During my first ever interview for a job at 19 with a British airline, one of the panel asked me: “If you were a pilot headed due north and the aircraft came over the North Pole, how would know which direction to fly in to get to your destination?”

As the answer came to me, I blessed my geography teacher in school (he served in the Royal Navy in the Second World War and knew all about compasses and navigation).

My solution was: “I would continue flying till the compass showed a direction and then find my bearings.” It may or may not have been the correct solution but the board gave me  the job.

With the passage of time and accretion of knowledge (and hopefully wisdom), I know that in addition to a sense of geographical direction one needs a companion compass that tells us why we are where we are and what it means for the future; an instrument that indicates the direction history has taken (or one wishes should have taken) and to evaluate the events responsible for the present. One essential feature should be a gauge that measures subjectivity of judgment, how much depends on conditioning. The last is often a revelation—a kind of psychological selfie.

Never was this second compass more required than last autumn when I was in Uzbekistan. I thought of this interview twice: once at the Buddhist stupa at Fayaz Teppe, near Termiz, on the banks of the Oxus (Amu Darya to Central Asians and to those of us who use Hindustani, its source is disputed: either an ice cave in the Wakhjir Pass near the Chinese border, as discovered by Lord Curzon, or else Lake Zorkul, once known as Lake

Uzbekistan brought history back in a way that was magnitudes greater than Afghanistan could have. It was a part of the true homeland of the origin of the species, as it were, at least of the Indo-Gangetic plain. Afghanistan was only a transit stop for the Central Asian hordes, whether bent on plunder, conquest or empire.

The second time was in Samarkand when I sat, like other tourists, on the stone slab that once accommodated Timur Lang’s throne. I had got to the opposite bank not of the river of my earliest childhood memories (the Indus) but across the country—Afghanistan—that had seemed so mysterious as I was getting the strength to wander on my own in our compound. I was now on the northern bank of the wrong river—Amu Darya.


Just over 70 years earlier (1941-42) I had  been on the south bank of the Indus longing to get across to the other side! From the talk in the house it seemed that somehow the key to our history lay there. But as the mind ticked over on the banks of the Amu I realised that it was even more relevant to the subcontinent’s past than the Indus.

The point where I stood on the river was the start of the passage to the subcontinent till the 16th century when the European crossed the oceans to conquer us. Until then, the Amu (Oxus as the Greeks called it) was the ford everyone on the road to and from Hindustan crossed, including our purported ultimate ancestors, the Aryans.

So Uzbekistan brought history back in a way that was magnitudes greater than Afghanistan could have. It was a part of the true homeland of the origin of the species, as it were, at least of the Indo-Gangetic plain. Afghanistan was only a transit stop for the Central Asian hordes, whether bent on plunder, conquest or empire.

At this point the importance of that second compass becomes obvious as it tells the direction not only of the poles but also of the dictates of the ages. Otherwise, the connections of past with present and future may be lost, making us oblivious to the significance of a location in time that gives meaning to a place.

Often our reaction to events are a reflex, a kind of confession that we would be reluctant to reveal except to our closest circle. For example, which side would you jump on the many invasions of Hindustan dreamed of on these banks? We’re talking about more than two millennia of issues that, along with the more recent past, rankle the Indian psyche on all sides of the religious divide even today.

Both the RSS and some Muslim societies (on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border) are divided on the benefits of the Muslim era. Others either dispute or fervently back the theory of nomadic tribes—the Aryans—invading or migrating to the Indo-Gangetic plain. They are just currents in the stream that flows through the mind as one looks across the Amu at the baked brown hills of Afghanistan.

So let us begin at the beginning. Why do some people refute the “Aryan invasion” as a colonialist conspiracy to create a divide between the aboriginals and those who consider themselves the people of the Vedas? The origin of all this and more lies in the crossing not of the Indus but the Amu Darya. But the question that must remain with us is whether the advent of the Aryans was—in schoolboy terms—a good or a bad thing, and for whom?



onsidering that only some parts of history are pertinent at this point in time, do we erase others such as Alexander’s march to the Beas or the Mongol annexation of Punjab? And can people like me, from a region that has to be a potpourri of mixed blood—residue of the warrior hordes and the women of  “the conquered races” or of the now assimilated victors—take sides with one invader against the other in the clashes that led from one rule to the next?

