Monday, August 6, 2007

Tamerlane and the War Elephants of Delhi

In December 1398, the prosperous city of Delhi saw the arrival of the dreaded Timur-e-Lang, Timur the Lame. He came as a marauder, to loot and pillage.

It was nothing new. The Mongols had been making incursions south of the Indus for almost two centuries. But this time, they were led by a seasoned warrior, a man with a fearsome military reputation.

Timur's army had heard of the legendary Indian war-elephants. Heavily armoured, tusks bound with swords, these giants struck fear into the hearts of Timur's soldiers.

But Timur's battle plans were ingenious. He dug himself into safe trenches, and planted in the ground, stakes armed with metal spikes.

He gave his cavalry caltrops to cripple elephants. The caltrops had four metal spikes, and were designed such that one spike always pointed upwards. His horsemen were taught to engage with elephants, encourage the elephants to chase them, and then drop the caltrops in their paths. The iron spikes would embed themselves in the soft feet of the elephants, hobbling and crippling them.

But cleverest of all was Timur's ingenious scheme to frighten the elephants into a panic. Bales of dry grass were tied to the backs of buffaloes and camels. These were then driven towards the elephants, and at the last minute, the bales were set on fire. The panic-stricken buffaloes and camels dashed madly among the elephants. Infected by their fear, and confused by the heat and smoke, the war elephants went on a confused rampage, causing death and destruction among their own army.

Timur's battle tactics were devastatingly effective. Delhi's huge army of horses, elephants and foot-soldiers was routed in a single day. Mallu Khan, the noble who ruled Delhi under Sultan Muhammed II, fled. So did the Sultan.

The next morning, Timur marched triumphant into Delhi's Jahanpanah Fort. A hundred captured war elephants were paraded and made to bow to him, trumpeting their humility. Their antics pleased Timur; who ordered the elephants sent back to his native Samarkand, accompanied by Delhi's best artisans.

Delhi was sacked; its inhabitants killed and enslaved.
In the Tuzk-e-Timur, the Memoirs of Timur, he himself records the slaughter:
"One hundred thousand infidels, impious idolaters, were on that day slain. The sword of Islam was washed in the blood of the infidels and all the goods and effects, the treasure and grain which for many a long year had been stored in the fort, became the spoil of my soldiers."

The elephants arrived in Samarkand, laden with gems, gold and booty. A grand mosque was built in thanksgiving. Since Timur was nomadic and lived in a tent, the elephants, painted red and green, became exotic and grand guardians of Timur's tents.


Anonymous said...

Historical figures we condemn as looters and vandals have used the wealth looted from India to erect monuments to their glory. Mahmud of Ghazni constructed buildings in his Capital which are still the pride of the locals there. At this point of time their postion in history appears to be dictated by the Geographical location of the guy passing judgement on them.

Jalal-U-Din Amir said...

although, its truth that india could not stand in front of him and timur basically a very talented warrior who could put him under all conditions. see during his whole life time, he did not loose a war either cared his life in any war. the way he caputred delhi is not a way looters but brave man's war. he was not looter, if you see world history any person who got powr caputered up to his best. for example ashoke, alexander etc . every king wanted his kingdom expansion so were the desires of timur, he was a decent jack as he ruled with rules. you see, during war period , his diet was of ordinary soliders, he did not like luxurious life and had sworn not to stay more than three days in city.

Captain Lebu said...

India has a pathetic history of defeats, no wonder the people are so interested in mahabharat and ramayan for stories of glory since their medieval leaders were a failure. said...

I ran across this older blog entry of yours, and think it is beautifully written. I am working on a presentation that includes this topic. Do you still have your reference for this?
Thanks for sharing this.

Deepa said...

Colleen, it came from multiple sources, one of them I remember was Bamber Gascoigne's The Great Mughals, but I cannot remember the rest. Since I'm not writing a paper, I'm not burdened by the need to document and quote sources :) :) Ah, the happy freedoms of blog writers :)

Anonymous said...

Its a irony that we indians still do not comprehend the importance of great emperors like Chandragupta maurya and Ashoka maurya.
not a single movie befitting their stature and contribution. all we come across are the glamourised exaggerated versions of ramayana and mahabharat which mere epics but not historical events that really occured.

Unknown said...

@Captain Lebo:

Search for King Shivaji, Baji Rao 1 and splendid glorious history of Indian marathas.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your lovely blog, having visited your city some 20 years ago, I was fascinated by the history which is such an integral part of it. In many ways, the city and its people reminded me of my home country of England, and I don't mean the 'colonial bits', I think it's because we're both used to living in the midst of history and tradition, never changing, always in a state of flux.

I'm currently writing a book on Timur, working on the part relating to his Indian incursion, and oddly this is the third time today I've come back to your Delhi blog - the wonders of the internet. All I wanted to say about this particular entry is that most historians are of the opinion that the Mulfazat i Timuri is a (very clever) 17th Century forgery, so it probably shouldn't be relied upon as a reference.

Personally, I think the best primary reference for the course of the 1398 battle of Delhi is the second Zafarnama (the Timurid text by that name, not the Sikh one!). Interestingly that very detailed account mentions some of the preparations carried out by Timur's men to counter the elephants, which terrified them, but that they were not actually used in the ensuing battle. The tales of the camels bearing oil soaked reeds etc... seem to come from Ibn Arabshah, Clavijo and Schiltberger, none of whom were present at the battle and all of whom give rather far fetched seeming versions, especially Clavijo (who'd never seen elephants before he got to Timur's court - his description of one is interesting) and the impressionable Schiltberger, Ibn Arabshah even claims the elephants were scared of camels 'because there are none in India'!

Anyway, please keep up the great blogging on your fascinating and lovely home city which I one day hope to visit again, if I do I'd love to look up some of the lesser known antiquities you mention.


Anonymous said...

Battle of Haifa
Battle of pavankhind
1971 indo pak war
Battle of rezang la
Battle of Rajasthan
Battle of vasai
Battle of dewair
Mughal vs ahoms
And many more ...

Deepa said...

@Mike, thanks for the corrections.