Alexander The ‘Great’ And His Not So Great Indian Conquest

Alexander The ‘Great’ And His Not So Great Indian ConquestAlexander the Great, on his horse Boucephalus. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  • An objective look at Alexander’s India campaign reveals that maybe he was not ‘great’.

School children in India have grown up reading about Alexander the ‘Great’, the military genius the world has ever seen, who defeated and subjugated most of the ‘known world’ of his time and left an indelible mark on world history; or so western historians would have us believe.

It is another matter that even regarding ‘world’ conquest he would not compare favourably with others including the Mongol Chengis Khan.

What about the last campaign of Alexander - the invasion of India? It is time, perhaps, to revisit the myth around this ancient Macedonian king with particular reference to his campaign in India. Did he conquer India or did his hubris lead him to overreach with disastrous results for himself and his army? Read on for the full story.

Alexander III succeeded his father Philip II of Macedon to the throne in 336 BC. After consolidating his position in Greece, he turned his attention to Asia in keeping with his father’s dream and defeated the Persians roundly taking over their territories from them.

In May 327 BC, he neared the fabled land of the Hindus (as the Persians called them) and attracted by stories of its riches and prosperity as well as his belief that the world ended beyond India (conquering India would, therefore, make him a world conqueror) Alexander entered the north-west of the sub-continent clashing with the kingdoms to the west of the Sindhu River.

He was able to secure his entry due to the treachery of Ambhi of Takshshila and Sasigupta who joined hands with him.

Alexander then marched forward defeating and decimating the small local kingdoms of that area. Crossing the Sindhu, he held court in Ambhi’s Takshshila to plan the rest of his campaign across India.

He had now to meet Paurava, the ruler of Kaikeya in the Jhelum-Chenab doab, Ambhi’s rival and the most powerful ruler of the north-west, in war.

The Battle of Jhelum, or Hydaspes as the Greeks called it, took place on the banks of the River Jhelum in May 326 BC, perhaps the only major battle won by Alexander in India against a numerically larger army. Let us consider it further.

It was monsoon, and the Jhelum River was over-lowing. Alexander crossed it with a feint and surprised Paurava on the opposite bank.

Paurava had elephants placed in front flanked by infantry on both sides. The flanks of the infantry were guarded by cavalry which was protected by chariots in front.

The rains spelt disaster for the Puru King; the chariot wheels stuck in the mud and the longbows of the archers slipped on the muddy ground. Alexander and his general Coenus attacked the flanks of Paurava’s army and his horse archers, unfettered by the mud, pelted the elephants with arrows. The elephants panicked and caused untold damage to their side. Coenus circled and attacked Paurava’s rear left flank; this flank backed straight into the arms of Alexander’s other general Craterus who had by then crossed the Jhelum with reinforcements. Paurava was defeated.

Paurava had lost the day against a smaller army due to the elements of surprise, rain and panicked elephants.

Making Paurava the Greek satrap of his erstwhile kingdom Alexander moved on to the next kingdoms on the river Chenab.

In the meanwhile the people rose against the satraps, he had placed in the conquered territories and one of them, Phillip (the satrap placed in modern south Punjab), was killed. Others asked for urgent help to hold the kingdoms in control.

He pressed on, nonetheless, defeating the small kingdoms on his way and finally reached the River Beas.

Alexander and his army were now faced with moving forward and meeting the famed and redoubtable Nanda king of Magadha, reputed to have a fierce army of 80,000 horse, 200,000 foot and 6000 war elephants. The Ganga, too, was an enormous river, terrifying to those fighting on the banks of the relatively smaller Sindhu tributaries.

Intimidated, exhausted and depleted, the Greek Army refused to go any further, and Alexander was forced to turn back, meeting a few more kingdoms in battle and massacring a few more cities with women and children on his way back. He received a severe wound during one of these battles from which he probably never recovered.

The withdrawal itself was a disaster, and Alexander lost most of his army in the deserts of Baluchistan and Makran. He died in Babylon a year later.

Before his return, he had divided his Indian conquests into six satrapies none of which lasted and were speedily subsumed into the Mauryan Empire of Chandragupta.

So, did he leave his mark on India?

Let us look closely at the after-effects of this campaign from the military, political and socio-cultural points of view.

Alexander's military campaign against India was an ill thought out a case of overreach. He simply bit off more than he could chew and lost half his army and his life on his return from this campaign. There was no gain of territory.

It lacked an overall strategy, and his army was not up to the challenge of fighting in India. Originally composed around a disciplined core of skilled Thracian and Macedonian soldiers when he had set out to conquer Asia it had collected many disparate elements after the death and loss of these soldiers.

The soldiers who died or were left behind due to injury and weakness were replaced by a ragtag group which was neither as trained or disciplined as the campaign warranted. As they marched further into India, it was no longer a fighting force which could withstand the gruelling resistance that each and every kingdom put up. In contrast to his other Asian conquests, the Indians kingdoms fought him to the last man and even woman, apart from a few traitors, and this ground down his army’s morale and strength. The fearsome reputation of the Nanda of Magadha proved to be the last straw, and the army finally refused to fight with them.

Also, there was no arrangement for a continuous supply of rations and resources, and as the people themselves were hostile to him, resources had to be wrested from them.

Again, he did not have the wherewithal to secure his conquests administratively or militarily.

When he enquired about his dreams for world conquest from an Indian Rishi the rishi used a piece of dry rawhide to illustrate the point; standing on one end of the hide would keep it down, but the other side would rise; on pressing down the other side, the first one would rise in its turn.

This simple metaphor implied that he did not have the wherewithal to dominate the entire area of his conquests. He could not subdue all of the lands he had conquered so far away from his centre in Macedonia.

Also, unfortunately for his dreams of being a world conqueror after overrunning India, Alexander managed to enter just partially into India’s north-west, merely a toe in the door of the massive sub-continent, so to speak.

Politically speaking, the satrapies established by Alexander did not survive the onslaught of Chandragupta Maurya; within a short time the areas conquered by Alexander were retaken by Indians under the Mauryans and became part of their pan-Indian empire.

Even the cultural and social impact of the Greeks was felt in a meaningful way only after Chandragupta and Seleucus Nicator (one of Alexander’s generals who established the Seleucid Empire in Asia) clashed on the banks of the River Kubha (Kabul) and then entered into a treaty inaugurating the era of Mauryan-Seleucid friendship.

At most, his foray into India can be seen as the opening of a door between the Indians and the Greeks which was used to the full between the Mauryans and the Seleucids, of whom, more later.

To sum up, Alexander marched a long way and sacrificed a huge army in return for neither territorial gain nor any cultural or social legacy. The India campaign destroyed his army, and he did not live for more than a year after his return, dying, according to some reports, of a wound received in one of his Indian battles. Not such a great last campaign for a ‘world conqueror’, perhaps?

After two decades in the Indian Revenue Service Sumedha Verma Ojha now follows her passion, Ancient India; writing and speaking across the world on ancient Indian history, society, women, religion and the epics. Her Mauryan series is ‘Urnabhih’; a Valmiki Ramayan in English and a book on the ‘modern’ women of ancient India will be out soon.


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