The crossing point on the Amu neuters you in a way. The totality of it is overwhelming. It seems to wipe out the possibility of saying, for example, that the Aryans were a good thing while the Turks were not though it is difficult to overcome notions that seem to be hardwired in the cradle and remain unchanged till the pyre.

Evaluated objectively it is incontrovertible that the former brought about  the 4,000-year and continuing slavery of the Indian aboriginal (read Ambedkar) while the latter was responsible for enslaving, for say 800 years, those who cast out and enslaved the adivasis. So it would seem the Aryans did a better job of imposing serfdom. (Yet one’s conditioning make one reach a prejudged conclusion in favour of the former.) Is there another way to look at this?



tanding on the banks of the Amu Darya, the first picture that came to mind was of the Macedonians under Alexander who conquered Transoxiana, now a part of Uzbekistan. If there is anywhere in the world that denizens of the subcontinent need to find the direction of historical time-past, and any clues to  the future, it is on this stretch of the Amu Darya.

Afghanistan lies on the farther southern bank and Central Asia stretches behind all the way to Mongolia. If there was an Aryan invasion from the Caspian Sea to India and Persia (Iran) the hordes would have crossed into Afghanistan and Herat from there. Some were possibly the ancestors of the people of the Mahabharat. If it was just a migration the herdsmen would have forded the river at this point.

A series of known historical figures follow them. The Macedonians first cross north bringing Transoxiana, the region between this river and the Syr Darya (Jaxartes to the Macedonians), under their sword. After establishing a satrapy (329 BCE) Alexander returns two years later to march into Afghanistan—but not before this European prince marries the fabulously beautiful Asian princess Roxana (who bore him a son two months after his death, had the other two queens murdered, and was killed with her child in 316 BCE).

He was not domesticated after this marriage but continued his  campaign to conquer the whole world.

“Alexander, mounted on Bucephalus ... rode slowly along the ranks, splendid in his armour, with the double plume of white brushing his shoulders on either side.

“‘Enyalius!’ he shouted, calling upon the God of War by the name that the Homeric heroes had used before Ilium; ‘Enyalius! Follow me, Macedonians!’”

And follow him they did, crossing the Indus. Of his last battle history records:

“The Battle of the Hydaspes River (Jhelum) was fought between him and King Porus of the Paurava kingdom in the Punjab in 326 BCE. After his defeat “The bravery, war skills and princely attitude of Porus greatly impressed Alexander, who allowed him to rule
Hydaspes in Alexander’s name. Wounded in his shoulder, standing at over 2.1 metres (7 feet) tall, he was asked by Alexander how he wished to be treated. ‘Treat me, O Alexander, like a king’, Porus responded.

“Alexander would indeed treat him like a king, allowing him to retain his kingship ... (While Alexander wanted to advance) his army, exhausted from the continuous campaigning and frightened at the prospect of facing yet another gigantic Indian army, demanded that they should return to the west. This happened at the Hyphasis (Beas), the exact spot believed to be Kathgarh in Indora tehsil of Himachal Pradesh. Alexander finally turned south, along the Indus, securing the banks of the river as the borders of his empire.”

Thus history presents the second test to see where our sympathy lies. To those tutored in the European  system, the Macedonians seem worthy of support as it is felt that both logic and democracy originated with the three great philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, also Alexander’s tutor.

Buddhism thrived under Indo-Greek kings who ruled a territory in eastern Pubjab until 10 CE when Strato’s land was taken over by Rajuvula, an Indo-Scythian. They ruled over 300 years, almost twice as long as the Mauryas.

Neither Porus or any Hindu or Buddhist ruler has an impact anywhere near the scale of Alexander, who founded 70 Alexandrias between the Balkans in the north and Egypt (south) to India in the east. Then there is the Indo-Greek school of art and sculpture, a hybrid that paid rich dividends. Thus one’s patriotism can hardly be questioned if one admires the invader. And can one really take sides on the basis of religion? The Greeks worshipping their pantheon headed by Zeus and the Bharatvarshis theirs with Brahma supreme? I at least cannot work up any froth on this issue. I find myself on the Greek side.

What would the Hindutva brigade say, I wonder? I am bemused by the query how many Punjabis would not feel proud if someone suggested that Alexander’s blood flowed through their veins. Personally I’d rather fancy it!



fter the Macedonians, it was the turn of Buddhist monks and scholars from the north. The remnants of the first toehold of this new creed in central Asia were discovered at Fayaz Teppe in Uzbekistan in the original mud mound that covered and protected a relic of the Buddha.

