B.C. 326 TO B.C. 320
"Some talk of Alexander...."
Who does not know the context? Who also does not think that he knows
who Alexander was, who could not, if necessary, reel off a succinct
account of his character, his conquests?
And yet, though most know of his Anabasis, how few have really grasped
the picturesque points of his grand sweep on India. Who, for instan
has properly appraised and inwardly digested, until it remains as a
living picture in the mind's eye for ever, that quaint thirty days'
halt of the Macedonian legions on the western bank of the Indus, while
on the eastern lay, ripe for plucking, the rich harvest of the fertile
plains of India?
It was not a halt of preparation. Hephaistion had already swung the
barges across the tumultuous swirls of the great river, and a bridge,
unstable, yet firm, lay ready for use. The cohorts were eager.
Taxiles, the Indian king, had sent from the Takhsha, or Snake-City,
over the water, half a million of tribute, and an advance guard of
seven hundred horsemen and thirty caparisoned elephants. For he was
wily, and the Western army would aid him against his hereditary enemy
the great Porus, or Puar, a representative, doubtless, of the Rajput
tribe of that name, who reigned beyond the next river--the Jhelum.
So there was no real need for this prolonged rest, for this fateful
pause, ere the West reached out its hand and gripped the East. Still,
Alexander deemed it necessary for the purpose, as Arrian puts it
naively, of "offering sacrifice to the gods to whom he was in the
habit of sacrificing."
He had conquered many other lands. Whence came this hesitation, this
desire for divine guidance? And wherefore did Taxiles, sacrificing to
the gods to whom he was not in the habit of sacrificing, send over
three thousand oxen and ten thousand sheep as victims?
Who can say? All we know is, that the sacrifices were favourable to
the crossing, as they were bound to be since Alexander had made up his
mind to it. Whereupon he "celebrated a gymnastic and horse contest
near the river"; those who took part in it, doubtless, wearing crowns
of the ivy leaves which the Macedonian legions, as Arrian writes, had
found at Mount Merus to their great delight, "for they had not seen
any for a long time. So they eagerly made garlands of it, singing
hymns in honour of Dionysus."
It must have been a pleasant rest, a jolly time, those thirty days of
February and March spent by the sliding river. Those of us who know
Northern India have memories of many such a sojourn in the enchanted
no-man's-land of a Punjab river-bed, where the soil on which the tent
is pitched one year may be deep stream the next, and the great solemn
cranes stalk amongst the young green wheat, and the flocks of
flamingoes show rosy-red in the sunrises. Bright, bracing memories
these, full, as it were, of the wild wings of many quaint aquatic
birds, full of the deep spoors of the heavy black buffaloes, and the
motionless grey logs of bottle-nosed crocodiles.
Alexander's army, however, had no such mise en scene. At
Attock--about which place the bridge must have spanned the Indus--the
river rushes between fixed rocky banks; the uneven country is broken
by ravines, or, rather, deep clefts, which look as though they had
been split open in the barren, undulating valley by the burning summer
heat of the sun. And all around, upon a near horizon, rise, curiously
opalescent at all times, whether red by day or white by moonlight, a
circle of rocky hills. Elusive hills, distant at one moment, seeming
to crush in the valley at another.
One can imagine them rose-red in the dawn, when the order came at
last, and Alexander the Invincible closed in grips with his new
Plain sailing at first, despite the false alarm of the last day's
march to Taxila, when a complete army in order of battle was seen on
the horizon, and startled Alexander into instant dispositions for
attack, until this display of force was proved to be an Indian form of
honourable reception. The Serpent-City, yielded up to him by its
willing ruler without a blow, gave occasion "for more sacrifices which
were customary for him to offer."
Once again, however, not customary to "Taxiles the Indian," who must
have watched this honouring of strange gods with furtive, wily eyes,
thinking the while of Porus, with the whole of his mighty army waiting
on the further side of the Jhelum River for this upstart Western
conqueror as a spider waits a fly.
