• 24 September, 2022
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The Battle Of Hydaspes: Was It Ancient India’s Rubicon

Brig Arvind Dhananjayan (Retd) Mon, 20 Jun 2022   |  Reading Time: 7 minutes

GREAT BATTLES THAT SHAPED HISTORY

Geography has always been central to planning and conduct of battle. Indeed, ancient and even modern wars have been fought astride natural features or obstacles, with rivers enjoying rôle primordial in conflicts through the ages.

The famous phrase ‘Land of Five Rivers’ represents, for all intents and purposes, the fertile land of the Punjab, a part of pre-partition undivided India which transcended the frontiers of modern-day India and Pakistan. It was on the banks of one of these water bodies that the famous Battle of Hydaspes was fought in May of 326 BCE. And like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, Alexander The Great’s fourth battle in his expeditions through Asia, fought along the banks of the Hydaspes (the Greek name for the Jhelum River), proved to be his last in a glittering 13 year span of conquest, a conflict that brought him closer to defeat than ever before and laid down the limits of Alexander’s Asian campaign!

Causus Belli & Prelude to the Battle

There are many reasons attributed to Alexander The Great’s Asian conquest. These include (i) securing the maritime trade route through the Hellespont (a narrow, natural strait and internationally significant waterway that forms part of the boundary between Asia and Europe- a feat that even his father, Philip II, had not achieved (ii) securing the Aegean Sea, the water body between Greece and Turkey (iii) avenge the atrocities inflicted by the Persians on the Greek inhabitants in Asia Minor and secure their wealth (iv) be recorded in annals as the conqueror of Asia.

For eight years, since he marched out of Macedonia in 334 BCE in a bid to achieve the above, Alexander The Great moved like a juggernaut across Western Asia, invading and defeating the Achaemenid Empire (also called the First Persian Empire, which then included Egypt), in a series of battles ending in 328 BCE. Alexander’s success against Persia fuelled his ambition to advance his conquests towards India, which he is believed to have undertaken for a number of reasons. These included the fact that the Eastern reaches of the Achaemenid Empire also covered parts of the Indus River Basin- then represented by ancient India and therefore Alexander considered his Persian conquest incomplete without capturing the latter; also that in Alexander’s opinion, India represented the extremities of the Asian continent and successful invasion of India would represent culmination of his Asian conquest. Be these as they may, Alexander’s heart and mind were firmly set on conquering the Land of the Indus.

In 327 BCE, post his Persian conquest and after securing Bactria (a region North of the Hindu Kush Mountains which currently makes up the Central Asian Republics), Alexander’s Army advanced through the Khyber Pass (KP), a mountain pass across the Spin Ghar Mountains in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in modern-day Pakistan that connects Kabul and Peshawar. The pass, a choke-point, is part of the ancient silk road and an eminent trade route between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent and has historically been witness to invasions of the Indian subcontinent from the Northwest. A smaller column under Alexander himself circumvented the KP from the North and captured the rocky fortress of Aornos, modern-day Pīr Sarāi, a steep ridge a few miles West of the Indus River and North of the ancient cities of Taxila or Takshashila (famous as the home of one of the world’s earliest scholastic universities) and Attock in modern-day Pakistan’s Punjab Province. This was Alexander’s last successful siege before he died in 323 BCE, wherein the numerous tribal clans of the Hindu Kush posed him stiff resistance, which his advancing column overcame, despite being heavily outnumbered.

