Why didn’t the Great Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan invade India?

Genghis Khan and India

Possible reasons why Genghis Khan did not invade India

Having completely defeated the Khwarezmian Empire [who were led by Jalal Al-Din Mingburnu] in the Battle of the Indus in 1221, the famed Mongol emperor Genghis Khan and his fierce Mongol forces were a touching distance from India. The question that begs to be answered is: Why didn’t Genghis Khan just cross the Indus River and invade India?

In the article below, World History Edu presents some of the major possible reasons. But first, here is a quick look at the motivations and military career of Genghis Khan.

How did Genghis Khan create an unstoppable, all-conquering war machine?

Born in a vast, cold and mostly barren region of Mongolia to a very wealthy father, Genghis Khan experienced a number of tragedies that changed the way he viewed power and wealth. Around the age of 12 or 13, this future conqueror and warlord lost his father. His father had been killed by Turkic tribesmen, and his family were left all by themselves.

Luckily for the young Temüjin, he survived. However, from then onward, he vowed to seek power. What this meant that he devoted his time trying to understand the levers of power as well as how to use wealth to acquire power.

In his youth, he was disturbed by the constant fighting that he witnessed rage among the various Mongol tribes. In spite of the initial adversity that he and his family suffered, he managed to make his way to the top of his tribe. After that he set about to bring the various warring Mongol tribes together and established the Mongol Empire.

After uniting the various warring Mongol tribes, Genghis Khan was proclaimed Khagan of all Mongols in 1206. Illustration from a 15th-century Jami’ al-tawarikh manuscript.

By 1206, he had successfully pulled it off – a feat that a number of Mongol warlords had failed to achieve primarily because the Chinese dynasties at the time simply wanted a fractured Mongol land. The Chinese rulers encouraged rivalries among the Mongol tribes in order to boost their geopolitical situation in the region. Any Mongol warlord that tried to unite the Mongols under one rule was quickly captured during the Chinese punitive expeditions.

Following the establishment of the Mongol Empire, Temüjin was given the title Genghis Khan, which means “universal ruler”. For several years, he had worked very hard to turn the various Mongol tribesmen and their forces into a very lethal and all-conquering war machine. The Mongol warlord is believed to have barely lost any military campaign in his life. The Mongol forces were undoubtedly the greatest and deadliest fighting force in the world at the time.

Significant conquests and movements of Genghis Khan and his generals

Having created such a fierce fighting force, Genghis Khan was aware that he had to keep his men occupied least they revert to fighting among themselves. Therefore, he gave them somewhat of a common purpose. That purpose was to go on one military campaign after the other, thus marking the intensification of the Mongol Empire territorial expansion.

After uniting the tribes under his command, Genghis Khan launched an expansion towards the east. By 1211, he had brought the Western Xia state under his control as a vassal and proceeded to invade the Jin dynasty in northern China. He forced the Jin emperor to abandon the northern half of his kingdom in 1214.

In 1218, Genghis Khan conquered the Qara Kkhitai, a dynastic regime based in Central Asia ruled by the Khitan Yelü clan. Image: Size of Qara Khitai around 1160

During his reign, he turned his army into an unstoppable one, conquering many territories, including capturing Beijing in 1215. The sheer scale of his military campaigns make him a contender for the greatest conqueror in all of history.

Genghis Khan and his Mongol forces conquered the Qara Khitai khanate in 1218, which paved the way for him to lead an invasion of the neighboring Khwarazmian Empire the following year.

Read More: Most Famous Rulers of the Mongol Empire

Genghis Khan versus Shah Jalal al-Din of the Khwarezmian Empire

Khwarazmian Empire and the Mongol Empire

The Khwarezmian Empire was the last Turco-Persian Empire before the Mongol invasion of Central Asia. The Mongols’ invasion resulted in the fall of the Khwarazmian state and the destruction of the regions of Transoxania and Khorasan. Image: The Khwarazmian Empire versus the Mongol Empire in 1215

Reaching between 2.2 million square kilometers and 3.5 million square kilometers at its peak, the Khwarezmian Empire (1077-1231) was a Persianate, Sunni Muslim empire that included modern areas such as Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran. The rulers of the empire, who were of Turkic Mamluk origin, were able to turn the empire into one of the fiercest in the Muslim world at the time.

Between 1219 and 1221, the Mongol Empire, led by Genghis Khan, invaded the territories of the Khwarazmian Empire. The Turco-Persian Empire, which could boast of a large cavalry army, had engaged in a number of provocative moves against the Mongol Empire. Shah Muhammad II, ruler of the Khwarazmian Empire, is said to have humiliated and then killed a trade delegation sent by Genghis Khan to the Persian lands.

Incensed by such provocations, the Mongol warlord mobilized between 90,000 and 200,000 men and began his invasion of Khwarezmian lands around 1219. The Mongols left a massive trail of destruction in the years that followed, completely ruining cities like Khorasan, Herat, and Nishapu.

