Balkh Campaign: An Indian Army in Central Asia

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    Nestled between the Amu Darya and the Hindu Kush mountains, in the very heart of Asia, lies Balkh. Though now little more than a provincial town in Northern Afghanistan (450 km from Kabul), for over 2,000 years it was among the great cities of Asia.

    Formerly called ‘Bactra’, the capital of the territory of Bactria once ruled by the Persians, the Indo-Greeks and the Kushanas, its centrality made it a key artery of the Silk Road. Trade bestowed upon its immense material and cultural wealth, and some considered it to be the mythical Shangri-La.

    The city was so prosperous in ancient and medieval times that the Arabs called it Umm-Al-Belad—the ‘mother of all cities’. Such affluence naturally attracted conquerors from all corners of Eurasia: King Darius of the Achaemenids (6th to 5th BCE), Alexander of Macedonia (4th BCE), the Great Khan Genghis (12th to 13th CE) and the feared Amir Timur (14th to 15th CE).

    In the 17th century CE, Balkh was coveted and captured by Mughal and Rajput princes. It was the only time, possibly in all of history, that an Indian army was to go on the offensive beyond the Hindu Kush. This was the Balkh-Badakhshan campaign of 1646-1647 CE, which would finally bring to end the Mughal dream of reconquering their homeland in the Ferghana Valley (in present-day Uzbekistan), the region from where Babur (r. 1526-30 CE)—the first Mughal Emperor and founder of the dynasty in India— hailed from.

    The Promised Land

    In 1646-1647, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan launched a military expedition to conqueror Balkh and the neighbouring province of Badakhshan. This campaign was to be the first step in the expansion of Mughal rule into Transoxiana, now Central Asia, where the Ferghana valley lay.

    There were many reasons why Shah Jahan undertook such an ambitious campaign. The Khanate of Bukhara—the kingdom holding overlordship over Balkh and Badakhshan—was going through a period of internal strife, which made it an opportune moment to strike. Moreover, the imperialistic inclinations of the Safavid Dynasty of Iran, which too was eyeing a foothold in Central Asia, made Shah Jahan want to anticipate any incursions from them.

    However, behind all the obvious geopolitical manoeuvring, there was sheer sentimentality. The lush valleys and venerable mountains of Transoxiana were the ancestral homelands of the Mughals. It was in Balkh where their most eminent ancestor, Amir Timur, had declared himself ‘Khan’, and it was from the magnificent citadel of Samarkand (in present-day Uzbekistan) that he governed his empire.

    Babur himself was born north of Balkh, in the fertile valley of Ferghana. He spent most of his life wandering the Khanates of Central Asia and Afghanistan, squandering one kingdom only to gain another. While the Mughals were Emperors of Hindustan and had been so for more than a century by Shah Jahan’s time, Transoxiana was still ubiquitous in their imperial imaginings.

    The official chronicle of every Mughal Emperor up to Aurangzeb mentioned plans to conquer Central Asia. Thus, in the late 1640s, when the situation in the Deccan had greatly eased with the collapse of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate of the Nizam Shahi, Shah Jahan had the military flexibility to undertake what was to be the only serious attempt at regaining the lost homeland of the Mughals. This medieval irredentism was going to cost dearly.

    Across the Hindu Kush

    As soon as the imperial farman outlining the conquest of Balkh and Badakhshan was issued, the gears of the colossal Mughal war machine began turning. An army of 50,000 horsemen and 10,000 infantry—including artillerymen, musketeers, and sappers—was assembled in Kabul, the last great city at the western limits of the Mughal Empire. Leading them was Shah Jahan’s youngest son, Mirza Murad Bakhsh. With the sound of war drums bellowing through the city, the Mughal army marched out of Kabul in June 1646. Making its way through the narrow, rocky defiles of the Hindu Kush, the army conquered a number of towns and military garrisons en route, before arriving near Balkh.

    The local Uzbek tribes defending the city proved no match for the highly organised and well-equipped army. Nazar Mohammed, the Bukharan Governor, fled even before the army was in sight. The Mughal army entered the imposing Bala Hisar (the citadel) of Balkh virtually unopposed on the 2nd of July. After nearly 150 years, the House of Timur was making its return.

    After making their way this far with relative ease, the generals of the Mughal army began at once feeling restive in this foreign land. Chief among them was Prince Murad Bakhsh himself, who shortly after arriving sent a series of letters to Shah Jahan expressing his desire to return to Kabul. Apart from the wavering will to fight, the army was also finding it hard to secure supplies from the local populace. The Uzbeks and Hazara tribes were bitter—in some cases even openly hostile— towards the occupying force and refrained from trading their food grains.

    Things went from bad to worse when Murad Bakhsh, along with a small retinue, left for Kabul without prior permission from his father. The sudden and unannounced flight of an imperial Prince was a massive blow to the morale of the Mughal army stationed in Balkh. Upon hearing about the rather ignominious departure of his son, a furious Shah Jahan immediately stripped him of his mansab or rank.

