Harking Back: Alexander and why attack on Lahore was avoided

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn June 12, 2016

My childhood friend ‘Tipu’ Almakky always had this grudge about why people prefer to name their children Sikander but never Porus, a true Punjabi hero. The answer surely lies in the warped manner in which history is written, and people love those who claim to have won.

But then times are changing, for over the last many years scholars of ancient history of Punjab, using the texts of ancient historians like Herodotus, Hecataeus, Scylax and Plutarch, and relatively newer ones like Hammond, Borza, R.K. Simha, and even Nawotka, are convinced that Porus ended up the victor. As a researcher on the history of Lahore, my interest has remained focused on why Alexander avoided, or better still deliberately bypassed, Lahore. He had good reason as new research tells us.

It is essential that the history of Lahore be studied by avoiding communal loyalties which rule present-day academic Pakistan. It had always puzzled me, even as a schoolboy, just why did Alexander ‘the conqueror’ avoid coming to Lahore when we all know that he proceeded beyond? ‘So unfair’ I remember telling my father, who in his relaxed manner commented: “The bugger was a defeated invader who did not deserve to see Lahore.” But the central question remained embedded in my mind, portions of which were answered when I recently read a book edited by J. Harmatta of Budapest’s Akademiai Kiado, titled: ‘From Herataeus to Al-Huwarizmi’.

In an article in this newspaper last Sunday, Dr. Mubarak Ali correctly pointed out that researching in Lahore was impossible because though we do have a few respectable collections, access to them is impossible. The West rules because it collects, preserves, respects and shares knowledge. No wonder the amazing Punjab Archives continue to lie in a stinking horse stable.

Of late a lot of new research on Alexander and his invasion of the Indian sub-continent has been produced by Harvard University scholars. Earlier in the Soviet-era, Russian researchers decimated Greek historians for producing ‘propaganda and lies’. But then so was Abu’l Fazl’s ‘Ain-e-Akbari’ full of propaganda. No wonder he was murdered.

The new research contends that the reality was otherwise. The central thrust now seems to be that Porus of Bhera had soundly defeated Alexander in the famous ‘Battle of Hydaspes’ (Jhelum), and that Bhera’s ruler Porus had after defeating Alexander used the Greek to try to conquer Lahore’s Porus (named in ancient manuscripts as ‘Puru’, hence a ‘purushikta’).

Lahore’s ‘Puru’ was no fool and was wise enough to withdraw beyond the Sutlej where he aligned with five other ‘Purus’, all being related through marriages, to form an ‘unbelievably’ massive army. Mind you the Punjab in those days stretched from Kabul to the Ganges and Kashmir to Multan, and was ruled by a number of smaller rulers, all of whom envied the other’s possessions.

The ‘puru’ of Lahore had joined with other ‘purus’, including the forces of the powerful Nandas of Magadh, whose army was said, in those days, to be “the largest in the world”. The Greek historian Plutarch writes: “Awaiting the small Greek army were 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry on the finest horses, over 8,000 battle chariots and lining them on the front were 6,000 huge war elephants.” Plutarch then comments: “Alexander’s army would surely have walked into a slaughterhouse.” Alexander immediately ordered a retreat to the great jubilation among his soldiers.

Here a little analysis might help readers to judge the reasons Alexander decided to come to Punjab. The Gandhara region of Punjab had in 518 BC been conquered by the Achaemenids. Under Darius the conquered Punjab was the most fertile and populous region of his empire. The Indus Valley was already fabled for its gold. Scholars such as Panini and Kautilya had thrived. Soldiers from Punjab were used by the Achaemenid ruler Xerxes in his wars against the Greeks. Alexander obviously viewed Punjab as a natural part of his conquered land. Just for the record the inscription on Darius’s tomb at Naqsh-i-Rustam near Persepolis in Iran even today records Gandhara as part of his kingdom.

In 326 BC Alexander with his battle hardened Macedonian soldiers, Greek cavalry, Balkan fighters and Persians allies, a total of not more than 41,000 men, crossed the Hindukush mountains. He first faced resistance in Kunar, Swat, Buner and Peshawar valleys where the tribes of Ashvayana (Waziristan) and Ashvakayana (Khyber) as ancient Hindu texts call them, halted his advance. Alexander’s killing machine had met its first match.

The stubborn resistance of the Pathans was a prelude to what awaited Alexander in the east. The Macedonians and Greeks retreated with heavy losses. Alexander himself was seriously wounded in the ankle. On the fourth day the Pathan ruler was killed, but his city refused to surrender. The command of the army, as Plutarch tells us, went to his old mother, which brought all the women of the area joining the fighting. Realising the fierce resistance Alexander called for a truce, followed by a peace which he pledged to honour. Alexander’s troops that very night slaughtered the entire sleeping citizenry.

In May 326 BC, the much depleted Greek-led army faced the Punjabi ‘Paurava’ forces across the banks of the River Jhelum. The 34,000 Macedonian infantry and 7,000 Greek cavalry were bolstered by the ruler of Taxila, the puru Ambhi, who was Porus’s rival. Ambhi had offered to help Alexander on condition that he be given Porus’s kingdom. Ironically, once Alexander had been subdued, Porus had wanted that the Greeks conquer Lahore for him.

The Punjabi army of Porus facing Alexander consisted of 20,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry and 200 war elephants. According to Greek sources, Alexander had already lost several thousands soldiers fighting in the mountains.

The battle was savagely fought with volleys of heavy spear-like Punjabi arrows cutting into Greek formations. Wave after wave of war elephants rushed into Macedonian flanks. It was a nightmarish scenario for the invaders. As terrified Macedonians tried to push back, the Punjabi infantry charged into the gap.

In the first charge Porus’s brother Amar killed Alexander’s favourite horse Bucephalus, forcing Alexander to dismount. In this battle Punjabi troops not only broke into Alexander’s inner cordon, they also killed Nicaea, one of his leading commanders. According to the Roman historian Marcus Justinus, the impressive warrior Porus challenged Alexander, who charged him on horseback. In the ensuing duel, Alexander fell off his horse and was at the mercy of the Punjabi king’s spear. But Porus hesitated and Alexander’s bodyguards rushed in to save their king.

This is the critical point at which most modern researchers claim Alexander sued for peace. Plutarch also mentions this point as where the two great warriors stopped the fight. The comment of ‘being treated like a king’ is a much later insertion, a sort of face-saving ‘propaganda’. However, we do know that Plutarch, the Greek historian and biographer, commented: “Peace was finally achieved on the condition that they fight together.” What does this mean? Modern researchers claim that a defeated Alexander had no other choice but to fight for Porus.

There are considerable indications that Alexander’s move towards the east was inspired by Porus, and that when the Greek saw that further fighting would mean each and every Greek being slaughtered, he bypassed all points of conflict, especially Lahore, where a fierce army awaited. However, on his way south towards the sea, Alexander’s army was constantly attacked. Every day brought new losses.

At Sangala the Punjabi army attack was so ferocious it completely destroyed the Greek cavalry, forcing Alexander to henceforth fight on foot. In the battle at Multan he was fatally wounded when an arrow pierced the Macedonian’s breastplate and ribs. The ‘Military History’ magazine in a write-up says: “Alexander’s wound put an end to any more personal exploits. His lung tissue never fully recovered, and the thick scarring in its place made every breath cut like a knife.”

Alexander, now defeated and fleeing, never recovered and died in Babylon, Iraq, at the age of 33. His body was hijacked by his general on its way to Macedonia and taken to Alexandra. From there the body was again stolen. Where he was buried is an abiding mystery.

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