Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

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Alexander’s historian Arrian tells us the Macedonian conqueror crossed the river Hydraotes, also known as Iravati or Ravi, on his way east when he received word of the Cathaei bracing for war in the town of Sangala. The town was believed to be heavily fortified and its men excellent soldiers. The formidable Cathaei, Alexander was told, had earlier defied both Raja Paurava and Abisares, king of Kashmir. To leave them to their devices in his rear was akin to inviting mischief. So he decided to move against the martial tribe, today identified with the Kathia Rajputs.

A three day-march brought him from the Ravi to Sangala. Here he found the fighters securely in position on a hill of varying steepness fronting their town. All around, the Cathaei had built a defensive barrier by putting carts front-to-back in three tiers. The only gap left relatively insecure was the natural barrier formed by a shallow lake. In the space between the inner line of carts and the defensive wall of bricks around the hill, the defenders waited in leaguer.

The Macedonians bore heavily against the defensive arrangement with mounted archers, chariots, cavalry and heavy infantry. But the first sortie by the attackers was repulsed by a rain of arrows. Gauging this would not work, Alexander himself led an infantry attack, pushing the Cathaei from the outer perimeter. To cut a long story short, by nightfall the defenders were in dire straits when Alexander’s spies informed him that they planned to desert the fortress in the dark of the night.

Alexander prepared accordingly and there ensued a final battle in which, writes Arrian, 17000 defenders were killed and another 70000 taken prisoner, both figures being a clear exaggeration to highlight Greek heroism. After the capitulation, Alexander ordered the defences of Sangala razed to the ground.

In 1863, drawn by the name Sangla wala Tibba or Hill of Sangla in the heart of the peelu forest between the Ravi and the Chenab, Alexander Cunningham reached the place that we today know as Sangla Hill. This was, he surmised, the Sakala of old Brahmanic texts and Sagal of the Buddhists. The first thing that struck him was the steep-sided elongated hill with the large swamp on its flank: this was just as Arrian described ancient Sangala.

But there was one caveat: Sangla Hill sits west of the Ravi, whereas Alexander’s historians put it after the crossing of the river, that is, to the east. There would have been as great a controversy as we see in the case of several other ancient sites in Pakistan had Xuanzang not been around. Between 630 and 646, this remarkable pilgrim and revered master of the Buddhist creed travelled across India seeking original books of his religion and ended up in the modern district of Sheikhupura.

The “old town of She-kie-lo [Sakala]”, wrote Xuanzang, was fairly large and prosperous, though its walls had been thrown down. The foundations, nevertheless, still looked good and showed a circuit of five kilometres. Inside this outer perimeter was another smaller citadel. Here our pilgrim visited a monastery believed to be an important centre of Buddhist learning with some 100 Buddhist resident priests. The stupa attached to this monastery was 60 metres high. As for the location, Xuanzang’s account undoubtedly puts Sangala west of the Ravi.

Reverting to Cunningham, he refers to a Captain Belgrave who surveyed Sangala some years before him and found traces of ruined buildings around the hill. Relying on Brahmanical accounts, Cunningham finds further corroboration with Arrian’s description. These early descriptions of Sakala would place the fortress amidst a wide-spreading forest as Sangla Hill did once stand before the canal system turned this area into fertile farmland.

The vexatious question still remains: was the city east or west of the Ravi? It seems that in this case either Arrian, writing 400 years after Alexander, was lax or his source had failed to note whether or not the Macedonian conqueror made a backward march. In all likelihood, having crossed the river and heard of the troublesome warrior tribe in his rear, Alexander backtracked to deal with them.

The ruined foundations noted by Xuanzang and the traces of ancient buildings seen by Belgrave and Cunningham have vanished. The large bricks, measuring 40 x 25 x 5 centimetres, routinely carted away to be reused for building as reported by Cunningham, are now gone. The triangular hill still rears up above what was the swamp or lake in Alexander’s time and is now walled in with concrete in an attempt to create a tarn, complimenting the new park laid around and atop the hill.

There is just one sign of the defences: below the northeast side of the hill runs the stretch of a debris-filled clay wall. The bricks, broken pottery and rubble sticking out of the earth tell of a manmade arrangement. This seems to be the wall outside which the Cathaei had prepared their cart bulwark. In its time, the wall stretched around the hill to the south where the main town was situated.

When the first British travellers passed through the country between the Ravi and Chenab rivers which we know as the Sandal Bar, they listed 120 cultural mounds dotting the area. But even though Cunningham left behind a rather astounding account of Sangla wala Tibba, no subsequent excavation was undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India.

In the 1920s, this country underwent a drastic physical change when the newly laid out canals turned forest into farmland. The sleepy little village of Sangla expanded and housing and markets swamped the remains of the ancient town where Xuanzang had prayed at the stupa. Today, as locals have plundered the ancient site for bricks and artefacts, all that recalls those distant times is the short stretch of a rubble-filled wall that continues to erode in the rains.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 1 May 2014 at 13:38, Blogger Francene Stanley said...

Don't you just love history? Throughout time, men have pillaged and plundered. I guess that's why there was so much excitment less than one hunderd years ago when the boy King Tut's tomb was discovered. Visiting from Authentic blogger.

At 1 May 2014 at 17:37, Anonymous J T said...

Great read, as usual.

There's a region in the Indian province of Gujarat, known as "Kathiawar." That place too derives its name from a warrior caste known as the "Kathi." Wonder whether the "Kathia Rajputs" mentioned in your article have any link with this caste.

At 1 May 2014 at 18:37, Blogger Amardeep Singh said...

Buddhism to Alexander to Xuanzang to Cunningham to current days of Sangla....what a rich history and a great reading it from your pen. Thanks.

At 1 May 2014 at 18:40, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

That's what it has all been about, Francene! Loot and plunder, whether in the name of furthering geographical knowledge or religion.

At 2 May 2014 at 08:46, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Amardeep. Glad to know you enjoyed.

At 18 May 2014 at 13:05, Blogger S A J Shirazi said...

I saw a number of maps available on Internet, but couldn’t figure out the route that the Alexander army took to reach Sangla. It may be the river Chenab that they crossed to reach Sangla???

~~ Sangala of Arrian is a conundrum. It could have been either Sialkot or Sangla Hill. Conversely, we might just be very wrong in this case.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days