Indian Sunset, Crescent Moonrise

The Coming of Islam to the Subcontinent, c. 8th – 12th centuries CE

In which the Indians, living in a happy little bubble, receive a rude reintroduction to a world changed beyond recognition (much like the author after starting his first job)

 Hello, beloved readers, long time no see! 😛 This here is an extra-special article covering one of the most thematically important periods in the history of the subcontinent, one that aims to answer the question: how was it that the land of the mighty Guptas, of the seafaring Cholas, of the erudite Palas, came to be conquered within two centuries by barbarians whom any self-respecting ancient Indian ruler would have sent packing?


The fantastic Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora, carved downwards out of a single massive block of stone under the patronage of the Rashtrakuta king Krishna I in the 8th century CE for reasons which will soon become apparent.

The answer, as you may have guessed, lies in broad socio-political and military decline, not in (as some medieval sources would put it) the innate qualities of Islam versus Hinduism or supposed flaws in Indian character brought upon by the humid climate (this latter is actually what the Victorians believed). In order to cover a trend which took place over four hundred years, I am (as with my earlier article, When In India, Do as the Indians Do) not going to provide a dynastic history, but a cultural one. The first section of the article discusses the broad regional trends we can observe in Indian polities at the time. The second talks about the decline of the secular in Indian life and the decay of royal power, setting the stage for the third, which discusses the rise of Islam up to the point of the fall of the Caliphs and the rise of the Turks- itself setting the stage for my next article, which will cover the Sultanate period of Indian history.

On the properties of Triangles

The Emperor Harsha-vardhana wanted to equal Samudra-Gupta and conquer the Deccan.

Instead, the Deccan conquered him.

In Karnataka there is a dusty little town called Badami, which is quite famous for its exquisite rock-cut temples. However, the glorious history of its founders and rulers is, like with most Indian cities, quite forgotten. Badami, for example, was the seat of the mighty Chalukya Dynasty, which ruled, in one form or another, one Indian state or the other for seven hundred years, from the 6th to the 13th century AD and still survive as the Solanki Rajputs.


Pulakesin II, the Chalukya, receives a Persian delegation

These Chalukyas, like many dynasties, were feudal vassals who broke free as their masters weakened. Under King Pulakesin II, they delivered a stunning blow to the ageing Harsha, supposedly the only defeat in his entire career. Harsha, a broken old man, died soon after. His sons were murdered and his crown usurped. The Chakravartin was dead: the petty states of the North once again returned to jostling for supremacy.

Pulakesin, meanwhile, was now the most powerful ruler in the South, and saw no reason to interfere. Heading to Madurai (named for Mathura in the north- an example of Sanskritization), he forcefully secured the submission of its Pallava ruler. Unfortunately for Pulakesin, this ruler was succeeded by his son, the great general Narasimhavarman “Mahamalla” (“Mighty Wrestler”) Pallava, who made such a habit of defeating the formerly invincible Pulakesin that he claims in one of his inscriptions that he could “.. read the word ‘victory’ written on Pulakesin’s backside as he fled from battle.”

He claims in one of his inscriptions that he could “.. read the word ‘victory’ written on Pulakesin’s backside as he fled from battle.”

Stuck in escalating warfare, the Pallavas and Chalukyas paid scant attention to governance. The Chalukya Rashtrakuta (=”Governor”) Dantidurga overthrew the Chalukyas and violently pacified the South. Meanwhile, in the North, a coalition of low caste Gurjaras (modern Gujjars), originally a tribal pastoral caste, managed to bring under their aegis most of Western India (interesting fact: the Gurjaras, though ancestors of modern high-caste Rajputs, were called “Pratiharas” or “doorkeepers” by the rather snobbish Rashtrakutas). In the East, meanwhile, the chaos of Harsha’s death led to the election of one Gopala as the King of Bengal, and the establishment of the last imperial Buddhist state in the subcontinent. The lines of war, as it were, were drawn.

The prize?

The imperial crown of All India.

Just kidding! There was no concept of India at this time, but there was still immense prestige to be gained by vassalising the most important city in the subcontinent: the capital of the great emperor Harsha, Kanyakubja (=”Kannauj”). Thus was the Kannauj Triangle established, as the three mightiest states of the day began their incessant warfare with each other in the name of prestige and honour.


The Kannauj Triangle. The hegemony of the subcontinent was intermittently traded between the three kingdoms.

Which is not to say, of course, that they neglected their own empires to do so. They didn’t. Well, at least not at the beginning. During this Early Medieval period, money was initially poured into universities, art and sculpture (triggering what is known as the Bengali Golden Age, with the Pala kings patronising the great universities of Vikramashila and Nalanda in addition to Tantric/Mahayana Buddhism). Arguably the greatest sculpture in human history, the magnificent Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora, cut out of a single massive rock, was constructed under imperial Rashtrakuta patronage. An interestingly human quote from the sculptor in charge of the project still survives: “Oh, how was it that I built this?”