    Worried about the precarious situation of his army, Shah Jahan moved his court from Lahore to Kabul to more closely direct the campaign. He even sent his Grand Vizier, Sadhullah Khan, to ensure that the Mughal units in Balkh and surrounding areas stayed primed for imminent incursions deeper into Transoxiana.

    However, with the early onslaught of winter, all plans of further conquest were put on hold. The winter of 1646-1647 was one of the harshest the region had ever witnessed. Soldiers are said to have ‘burned themselves’ in an effort to keep warm, and it was impossible to walk outside without contracting life-debilitating frostbite.

    With the Mughal army cooped up inside fortresses and garrisons in and around Balkh, the Uzbek tribes, naturally accustomed to the region, pillaged the countryside and laid siege to multiple Mughal outposts and garrisons. Any military relief was unable to proceed beyond Kabul, with all passes closed due to snow.

    Cold, hungry, and harassed, the Mughal army was barely able to hang onto its foothold in Central Asia through the winter. However, with the eventual arrival of spring in the new year, the Mughal campaign was reinvigorated. The mountain passes had reopened and another army was raised to strengthen and further the Mughal conquest in Transoxiana. This time, it would be led by Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s third son and eventual successor to the Mughal throne.

    Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

    With an army of 35,000 soldiers, Aurangzeb marched out of Kabul in early April 1647. Compared to his step-brother, Aurangzeb was far more adept in military matters, and the idea of conquering Transoxiana excited him personally. While numerically inferior to the Mughal contingent from the year before, Aurangzeb’s army had crack Rajput units. Led by Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur and Rao Madho Singh Hada of Kota, the Rajputs formed the integral rear-guard and vanguard of the army.

    Realising that an army had been sent to relieve the Mughal forces stationed in Balkh and Badakhshan, the Uzbeks assembled a force of 1 lakh light cavalry under Qutuluq Mohammed. They struck the Mughal army near the valley of Derah-i-Gaz. However, their numerical strength was no match for the disciplined musket fire of the Mughal vanguard. The narrowness of the valley too constrained the massed Uzbek cavalry. The Uzbeks were thwarted but remained undefeated.

    The next day, they engaged the Mughal vanguard again, this time directly in an open battlefield. This was to be a grievous error. With the Rajput infantry putting up a stiff resistance, the Uzbek cavalry focused solely on attacking the centre vanguard. Unbeknownst to them, Aurangzeb had turned the remaining wings of his army on the Uzbek flanks, conducting a clinical pincer movement. Surrounded on three sides, the Uzbeks fled.

    A triumphant Aurangzeb entered Balkh on the 25th of May 1647. After resupplying and reorganising the neighbouring Mughal forces, he handed over Balkh fort to Rao Madho Singh, and continued on beyond the Amu Darya. Throughout the summer months, Aurangzeb fought multiple battles and skirmishes with the local Uzbek tribes as well as the armies sent by the Khan of Bukhara. Although militarily far superior, he was unable to achieve a decisive victory.

    The local tribes, having learnt their lesson from earlier misjudgements, did not engage in pitched battles. Lightly equipped, they moved fast and struck the long columns of the Mughal army at random, after which they would quickly retreat. The large, conventional force of the Mughal army was unable to adapt to this irregular warfare.

    Supplying such a large army too became an expensive affair. With the region not particularly fertile, Aurangzeb depended heavily on grains arriving from Kabul. Such extended lines were constantly harassed by hostile tribes, and there was a constant threat of being cut off from Kabul. The great difficulties he faced in retaining Balkh itself made the idea of capturing Samarkand seem terribly quixotic.

    Compounding all this were some of Aurangzeb’s own generals who did not perceive the prospects of campaigning in Transoxiana as enviable. Far from all the comforts and luxuries of the plains of Hindustan, a land of only hills and deserts was not where they would have liked to spend the better years of their imperial service.

    Facing relentless local resistance, reluctant commanders, and an ever-growing burden on the Mughal exchequer, Aurangzeb realised the need to exit what was soon becoming a military quagmire. However, simply retreating from Balkh and Badakhshan after such an expensive military campaign would have made it all seem terribly wasteful.

    In an effort to justify the entire military enterprise, Aurangzeb signed a treaty with the former governor of Bukhara, Nazar Mohammed. In return for restoring Balkh and Badakhshan to him, Nazar Mohammed would now swear fealty to Shah Jahan. While essentially a return to status quo ante, the Mughals at least now had Nazar Mohammed’s loyalty to show for such a strenuous and expensive military campaign, regardless of how little it might have meant anyway.

    Shah Jahan acquiesced to this face-saving arrangement, having realised as well that the conquest of Transoxiana was far too romantic to be accommodated by military realities. More pressing matters, however, concerned Aurangzeb. With winter fast approaching, he had the unenviable task of transporting an entire army across the Hindu Kush. Already late in the year, the passes would soon be inaccessible. If they closed, the army would be stranded in a foreign land, surrounded by hostile tribes who were ever-ready to have a go at a force laden with imperial wealth.

