John Masson Smith, Jr.

                  University of California, Berkeley




         The Mongol campaigns into Northwestern India were decisively shaped by the region’s climate. The nomads who supplied the manpower and logistic support for the Mongol cavalry armies depended on pastoral animals adapted to cold and temperate conditions adjusted by migration in Inner Asia. Northwestern India provided suitable conditions in winter, but not in summer. Juvaini remarks on the withdrawal of Chinggis Khan’s Punjab garrison as the summer heat set in, and Ibn Battuta discusses the high mortality of steppe horses exported by the Golden Horde to India. The Mongols could campaign in India only in winter.


         Because of this constraint on sustained operations, the purposes of the Mongol invasions appear to have been limited. The attacks at least yielded booty, and the accompanying devastation of the frontier zone kept Delhi’s forces away from Mongol Afghanistan. They may also have enabled use of the frontier lowlands by the Mongol nomads as winter pastures, qishlaqs. Finally, the Mongols probably hoped that enough pressure would compel the Delhi Sultanate, like the Seljuk Sultanate and Armenian Kingdom in the Middle East, to accept vassal status.


         But the force applied by the Mongols was insufficient to cow the Delhi Sultanate. The sources claim invasions by hundreds of thousands of Mongols, numbers approximating (and probably based on) the size of the entire cavalry armies of the Mongol realms of Central Asia or the Middle East: about 150,000 men. A count of the Mongol commanders named in the sources as participating in the various invasions might give a better indication of the numbers involves, as these commanders probably led tumens, units nominally of 10,000 men. The small numbers of named commanders mentioned in J. L. Mehta’s work, and the fact that most of these were only generals, not the rulers of the adjacent Mongol realms, seems to suggest that the attacks involved at most a few tens of thousands.


         The climatic constraint on sustained operations explains the Mongols’ failure to consolidate their occasional gains in India: Lahore, for instance was repeatedly taken and then abandoned. The hypothesis of small Mongol forces would account for their frequent defeats by the Delhi armies. The 30,000-man cavalry army of Balban (reg. 1266-86) would have been as large as, or larger than, most of the invading Mongol contingents. And finally, the Delhi cavalry was probably better mounted than the Mongols, probably better armed, and possibly better trained. The few horses to survive the climate of Delhi had to be carefully tended and well fed, and consequently could grow larger than the Mongols’ steppe-grazed ponies. And the cream of the Delhi army were slave-soldiers, whom we know from other cases (the mamluks of the Abbasids and of Egypt) could be trained to extraordinary skills with arms.         


























                           John Masson Smith, Jr.

                  University of California, Berkeley



            The Mongols’ attacks on India attempted to prepare for one part of their program of world-conquest. From the outset of their expansionist activities, they sent relatively small forces to frontier zones to reconnoiter and devastate adjacent powers to encourage submission or in preparation for a large-scale invasion. We see this pattern in the raids preliminary to the invasions of northern China, and in the small-scale war kept up in northern China while the main Mongol army conquered Central Asia-—and came, briefly, to India. We see it from ca. 1230 until the coming of Hulegu in the Middle East, where three or four Mongol tumens, military units nominally of 10,000 men each, established themselves on the fine pastures of Azerbaijan and thence campaigned into surrounding regions, obtaining the submission of the overawed Cilician Armenians and the defeated Anatolian Seljuqs, and harassing the Caliphate in Iraq.


            The Mongols likewise established a military presence on the northwestern frontier of India, and intermittently applied some military pressure on the adjacent Indian powers, primarily the Sultanate of Delhi. They conducted something like 14 incursions between 1221 and 1326. But no large-scale invasion was undertaken—for reasons I shall suggest in a moment. And as time passed without a follow-up to these attacks, the local Mongol strategy seems to have become less a preparatory than a holding operation. The raids laid waste from time to time the region between Delhi and the Khyber Pass, preventing the establishment by Delhi of forward bases from which to threaten the Mongols in Afghanistan or on winter pastures in the “grass scrub and steppe” below the frontier ranges; the raiders who were not defeated by the Sultanate’s forces, as happened with increasing frequency as time went on, also returned home with booty, which helped finance, and inspire enthusiasm for, the campaigns. But the Delhi sultans could not be overawed by the Mongols’ threats, and their armies could not be demolished by the Mongol assaults. Why should the Delhi Sultans have succeeded where the Caliph, the Khwarezmshah, and the Jin and Sung emperors failed? How did India escape the fate of Iran and Iraq, Russia and China?