Depiction of Jalal al-Din crossing the Indus River, escaping Genghis Khan and the Great Mongol army

With the help of astute Mongol generals like Subutai and Jebe, Genghis Khan was able to force Muhammad II to flee. The Khwarezmian shah died all alone on an island in the Caspian Sea. His son took up the mantle and had a few victories, including one at the Battle of Parwan in September 1221. However, he was ultimately crushed by the Mongol war machine.

The Battle of the Indus in 1221

The Indus Battle in 1221, which resulted in an overwhelming Mongol victory, was the concluding engagement in the M

Like his father, Shah Jalal al-Din also fled after losing the Battle of the Indus in late 1221. He crossed the Indus River and entered the Delhi Sultanate, where he hoped he would receive refuge from the rulers of northern India.

Genghis Khan’s army pursued Khwarazmshah Jalal Al Din from Uzbekistan into Western India. Having been stripped of almost all of his forces and his empire, the shah was left alone when he crossed the Indus River into the Delhi Sultanate.

What was the Kwarezmian Empire?

Khwareamid Empire – a Turkic empire that ruled Iran – rulers were Turks and not Iranians. Their territory was made up of present-day Iran, Uzbekistan, parts of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and much of northwestern India (which is today Afghanistan)

The Khwarezmian Empire was the last Turco-Persian Empire before the Mongol invasion of Central Asia. The Mongols’ invasion between 1219 and 1221 resulted in the empire’s fall and the destruction of the regions of Transoxania and Khorasan.

Did you know…?

  • Genghis Khan’s invasion and destruction of the Khwarezmian Empire is believed to have killed between 3 and 15 million people. This makes the invasion one of the bloodiest in human history.
  • After Shah Jalal al-Din fled into India, Genghis Khan is believed to have seen the pursuit of the vanquished shah as pointless as he posed no threat to the Mongol Empire.
  • The Invasion of the Khwarezmian lands gave the Mongols the platform to launch attacks into Georgia and the rest of Persia.

Reasons why Genghis Khan did not conquer India

Image: Extent of Delhi Sultanate in northern India under Shams ud-Din Iltutmish (reign – 1211-1236)

At this point, Genghis Khan and his Great Mongol army were within a touching distance of the defeated Khwarazmian ruler. They could have simply marched into India, apprehend Jalal al-Din and even conquer the Delhi Sultanate. However, Genghis Khan chose not to do so. His decision not to unleash his army, which was greatest and deadliest fighting force in the world at the time, on India has perplexed historians for many centuries.

So why did Genghis Khan choose to retreat all the way back to Mongolia after coming so close to the borders of India? Below are some of the major possible reasons:

A talking unicorn

Some scholars and historians state that bad omen might have dissuaded the Mongol warlord from venturing into the Indian subcontinent after his spectacular victory over the Khwarezmian Empire. This story is contained in some of the biographies of his advisors. According to the account, a talking unicorn appeared to the Mongol emperor when he arrived at the border of Uzbekistan and India, i.e. present-day Afghanistan. This mythical creature allegedly instructed the Mongol warlord to return his army to Mongolia.

In some accounts, the bad omen was revealed in the form of a talking rhinoceros.

The neutral stance the Delhi Sultanate took in regional affairs

Genghis Khan was said to have been very pleased with foreign policy of the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate. Throughout his conquest across China and Persia, Genghis Khan was simply left alone by the India rulers.

Additionally, the Delhi Sultanate rulers refused to offer any kind of protection or support to the fleeing Khwarazmian ruler Shah Jalal al-Din. After suffering a devastating defeat at the Battle of the Indus in 1221, the Turco-Persian ruler gathered what was left of his demoralized bodyguards and fled into the Delhi Sultanate. There, he was surprised that the Indian rulers, with whom he shared some cultural roots with, did not offer him any asylum or military help.

Therefore, Genghis Khan had no reason to invade India since the Turkic Mamluk rulers of northern India continued to remain in his good books by not intervening in the Mongol conquest in the region.

There have been some accounts that claim that the Delhi sultan Iltutmish paid handsome tributes to the Mongols to dissuade them from entering India.

Religious reasons

Genghis Khan and his Mongols were described as followers of Tengrism – a polytheistic religion that has some kind of similarity to India’s Hinduism. It was also a known fact that Buddhism – which was born in India – had a strong presence in Mongolia for many years. Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, even adopted Buddhism and went on to make it an almost de facto state religion during his reign.

Therefore, some historians believe that Genghis Khan chose not to invade India simply out of the respect he had for India for being the birthplace of two major religions – Hinduism and Buddhism – which he admired.

But then again, the Mamluk rulers of India at the time did not have the same kind of reverence of those religions. In fact, the Turkic Mamluks were known for persecuting Hindus and Buddhists in their territory. They wanted to eradicate those two religions in India and Afghanistan. So why didn’t Genghis Khan invade India, topple those rulers and then guarantee the protection of Hindus and Buddhists?