Alexander’s advance over the next six months brought him West of the Jhelum River where he sent out a clarion call to the vassal rulers to profess their subjugation to him. Consequently, Alexander gained control of the Greater Gandhara Region (made up of modern-day Peshawar and Swat River Valleys in Pakistan), part of the Achaemenid  Empire which also included Taxila. Alexander befriended Ambhi, the then King of Taxila- a pact driven by their common enmity for King Purushottama (popularly known as King Porus), the ruler of the Paurava Kingdom of Western Punjab, who refused allegiance to Alexander and instead was preparing to militarily confront the great Greek conqueror. The Jhelum River, as would be the Rubicon to Julius Caesar 277 years later, came to represent a point of no return for Alexander and Porus- Alexander had to comprehensively defeat Porus and decimate the latter’s Army to ensure his conquest further East and obviate a threat to his flanks, as also to send a clear message by way of a decisive victory, to the vassal Kings that disloyalty to Alexander’s cause would be met with similar ruthlessness. Porus, on the other hand, hoped Alexander would have to either wait for the monsoon season to end before crossing or simply abandon his quest and leave. For Porus, the battle was existential, as he needed to defeat Alexander to protect his kingdom. In preparation for the Macedonians’ arrival, he stationed his army in a defensive position along the Jhelum River and waited. And so was set the stage for one of the most decisive battles against a foreign invader that India has ever witnessed.

Alexander The Great’s Asian Campaign: Source-Wikipedia

Force Levels

The force levels that faced each other at the Battle of Hydaspes are enumerated below:-

The Battle

The opposing forces were arrayed on opposite banks of the Jhelum River, with Alexander setting up camp in the vicinity of a ford and Porus’ forces positioned across. Alexander was aware that the Hydaspes was deep and fast-flowing at the site of the opposing camps and therefore any attempt to cross it other than at a fording site would be perilous. He therefore made forays up and down the far bank, causing Porus to react by positioning and re-positioning his forces to thwart any attempt by Alexander to attempt a crossing. Alexander eventually scouted a crossing 27 Km upstream from his camp, at a place called ‘Kadee’, where the river was interrupted by an uninhabited, wooded island, which would act as an ‘anchor’ for his wading troops. Alexander divided his forces, leaving a substantial contingent with Craterus, his most loyal Macedonian General, facing Porus on the original ford, while Alexander led the rest of his Army consisting of approximately 6000 Infantry soldiers and most of his cavalry across the ford at Kadee. Craterus was ordered to ford the River if presented with an opportunity and attack if Porus repositioned his Army to face Alexander OR to hold his position if Porus faced Alexander with only part of his forces. Leaving behind a significant force at the original ford proved to be a masterstroke, which deceived Porus into thinking that Craterus’ contingent still represented Alexander’s main effort. What resulted was a pincer movement in which Alexander could attack Porus’ flanks, with smaller forces staging demonstrations and feints of attempts to cross the River at various points, thus dividing Porus’ attention and causing repeated decision dilemmas for the Paurava King. On receiving news of Alexander’s crossing being underway, but unaware of the force levels involved, Porus sent a small force under his son to thwart the former, which only resulted in the latter’s defeat and his death.

Porus, now aware of the crossing, re-balanced his forces to meet Alexander, with his heavily armoured war elephants evenly spread at the head of his force, followed by his Infantry, with his cavalry forming the flanks. Alexander seized the initiative, using his Dahae (Iranian) horse-mounted archers to decimate one flank of Porus’ cavalry, while the Macedonian Cavalry rode in to finish the task. Alexander’s Infantry then engaged the war elephants, which were proving insurmountable for his cavalry as the tuskers were startling the horses. Within no time the Pauravan Infantry was surrounded and routed by the Macedonian foot soldiers, who sported better armour and more lethal spears.

In the dying stages of the conflict, Alexander, impressed by Porus’ bravery, sent numerous emissaries including Ambhi, the Taxila King to Porus, asking him to give up battle, but the latter refused. Eventually, post the rout of his Army, Porus was brought to Alexander, who asked the former how he wanted to be treated thereinafter. To this, Porus famously replied “Treat me as a King would treat another King”.