Here at Taxila, also, "the king of the Mountaineer-Indians sent
envoys, the embassy including the king's brother, as well as the other
most notable men." This is one version of the story. Another is that
Alexander fought a pitched battle with the mountaineers, defeating
them, of course; but this is negatived by Arrian's distinct assertion
that when the conqueror moved Jhelum-wards in May, he left behind him
only "soldiers who were invalided by sickness."
In those days Taxila was a University city, one of the largest in the
East--rich, luxurious, populous--noted as the principal seat of
learning in Northern India. All that is left of it now is some miles
of ruins between Hasan-Abdal and Rawalpindi, and a few copper and
silver pieces, more ingots than coins, punched in quaint, rude
devices. To Alexander it was a hospitable resting-place, where king
vied with conqueror in lavish generosity of mutual gifting. Golden
crowns for the Macedonian and all his friends; caparisoned chargers,
Persian draperies, banqueting vessels for the king and courtiers.
Pleasant rain fell also, laying the Punjab dust, and hastening the
flower-buds to bursting.
But behind all the policy and the pleasure, like a low, distant
thunder cloud, lay Porus, with an army fifty thousand strong, biding
his time beyond the river.
He had to be faced; so, early in May, Alexander, his small force
augmented by a contingent from Taxila, arrived on the banks of the
Hydaspes. Very different weather now from what it had been in March.
The hot winds were blowing, the rocks and sand were all aglow, and in
its widening bed, as the Jhelum debauched from the hills, the river,
swollen by the melting of Himalayan snows, showed a turbulent flood,
separating him from his enemy, who, with all his army and his huge
troop of elephants, could be seen lining the opposite shore.
How to cross to him, how to give the invincible Macedonian cavalry
time to recover and re-form after a forced passage, was the problem
He set his camp face to face with his enemy's, and sent back for the
boats with which he had crossed the Indus. A veritable burning of the
bridge behind him in a way; but Alexander never considered defeat.
The easiest plan would no doubt have been to wait comfortably encamped
till October chill should have checked the melting of summer snow;
but, once again, Alexander considered no delay.
So there ensued what Arrian terms "the stealing of a passage." Day and
night long the sentinels of Porus were given no rest. Flotillas of
boats went up and down the river, reconnaissance parties were here,
there, everywhere, menacing a ford; and all the while it was being
spread about that Alexander, baffled, disappointed, was fast making up
his mind to wait till winter.
Yet 16 miles upwards, almost among the mountains, behind a wooded
island which shut out the view southward, galleys, rafts, skins
stuffed with hay, everything needful for a forced passage was secretly
Night after night brought a feint of attack. As Arrian writes:--
"The cavalry was led along the bank in various directions, making a
clamour and raising the battle cry ... as if they were making all
preparations for crossing the river.... When this had occurred
frequently ... Porus no longer continued to move about also; but,
perceiving his fear had been groundless, he kept his position."
It was not, however, as Arrian calls it, by "marvellous audacity"
only, that Alexander finally succeeded in his object. As one reads the
minute precautions, the stringent orders, the foresight displayed for
every possible complication, one is forced to acknowledge the master
mind of the commander. Small wonder if the very heavens fought for
him. It was now July, month of torrential rains, fierce storms; and
one of these fell suddenly like a pall over Alexander's forced night
march of 16 miles--"The noise of the thunder," Arrian writes, "drowned
with its din the clatter of the weapons."
Thus, noisily yet secretly, the position was gained by the 11,000
picked troops led by Alexander in person. The storm passed; the dawn
rose, calm and bright, to find the Western soldiers across the stream,
crashing through the low undergrowth of what their general deemed was
the mainland. For it was July now, and the rains had brought that
marvellous luxuriance of sudden life which springs ever from the union
of sun and water. So we can imagine the well-greaved Greeks brushing
aside the low daphne bushes, and crushing under foot the trailing
arches of the ground maidenhair fern. To find disappointment await
them, as, standing on a further shore, they realised that they were on
an island, that before them lay another formidable channel, swollen by
the night's rain. For a while the cavalry could find no ford; when
found, it was but a swimming one. Yet even so, dripping, half-drowned,
the legions were over and deployed in the open, before any attempt at
opposition could be made.
