India - Victor Surridge

An Empire in its Death-Grips

"Come what may, I have launched my vessel on the waves. Farewell—farewell—farewell!"

In a spacious tent in the city of Ahmednugur Aurangzebe lay dying. The discomfited remnants of a once great and glorious army were encamped within the town walls; outside, a victorious foe thundered arrogantly at the gates. Listen—and you can almost hear the great Moghul Empire tottering to its fall. Already the vultures, scenting their prey afar and ravening for the spoils, were gathering about the dying giant. The end was indeed near. For the last twenty years the prestige and genius of Aurangzebe alone had sustained the mighty empire from breaking up. Now that he lay stretched upon his deathbed, tossing feverishly from side to side, and giving utterance at intervals to broken sentences of terror, remorse, despair and desperate resignation, the one last prop was being taken away; and with the death of Aurangzebe the Moghul Empire—one of the most magnificent the world has ever known—had almost ceased to exist.

But despite its approaching end the Moghul Empire acquired during the last years of Aurangzebe's reign a degree of power it had never before attained. In 1683 the Emperor had set out upon his long-planned conquest of the South. An army assembled at Delhi, whose magnificence—eclipsing even the sumptuous splendour of Xerxes' mighty hosts—is without a parallel in history.

Cavalry from the great provinces which lay beyond the Indus, infantry from Kashmir, Rájputána and Bengal, artillery fashioned by the most cunning gunsmiths in the Indies, elephants from the vast forests of Hindustan—all were gathered together at the Emperor's bidding outside the capital. Aurangzebe took command in person. His tent, as large as a palace, was fitted up with every conceivable luxury. Halls of audience, courts, cabinets, mosques, oratories, and baths, all hung with the finest silks and velvets and adorned with cloth of gold, were to be found within the twelve hundred yards of canvas which comprised the walls of the Emperor's apartments. The camp resembled a moving city. Leopards and tigers, hawks and hounds innumerable—everything in fact that would in any way make for amusement— accompanied the army. The generals vied with one another in the splendour of their attire and the costliness of their equipment. Everything, moreover, was in duplicate. While the Grand Army rested to-day in extravagant ease, thousands of slaves were busily preparing a giant city of canvas, identical in all respects with the other, for their reception to-morrow.

The magnificence and unwieldiness of the army proved in the end its undoing. But before the process of decay set in it had accomplished Aurangzebe's lifelong ambition. The Empire of the Moghuls extended its dominion from the snowy peaks of the Himálayas in the distant north to where the blue waters of ocean lapped the sands of Comorin in the far-away south. All India was bound together in allegiance under one head. But although the Moghuls grasped at supreme authority in the peninsula, they never succeeded in transforming their gigantic clutch into complete possession.

The kingdoms of the South did not fall without a struggle. Around the walls of Bíjapur—grim, frowning walls, built of hewn stone solidly compacted, and stretching six miles in circumference—the Moghul army coiled itself like some great glittering serpent. The gallant Patháns defended themselves with resolute heroism. Their artillery—the best in India—daily hurled defiance at the silken tents outside. Artifice and assault made no impression upon those adamant ramparts. But Aurangzebe was in no hurry for conquest. He knew that presently another force—more formidable than even the vast resources of the Indies could produce—would come to his assistance.

Nor was he wrong in his expectation. Giant Death in the guise of Starvation stalked through the beleaguered city. Their provisions exhausted, their ammunition spent, the brave defenders were at length obliged to capitulate. A breach was knocked in the walls of the captured city, and through this, seated on a portable throne, the Moghul Emperor was carried in triumph. The young king was brought in chains before him. "Away with him to prison!" exclaimed the haughty despot. Three years later the unhappy king died in captivity; some whispered that he had been done to death by poison or the knife. And so on the 15th October 1686 Bíjapur was blotted out of the roll of Indian kingdoms. To-day you will find its once proud capital given over to desolation and decay. The stately ruins of majestic temples and noble tombs, of lordly mosques and resplendent palaces, greet you from every side—grim, silent landmarks of the departed grandeur of this fallen city.