Three texts, it seems to me, nicely suggest the obstacles that prevented the Mongols from campaigning effectively in—much less conquering—India. The first, from the Persian historian, Juvaini, reads as follows (in J.A. Boyle’s translation):


                           [After the battle, 1221, by the Indus River,]

[w]hen Chaghatai returned without having

                        found the Sultan [Jalaluddin b. Muhammad

Khwarezmshah], Chingiz-Khan deputed Torbei

Toqshin, together with two tumen of Mongol troops,

to cross the Indus in his pursuit.

         Torbei Toqshin advanced ….. [and] took

the fortress of Nandana [in Jhelum District, Punjab]

and wrought great slaughter. Then he turned against

Multan …. [T]he town was on the point of surrendering.

However, the great heat of the climate prevented his

remaining longer; so having plundered and massacred

throughout the province of Multan and Lahore, he

returned from thence and recrossed the Indus; and

arriving in Ghazna followed in the wake of Chingiz-

Khan [who was returning via Afghanistan and Central

Asia to Mongolia].[1]


Climate created the main impediment to Mongol campaigning in India. The Mongols’ livestock-raising economy depended on climatic—especially temperature--adjustments through nomadism to maintain the health and productivity of the animals, and the Mongol army, reliant on its horses, similarly depended on seasonally-adapted campaigning. The Central Asian campaign of which the first incursion into India was a part exemplifies this adaptation: the army operated in cooler highland regions in summer, and in warmer lowland desert and semi-desert terrain in winter. The Mongol wars with the Egyptian Mamluks over Syria exhibited the same procedure.[2] The extreme heat of summer constituted the Mongols’ problem in India, as the quotation from Juvaini indicates. Their incursions seem to have been brief, even when not defeated by the forces of Delhi, and to have taken place in winter, because only then was it cool enough for the comfort of the Mongols’ horses (as, by the way, for modern tourists from temperate regions). The average temperature in the zone including Lahore and Delhi is 65-70 degrees F in November, and drops gradually to 60-65 at Delhi and below 60 at Lahore by February; thereafter it rises by May to over 90 degrees F. The Mongols did not want to jeopardize their horses’ health—and their own safety—by exposing them to this debilitating heat (you New Yorkers will recall that the carriage-horses in Central Park must not work when the temperature goes over __________).



The second suggestive text comes from the work of the Muslim traveller, Ibn Batuta:


Horses are exported [from the Golden

Horde] to India (in droves), each one numbering six

thousand or more or less …. When they reach the

land of Sind with their horses, they feed them with

forage, because the vegetation of the land of Sind

does not take the place of barley, and the greater part

of the horses die or are stolen.[3]


            The basic Mongol force was an all-cavalry, high-horsepower army. The normal requirement of horses was five per soldier, although higher numbers, perhaps reached by counting animals brought along for food together with the military mounts. The ration requirements of these animals were enormous. Although the individual horses—which were only ponies, weighing perhaps 600 lbs (cf ordinary modern horses at about 1000 lbs)—needed only about 10 lbs of hay or the equivalent, and some 5 (U.S.) gallons of water, the collective daily equine demands of the (nominal) 50,000 horses of a Mongol tumen (nominally) of 10,000 men, amounted to 250 tons of hay-equivalent and 250,000 gallons of water. Mongol armies entering India could count on obtaining enough water from the Indus and its affluents, but the sufficiency of grazing, judging by Ibn Batuta’s remark—“the vegetation of the land of Sind does not take the place of barley”—seems to have been problematic (although the grazing in the zone of “semi-desert grasses and shrubs” arcing from the Khybar Pass to Lahore and Delhi, and turning, to Jaipur and Kathiawar, may have been adequate in season. I do no have information about the productivity of these semi-desert grasslands, but pastures with similar description in Central Asia produce 500 kg/ha (or 445 lbs/acre),[4] which means that a Mongol tumen would have needed access to around 1124 acres—1.75 sq. mi.--a day to obtain 10 lbs of (dry) grass for each of its 50,000 ponies. This does not seem an impossible requirement, until the tumen attempts to halt for a time, to conduct a siege, for instance. Collecting and transporting fodder for a tumen’s horses instead of grazing them, as Ibn Batuta says was done for imported horses, would have been difficult. The nutritional equivalent of grass in barley and straw, at 5 lbs of barley and 5 more of straw, is also 250 tons, meaning 1250 camel-loads of 400 lbs each, and enough barley modestly to feed 83,000 humans.


