By Pervaiz Munir Alvi
[ We are delighted to publish this essay written exclusively for PTH – Ed.]
Ahmad Shah Durrani was born in 1722 as Ahmad Khan Abdali at the city of Multan. By the age of twenty five he had become ruler of the vast territory stretched from Mashhad in the west to the Punjab in the east; the land mass that today roughly forms the modern twin countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He rose to power at a time when the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) based in Delhi and the Safavid Empire (1501-1722) based in Isfahan were disintegrating. Ahmad Shah at the expense of these two neighboring but dwindling empires was skillfully able to carve out an empire of his own. His rule although relatively short (1747-1772), was significant in the sense that it ultimately changed the course of the history of the South-Central Asia.
1707 – 1747
During the half century rule (1658-1707) of Alamgir I (Aurangzeb) all territories now forming Pakistan, Kashmir and most of Afghanistan were part of the great Mughal Empire. Upon death of Alamgir I his son Bahadar Shah I succeeded him but five years later he too died fighting Sikh insurgents in Punjab. Soon after that intrigues took over the Palace. Syeds of Bihar had become the most powerful force in the Mughal Court. Two successive emperors, Jahandar Shah and Farokh Siar were murdered and the empire started to crumble from all directions. In the next quarter century multiple insurgencies of Sikh, Jat, Rajput, Marhatta and Rohila Afghans challenged the Mughal rule.
In year 1719, Sultan Roshan Akhtar, a grandson of Bahadar Shah I and great-grandson of Alamgir I, under the title of Mohammad Shah (1719-1748) was installed as emperor. In order to neutralize the Syeds, Mohammad Shah established two parties of courtiers; a Turkic party under Chin Kulin Khan and a Persian party under Saadat Ali. Over the course of time these two noblemen and their respective descendants will play a significant role in the affairs of the Mughal Empire and would routinely interact with the Persian and Afghan monarchs in the west. In 1738, overwhelmed by the internal and the external troubles, these two courtiers of the Mughal emperor asked Nadir Shah Afshar of Persia to intervene. Nadir Shah attacked Delhi in 1738 and forced Emperor Mohammad Shah, to handover all territories west of the River Indus to the Persians.
Ahmad Khan Abdali at that time was only a young soldier in the Persian army of Nadir Shah who had given precedence to Abdali tribesmen over their rival the Ghilzais. However within a very short time Ahmad Khan Abdali rose from the level of Yasawal (personal servant) to the king to the rank of commander of Abdali regiment. When Nadir Shah died in 1747 at the hands of the Qizalbash (red-turbans) soldiers wary of the growing Abdali influence, Ahmad Khan provided security to the family of the late king. In October 1747 at a location near mausoleum of Muslim saint Sheikh Surkh, adjacent to Fort Nadirabad-Kandahar, Ahmad Khan called a meeting (Jirga) of tribal elders. At the meeting, under his new name Ahmad Shah Abdali, he announced himself as a leader of the Pashtun tribes. Haji Jamal Khan Mohammadzai, the other contender to the leadership withdrew his claim. Pir Sabir Shah, the spiritual guide of Pashtun tribes validated the selection by showering his praise for the young Ahmad Shah Abdali and declared him Durr-e-Durran (pearl of the pearls); hence the beginning of the name Durrani.
1747 – 1754
Following his mentor Nadir Shah, Ahmad Shah took control of Kandahar, Ghazna, Kabul and Peshawar. By December 1747 the provinces of Frontier, Kashmir, Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan – the areas roughly constituting Pakistan – were all under his control. On March 3rd 1748 Durrani and Mughal forces confronted each other near the city of Sirhind in east Punjab. Mughal forces were led by the Crown Prince and various members of the families of Chin Kulin Khan and Saadat Ali. On March 11th 1748 Durrani forces were defeated but at the end of the battle day, the leader of the Mughal forces Grand Vazir Qamar-ud-din, a son of Chin Kulin Khan died by a round shot while praying. Five days later on April 16th 1748 hearing the death of his Grand Vazir, the Mughal emperor Mohammad Shah also died seized by a strong convulsion. Soon after that Chin Kulin Khan, who had become Nizam of Deccan also died. The Crown Prince, a son of Mohammad Shah from his Hindu wife Udam Bai, under the title of Ahmad Shah (not to be confused with Ahmad Shah Abdali) became the new emperor (1748-1754). He appointed Safdar Jang, a nephew of Saadat Ali as Grand Vazir as well as Nawab of Audh and Nasir Jang, a son of Chin Kulin Khan as new Nizam of Deccan.
