India: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

The Invasion of Alexander the Great

The last chapter dealt with events which happened so very long ago that when we write or read of them we almost feel as though we were searching for things in a dark night with the help of a lantern.

We now reach a second period, in which we see movements taking place as though in the dim twilight of early morning. And most of these events are great invasions, wars, and battles. Fortunately, about one of them we know a great deal, because the invaders brought with their armies many writers and men of science, who made a careful record of what they found in India at that time.

This important event was the invasion of India by the Greeks under Alexander the Great. It took place three hundred and twenty-seven years before Christ, and was the first time that India ever came into close touch with Europe. A good deal, however, had been heard about her before that; for her trade and merchandise had for a very long time been seen in Egypt and Palestine, and through the merchants of these countries found its way into Europe. Homer knew of many articles of Indian trade by their old Hindu or Sanscrit names, and a long list has been made of Indian products which are mentioned in the Bible.

But it was through the wonderful march of the splendid Greek and Macedonian soldiery whom Alexander led through Asia Minor and Persia that Europeans and Indians first looked into one another's faces. It was the first meeting of the two halves of the Aryan race since their forefathers had parted ten centuries before. We cannot help feeling sorry that the writings of the skilled historians and men of science who accompanied Alexander's army were afterwards lost, but fortunately we are able to find a good deal of what they wrote in the works of ancient authors like Strabo, Pliny, and Arrian, who have given them to us in a shortened form.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


We learn that Alexander, after crossing the river Indus, from which the Hindus take their name, marched south-eastward to a place called Jalālpur on the river Hydaspes, or the Jhelum, as it is now called. Now the king of this part of India, whose name was Porus, was a great warrior. His spies had told him long before which way Alexander was coming, and so he made ready a large army with 200 war elephants and many chariots, which he posted near the banks of the river to prevent the invaders from crossing into his country.

Alexander, at once seeing that it was impossible to get his army over the river at this point, kept a large force out of sight behind some hills and looked about for another place where he could "steal a passage," as he said. His scouts soon found a spot about ten miles further up where there was an island in the river covered with trees, and a thickly wooded promontory on the other side which would conceal his movements.

So, leaving the greater part of his army at Jalālpur to make Porus think he was still waiting there, he secretly marched away, through some deep valleys between the hills, with 6000 foot-soldiers and 10,000 horsemen to the place he had chosen for his crossing. He had to lead his men about seventeen miles round, but he reached his goal at night and crossed the river in the midst of a terrible storm of thunder, lightning, and rain.

Now Porus had scouts all along the bank of the river, and hearing from them that the Greeks were crossing higher up, he dispatched his son in haste with a force of chariots and cavalry to stop them. They attacked Alexander about two miles from his crossing-place, but were defeated after a sharp fight, in which Alexander's favourite horse, the famous Bucephalus, was killed by the son of Porus immediately before he was himself slain.

This fight gave Porus time to form up his army in a good position to meet his enemy, and, when Alexander approached, the Indians were drawn up in a line about four miles long, with the great war elephants, thirty feet apart from one another, standing in front of dark masses of foot-soldiers, while the cavalry and chariots were posted on the flanks. It must have been a formidable-looking battle array, and when Alexander with his horsemen got close enough to examine the Indian position, he saw it was useless to attack where the elephants stood with the infantry massed behind them. So, as he had many more horsemen than Porus, he resolved to charge the flanks or sides of the Indian army. His plan succeeded. The cavalry and chariots of Porus could not withstand the powerful attacks of Alexander's numerous horsemen, and were gradually driven in on to the infantry and elephants in the centre, just as you would shut up a telescope.

To save the day, Porus ordered his 200 elephants to charge the enemy, and these huge beasts, with the help of the foot-soldiers, rushed forward and beat back the Greeks for some time. Then Alexander ordered his men to attack the elephants with arrows and javelins, and at last these great animals, maddened with fear and smarting with wounds, dashed madly about, trampling upon friend and foe alike. It must have been a terrible scene. The army of Porus was thrown into confusion. His cavalry and chariots were cut to pieces and his infantry badly shaken by the enemy's horsemen. Then the main force of Alexander, which had been watching the battle across the river, fought its way over the stream and joined in the struggle. The Indian army at once broke up in confusion and fled in all directions, large numbers being cut down in the retreat.



After the defeat of Porus, with whom, it is pleasant to record, he at once formed a close friendship, Alexander continued his march to the south-east. He had heard of the mighty river Ganges, and his great desire was to reach its banks. But it was not to be. He and his host of heroes had already done what no other army had ever done before or since. They had marched thousands of miles from their homes in far-off Greece and Macedon. They had crossed great mountains, scorching plains, and broad rivers, which in those days were scarcely known, and had fought and conquered in many great battles against numerous and powerful enemies.

But now the terrible heat of India and the hurricanes of the south-west monsoons were beginning to tell upon his men. We should remember, too, that war in those days was much harder work than now, when men fight in light clothing and generally at a distance with rifles or cannon. But in those early times men met in battle hand-to-hand, fighting one another with heavy swords, spears, and shields. They also wore heavy armour and helmets, so that unless a man were a powerful athlete he had very little chance in those fierce struggles.

After more than a year of heavy fighting and marching, Alexander's army began to think they had gone far enough. For not only were there numerous enemies in their front as well as broad and deep rivers to be crossed, but foes had risen behind them who threatened to cut off their retreat to the west should they meet with any disaster. All, therefore, wished to return; and so Alexander, much against his will, halted his army on the banks of the river Beas, not far from where many centuries later the British were to fight the great battle of Sobraon against the Sikhs.

We need not follow the great Macedonian king in his retirement, partly by land and partly by sea, to Persia. It is enough to say that he founded cities and planted garrisons in various parts of northern India, and the remains of these ancient Greek cities and settlements are visible in many directions at the present time. Even to-day in every little village the name of "Alik Jullunder sahib," which means Alexander, is spoken of with reverence, and village doctors still boast that they give medicines which were used by the Greeks. But as we look back at it now, we are able to see that this great march of Alexander and his army into India was little more than a wonderful adventure, for time blotted out all its effects. It did nothing to turn the Indian people to Western ways, and it did not even bring about any lasting connexion between India and Europe.