Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Alexander on the Hydaspes

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After taking Taxila and tarrying there some two weeks, Alexander headed for the kingdom of Raja Paurava. The Hydaspes River formed the border between the realms of Raja Ambhi of Taxila and that of Raja Paurava in the Chaj doab – the belt between the Chenab and the Jhelum. The question of the route that Alexander took from Taxila to his crossing point of the Hydaspes and the site of the epic battle with Raja Paurava has long been debated by scholars.

From very ancient times, Punjab was criss-crossed by a web of roads. The most famous and widely used was the Rajapatha or the King’s Road (shahi sarak, as the road has also been known, is a translation of the Sanskrit Rajapatha) that stretched from Patna in the east to Kabul in the west. This was the precursor of the Grand Trunk Road that we so love to attribute to Sher Shah Suri – as if before this great Pakhtun king the road simply did not exist.

For the road to have been labelled the Rajapatha, it must have enjoyed royal sanction. And this is what we hear even as early as the 4th century BCE. Word on this road comes to us from Megasthenes, a Greek diplomat who attended upon Chandragupta Maurya as the ambassador of Seleucus Nikator, the Greek king of Syria. Megasthenes arrived at the Mauryan court at Patna in the year 300 BCE and spent the next fifteen years in the subcontinent. His diplomatic duties took him travelling and he acquired extensive first-hand as well as anecdotal knowledge about the country. Consequently, the Indika that he wrote upon returning home became a fairly reliable source of information on things Indian. Among other things Megasthenes tells us of the Royal Road.

Megasthenes’ work is partially lost and comes down to us in fragments. It, therefore, does not tell us which alignment the Royal Road followed through the present district of Jhelum. The work of other travellers, however, show that there were at least two branches of the road leading westward to Taxila en route to Kabul. One branch crossed the Jhelum River at the site where we were to later build our Rasul Barrage. This branch climbed up into the red-tinged hills of the Salt Range through the Nandna Pass, crossed the Jhangar Valley (now in Chakwal district) to Kallar Kahar and then went north to Taxila.

The other branch of the road crossed the river where the city of Jhelum stands. This branch roughly followed the alignment of the present Grand Trunk Road from Jhelum through Rewat to Rawalpindi and farther west. The only difference was that the old alignment ran some distance east of the present highway: it left the modern road at the village of Bhakrala near the Sohawa Pass and ran to Karonta, past Dhamiak, Hathya and Pacca Serai to reach Rewat. Before attempting to unravel the secret of the route Alexander followed, it would be worthwhile to know what his historians tell us of the events of that long ago time.

Our most reliable source on Alexander is Arrian. Born of Greek parents about 85 CE, that is, four hundred years after the death of Alexander, Arrian grew up to join the Roman imperial service and rose to high rank and favour of the emperor. His book The Campaigns of Alexander, written when Arrian was in his middle years, is our best source on the military achievements of the Macedonian king. Arrian sources were varied. The letters that Alexander wrote to his mother or to his tutor Aristotle and the books or diaries written by Alexander’s colleagues and aides made the basis of Arrian’s book. It was just as well that a man like him was preserving history for us because very little of the original sources survives to this day.

Besides Arrian other classical writers most quoted on Alexander are the Greek philosopher Plutarch and the Roman historian Quintus Curtius, both of whom lived in the first century CE. None of these three historians give us any clue of the route Alexander traversed from Taxila to the Jhelum River. Consequently, 19th century European scholars offered different theories on this aspect, the arguments going in favour of either branch of the Rajapatha, that is the one that passed through the heart of the Salt Range or the one that took the alignment of the present-day Grand Trunk Road. In order to understand which route Alexander followed, we must work backward from the activities he pursued once he had reached the west bank of the Hydaspes River.

None of the available histories have anything to say on the march from Taxila to the Hydaspes. One moment we see him leaving Taxila and the next we are told (by Arrian) that from his position on the bank of the river, Alexander could see Paurava on the far side across the swirling brown eddies of the river. In magnificent battle array, with his chariots and cavalry fanning out on either side and his infantry shielded by squadrons of beautifully caparisoned elephants, Paurava was ready at the centre to deny the Greeks a crossing. Sending out scouts to reconnoitre the river both upstream and down of his position, Alexander learned that all other crossing points were covered by officer-led detachments of the Raja’s army.

Splitting his forces into several groups Alexander began a long series of ploys. In order to keep the Punjabis guessing, his officers were under order to keep up overt non-stop movement now in this direction, now in that while small boats and rafts were plied up and down the river well out of Punjabi bowshot. For added confusion about their dispositions, the Greeks kept up the movement and din even at night. Feints were mounted several times every night. On the far side, the Punjabis made corresponding moves to prevent passage.