A few months passed. The inhabitants of Golconda were alarmed to find long lines of gaily coloured tents, surmounted with brilliant banners and inhabited by swarthy, silken-clad warriors, set up in their territory. The vanguard of the Grand Army had arrived. They sent ambassadors to the Emperor-General to inquire the reason of this war-like incursion into their kingdom, inasmuch as only last year they had concluded a treaty of peace with the Moghuls. Surely the great Emperor would not stoop to violate his most sacred word! Aurangzebe smiled sphinx-like. With all gravity he assured the tremulous delegates that he was merely on a pilgrimage to the tomb of a noted Muhammadan saint who had had the misfortune to be buried in their country. His intentions were entirely pacific.

Golconda might well look askance at the half-million or so of glittering warriors who accompanied the Moghul on his pious mission; but they could get no further information. Then ensued a colossal game of cat and mouse. Aurangzebe so played upon the feelings of the bewildered monarch of Golconda as to reduce him almost to frenzy. In a desperate endeavour to gain the good-will of the Emperor he poured his hoards of treasure and jewels at his feet. Even the women of his household were stripped of their ornaments that they might go to swell the peace-offering.

Aurangzebe accepted the gifts as his natural due. He showed no sign of pleasure at their magnitude or richness. Then—his plans completed—he struck his blow. The unhappy prince learned of the Emperor's gratitude by receiving a declaration of war. The pretext was trifling. He was accused of having employed a Brahmin as his minister, and of having formed an allegiance with the "infidel Maráthás."

This contemptuous treatment of his advances filled the heart of Kootub Sháh with bitter indignation. All the martial spirit of his ancestors blazed up fiercely in the affronted king. He swore that so long as a man remained alive to defend it, Golconda should never surrender to the haughty Moghul. But Aurangzebe's "pilgrimage" had not been entirely devoted to prayer and fasting. Bribery and corruption had been busily at work amongst the Golconda magnates, and when poor Kootub Sháh issued his call to arms, the troops upon which he trusted basely deserted him and went over to the enemy.

Undismayed by adversity, the gallant prince gathered together the handful of men which still remained to him, and, shutting himself up in his capital, sent a message of proud defiance to the besieging army. For seven months he bravely continued to hold out. Then treachery was again employed, and the warlike monarch found his stronghold betrayed by his own people into the enemy's hands. The fort was captured, and he himself taken prisoner; but with such dignity and resignation did he bear his misfortunes that the name of Kootub Sháh is held in love and reverence by his countrymen even to this day.

With the fall of Golconda Aurangzebe's triumph was complete; all India lay stretched at his feet. But the flood-tide of success was soon to turn; the height of Moghul conquest marked also the beginning of the end. More territory was in their hands than they were able to govern; and the history of the next fifty years presents the melancholy spectacle of the gradual decay of a great empire.

What now of the hardy Maráthás whom Sivaji had raised to the level of such a formidable power? We may be sure that they had not been idle whilst Aurangzebe was making his triumphal progress southwards. The Grand Army, with its unwieldiness and its luxury, presented a fruitful field for Maráthá, plunder. The silken Moghul generals, padded out with wadding and protected by chain armour, could not contend against the long-haired, wiry, sinewy Maráthás who, riding barebacked on their shaggy ponies and unarmed save for their long and glittering sabres, swept down incessantly from their native mountains to pillage the Moghul encampment, leaving a grim trail of fire and slaughter behind them to mark their devastating course. The Grand Army was too large, too cumbersome to retaliate effectually. All valour and discipline had been eaten away by the universal luxury which prevailed. Nothing indeed was so little desired by the northern invaders as the sight of the enemy.

It must not be supposed, however, that Aurangzebe did nothing to check the Maráthá depredations. A number of expeditions were sent against them; their fortresses were stormed and their country laid waste. The crowning Moghul success was the capture of the Maráthá king. Sivaji's successor was not nearly so great a man as his father. Not that he was lacking in courage and enterprise in warfare, but he preferred a life of ease and pleasure. Wine and women were dearer in his eyes than the clash of arms and the hoarse roar of warriors as they sweep exultantly to the charge.

