Battle of Karnal 1739, Nader Shah defeats the Mughal forces

On 24 February 1739, Shah of Persia and the founder of the Afsharid dynasty, Nader Shah crushed a large Mughal army in the Battle of Karnal near Delhi. A number of leading Mughal generals had died on the battlefield. Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah was taken prisoner. Nadir Shah’s army entered Delhi and sacked it.

Portrayal of Nader Shah in the battle of Karnal by Adel Adili

The Mughals would never recover from this deadly blow. In more than one way, the sack of Delhi was the irreparable end of their Empire. Nadir restored Muhammed Shah to the throne and returned to Persia with massive booty, including the very famous Peacock Throne (Takht e Taus).

In Persia, the Safavid dynasty was overthrown in 1736 by Nader Shah, a Turkic army leader belonging to the Afshar Qizilbash tribe from the northern part of Khorasan. After having deposed his weak and incompetent overlord, he was himself crowned Shah of Iran on 8 March 1736.

Soon after his accession, he was forced to subdue an uprising of Afghan tribesmen, particularly in the border region of Qandahar. He, therefore, requested Muhammad Shah’s assistance to close off the borders around Kabul, in order to make sure that the rebels would not be able to escape.

Muhammad Shah did agree in principle but failed to do anything in practice. The rebels eventually did flee into the Mughal territory. Outraged by this development, Nadir Shah sent an ambassador to the Mughal court, formally demanding the extradition of the fugitives.

Muhammad Shah, however, chose to bury his head in the sand, keeping the Persian ambassador waiting for a full year. This was all the pretext that Nadir Shah needed to attack his neighbour (the Mughals), whom he knew to be weak, but still ‘tantalizingly wealthy’.

Massacre of the Population

On 22 March 1739 CE, Nader Shah massacred the population of Delhi after a false rumour was spread that the Persian king had been killed. The rumour resulted in riots and the violence began throughout the city. It happened when Nader Shah occupied Delhi after defeating the Mughal forces in the Battle of Karnal.

According to Abhishek Kaicker, “Where the Mughal nobility had quickly acquiesced to Nadir Shah’s rule, the attitude of the common people of the city was one of marked opposition. All were unanimous in blaming the origins of the violence of March 21 on Delhi’s inhabitants.”

“The violence apparently began just outside the city’s Southwestern Ajmer Gate in the King’s Quarter (shāhganj), a provisioning market which already had a reputation for fractious folk.

Fraser reported that Nadir’s chief lieutenant had sent nine mounted military policemen (nasaqchī-​s) to raid the granaries there so as to reduce the price of grain, which tended to shoot up at moments of political uncertainty. Displeased by these severities, the grain-traders “towards the Evening. . assembled the Mob, and a great many disaffected People joining them, they killed the abovesaid Nissikhchis [nasaqchī-​s] with several Kuzzlebash [qizilbāsh], who had come over to buy corn.”

Another recalled Nadir’s soldiers going to buy grain in the King’s Quarter, but “paying less than the price and taking by force.”

– The King and the People: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Mughal Delhi, Abhishek Kaicker

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