The Battle of Hydaspes Showing the Rival Camps, Location of Fording Site and Broad Orientation of Forces: Source-Wikipedia/ warfarehistorynetwork.com

The losses/ casualties suffered by both sides are enumerated below:-

Aftermath

While Porus was defeated in the Battle of Hydaspes, Alexander, as a tribute to the former’s bravery, allowed him to continue governing the lands of the Pauravan Kingdom as a Satrap (Greek for Governor) of Alexander. Alexander, after instituting Porus as his representative, continued his conquest Eastwards, bringing him closer to confrontation with the Nanda Empire of Magadha, which was spread astride the Ganges River. During his advance Eastwards, the Macedonian Army learnt that the Nanda Army was reportedly five times larger than their own. Further, the Macedonians learned that the Ganges River itself was a far more formidable obstacle, with a rumoured ‘width of thirty-two furlongs’ (greater than 6000 m) and ‘depth of 100 fathoms’ (183 metres). Both these factors caused significant uneasiness in Alexander’s ranks, till, at the banks of the Hyphasis ( River Beas), they refused to march any further and demanded that they return back. Alexander eventually relented and turned Southward, advancing through Southern Punjab and Sind Provinces of modern-day Pakistan to the lower basin of the Indus River and installing Satraps in Multan, Punjab and the Indus Basin, among others, before finally turning Westwards to head back to Greece.

Significance/ Lessons

Alexander’s victory at Hydaspes was singularly significant as it opened the doors of the Indian subcontinent to Greek socio-cultural influences, including Greco-Buddhist Art, spawned from the combined influence of Macedonian and Buddhist culture from Alexander’s campaigns. The recording and archiving methodology of the Greek historians also proved beneficial in archiving ancient India’s history thereinafter.  Alexander’s pardoning of Porus also gave a fillip to the former’s image as a compassionate and empathetic ruler, thus allowing acceptance of Greek culture for a long time post his campaigns.

Militarily the battle was significant for the vindication of the need for extensive preparation for battle in terms of strategy, tactics and wargaming contingencies. Alexander’s battle procedures which included multi-pronged attacks, coupled with deception achieved through concurrent feints/ demonstrations, influenced the campaigning philosophy of even the Mauryan Empire, wherein Kautilya studied this battle for its many military lessons.

Conclusion

The Battle across the Hydaspes would enjoy pride of place as a watershed event for a multitude of reasons, from the advent of the Greek culture into Southern Asia to the rethink that it spawned in military strategists and tacticians in the art of prosecuting war.


Author
Brig Arvind Dhananjayan (Retd) has commanded an operational Brigade and has been Brigadier- in- charge Administration in a premier training facility. He has had exposure abroad on deputation to Botswana, Southern Africa as member of an Indian Army Training Team and has had extensive exposure in mentoring of Defence Forces overseas. He possesses vast instructional experience, imparting instructions in both technical aspects and tactical application of weapon systems.

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POST COMMENTS (8)

R Singh

Jul 24, 2022
Why is being a proud nationalist considered as a derogatory term ?

R.Singh

Jul 24, 2022
It is a bit disappointing that some people insist on accepting the Greek versions uncritically and push the view of British Christian historians who push their biased narrative. The british christians appropratted the Greek and Italian traditions and claimed that to be root of their civilization. A claim that does not stand scrutiny The greek versions are written down a few centuries after the supposed event. People cannot remember what happened a week ago let alone an account several centuries ago. The author bases his entire account on these flawed narratives. The author has no idea of the society in the Panch- Nad later called Punjab), the land of five or rather 7 rivers . This is the region of the Sapth Sindhu, the land of 7 rivers. It was a republican ,society a society based on out Khap system , governed by a Panchayat( council of five). The term " raja" is misleading. It did not mean a Feudal King, but simply a Leader. The Leader/Raja was elected. Puru( Porus) to the greek ears was simply the elected Head of the Puru clan or Puru Khap. The Khaps got together and defeated Alexander. He and his troops could not go back the way they came, through the passes to Upganistan( now Aghanistan). They were pushed down to the Sindhu delta. Alexander managed to scrouge up a few boats and put some of his army in them. He and most if hsi army was driven into the Makran desert, where 90% of his army perished. He reached Basra in modern Iraq, and died there- a sick and broken man. Our domestic versions are borne out by other foriegn versions, one being the Ethiopian Histories, which tell us that Alexander lost the battle of the Jhelum .

