Battle Cries of the Past

The history of Delhi aka Dilli – the throbbing heart of Hindustan, has been carved out of days of past glory, conquest, conquerors, victories, losses, conspiracy, battles and bloodshed.


Timur’s Battle Scene

UNESCO archives

The horrifying memories of some battles fought nearly 700 to 800 years ago reverberate in the air of Delhi. The echoes of horror, screams and shrieks resonate in the winding alleys of Delhi and blood soaked stones of old ruins, which had stood witness to these marauding invasions.

These battles that have changed history and their stories have been passed through generations and their aura kept alive in the memories of all Dilli-ites and Hindustanis’.


Shah Timur

(From an old Persian print)

Among those stories is the story of Timur, Tarmashirin Khan, Emir Timur, Timur Beg Gurkhani (9 April 1336 – 18 February 1405), historically known as Tamerlane aka Timūr (-e) Lang, “Timur the Lame”).

Timur-e-Lang was a Turko-Mongol ruler of Barlas lineage, who had conquered West, South and Central Asia and founded the Timurid dynasty. He was the great-great-great-grandfather of Babur Beg, founder of the Mughal Empire, which ruled parts of South Asia for around four centuries, from 1526 until 1857.

At the age of eight or nine, Timur and his mother and brothers were taken as prisoners to Samarkand by an invading Mongol army and Timur spent his childhood with a small band of followers raiding travellers for goods, especially animals such as sheep, horses, and cattle.


Old Images of Timur’s Mausoleum and Grave


Current Image of Timur’s Mausoleum


Current Image of Timur’s Grave/Cenotaph of Black Marble (Shown by arrow)

The Cause of Timur’s Lameness

Going about his raiding, around 1363, it is believed that Timur tried to steal a sheep from a shepherd, but was shot by two arrows, one in his right leg and another in his right hand. He also lost two fingers. These injuries crippled him for life.

However, according to another school of thought, it is believed the Timur suffered his crippling injuries whilst serving as a mercenary to the khan of Sistanin Khorasan known today as Dasht-i Margo (Desert of Death) Afghanistan.

Timur’s injuries have given him the name of Timur the Lame or Tamerlane by Europeans.

Timur the Lame’s Campaign against the Tughlaq Dynasty


Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi, Nasir Al-Din Mahmud Tughluq, in the winter of 1397–1398

Painting dated 1595–1600.

Towards the end of 1397/98, Timur invaded northern India, and attacked the Delhi Sultanate ruled by Sultan Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughluq of the Tughlaq Dynasty. His advances were intercepted by Ahirs and Jats.

After crossing the Indus River on 30 September 1398, he had sacked Tulamba and massacred its inhabitants. Then he advanced and captured Multan by October. By the time the nobility woke up to the gravity of the situation, the invading army had whizzed past the Indus, Chenab and Ravi rivers and occupied Multan. That was when they realized that they had all but rolled out the red carpet for Timur the Lame.

Unfortunately he faced no opposition from the Sultanate at Delhi. This horrifying news, instead of sobering down the nobles of Delhi, merely intensified the intrigue and more backstabbing followed.


An Afghan Pass

Timur had justified his campaign towards Delhi, as a golden chance to acquire riches from a city that was lacking control. His own autobiography cites an auspicious dream which prompted him to come here. It has also been suggested that he wanted to rid the earth of kafirs (unbelievers) – this last could hardly be true since the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate were as Islamic as he himself was.

Also once the plundering of Delhi was over, there is no evidence of Timur sticking around and urging the people of Delhi to see the light. As far as the customary destroying of temples was concerned, Timur seemed to think of it as a total waste of time.

It is chronicled that Timur’s campaigns in India were organized and marked by systematic slaughter and other atrocities on a massive scale.

Timur crossed the Indus River at Attock (now Pakistan) on 24 September 1398. This time his invasion did not go unopposed and he encountered resistance by the Governor of Meerut during his advances to Delhi. But Timur overcame the resistance at Meerut, and continued his approach to Delhi, arriving in 1398, to fight the armies of Sultan Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughluq, which had already been weakened by a succession struggle within the royal family.

On December 7th 1398, after overrunning and plundering most of northern India with a speed (Timur had crossed the Indus on September 24th 1398) that was both astonishing and alarming, the right wing of Timur’s army reached the north of Delhi which then overlooked the Yamuna river. On 10th December the army moved across the river to take Loni. On December 12th a part of the sultan’s divided army came out of the city to meet Timur’s in battle. The result was a terrible massacre where (although there is a controversy about the figures) about 1,00,000 people were put to death by Timur in a shocking display of barbarity.

Capture of Delhi (1398)

Before the battle for Delhi, Timur had executed 100,000 captives!

This historical battle took place in Delhi on 17 December 1398 (in the area which is now located south of current Safdarjang’s tomb).