The Buddhists merge into the Kushans who “... arrived in northwestern India after a long migration across Central Asia in the last few centuries BCE. By the middle of the first century CE, Kushan power extended from Bactria across the Hindu Kush to Gandhara and Taxila (in modern Pakistan) ... The first Kushan ruler was Kujula Kadphises ... whose legacy as a powerful emperor is preserved in inscriptions, textual traditions, archaeological remains, and coins.” (Jason Neelis, University of Washington)

Perhaps our present day fundamentalists on the Hindu side would not forgive them for being the first dynasty to use a European script—Greek—on their coinage. Could this also be considered a betrayal or even heresy? Their contribution to the spread of South Asian thought was greater than any other dynasty (it is alive even today) but purists and pandits might say that doesn’t count. 

Straddling both sides of the Amu Darya, they became Buddhists (and later Hindus), helping spread the faith all the way into Mongolia. I recall a visit to Mathura to see the widows’ homes and the Hari Krishna temple. But we spent so much time in the museum—where Kanishka’s headless statue, an impressive effigy of a well built, tall man with a very long sword stands—on the Kushan exhibits that we saw little of  the way society treats those without succour or the devotion of those Westerners who have come into the Hindu fold.



hose who want to take revenge on history may wish the story stopped at this point. Hereafter, all influences went not south to north but the opposite way. The “roundabout” of history that is Termiz was used till the point when Buddhism flowed north to Mongolia. So strong was the wave that in the early 20th century some of the rock-cut monasteries established in the 5th-6th century CE and up to the 14th century were discovered in western Mongolia.

No one imagined there were 45,000 square metres of wall with paintings and sculptures of the Buddha and legends  associated with him. It is one of the wonders of the world.  



ermiz is where Timur Lang crossed the Amu Darya for his invasion of Hindustan. He ruled from Samarkand, earlier known as Afrasiab. Included in the relics in the courtyard of Timur’s mausoleum, the Gur-e-Amir, is the stone platform that held his throne.

As I sat on it and got myself photographed I asked: Now that you are enthroned on the seat of the mightiest warrior of Central Asia in the Middle Ages, what direction should you take to carry forward your conquests? How does the world look to you? You left it after you established an empire from Turkey to Hindustan and the Arabian to the Aral Seas.

To an Indian this is a startling question, especially to one who lives in Delhi, the scene of a bloodbath during his conquest of the seat of the Tughlaq sultanate in 1398. I for one feel an intimate connection with this personage as I live within his area of operations. Timur’s journal revels in its results and notes his qualities as a general and devoted Muslim with great satisfaction.

After his wars of conquest of Persia and Afghanistan in 800 AH (1398 CE), he noted:

“About the year 800 AH, there arose in my heart the desire to lead an
expedition against the infidels and to become a Champion of the Faith, for it had reached my ears that the slayer of infidels is a Champion and that, if he is slain, he becomes a martyr. It was for this reason that I formed my resolution, but I was undetermined whether I should direct my expedition against the infidels of China or against the infidels and polytheists of India. In this matter I sought an omen from the Koran, and the verse to which I opened was this: ‘O Prophet, make war upon infidels and unbelievers, and treat them with severity.’”

His nobles and his war council advised him that Delhi was the seat of the Indian empire and there were four obstacles to be overcome. The first were the high mountains with perennial snow even in the passes. The second was the Indus (the river Alexander too had to cross) and the five rivers of Punjab, so large that they could not be forded but had to be crossed  by bridges or boats.

The third was the impenetrable jungles on the way. The fourth was the fighting spirit of the rulers who had war elephants that could lift a horse in their trunk and hurl it a good distance away.

Timur overcame all of them and found himself at the gateway to Delhi. His journal reads:

“On the twenty-fourth of the month, I marched to Panipat, where I encamped. There I found that, in obedience to orders received from the ruler of Delhi, all the inhabitants had deserted their dwellings and had taken flight ... For my intended attack on Delhi in this same year 800 AH, I arranged my forces so that the army extended over a distance of twenty leagues...”

A league equals about five kilometres, so his army stretched 100 kilometres! Both the quarter-mastering required to keep the supply chain and the signalling of orders would have been daunting.

It is almost axiomatic that once Panipat falls, Delhi is taken. Then comes the account that still rends the heart.

“Amir Jahan Shah, Amir Sulaiman Shah, and other amirs of experience informed me that, from the time of entering Hindustan up to the present we had taken more than one hundred thousand infidels and Hindus prisoners, and that they were all in my camp.