Tolerance and patronage of secular culture only tend to happen in prosperous states (as true today as it was in India 1,100 years ago, I believe). As the Gurjaras, Palas and Rashtrakutas were weakened by constant, ritualistic fighting, secular interests began to take the backseat, and money was poured instead into pomp, prestige, and religious patronage.

“Tolerance and patronage of secular culture only tend to happen in prosperous states.”

Needless to say, what was good for the kings’ egos was rarely good for their kingdoms. Vassals broke free as dynastic decline set in; the Rashtrakuta dominance of the South was replaced and replaced by warring states in Karnataka (the Western or Kalyani Chalukyas), Andhra (the Eastern or Vengi Chalukyas), and Tamil Nadu (the newly resurgent Chola Kingdom, the only Indian state which bothered itself with non-Indian affairs at this time).  The Gurjara-Pratiharas, having by means of a great fire-sacrifice at Mount Abu(and bribing Brahmins) discovered that they were in fact high-caste Kshatriyas, descended from the Sun and Moon, transformed into the Rajput princes and rapidly broke into small, feuding states. Meanwhile, the Palas were extinguished, as I shall discuss in the next section.

The Chola Who Conquered the Ganga

I’ll talk a little more about the Kailasanatha temple because, like the city of Madurai/Mathura, it represents a sort of late-stage Sanskritization. The sacred geography of India was changing, and a concept of “this land” as opposed to other lands was evolving. Think about it this way: the Rig Vedic peoples, as they moved from the Punjab to the Gangetic Plains, refer to themselves as Aryas and non-Sanskrit-speaking natives as Dasyus. Then, under the globally-oriented rule of the relatively cosmopolitan Mauryas and later foreign rulers, the concept of us/them and the world being centered around India gradually subsides. Under the Guptas, a rough idea of those who follow caste and sacrifice versus those savages who do not (mlecchas), shaped not only by imperial patronage but also the Indian experience of the barbaric Huns, again emerges. Now it is not just the Aryas as opposed to the world but the Hindus as opposed to the world, with their sacred sites near the Ganga.

In the Early Medieval period, this idea of conflated Hindu/Indian identity acquired a subcontinental scope. The Kailasanatha temple in particular reflects something monumental: shifting sacred sites, here the metaphorical Mount Kailasa, the abode of Shiva the Destroyer, is shifted from the Himalayas to the new power centres south of the Deccan.


Chola influence at its peak under Rajendra I. Rajendra’s destabilization of North India is quite possibly a factor in weakening it to later Turkic raids.

A further example, to clarify the argument, comes from the Chola King Rajendra I of Tamil Nadu, who sent an expedition into Orissa and then ordered it up to Bengal, defeating the last Pala king and completing the north’s descent into anarchy (coincidentally weakening it to later invasions from the West). Not that Rajendra cared, for he had a “great” task for this mighty army: to fill cisterns of water from the Ganga to fill in the sacred temple pools at his new capital, Gangai-konda-Chola-puram, The City of the Chola who Conquered the Ganga.  Rajendra’s generosity in granting lands and endowments to temples ensured vociferous Brahmin support and thus the worshipful respect of the masses. (Despite the Chola army’s atrocious rape of the Sri Lankan capital of Anuradhapura, the destruction of the stupas, the slaughter of the monks, and forcible settlement of Tamils in northern Sri Lanka; in addition to other exploits including dispatching a massive fleet to Malacca, where it secured the submission of local kings. Of course, as a result of caste taboos and economic decline caused by the devolution of royal power to temples, all these conquests were undone within two generations of Rajendra’s death.)

The point of this entire exercise?

The sacred geography of the Ganga, or Kailasa, is replicated and moved to a temporarily more powerful king who can better maintain, and be maintained by, a mature caste system. Kings may come and kings may go, but the mollification of religious elites is eternal.

It is difficult for us in the post-Enlightenment era to conceive of Church and State, or religion and king, to use an Indian example, as being separate things, and in that light we might justifiably condemn Indian rulers for investing in such immense propaganda devices instead of actually making their subjects’ lives better. Brahmanism and rituals were part and parcel of the daily life of the average Indian, in one form or another, and especially so for kings sitting on the ivory towers of court ceremonial. Whereas earlier kings patronized religion to add another social support to their rule, religion had now become practically the only support to their rule.

