Today in South Asian history: Nader Shah sacks Delhi (1739)

Nader Shah (Wikimedia)

The Mughal Empire was easily the richest of the three so-called “Gunpowder Empires”–the Ottomans and the Safavids were the other two–that dominated the Islamic world from the 15th century (for the Ottomans; 16th century for the other two) into the 18th century (and, at least in the Ottoman case, well beyond that). In the patterns of east-west trade in Eurasian/North African world, until modern times, India was a seller far more than it was a buyer–its goods moved west while everybody else’s money moved east until it wound up in Indian royal treasuries. Indian products were in such demand that they helped spur the Age of Exploration, when rich merchants were able to stick people on wooden ships to sail for months in terrifying conditions on the hope that they might eventually find a direct route from Portugal to India. So clearly people were willing to go to some lengths for whatever India was selling, and consequently the Mughal court was, by all accounts, a pretty opulent place.

There was no greater symbol of that opulence than the “Peacock Throne,” a reportedly dazzling regal chair constructed for the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (d. 1666), the emperor who also, for the burial place of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, commissioned the construction of the Taj Mahal. Allegedly cast in solid gold and covered in countless diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls, and other gems, this throne…well, it probably looked completely ridiculous, and it’s a wonder the Mughals’ subjects didn’t beat the French Revolution to the punch by a century or so, but now I’m ranting. It was probably a great tool for a Mughal emperor to make other emperors jealous, which is the main reason why emperors and kings have always prized these kinds of silly things in the first place. It got its name from the bejeweled, carved peacocks (there may have been one, two, or more, the various descriptions of the throne don’t seem to agree) that sat atop its canopy. Did anybody ever actually sit on this thing for anything other than ceremonial royal events? Would it have been at all comfortable? Who cares? When you’re a fancy monarch who needs to let the world know just how fancy you are, physical comfort becomes irrelevant. I say screw that. Once they name me Emperor, which should be any day now, I’ll be ruling things from some kind of massaging chair.

Anyway, the Peacock Throne was lost to history sometime after 1739, which is coincidentally when it was also lost to the Mughals and was carted off by Nader Shah (d. 1747), the founder of Iran’s Afsharid dynasty. Following the Battle of Karnal in February of that year, when the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah (d. 1748) surrendered his army and his empire to Nader, the Afsharid army continued on to Delhi and set itself up in the Mughal capital. Now, Nader had promised Muhammad Shah that he could continue being the Mughal Emperor, and had said that all he wanted was to restore the traditional friendship between the Mughals and the Safavids (obviously Nader was not a Safavid, but he portrayed himself as that dynasty’s heir). Of course, Muhammad Shah would have to acknowledge Nader as his overlord and, why, yes, Nader would like to stay in Delhi for a few days, thanks for asking, and while he was there he figured he might as well mint some new coins, in his name, and have the Friday prayer said, in his name, no big deal, it’s just a formality, you know how it is.

Well, needless to say that Delhi wasn’t really prepared to have tens of thousands of foreign soldiers suddenly taking up residence. Goods, in particular food, started running out, and so prices started going up. Nader’s men complained to Nader, so Nader ordered that prices be frozen, and Delhi’s merchant community told him to get bent. Naturally, things came to blows, and for some reason a rumor broke out that Nader himself had been killed. In the confusion, the Indians in Delhi rose up against Nader’s army, and some of his soldiers were actually killed. Nader, who was of course very much alive, gave his men the green light to make the city pay. The surviving sources don’t do much to tell us exactly how many people were slaughtered by Nader’s army in the violence that followed, but the most conservative estimates put the number at roughly 20,000 men, women, and children, killed in only a few hours after Nader gave the go ahead.

Nader Shah, painted by an unknown but probably 19th century artist, seated on the Peacock Throne after his defeat of the Mughals (Wikimedia)

The massacre of Delhi was only coincidentally related to the loss of the Peacock Throne, and much of the rest of the Mughals’ wealth, to Nader and the Afsharids, in the sense that both things were the result of Nader’s presence in the city in the first place. Had there been no massacre, Nader still would have left Delhi, as he did in May 1739, with vast plundered wealth. Michael Axworthy, in The Sword of Persia: Nader Shah, from Tribal Warrior to Conquering Tyrant, puts the haul at 700 million rupees, which he estimates would have been worth about 90 million English pounds at the time. That’s equivalent to maybe 20 billion or so British pounds today, as far as I can tell. Nader apparently cancelled taxes in Iran for the next three years because of the windfall he brought back with him.

We know for sure that the Peacock Throne was included in that windfall, but what happened to it after that is unclear. Nader seems to have used it as his throne, and may even have had a duplicate made because he was so fond of it, but when he was finally assassinated in 1747 it’s likely that the throne was broken up and looted by his killers. There was another throne, the “Sun Throne,” built for the second Qajar ruler of Iran, Fath-Ali Shah (d. 1834), and it’s possible that the lower parts of the Peacock Throne were used in building this throne (which is sometimes called the “Peacock Throne” even though there’s no peacock to be found on it), though that’s never been conclusively proven. Today the Sun Throne sits on display with the other Iranian crown jewels (many of which can definitely be traced back to Nader’s plunder of Delhi) in Tehran. The Mughals made a new throne to replace the one that Nader carted off, but that was lost sometime in the 19th century (probably during the Indian revolt against British rule in 1857).

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