The Dawn: Dec 18, 2015

Punjab Notes: Beas River: where troops of Alexander mutinied

Mushtaq Soofi 

Beas or Bias is one of Punjab’s rivers mentioned in the context of Sapta-Sindhu in the sacred Rig-Veda, the first book of the subcontinent in the hitherto recorded history. It was called Vapashain the Vedic literature and was known to the ancient Greeks as Hyphasis. Sapta-Sindhu is same ashapta hənduin Avestian language. The river is named after Rishi Vyasa who says the myth, created it from Vyas Kund, the lake that’s its source in Himalayas from where it flows into the Himachal Pradesh (a part of Punjab before its division) and then enters East Punjab. After traversing hundreds of kilometres it finally falls into the Sutlej (Sutudri) in Kapurthala District. The Rig-Veda, in one of its well-known hymns, describes the Bharata tribe’s crossing of roaring Sutlej and Beas rivers by chariots thus: ‘like two bright mother cows who lick their youngling, Vapasha and Stutudri speed down their waters (trans. Griffith)’. Simile of cow for river may sound unusual to us but in the world of Vedic literature, river and cow were perceived to have an organic link. The reason probably was that in those ancient times both were and still are vital source of life. River provided water for human, animal, botanical life and irrigated land while cow with its milk sustained family and boosted agricultural produce with the bulls it gave birth to.

In one myth, Aryan warlord Indra who was deified, is celebrated for his brave act of slaying Viritra (which literally means obstruction/obstacle) and liberating the rivers from the Harappa people. In another myth, Indra is glorified for smashing the Vala cave and getting back cows allegedly stolen and kept there by the Harappa people. So access to rivers and possession of cows were crucial to the emerging Aryan ascendancy. After all it was not a matter of bovine stupidity to establish linkages between booing cow and roaring stream in the fertile plains of Punjab.Therein lies the secret of the process that has transformed cow into sacred animal which is the driver of Hindutva politics in the Northern India these days.

Alexander’s march in Punjab terminated at the Beas River in 326 BC quashing his hope of going to the other end of the world which was product of his poor geographical knowledge. The Beas was not as big a river as Jhelum/vahat but proved to be a formidable hurdle for the invading Greek armies for a host of reasons. Here on the banks of the Beas, the Greek troops mutinied and defied the order of their king for the first time in their long march. The troops refused to go further. They no longer shared their king’s grandiloquent dream. They simply had lost appetite for conquering new lands. Alexander with all his persuasive power failed to lift the spirit of his officers and soldiers who had been away from their homes for almost eight years killing people and plundering foreign lands. Let us hear what Arrian in his ‘The Campaigns of Alexander’ has to say about the mood of the officers: “The sight of their king undertaking an endless succession of dangerous and exhausting enterprises was beginning to depress them. Their enthusiasm was ebbing; they held meetings in camp, at which even the best of them grumbled at their fate, while others swore that they would go no further, even if Alexander himself led them…”. Alexander summoned his officers for a meeting and made an apparently rousing speech to boost their morale that ended thus: “…whoever wishes to return home will be allowed to go, either with me or without me. I will make those who stay the envy of those who return”. Arrian further says: “when Alexander ended, there was a long silence. The officers present were not willing to accept what he had said”. At last Coenus had the courage to speak up and convey the feelings of common solders. He finished saying “assuredly for a commander like yourself, with army like ours, there is nothing to fear from any enemy; but luck, remember, is an unpredictable thing, and against what it may bring no man has any defence.” After expressing his resentment Alexander shut himself in his tent for three days and refused to meet his commanders. Finally “Alexander…offered sacrifice in the hope of favourable omens for the crossing. When however, the omens proved to be against him, he at last submitted…”

The revolt of Alexander’s armies and their refusal to cross the Beas River were prompted by two main factors; heavy losses in war against unusually brave Raja Porus and frightful prospect of another war across the Beas with the mighty Nanda Army of Magadha and forces of Gangaridai kingdom of Bengal. Plutarch has something revealing to say about the last and most costly battle the Greeks fought against the Punjabis: “as for the Macedonians, however, their struggle with Porus blunted their courage and stayed their further advance into India…” As to why Greek armies lost their nerve to cross the Beas, he says; “…they (Greeks) 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 fighting elephants”.

The Beas River is known for two great historical happenings i.e. the crossings. The first great crossing was successfully done by Aryans and the second one was contemplated but not even attempted by the Greeks. The Beas allowed some clans of the Bharata’s tribe from Punjab to cross it which were forced by socio-economic conditions to migrate to the Gangetic plain with a view to settling there. It scared away the Alexander’s invading armies who wanted to plunder the land across it. —

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