Revisiting History: Persian Narratives of Second Battle of Tarain

Prithviraj Chauhan (approx. r: 1179-1192) of Ajmer was the most powerful ruler of Hindustan, before the Muslim conquest of Delhi.

Legend has it that Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, a revered Sufi saint, played a significant role in the Islamic conquest of India. Some sources suggest that the Khwaja settled in Ajmer during the reign of Prithviraj Chauhan. Mir-at-i Masudi mentions that, Prithviraj not only rejected the Khwaja's teachings but also encouraged his followers to engage in immoral practices, prompting the holy man to curse him. Years later, Shahab-ud-din Ghori slew Prithviraj and installed Qutub-ud-din Aibak on the throne of Delhi. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, through the power of his prayers brought the whole country of India under the rule of Qutub-ud-din Aibak.


According to Akhbar al-Akhyar, a Muslim devotee of Moinuddin informed him of some discomfort caused by Prithviraj. The Khwaja sent some recommendations to the king, but Prithviraj refused to accept them. Prithviraj claimed that on settling down at Ajmer, the Khwaja had only talked about otherworldly matters. The Khwaja then declared that he would capture Prithviraj alive and hand him over as a prisoner. Subsequently, Ghori's army defeated Prithviraj's army and captured him.

Bada'uni states that Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti was in the company of Muhammad Ghori, and his victory in 1192 occurred through "the impulse of the blessed and divine soul of that pillar of holiness."

However, let us put aside the legends and focus on the actual battle that took place.

Second Battle of Tarain (1192)

Our primary source for this battle is the Tabaqat-i Nasiri, written by Minhaj al-Siraj and Major H. G. Raverty's notes. There were Hindus in the army of Muhammad of Ghor. It is important to note that in this post, the term "Hindu" is used to refer to the people of Hindustan. 

In 1192, Muhammad Ghori led an army of 120,000 horsemen to Hindustan, seeking revenge for his previous defeat. Upon hearing of this, Prithviraj and his army pitched their camp near Tarain. Ghori strategically left the center division of his army with the baggage a few miles behind and divided the remaining troops into five divisions. Four of these divisions, each consisting of 10,000 light-armed horse-mounted archers, were ordered to attack the Hindus from the right, left, front and rear, and then retreat, pretending to flee. After hours of relentless harassment, the Hindu army was exhausted and weakened. At this point, Ghori, with his fifth division, made a final charge and successfully routed the Hindu army. 

Rai Pithaura (Prithviraj), who was riding an elephant, dismounted and got upon a horse and fled, until in the neighbourhood of Sarsuti, he was taken prisoner, and they dispatched him to hell. Govind Rai, the hero of the first battle of Tarain, was also killed in the engagement.

Jamiu'l-Hikayat of Muhammed Ufi: When Ghori was about to fight the second time against Prithviraj, he discovered a clever tactic used by the Indians. They kept their elephants in a separate array when preparing for battle, so that the horses were afraid of them. 

As the opposing forces approached each other and the camp fires were visible on either side, Ghori ordered his men to collect plenty of wood before their tents, and at night, he instructed a group of soldiers to remain in the camp and keep fires burning, making it appear as though they were still there. Meanwhile, Ghori and his main army marched off in another direction. The Hindu army saw the fires and assumed their adversaries were still encamped. Little did they know, Ghori had marched all night and positioned himself in the rear of Prithviraj's army. At dawn, Ghori launched a surprise attack on the camp followers, killing many men. 

When the rear pressed back on the main army, Kola (Prithviraj) sought to retreat, but he could not get his forces in order, nor the elephants under control. The battle became intense, and the Hindus were ultimately defeated, with Prithviraj being taken prisoner. 

Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh of Bada'uni: In 1192, Ghori returned to Hindustan with a large army of 40,000 cavalry. He divided his forces into four army corps and engaged in a fierce battle in Tarain, ultimately emerging victorious. Pathura (Prithviraj) was taken prisoner and Khandi Rai (Govind Rai) having been overcome in battle, was killed.

