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Alexander invaded India expecting a heroic entry but in the end it turned into a humiliating retreat.

If you’ve seen the epic movie Alexander by Oliver Stone, you wouldn’t have missed the noted American director’s commentary at the end where he talks about the battle of Multan. Stone – with smugness more suited to a conqueror than a director – narrates how the Macedonian king single-handedly jumped into combat against 1000 Indian defenders, inspiring his dithering Greek soldiers and commanders to storm their fort.

To the victors go the spoils, so if the Greeks and Macedonians were really victorious, as European accounts narrate, then why did they leave India so soon? After all, over 99 per cent of the country was still unconquered. And why did the retreating army resemble a defeated brood – rather than a triumphant force – trekking across inhospitable areas, losing an estimated 60,000 men in the process?

The fact is that Alexander’s Indian campaign was a complete disaster for the Greeks. They were traumatised after the first few battles, losing most of their men in ferocious battles against Indian warriors, the likes of whom they had never encountered before.

Let’s flashback to history! In 326 BC the formidable Greek-Macedonian army entered India. It was the first time Europeans and Indians first looked into one another’s faces; the first meeting of the two halves of the Aryan people since their forefathers had parted centuries before.

In his first encounter, Alexander fought for four days against the warlike people of the city of Massaga in Swat valley. On the first day of this battle, Alexander was injured and forced to retreat. The same fate awaited him on the second and third days. When Alexander lost men and was on the verge of defeat, he called for a truce. Clearly, the Indians weren’t aware of the Trojan horse episode, for the Greeks slaughtered the unaware and unarmed citizens of Massaga as they slept in the night of the fourth day believing that the battle was over.

In the second and third battles at Bazira and Ora, Alexander faced a similar fate and again resorted to treachery to defeat those fortresses. But the fierce resistance put up by the Indian defenders had reduced the strength – and perhaps the will – of the until then all-conquering Macedonian-led army.

Greek histories record that Alexander’s hardest battle was the Battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum) in which he faced King Puru, the Yaduvanshi king of the Paurava kingdom of Punjab. Paurava was a prosperous Indian kingdom on the banks of the river Jhelum, and Puru – described in Greek accounts as Porus and standing over seven feet tall – was a generous monarch.

Perhaps, he was generous to a fault. Legend has it that ahead of Alexander’s entry into India, his Persian wife Roxana, the daughter of the defeated Persian king Darius, arrived in Paurava to meet King Puru, who was preparing for war against the foreign invader.

Roxana gained access to Puru, and through the bond of rakhi, declared herself his sister. She then begged Puru to spare her husband’s life if he encountered the Macedonian king in battle. The large-hearted Indian king agreed to this bizarre request.

In the autumn of 326BC, the Greek and Paurava armies faced each other across the banks of the river Jhelum in Punjab. By all accounts it was an awe-inspiring spectacle. The Greeks had 34,000 infantry and 7000 cavalry. This number was boosted further by their Persian allies.

Facing this tumultuous force led by the genius of Alexander was the Paurava army of 20,000 infantry, 2000 cavalry and 200 war elephants. Being a comparatively small kingdom by Indian standards, Paurava couldn’t have had such a large standing army, so it’s likely many of its defenders were hastily armed civilians.

According to Greek sources, for several days the armies eyeballed each other across the river. They write Alexander could not move his army across the river because it was swollen from the rains.

A lamer excuse is not found in history! Alexander’s army had crossed the Hellespont, a 1-8 km wide strip of sea that divides Asia and Europe, and which was well defended by the Persians. In comparison, crossing the narrower Jhelum against a much smaller adversary should have been a far easier task.

In reality, the Greek-Macedonian force, after having lost several thousand soldiers fighting much smaller Indian mountain cities, were terrified at the prospect of fighting the fierce Paurava army. They had also heard about the havoc that Indian war elephants were supposed to create among enemy ranks. The modern equivalent of battle tanks, the war elephants also scared the wits out of the horses in the Greek cavalry.

