After conquering most of the Achaemenid Empire ‘Alexander the Great’ turned his attention to India. Here on the Indian subcontinent, he would fight some of the hardest battles of his career.

In terms of historical documentation or records, India acquires a more or less clear shape from the end of the seventh century BCE. At this time there was no single dominant ruling dynasty in north India, with some independent States holding sway. While the existing literature gives names of 16 important such States (the 16 Mahajanpadas), there were likely more in number. These States were a mix of monarchial, republican, and oligarchic types, and the four most important monarchial States (royal dynasties) that stood out prominently at this time were the Haryankas (Magadha, a dynasty founded by Bimbisara after overthrowing the Barhadrathas), Pradyotas (Avanti), Aikshvakus (Kosala), and Pauravas (Vatsa or Kausambi). The famous kingdoms of Kuru-Panchala, Matsya, and Kashi, found mentioned in the Mahabharata as powerful States, still existed at this time, but they had been reduced to minor powers. The non-monarchial States were represented by the Vrijis (Mithila), Sakyas (Kapilavastu), and Mallas (Pava and Kushinagara). Of these, the Vrijis were a confederacy, made of eight different clans, of which the Lichchhavis (Vaishali) was the most famous. The four aforementioned royal dynasties were often at war with each other over establishing supremacy, and by the start of 5th c. BCE the Magadha kingdom (Haryankas under Ajatasatru) reigned supreme in North India. Later Mahapadma Nanda overthrew the Magadha king (Haryankas, or the Sisunaga dynasty as per the Puranas), and established his new dynasty known as the Nanda. Mahapadma Nanda was a military genius and established a kingdom that included most of northern India of those times (except Kashmir, Punjab, and Sindh). 

Alexander and Bucephalu, mosaic artDarius’s flight at the Battle of Gaugamela (18th-century ivory relief)A Roman copy of an original 3rd century BC Greek bust depicting Alexander the Great, Copenhagen.Asia in 323 BC, the Nanda Empire and the Gangaridai of the Indian subcontinent, in relation to Alexander’s Empire and neighboursAlexander accepts the surrender of Porus, by Andre Castaigne (1898-1899).A painting by Charles Le Brun depicting Alexander and Porus during the Battle of the Hydaspes.Alexander’s invasion of the Indian subcontinentThe Alexander Mosaic, dating from circa 100 BC, is a Roman floor mosaic originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii. It depicts a battle between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia.

Punjab, Sindh, and Afghanistan, which were the border areas of the western part of ancient India, were devoid of any powerful kingdoms at this particular time (around 4th- 5th c. BCE). Among the famous 16 mahajanpadas, the Kamboja and Gandhara States can be said to include areas from these parts, while the region, on the whole, seems to have been divided into around 12 or more independent parts that were either ruled by kings or had democratic or oligarchic governances. Being constantly at war with each other these principalities were vulnerable to invaders from outside, and it is not surprising that the Achaemenian Empire of Persia cast its eyes on this area. By the time of king Darius (522-486 BCE), there was an established rule of the Achaemenians over this part of India, as evident from two inscriptions (518 BCE and 515 BCE) that mention the monarch’s name and his rule over the Hindus, denoting areas east of the Sindhu. The Greek historian, Herodotus, further tells us that Darius had sent a naval expedition to the Sindhu river valley, and some areas in the Indian dominion formed the twentieth Satrapy of Darius’s kingdom, which brought in a whopping revenue (in gold dust) of over a million pounds sterling in those times (equal to one-third of the then Persian empire’s entire revenue). It is believed the Persian domination of parts of northwestern India continued up to about 330 BCE. 


In 330 BCE king Darius III was defeated by Alexander at Gaugamela, and this incident changed the course of Indian history. Alexander chased king Darius III, who was on a run, across the Persian Empire, and in this pursuit crossed the HinduKush and moved towards India in 327 BCE. The king of Taxila (raja Ambhi or Omphis) offered to help Alexander to protect his interests. Besides a few more such traitors, most of the other kings and the republican and oligarchic tribes of Afghanistan, Punjab, and Sindh decided to fight against Alexander. These small kings, chieftains, and tribes were no match for the seasoned troops of Alexander, yet they put up a strong and heroic resistance. This is evident from the records of the Greek historians where they have paid rich tributes to the bravery and patriotism of these Indic warriors. Alexander’s march onto India over the bodies of thousands of such fallen heroes was no doubt a glorious chapter in Greek history, but at the same time it also speaks of the fearlessness in front of inevitable death and the love of freedom of the Indians; and the ancient Greek annals are full of praise for these Indic warriors, despite the amnesia seen among the post-70s batch of Indian historians on these Indic war heroes.  

