Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Q for Qandahar

The city of Qandahar in present day Afghanistan is one of high cultural and historical significance, carrying a wealth of history and heritage. Qandahar’s recorded history dates its origins to 329 BC and credits the foundation of the city to Alexander the Great, but an alternate mythological theory establishes that the city existed even during the Mahabharata times.

Etymology of Qandahar and the theories of its origins

The Mahabharata describes Qandahar as Gandhara ruled over by King Suvala and later by his son Shakuni. The princess of the Gandhara kingdom, Gandhari, was married to King Dhritarashtra of Hastinapur, an alliance formed by Bheeshma to forge matrimonial ties between the kingdoms of Hastinapur and Gandhara.

Gandhara in the early Vedic period was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom located along the Kabul and Swat Rivers of Afghanistan and was famous for its wonderful climate, verdant settings and art, culture and learning. It was an expansive kingdom and included some significant ancient cities in it. Some historians are of the opinion that the name Qandahar has been derived from the Gandhara kingdom.

Many modern historians have associated the origins of Qandahar with Alexander the Great, who founded the city in 329 BC, while returning homewards after his aborted expedition of India. Alexander named the city Alexandria in Arachosia. Hence a theory has developed that the name Qandahar is a localised form of the name ‘Iskander’ given to Alexander, a.k.a Sikander, in this part of the world.

However, as per later excavations done by the archaeologists like Louis Dupree in 1970, it was found that the Qandahar founded by Alexander was built on the ruins of a large fortified city which existed during the early 1st millennium BC. This proves the existence of the city in the days of the Gandhara kingdom and validates the description given in the Mahabharata about Qandahar.

The Buddhist heritage of Qandahar

Due to its strategic location and vantage point along the trade route connecting the Middle East and Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent, Qandahar was a hugely prosperous city and that made it always a target of conquest for different kingdoms who wanted to rule over the city. The region came under the Seleucid Empire after Alexander retreated, and then was ceded to the Mauryan Empire by way of a war-treaty. It was during the reign of the Mauryas and specifically Ashoka the Great that Buddhism was made the major religion and the region saw extensive installations of Buddhist sculptures, stupas, rock edicts and statues dotting its landscape. One of the major rock edicts of Ashoka which was later excavated read, “Ten years of reign having been completed, King Ashoka made known the doctrine of Piety to men; and from this moment he has made men more pious, and everything thrives throughout the whole world.”

There is also evidence found that the city of Qandahar sent a delegation of thirty thousand Buddhist monks, led by a ‘Mahadharmaraksita’ (the great preserver of dharma) to Sri Lanka for the dedication of the great Buddhist Stupa at Anuradhapura. That the region of Gandhara was predominantly Buddhist at the time of the Mauryans, is evident from the discovery of the mammoth Buddha statues at Bamyan (Sanskrit name: Varmayana). [These were later destroyed by the Taliban extremists].

Islamization of Qandahar

It was in the 7th century that different Arab armies started invading the region and converting the population to the new religion Islam. Yaqub ibn Layath Saffari of the Saffarid dynasty conquered Qandahar in 870 in the name of Islam. However, he could not consolidate his victory over the city as soon Qandahar was taken over by the Hindu Shahi kings of Kabul who ruled there till the 11th century when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked and pillaged the city. This was soon followed by the Ghurids from Ghor when they overthrew the Ghaznavids in the 12th century. By this time, Islam as the new religion had been consolidated in Qandahar and much of the earlier heritage had been destroyed in the wars.

Qandahar, over the next few centuries, exchanged hands between the Mongols, when Genghis Khan attacked the city in the 13th century and the Timurids (dynasty of Timur Lane) who ruled the city between the 14th and 15th centuries, before it was passed on to the Arghuns in the 15th century.

[Incidentally, it is said that the name Afghanistan was derived from the Arghun tribe who held sway over the place in the 15th century. The word Afghan was a localised corruption of the name Arghun.]

The famous historian Ibn Batuta, described Qandahar in 1333, as “a large and prosperous town, three night’s journey from Ghazni.”