“I asked the amirs for advice about the prisoners, and they said that on the day of battle these prisoners could not be left with the baggage, that it would be entirely opposed to the rules of war to set these idolators and foes of Islam at liberty, so that no course remained but to make them all food for the sword.

“When I heard these words, I found them to be in accordance with the rules of war, and I immediately directed the commanders to proclaim throughout the camp that every man who had infidel prisoners was to put them to death, and that whoever neglected to do so, should himself be executed and his property given to the informer. When this order became known to the champions of Islam, they drew their swords and put their prisoners to death. One hundred thousand infidels, impious idolaters, were slain on that day…

“Rejoicings for victory followed, and some of the clever men and poets that accompanied me worked the date of the victory into a verse, which they presented to me. Of all these memorial verses, however, I have introduced only this one into my memoirs:

‘On Wednesday, the eighth of Rabi’ the second (Dec. 17, 1398), the Emperor Sahib-Kiran took the city of Delhi.’”

(Though it is not recorded by him, it is still said in Delhi that he climbed to the top of Qutub Minar.)

On the destruction of the sultanate’s capital he has this to say:

“By the will of God, and by no wish or direction of mine, all the three cities of Delhi, Siri, Jahanpanah, and Old Delhi, had been plundered. The official prayer of my sovereignty, which is an assurance of safety and protection, had been read in the city, and it was, therefore, my earnest wish that no evil might happen to the people of the place. It was ordained by God, however, that the city should be ruined, and he accordingly inspired the infidel inhabitants with a spirit of resistance, so that they brought on themselves that fate which was inevitable.”

Timur’s memoirs then proceed to describe his taking of Mirat (Meerut) 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 homeward to Samarkand, fighting his way at every step until he left India.

The journal rings a personal bell as I live within the walls of the third city, Mohammad bin Tughlaq’s Jahanpanah (in Persian “Refuge of the World”): at the point where it joins the second city, Alauddin Khilji’s Siri. The battle ground is not much more than a kilometre away as the crow flies. I pass through it on my way to a hospital I use. The locations mentioned in Timur’s journal are in and around my abode, within, say, two kilometres.

Even 20 years ago these historic sites and stand-alone  monuments were well demarcated. Since then the 100-kilometre-radius megapolis of Delhi has engulfed some. The press of population, pollution, vandalism and neglect seem certain to beat heritage into wrought rubble.

But the seven cities are conceptually as intact as the Mughals left them after mining the walls for stone to fortify the seventh Delhi: Shahjahanabad. Hauz Khas, (hauz is a large pond or reservoir and khas means special) now classified as an “urban village”, is a showpiece of Tughlaq sagacity, now home to about a dozen art galleries and exotic restaurants.  Mercifully, it is surrounded  by a city forest and rose garden, a haven for young lovers. The arboretum allows for a new openness in the display of

They are also spaces for family outings. When my grandson was five I used to take him to see the deer (cheetal) in a fenced enclosure as are the rabbits. While there are any number of wild birds the ubiquitous pigeon multiplies at the pace of rats, or faster.

The Metro is eating into the rose garden. It is not only the Taliban or ISIS that destroy irredeemable history. Inborn passive neglect is just as effective. Timur’s headquarters of war will be devoured by rapid-transit urbanisation, the sword of the conqueror unable to resist the steel jaws of the diggers that daily gouge out large chunks of green space. 

So much for Timur’s headquarters. Siri is what I step into when I go for a walk. Alauddin Khilji is a personage I admire and dread. But city planners have been wise—a part of what was within the walls was used to house the  village that went up for the Asian Games in 1981. The other part is a city forest with open spaces—now in the capture of enthusiastic soft-ball cricketers and footballers. It is an uncommonly enjoyable park, home to arguably the most arrestingly beautiful tree in Delhi—a Sacred Barna (Crateva religiosa) that one has to pause to look at when it is in bloom in April.

And what of Jahanpanah, creation of the supposedly crazy, even psychotic Muhammad bin Tuglaq? That was the city within a wall that connected the first Delhi, around Qutub Minar to what (at  present) is the  area around the IIT and  Panch Shila Park to Siri. Begumpur is the village with a superb many-domed mosque and the Bijai Mahal, the Palace of a Thousand Columns that Timur’s harem wanted to see. It is just about a kilometre from my house. Hauz Rani is south, adjacent to Malviya Nagar, our vegetable shopping area and adjacent Khirki has Muhammad’s covered mosque, the only such edifice in Delhi.




he afternoon wind is strong as I wait to see Timur recross the Amu. But he doesn’t return this way. He decides instead that he has business in Persia of which Baghdad is the major city. How unfortunate for that region.