            Before proceeding to the third text, some discussion of the sizes of the Mongol forces that attacked India is necessary. The sources—as far as I can tell from the secondary literature—tend to claim immense numbers in the Mongol invading forces. The armies of 10, 15 and 20 tumens must correspond, not to any actual campaigning force, but to the total (nominal) strength of the Chaghataid realm. The armies of the regional khanates seem each to have numbered 15 to 17 tumens, a size-limit probably set so as not to exceed the army of Mongolia proper.[5] The Chaghataids could have counted more after some tumens in Afghanistan shifted allegiance to them from the Ilkhans; but they would not have brought them all to India, leaving their homeland open to their Ilkhanid and Qubilaid enemies.[1] (Note that 20 tumens is 200,000 men, more than the entire manpower of Mongolia, plus a million horses!) Prisoners under interrogation may have given these figures to daunt their enemies, as Ket-Buqa, the Mongol commander at ‘Ayn Jalut allegedly did to his Mamluk captors, and the Delhi officers, to magnify their successes, may have accepted them.

Most of the identifiable expedition leaders—Tayir of the 1241-42 incursion, Sali in 1246-47 and 1257-58, Abdullah in 1292, and Qutluq Khwaja in 1299-1300—seem to have been only tumen commanders based on or near the frontier. Tayir was connected with Badghis, a yaylaq, summer-pasture, along with Juvain, complementing the qishlaq, winter-pastures, of Herat.[6] Sali’s unit was based on Baghlan (yaylaq) and Qunduz (qishlaq).[7] Abdullah was the son of Mochi (b. Baiju b. Chaghatai), commander of the “cherig of Qarauna” in the Ghazni region.[8] And Qutluq Khwaja (b. Du’a) likewise—presumably in replacement of Abdullah—commanded the Qaraunas of Ghazni, who “have constantly to do battle with the Sultan of Delhi.”[9] The accounts of some campaigns mention the involvement of more than one Mongol commander, each presumably the leader of a tumen. Tayir, “and other noyans [generals]” campaigned in 1241-42.[10] Two, “Targhi” as well as Qutluq Khwaja, participated in 1299-1300, and three, “Targhi” again, “Tartaq” (or “Tash,”) and “Ali Beg,” in 1305. Only three commanders seem to have been in positions to mobilize larger armies. Monggetei, commanding a corps of two tumens (or perhaps three: his own, and those of Atsiz and Qaracha, with whom he campaigned in 1221),[11] “Kubak,” who may be Du’a’s generalissimo, the Suldus, Kobek,;and the Chaghataid ruler, Tarmashirin, and even Tarmashirin seems to have led only four tumens, apparently the largest force on record (unless the names of other commanders have been omitted in the primary or secondary sources). Although the regular Mongol units were doubtless accompanied by volunteer irregulars and conscript “arrow-fodder” who enhanced the size if not the quality of the armies, the attacks on India were never delivered in overwhelming force.

With the invading Mongol forces cut down to size, we are ready for the third quotation, another from Ibn Batuta:


… [T]here remains a handsome profit for the traders

                        in these horses [from the Golden Horde], for they

                        sell the cheapest of them in the land of India for a

                        hundred silver dinars … and often for … twice or

three times as much. The good horses are worth five

hundred dinars or more. The people of India do not

buy them for running or racing, because they them-

selves wear coats of mail in battle and they cover their

horses with armour, and what they prize in these horses

is strength and length of pace.[12]

This passage points to another reason why the Mongols could not cope with the Sultanate of Delhi: the Delhi troops were better equipped. At the outset of their expansionist activity, the Mongol cavalry relied on hit-and-run archery tactics, envelopment and ambush; hand-to-hand fighting was avoided, since only the wealthy could afford armor and sophisticated shock weaponry (all soldiers were expected to carry an axe or club) and the Mongols’ ponies could not very effectively bear heavily-armed riders. As long as the Mongol cavalry could achieve superior numbers and mobility on the battlefield, as they did during their campaigns in North China and Central Asia, Russia and Hungary, these tactics and weapons sufficed. But in some places the Mongols could not bring their superior numbers to bear. In Syria, for instance, summer water-shortages precluded establishment of a large army of occupation: only one tumen seems to have been sustainable, and the Egyptian Mamluks could field as many, and as time went on, more troops. And these troops were better equipped (and, as we shall see, better trained). They wore armor, carried lances and swords in addition to bows and arrows, and rode fodder-fed horses that were bigger than the Mongols’ grazed ponies. They won most of their battles with the Mongols, and won the war.


