BHARAT’S MILITARY STRIKES IN IRAQ, IRAN AND ARABIA (816-820 CE): The untold story of Pratihara Nagabhata II’s military expeditions abroad 

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One of the negative effects of the Colonial and Leftist influence over modern history writing of Bharat has been the complete obliteration of all references of sensational Hindu military conquests and expeditions outside South Asia. In fact, a study of Chinese, Tibetan, Pehlevi and Arabic literary texts along with Sanskrit and Prakrit records detail at least 21 military expeditions and conquests by Hindu empires from Bharat in regions as far as China, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Arabia, Turkestan, Malaya, Indonesia and Vietnam. 

In fact today, so bad is the ignorance of our own military history that if you even ask any Indian academic (right, left or centre) – “Did Hindu emperors conquer or lead military expeditions abroad?” – the answer you will get will be “No. Except for Rajendra Chola’s expedition to South East Asia, we have no other records”. Pressed further they may speak of Hindu armed contingents which acted as mercenaries in Persian and Greek empires and fought their wars. But when asked about foreign conquests and military strikes by Mauryas, Guptas, Pratiharas, Guhilots, Pallavas or Cholas other than Rajendra Chola – the question will only draw a blank. Basically, the unsaid misconception is that a majority of Hindu rulers left to themselves were defensive in nature and hardly thought of striking at the heart of the enemy’s territory abroad through offensive operations.

And yet this notion is completely false. The fact that foreign literary sources or epigraphic inscriptions abroad alone speak of 17 of these 21 expeditions is evidence that Hindu offensive operations abroad were not considered rare or infrequent in ancient and medieval times. Each of the great empires mentioned in the previous paragraph had significant expeditions and conquests in areas outside the subcontinent. Full details of these 21 expeditions will form part of my forthcoming book to be released in early 2023.

One of these 21 expeditions was the brilliant series of military naval raids in the heart of the Islamic Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad – the most powerful empire in Islamic history. The heroic dynasty which successfully executed these operations was the Hindu Pratihara empire with its capital at Kanyakubja (Kannauj) in Bharat. This article is a summarized description of this sensational military operation

Background:

The powerful Hindu Pratihara (or Gurjara-Pratihara) empire of Bharat flourished from the 8th to the 11th centuries with Kannauj (modern Uttar Pradesh) as its principal imperial centre. At its height, the empire stretched from the Himalayas in the north to the river Narmada in the South and the Kathiawad peninsula in the west to North Bengal in the East. This was a vibrant period of cultural, artistic and military accomplishment. The most prominent rulers of this dynasty include, Nagabhata I, Nagabhata II,  Mihira Bhoja and Mahendrapala. The Pratihara rulers played a decisive role in the defence of Bharat against the Islamic Arab invaders and defied some of the most powerful Caliphates known in Middle Eastern history. A less studied aspect of Nagabhata II’s reign is the brilliant naval raids all across the Middle East carried out by small, specialized mobile marine units onboard mid-sized assault ships. We find details of these amphibious operations in Arabic and Persian records. These records include documented siras, tasfirs and also local traditions from the Persian Gulf. Studying these operations helps us understand early medieval Hindu naval tactics in “blue water military raiding operations”.

The Abbasid Caliphate established around 750 CE in Kufa (in modern Iraq), reached its peak in the period from 775 CE to 861 CE known as the “Abbasid Golden Age”. The Caliphate became one of the largest empires ever known in Islamic history stretching across the Middle East, Persia, Central Asia, North Africa and parts of South Asia. From 762 CE, Baghdad became the principal capital and legend of one of its most celebrated emperors, Harun-Al-Rashid (ruled 786 -809 CE) and the great metropolis survives till today. Abbasid maritime power was one of the principal reasons for the strong influence of Arab commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Western Indian ocean.