Aurangzebe received news one day that Sambaji had taken up his residence at a small village not far from the imperial camp. Calling one of his favourite officers to him, he bade him go and bring the "insolent rebel" back a prisoner. "By the beard of the Prophet," cried the enraged Emperor, "I shall never return to Delhi until I have seen the head of the Maráthá weltering at my feet!"

Meanwhile the unsuspecting victim was engaged in one of his usual orgies. Suddenly a loud tumult was heard outside. Then a messenger, breathless with running, rushed frantically into the room and threw himself at his master's feet.

"The Moghuls," he cried—"the Moghuls are upon us! Flee, Your Majesty; flee ere it be too late!"

Flushed with wine, the Maráthá staggered to his feet.

"What do you mean, you dog?" he shouted angrily. "Away, or you shall be beaten for your presumption. How dare you bring such a ridiculous story into my presence!"

Hardly were the words out of his mouth when another messenger burst into the room.

"They are surrounding the house," he gasped. "Flee, Your Majesty! In another minute escape will be cut off!"

"Are they all mad?" roared the infuriated monarch. Then a jangle of steel was heard outside, and a party of Moghuls broke into the apartment. The foremost slashed fiercely at the Maráthá king with his sword. Sambaji's favourite courtier rushed in and received the blow. Then Sambaji himself was secured, and, mounted on a camel, was conveyed in triumph back to the Moghul encampment.

There was great excitement throughout the camp when it was known that the redoubtable Maráthá chieftain had been captured. An immense multitude flocked to see their dread enemy being brought a helpless prisoner through the Moghul lines. The banging of drums and clashing of cymbals heralded the approach of the procession, and a loud fanfare of trumpets announced the joyful tidings throughout the innumerable tents which dotted the plain as far as the eye could reach, Seated on his throne, amid a crowd of glittering nobles, Aurangzebe surveyed his prisoner with a contemptuous smile.

"Little as you deserve mercy," he said, "yet in our great magnanimity we will consent to spare your life. But you must renounce your religion, trample upon your gods, and cry aloud before the multitude, 'There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet!'"

Something of the fierce spirit of Sivaji leapt up in the Maráthá's heart as he heard these haughty words. Drawing himself up to his full height, and gazing proudly around, he hurled all the curses and abusive epithets at his command at the name of the sacred Prophet.

"Shall I, King of the Maráthás, become a Mussulman?" he cried. "Not if you were to give me your daughter's hand in marriage!"

Insult could no farther go. For once in his life the dignified Aurangzebe lost command of his temper. "Drag the blasphemous dog from our presence!" he roared. "He shall suffer for this insolence."

The fate of the unhappy Sambaji was a terrible one. Every torture human ingenuity could devise was heaped upon him ere death put an end to his sufferings. His eyes were seared out with red-hot irons, his tongue was torn from his throat, and then—after enduring agony unspeakable—his head was finally struck from his shoulders. Thus did Aurangzebe wreak his revenge upon the Maráthás.

The barbarous execution of Sambaji was not only a great crime, it was a great error. Deliberately Aurangzebe had sown the dragon's teeth; he was to reap an abundant harvest. Eighteen years later, when the broken and enfeebled remains of the Grand Army were chased in ignominious flight up to the gates of Ahmednugur, their pursuers were the dauntless Maráthás, whose hearts had been set ablaze by the murder of their king. A few months later, when in the ninetieth year of his age, Aurangzebe sank disappointed and embittered into the grave, India was a gigantic maelstrom of seething revolution.

From the ashes of the two lost kingdoms of the South had arisen a monster with a thousand heads. In every quarter hundreds of petty chieftains asserted their independence, numbering among their followers deserters from the imperial troops, or scattered fragments from the disbanded armies of Golconda and Bíjapur. As flies gather round the body of a dying animal—powerless to retaliate—so these individually insignificant bands buzzed angrily around the carcass of decaying Moghul greatness. Every mountain and every valley poured forth its horde of freebooters to devastate the plains and lay waste the villages with fire and sword.

