Friday, 3 March 2017

Alexander the great

Reading  books on history have always fascinated me. And like many, a historical character who fuels the romantic in me has been Alexander the great. I was recently reading a book and was noting down some points from there. Just thought of recording them with my perspective too.

Alexander the Great and his campaign to India is perhaps one of the most early important events in the history of India which has been recorded by the western historians . Though the European historians have written much about Alexander and his campaign , the ancient Indian historians have not  written much about him . That may be because, to the most Indians he was just like another conqueror from the west who tried to invade the Indian subcontinent. Alexander crossed the Hindukush mountains in eastern Afghanistan in the month of May, 327 BC. He fought for more than a year against various tribes in what is now North Pakistan until he could cross the river Indus in February 326 BC.

The king of Takshashila (Taxila) accepted Alexander’s suzerainty without putting up a fight. He proved to be a generous host to the Greeks and is reported to have fed them with the meat of 3,000 oxen and more than 10,000 sheep. Then he also provided the Greeks with 5,000 auxiliary troops so that they could better fight his neighbour, King Poros. King Poros belonged to the tribe of the Pauravas, descended from the Puru tribe mentioned so often in the Rigveda. He joined battle with Alexander at the head of a mighty army with some 2,000 elephants, but Alexander defeated him by a sudden attack after crossing the river Hydaspes at night although the river was in flood. Alexander then reinstated the vanquished Poros and made him his ally.

The river which Greeks called Hydaspes is now known as Jhelum. It was also known as Vitashta in ancient Hindu scriptures. The historical name of Beas is given as Hyphasis by the Greek historians. The surrender of king Poros and his subsequent reinstatement has been romanticised in many novels and has acquired a mythological reference to treatment of captured enemy.

The famous Indian monsoon and the rains are said to have obstructed Alexander’s march east. He was determined to go on, but when his army reached the river Hyphasis (Beas), east of the present city of Lahore, his soldiers refused to obey his orders for the first time in eight years of incessant conquest. It is said that Alexander had motivated them by saying that they were to conquer the lands till the end of the world .  Alexander was convinced that he would soon reach the end of the world, but his soldiers were less and less convinced of this as they proceeded to the east where more kings and war elephants were waiting to fight against them. Greek and Roman authors report that the Nandas, who had their capital at Pataliputra when Alexander the Great conquered north western India, had a powerful standing army of 200,000 infantrymen, 20,000 horsemen, 2,000 chariots drawn by four horses each, and 3,000 elephants. This is the first reference to the large-scale use of elephants in warfare. Such war elephants remained for a long time the most powerful strategic weapons of Indian rulers until the Central Asian conquerors of the medieval period introduced the new method of the large-scale deployment of cavalry.

Alexander’s speech in which he invoked the memory of their victories over the Persians in order to persuade them to march on is one of the most moving documents of Alexander’s time, but so is the reply by Coenus, his general, who spoke on behalf of the soldiers. Alexander finally turned back and proceeded with his troops south along the river Indus where they got involved in battles with the tribes of that area, especially with the Malloi (Malavas). Alexander was almost killed in one of these encounters. He then turned west and crossed, with parts of his army, the desert land of Gedrosia which is a part of present Baluchistan. Very few survived this ordeal. In May 324 BC, three years after he had entered India, Alexander was back at Susa in Persia. In the following year he died in Babylon.

Alexander’s early death and the division of his empire among the Diadochi who fought a struggle for succession put an end to the plan of integrating at least a part of India into the Hellenistic empire. By 317 BC the peripheral Greek outposts in India had been given up. Thus Alexander’s campaign remained a mere episode in Indian history, but the indirect consequences of this intrusion were of great importance. The reports of Alexander’s companions and of the first Greek ambassador at the court of the Mauryas were the main sources of Western knowledge about India from the ancient to the medieval period of history. Also, the Hellenistic states, which arose later on India’s north western frontier in present Afghanistan had an important influence on the development of  Indian art as well as on the evolution of sciences such as astronomy.

The memory of Alexander the Great returned to India only much later with the Islamic conquerors who saw him as a great ruler worth emulating. One of the sultans of Delhi called himself a second Alexander, and the Islamic version of this name (Sikander) was very popular among later Islamic rulers of India and Southeast Asia. The ancient Persian and later Islamic texts also hold Alexander as a truly great conqueror.

There is still a section of India historians and intellectuals who do not rank Alexander of any importance only because he could not or did not invade the Gangetic plain, which still today remains the measure of  India for many. Well, they may be right or wrong in their own way. But considering everything in the context of history, Alexander and his campaign has left their indelible mark on the world and influenced history of Europe and Asia by a very large extent.

Kind acknowledgement - A History of India  by Hermann Kulke and
Dietmar Rothermund

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