Tajul-Ma'asir of Hasan Nizami: Upon reaching Hindustan, Muhammad Ghori sent Kiwamu-l mulk Ruhu-d din Hamza on an embassy to Prithviraj at Ajmer, to persuade him to accept Islam and submit to Ghori. In no respect did the words of threats, or promises become established in the heart of that man (Prithviraj), for from his large army and grandeur the desire of something like the conquest of the world had raised a phantom in his imagination.

Undeterred, Ghori prepared for an expedition against Prithviraj, who responded with a well-equipped army, "the number which cannot be conceived in the picture-gallery of the imagination." However, at last, Ghori army was completely victorious. Prithviraj was taken prisoner, but his life was spared. 

The Rai of Ajmer, who had managed to obtain his release, or at least, immunity from punishment, and whose ancient hatred against the Musalmans was deeply rooted and concealed in the bottom of his heart, appears to have been detected in some intrigue, which is only very obscurely indicated, so that orders were issued for his death, and the diamond-like sword severed the head of that abandoned wretch from his body.

Tarikh-i-Ferishta of Muhammad Qasim Hindu Shah Ferishta: After assembling an army of 120,000 elite horsemen, comprised of Turks, Persians, and Afghans, Ghori set his sights on Hindustan. Upon reaching Lahore, he sent his trusted chief, Kiwamu-l mulk Hamza, as an ambassador to Ajmer, with a declaration of war if the Indians refused to embrace Islam. Prithviraj responded with a haughty answer, and immediately called upon neighbouring princes for aid. 

The two armies met at Tarain, with the river Sarsuti dividing them. Prithviraj had gathered an army of 300,000 horsemen, over 3,000 elephants, and foot soldiers "innumerable as the locusts." Nearly 150 Rajput princes had assembled in this camp, adorned with a tika on their foreheads and swearing by the water of the Ganges to conquer their enemies or die martyrs to their faith. 

They wrote a letter to Ghori, warning him of their superior numbers and bravery. They urged him to reconsider his rash decision and retreat in safety. However, if he insisted on forcing his evil destiny, they would advance upon him with their rank-breaking elephants, plain-trampling horses, and thirsting soldiers to crush his army at dawn. Ghori replied, stating that he had marched into India at the command of his brother and was duty-bound to serve him to the best of his ability. He could not retreat without orders, but he was willing to negotiate a truce until he received further instructions.

However, Ghori's plan was to surprise the Hindus at night. Just before dawn, he led his army across the river and infiltrated a part of their camp. Despite the chaos that ensued, the Hindu army was so vast that they had enough time to mobilize their cavalry and hold off the advancing Muslim army until they could organize themselves into four lines and launch a counterattack.

At this point, Ghori divided his army into four parts and commanded them to renew the attack by turns. After discharging their arrows a certain number of times upon the Hindus, they were to wheel off to the rear and give ground gradually as the Hindus advanced with their elephants. This tactical retreat and fight continued until the sunset. Ghori, thinking he had sufficiently wearied the enemy, put himself at the head of 12,000 horse and charged with resolute force, causing chaos and confusion among the Hindus. 

Chawand Rai (Govind Rai) and many others were slain on the field, while Pithaura Rai being taken in the neighbourhood of Sarsuti, was afterwards put to death.

Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh of Ibn al-Athir: Ghori led his armies from Ghazna towards Tarain and passed four days' journey beyond it, conquering several territories. Prithviraj gathered his troops and prepared to confront the Muslim forces. As both armies approached each other, Ghori surprisingly withdrew, with the enemy hot on his heels for four stages. Ghori continued to retreat until he was three days journey from Islamic lands, with Prithviraj still in pursuit. Eventually, the two armies met near Maranda. 