In the North things were not very much better. The Hindús were groaning under the taxes which Aurangzebe—his statesmanship warped by religious bigotry—had imposed upon all not professing Muhammadanism. The Rájputs had risen in open revolt. About this time, too, a sect destined to play a prominent part in the future history of their country first came into prominence. These were the Sikhs who, starting as a purely religious community, preaching the doctrine of universal toleration, had developed into a formidable military power. The change was wrought by necessity alone, for the harsh persecution of their sect by the Muhammadans had rendered their lives unbearable. Now they were no longer pious visionaries, but fierce soldiers burning to avenge their people's wrongs.

Encouraged by the weakness of their enemy, the Sikhs rose with fresh determination. Under their fiery leader, Banda, they ravaged the low-lying country with fanatical fury. Unspeakable atrocities are laid to their charge during this tumultuous outburst. But their triumph was short-lived. A Moghul army was sent against them which, led by a skilful commander, repeatedly repulsed the rebels. Their crowning success was the capture of Banda and a large number of his officers and followers. The majority of these were executed on the spot, but Banda and seven hundred and forty others were reserved for severer punishment.

Dressed up in black sheepskins, the wool outside —in playful allusion to their shaggy and unkempt appearance—they were mounted upon camels and paraded through the streets of Delhi, amid the hooting and jeering of the mob. They were all beheaded on seven successive days. Each one was offered his life if he would give up his religion. But these doughty warriors did not fear death; they laughed in the faces of their executioners and bade them do their worst. For Banda was reserved an even more terrible fate. Decked out in all the insignia of royalty, with scarlet turban and robe of the finest cloth of gold, the unhappy Sikh leader was exhibited in an iron cage before the mocking multitude. Behind him, grim and forbidding, stood his executioner—a naked weapon glittering in his hand. Around him, the severed heads of his compatriots, stuck on long pikes, glared with sightless eyes upon their chieftain's wretched plight. Even a cat that had once been a favourite pet of Banda's was killed and stuck on a pike, thereby demonstrating the complete destruction of everything that had belonged to the fallen leader.

A dagger was handed to him, and he was ordered to stab his infant son. On his refusal the child was butchered before his eyes, and its heart was thrown in his face. Then the monsters, glorying in his torture, tore him to pieces with hot pincers. But to the last he remained constant to his faith, and exultant in his martyrdom. All other Sikhs that could be found were hunted down like wild beasts, and it was a long while before the nearly exterminated sect was strong enough again to renew its depredations.

And now we come to the culminating point of the great tragedy. Delhi, the mighty, the magnificent, was to fall, and her greatness be humbled in the dust. The voice of the stranger was to be heard in the land; the foot of the invader was to be set in those stately palaces; and the streets of the once proud city were to run red with the blood of her murdered inhabitants.

Since the days of Darius, Persia has never produced a greater warrior than the valiant Nadir Sháh. The son of a humble shepherd, his first serious step in life was to place himself at the head of a small band of freebooters. Like Sivaji, he rose from power to power, until at length the royal diadem of Persia encircled his ambitious brow. Then he picked a quarrel with the Moghuls and invaded India.

Since Aurangzebe's death, thirty years before, many emperors had ascended the peacock throne—all puppets in the hands of powerful and unscrupulous ministers, who raised them up and deposed them as best suited their plans. The present Emperor was far from a mighty warrior, but he got together the best army he could under the circumstances, and marched to repel the invasion. His disorganised troops were severely defeated by the trained Persian soldiery, and being without means of resistance he advanced to the enemy's camp and threw himself on the mercy of the conqueror. But the object of Nadir Sháh was not conquest alone; he wished to replenish his empty coffers. So he told the Emperor he would retire if two crores of rupees were forthcoming.

All might have gone well but for the treachery of a powerful Indian noble. He thought he had been slighted by the Emperor, and, thirsting for revenge, he begged for a private audience with Nadir Sháh.

"Behold," he cried, "how small a sum is this you would demand! Is not the land wealthy? Is it not overflowing with riches? Why, I can provide from my small province alone all that you ask from the whole empire!"