SOUMYADIPTA MAJUMDER

Jun 30, 2022
Some Indian and Pakistani nationalists, realizing how implausible it is to claim that Porus actually defeated Alexander in the Battle of the Hydaspes, have resorted to what you might call a “softer” version of this claim. There are people who acknowledge that Alexander won the Battle of Hydaspes, but insist that Porus ultimately won because Alexander’s troops eventually mutinied at the Hyphasis River, forcing Alexander to return back west. Even this “softer” version of the story, though, does not hold up to scrutiny. Alexander conquered Porus’s kingdom and continued further into India. While Alexander fought Porus on the banks of the Hydaspes River in around May 326 BC, his soldiers mutinied on the banks of the Hyphasis River in around July or August 326 BC—after they had already marched all the way through Porus’s kingdom. It is hard to claim that Porus “won” when his entire kingdom was, in fact, conquered. Porus may have been permitted to rule his former kingdom as satrap, but he was nonetheless forced to become subservient to Alexander. Furthermore, even after the mutiny, Alexander did not just head straight back west; instead he headed south, conquering further lands as he went. The mutiny on the Hyphasis, then, did not mark a complete end to Alexander’s conquests in the Indian subcontinent, although it did mark the furthest extent east that his armies ever reached. I think there is little doubt that the unexpected difficulties Alexander’s army encountered in the Battle of the Hydaspes against Porus’s army played an important role in their decision to mutiny. In particular, the Greeks were reportedly astonished by Porus’s large number of war elephants. Nonetheless, the unexpected skill of Porus’s army was far from the only reason why the troops mutinied. They had marched halfway across the known world and they were no doubt exhausted and homesick. We can never absolutely prove anything in history beyond any possible doubt. Nonetheless, there are some things we can be close to certain about. We must base our conclusions on the Law of Parsimony, which states that the conclusion that requires the least number of ad hoc assumptions is probably correct. All our surviving historical sources agree that Alexander won the Battle of the Hydaspes. We have no evidence that leads us to doubt the correctness of our sources in this regard and we actually have a great deal of evidence to support them. The most parsimonious conclusion, then, is that Alexander really won the battle. I have to admit I am really genuinely puzzled by how there are so many people who feel the need to make up an alternative history in which Alexander lost the Battle of the Hydaspes. First of all, it is perplexing to me why people care so much about whether or not one ruler of a small kingdom in northwest India won a single battle 2,345 years ago. I mean, come on, people, it’s not like Porus’s victory or defeat has any real present ramifications. Second of all, I am confused why people feel the need to make stuff up, since the real history here is already absolutely ripe for nationalist retellings. King Porus gave Alexander, the unstoppable conqueror and military mastermind who never lost a battle, the toughest battle of his life. He fought so hard that even his enemy was impressed and he was not only permitted to govern his former kingdom as a satrap, but the lands to the southwest as well. There is no way in which this story could possibly reflect poorly on Porus. Sure, he lost, but he was going up against Alexander the Great, whom no one else ever managed to defeat. Porus, at least, came the closest to defeating Alexander out of anyone.

Kalidan Singh

Jun 23, 2022
Soumyadipta, thank you for an excellent explanation. Bravo.