Abbasid ambitions and strategic objectives with respect to the Indian subcontinent got them into direct conflict with the mighty Pratihara empire. Little did they expect that they would be dealt telling military blows through targetted but sharp offensives on land and sea. Ultimately the various land and sea borne operations between 816 to 820 CE not only reduced the Arab threat on Bharat’s frontiers; secured interests of Hindu commercial shipping but also disrupted caliphate logistics to enable success in a major Pratihara land offensive against the Arabs in Sindh.

The foundation of the Pratihara Navy under Nagabhata II

Nagabhata II, the third imperial ruler of the Pratihara dynasty ascended the throne around in c 805 CE and consolidated his hold over Western, Central and Northern Bharat (1). He launched an expedition and established his suzerainty over the three principal Kingdoms of the Gujarat-Surashtra region viz Saindhavas, Chalukyas and Chapas (2). The conquest of Kathiawad, as part of this campaign, with its long coastline and hardy seafaring traditions laid the foundations of the Pratihara navy. The imperial navy drew on the rugged maritime expertise of the conquered native kingdoms. Foremost amongst these were the Saindhavas. The Saindhavas, ruling from Bhutambilika (modern Ghumli, near Porbandar) had developed a strong naval fighting arm by the second half 8th century (3). They styled themselves as the “Apara samudradhipati” or “masters of the Western sea” (4). At least two Arab naval expeditions in 756 and 776 CE were defeated and repulsed by the Saindhava kings Krishnaraja and Agguka I respectively (5).

The Pratihara navy comprised of vessels of various sizes and tonnage. Amongst them, relevant for our study were mid-sized assault vessels called in Arabic records as Al-Barija. Unfortunately, some modern scholars have misinterpreted and miscategorized all Indian naval activity in the Persian Gulf in the 9th century as being the work of “Indian pirates” from the use of the Arabic term “Bawarij”. However as a study of Arabic sources would reveal, the word “Bawarij” as used in the 9th -10th centuries is derived from a type of Indian ship (Al-Barija) and not a type of people (6). This particular type of ship was used by both state and non-state actors from different parts of the subcontinents – Al-Sindh, Al-Hind (Indian mainland excluding Sindh), Barada (parts of Kathiawad), etc. (7). From, the description of a few major “Bawarij” operations in Omani chronicles which were explicitly military in nature and type of vessels as mentioned in the Tarikh-i-Tabari (10th century), we can easily distinguish the Pratihara naval raids using Barija vessels from other Bawarij operations.

We can get a picture of the Pratihara “Al-Barija” from a description of the Persian historian, Tabari (838-923 CE). Each ship had one captain (Ashtiyam), three artillery fire throwers (naffatun), a cook, a ship-carpenter and thirty nine marines. The ships were mid-size and used for guerilla type coastal assaults and not conventional naval battles. (8)

The Strategic Landscape c 816 CE and objectives of the Pratihara offensive of 816-820 CE

Right from the time of Rashidun Caliphate (632-661 CE), the Arabs had launched periodic naval raids on several port cities on the Western coast of Bharat which were stoutly resisted by the Hindu powers. (9). It was through the sea-route that the Arabs achieved their first success in the subcontinent viz the conquest of Sindh in 712 CE. (10). During the reigns of the powerful Caliphs Harun-Al Rashid (789-809 CE) and Al-Ma’mun  (813-833 CE) of the Abbasid dynasty, a determined attempt was made to consolidate and expand the Caliphate’s rule in Bharat. The defiant areas of Western Sindh and the unconquered region of Sindan within Sindh were ruthlessly conquered. (11). A massive invasion of Western Bharat was launched under the Caliphate’s representative in Sindh, Bashar. As can be inferred from the medieval works “Prabhandakosa” and “Khumana-Raso”, Nagabhata II with the help of his Chahamana and Guhila feudatories repulsed this invasion (12). However, the Pratihara emperor did not rest on his laurels and decided to take the offensive. By 815 CE, he had captured the imperial city of Kannauj and hence laid claim to pan-subcontinental sovereignty (13). The credibility of the claims could be better supported with a major military achievement such as liberation of Arab held areas of Sind. Moreover, the revival of the Caliphate naval threat on Kathiawad from the late 8th century CE required a decisive response. The invasion of Bashar brought home the danger of a powerful foreign power on his western frontiers. So due to these various reasons, a Pratihara campaign against the Arabs became a necessity.