Abdali meanwhile, after securing eastern territories turned his attention westward and in 1750-51 captured the Persian cities of Herat, Nishapur and Mashhad. However in 1751 he had to return to Lahore to quell Sikh insurgencies. In 1752 he marched on Kashmir to consolidate his control. Soon after that the Mughal emperor made his peace with Abdali and formally ceded to him the provinces of Lahore and Multan. Abdali in return allowed Moin-ud-din (commonly known as Mir Mannu), a son of Qamar-ud-din and grandson of Chin Kulin Khan to be the governor of Punjab as an appointee of the Mughal emperor. This peace deal marks the end of the two and a quarter century long (1524-1748) rule of the Timurids over the land now constituting Pakistan. For the next two centuries (1748-1947) the country will be successively ruled by the Afghans, Sikhs, English and various petty Nawabs, Khans and Maharajas.
After the loss of the north-western part of the empire, the Mughal court once again slipped into internal intrigues and chaos. An open war ensued between the Turkic party and the Persian party in which Turks prevailed and another son of late Qamar-ud-din became the Grand Vazir. In their struggles for supremacy each party on its part sought support of Marhatta, Jat and Rohila Afghan outsiders. Finally Shahab-ud-din, another grandson of Chin Kulin Khan and a cousin of Mir Mannu prevailed over all others. He declared himself as Grand Vazir and on June 5th 1754 deposed and blinded Emperor Ahmad Shah and put him in prison. On July 1754 another great-grandson of Alamgir I and a son of the late Emperor Jahandar Shah at the age of 54 was enthroned as Alamgir II. In Audh, Safdar Jang the nephew of late Saadat Ali too died on October 17th 1754, leaving Shahab-ud-din uncontested. By this time the once mighty Mughal Empire had been reduced just to the areas now called Utter Pradesh in India.
1754 – 1757
Mir Mannu the governor of Punjab had died in November 1753 in a horse fall. Abdali made his minor son Timur Shah governor of Punjab but left the administration in the hands of the widow of Mir Mannu and her Hindu aid known as Adina Baig. Not pleased with this change, Mughal Grand Vazir (Shahab-ud-din) decided to march on Lahore in the company of Crown Prince Mirza Ali Gouhar, took widow and daughter of Mir Mannu (whom he later married) and made Adina Baig commissioner of Lahore. Abdali, obviously furious by these actions, returned to Lahore and then marched on Delhi for the second time. Twenty miles outside Delhi the two armies faced each other; only this time a major segment of the army of Emperor Alamgir II under the command of one Najib Khan, a Rohila Afghan soldier of fortune, moved over to the Abdali side as expected guests.
On September 11, 1757 Abdali entered Delhi and took over the affairs of the government. However before returning to his capital Kandahar, Abdali married a daughter of the late emperor Mohammad Shah and at the same time married his son Timur Shah to a daughter of Crown Prince Mirza Ali Gouhar; thus establishing his own family relations with the Mughal royal family. At the intervention of the widow of Mir Mannu victorious Abdali pardoned the Grand Vazir and the two agreed to join hands against other common enemies. He also made Najib Khan in charge of the Palace while a part of Abdali forces was left behind to safeguard Durrani interests. Timur Shah returned to Lahore as Durrani governor of Punjab. During this period at the orders of Ahmad Shah Abdali a set of two large size cannons were cast at Lahore. Surviving cannon of the pair, by the name of Zamzama now sits in front of the Lahore Museum for the public display.
