The Sultan’s siege of Kathmandu

Images for representational purpose


He came to Kathmandu with around 20,000 men… His objective: to plunder, pillage and demolish everything. The celebrated historian Baburam Acharya thus described the Sultan’s attack on Nepal Valley. When he left, the city was ransacked, people displaced from their homes and monuments which took hundreds of years to build razed.

Only Shiva, the lord of the lords, could help them get back on their feet.

Many people, who would have watched the movie Padmaavat would imagine that this could be a work of Sultan Alauddin Khilji, who plundered Chittor with his war machine. However, there are no records to show that Khilji ever attempted to invade Nepal Valley. A coin may have been minted in Nepal in the name of the 14th-century king, and Nepal may have accepted his suzerainty; these could be some of the reasons why Khilji did not attack Nepal. In addition to this, historians believe that Nepal was too far from his kingdom. Similarly, there are those who reason that Alauddin knew that his war machine was not adapted to raids in the hills and that stopped him from launching a raid into Nepal Valley.

However, this does not mean that the Sultans of Northern India never attacked the Nepal Valley. It was another Sultan, the founder of the powerful Bengal Sultanate, Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah who wreaked havoc in Kathmandu in in 1349, thirty-three years after the demise of the powerful Alauddin Khilji.

Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah, popularly known as Ilyas Shah, was the founder of the first independent unified Bengali kingdom. The  Shahi dynasty lasted for nearly 125 years. Shah unified the Bengal region and launched daring raids across the subcontinent. Shamsuddin is believed to have born into in the Sistan region of modern-day Iran. According to historians, he worked under the service of the Khilji sultanate and migrated to Bengal Unification of Bengal. In 1338 Ilyas declared himself as the Sultan of Satgaon (Bengal) and gave himself the title Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah.

While it was queen Padmini who drew Alauddin to Chittor, it was the Valley’s ‘riches’ that brought Shamsuddin to Kathmandu, around 840 km from his capital in Pandua (present-day Malda). According to Acharya, Buddhists from Bengal used to visit Swayambhu while Hindus from Bengal visited the Pashupatinath Temple on the occasion of the Shivaratri festival. Kathmandu during the period was famous for its ‘golden’ chaityas, temples and water-taps. “Foreign travellers regarded the gilded portions of these structures as made of real gold,” says Acharya in his work describing the Sultan’s invasion of Kathmandu. The travellers thought that Nepal was a prosperous country, and reported the same to Shamsuddin.

Acharya believes that in 1349/50, Sultan’s army made its way into Nepal via Hariharpur, Sindhuligadhi, and Bhaktapur–they would have followed the present day BP Highway. In 1768, the same route was used by Major Kinloch of British East India Company to come to the aid of Kathmandu’s last Malla King Jaya Prakash Malla, who was under siege from Prithvi Narayan Shah.

When Shamsuddin’s men entered the Valley, Nepal was already in turmoil. Prolonged exposure to external invasion, mainly from the Khas kingdoms and Tirhut (Mithila), had considerably weakened the court, and intrigues had become rampant due to the perennial rivalries of the aristocracy. Historian Dilli Raman Regmi in his book Ancient and Medieval Nepal says that by 1347, around three years prior to Shamsuddin’s attack on the Valley, two power centres had emerged in Kathmandu–one was in Kantipur and the other in Bhaktapur. While a Thakuri clan ruled over Kantipur, the descendants of Harisimha Dev, the ruler of Simraungadh (Bara) who fled to Kathmandu following an invasion of his kingdom, was in charge of Bhaktapur. It is believed that Jayaraja Deva (also Rajadeva) had become a ‘common’ king of the two kingdoms during the days leading up to Shamsuddin’s attack, thanks to Devaladevi who imprisoned her own father Pashupati Malla, the king of Bhaktapur. Devaladevi, therefore, exercised considerable influence in both the kingdoms. She even named her grand-daughter Rajala Devi the regent (uparaj).


Shamashuddin’s men razed the main chaityas and temple of Kathmandu. According to Acharya, the Valley’s populace had to abandon their villages and towns and move to the forests. “The enemy must have burnt and destroyed houses and Chaityas after finding them empty,” Acharya adds. The incursion started on Marga 21 (November/December). According to an inscription found at the Swayambhu Chaitya, the shrine was looted the next day.

“The number of these invaders was probably not less than 20,000 far so many people were required to destroyed Bhaktapur and Swayambhu, situated at a distance 4 koshes, within two days,” notes Acharya. Historical records even suggest that then king Jayaraja Deva might have also been burnt with his palace by the invaders.

The invading army is believed to have slaughtered men and women in Bhaktapur. However, how many people were killed is not clear. The Swayambhu inscription also says that the Pashupatinath Temple was also damaged considerably.

Historical records have not been found to precisely say how long the incursion lasted, but it is believed that the Shamshuddin’s army retreated soon. Acharya believes that it was also probable that the invaders from Bengal found it difficult to endure the cold climate of the Valley. But Nepali resistance could have also driven them out or a treaty was signed to end the fighting. Neither records from Nepal nor Bengal speak of what led to the end of the intrusion. The other theory is that Shamsuddin was handed such big defeat in Kathmandu that his chroniclers decided to omit the entire episode in their records.

Following the incursion, Jayaarjun Deva, the son of Jayaraja, is believed to have ascended the throne of the two kingdoms. He is believed to have turned to the treasury of the Pashupatinath Temple to finance the reconstruction of the town that had been looted by Shamsuddin. According to historian Regmi, Rajaharsha, the son of then minister Ranashakti Malla Bhalloka, played an important role in reconstructing the Mahachaitya.

According to Acharya, the effect of the invasion did not last more than a century. The chaityas and temples which had been burnt or destroyed were reconstructed one after another. The process of reconstruction must have been completed by the beginning of Jayasthiti Malla’s rule (1418-52), which took Nepal to the height of progress.

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