The conditions and outcome of the Mongol attacks on India were similar. The inadequacy of grazing and hazard of high temperatures in India already discussed limited the numbers and staying power of the Mongol invaders. The Mongols do not seem to have used more than four tumens in any incursion, and usually rather fewer, and the Delhi Sultanate soon managed to match these numbers. Sultan Balaban (1266-86) maintained 30,000 cavalry at Delhi, in addition to other troops in other parts of the Sultanate, forces sufficient to met the Mongols in equal if not superior numbers. Moreover, as Ibn Batuta tells us, the Delhi cavalry was heavy cavalry, armored (men and horses both) and armed for either missile or shock combat, riding grain-fed horses larger than the Mongol ponies.


Finally, the Delhi cavalrymen may have been better soldiers than the Mongols. Some of the elite troops of the Delhi Sultanate, like the sultans themselves who emerged from this elite, were of slave origin, and a—perhaps the—purpose of recruiting slaves as soldiers was to create the conditions necessary for an extraordinary course in discipline and training. Anecdotal and archaeological information from the time of the ninth-century Abbasid dynasty, and later, training manuals of the Egyptian Mamluks and others reveal the methods that could produce the remarkable skills of slave-soldiers—mamluks. Let me give two useful examples of these skills. The Egyptian mamluks were expected, in normal practice, to be able to shoot three arrows in one and a half seconds; and to strike with the sword, while galloping, three times a second.[13] The slave-soldiers of Delhi may well have attained such skills, and the other, more numerous cavalrymen in the sultans’ service may have approximated them—at least to the point of outshooting the galloping Mongols. As Amir Khusrau put it, “Although each year the Mongols come from Khurasan … [they] yield up their ghosts wherever the Turks send the showers of their fatal arrows.”[14]

[1] ‘Ala al-Din Juvaini, The History of the World-Conqueror, J.A. Boyle trans. (Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1958), I, 141-42.

[2] J.M. Smith, Jr., “ Ayn Jalut: Mamluk Success or Mongol Failure?” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 44:2 (1984). Idem, “Nomads on Ponies vs Slave on Horses,” review article on Reuven Amitai-Preiss, Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281, forthcoming in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, 118:1.

[3] Ibn Batuta, The Travels of Ibn Battuta, H.A.R. Gibb trans. (Cambridge UK: Cambridge UP, 1962), II, 478.






[4] I.V. Larin, Pasture Rotation, 3rd ed. (Moscow: State Publishing House of Agricultural Literature), trans. Israel Program for Scientific Translations (Jerusalem, 1962), 144.

[5] J.M. Smith, Jr., “Mongol Manpower and Persian Population,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 18:3 (1975).

[6] Rashid al-Din, The Successors of Genghis Khan, J.A. Boyle trans. [RaD/B] (New York: Columbia UP, 1971), 52 and n. 197.


[7] J.A. Boyle, “The Mongol Commanders in Afghanistan and India According to the Tabaqat-I-Nasiri of Juzjani,” Islamic Studies, II (1963); reprinted in idem, The Mongol World Empire (London: Variorum, 1977), see ch. IX, p. 239.

[8] RaD/B, 144.

[9] RaD/B, 142.

[10] J.A. Boyle, “Mongol Commanders,” p. 240.

[11] Ibid., p. 242.

[12] Ibn Batuta, II, 479.

[13] On this archery, see Taybugha, Saracen Archery, J.D. Latham and W.F. Paterson ed. and trans. (London: Holland, 1970), 138 pt. vii, and 142, pt. 5; and Anon., Arab Archery, N.A. Faris and R.P. Elmer ed. and trans. (Princeton, 1945), 150-51. I have discussed the archery techniques of the Mongols and the Egyptian Mamluks, and their tactical implications, in “Mongol Society and Military in the Middle East: Antecedents and Adaptations,” in War and Society in the Eastern Mediterranean, 7th-15th Centuries, Y.Lev ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1997).

For the sword technique, see H. Rabie, “The Training of the Mamluk Faris,” War, Technology and Society in the Middle East, V.J. Parry and M.E. Yapp eds. (London: Oxford UP, 1975), 162.

[14] A. Wink, Al-Hind: the Making of the Indo-Islamic World, II (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 207.