Did Alexander come to India?
There is no doubt that Alexander came to India, because the Greek, Persian, Egyptian and later Roman sources tell us of his campaign in Asia and Egypt. But which of our sources comment on this? None. The Puranas, which record the genealogies of dynasties, both big and small, sometimes over centuries, just go silent on this episode. Was it a later edit that happened? Or did the people to the East of the Punjab not register this event? Its unlikely that they wouldn’t have heard of this event or felt the tremors of it, for Alexander was not involved in some small skirmish but a full blown war with some of the most powerful kings of ancient India. Then what made us give this raging inferno from Macedonia a complete pass? But before we dig into the reasons, let’s understand why he came to India first of all.
Alexander III of Macedonia was not born into an Athenian or Spartan royal family, that naturally enjoyed the respect of the Greek and Persian worlds. He was born in the household of Philip, a Macedonian king, at a time when Macedonia was considered an inferior culture in comparison to the culturally advanced societies like Athens, Thebes and some of the other Greek islands. Greece itself was not a nation. It was a loosely bound civilisation that united when endangered by the Persians, but not always either. It was Alexander’s father, Philip who chose to not only take Macedonia to greater heights, both as a political power but also as a culture, by bringing some of the best minds of his times, like Aristotle to his capital of Pella. But he also had a much grander vision, that of bringing together all the Greek states under his command to launch a pan-Hellenic campaign against the mighty Persian empire. The excuse for this invasion was the fact that one of the earlier Persian monarchs, Xerxes, had destroyed the temple of Apollo at Athens more than a century ago, and hence the Greeks had the right to vengeance. Doesn’t it sound incredibly similar to the reasons used by the American president, George W Bush, for invading Afghanistan when the World Trade Centre was brought town by the Asian extremists? The fault lines rarely change in our world.
But Philip did not live long enough to lead this campaign, and he was brutally assassinated during a public appearance in Pella. Instantly, young Alexander was put on the throne and made responsible for continuing Philip’s campaigns both within and outside Greece. In this way, Alexander inherited one of the most ambitious campaigns of his times. As part of this inheritance Alexander also gained from his father’s innovation, in the form of the Sarissa wielding infantry. The Sarissa was a ten to twelve feet long spear that a soldier at the front of the formation would use to block at twelve feet from his the frontline, any charge made by the enemy’s cavalry r infantry. The Sarissa technique is a whole subject in itself. This and the natural flair that Alexander possessed for field strategy, secured for the Greeks their decisive victories against Persia.
Within seven years of having left Macedonia, Alexander was king of the entire Persian empire and the provinces that were subservient to it. But now, Alexander wanted to fulfil a greater personal ambition which was not tied to the pan-Hellenic campaign. He had learnt while studying under none other than Aristotle himself, that the world’s farthest end was India and the one who would conquer it would naturally become the Emperor of the Known World. But Aristotle had also drawn for Alexander a map that showed a sea beyond India from where Alexander could sail back to Greece. To Alexander, this would be a fitting return journey for a world conqueror. Hence, after achieving the objectives of the pan-Hellenic campaign, he recruited Asian soldiers in his army, married an Asian princess, and then announced his desire to win India.
Alexander’s Indian campaign starts way beyond our present definition of India. He crossed the Hindu Kush mountains with the help of mercenaries that joined him from Bactria, parts of India and other provinces that once belonged to the widespread Persian empire. He fought his way through the many tribes that lived in the unforgiving terrain of the Khyber, and finally he made his way through to Takshashila, where he made a strong ally in the form of Ambhi, named Omphus in the Roman sources. Strengthened by this alliance with a mighty king, Alexander now moved towards the first large tributary of the Indus, the Jhelum or Hydaspes of the Roman sources. Across the Jhelum, lived the king of Punjab, known to us through popular history as Porus.
