The Gandharans in Thermopylae and Plataea

In August or September of 480 BCE, the 38 year old Xerxes, the Zoroastrian king of the Achaemenid Empire, set off to wage a war against the Greeks.There were two famous battles, The Battle of Thermopylae — immortalized by movies like 300 and novels like Gates of Fire — and The Battle of Plataea where the Greeks took revenge. Less known is the fact that people from the Indian subcontinent participated in both the battles.

Cyrus (576 – 530 BCE) expanded the Achaemenid Empire from Egypt to the Indus. The region called Paropamisadae (Hindu-Kush, Kabul, Bagram) was under Achaemenid control since the time of Darius I (522 – 486 BCE). The Persians called this region India. Darius built a palace in Susa in Elam and according to a text he got sisoo-timber and ivory from Gandhara. Also the ivory came from India. 

The 20th satrapy was India and it paid the largest tribute — 360 talents of gold dust — even more than Babylon. The primary source regarding Indians of this era is Herodotus; according to Herodotus, the Indians spoke many languages and some of them were nomads. Also some Indians were cannibals, had black semen and had gold-digging ants. So the “first” historian’s statements have to be taken with a pinch of sodium chloride. This 20th satrapy was located at the junction of a road network connecting Central Asia, West Asia and Kashmir. While invaders, art, and languages came into India via this route, Indian soldiers also went West as mercenaries.

In 490 BCE, Darius I tried to subdue Greece in the Battle of Marathon, but was routed. Following Darius’ death in 486 BCE, his son Xerxes decided to take revenge. The line of defence was the pass of Thermopylae. Sparta sent only a token elite force under the leadership of one of its two kings – Leonidas. Their allies too stayed back, citing various reasons. It was like the scene in India when Alexander arrived around 200 years later.

According to Herodotus, 1,700,000 Persian troops and 1200 warships arrived for the war against the Greek Coalition of the Willing. The Indians wore clothes made of cotton and carried reed bows and arrows of reed with iron heads. They were under the command of Pharnazathres who was the son of Artabates. There were Indian cavalrymen as well as those who rode horses and chariots pulled by horses and asses. 

Following the famous Spartan defeat at Thermopylae, there were naval battles at Artemisium and Salamis which was followed by the decisive Battle of Plataea. In this battle, the Spartans were not alone: Athens, Corinth, and Megara joined the alliance of states. Herodotus mentions that around 110,000 Persian troops from various countries were deployed near the Asopus River. There is a brief mention of where the Indians stood relative to the other troops and nothing more.

In this battle fought near Thebes, the Persian infantry was defeated and expelled from the Greece. The leading Persian commander Mardonius was killed. We mostly read the Western interpretation of these wars. For these historians, the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans were killed, represents patriotism while the Battle of Plataea shows how a defeated force can come together and rout a superpower. Unfortunately we don’t have any Indian accounts of these battles.


  1. Paul Cartledge, Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World (Vintage, 2007). 
  2. Robert B. Strassler,The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories Reprint. (Anchor, 2009). 