Ghori ordered 70,000 of his soldiers to encircle behind the enemy's force at night, while he himself approached from the opposite direction at the time of dawn prayer. The Indians, who had the custom of not leaving their beds until the sun had risen, were caught off guard when the Muslim army charged them from all directions. Despite the beating of drums, Prithviraj remained defiant, saying, "Who dares to attack me, the man that I am?" However, his army suffered heavy losses, and victory seemed to belong to the Muslims. 

Witnessing this, Prithviraj summoned a horse to flee. However, his followers reminded him of his promise not to abandon them, and he mounted an elephant to hold his position. The battle raged on, and many of his men perished. Eventually, the Muslims captured Prithviraj. When Prithviraj was brought before Ghori, he refused to bow down. One of the chamberlains seized his beard and dragged him to the ground until his forehead struck it. He was then seated before Ghori who asked him, "If you had taken me prisoner, what would you have done with me?” Prithviraj replied, "I would have used a golden chain to fetter you". Ghori then retorted, "We, on the contrary, do not afford you enough importance to fetter you." Prithviraj responded, "If you are seeking land, nobody remains there to guard it; if you are seeking money, then I have monies with all of which you can load your camels." 

Ghori took Prithviraj with him to the castle at Ajmer, which he conquered it and assigned as fiefs to his slave Qutub-ud-din Aibak. He then returned to Ghazna and put the Indian king to death.

Tarikh-i-Mubarak Shahi of Yahiya Bin Sarhindi: In 1192, Ghori led a massive force towards Hindustan. Prithviraj, who was also prepared for battle, quickly made his way to Tarain. Ghori left his army three kuroh away and proceeded with his cavalry of 40,000 to face Prithviraj. He divided his army into four equal sections, ordering them to attack the Hindus from four different directions. This tactic proved to be devastating for the Hindus, as when their elephants and cavalry would fall upon one of Ghori's sections, the rest would make a simultaneous assault upon them from the other three sides. The Hindus were pressed hard and their line gave way. When their enemies attacked them in the center, they became confused and panicked. Govind Rai lost his life in the battle. 

Pithor Rai, who had been riding an elephant, exchanged it for a horse and made his retreat, but he was taken prisoner in the vicinity of Sarsuti and sent to hell.

Futuh-us-Salatin of Abd al-Malik Isami: When the conceited Pithora, realized that divine aid was with him and that he had once defeated the Turks, he became puffed up, so much so that he heeded no one; and no experienced counsellor remained with him.

As a result, when a cavalry of 130,000 Turks arrived at Tarain, no one dared to inform Prithviraj of the impending danger due to his disagreeable and conceited nature. The soldiers of Prithviraj lacking power and patience, became confounded. It was at this critical moment that one of Prithviraj's wives delivered the news of Ghori's return to him. Prithviraj immediately ordered the construction of a golden throne, boasting that he would capture the Turk alive and tie him to the foot of the throne. As the Turk army drew closer, Prithviraj erected a royal enclosure and his army pitched their tents around him.

The next morning, both armies took their positions. Prithviraj stood in the center with a phalanx of ferocious elephants in the front, while Govind Rai stood in the vanguard of his army. On the other side, Ghori took his stand in the center, with Khirbak in the vanguard.

When the steel clad ferocious elephants in front of Govind Rai's array fell suddenly on Khirbak's contingent, his allies made an assault on the elephant-drivers, causing the whole phalanx of elephants to take flight. Ghori then ordered his army chieftains to move simultaneously from right and left and fall upon the Hindus. After that, Ghori himself sprang from the center, causing the Hindus to flee in terror.

Pithora, the country-capturing Rai, was captured alive and the lions of Ghor cut off his head which they carried to Ghori. Govind Rai met his death on the battlefield, and his head was also taken to Ghori.

The death of Prithviraj Chauhan marked the beginning of the Delhi Sultanate.


The battle took place at Tarain now called Taraori, on the banks of the river Sarsuti, fourteen miles from Thanesar, and eighty from Delhi, in the state of Haryana.