    An Army on Retreat

    After handing over Balkh to the grandsons of Nazar Mohammed, the Mughal army marched out on the 3rd of October 1647. Ahead of them lay a 400-km march to Kabul, through the narrow defiles and high mountain passes of the Hindu Kush. The weather had already taken a turn for the worse, and snow now made the previously difficult trails treacherously dangerous.

    Adding to their woes were the Uzbek tribesmen, who constantly attacked the Mughal columns for loot. The cumbersome artillery, and vast quantities of money and other miscellaneous supplies stored in mule packs, made the army move at a slow pace making it an easy target for raiders on horseback. The cold killed countless pack animals, and the task of transporting camp baggage fell to the soldiers.

    Suffering great privation, the men heaved heavy cannons and treasure caravans across the Gazniyak Pass. While the long columns of soldiers began crossing the pass, Uzbek riders struck the weak and slow stragglers at the rear end of the army. In a remarkable show of discipline, the Rajputs under Raja Jai Singh, Rao Madho Singh and Mughal General Bahadur Khan performed a valiant rear-guard action at the steep approaches to the pass, and kept the Uzbeks at bay. This was not to be their last engagement.

    Throughout the bitterly cold days of October, the Mughal rear-guard was hounded by Uzbek and Hazara tribesmen. Since the baggage train—containing most of the money and other material wealth—moved far slower than the rest of the army, it was considered ripe for the picking by the hostile tribesmen. Nevertheless, the rear-guard, in the most inhospitable of conditions, was able to beat off successive waves of enemy raiders, at the cost of high casualties.

    On the 27th of October 1647, Aurangzeb finally reached the safeties of Kabul. His army was scattered all over due to sudden snowstorms and constant enemy activity, which led to units’ progress in a haphazard fashion. Rag-tag soldiers continued trickling into the walls of the city over the next few days. The rear-guard, bringing with it the final stragglers and the injured, only arrived on the 10th of November. What had once been a mighty imperial army had been reduced—by calamitous climate, treacherous terrain, and attritional warfare—to little more than a long procession of beleaguered men. Thus came the end of the Mughal campaign in Transoxiana, and with it, the hope of reclaiming the lost homeland of the Mughals.

    Of Empires and Excess

    The failure of the campaign had come at a great expense. In little more than a year, a staggering four crore rupees had been spent from the Mughal treasury (in the tens of thousands of crores today). Over 6,000 soldiers had died, mostly due to the privations of nature. Yet, all they had achieved was the lip service of Nazar Mohammed; there was no increase in territory beyond an inconsequential 80 km or so north of Kabul. Financially speaking, the campaign would never have been sufficient even if permanent territorial gains had been made.

    The harsh and arid lands of Balkh and Badakhshan only yielded about ten lakh rupees of revenue a year, a trifle sum compared to the vast sums of money required to sustain stable military control in the region. The Mughal army required more than 20 times the local revenue to do so. The notion of supplying such a large conventional army, that too beyond the Amu Darya if all had gone according to plan, was fanciful at best. At their imperial zenith, the campaign had partly been a product of the Mughals’ firm belief in their unassailable military capabilities. By undertaking it, they had, rather painfully, found the limits of their might.

    But the failure of their campaign had consequences well beyond the immediate loss of their military enterprise and a badly bruised sense of pride. It had a far-reaching effect on the Mughal position in Central and Western Asia. The Safavids of Iran almost at once took advantage of this setback and captured Kandahar in Southern Afghanistan. Considered by Mughal foreign policy to be essential for the defence of India, both Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb mounted numerous attempts to regain Kandahar. All of them were futile. Coupled with their failed campaign for Transoxiana, this marked the beginning of the unravelling of Mughal rule in the western half of the empire. Ninety years later, Iranian ruler and conqueror Nader Shah (r. 1736-47) would lead an army down the Hindu Kush—in the historically conventional direction—and seal the fate of the Empire.

    For a military campaign of such limited time and achievement, the Balkh-Badakhshan expedition of 1646-47 carries inordinate resonance through the passage of history. The story of a vastly superior force embroiled in a conflict with boundless objectives, but a finite will to fight, has become near proverbial in these regions. The malaise faced by these forces has been common – irregular warfare, unfamiliar territory, a restricted war chest, and a near-bankruptcy in morale.

    Whether the imperial fantasies of the Mughals, the British, the Soviets, or most recently, the Americans, there is a phantasmal similarity in the manner in which all these conflicts have ended for the side on which the ‘Empire’—real or imagined—is on. As is often the case, the more things change, the more they remain the same.


    Currently at SOAS, Ranvijay Singh Hada is a keen, albeit amateur, aficionado of military and South Asian history as well as mountaineering literature. He is a direct descendent of Rao Madho Singh Hada of Kota. Like his ancestor, he too wants to visit Balkh (sans imperial ambitions). Twitter: @ranvijayhada

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