Now  the mind turns to Samarkand, where even in his absence Timur’s favourite wife Bibi Khanum had commenced the construction of the gigantic new mosque he had in mind when sending booty on the backs of 80 elephants (one account says 120) and skilled workmen back from Delhi. It was named after her. The monuments of Samarkand are a reminder of its  investment in his homeland.

As one gazes across the expanse of water at Afghanistan one wishes history would stop at this gory moment when the blood of about 1.25 lakh people turned the Yamuna red. In winter the river must have been at its lowest ebb and perhaps there was more blood in it than water.

One looks for other examples of destruction on the scale of medieval Asia. Only one event comes to mind: Hiroshima. Here on August 6, 1945 “The [atom] bomb ... exploded 580 metres above the ground. Between 60,000 and 80,000 people were killed instantly. The heat was so intense that some people simply vanished in the explosion (including some American prisoners of war). Many more died of the long-term effects of radiation sickness. The final death toll was calculated at 135,000.” (BBC: WW2 People’s War)

Peacefully the Amu may now flow but peace it cannot have, not at Termiz. Timur’s descendants returned about a century and a quarter later in the person of Babur. Both must turn in their grave at the thought that the dynasty in Hindustan was called “Mughal” after the Mongols, whom they hated, not Timurid or Turki as was the case. 

What did flash across my mind was the thought that the descendants of the last Mughal “king of Delhi”, as the British styled Bahadur Shah Zafar, live in Hyderabad. The males still style themselves Mirza. One is reputed to be a foodie and is reworking Mughal cuisine, the brother is a poet though not of renown.

The females don’t seem to use the title Shahzadi and are housewives; one even seems to have taught at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi after going to Aligarh Muslim University. Fascinating to recall this as one pictures, at the point of the river crossing, the progenitor of the Mughal clan some six centuries earlier.  



s I look north I imagine the far spaces that  Buddhism and its Tibetan companion of Tantric thought and worship covered in Central and Eastern Asia. I had a very intriguing surprise visiting Beijing a year earlier. Its origin, I discovered, lay here at Feyez Teppe. The city had been aggrandised into the capital of the Chinese empire. In Kublai Khan (May 5, 1260 – February 18, 1294), John Man records the influence gained by a Tibetan monk Phagpa over this monarch. When Song China (the Yangtze delta) remained untaken and the fort of Xianyang remained impregnable after five years of siege, he advised the khan:

“To seek help from the world of spirits. Spirit helpers needed to be approached in the right way with the correct rites performed in a place impressive enough both to serve as a sanctuary for the deity concerned and to assert the emperor’s authority as spiritual leader.” (Kublai Khan)

 The result was the Baita Si, the White Pagoda, that still towers above central Beijing, at 50.9 metres. It was “created for Kublai as his private family place of worship ... of a guardian called Mahakala, the great black one. Hindus know him as a form of Shiva. In Tibet he consumes those who do not show Buddhism proper respect.”

The khan, having followed the monk’s advice and got into spiritual contact with Mahakala, could pretend to have acquired all his mysterious power in the cause of ruling his empire. (When Kublai succeeded his brother in 1260, Phagpa supported the new lord by presenting him as a chakravartin or universal ruler.) Thus the Mongolian khan could enjoy the favour not only of Tenger (the Mongolian sky god) and the Buddha (then getting a hold in China), but also the favour  of the powerful Tantric god.

The monks who crossed the Amu Darya at this point were ultimately responsible for the fall of the delta and the rise of the Yuan dynasty as rulers of the unified China that survives today, from Inner Mongolia to Xinjiang to Tibet to the Pacific Ocean.



n the windswept banks of the river, I wonder whether our contemporary anti-conversion showmen would embark on a “ghar wapsi” campaign to bring the denizens of Central Asia, now modified Muslims of the Soviet era, back to a subcontinental religion, the Buddha or Shiva or a duality as did the Kushanas. Or whether they would urge them to return to the shamanism of their ancestors, or introduce Vishnu and the Upanishads to a people completely untutored in Sanskrit. 