Qandahar in the Mughal era

The Mughal affair with Qandahar began when Babur annexed the city in the 16th century. His son and successor Humayun lost Qandahar to the Persian Safavids, but Akbar managed to regain it in 1595. However, after Akbar’s death in 1605, the Safavids once again attempted to recapture Qandahar but the Mughals led by Jahangir’s generals laid siege to the city and successfully defended it. Between 1649 and 1653, the Mughals under Emperor Shah Jahan fought a sluggish war with the Safavids of Persia to retain their suzerainty over the cities of Qandahar, Badakshan and Balkh.

For the Mughals, retaining stronghold over the twin frontier cities of Kabul and Qandahar were important as they were the first point of defence against any invading Persian army. Further, Shah Jahan wished to extend the Mughal Empire all the way to Samarkand, the original home of the Mughals, wherefrom Babur had come, and thus undertook a concerted campaign with the assistance of his sons, Dara Shukoh, Aurangzeb and Murad Baksh. However, he met severe resistance from the Safavids in Qandahar and the Uzbeks in Balkh and could not advance further.

For four long years the battles continued in the North-west frontier of the Mughal Empire and fate played hide and seek with them as the cities of Qandahar and Balkh were captured and recaptured by the Mughals and Safavids by turns. This ambitious campaign was said to have put a huge strain on the Mughal exchequer and had cost the empire 20 million rupees. This was such a severe blow that even though in 1653, when the Mughals came out victorious in the war, Shah Jahan had to abandon the campaign and recall his troops. With the Mughal retreat, the Safavids promptly recaptured Qandahar and the city was lost to the Mughals forever.

Qandahar in later years

By the 1700s, Qandahar was being ruled over by the Hotak dynasty rulers, who were in constant skirmish with the Durranis. By 1738, the fearsome King of Persia, Nader Shah invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Hotak dynasty and placed Ahmed Shah Durrani on the throne of Qandahar as a subjugate ruler to Persia, before proceeding on to attack the Mughal capital of Delhi. However, in 1747 after the death of Nader Shah, Ahmed Shah Durrani proclaimed independence and established the first true-blood Afghan rule and the Durrani dynasty in Qandahar, making the city the capital of his Afghan Empire. The Durranis expanded their empire to control the whole of Aghanistan, Pakistan, the Khorasan province of Iran and even parts of Punjab in India. Ahmed Shah’s son and successor Timur Shah transferred the Afghan capital from Qandahar to Kabul in 1776.

The legend of the Kohinoor Diamond

It is said that after the death of Nader Shah, who looted the Kohinoor diamond among other valuables from the Mughal treasury in Delhi, his wealth was hastily divided and snatched away by his generals and family members. The Kohinoor Diamond remained with Nader Shah’s grandson who later gave it to the Afghan king Ahmed Shah Durrani in return for his support during a battle in the Waziristan region.

While in possession of the Durranis, the home of the Kohinoor Diamond was Qandahar. Legend has it that in 1799, when Shah Zaman elder grandson and successor of the Durrani Empire was captured and blinded in a prison by rebel Afghan tribes, he hid his most precious ancestral gems, the Kohinoor Diamond and a Pokhraj in a crack of the prison wall. When his younger brother Shah Shuja successfully defeated the rebel tribe, avenged the blinding and murder of his brother and took over the Durrani throne in 1803, he set out in search of the two precious family gems. It is said that the Kohinoor Diamond was found to be with a mullah who was ignorantly using it as a paperweight, while the Pokhraj was found with a student. Needless to say, King Shuja Shah promptly acquired both the jewels.

When Maharaja Ranjit Singh gave shelter to Shuja Shah who had escaped to Lahore in 1813, leaving Qandahar in a state of civil war, Ranjit Singh extracted the Kohinoor Diamond from him almost by force and torture, and thus the Kohinoor returned to India after the turn of almost a century.