SOUMYADIPTA MAJUMDER

Jun 22, 2022
Our written sources for the Battle of the Hydaspes There are five main surviving written sources that provide us with most of our information on Alexander the Great’s campaigns in general and the Battle of the Hydaspes in particular. Of these, the source that is generally considered the most reliable is the Anabasis of Alexander, written by the Greek historian Arrianos of Nikomedia (lived c. 89 – after c. 160 AD). The other major sources for Alexander’s campaigns are the Universal History by the Greek historian Diodoros Sikeliotes (lived c. 90 – c. 30 BC), the Historiae Alexandri Magni by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus (lived c. first century AD), the Life of Alexander the Great by the Greek biographer Ploutarchos of Chaironeia (lived c. 46 – c. 120 AD), and the Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus by the Roman historian Marcus Iunianus Iustinus Frontinus (lived c. second century AD). These sources, in turn, rely on earlier sources that have since been lost. Alexander’s personal campaign historian Kallisthenes (lived c. 360 – 327 BC) was an important source for these writers, providing them with much information about Alexander’s earlier campaigns. Kallisthenes was dead by the time of the Battle of the Hydaspes, though, so he obviously never wrote about it. Nonetheless, there were many other writers who covered the period after Kallisthenes’s death. For instance, Ptolemaios I Soter and Nearchos, two of Alexander the Great’s generals who outlived him, both wrote accounts of his conquests, which would have included the Battle of the Hydaspes. Meanwhile, Aristoboulos of Kassandreia, a junior officer in Alexander’s army, and Onesikritos, Alexander’s helmsman, also wrote accounts of his conquests. In addition to the sources covering the campaigns of Alexander, there were also other Greek sources covering Indian history that some of the authors of the surviving sources are known to have used. The Greek historian Megasthenes (lived c. 350 – c. 290 BC), who served as an ambassador of Seleukos I Nikator to Chandragupta Maurya, wrote a history of India titled Indika, which was used extensively as a source by some of our surviving writers, including Arrianos and Diodoros Sikeliotes. Couldn’t have been made up by Greek historians The vast majority of these early writers were writing independently. If Alexander had really lost the Battle of the Hydaspes and the story about him winning were really an invention of Greek historians, then we would expect to find major inconsistencies in our sources concerning the outcome of the battle. We would expect to find some sources claiming Alexander totally won, other sources claiming Porus won but Alexander fought valiantly, and other sources claiming that the accounts of the battle are contradictory. Instead, all of our surviving sources agree that Alexander won the Battle of the Hydaspes. None of them ever mention the existence of an alternative version of the story in which Alexander lost the battle. It is almost inconceivable that all these authors, working independently, could have managed to come up with the same lie. This shows that, if Alexander’s victory were indeed a lie, it couldn’t have been a lie on the part of the historians. Instead, the lie could only have originated with Alexander himself. The fact that none of the Greek historians could have made Alexander’s victory up on their own is also confirmed by the fact that Alexander himself issued a series of coins commemorating his victory over Porus. These coins were minted between c. 324 BC and c. 322 BC. A number of them have survived to the present day. Clearly, Alexander himself claimed that he had won. Logistical problems with Alexander claiming victory in spite of defeat There are serious logistical problems, though, with the idea of Alexander claiming victory when he really lost. For one thing, there would have been literally tens of thousands of surviving eyewitnesses to the battle at the time when the earliest historians such as Ptolemaios I Soter, Nearchos, Aristoboulos, Onesikritos, and Megasthenes were writing. Alexander the Great’s army at the Battle of the Hydaspes is estimated to have included around 40,000 infantry and between 5,000 to 7,000 cavalry. Meanwhile, Porus’s army at the Battle of the Hydaspes is estimated to have included somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 infantry, between 2,000 and 4,000 cavalry, around 130 war elephants (each of which would have probably carried two warriors), and around 1,000 chariots. It was, all in all, quite a massive confrontation. If Alexander had really lost the battle, then the tens of thousands of people who survived the battle would have all known that he was lying when he claimed victory over Porus. It is exceedingly difficult to persuade the public that you won a battle that you really lost if there are tens of thousands of people who know full well that you really lost the battle. Furthermore, King Porus was still alive at the time when Alexander was minting his victory coins. If, as Indian and Pakistani nationalists claim, he really won the Battle of the Hydaspes and was still ruling his kingdom at this time, he presumably would have been pretty annoyed by Alexander claiming that he had won. If Porus really won, then we are left wondering why he