This is the true challenge. If the campaign is to start anywhere it should be in the supposed Aryan homeland of Central Asia. Here the knights of Hindutva in their khaki shorts, black Gandhi topis and lathis would face a dilemma. Presumably the Uzbeks and other  archetypal people of the Vedas would be higher up in the list than the proselytisers. They would thus have a greater right to convert the ghar wapsi brigade to their faith rather than the other way around.

Now, of course, history is being amended. It is now held that there was no Aryan invasion or migration. The hypothesis is held to be a colonial device to drive a wedge between the  castes and races of British India.

I found myself ambivalent about this in Termiz. It seemed I was for the Aryan invasion as it allowed me to feel superior. But another conditioning, equality-loving Athenian leanings that eventually led to the “liberté, égalité, fraternité” of the French Revolution, also existed. 

There are problems in taking sides. Not long ago, a well-known Greek professor of classical languages was pressed into buttressing this no-invasion/migration line. He said there was no invasion: Aryans were always a part of Bharatvarsha (or Bharat Khand in the Vedas) in its vishal manifestation. He derided Max Müller and others of that ilk for having  no evidence on which to base their contention. Moreover, archaeology had dug up nothing to substantiate either habitations of a central Asian race along the route supposedly taken or traces of  movements.

At this point a question was asked:

“Professor, in 1025 a ruler called Mahmud Ghazni crossed the Indus or perhaps Baluchistan and sacked Somnath. Earlier he had defeated the rajas of northern India up to Kannauj. This was taken to be the first foreign invasion (emphasis not added) of Bharat, you agree?”

The professor accepted that this was indeed the case.

“Then if the Aryans drifted south from the same areas south of the Hindukush—the range that was the border of  Vishal Bharat—should this not be taken as an invasion akin to that of Ghazni?”

The professor was not prepared for this line of reasoning. He was rescued by the chair who said, “but even so Ghazni was of a different faith and hence an invader”.

Whose side was I on? There were no sides to take. In Central Asia religion had been watered down by the Soviet era. To the east, the Yuan lands were in the hands of atheists and materialists. To the south and west Isam was in the throes of ruthless factional war. A power on a new continent protected by two oceans called the shots. Both Timur and the ghar wapsi wallahs would turn back at the Oxus.



iving in Delhi one is constantly reminded of the Mughal and earlier Muslim presence. I felt that the gap between the spread of Buddhist influence in Central Asia and Timur—from the 2nd century CE to 1300 CE—would be a period of quietude and Termiz held no further interest for me personally. It was an optimistic assumption. One had read about Genghis Khan and the Mongols troubling the sultanate established in Delhi after Mahmood Ghor’s conquest of the Rajput city in 1192 CE. But realisation of how close to home these incursions were came as I thought of the khan and his descendants.

I was born in Lahore and now live in Delhi. In Lahore I was frequently in my grandfather’s house. The old gentleman, a professor, would relate Lahore’s history—the number of times the Mongols invaded and for how long Punjab was a part of their empire. He emphasised that the Mongols were not Muslims. They allowed freedom of worship.

And then he posed one of the what-ifs of history: “What if the Mongols had defeated the sultans of Delhi and annexed their empire?”

It turned out that Genghis Khan came to the Indus in 1221 and the general who led the vanguard of the force that was to add Delhi to his empire sacked the outskirts of Lahore before being ordered back. It was a close shave. Recall that Genghis had obliterated the emirate of Khwarizm by razing its cities to the ground, killed the entire population—with the exception of Jalal-ad-Din, son of the emir,  and his small band of warriors who fled to Delhi and sought refuge and an alliance with Iltutmish. He followed in hot pursuit and only on learning that Jalal had been rebuffed did he turn back. Later:

“The Great Khan, Mongke [grandson of Genghis], put his brother Hulagu Khan in charge of an army whose goals were to conquer Persia, Syria, and Egypt, as well as to destroy the Abbasid Caliphate It was at this historic and landmark city that the Mongols arrived in 1258.” (Lost Islamic History)

A sack followed. Some say Baghdad has still not recovered. This was followed by Timur’s slaughter in the next century. And the answer to the what-if is: we were lucky. As the Amu Darya flowed with the placidity it acquires when it enters the plains, I could not help but wonder whether I would have had a grandfather or there would have been a city of Lahore if Genghis Khan not turned back.



have tried to picture the Siri of the Khilji era as I take a walk in the garden developed within its periphery. As mentioned above along the path is a Sacred Barna. In a city that abounds in native and exotic flowering flora, winning an arboreal beauty contest involves tough competition.