Qandahar in later years, contd…

After the Durrani Empire disintegrated in 1813, entire Afghanistan was thrown into strife and civil war broke out between different Afghan tribes who fought for supremacy to rule the land. Qandahar passed through the hands of many such Afghan tribal chieftains and these wars ensured rapid deterioration of the city.

The British invaded Qandahar twice, leading their forces from India, first in 1839 during the First Anglo-Afghan war, but had to withdraw by 1842 after an unsuccessful campaign. They returned in 1878 and laid siege to Qandahar for almost three years, in what is known as the Second Anglo-Afghan war. Despite winning the Battle of Qandahar in 1881 and restoring stability to the city, the British forces had to retreat leaving the city in the hands of local Afghan rulers again.

For the next hundred years, Qandahar had a peaceful existence with different Afghan tribal chieftains succeeding each other and ruling over the city. It did not see much development but continued to be one of the important cities of Afghanistan.

The modern era

In the 1960s, Afghanistan was torn between United States of America and Soviet Russia, and while Russia made Kabul its war base, Qandahar became the base of the US armies. By 1980, the Soviet-backed Afghan government had taken control of Qandahar, but were harassed by the local mujahideen forces in ambush and guerrilla warfare. After the fall of the Afghan government led by Najibullah in 1992, the local mujahideen groups completely took over Qandahar which eventually led to the Taliban movement in 1994.

Qandahar was made the capital of their region by the Taliban and a stronghold militant base. It was during the Taliban regime in 1999 that an Indian Airlines plane was high-jacked and flown to Qandahar airport with its passengers held as hostage by a Pakistani extremist militant group. For the last 15 years or more, Qandahar has only seen insurgency and warfare between the NATO forces allied with the Afghan military and the insurgent Taliban mujahideens who have been joined and aided by different other extremist groups proclaiming jihad. Today, infamously Qandahar is known as the ‘spiritual birthplace’ of the Taliban and remains one of the most insurgent regions of Afghanistan.


Photo 1: The ‘forty steps of Qandahar’ at Chilzina in old Qandahar city – an imposing monument with forty rock cut steps, built by Babur in the 16th century. The rock has carvings on it in Persian detailing the conquests of Babur.

Photo credit:

Photo 2: Artillery square and the main citadel of Qandahar during the Second Anglo-Afghan war of 1881.

Photo credit:, Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Benjamin Simpson in 1881.

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘Q’.


  1. Fantastic writing, Sayan. I know about the Mahabharata connection and a little bit of the later history. But this was brilliantly researched and very crisply written. I guess we have found our own William Dalrymple in you.

    1. Varad.. this is a huge compliment and I am truly humbled! I had met the man himself in Feb this year in a Lit Fest, attended his session, did a short Q&A discussion with him, got his autograph and was mighty delighted and enriched with his style and manner of retelling of history and depth of research. Needless to say, post that my own outlook and approach to historical research changed quite a lot!

      Thank you for your very encouraging comment... you've truly made my day and my efforts in putting up this series are now well and truly rewarded !

  2. Very well written, Sayan. It is news to me that Qandhahar was part of the Gandhar kingdome of Mahabharata fame. This series you are writing once compiled into a proper book could make a very good text book for college students. I am not sure if the Bachelor of Arts degrees in History involves specific courses in Histories of cities but this compilation is so interesting that it could in fact be a very good book for learning. It is written in a style unlike any textbook and reads very fluently.

    1. Thank you Jai for your very encouraging comments. I am humbled indeed! I am looking to publish the collection after some more refining, but not sure if such retelling of history will be apt for a study curriculum. But for general knowledge enhancement in history, I think people will like it.

  3. Quandahar was Gandhar of Mahabharata! I didn't know that. There was a so big story behind that Kohinoor Diamond. Am really amazed by your research skill, Sayan. Very nice post.
    -Sayanti from
    Sayanti from

    1. Thank you Sayanti for your words of appreciation! I am happy that you liked my post and it fetched you some new information :)

  4. Excellent ! The painstaking research makes your post a delight to read.

    1. Thank you Cucco for reading and commenting. I am glad that you found the post delightful.


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