The greed of the Persian king was kindled. He determined to proceed to Delhi himself and levy the exactions under his own eye. Accordingly, in company with the Emperor, he advanced to the capital with his whole army, and both monarchs took up their residence in the royal palace. The troops were distributed throughout the town. The people shrank in terror from the ferocity of the invaders, and regarded their intrusion with disgust.

On the second day a rumour began to fly about the city that Nadir Sháh was dead. Then the oppressed inhabitants rose up in their wrath and proceeded to wreak their vengeance upon the hated strangers. Every Persian within reach was barbarously slaughtered. Even those that had been furnished for the protection of the noblemen's palaces were dragged out into the streets and butchered with inconceivable fury. Nadir Sháh did his best to quell the outbreak, but without avail. All through the day and the night following the tumult continued with increasing force. When dawn broke after a night of horror, the Persian king mounted his horse and rode through the city, hoping to restore order by his presence. The first sight that met his gaze was the bodies of his murdered countrymen weltering in their blood. Even as he looked, a shot rang out and a favourite officer, riding by his side, fell to the ground dead. Then his self-restraint gave way, and the passions that had been smouldering in his heart broke forth in all their force. "Let there be a general massacre!" he commanded.

The scene that followed is probably unexampled in history. All the horrors that rapine, lust, and thirst for vengeance could inspire were enacted on that unhappy day. The fierce Persian troops fell ruthlessly upon the trembling inhabitants. Men, women, and children were given over to the sword; the streets ran with great rivers of blood. Thick columns of smoke ascended to the cloudless sky, as the houses were pillaged and set on fire.

From early sunrise until the shadows of dusk were stealing over the city the horrible carnage continued in unabated fury. During all this time Nadir Sháh sat in gloomy silence, listening to the shrieks of the butchered populace. At length the Emperor and his chief nobles screwed up their courage and timorously ventured into his presence. With downcast eyes, they stood before him, till the Persian warrior gruffly bade them speak. The unhappy Emperor burst into tears and raised his hands appealingly.

Nadir Shah


"Put an end to this horror, I entreat you!" he cried. "Spare, oh, spare my miserable people!"

Nadir Sháh gave the word that the slaughter should cease. Such was the marvellous discipline among his troops that the instant the order was received every sword was sheathed. The massacre ended as suddenly as it had begun. And so the curtain of night at length descended upon one of the saddest scenes in history, and from their place in the heavens the great stars gazed calmly down upon a city given over to weeping and wailing—its marble palaces black with the fire of the destroyer, its streets running red with the blood of its murdered people.

But the punishment of Delhi was not yet over. The massacre was but a prelude to the plunder which followed. All the vast stores of treasure and jewels which the wealth of the mighty Moghul emperors had accumulated were annexed by the Persian invaders. Even the peacock throne did not escape. The great nobles were obliged to forfeit their possessions, and the common people were plundered with every imaginable cruelty.

At the gates of the city strong guards were posted that none might leave it while the extortion was in progress. Every man was forced to state the amount of his fortune, and to pay accordingly. Hundreds died of the ill-treatment they received; many more committed suicide rather than face the disgrace and the torture. "Sleep and rest forsook the city. In every chamber and house was heard the cry of affliction. It was before a general massacre; but now the murder of individuals." But the prime cause of all this misery was not allowed to escape.

Nadir Sháh demanded of the treacherous nobleman the whole of the sum he had said his province was able to furnish; and the wretched man swallowed poison as the speediest way out of his difficulties.

The greed of Nadir Sháh being satisfied by his fifty-eight days' pillage of Delhi, he took his departure, bearing with him plunder valued at thirty-two crores of rupees. But he left behind him a broken and desolated country. The Moghul Empire—long tottering—had at last received its death-blow. The star of the east had risen, blazed with oriental splendour, and set in a sea of blood; but out of the west was to spring a new, and even mightier, power, destined to build upon the ashes of India's departed glory a great and glorious empire that should be the envy and the wonder of all the nations of the world.