte’s sons, Jochi included, each of whom ruled over an autonomous kingdom.


During the Crusades, the armies of Christ were often given heart by stories of a Christian king from India, who was about to join the campaign to vanquish the Muslim infidels. This legend had its origin in the fact that a small community in southern India had been converted to Christianity, supposedly by St.Thomas of Syria. The legend of St.Thomas’s mission in India was well established in Christendom. There are references to it in the hymns of St.Ephraim composed in the 4th century AD. Ephraim had lived in Iraq, till the invading Sassanian king Shapur II forced all Christians in the city of Nisibis to convert to Zoroastrianism on pain of banishment or worse. Ephraim escaped to Syria, the country with which he, like St.Thomas, is identified. In one of his hymns we read:
“Lo, in India are thy miracles, O Thomas,
And in our land thy triumph,
And everywhere thy festival…
The sunburnt India thou hast made fair…
A tainted land of dark people thou hast purified.
More than snow and white linen
The dark bride of India thou hast made fair…
The crown of light has obliterated India’s darkened shades.”

In the centuries after Ephraim’s death, Roman Catholics lost touch with the churches of the east, which they denounced as heretical. Over time, the memory of a Christian community in India was transformed into a legend of a rich Christian land ruled by the great priest-king Prester John. As news began to filter into Catholic Europe that an army from the east had routed the forces of the most powerful Muslim ruler, the Khwarazm Shah, kings and cardinals rejoiced. They were convinced that Prester John had ridden out and was not going to stop till the Holy Land had been liberated.

Twenty years later, in the mid-1230s, Hasan-i-Sabah of Iran, the leader of the Ismaili sect, sent a letter to the kings of England and France suggesting an alliance against the Mongols, who were now led by Ogedei Khan. The followers of Hasan-i-Sabah were known as Hashishim in the belief that they were drugged with hashish before being sent out on murderous assignments. Hashishim is the source of the English word assassin. The letter from the Chief of the Assassins made it clear that the Mongols were not Christians aiming to capture Jerusalem, and that they could soon threaten Europe. These warnings were ignored. The response of the Bishop of Winchester, Peter de Roches, was characteristic: “Let us leave these dogs to devour one another, that they might be consumed and perish; and we, when we proceed against the enemies of Christ who remain, will slay them, and cleanse the earth, so that all the world will be subject to the one Catholic Church, and there will be one shepherd and one fold.”

The sons of Chingis Khan, meanwhile, were planning a comprehensive invasion of Europe. The plan took final shape in 1235. It was estimated that the campaign would last eighteen years. Mongol forces took on Russia first, crossing the Volga in the winter of 1237. As Riazan, Kolomna, Moscow, Vladimir and the Ukranian city of Kozelsk were sacked, Catholic Europe tried to pass it off as a just punishment for the false belief in the Orthodox Church. But by the time the Mongols reached Vienna, western Europe had finally realised that a tragedy of unimaginable proportions was gathering at its gates.

On 9 April, 1241, a large detachment of Mongols routed a Polish army bolstered by knights from the Teutonic order. A larger force of horsemen was waiting in Hungary for news from Poland. As soon as the tidings arrived, a grandson of Chingis, Batu Khan, joined battle against the forces of Bela IV of Hungary. After a tough fight, Bela’s forces were vanquished. 200,000 of Catholic Europe’s best soldiers had been killed in two days. No major threat now remained to prevent the Mongols from ravaging Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium and moving down to France. But while the Mongols were recuperating after the Poland-Hungary battle, news arrived that the Great Khan Ogedei had died. The Mongols, in keeping with custom, immediately struck camp and set out for their capital Karakorum, thousands of miles to the east. No Mongol invasion of Europe ever took place again. China and the Muslim lands of West Asia faced the brunt of future attacks. The Sung empire which dominated the fertile south-eastern regions of China was crushed, as was the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, centre of Islamic civilisation for centuries. It is tempting to suggest that the tide of history turned in favour of western Europe on the day the Mongols turned away from its gates.

Thirty years after their abortive European campaign, the Mongols, under the Great Khan Khubilai, launched an invasion of Japan. The naval invasion, which utilised the talents of Korean ship-builders, was scattered by a sudden typhoon, which the Japanese called the Kamikaze, or divine wind. The setback in Japan, and another in Egypt not long before, defined the farthest extent of the empire founded by Chingis. It was by far the largest that had been created in the history of the world. But it was too large to hold together as one entity. The Khans of China and Persia, who had adopted a sedentary lifestyle, allied against those who remained true to their nomadic traditions. With each passing generation the empire split further, and began to lose territory. In 1368 a peasant revolt overthrew Mongol rule in China, and established the indigenous Ming dynasty in its place. Muslim West Asia, meanwhile, never fully recovered its vigour after the disasters it faced in the thirteenth century.


seana graham said...

Although I'm not a true history geek, I did like this brief introduction very much. It's interesting that the story of the expansion of his empire brings alternating waves of sympathy and repulsion.. (Not sure how well that will come across in the upcoming movie.)

Haven't the Uighurs been making the news again in recent times? Or am I mixing them up with another ethnic group in China.

I have to say that the Mongols turning back at the gates of Vienna to attend a funeral is cinematically improbable. Improbable in real life too, for that matter. Wonder how they'll shoot it.

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks, Seana. You've placed the Uighurs right. As for the cinematic version of abandoning Europe, I guess the film-makers won't have to bother with that in a Chingis biopic, since he was long dead by then.

seana graham said...

Oh, yes, right--wasn't thinking clearly.

Of course, I'd always heard that the saving of Vienna had something to do with croissants. Although I guess that was more by way of celebration.

Sounds like they had more to celebrate than they could possibly have imagined.

jaimit said...

a dumb Q -the mughals came to india... but why would the Mongols not come in india, while they went all the way to kick europe's butt. or did they?

Girish Shahane said...

Jamit, geography played some role in that. There's a swathe of grassland that stretches all the way from the Mongolian plateau to Hungary, so it was not outlandish for Mongol horsemen to plan a European invasion. The hot, humid subcontinent didn't seem as good an option as temperate Europe. Having said that, the successor states of the big empire were a constant threat to the Delhi Sultanate on its north-western front. No full-scale invasion was launched until Timur came by in 1398, and gave us a taste of what a Mongol-style massacre was all about.
Babur was desecended from Timur, of course, and would have lived happily in Central Asia, except he was driven to Kabul by an Uzbek general. He wanted to build an empire of his own, saw no opportunity in his homeland of Samarkand and Ferghana, and said to himself, "My forefather conquered Delhi and placed a vassal on its throne. The Sultans there have declared independence, but actually India should rightfully be mine".

srikanth said...

Excellent information...very interesting read...on a related note, Veer apparently stinks big time, hopefully Salman would better leave the mongols alone!!!!...Srikanth

globalbabble said...

And now I can't wait to watch how Bollywood makes a hash of history ;-)

DS said...

"The population of Georgia took six hundred years to return to levels recorded before the Mongol invasion of that country." Chilling, how thorough they were in their acts of genocide.

Enjoyed reading this post.

Girish Shahane said...

Srikanth, DS, thanks! Global, while you wait, why not rent The Conqueror? Should make for an amusing evening.

seana graham said...

I must admit that I didn't quite get the scale of that picture until now. That is one huge equestrian statue. I wouldn't want to be working in an office underneath it.

Girish Shahane said...

Yes, you've got to notice the car parked in front of the building to get a sense of scale. I suppose they've deliberately slanted the structure, but it looks like it is sinking into the sand under the weight of the statue.