As the seasons turn, the migratory birds, bulbuls and drongos, green pigeons and golden orioles and purple sunbirds and a whole lot of others will be seen during their passage. I left the koel making its lusty mating calls in Kochi in January. They have flown north to Delhi and laid their eggs. Before they depart, young offspring streaked black and white will fly off with their parents, hopefully to return next year, black as crows and adults with a lusty call inviting procreation.

It is difficult to fit the gory tales of Siri into these idyllic surroundings. But Alauddin spent his reign at war. His two great generals, Ghazi Malik and Malik Kafur, won him victories and treasure beyond the imagination of earlier sultans. One can imagine the planning that went into confronting and repulsing the Mongols, a defeat from which they needed a long time to rally. But rally they did.

“They attacked at the worst time possible for Alauddin Khilji—when he was busy laying siege to Chittor. An army of 12,000 under Targhi’s leadership moved to Delhi in a swift attack ... Alauddin was forced to retreat to Siri for about two months. The Mongols attacked and pillaged not only the surrounding areas, but Delhi itself.” (The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia)

The retreat was followed by a re-entry.       

“The Mongols under the leadership of Ali Beg and Tartaq suddenly appeared in Punjab ... plundered ... and burnt everything along the way. Alauddin sent a strong army led by Ghazi Malik and Malik Kafur to engage the invaders. They surprised the Mongols on their way back to Central Asia with their plunder ... Mongol generals were captured and brought back to Siri, along with other prisoners. Alauddin had the generals trampled to death by elephants while the other prisoners were put to death and their heads hung from the walls of the fort.

“The Mongols returned under Kebek later in 1306. They crossed the Indus near Multan and were moving towards the Himalayas, when Ghazi Malik, governor of Punjab, intercepted them. About 50,000 Mongols were made prisoners including one of their generals. Alauddin Khilji put them all to death and sold their wives and children as slaves.

“The last Mongol invasion of this period took place in 1307-8 under Iqbalmand and Tai Bu ... Alauddin Khilji’s armies overtook them and put them all to the sword. In that same year the Mongol khan, Duwa, died and in the dispute over his succession this spate of Mongol raids into India ended.”

As I tread the bajri path engaged in banter about the latest developments in politics, I wonder if I am walking on the mass grave of the 50,000 Mongols or whether they were disposed of elsewhere. Here was a massacre that
preceded that of Timur.



he breeze intensified as the heat of the afternoon increased and while examining the cells and halls of the Buddhist monastery, my mind turned to this mysterious character Malik Kafur.

“Malik Kafur began life as Sabour Bhai, son of the Rajput landlord, Jera Bhai. Alauddin Khilji was so enamoured by the young effeminate body of Sabour Bhai that he was purchased for 1,000 dinars, in order to serve as a slave of the Emperor; thus his sobriquet ‘Hazar Dinari’ or ‘Thousand Dinars’ ... He was castrated and made to follow Islam, changing his name to Kafur. Kafur quickly came to play an important role in the Khilji dynasty, and was consequently made a Military General, earning the title ‘Naib’—honorific for a military commander... (The History of India, John McLeod)

“In 1294, Kafur led the Sultan’s army through the mountain range, attacking the capital city of the Yadava kingdom of Devagiri ruled by Ramdeva ... Kafur led further invasions southward into the Kakatiya dynasty, winning immense riches for the sultanate and sacking many Hindu temples. Booty from Warangal included the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond...

“In 1305 Kafur defeated the Mongols at the Battle of Amroha and led two campaigns in south India between 1309 and 1311—the first against Warangal—and the second against Dwar Samudra, Malabar and Madurai. Kafur was made malik naib, the senior commander of the army, after its southern campaigns.

“After the death of Khilji, he blinded two of the heir princes and made the third, the King ... He was later assassinated.”

Timur would have approved of this sultan of Delhi and his eunuch general.

To keep one’s equanimity one looks again at the Amu and wonders whether its waters have a chemical that excites the blood lust of those who cross it.

At this point the guide reminds me that dinner is taken early in Termiz. He also completes the story of how the Russians were chased back across the river not 20 years ago. The Great Game continues—the American have been and retreated as well and the stans are in the state they were in after the second Afghan War. But the Great Game merits a writing of its own.

Adieu Termiz. May you know peace again.