As was evident during the fall of Sindh and later campaigns, Arab power in Sindh was supported at all critical points through the sea. The ports of the Persian Gulf played an important role in staging naval raids on the Indian ports. Reinforcements and expeditionary troops from Al-Iraq or the Omani coast followed well established maritime sea routes from the Persian Gulf to the west coast of the subcontinent. As per the 9th century Arab geographer Ibn Khurdadbhih, there were two principal sea-routes connecting the Persian Gulf to Bharat (14). One route was through Basrah-Siraf-Suhar-Muscat and then onwards to the ports of western Indian coast terminating at Kulam Mali (Quilon). The second route was a more coasting voyage calling at Qays island, old Hormuz, Tiz in Makran and Debal on the coast of Sind. The latter route was very imporatnt for the military supply of the garrisons of Sindh. The first route on the other hand was the most probable route for offensive naval raids on Pratihara ports in Kathiawad.

For any Pratihara offensive on Sindh to succeed, it was necessary that these sea lanes of communication be severely disrupted. Moreover as Arab commercial shipping also followed these routes, disrupting these would cause significant psychological impact on the Abbasids.  Therefore Nagabhata II planned a series of swift hit-and raids on critical ports of the Abassid empire. The fleet for the purpose had to be self-sufficient and live off the ports it raided. The vessels had to be mid-size without heavy artillery to not attract attention and not betray the element of surprise. In summary. the strategic objective of the Pratiharas was to liberate a significant part of Sindh, disrupt maritime support and communication of the Arab garrisons at Sindh with the Abassid ports of the Middle East and establish military superiority to deter further Arab incursions on Bharat’s soil.

We find some evidence of Nagabhata’s thinking from the Gwalior prasasti – an inscription of the mid 9th century. The inscription tells us that Nagabhata had stopped believing in “Sama, bheda and dana” or diplomacy, statecraft and gifts as a means to placate the Arabs. He realized, as per the inscription that “Ananya Pratap” or undiminished show of power and martial glory was the only recourse left to teach the Caliphate a lesson they would never forget. The inscription compares his situation to that of Lord Ram who along with the Vanaras resolved the cross the ocean to bring Lanka to heel. Here Nagabhata, inspired by his favourite Lord Ram, resolved to cross the Western Indian ocean and strike terror at the Lanka of his enemies viz the heart of the Middle East.

Tactical details of the first phase of the raids: Al-Iraq and Al-Fars

From an account preserved in Arabic records, existing traditions of ship building on the western coast and the scale and scope of the operations we can infer a picture of the type of vessels and composition of the assault force. The barijas would have been wooden sail ships between 250-500 tonnage built out of babul or jackfruit wood with around 40-50 metres in length and around 10-15 metres in width. At least 15-20 ships would have participated with around 700-1000 marines and 45-50 artillery pieces in total.

The first phase of the raids were launched around 815-816 CE and targetted the ports in Iraq and Persia. We get details on these raids from multiple historical Omani chronicles and Siras from Ibadi missionaries in Basrah. To quote Tuhfat al – A’yan during the reign of Imam Ghassan (808- 23 CE),

“The Bawarij, who are kuffar from Al-Hind, hampered the regions of Oman plundering, taking prisoners and harassing towards Al-Iraq and Al-Fars and it reached us that they are heading towards Dibba and Julfar…” (15).