Greek troops engaged in making hay-filled rafts in full view of the listening posts on the far side gave them the impression that a crossing was imminent. Simultaneously, Alexander also made it openly known that the river being in spate, he intended to wait until after the summer when the water would recede. Supplies of food being brought in from the country were stored in full view of the Punjabi scouts on the far side in order to show that the Greeks intended a long bivouac.

The crossing, Alexander knew, would be difficult. The mood in the Punjabi court and army was well known to Alexander even before he had set out of Taxila. His envoy to Paurava asking the Raja to come to the crossing point with tribute had returned with a bold response: Paurava would indeed come to the meeting, but his tribute would only be armed men and a hard battle. Also, Greek horses had never experienced elephants in combat. As they attempted to land, they were likely to be spooked by the loud trumpeting of the elephants and through off their riders. Consequently, there was no doubt in Alexander’s mind that the crossing would have to be effected by stratagem. Reconnaissance showed that by a sharp bend in the river, thickly covered with trees, there was a sandy spit sticking out into the water. Just off this headland lay an uninhabited and thickly wooded island. With the thickets concealing movement both on the shore and when the crossing was underway, this was the point where the manoeuvre had to be made. This point, Arrian writes, was ‘some eighteen miles from [the] main position….’

Let us now go back to the route that Alexander took from Taxila. The one theory that was favoured by no less than three 18th century researchers was that the Greek army followed the Rawalpindi-Sohawa alignment of the highway and camped at the site of Jhelum city. Then, following Arrian’s narration, the place where he crossed the river to do battle was variously placed at some distance upstream of Jhelum town. But Arrian was unequivocal about the distance between Alexander’s main position and the crossing point being no less than eighteen miles. The historians were thus hard put to point out an appropriate battleground on the east bank at that point above the city of Jhelum.

It was Aurel Stein who unravelled this teaser. Having already made a great impression on the world with his archaeological investigations in Chinese Tartary at the beginning of the century, Stein travelled in the Salt Range in the 1930s. His work on Alexander’s trail through this area is now accepted as the most likely analysis of that long ago event. From Taxila Alexander travelled south to Chakwal and Kallar Kahar to descend from the Salt Range via the Nandna Pass, wrote Stein. Thereafter he turned southwest (downstream) along the river to establish his main camp at Haranpur, now the site of a fabulous rail bridge. Across the river stood the defiant Raja Paurava at the head of his host.

The wooded promontory, Stein postulated, was at Jalalpur – a full eighteen miles from the main position at Haranpur. From Arrian we know that the night that Alexander chose for the crossing turned stormy. Sheet lightning tore across the sky; a steady downpour slanting under a stiff wind and claps of thunder muted the noise of the Greeks as they made ready the assault craft. A couple of hours before daybreak the Greeks went across in the darkness. But that is another story; all that we should know is that this event took place in late May of the year 326 BCE.

One wonders if Alexander remembered the crossing of the Tigris River in Mesopotamia barely five years earlier. Across that river on the dusty plain outside the city of Gaugamela (east of present-day Mosul in Iraq) waited the much larger army of Darius, king of Persia – Darius who had, until then, fled in shameless cowardice from every confrontation with Alexander. As Alexander waited and contemplated the crossing of the river, his general Parmenio advised a night attack. Alexander was not overly pleased with the suggestion and is reported to have said, ‘I will not demean myself by stealing victory like a thief, Alexander must defeat his enemies openly and honestly.’

Here on the Jhelum he was confronted by a considerably smaller army, yet when the time came, Alexander who despised stolen victories chose to attack in the dark of a stormy night. One wonders if he tried to reconcile the defiance of Gaugamela with this ‘theft’ and if anyone of his diarists noted his views. If anything of the sort happened, that record is lost.

A momentous event took place at the site of the river crossing: the death of Bucephalus, Alexander’s much loved horse. Again there are two views right from classical times. Plutarch tells us that the horse died after the battle with Paurava. That it was injured during the conflict and was being treated for its wounds, but it succumbed to old age and fatigue. Arrian, on the other hand, though agreeing on the age of the animal, is categorical that the death was natural and not because of battle wounds. Much grieved by the loss of his trusted charger, Alexander ordered an impressive funeral that he led himself before laying the horse in the grave.

Whether the horse died of wounds or old age, history tells us that Alexander ordered the establishment of a town at the site of the grave. The town was called Bucephala after the horse buried in its precincts. Thereafter Alexander moved on to other conquests and to the revolt on the Beas River. Giving in to the wishes of his soldiers and perhaps his own fear of the powerful Nanda empire of the east, Alexander returned again to the kingdom of Raja Paurava (with whom peace had been made after the battle) to embark upon a southward river journey. It was late in the year 326 BCE, the monsoon floods had long since ended leaving the Punjabi landscape dotted with shimmering lakes. Alexander was much dismayed to find the town of Bucephala heavily damaged by the floods. The greater grief was, however, the loss of his horse’s tomb, which had been washed away without a trace.

