Ahmad Shah Abdali did not cover his face with a bejeweled mask in 1761: response to William Dalrymple

In his fresh book William Dalrymple is making a claim that Ahmad Shah Abdali’s face was getting eaten away by disease from “early on in his reign” [while I have read that he suffered from the disease in the last years of his reign]. He further says that his nose was already consumed by the disease when he was fighting at the battle of Panipat (1761) and had replaced it with a diamond-studded substitute. Following is the excerpt from the relevant chapter of his book;

“Few possessors of the Koh-i-Noor have led happy lives, and while Ahmad Shah rarely lost a battle, he was eventually defeated by a foe more intractable than any army. From early on in his reign, his face began to be eaten away by what the Afghan sources call a ‘gangrenous ulcer’, possibly leprosy, syphilis or some form of tumour. Even as he was winning his greatest victory at Panipat, Ahmad Shah’s disease had already consumed his nose, and a diamond-studded substitute was attached in its place”. [“Koh-I-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond “, p-67].

It’s interesting to note that William Dalrymple has shared two paintings of Ahmad Shah Abdali in his book, dating to circa 1755, which does not show him with any indication of destruction of his face by disease. All the sources say that Ahmad Shah suffered from tumor in the last years of his reign, just few years before his death in 1773. He may have worn face mask at the advanced state of his tumor but William Dalrymple is claiming that he contracted disease “early on in his reign” (circa 1747-1755). The claim that Abdali’s face was suppurating, hidden behind a silver mask, on the occasion of the battle of Panipat in 1761, is far-fetched as we have actually eyewitness accounts of that battle (Jafar Shamlu and Kashi Raj), and none reports Abdali in that condition with rotting face and missing nose hidden behind a silver mask.

As for the story of maggots dropping from Abdali’s diseased face into his meal, William Dalrymple cites Ganda Singh. But the original inventor of the story is Sir Jadunath Sarkar from whom Ganda Singh copies numerous passages verbatim. And I believe William Dalrymple has also consulted Sir Jadunath Sarkar books. This is evident from the following statement by the latter;

“This tender lamb was to be pounced upon by a fierce Afghan of grandfatherly age whose two ears docked, and nose was rotting from a leprous carbuncle.” [“Fall of Mughal Empire”, by Jadunath Sarkar Vol-II, p-89]

Sir Jadunath Sarkar is talking about the marriage of Ahmad Shah Abdali with Mughal princess Hazrat Mahal in 1756. He calls Abdali a man of grandfatherly age even though he was just 33 years in 1756 and makes a baseless claim that Abdali’s face was rotting in that year.

Alexander Dow (1735 – 1779), an employee of East Indian Company, was contemporary of Ahmad Shah Abdali. When the latter visited his Indian territories in 1767, East India Company collected information about him through their spies and informers. In his book published in 1768, Alexander Dow describes the looks and personality of Ahmad Shah Durrani as follow:-

“This prince is brave and active, but he is now in the decline of life. His person is tall and robust, and inclinable to being fat. His face is remarkably broad, his beard very black, and his complexion moderately fair. His appearance, on the whole, is majestic and expressive of an uncommon dignity and strength of mind. Though he is not so fierce and cruel as Nadir Shah, he supports his authority with no less rigour, and he is by no means less brave than that extraordinary monarch. He, in short, is the: most likely person now in India to restore the ancient power of the empire, should he assume the title of king of Delhi.” [The History of Hindostan: Translated from the Persian” by Alexander Dow, 1768, p-348]

Mountstuart Elphinstone who visited Afghanistan in 1808 and wrote an account of kingdom of Kabul in 1815, states that cancer of face first afflicted Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1764 ;

“… but Ahmed Shauh’s health now began to decline, and a sensible diminution of his activity is observable from this time forward. His complaint was a cancer in his face; it seems to have first afflicted him severely in 1764, and it continued to do so till his death, which it occasioned.” [“An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, p-556]. This is repeated by H.G.Raverty in 1860.

“His complaint was a cancer in the face, which had afflicted him first in 1764, and at last occasioned his death.” [“Selections from the Poetry, of the Afghans”, p-291]

Detail from a drawing (made in circa 1770 AD) showing Ahmad Shah Durrani on the horseback during the battle of Panipat (1761). By an anonymous artist in the Faizabad style.



William Dalrymple












Note that dates in Purn Puri account does not give dates and one can only speculate about the year in which he met with Ahmad Shah Abdali.

Portrait of Ahmad Shah Abdali placed in Lahore Museum, circa 1755. 




1 thought on “Ahmad Shah Abdali did not cover his face with a bejeweled mask in 1761: response to William Dalrymple”

  1. Very informative and rational analysis. Ahmad Shah baba without any doubt was the finest leader ever birthed amongst the Afghans.


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