He is known as the only man to have invaded India 17 times, never lost a battle in his entire reign as king which spanned thirty-one years and created a large empire from a small principality struggling to stay adrift in hostile waters.
Sultan Mahmud, the seventh ruler in line of the Ghaznavid kingdom and grandson of the first ruler, and only the second to be the son of an earlier ruler, Subuktagin, occupied the throne in 999, twenty-eight years after its initial foundation.
Unlike all previous rulers (including his younger brother who had ruled just before him), Sultan Mahmud was a prototype of great monarchs of the age and like his father, would retain a firm foothold on his territories despite opposition.
As a youth, he had witnessed the brilliance of his father, Subuktagin, in first consolidating and then refining his boundaries within his domains. Young Mahmud had seen how his father triumphed over forces larger than his own and with fewer weaponry, less advanced military arsenal and smaller numbers.
Subuktagin had occupied Lamgahan, Seestan and part of Khurasan in the very first year of his reign and this quick record of conquests worried neighbouring kingdoms into action.
Foremost among them was Raja Jaipal of Wahind, a Hindu monarch near the Indus. His domains extended from Kabul (now in Afghanistan) to the Beas. Raja Jaipal crossed over into Ghaznavid territory with a view of annexing it while Subuktagin was busy elsewhere.
Subuktagin immediately rushed forces to meet the challenge and the two armies faced one another between Lamgahan and Ghazni. Despite Hindu numerical superiority that day, it was the Muslim army that emerged victorious.
In the encounter that followed, Raja Jaipal suffered a heavy defeat and was arrested. After paying a ransom, Raja Jaipal was duly released but then violated the terms of agreement which ultimately led to a second engagement between them.
Subuktagin on this occasion after vanquishing his opponent again led his forces up to the City of Peshawar and annexed the entire territory. It was moments like this that made Sultan Mahmud a future embodiment of his father and ambitious still to excel him further.
In 1001, the fortieth anniversary of the Ghaznavid dynasty and the second year of the so-called first millennium, Sultan Mahmud faced the onslaught of a Hindu army, far superior and larger than his own.
The two forces met in Peshawar and due to a better strategy, discipline, military skill, morale, sense of purpose and performance, it was Sultan Mahmud who emerged the victor.
Raja Jaipal, who had lost twice against the Sultan’s father and now with Mahmud, his son, burnt himself to death in disgust.
Three years later in 1004, Sultan Mahmud crossed the River Indus and defeated the Raja of Bhatiya, the following year he annexed Ghaur in the west and Multan in the east.
In 1008, a confederation of Hindu kingdoms came together to form a united front against Sultan Mahmud. They included the Rajas of Ujjain, Gwalior, Kalinjar, Kannauj, Delhi and Ajmer.
Spearheading the attack was Anandpal of the Kingdom of Wahind, the son and successor of the late Raja Jaipal. The sight of the battle was in the Chach plains, the Hindu forces had the home advantage, it was familiar soil and they were acclimatised to the weather and conditions whereas it was felt Sultan Mahmud would be less at ease.
Nevertheless the outcome was a complete annihilation of the Hindu alliance, despite their valour and strong resistance during the battle. The Sultan thus occupied further territories up to Jhelum.
In 1012, he annexed Thanesar and in 1018, the Khwarzam Shahs of Khiva came under his vassalage, but the real test appeared once more in 1019, the twentieth year of his reign, the Hindu confederation.
Despite heavy odds, the Sultan defeated the confederacy and annexed the territories of the different Hindu kingdoms. It was around now Lahore emerged as the capital of the empire and from here the Sultan directed his campaigns.
In 1024, the twenty-fifth year of his reign, the Sultan led an expedition to Somnath and conquered Sind the following year. In 1029, he added Ray to his domains after defeating the Buwayhids, a Shia Empire, in battle.
The Sultan passed away in 1030. His large empire soon dissolved following his death as his sons and successors lacked the colour and brilliance of their famous predecessor.
Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni was largely responsible for the creation and expansion of the Ghaznavid Empire. The Abbasid Caliph, Al-Qadir (ruled 991-1031), from his seat in Baghdad, conferred upon Sultan Mahmud the titles Yemin-ud-Daula and Amin-ul-Millat. Sultan Mahmud had brought Islam to India and further challenged both the Hindu and Shia presence near his domains.
In 1026, on his sixteenth invasion of India, the Sultan came across a huge Hindu temple at Somnath in the City of Kathiawar. The temple contained a large statue, an image of worship and this prompted the Sultan to smash it himself.
Temple priests fell at his feet and begged him to spare the idol, offering the Sultan bribes and as much money as he wanted to discontinue the act. The Sultan responded he had come to India to erase it from disbelief and idolatry not for the accumulation of wealth.
After the statue was smashed to pieces however, gems, precious jewels and other treasures fell from inside it. The temple priests had kept it from the common masses all this time.
The strong foundation had initially been built by his father, but it was Sultan Mahmud who planted the seeds and consolidated the royal administration, frontiers, treasury and image.
At the beginning of his reign, the empire was composed of Afghanistan, Khurasan, Seistan and eastern Iran. By the time of his death it had expanded from the Khazar Sea and Iraq up to the River Ganges and from the Aral Sea and Mawara an-Nahr up to the Arabian Sea, Sind and Rajputna.
He had further invaded Kashmir twice [Muslims made up a tiny minority then] and reached as far as the River Jamna and invaded Qanuj, annexed Punjab and appointed a governor to rule on his behalf.
In other instances, the Sultan allowed defeated opponents to continue to rule under tribute. In 1021, the Hindu Raja of Gwalior was made his taxpayer, but retained his kingdom nonetheless.
It has been suggested, Sultan Mahmud, was a formidable opponent only or largely due to his use of and presence of Hindu soldiers in the army in addition to a Hindu general leading the Muslims into battle.
The significance of Hindus or any other religious minority in his army was minimal as the object of war was for Islam and at the very top, the most senior soldier, general and frontline strategist stood the Sultan himself, who participated in every engagement himself.
Indeed the Sultan’s seventeenth and last invasion was to punish the Jats, a largely Hindu assembly of opponents who had angered his troops during their return from the Somnath expedition.