So with Alexander at the head, the West did battle for the first time
with the East.
The result was foregone. Outnumbered as it was by nearly five to one,
Alexander's force was still one of veterans, and Alexander himself the
foremost military genius of his own or any age.
The story, then, of the great battle of the Hydaspes remains as a
lesson in warfare, and soldiers of to-day may pore over the sketch map
of it in admiration. Here, in this attempt to give Indian history in
picturesque form, all minor things, the magnificent charges of the
Macedonian cavalry, the desperate courage of the Indians, even the
awful carnage wrought by the maddened elephants cooped up within
narrow space, all these fade into insignificance before the tale--so
seldom told as it should be told--of the meeting of Alexander and
Porus after the battle was over in the eighth hour of the day. Let it
be told in Arrian's own words.
"When Porus, who exhibited great talent in the battle, performing
deeds not only of a general, but of a valiant soldier, observed the
slaughter of his cavalry ... and that most of his infantry had
perished, he did not depart, as Darius the Persian king did, setting
an example of flight to his men.... At last, having received a wound
... he turned his elephant round and began to retire.
"Alexander, having seen him valiant in battle, was very desirous of
saving his life. Accordingly, he sent to him first Taxiles the Indian,
who, riding up ... as near as seemed safe, bade him ... listen to
Alexander's message. But when he saw his old foe Taxiles, Porus
wheeled and prepared to strike him with a javelin, and would probably
have killed him, if he had not quickly driven his horse beyond reach.
But not even on this account was Alexander angry ... but kept sending
others in succession, and last of all Meroes the Indian ... an old
friend of Porus.
"As soon as the latter heard the message of Meroes, and being overcome
by thirst from his wound, he dismounted from his elephant. After he
had drank water and felt refreshed, he ordered Meroes to lead him
without delay to Alexander....
"And Alexander rode in front of the line with a few of the Companions
to meet him, and stopping his horse, admired the handsome figure and
the stature of Porus, which reached somewhat about 5 cubits (6 ft. 6
in.). He was also surprised that he did not seem to be cowed in
spirit, but advanced to meet him as one brave man would meet another
brave man.... Then, indeed, Alexander was the first to speak, bidding
him say what treatment he would like to receive.
"'Treat me, O Alexander, in a kingly way!'
"Alexander, pleased, said: 'For my own sake, O Porus, I do that, but
for thine, do thou demand what is pleasing unto thee.'
"But Porus said all things were included in that, whereupon Alexander,
being still more pleased, not only granted him the rule over his own
Indians, but also added another country of larger extent than the
former to what he had before. Thus he treated the brave man in a
kingly way, and from that time found him faithful in all things."
A fine picture this; one which does not readily desert the mind's eye
when once it has found place there. And a fine beginning also to the
dealings of the West with the East. Pity that in the years to come the
same policy was not always adopted.
In commemoration of this victory a town was founded on the
battle-field, and another near the present one of Jhelum, in memory of
the horse "Bucephalus," who died there full of years and honour; not,
as Arrian says,
"from having been wounded by any one, but from the effects of toil and
old age; for he was about thirty years old, and quite worn out with
toils. He had shared many hardships and incurred many dangers with
Alexander, being ridden by none but the King, because he rejected all
The triumphal progress through the Doabs, which ensued on Alexander's
passage of the Hydaspes, was only checked by the stout resistance of
Sangala, a fortified town as yet unidentified. But with the help of a
fresh contingent brought by Porus, it was razed to the ground as a
punishment for its stubborn and useless resistance.
And now before the conqueror lay the river Beas; beyond it, a nation
by repute brave, well equipped, more civilised than those through
which he had passed like a flaming sword. His own courage rose high;
to him "there seemed no end of the wars so long as anything hostile to
But the spirit of the soldiers had begun to flag. It was now
September, the most trying month in Upper India. The lassitude born of
long heat disposed the men to listen to the tales of gigantic heroes
beyond the water, and so the exhortations of their leader fell on deaf
ears. Yet, as given by Arrian, the words were stirring beyond compare.