Why invest in training an equipping a proper army when one can rely on the hereditary nobility for a mob of troops whose “karma” is to die for you? Why invest in social reform and anger the powerful Brahmins who control your populace’s superstitions? Build another temple instead! You’ll be remembered forever and it’ll be a sure mark of divine favour. And it’s so much easier. Just give it the revenue of a few villages to show your piety and generosity. It’ll surely never demand more from your heirs as your dynasty’s control weakens!

“…Just give it the revenue of a few villages!”

The construction of temples, the submission and appointment of vassal kings, constant “wars” fought according to rigid, almost mythological/ceremonial rules: these were what mattered. Even Buddhist states such as the Pala kingdom fought pointless wars against the Rastrakutas and the Gurjaras for control of Kannauj.

The emperors were powerful and on the surface, all was well in the subcontinent, business as usual. But the world was changing as the emperors splurged on temples and sculpture. The dynamism and energy that characterised the Guptas is gone. Notions of “caste purity” led to the ossification of the great Indian ports on the Western coast; the great achievements of the universities never trickled down to improve the lives of the commoners; as vassal kings and peoples grew angry and resentful, the unitary empires began to splinter and descend again into the primordial chaos.

As Al-Beruni said of India at this time:

“The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no king like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs”.

However, while the subcontinent was busy in a dream of summer, the Dark Ages had descended on Europe, and the Crescent had risen in the Middle East…

Armed Prophets Always Conquer, as Machiavelli Said


The Roman emperor Heraclius inspects the battlefield at Nineveh in Iraq.

Let’s step back in time a couple of centuries. The Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, in Greece and Turkey, has just fought back from the brink of extinction and recaptured Syria and Egypt from the Sassanid Empire in Persia and Iraq. Both these ancient states are exhausted by the conflict; the broken Persian emperor Khusro II dies and the empire descends into the anarchy of civil war as a flood wipes out the farmlands of Iraq and plunges it into chaos.

Then came the unification of the Arab peoples under the banner of Islam; the Prophet Muhammad died and a vigorous, curious new state began to stretch its wings. Striking out towards Syria, they found Roman garrisons exhausted and subject peoples open to negotiation. In return for “dhimmior “protected” status for their religions and businesses, Syrian and Egyptian Christians displeased with Roman control and the dogma of the Greek Orthodox Church were happy to come over to the side of Islam.

In a stroke, the Caliphs had become a great force to reckon with; the Romans were infuriated but, shockingly, could make no headway against them. As more and more people began to convert to Islam, which had hitherto been restricted to Arabs, it quickly evolved from a simple moral code to a tolerant, pluralistic imperial power structure. The nomadic Arab raiders needed plunder to stay away from each other’s throats and began to probe into, and quickly conquered, an already weakened Persia. Off to the West, in Libya, great movements of tribes and peoples would see the banners of Islam carried to the Atlantic Ocean within a generation.


The Spread of Islam in the 7th century CE. 


The House of Wisdom, a world-famous academy and library established by the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad.

The Arabs did not achieve all this merely through military power but through pragmatism, tolerance, and an openness to learning and science. For example, one Caliph supposedly offered the Eastern Roman Emperor a treaty of eternal peace if he only sent over a famous professor of mathematics to lecture for a year in Baghdad.

Why is all this relevant to India, you may ask. And the answer to that is simple. We often think of Muslims in India as being little more that brutal foreign barbarians, but they weren’t always brutal, or foreign, or barbaric. In fact, Muhammad bin Qasim, the first Muslim ruler in the subcontinent, governing Sindh in the name of the Ummayyad Caliph, extended protection and dhimmi status to all Brahmins and Buddhists.

“We often think of Muslims in India as being little more that brutal foreign barbarians, but they weren’t always brutal, or foreign, or barbaric.”

(The absurd career of Muhammad bin Qasim is in my next article, don’t worry!)

Unfortunately, the tolerance of the Caliphs and their governors did not survive for long. When the Turkic nomads north of the Oxus converted to Islam, they were brought to Baghdad as a sort of royal bodyguard to prop up the Caliph and instead ended up dismembering the decaying carcass of the Caliphate on their barbarian swords. Islam entered its dark age- and as the Turks set their eyes on India, sheltered from the world for so long, so too would the subcontinent.

Coming up in my next article:

The Turkish invasions manage to reunify North India against the Mongols; shaken out of their stupor, new and dynamic Hindu states such as Vijayanagar patronise cosmopolitanism and global trade; prelude to the apex of Indian tolerance, art and power under the Great Mughals.

Prequel: The Secret History of the Emperor Harsha, Part II.

Sequel: Sultans of Swing


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  4. Eraly, A. (2011). The First Spring: the Golden Age of India. Penguin Books India.
  5. Armstrong, K. (2007). Islam: A Short History. Modern Library.
  6. Armstrong, K. (2015). Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Random House.