History will always remember Afghan military chief Bakhtiyar Khilji as the man who destroyed the great universities at Nalanda, Vikramshila and Odantapuri in present-day Bihar. But how did Khilji, a military general who wrought havoc in Northern India and ruled both Bihar and Bengal, meet his own end?
For a brutal ruler and a strategist like him, his death in 1206 CE was surprisingly tame. But it came after a crushing defeat when the seemingly invincible Khilji bit off more than he could chew.
Bakhtiyar Khilji was born in the second half of the 12th century, in Garmsir town in Helmand province of Afghanistan. He was a member of the Turkic ‘Khalaj’ tribe, which spoke the Khalaj language that is still spoken in parts of Iran. They were referred to as ‘Kalaje’ which later became ‘Khalji’ or ‘Khilji’ in India. (Sultan Alauddin Khilji, who ascended the Delhi throne a century later, was not related to him but was of the same clan)
A contemporary historian, Minhaj-i-Siraj (1193 CE) , mentions how due to his ‘short stature’ and ‘arms extending beyond the knees’, Bakhtiyar Khilji was rejected from military service. Undeterred, he tried his luck, first in the court of Ghazni, and after being rejected there too, he approached Muhammad Ghori in Delhi. But he was turned away yet again. According to Minhaj, this was ‘due to his slender appearance’.
The Delhi Sultanate had been recently established in Delhi after the defeat of Chauhan ruler Prithviraj Chauhan in 1192 CE. Within a short span of time, the new empire ruled over much of the Gangetic plains. Khilji then went to Badaun, where he found employment with a local Turkic administrator, Malik Mashamuddin, and to Awadh, where he was granted a jagir in Mirzapur district.
Khilji was a soldier of fortune and extremely ambitious.
Minhaj writes that despite his short physical appearance, he was ‘active, agile, brave, bold, learned and intelligent’. Soon, a large number of adventurers from Afghanistan and Central Asia began to flock to him. Establishing his power in Mirzapur very quickly, he began to strengthen his army and greedily eyed the rich land of Bihar and Bengal that lay beyond.
While on one hand, the ambitious Bakhtiyar Khilji was planning his next move, on the other, 80-year-old King Lakshmana Sena (r. 1178- 1206) , the Hindu ruler of Bihar and Bengal, remained strangely complacent in his capital, Nadia. The central authority in the Sena kingdom had diminished and a number of petty chiefs had become de facto rulers of large parts of Bengal.
Bakhtiyar Khilji launched a series of lightning raids, or ‘surgical strikes’, against the Sena kingdom. His first target was the great university of Odantapuri (in Sharif district of Bihar), which he destroyed in 1193 CE. He then built a fort there to mark his victory.
This was around three years before the destruction of the Nalanda and Vikramshila universities in 1200 CE. The sacking and conquest of these two great universities further bolstered Khilji’s power and he became the ruler of Bihar. Then, in 1204 CE, he launched a sudden attack on King Lakshmana Sena’s capital, Nadia. The octogenarian king was taken by surprise and fled his capital, and soon Khilji became the ruler of Bengal.
Greatly feared for his ferocity but secretly admired for his success, Khilji’s conquests have made it to popular lore.
He is said to have conquered Nadia ‘with 18 men’, which is probably no more than folklore that has been immortalised especially in Bangladesh.
Sweeping across the sub-continent from west to east, and seizing territories as his armies cut a swathe across northern India, was clearly not enough for the over-ambitious Khilji. After establishing control over all of Bengal, he decided to undertake his next mission – one that would spell his doom.
Far in the North was the ‘forbidden land’ of Tibet. Historically, Bengal had trade relations with Tibet along the ‘Tea-Horse Route’, through Assam, Sikkim and Bhutan. Tibet was a source of the most prized possession of any army – horses – and Khilji was keen to secure this route and control the trade by conquering Tibet. Also, controlling Tibet would mean he would control a part of the Silk Route, from China to Central Asia. But this was too much, even for him.
Still, he went ahead with his plan, and in 1206 CE, Khilji amassed a large army to invade Tibet. Ali Mech, a local tribal chief from the Himalayan frontier who had converted to Islam, was appointed to serve as a guide. With 10,000 men, Khilji set out on the most ambitious campaign of his life.
On his way north, he invited the King of Kamarupa (Assam) to join him but the latter refused. After marching for 15 days through North Bengal and Sikkim, Khilji’s army reached the Chumbi valley in Tibet. Surprisingly, they had faced little resistance but it soon became obvious why. The Tibetans had lured Khilji and his army into a trap!
The rugged Himalayan mountain passes were an unfamiliar terrain to the invading army, who were more used to the sultry and humid plains of Bengal. The Tibetans inflicted heavy casualties on the invaders and Khilji decided to retreat. But, all along the escape route, the Tibetans continued to carry out relentless guerrilla-style attacks on the retreating army.
Khilji’s men were so badly defeated that the starving soldiers were forced to eat their own horses to stay alive. When they arrived in the plains of North Bengal, they faced a new enemy. They were ambushed by the Kamarupa army, and large numbers of them drowned while crossing the Brahmaputra and Teesta rivers. It is said that of the 10,000-strong army that had marched into Tibet, only around 100 men returned.
Following his catastrophic defeat in Tibet, Bakhtiyar Khilji plunged into a deep depression. It is said that he never left his bed even when his own generals began to turn against him. One day, in August 1206, Ali Mardan Khilji, one of Bakhtiyar’s principal generals, arrived in Devkot (in present-day Dinajpur district of Bangladesh), and finding him bed-ridden, pulled the sheet from his face and stabbed him to death. This is how the fearsome Bakhtiyar Khilji met his end.
Around a century later, in 1337-38 CE, another attempt would be made to conquer Tibet. This time, by Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq, who too met with failure. Tughlaq tried to enter Tibet through the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand but his army faced a similar defeat due to the unfamiliar, rugged terrain. The escapade went down in history as yet another of Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s foolhardy decisions.
Tibet, the ‘roof of the world’, with its vast expanses of beautiful but unforgiving terrain, has always been difficult to conquer. It never fails to humble those who let hubris get the better of them.