Alexander and Porus met on a very unlikely battlefield, the banks of the Jhelum itself, and in the middle of pouring rains which had turned the ground into soft clay which,unfortunately for Porus, stopped the chariot wheels in their tracks. Having lost such a strong unit of his force, Porus relied on the scores of war elephants he had brought to the battle. However, once Alexnader’s pikemen began to attack these beasts targetedly, they ran amock in the battlefield, crushing their own soldiers. Eventually, Porus agreed to a treaty, but not before refusing many proposals. Alexander then pushed further towards Haryana, and it is at this point, somewhere on the border of present day Punjab and Haryana, that his army finally threatened to rebel. These were men, tired from constant battle, marches through unknown lands and away from family for nearly a decade. Alexander’s closest commanders also advised him to return. But what nailed the decision, was one more thing. Alexander learnt from his local allies that beyond the Punjab were two giant rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna, which fed a kingdom, mightier than any that Alexander had seen, and more ruthless than any other enemy he had experienced. He would be moving further into India at his own peril. Alexander took this advice seriously, and judging from the general mood of his army, he was sure that he had made the right decision. Alexander turned around. Before leaving, he marked this easternmost border of his kingdom with altars, almost seventy feet high, as a tribute to the Apollonian gods who had helped him come this far successfully, and also to the Indian Sun God, perhaps to further cement the new bonds he had made with his Indian allies.
After hearing this story, it sounds incredible that we have no trace of this campaign in any of the surviving versions of the Puranas. The Puranas do behave erratically, as in the case of another great dynasty that gets hardly any recognition in the Puranas, the Mauryans, but there are at least dramas like Mudra Rakshasa, written about the Mauryan empire’s early years by poets and writers, later in the first millennium CE, but there is nothing mentioned, neither in our literature nor in our Puranas about the Macedonian prince who not just came to India but conquered its entire North Western region.
Could the reason lie in the fact that the gangetic plains had a culture that did not interact with North Western India? This is unlikely, for Gandhara finds mention in most of our epics and stories. Takshashila was a reputed centre of learning and ancient sources confirm that it was visited by all the Indian scholars of its time. So, its not possible that there was no link between these two regions of India.
Then, could it be that the event did not make any ripples in the Gangetic Doab because it was too small to get attention? Again, this sounds improbable because the North West was the terminating point of the Uttarapatha or the Northern trade route, and even the smallest political movement in this region would have grabbed attention all the way down to the Narmada.
Was Porus not an important enough king because of which the event goes unnoticed by the Puranas which otherwise note the genealogy of all the solar and lunar dynasties or those which claim descent from them? If that was true, then Alexander, who had defeated Darius, an emperor who commanded an empire that stretched hundred times wider, would not have gone to the extent of minting a coin depicting his victory against Porus.
Was it a tradition to not include any ‘foreign’kings in our scriptures? Again, there are evidences of later Greek kings finding not only mention but there are entire works like the Milinda Prashna (Milind was none other than the Bactrian Greek king, Menenader) which capture the philosophical exchange between a Buddhist monk and the Greek king.
Even more surprising is the fact that leave alone the Indian sources, even the Bactrian Greeks do not seem to have accounted for the very foundation of their Bactrian empire anywhere. Perhaps there was literature which disappeared with these Greek kingdoms themselves, that lasted for more than a few centuries on the borders of India.
A curious question that also comes to mind is that the Mauryas, who came to power in Pataliputra, within a gap of not more than 5 years also haven’t left behind any account of this event, which was probably even responsible for their rise. Although Ashok does mention in is rock edicts, at least the Seleucid successors of Alexander in Bactria and other Kshatrapies. This in fact, is the only evidence left behind for us to connect the dots from his political successors in this region back to Alexander himself.
Indians have this curious habit of relying on memory and not documenting most of what they witness or experience. Unlike us, the Greek and Roman scribes continued to document Alexander’s campaigns. Even the tenth century Persian poet, Firdausi dedicates a considerable portion of his magnum opus, the Shahnama, to Alexander’s campaign in Persia. He refers to many Indian soldiers, mercenaries and kings when relating this episode in Persian history. But we find no Bana or Kalidasa equivalent who has bothered to note this mega event that happened right here, at our doorstep.
Perhaps, this is the reason why we should now take the onus of bringing together parts of world history together to help us understand our role as a civilisation in the formation of global politics and it may hold some lessons for us in shaping our future.