Takshashila: 2 Kings & a King Maker

(The glorious battle of Alexander, King of Macedon, and Porus, King of India. Russian lubok via Wikipedia)
In early 327 BCE, half of Alexander’s army marched through the Khyber Pass and reached the shores of Indus. After subduing the hill tribes, Alexander and rest of the army joined them in 326 BCE at Ohind at the border of Takshashila — a large and prosperous city between Indus and Jhelum. Alexander’s activities, mostly invasion, produced different reactions from three people — two kings (Ambhi & Porus) and a king maker (Chanakya).
After a 30 day rest, Alexander crossed the Indus into “the country of Indians” and on the other side he was met by an army in battle formation. This was highly unexpected. The king of Takshashila, Ambhi or Oomphis, had sent word that he would not oppose Alexander and would fight on his side. When it looked as if Ambhi had reneged on his promise, Alexander ordered his army to get ready.
Ambhi rode up alone towards the Greeks and he was met by Alexander who too rode up alone. Realizing that what came from Alexander’s mouth was all Greek, interpreters were summoned. Ambhi explained that he had come to put both his army and the kingdom at Alexander’s disposal. He also gifted elephants, large sheep and 3000 bulls to Alexander prompting the Greek to ask Ambhi if he as into husbandry. A satrap — Philip of Machatas — was appointed to govern.
Enjoying Ambhi’s hospitality, Alexander sent word to the neighboring kings to meet him and pay tribute. While few did, one king stayed away: Porus, who was not going to follow Ambhi’s foot steps. When Alexander’s envoy met Porus and asked him to meet the emperor and pay tribute, Porus replied that he would definitely come to meet the emperor, but with an army. Thus in the spring of 326 BCE the two armies met on the banks of Jhelum.
We only have the Greek account of the battle and hence the exaggeration has to be discounted. 20,000 infantry and 3000 cavalry of Porus was killed. All his chariots were destroyed, his generals were killed, so were two of his sons. According to the Greek historians — Diodorus, Arrian, Plutarch — the Greek losses were not so high. But still Porus was praised: “his courage matched his body vigor”, “he exhibited great talent in battle performing deeds not only of a general but also of a valiant soldier.” This battle, Battle of the Hydaspes, was immortalized by Western painters like André Castaigne ,Charles Le Brun and artists in Russia.
Finally the two met. In the meeting Alexander asked Porus how he wished to be treated and Porus replied, “As befits a king”. This reply under adverse conditions impressed Alexander and he returned Porus back to the throne and turned him into an ally.
So was Ambhi a traitor for aligning with a foreigner? In his book India: A History John Keay mentions that though Porus surrendered only after giving Alexander a good fight, calling Ambhi  who surrendered without a fight a traitor is  harsh judgement. An argument is that there was no concept of India as a nation and if a king like Ambhi took help from Alexander to be safe against attacks by Porus, can he be blamed?
That argument would have held, if not for the efforts of Chanakya, who saw the cultural unity among the various kingdoms. As a teacher in Takshashila, he saw students — brahmin youth, princes, sons of rich merchants — come from far away places along the uttarapatha to learn the Vedas, arts (archery, hunting, elephant lore, political economy) law, medicine, and military science. This tradition went back to Buddha’s time. Jotipala, the son of a Brahmin priest in the court of the King of Benares returned after graduating in archery and military science and was appointed the commander-in-chief. Jivika, Bimbisara’s physician who cured Buddha, learned medicine in Takshashila. Prasenajit, the king of Kosala, who too was associated with Buddha was educated in Takshashila.
Chanakya wanted to convert this cultural unity into political unity against the invader. For him, kingdoms of Ambhi and Porus, had to unite against the foreigner. He condemned foreign rule as exploitation; for the foreigner the conquered country was not his own, but a place to tax and extract wealth. He also realized that the reason Alexander was able to advance was because there was no united front: there was no leadership or pooling of resources. Alexander was able to exploit this division and was stopped only by a mutiny in his camp.
One of the first activities of Chanakya and his protegé Chandragupta was to organize resistance against the Greeks satrapies. We know this because of the writings of Justin, who was describing the return of Seleucus Nicator, an officer of Alexander  to India to expand the Greek kingdom.

Justin identified the leader of the rebellion as  Sandrocottus or Chandragupta Maurya.
There were six satrapies: three on the West of Indus and three on the East. Following Alexander’s departure, the satrapies he established started collapsing. At the same time, under the leadership of Chandragupta, a war was declared. The satraps Philip and Nicanor were assassinated and by 323 BCE, India was free of Greeks.

  1. Abraham Eraly, Gem in the Lotus: The Seeding of Indian Civilisation, 2005.
  2. A. Dani, Historic City of Taxila (Bernan Press(PA), 1986).
  3. Radhakumud Mookerji, Chandragupta Maurya and his times, 3rd ed. (Motilal Banarsidass, 1960).
  4. John Keay, India: A History (Grove Press, 2001).