These details are supported by a sira from Munir, an ibadi missionary in Basrah. The account can be placed just prior to 816 CE as in response to the same Imam Ghassan moved to Sohar in 816 CE (16). As per this account, multiple strikes by Pratihara barijas attacked all important ports in the Persian Gulf and completely paralyzed Arab administration and commerce in the region (17). In a recent engagement, Munir quotes that the Arabs suffered no less than fifty fatalities in battle (18). The missionary deplores the attack and expresses the complete helplessness of the Abassid navy to counter these attacks. So desperate was the situation that Basrah residents ignored the authorities in Iraq and beseeched help from the Omani Ibadi Imamate, which was itself not in the best of terms with the central Abassid authority.

The above accounts give us some interesting details on the way the Pratiharas planned the operation and executed it. The first objective of stealth and surprise appears to have been completely achieved by the Pratihara fleet. Interestingly, the Omani Imamate which controlled regions close to the Hormuz straits was in complete dark of infiltration of assault ships from Bharat till much after the attacks were executed deep into the Persian Gulf. They were in fact informed from residents of the affected port cities. Partly this could be explained in the turmoil in the relations between the Ibadi Imamate and Abassid Caliph. But the reason for the complete stealth in the ingress of the Pratihara assault force could also be due to them taking the Makran-Tiz-Old Hormuz- Qays route to enter the gulf. The relatively mid size of the ships and the ability of the barijas to be disguised as civilian ships appears to have also played a role. We find support for this route from the fact that the Omani chronicles mention that the ports of Julfar and Dibba on the Arabian side of the straits were targetted only after Al-Iraq and Al-Fars had been raided.  The troubled conditions in Makran (19) and the need for the force to keep close to a less hostile coast to re-supply also appears to support this hypothesis.

The first phase of the “hit and run” raids were a complete tactical success and the Pratihara naval assault groups performed spectacularly. From the Tufail, we can understand that the tactics of the barijas were two fold. The principal thrust was to send small contingents of marines to the land to launch “commando-style” attacks on strategic targets, take high value prisoners and raid economic centres to re-furbish supplies for the next raid. In parallel the relatively light artillery on board the ship was used as a diversionary arm to attack port shipping and structures from sea in an area different from that targetted by the marine assault groups. The Fire throwers on ship were also useful in case of engagement by hostile ships during retreat. Enemy casualties appear to occurred in mostly hand to hand fighting.

Form the accounts it appears that ports of Al -Iraq suffered greatly. From the complaints of the Ibadi missionaries, it appears that Basrah was one of the ports to bear the brunt of the attacks. Al-Ubulla which lies east of Basrah at the head of the Persian Gulf also appears to have been attacked. As per Arabic records Hindu naval offensive operations against these ports have a long history stretching to the 7th century. For example, as per one account, in the early 7th century, “The governor (of Ubulla) always had to fight against either the Arab Beduins on land or the Indian navy on sea.” (20). Similarly as per the account of the persian scholar Tabari (829-923 CE), “the explicit aim for the founding of Basra (modern Iraq) in 638 CE was to have a strategic place in the Tigris which could protect Arab camps from naval attacks which were undertaken from Oman and Al-Hind…” (21) The Pratihara marines of 816-820 CE raids would have been inspired by these early tales of maritime glory of their ancestors.

The other region, which was attacked, as per contemporary sources, was the province of Al-Fars or Persia. Two of the prominent ports of this period include Siraf and Genaba. Both lie on the route from Hormuz and Qays towards Basrah (22).

Tactical details of the second Phase of the raids: Julfar and Dibba

The complete paralysis of the Abassid naval command and port administration and the desperate pleas of the ibadi missionaries roused the Omani Imam Ghassan to action. He moved to Sohar for five years (816-820 CE) and built a large naval force to counter the Hindus. However, before he could attack Pratihara targets, his own homeland was struck pre-emptively by the ferocious barija assault fleet. Two battles took place around the port towns of Julfar and Dibba. We may quote the Tufail for the second phase of these Pratihara operations:

“Ghassan set out in a shada (a type of ship) for a naval expedition, and he was the first in Oman to undertake such [such an endeavour]. He attacked these (Indian) raiders on these shores (Julfar and Dibba) and protected the people from the bawarij with these shadha’at..” (23).