It is possible that Genghis Khan thought about all the innocent Indians – many of them being Buddhists and Hindus – that would have perished as a result of an invasion.

The heat and humidity of India at the time

This particular reason for Genghis Khan not invading India was assigned as one of the possible factors that halted Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror, in his tracks when he too was within a touching distance of India in 326 BC. According to scholars, India’s very warm and humid weather made it difficult for the Mongol army to march on the Delhi Sultanate. Bear in mind, the Mongols came from a cool climate and were therefore not used to India’s somewhat harsh weather.

However, the counter argument to this reason is that: The Mamluk rulers of India, like the Mongols, also came from a relatively cool weather. And If the Mamluks could invade India successfully in spite of the hot and humid weather, why couldn’t Genghis Khan’s even more lethal army invade India?

Moreover, the likes of Timur the Great and Babur, both of who came cold climate, did not have any qualms about the hot weather of India when they invaded the subcontinent.

Revenge-driven mindset of Genghis Khan

Upon a quick look at the numerous military campaigns carried out by Genghis Khan, one soon notices a slight trend in them. The warlord has been described by some as one who attacked a territory primarily as a result of revenge.

The brutal invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire was mainly in retaliation for the shah’s repeated provocations. And even when he invaded the Karkitai Empire, it was as a retaliation move for the capture of a Mongol city and for the killing of his grandson-in-law.

Described as a principled ruler, Genghis Khan simply did not have bone to pick with the Delhi Sultanate. The Indians had not wronged him in any way, shape or form. Therefore, he had no compelling reason to go against his principles and invade India.

Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan and the Delhi Sultanate

India’s vast riches at the time weren’t luring enough to Genghis Khan

A very interesting thing to mention about Genghis Khan is that: Even though his army plundered a lot of wealth from the conquered territories, he never personally kept any significant amount of those treasures. Instead he made sure that the spoils of war were distributed fairly among his soldiers and generals.

Genghis Khan saw wealth as simply a means to an end: The end of gaining and holding on to power. He used the vast amount of wealth from his conquests to govern and administer his empire. At the time, the Delhi Sultanate was one of the wealthiest territories, considering the fact that the region accounted for about 25% of the world’s GDP. The fabulous wealth of the Delhi rulers was simply not enough reason for him to launch an invasion into India.

Territory of the Delhi Mamluk Dynasty in northern India circa 1250.

Genghis had to make a forced retreat to handle a rebellion in China

One possible reason for not invading India is that the Mongol army, just as they were about to cross the Indus River, received news of a fierce rebellion against their rule in Western Xia in China. Genghis Khan therefore had to put on hold his invasion of the subcontinent and quickly head to crush those rebellions. Basically, the invasion was postponed and not suspended as Genghis Khan had a lot on his plate at the time. Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, while crushing the rebellion in Western Xia, meant that the invasion of India would be carried out by his predecessors, which occurred in 1241.

It has also been said that Genghis Khan wanted to get a route through the Himalayas so that he could attack the Jin dynasty from the south. He considered pushing through north India in order to find a possible route. When he failed to get any route, he abandoned the whole idea of invading India.

He might have been put off by the possible civilian casualties

It’s been theorized that one possible reason why Genghis Khan did not invade India was because he knew an invasion would cause a lot of deaths to civilians in a land he felt some bit of cultural affinity to. However, there exist no evidence to prove this.

The Himalayan mountain range

Finally, there was the issue of geographical barriers. The Indian subcontinent is separated from Central Asia by the Himalayan mountain range, which is one of the world’s most formidable natural barriers. Crossing the Himalayas would have been extremely difficult, even for Genghis Khan’s experienced army.

Genghis Khan’s view on wealth

Genghis Khan passed away in 1227 while besieging the rebellious Western Xia, and his third son and heir, Ögedei, ascended the throne two years later. Image: Genghis Khan

An analysis of the early life and military career of Genghis Khan shows that his motivations for invasions in the region stemmed primarily from revenge. For example, it’s been stated that he invaded China as revenge for their decades of interference and atrocities committed in Mongolia. And he reinvaded Western China because they mounted a rebellion against his rule.

Even though his army plundered a lot of wealth from the conquered territories, Genghis Khan never personally kept any significant amount of those treasures; instead he made sure that the spoils of war were distributed fairly among his soldiers and generals. Image: Genghis Khan entering Beijing, China

He had little to no appetite for personal wealth, and the enormous wealth he gathered from his years of conquests were divided fairly among his generals in order to keep them content and motivated to ride with him on more conquests.

It was sometimes alleged that he disdained personal wealthy, and that he only saw wealth as means to attain his goal. His goal was simple: Turn the numerous disunited and fractured tribes in Mongolia into a fierce and vast empire.

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