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Saturday, June 3, 2023

The First Battle of Tarain : How Prithviraj Chauhan defeated Muhammad Shihabuddin Ghori

The fort of Bhatinda was the bone of contention between the Rajput ruler Prithviraj III of the Chahmana clan and the Ghazvanid ruler Shihabuddin Ghori. Shihabuddin conquered it around 1190 CE and left a garrison of 1200 horses under the command of Qazi Zia -ud-din before setting out on homeward journey. As he was leaving, he was informed that Prithviraj had set out at the head of a large force to recover the fort.

Shihabuddin, without waiting for reinforcements, immediately turned back to meet his foe. The two armies came face to face at Tarain, 125 miles south-east of Bhatinda and 12 miles south of Thanesar in the year 1191 CE, and the First battle of Tarain followed. The location is now called Taraoli and is in Karnal district of Haryana.

Estimate of the two armies and battle formations

The Rajput army is estimated at 50,000 men with a cavalry of 20,000. The Muslim army is estimated at 35,000 cavalry force. The Rajputs had placed the cavalry in the wings and kept the infantry, sprinkled with camels and elephants, in the center.

The Muslims had chosen a conventional formation with three wings and a small rearguard, with Ghori commanding the center. The wings of the two armies were evenly matched but the Turks hesitated to strike the first blow.

The Battle

The Rajputs were the first to attack. The Rajput generals mounted on elephants blew their conch-shells, while Muslim army started beating their kettledrums, carried on camels and blowing their trumpets. With the Rajput cavalry charge, the battle began. The Rajput cavalry threw the Muslim vanguard, which was composed mainly of the Afghans and Khokhars of Punjab, into disarray. They have been colorfully described as“Afghan and .Khokar braggarts” in the accounts.

Advancing further the Rajput cavalry engulfed both wings of the Muslim army and in the ensuing sword fight completely demoralized the enemy. The wings finally broke and the Turkish horsemen began to flee. However, in the center, Mohammad Ghori was still keeping up a semblance of fight.

Against the reasonable advise of his generals to flee the battlefield, Sultan Ghori charged into Rajput vanguard which was led by Prithviraj’s brother Govindraj. A single combat ensued about 3 km from Tarain. Accounts relate that Ghori threw a lance upon Govindraj who was mounted on an elephant, the lance knocked out a couple of his front teeth. He responded immediately by hurling a javelin at him which seriously wounded the Sultan on the upper right arm and left him unconscious.

But for a Khalji trooper, who leaped upon his horse in time and drove it away to safety, the Sultan would have fallen off and possibly perished. Upon seeing the Sultan fleeing the battle, the Turks fighting in the center lost heart and fled. The rout of the Turk army was now complete.

Prithviraj ordered his cavalry to give chase but the native horse breeds of Rajput cavalry were easily outpaced by the superior Central Asian Turkoman and Khorasani horses of the Turks. Thus Prithviraj was not able to capture or kill his Muslim foe and was obliged to lay siege to the fort of Bhatinda which capitulated after 13 months.


Having reached home, the Sultan resolved to avenge this defeat. In less than an year and a half, he raised a force of 120,000 men and set out to conquer Delhi in 1192 CE. Prithviraj Chauhan couldn’t mobilize his men in a timely fashion and was obliged to meet his foe with a much smaller force this time.

He was eventually defeated and killed by the wily Sultan who cunningly attacked the unsuspecting Rajputs in the early morning, when they least expected the attack. The Sultan had also sent word for peace, which had made Hindus to lower their guard. The Rajputs paid the price for blindly trusting the word of the enemy pretending to vie for peace. The fast horses of Ghoris let the Rajputs chase them around the field and did not allow them to charge. The empty stomachs of Rajputs and exhaustion from chasing around Ghurids were important reasons for their defeat.

However, even after occupying Delhi the Turks didn’t find themselves firmly in saddle for they were continuously harassed by the Chauhans for more than a century. The Chauhans were finally defeated by Alauddin Khilji in early 14th century when his armies conquered Ranthambhore and Jalore, after many failed attempts.


  1. Sarkar Jadunath, Military History of India.
  2. Minhas -i-Siraj, Tabaqat -i-Nasiri.

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