never tried to stop Alexander from claiming victory. Why didn’t he invade or launch a propaganda campaign of his own? All in all, there are serious problems with the idea that Alexander could have just claimed victory despite having actually been defeated. The simplest and most logical conclusion here is that Alexander really won, just as all the historical sources record. Greek influence in India Another problem with the claim that Alexander could have just claimed victory without having actually won is that Alexander’s conquests were followed by centuries of Greek influence in the northwest part of the Indian subcontinent. Alexander himself either founded or renamed two cities on the banks of the Hydaspes River, Boukephala and Nikaia. If Alexander really lost the Battle of the Hydaspes as so many Indian and Pakistani nationalists claim, we have to seriously wonder how he managed to name two cities located so close to the site of the battle immediately afterwards. Furthermore, the Seleukid, Greco-Baktrian, and Indo-Greek kingdoms all had influence in this region throughout the Hellenistic Period (lasted c. 323 – c. 31 BC). An entire genre of Greco-Buddhist art came to flourish in the region. The city of Gandhara is known for its astounding Greco-Buddhist sites. Meanwhile, some of the earliest known statues of the Buddha display him in a heavily Greek-influenced fashion. If Alexander really lost the Battle of the Hydaspes, then one would have to come up with an explanation for why the influence of Greek culture became so pervasive in the region for centuries afterwards. While the influence of Greek culture in the region does not necessarily rule out the possibility that Alexander could have secretly lost the battle in and of itself, it does make this idea seem a lot less likely. When you take into consideration that all the historical sources agree that Alexander won the battle, the evidence for Alexander’s victory become pretty compelling. Doesn’t really make for good propaganda Even if we leave aside how incredibly implausible this whole idea that Alexander somehow managed to pass off a total defeat as a total victory is, there is still another problem, which is that, quite frankly, the story as we have it does not exactly make the best pro-Alexander propaganda and it is not the kind of story we would expect Alexander to have made up if he were going to make a story up. The story as it has been passed down to us emphasizes Porus’s courage and nobility. For instance, here is how Arrianos describes Porus’s surrender in his Anabasis of Alexander book five, chapter eighteen, as translated by E. J. Chinnock: “When Porus, who exhibited great talent in the battle, performing the deeds not only of a general but also of a valiant soldier, observed the slaughter of his cavalry, and some of his elephants lying dead, others destitute of keepers straying about in a forlorn condition, while most of his infantry had perished, he did not depart as Darius the Great King did, setting an example of flight to his men; but as long as any body of Indians remained compact in the battle, he kept up the struggle. But at last, having received a wound on the right shoulder, which part of his body alone was unprotected during the battle, he wheeled round.” This is not the kind of portrayal we would expect Greek writers to give us if Alexander had actually been defeated by Porus. People generally only tend to acknowledge their enemies’ courage after they have been defeated. So long as their enemies are still at large and still threats, people tend to emphasize their ferocity, their cruelty, and their barbarism. Being defeated by an enemy usually on exacerbates one’s hatred towards them. If Alexander were really defeated by Porus, it does not make much sense why Greek writers looking to glorify Alexander would be so keen to emphasize Porus’s own courage and nobility. The fact that the Greek writers portray Porus as brave and honorable, then, is an indication that Alexander either defeated Porus or at least made peace with him.

Girish

Jun 22, 2022
There is a book in English by European who says actually Alexander did not defeat Porus. He thinks he may have been defeated or at best was a draw. Greek historians were liars too. They wud always try to please their rulers.

Lalit Saigal

Jun 21, 2022
What a wonderful and unbiased representation of a battle fought so long ago. My felicitations to Brig Arvind for bringing out military lessons from that battle in such a simplistic manner which can be understood by all. I am deeply impressed by the brevity of the article which has focused on the crux of the matter. Keep writing

Sh Sabh

Jun 21, 2022
Dear Brig. Dhananjayan: In trying to better understand Bharat's true history, I read and listen to several Youtube channels and read various articles. The information presented in this article is exactly opposite to a video I had seen on Jaipur Dialogs, by Sanjay Dixit. I have pasted the link below, and you can also find a full video on Jaipur Dialogs Youtube channel. According to him Alexander lost to Porus. https://www.facebook.com/thejaipurdialogues/videos/alexanders-victory-over-porus-a-myth-reclaiming-indias-history-episode-3/993066421505561/ I do not know what the truth is but am bringing it to your attention. Regards.

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