The Greeks - In Search of an Ocean
(600-300 BC)


While the monarchy vs republics tussle was unfolding on the Gangetic Plains, the North West reaches of the subcontinent developed along a different trajectory. This was not so much because the stretch that lies between modern day Afghanistan and Punjab, did not have a similar structure of monarchies and tribal confederacies, but more because of the relations they developed with Persia and the rest of Asia Minor and Mediterranean.

Kamboja and Gandhara were the outermost regions and they had by the fifth century BC already developed significant relations with the Achaemenid Empire of Persia. Evidence exists of tributes being paid to Cyrus of Persia and armies recruited from the two regions battling against the Greeks.

However, it was only with the arrival of Alexander of Macedonia in 327 BC, marching successfully through Darius' Persia that the Greeks actually crossed over the Hindu Kush into the subcontinent. Most history text books speak in some vivid detail of the battle between Alexander and Puru (Poros to the Greeks) of Jhelum. While in terms of hard fought battles this one indeed may have been significant, there are other far more interesting questions that can be asked of the Greek efforts to enter the sub continent. Why, it could be asked, was Alexander interested in the sub continent? What impact did the Greek march down into the Punjab and further have on the evolving story of the region?

Alexander of Macedonia came to the sub continent in search of the ocean at the eastern most point of the Achaemenid Empire - "the problem of the Ocean" as some historians refer to it. It is thus that he traveled, after his truce with Puru, down the Punjab in search of the sea. But his campaign was in terrible shape by then as his soldiers often refused to cooperate and march on. It was under these circumstances that Alexander decided to send part of his army down the Indus to the Ocean and from there on by sea via the Persian Gulf back to Babylon. As the tortured journey down and then back up again culminated (he died shortly thereafter) he did leave behind many Governors and settlements all along the route into the Punjab. But it is indicative of the State of his campaign that these did not survive as "kingdoms." Many of his Governors returned West while others migrated further into India. In such a context there are three interesting speculations of history that we can frame. First, in relation to the question of the independent trajectory that the North West took in comparison to the Gangetic Plains, Alexander's campaign is the first clearly documented story of "foreign invasion." We must note that the kingdoms of the plains used to consider the North West as impure for its continued contact with the "outsider." The critical question is why do we treat this "invasion" so differently in our history text books from later "invasions?" Further, it is possible to imagine that the settlements that the Greek campaign left behind were central to the strengthening of existing and the opening up of new trade routes between the sub continent and Iran, Asia Minor and the ports along Eastern Mediterranean and thus the opening up of the sub continent to the influences of the world outside. Finally, on a note of purely historical speculation we must note that the Greek campaign left a entire region without any strong kingdoms or republics. It was this political vacuum that Chandra Gupta Maurya was able to exploit to shore up the growing Mauryan Empire - leaving him only one difficult enemy in the region further South East - the Nandas.


References:

Thapar,Romila; Indian History vol.1; Penguin , 1981.
Thapar, Romila; Interpreting Early India; Oxford, 1992.
Kosambi, Damodar; An Introduction to the Study of Indian History; Popular Prakashan, 1975.
Panikkar, K. M; Survey of Indian History; Asia Publishing House, 1971.

This page is maintained by Biju Mathew

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