On December 17th, Timur crossed the Yamuna to meet the full force of the Sultanate’s army. The generals of Timur, according to his biography, ‘…scattered them as hungry lions scatter a flock of sheep and killed 600 of them in one charge.’

Sultan Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughluq and Mallu Iqbal’s army had war elephants armored with chain mail and poison on their tusks.

With his Tatar forces afraid of the elephants, Timur ordered his men to dig a trench in front of their positions. Timur then loaded his camels with as much wood and hay as they could carry. When the war elephants charged, Timur set the hay on fire and prodded the camels with iron sticks, causing them to charge at the elephants howling in pain.

Timur knew that elephants easily panicked. Encountering the strange spectacle of camels flying straight at them with flames leaping from their backs, the elephants turned around and stampeded back toward their own lines.

Timur capitalized on the subsequent disruption in Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughluq’s forces, securing an easy victory. Delhi was sacked and left in ruins.

The capture of the Delhi Sultanate was one of Timur’s greatest victories, because of the harsh conditions of the journey and the achievement of defeating one of the richest cities at the time.


Image representing Amir Temur Lang sitting on his throne and around him all his aids

The army of the sultan was crushed completely and thoroughly by Timur and his son Pir Muhammad. When Timur took over Delhi, the bloodshed continued unabated for many days. The towns of Siri and Jahanpanah (in Delhi) were completely devastated by Timur, who occupied them for 15 days.

Delhi’s defeat by Timur’s army, caused uprisings by its citizens against the Turkic-Mongols. This lead to a bloody massacre within the city walls. After three days of citizens uprising within Delhi, it is recorded that the city reeked of decomposing bodies of its citizens with their heads being erected like structures and the bodies left as food for the birds.



A forensic facial reconstruction of Timur by M. Gerasimov (1941)

Timur’s body was exhumed from his tomb in 1941 by the Soviet anthropologist Mikhail  M. Gerasimov.

(Just as a passing reference: Dr. Bhagwat Sharan Upadhyaya, (the famous writer) Curator Lucknow Museum and Head of the Department of Department of History and Archaeology in University of Ujjain, a close friend of my Father, was also a team member of this expedition, which was organised to repair the grave, which had water seeping in. He used to tell us that he had touched Timur Lung’s remaining hair of the beard! Indeed an exotic experience to touch the beard of a powerful and cruel king, who in his lifetime would have meted an order to kill the person who even touched him, leave alone touch his beard-his pride!)

From his bones it was clearly inferred that Timur was a tall and broad chested man with strong cheek bones. Gerasimov reconstructed the likeness of Timur from his skull. At 5 feet 8 inches (1.73 meters), Timur was tall for people of his era. Gerasimov also confirmed Timur’s lameness due to a hip injury.

Gerasimov also found that Timur’s facial characteristics conformed to that of fairly Mongoloid features with somewhat Caucasoid admixture. In the study of “Anthropological composition of the population of Central Asia” shows the cranium of Timur predominate the characters of the South Siberian Mongoloid type. Timur is classified as being closer to the Mongoloid race with some admixture.

It is alleged that Timur’s tomb was inscribed with the words, “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble.” It is also said that when Gerasimov exhumed the body, an additional inscription inside the casket was found reading, “Whoever opens my tomb, shall unleash an invader more terrible than I. In any case, two days after Gerasimov had begun the exhumation, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the largest military invasion of all time, upon the U.S.S.R. Timur was re-buried with full Islamic ritual in November 1942 just before the Soviet victory at the Battle of Stalingrad.

Timur’s Return after The Brutal Killings

The sack of Delhi by Timur has gone ringing down as the worst ever in the history of the city. Sickeningly horrifying details of the plunder can be read in the Safarnama, a contemporary account of it.
Before he left India, Timur sacked Meerut, Hardwar, Kangra and Kashmir on his way to Lahore. On March 19th 1399, Timur crossed the Indus to go back to Samarkand. By all contemporary accounts, Timur surpassed all others in the matter of ‘…the murder of peaceful non-combatant Muslims and in a much smaller degree, non-combatant non-Muslims who were beheaded or put to death on his orders in the most original ways.’ and he fancied himself the saviour of Islam.

Timur left Northern India in general and Delhi in specific, in a state of complete devastation. According to a contemporary account, ‘…the city was utterly ruined and those of the inhabitants who were left died, while for two whole months not a bird moved wings in Delhi.’

After Timur’s attack, the Tughlaq Empire was completely eradicated, devoid of its majesty and glory.

Delhi was left with no glory, no fortunes, no inhabitants, no joyfulness and no King to rule!

Timur’s memoirs further describe his attack of “Mirat by storm, his frightful slaughter of the inhabitants, his capture of Hardwar, and his devastation of the territory along the Ganges, until he turned his army on the homeward march to Samarkand, fighting his way at every step until he left India”.


Statue of Timur Lang

Timur’s invasion and destruction of Delhi continued the chaos that was consuming India. The city would not be able to recover from the great loss it suffered for almost a century.

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