1757 – 1761
Once Abdali back in Kandahar, the Grand Vazir (Shahab-ud-din) with the help of hired Marhatta mercenaries expelled Najib Khan from the Palace, and conspired against Crown Prince Mirza Ali Gouhar and his son-in-law Timur Shah. Mirza Gouhar was imprisoned from where he escaped. Timur Shah was chased out of Lahore by Adina Baig with the help of Marhattas. At the same time the Emperor Alamgir II was murdered by the men of the Grand Vazir in November 1759 by deceit and another great-grandson of Alamgir I and grandson of Prince Kam Buksh under the title of Shah Jahan II was declared emperor. However in Bihar the fugitive Crown Prince Mirza Ali Gouhar also took the name of Shah Alam and declared himself as the rightful emperor. Abdali had no choice but to return to Delhi for the third time. He cleared Punjab of the Marhattas and then marched on to Delhi. The Grand Vazir fled in time and abandoned the city in advance of Ahmad Shah. When Abdali left the deserted city for his camp at Anup Shahr, to fill in the vacuum, Marhattas with the help of Rajputs and Jats took over Delhi in the December of 1759. The stage was set for another showdown.
The summer of 1760 was used by the two sides in building alliances, war preparation and troop movement. On one side was the Hindu Marhatta Confederacy and on the other side was the Muslim Mughal-Afghan Alliance. On October 17th 1760 combined Muslim army consisting of Rohila Afghans under Najib Khan, Mughals under Nawab Shuja-ud-daula of Audh and Durrani forces, all under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Abdali made its move. First encounter between the advance troops from the both sides took place on October 26th. For the next two months small and large party duels and skirmishes continued, each adding to the Marhatta losses of men, ammunition and provisions. Finally, hungry cold and exhausted, on the night of January 6th 1761 the Marhattas took a desperate decision. One hour before dawn they would take their last meal, paint their faces saffron and meet the enemy head-on ready to die.
Ahmad Shah Abdali was in bed when at 3:00 A.M. his spies broke the news. The Marhattas had opened fire. Throughout the morning hours the Muslim army took fire but stood its ground. By 1:00 P.M. Abdali gave orders to charge forward. By 3 o’clock the Marhatta forces were cut down with their chiefs either slain or on the run. Victorious Muslim allies moved back into Delhi. Fugitive emperor Shah Alam was recognized as the legitimate heir to the Mughal throne. In the absence of Shah Alam, his eldest son Mirza Jawan Bakht under the protection of Najib Khan was made the nominal charge of the affairs. Shuja-ud-daula returned to Audh as new Grand Vazir. Abdali returned to Lahore and then to Kabul and Kandahar. Defeated Marhatta for the next eight years did not make any more attempts on Delhi.
Between 1761 and 1767 Ahmad Shah had to fight off many Sikh insurgencies in Punjab. With Emperor Shah Alam unable to return to Delhi, the capital was managed by Najib as regent of Crown Prince Jawan Bukht. However Najib was continuously being threatened by the Jats. Abdali had to return to Delhi one more time to assist Najib Khan and Prince Jawan Bukht. In April 1767 Durrani forces arrived outside Delhi for the fourth time. However soon after his return, Marhatta started to gain strength. Towards the end of 1768 they made some advancement and by 1769 once again started to threaten Delhi. In 1770 Najib Khan entered into some territorial accommodation with Marhattas soon after which he died at the age of sixty two and his place was taken over by his son Zabita Khan. By 1770-71 Marhattas were able to make a comeback. Only this time Abdali did not return to help Mughals. Zabita Khan fled the capital. Emperor Shah Alam with the help of Marhattas returned to his capital after an absence of eleven years.
Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder of the Durrani Empire, died at the city of Murghah in 1772 at a relatively young age of fifty. Reportedly in 1764 he had developed a face cancer which ultimately took his life. Upon his death his son Timur Shah became the next Emperor. But soon after that the Durrani Empire started to disintegrate. Punjab, the most precious holding was wrestled away by the Sikhs. Timur Shah died in 1793. For the next thirty years five different but ineffective sons of Timur Shah ruled the much reduced kingdom from Kabul till in 1823, Ayub Shah, the last Durrani king was deposed and possibly killed. Today millions in Afghanistan and Pakistan identify themselves of the Durrani heritage.
Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder of Durrani Empire is buried in his native city Kandahar where his imposing mausoleum as a testimony to his greatness still stands with an epitaph:
The king of high rank, Ahmad Shah Durrani
Main Source: The Fall of the Mughal Empire By: H.G. Keene, Oxford, 1887.