After entering the Indian grounds, Alexander sent two of his best generals and their armies along the Kabul River, where they faced opposition near Peshawar from the Pushkalavati chief who defended his kingdom for almost a month before dying a heroic death in the battle. Alexander himself went along the valleys of Kunar, Panjkora, and Swat rivers where he faced stiff resistance from the hill tribes whom the Greeks have referred to as the Aspasioi and Assakenoi. In one such battle, Alexander was wounded and in revenge, he ruthlessly killed that entire tribal population. When the Assakenoi king died fighting, his queen took up the sword and continued with the war, and her example inspired many other women of her kingdom to join the fight for freedom. When after a heroic resistance the capital city Massaga finally fell, and Alexander butchered the entire Massaga army at night despite promising no harm to them before their surrendering; a horrific massacre, which even the Greek writers condemned. After defeating the Assakenoi and a few other tribes, Alexander took major preparations to fight against king Porus (Paurava) taxing his resources and ingenuity to the utmost, despite Porus being a ruler of a small territory (akin to a modern district in Punjab). Porus fought bravely, received nine wounds, and was brought in as a captive before Alexander, where he stood boldly and asked to be treated like a king. As a sign of respect for his brave stand in front of Alexander even in defeat, Porus was given back his kingdom and made an ally of Alexander. 

After this battle, Alexander proceeded further to the river Beas where he had a hard battle with the Kathaioi (Kathas) where 17000 were killed and 70000 captured. From here we find a change in the story in the battle fortunes of Alexander. At the end of July 326 BCE when the army had reached the banks of the river Beas, the Greek army’s advance was arrested.  


The Greek army rebelled and refused to move any further from the bank of the river Beas. As the Greek writers speculated this rebellion as war fatigue, RC Mazumdar, however, tells us it was mainly the fear of facing the mighty armies of the Nanda Empire and Gangaridai (as the Greek historians named Bengal) that lay on the other side of the Beas. It is interesting to note here that when Alexander tried to make his soldiers understand and force them to continue, they flatly refused to say that there it be a huge disaster if anything happened to Alexander in further campaigns. Alexander had to bow down to this demand and the army went back the same way they came. Near the confluence of the Jhelum (Vitasta) and Chenab (Chandrabhaga), he met the confederacy of republican tribes led by the Malavas (Malloi) and Kshudrakas (Oxydrakai). The Malavas put up strong resistance from all their towns, and while taking down one such town Alexander was seriously wounded. His angry soldiers after taking the town, as revenge, killed everybody they found, sparing not even the children. Another tribe Agalassoi (Arjunayanas) also fought with great valor, and after one of their towns was captured, the entire population (around 20000), including women and children threw themselves into the fire preferring death over capture by the enemy. This is the first recorded incident of Jauhar in Indian history- the starting point of honor deaths that were repeated many times during the brutal Islamic invasions and raids. The few kings and chieftains that submitted before Alexander without a fight were declared traitors by the Brahmins, who not only took part in the war but also urged all people to fight against the foreign invasion as part of their dharma (religion). 

The invasion of Alexander has been recorded by the Greek historians in great detail, who were triumphant at the victorious march of the army. For India, it opened up a free route for interactions with the west, which bore later major consequences. For the immediate consequences of Alexander’s invasion, the result was however almost nothing, as his conquered Indian territories declared independence immediately after his death. If his invasion is examined closely, it will be easy to see that it cannot be called a great military success as Indian history textbooks make it out to be. His military successes remained limited to the conquest of small tribes and States by installments, and he never did test his might against what was then the citadel of Indian military strength, the Nanda Empire and Gangaridai. The hard exertions he made to fight Porus, who was a ruler of a small district between Chenab and Jhelum, do not favor the theory that he could have defeated the mighty Nandas and Gangaridai. The Greek army rebellion on the banks of the river Beas, when faced with the prospect of meeting the Nanda and Gangaridai armies, is well understood, when one analysis these aspects of the invasion, and few Greek historians have also recorded the fact that the retreat of the Greek army was caused by the terror of the mighty combined power of the Nandas and Gangaridai.

As the Greek historian, Plutarch tells us,

“As for the Macedonians, however, their struggle with Porus blunted their courage and stayed their further advance into India. For having had all they could do to repulse an enemy who mustered only twenty thousand infantry and two thousand horses, they violently opposed Alexander when he insisted on crossing the river Ganges also, the width of which, as they learned, was thirty-two furlongs, its depth a hundred fathoms, while its banks on the further side were covered with multitudes of men-at-arms and horsemen and elephants. For they were told that the kings of the Ganderites and Praesii were awaiting them with eighty thousand horsemen, two hundred thousand footmen, eight thousand chariots, and six thousand war elephants.”

While Alexander’s invasions may not have the characteristic of a glowing military success like Tamerlane or Nadir shah, they cannot be said to have shown lesser brutalities on the defeated than the latter two Islamic invaders. The perfidious murder of the Massaga army at night, and the recorded details of the blood-thirsty Greek troops killing the inhabitants of captured towns and citadels, sparing no man, woman, or children, tell their own horrific stories. The Greek historians have recorded the merciless killings of 80000 Indians in the lower Sindhu valley alone, and thousands were sold as slaves. Alexander’s invasions were thus no less bloody than the later Islamic invasions, only that his influence waned immediately after his death, while the Islamic invasions had a greater and more devastating impact on the arena of Indian history.