The records are not clear whether the battles of Julfar and Dibba took place at the end of the raids on Al-Iraq and Al-Fars or were a separate expedition launched by the Pratiharas. Julfar is identified with a site in Ras-Al Khaimah, modern UAE while Dibba is located in the Musandam Peninsula (shared between modern Oman and UAE). It is interesting that the Omani chronicles do not claim a victory for Ghassan against the Pratiharas or him driving out the raiding parties. His claim is of protecting the civilian population of these ports, which anyway would not have been the objective of the Pratihara assault groups. In short, the basic tactical objective of throwing the enemy off balance and affecting his morale psychologically was achieved by the Pratihara naval detachment.

As a result of these surgical operations, Ghassan could not move his huge flotillia to support the Arab garrisons in Sindh in anyway during the Pratihara invasion of the province. The fear that leaving the Arabian coast would invite more Pratihara naval attacks was so high that the entire offensive posture of the Omani fleet was changed to a complete defensive coast hugging posture. For once rather than the Hindu warriors it was the Islamic Arab warriors who were on the defensive – tactically and psychologically. This was a huge strategic setback for the Arabs.

It is striking that the tactical success was achieved by the Hindu flotilla against one of the leading maritime powers of world history despite operating 1000-1600 nautical miles from their home bases over a prolonged period.

MAP OF TACTICAL NAVAL OPERATIONS VIS-A-VIS STRATEGIC THEATRE (816-820 CE) (24)

The Strategic Aftermath: Role of the naval raids in the Middle East vis-a-vis the Pratihara campaign for liberation of Eastern Sindh

The successes in the middle eastern naval raids supported the larger strategic aims of the terrestrial Pratihara campaign. Indian and Arab records from the 9th century evidence that the Pratihara land offensive on Sindh was a brilliant success. As per the Gwalior prasasti, Nagabhatta II, “forcibly seized the strongholds of the Turushkas in the west (25) (a generic term along with Yavanas and mlecchhas used for Arabs in the 9th century) and expanded his empire in that direction. As per the account of Suleiman (c 851 CE), the river Sindhu passed through one of the cities of Jurz (Gurajara) (26). Both these records help us conclude that Nagabhata’s campaign resulted in a liberation of a substantial part of Eastern Sindh from Arab rule. The Strategic implications were however far larger. The reverses suffered by the Abassids and the vulnerabilities over the sea lanes of communication contributed to their governor, Bashar rebelling against the Caliphate. Bashar’s rebellion was put down by Ghassan who placed his deputy Musa in what was left of Arab Sindh. Musa nominated his own son as successor and the Sindh chiefs henceforth ruled as independent rulers vis-a-vis Central Arab authority. In the late 9th century, these territories formed part of the Persian Saffarid empire and by early 10th century established their independent existence as the petty states of Mansurah and Multan (27). So, in a way, Nagabhata II’s campaign was the beginning of the end of Caliphate rule in the sub-continent and reduced the Arab threat on Bharat’s frontiers to a great extent. The role played by the hardy coastal communities of Saurashtra caused a deep imprint on the minds of the Arabs. It was this region which according to the Arab account of Sualiman made the empire of Jurz (Gurjara) protrude like a “tongue of land” into the Arabian Sea (28). The hardy maritime traditions of this “tongue” supported the military might of the Pratiharas. Sulaiman considered the  Pratiharas as unfriendly and amongst the greatest foes to the Caliphate due to their sheer military power (29).

Nagabhata II became famous in the subcontinent’s traditions. Described as an avatara of Lord Narayana, the Gwalior Prasasti declares, “Nagabhata II, short and modest was of resistless energy. He possessed atmavaibhava, true greatness of soul, He was virtuous and worked for the welfare of the people and performed many sacrifices” Have we forgotten this great hero of Bharat’s maritime history?