In the Battle of Hydaspes, the Indians fought with bravery and war skills that no other army had shown against the Greeks. In the first charge by the Indians, Puru’s brother Amar killed Alexander’s favourite horse Bucephalus, forcing Alexander to dismount. In battles outside India the elite Macedonian bodyguards had not allowed a single enemy soldier to deliver so much as a scratch on their king’s body, let alone slay his mount. Yet in this battle with the Paurava army, not only was Alexander injured, the Indians killed Nicaea, one of the leading Greek commanders.

According to the Roman historian Marcus Justinus, the battle was savagely fought. Puru challenged Alexander, who charged him on horseback. In the ensuing duel, Alexander fell off his horse and was at the mercy of the Indian king’s spear (and this is where legend meets history) when Puru perhaps remembered his promise to his rakhi sister (probably a Trojan horse sent in by the Greeks). He spared the Macedonian’s life, and Alexander’s bodyguards quickly carried off their king.

The Greeks may claim victory but if Alexander’s troops were so badly mauled by the petty regional fiefdoms, how could they have crushed the comparatively stronger army of Puru? An unbiased re-examination of contemporary histories suggests the Greeks probably lost the battle and Alexander sued for peace.

In his epic volume, The Life and Exploits of Alexander, a series of translations of the Ethiopic histories of Alexander, E.A.W. Budge, Egyptologist, orientalist and philologist, has given a vivid account of the Macedonian’s misadventure in India.

According to Budge, who worked for the British Museum in the early part of the 20th century, in the Battle of Hydaspes the Indians destroyed the majority of Alexander’s cavalry? Realising that if he were to continue fighting he would be completely ruined, the Macedonian requested Puru to stop fighting. True to Indian traditions, the magnanimous Indian king spared the life of the surrendered enemy. A peace treaty was signed, and Alexander helped Puru in annexing other territories to his kingdom.

The Greek geographer Strabo complains in the Geographika that all who wrote about Alexander preferred the marvellous to the true. Certainly he alludes to Alexander’s original propaganda to glorify his struggle in the East. He created his own mystified version of the campaign, transforming it into a search for divine traces.

For instance, the ancient Greeks believed that Dionysius, one of their chief Gods, had his origins in India. They also lamented that the legendary Heracles had failed in his Indian campaigns. Alexander wanted to succeed in the Dionysius’ homeland where the great Heracles himself had failed. Also, while the ostensible purpose of Alexander’s campaign was to avenge the Persians’ destruction of Athens, the real reason was that he had many enemies among Macedonia’s elite, and a state of continuous war kept the warriors and public busy. Indeed, he simply could not afford to go back defeated. The web of lies he and his entourage spun was in keeping with that scheme.

Plutarch, the Greek historian and biographer, says of the Battle of Hydaspes: “The combat with Porus took the edge off the Macedonians’ courage, and stayed their further progress into India. For having found it hard enough to defeat an enemy who brought but 20,000 foot and 2000 horse into the field, they thought they had reason to oppose Alexander’s design of leading them on to pass the Ganges, on the further side of which was covered with multitudes of enemies.”

Indeed, on the other side of the Ganges was the mighty kingdom of Magadh, ruled by the ferocious and wily Nandas, who commanded one of the largest standing armies in the world. According to Plutarch, the courage of the Greeks evaporated when they came to know that the Nandas “were awaiting them with 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, 8000 war chariots, and 6000 fighting elephants”. Undoubtedly, the Greeks would have walked into a slaughterhouse.

Still 400 km from the Ganges, the Indian heartland, Alexander ordered a retreat to great jubilation among his soldiers. The celebrations were premature. On its way south towards the mouth of the Indus river, Alexander’s army was constantly harried by Indian soldiers. When the Greeks pillaged villages, the Indians retaliated. In some kingdoms, the Indian soldiers simply fell upon the Greeks because they wouldn’t tolerate foreigners invading their country.

In a campaign at Sangala in Punjab, the Indian attack was so ferocious that it completely destroyed the Greek cavalry, forcing Alexander the great to attack on foot. However, in the following counterattack, Alexander took the fort and sold the surviving Indians into slavery. (That’s another facet of the Macedonian that is glossed over by western historians; Alexander was far from being a noble king, and on the contrary was a vicious and cruel person.)