"If they had come so far, why should they shrink from adding further
lands to their Empire of Macedonia? To brave men there was no end to
labours except the labours themselves, provided they led to glorious
achievements. The distance to the Eastern ocean was not great, and
that must be united to their own familiar sea, since the Great Waters
encircled the earth. If they went back, the races they had conquered,
not being as yet firm in allegiance, might revolt. Oh! Macedonian and
Grecian Allies stand firm! Glorious are the deeds of those who undergo
labours, who live a life of valour, and die, leaving behind them
But the words only provoked a long silence. And so the flaming sword
turned back; but the great fighting heart of its holder seems to have
been left behind in the old bed of the Beas River, where, on its
furthest bank, as a memorial of what would have happened but for dull
humanity, he erected twelve huge altars--
"equal in height to the loftiest military towers, while exceeding them
in breadth; to serve both as a thank-offering to the gods who had led
him so far as a conqueror, and also to serve as monuments of his own
labours. And after completing them, he offered sacrifices on them" (to
the gods to whom he was in the habit of sacrificing, doubtless!), "and
celebrated a gymnastic and equestrian contest."
A very different festivity this from that upon the banks of the Indus;
and we can imagine the great leader coming back across the wide stream
in his oared galley from the useless, unreal ceremonial, with bent
head and arms crossed like Napoleon on his way to St Helena.
A picture that fittingly may end the story of Alexander in India; for
the record of his retreat is a record of success without aim, beyond
the discovery of the Great Sea which encircles the whole Earth.
There is something intensely pathetic in this story of his choice of
the river Hydaspes as his means of retreat, of the infinite care for
every unit in his force which he showed before that approach of the
dawn in late October, when, without confusion, without disorder, he
poured a libation out of a golden goblet from the prow of his vessel
into the stream, in the name of his gods and the three great rivers,
the Jhelum, the Chenab, the Indus, to whom he trusted; then,
doubtless, flinging the cup of gold far into the sliding water,
ordered the signal for starting seawards to be given with the trumpet.
So in slow, stately, orderly procession (the "noise of the rowing"
mingling with "the cries of the captains, the shouts of the
boatswains," and the choric "songs of farewell from the natives who
ran along the banks, into a veritable battle cry"), he passed down to
the Great Ocean. The voyage took a year, and he reached the sea coast
not very far from where Kurrachee now stands. Practically, Alexander
was in India proper but nineteen months, and the outward result of his
flaming sword had passed almost before his premature death at Babylon,
a year and a half after he left its shores. But, though India remained
outwardly as ever "splendidly isolated," forgetful of the West, she
had felt the Hellenic power; she feels it still. In every little
village "Jullunder" (Alexander) is still a name wherewith to conjure,
and the village doctor still claims, with pride, to follow the Yunani
(Ionian) system of medicine.
That the former should be the case is surely small wonder. India
is ever the slave of vitality, and Alexander was vital to the
finger-tips. What else could be said of the man who, finding himself
checked in an assault on a stronghold, leapt from the bastion into the
fort, and, supporting himself against the wall, kept the enemy at bay
with his sword, till one by one his followers, maddened by the sight
of their beloved leader's danger, followed him in time to rescue him,
But the deed which, of all others, Arrian extols as the most noble
deed ever performed by Alexander, took place in this wise in the
desert. His army, parched with thirst, were stumbling on blindly, led,
as usual in times of distress, by Alexander on foot.
To him, weary and exhausted, returned scouts, bearing with them water
collected in a helmet with great difficulty from some cleft in a
He took it, thanking the bearers, but immediately poured it upon the
ground in sight of all. "As a result of this," Arrian writes, "the
entire army was reinvigorated to so great a degree that any one would
have imagined that the water so lavished had furnished draught for
Truly, though he left little of sovereignty behind him, Alexander left
enough pictures imprinted on the soil of Hindustan to furnish forth
many a gallery.