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This is a modified version of an article that appeared under this Author’s name in Sagardhara-the newsletter of the Maritime History Society in its January 2022 issue and was presented as part of the Annual Maritime Conclave in November 2021 organized by Maritime History Society.

Sources: –

  1. R. C. Majumdar, “Rise and fall of the Pratihara empire”, in The Age of Imperial Kannauj, ed R.C.Majumdar (Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1993)
  2.  D. C. Ganguly, “Central and Western India”, in The Age of Imperial Kannauj, ed R.C.Majumdar (Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1993)
  3. Ibid.,#.
  4.  D. C. Ganguly, “Central and Western India”, in The Age of Imperial Kannauj, ed R.C.Majumdar (Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1993), Pg 99
  5. D. C. Ganguly, “Central and Western India”, in The Age of Imperial Kannauj, ed R.C.Majumdar (Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1993), Pg 99-100
  6. Dionisius A. Agius, Classic ships of Islam from Mesopotamia to the Indian Ocean (Boston, Brill, 2008), Appendix A
  7. George F. Hourani, Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in ancient and medieval times (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1951)
  8. Aly Mohamed Fahmy, Muslim Naval organization in the Eastern Mediterranean from the seventh to the Tenth century AD (California, National Publication and Print House, 1966), Pg 139; George F. Hourani, Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in ancient and medieval times (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1951), Pg 114
  9.  R. C. Majumdar, “The Arab Invasion”, in The Classical Age, ed R.C.Majumdar (Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1954)
  10. Ibid.,#.
  11.  D. C. Ganguly, “Central and Western India”, in The Age of Imperial Kannauj, ed R.C.Majumdar (Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1993)
  12.  Ibid.,#.
  13. K. M. Munshi, “Foreword”, in The Age of Imperial Kannauj, ed R.C.Majumdar (Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1993)
  14. Andre Wink, Al-Hind: the making of the Indo-Islamic world (Boston/Leiden, Brill Academic Publishers,2002), Pg 50- 60
  15. Eric Staples, “Oman and Islamic Maritime networks (635-1507 CE)”, in Oman: a maritime history, ed Abdulrahman Al Slimi and Eric Staples (New York, Georg Olms Verlag, 2017), Pg 88
  16.  Staples, “Oman and Islamic Maritime networks”, Pg 81-117 #.
  17. Ibid.,#.
  18. Ibid.,#
  19. D. C. Ganguly, “Central and Western India”, #
  20. R. C. Majumdar, “Intercourse with the Outside world”, in The Classical Age, ed R.C.Majumdar (Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1954), Pg 639
  21. George. F. Hourani, Arab Seafaring, #, Pg 54
  22. Aly Mohamed Fahmy, Muslim Naval organization, .#.;George . F. Hourani, Arab Seafaring,.#.
  23.  Eric Staples, “Oman and Islamic Maritime networks,. #, Pg 88.
  24.  Base Map is from en.m.wikipedia.org; All battle routes, markings and representations are by Author
  25. R. C. Majumdar, “Rise and fall of the Pratihara empire”, D. C. Ganguly, “Central and Western India”, in The Age of Imperial Kannauj, ed R.C.Majumdar (Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1993); Pg 24 and Pg 127.
  26. K. M. Munshi, “Foreword”, in The Age of Imperial Kannauj, ed R.C.Majumdar (Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1993)
  27. D. C. Ganguly, “Central and Western India”, #.
  28. R. C. Majumdar, “Rise and fall of the Pratihara empire”, in The Age of Imperial Kannauj, ed R.C.Majumdar (Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1993), Pg 32
  29. Ibid,.#
  30. K. M. Munshi, “Foreword”,. #, Pg XV

Featured image sourced from internet.

Venkatesh Rangan