His battle with the Malavs of Multan – the most warlike people of Punjab – is perhaps the most recounted. In the hotly contested battle, Alexander was felled by a Malav warrior whose arrow pierced the Macedonian’s breastplate and lodged in his ribs. The Indian warrior seeing the enemy king fall, advanced to take his armour but was checked by Alexander’s bodyguards who rushed into the battle to save their king. The Macedonians later stormed the fort and in revenge killed every one of the 17,000 inhabitants of the fort, including women and children. Alexander never recovered from the wound and died in Babylon (Iraq) at the age of 33.

Western historians depict the Battle of Hydaspes as a clash of the organised West and the muddling East. That one battle is portrayed as the Greek conquest of India, while the fact is that Alexander merely probed the north-western extremity of India. Puru was by any reckoning a minor king and doesn’t even merit a mention in Indian accounts.

The Greek invasion of India was a popular subject in Greece and Rome for many centuries. The Alexander romance even entered medieval European literature and religion. Much later it became the fountainhead of inspiration for the colonisation of the East, especially India.

Yet within a few years after Alexander’s retreat, the Indians drove the Greeks out of India. Inspired by the master strategist Chanakya, Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty, defeated Seleucus Necator, Alexander’s satrap. This was quite unlike the rest of Alexander’s other territorial conquests. It took the Sassanians 500 years to get back Persia from the Greeks. The Parthians were able to depose the Greeks 250 years after Alexander. Egypt never recovered its lost glory.

Arrian, the Roman biographer of Alexander, says the only ‘victory’ celebration by Alexander’s troops was after the battle with Puru. Surprising – that Alexander’s troops did not celebrate any victory, till the very end of the campaign. Was it, instead, a celebration that they had escaped with their lives?

The Greek retreat from India shows clear signs of a defeated force. Indeed, if the Greek and Macedonian soldiers were really that tired of fighting, as western historians claim, then the ‘triumphant’ troops should have returned via the same route they arrived. But instead they preferred to trek south through unknown and hostile lands in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. The only explanation is that they didn’t want to face the mountain kingdoms again.

Also, it’s a myth that the Greeks and Macedonians were tired of fighting and were hankering to meet their families. Alexander’s army had a system of rotation where large batches of soldiers were released to return home (with sufficient gold, slaves and other spoils of war) after major victories. In their place, fresh troops eager to do battle (and lured by the promise of more loot) were constantly trickling in from Greece.

There is more indirect evidence of the lack of major Greek victories in India. The booty that fell into Greek hands after they defeated the Persians in the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC is estimated at 100,000 talents (more than 2,500,000 kilos) of gold. However, there is no mention of any large booty captured from India – strange because those days India was pretty much swimming in gold and other precious metals and stones. So it can be safely argued that Alexander failed to get his hands on a substantial booty because he never won any substantial victories.On the contrary, Alexander gave King Ambhi, the ruler of Taxila, 1000 talents (over 25,000 kilos) of gold to fight alongside him in the battle against Puru. That’s even stranger! Because Greek sources say Ambhi voluntarily came over to their side. So why a willing ally was paid such a large amount? If Alexander was really rolling through India, it’s inconceivable he would pay off a minor king to ally with him.

Almost all accounts of Alexander’s campaigns in India have been based on modern European translations of ancient texts. Unless Indian universities and think tanks look at the original Greek, Roman, Ethiopian and Egyptian manuscripts, a clear picture will not emerge. European translations are mostly slanted for obvious reasons. The Greek and Roman civilisations are the wellspring of western thought, science, culture, religion and philosophy; a defeat for Alexander ‘the Great’, would be a blow for all that he represents – especially the triumph of the West over the East.

Until Indian scholars ferret out the facts, let Plutarch have the last word. The Greek historian says that after the battle with the Pauravas, the badly bruised and rattled Greeks were frightened when they received information that further from Punjab lay places “where the inhabitants were skilled in agriculture, where there were elephants in yet greater abundance and men were superior in stature and courage”.

No wonder the Greeks never came back!


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