Historians had long pondered over the location of Bucephala. But because classical historians say nothing regarding which bank of the river it lay on, there were stories and stories. The wildest among these favoured Phalia (in the district of Mandi Bahauddin on the east bank of the Jhelum). Proponents of this theory were carried away by the name Phalia matching the last part of Bucephala, sometimes also written by classical writers as Bucephalia. It is, however, now believed that the place celebrating the conqueror’s horse was also the site of the river crossing: Jalalpur, some fifty kilometres downstream from Jhelum town.

The flood-stricken town was repaired by royal decree and then Alexander made ready to sail down the river. History records an armada of two thousand river craft of various descriptions. Here were flat-bottomed barges for the horses, thirty-oared galleys and triremes (galleys with rowers in three banks) and grain lighters as well as other craft. Just before the fleet set sail Alexander offered up his customary sacrifice to his gods. A special offering of a libation from a golden bowl was also made to the rivers Hydaspes and Acesines (Chenab) in order that the journey may be safe and uneventful.

At this point, Alexander’s army together with followers, soldiers’ wives and children, comprised about one hundred and twenty thousand persons. While some, mostly officers and their wives, went on the barges, the rest of the army was divided in two, each group led by a general to march along either bank of the river. So great was the panoply, so wondrous the order of the tramp-tramp-tramp of a hundred thousand marching feet and the rhythm of martial songs, and so hypnotic the cadence of the coxswains’ calls from the galleys that all those who heard came running to watch in awe the passage of the Greeks. Many of them followed the departing fleet, running for miles alongside singing wild and tumultuous tunes. The singing evidently was pretty melodious for Alexander’s diarists noted that the people were an ‘extremely musical race’ who had long loved song and dance.

And so, escorted by local people, Alexander exited from the present day Jhelum district in the vicinity of Pind Dadan Khan. He left behind a profound and far-reaching memory and even today self-styled local historians in every little hamlet love to tell how Alexander tarried six months in their village. Little do they realise that with such a timetable of long delays, he could never have completed his ‘Indian Campaigns’ in less than two years, the time he actually took for this enterprise.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 14 July 2013 at 14:34, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Deep history. Where is this building in the picture?

At 14 July 2013 at 15:04, Blogger Ashfaq Khan said...

Reading you is like travelling in time, you mesmerizer, fantasize and rejoices us. excellent account of history.

At 14 July 2013 at 15:44, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nayyar, The building is what that fool Dani was raising as a memorial to, not Paurava, but to Alexander. I don't know if it was ever completed.

At 14 July 2013 at 15:45, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Ashfaq.

At 14 July 2013 at 20:21, Anonymous S A J Shirazi said...

Last time I passed from this place, I saw barbed wire and “kikar ki bar” instead of the building material one sees in this picture.

If times come to build a monument for King Paurava, I have a suggestion: There is a shesham forest between this site and village Mong (I take from your previous articles on the subject that this forest must have been the place where Paurava might have met Alexander). The forest would make an ideal location – pure Punjabi - for King Paurava’s monument.

Do you feel someone will ever think of constructing King Paurava’s monument and celebrating history as it is sir?

At 14 July 2013 at 20:42, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having mentioned Haranpur, Jalalpur and Pind Dadan Khan villages and even far away located from the battlefield Phalia, why there is no mention of leftside Historical villages Mong? Is it true that battlefield / crossing extended from Khewa (on left side and opposite to Jalalpur) to up East village Khohar in the history records?
Mong particularly is quite famous for the same story of horse burial ( though personally do not care where was that buried) that it was army Fort of Porous. Mong is just on the river bank where as Phalia is many miles in the South on right bank of Chenab.
Your valued opinion awaited, please. Salman Rashid Sahib!

At 14 July 2013 at 20:47, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Moreover the Army Fort Mong may be put on Excavation Sites List of our Archeological Department provided we as nation are ready to save our heritage and government can save few millions for the project beside the Corruption business.

At 15 July 2013 at 13:37, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Please see the relevant episode of Sindhia mein Sikander for your answers, sir. too lengthy to discuss here.

At 15 July 2013 at 13:42, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Indeed, sir. A monument to Raja Paurava is very much in order. But who will stand up to the fundos when they accuse us of worshiping a Hindu? Not this current lot. The place you suggest is very appropriate; it is right where the battle took place.

At 14 November 2013 at 08:55, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG! This unfinished monument is now being vandalized. What a waste.


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