As Alexander of Macedonia stood on the banks of the Beas river in north-western India in late 326 B.C., he wept. Because there were no more worlds to conquer ; or so the historians would have us believe. The reality was a bit different.
Earlier that year, over the Jhelum river ( now in Pakistan ), Alexander entered the gates of India — at his cost. The first battles with the small Indian kingdoms of the Pauravas, the Adraistai and the Kathaians, were bruisers. Terrifying to the Greeks was their first encounter with war elephants.
Poros and Alexander : an engraving by Alonzo Chappei
According to the greek biographer Plutarch, the very first battle – with Poros of the Pauravas – ‘ depressed the spirit of the macedonians and made them very unwilling to advance further into India’. Historian Arrian of Nicomedia mentions in his ‘’Anabasis of Alexander’’ that ‘ in the art of war (the Indians) were far superior to the other nations by which Asia was at that time inhabited.’ If the small Indian kingdoms were so difficult to subdue, what fate awaited the greeks when they battled the bigger ones further to the east ? Especially the powerful kingdom of Magadha on the banks of the Ganges river , with its huge army , its vast reserves of iron, and its hordes of war elephants. ‘The greek soldiers had no stomach for further toils in India’ wrote Arrian.
At this time , an indian in the famous university of Taxila in the gandhara region of Afghanistan (which Alexander had just conquered), was carefully observing Alexander’s every move, his diplomacy and his statecraft . This man was a professor of various disciplines. He was also cunning , scheming, unscrupulous beyond measure and a master strategist . He came from the Indian kingdom of Magadha and his name was Chanakya. It was not long before, according to Arrian, ‘Alexander chided his soldiers for falling prey to all sorts of rumours designed expressly to work upon their fears’. To no avail. Alexander was forced to retreat. Two and a half years later, he was dead.
Chanakya was already well on his way to installing his protégé and fellow observer of Alexander – Chandragupta Maurya — as India’s first empire builder. His capital was Pataliputra in modern day Bihar, and his palace was at Rajgir – the hill of kings — on the banks of the Ganges river.
Remains of Rajgir
Sixteen years later, Chandragupta, suitably advised by his chief minister Chanakya, had evicted Alexander’s successor in the east – Seleucus Nikator—from the Indian subcontinent. His empire now stretched from the plains of the Ganges river in the east to the plains of the Indus river in the west, and from south India to northern Afghanistan. The golden age of Indian empire building had begun.
Fly-whisk bearer : sandstone carving , Mauryan period
The strength of the empire lay as much in the moral fibre of the people as in its military might. India already had a rich culture going back two thousand years. Commonly known as the vedic culture, it embodied principles of medicine, health-care, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and, of course, religion, far ahead of its time. Doubly blessed, India received the ministrations of two great teachers, both born between 599 and 550 B.C. not far from each other in north India.
These two aristocrats – Mahavir and Gautama Buddha – propounded the moral principles of discipline, integrity, honesty, detachment, right intention, thought, and action, care of all living creatures, protection of the environment and many others. These principles, though not presented as directives from any supreme being, were none-the-less being accepted and practiced by a large number of people by the time of Chandragupta. He himself embraced the teachings of Mahavir which had by now evolved into a religion –Jainism.
Ashoka, his grandson by a greek princess, embraced the teachings of Gautama Buddha which had by now evolved into a religion – Buddhism. Ashoka went on to become India’s greatest ruler.The capital on Ashoka’s royal pillars is today India’s national insignia and is featured on the mast-head of this blog.
Naturally, a people following the upright examples of their kings , would bear out the ancient Indian precept ‘ As is the king, so will be the people ’. Whenever this precept was in practice , the golden age glittered. Whenever it was forsaken, the glitter faded. Regretably that happened with the death of Askoka around 232 B.C., and continued till 180 B.C. The huge state grants given to monks, monasteries and centres of learning dwindled.
Very fortunately for India, north India fell under the sway of the Kushans of Afghanistan whose most powerful emperor Kanishka embraced Buddhism. This kept the morals of the empire intact until the next flush of the golden age — the advent of the imperial Guptas.
A Kushan : Gandhara school of art
The Gupta dynasty and its off-shoots marked the high water point in Indian history . Beginning around 275 A.D., this golden age lasted four hundred years . The lofty principles of Brahmanism, Buddhism and Jainism co-existed. Peace reigned . Foreign trade flourished through both western and eastern ports. Cultural influences flowed in from foreign lands. It was during this period that India’s finest poets, mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers, metal workers, sculptors and painters existed – generously patronized by state grants and donations from wealthy patrons, of whom there were many.
It was around 550 A.D. that one of the great universities of the then known world – Nalanda university —was started, fittingly in the same district as the ancient capital of Magadha in modern day Bihar. So sought after was admission to this university that applicants from countries as distant as China and Japan would stand at its gates to undergo the entrance tests. Regretably, when I stood at the ruins of its gates some years ago, I saw only desolation.
Around this time , art and painting reached its zenith. This is in evidence at the world famous cave monasteries at Ajanta and Bagh in central India. On a recent visit to Ajanta , I found a series of 30 large caves chiseled into solid rock , their roof surfaces smoothened with lime and husk, and paintings made on them using natural pigments. Visibility in the dark interiors of the caves was made possible by reflection of the bright sunlight outside , using mirrors.
Ajanta cave complex
Hundreds of paintings depicting daily life and events of that period, are to be seen. Apparently , even aristocrats of that time often gave up a life of luxury for the ascetism practiced in these centres.
Faces from India’s past: Ajanta caves ( 2nd-4th century A.D. )
By 600 A.D. fissures were appearing in the edifice of the empire. An occasional flicker of its former greatness would appear with the arrival of a competent monarch – like Hashavardhana. But character and moral fibre was on the wane. Rival camps fought for supremacy, wealth and territory — a deplorable trait witnessed time and again, ever since. With the break-up of the empire evident by 672 A.D., the way was open for foreign invaders to pour in. Monasteries were destroyed, treasuries looted, and the great university of Nalanda was burnt to the ground in a last act to obliterate Indian culture such as it was. The invaders moved the capital to Delhi. The golden age of India was over. The dark age – Kaliyug — had begun.
( In Indian perspective, History repeats itself. Hence very little of Indian history was written down and preserved . Yet around twelve hundred years later, another great empire crumbled. Austria is the subject of my next blog . Stay posted. )