Alexander’s retreat from India … empty handed?
Alexander’s campaign to drum up alliances with Indian kings on the borders of his Persian empire did not yield much gold or wealth. Unlike the Persian Empire, most of the gold and wealth in India was diffused and spread. In raid after raid, Alexander came back empty handed – or almost. While he was managing the fires in Bactra and Sogdia, he had to release Scythian prisoners without a ransom. But, while stitching an alliance with Omphis (Ambi /Ambhi), instead he had to pay Ambhi about 1000 talents of gold – which provoked much envy in his camp.
The talk of an Indian invasion provoked assassination conspiracies, demand for release by soldiers and much expenditure. Many of his soldiers – Greeks units, Macedonian veterans, Thessalian cavalry had to be released, after handsome gratuities and payments. New soldiers had to be recruited again at a significant cost.
Unlike Alexander’s experience of poor pickings in India, the Greek image of India, in history, was different. There were wild tales about Indian ants, big as foxes and jackals, that mined gold. These were tales related by Pliny, Herodotus, Strabo, Arrian – partly, based on reports from Megasthenes. And the very same Greek sources show that with each victory, at kingdom after kingdom, Alexander gained little in terms of gold. Unlike many other subsequent raiders.
The case of missing Indian gold
So, where was the famed Indian gold?
Two possible theories suggest themselves. Alexander was singularly unsuccessful in his Indian campaign and could not, hence, obtain any gold. While this may please Indian jingoists, we will suspend opinion on this in face of overwhelming Western historical opinion – though the truth may be otherwise.
The second theory is more intricate – and also stronger. Unlike the description of Persian cities, the description of Indian cities in all the accounts, is of very simple and plain cities. Not one Indian city is extolled for its beauty, or its buildings, palaces or temples. What gives?
Extant Indian society
Three elements of the Indian economic system were unique till the 19th century – property ownership by the commoners, widespread ownership of gold and absence of slavery (defined as capture, trade and forced labour by humans – without compensation).
The Indian social structure in pre-Alexandrian Indian had widespread gold and property ownership. With complete absence of slavery, wages could also rise above subsistence levels. This restricted the wealth of Indian rulers – and thus impressive monuments, buildings and palaces are rare or non-existent in pre-medieval India. Thus Indian cities were plain and simple. Royal treasuries were hence, meagre.
Colonial Indian rule dispossessed many Indians of their property – and concentrated wealth in the hands of the few – the Thakurs and the Zamindars. Indians were dispossessed of their gold in the Squeeze Indian Campaign of 1925-1945 – started by Churchill and Montagu Norman and continued by Neville Chamberlain.
Monopoly in currency
Royal official coinage was only one of the options even in colonial India. This reduced the concentration of wealth which we see in evidence in the Persian Empire – where Darius’ treasury yielded (Greek estimates) more than 100,000 talents of gold (some exaggeration?).
Indian armies could only scaled up by voluntary services and funding. Hence, these motivated and volunteer armies could inflict so much losses on Alexander.
So, what did the Greco-Macedonians take away …
There were more interesting things that Alexander’s armies took away from India. The odd and interesting things that Alexander carted away were cattle, elephants and the Macedonian national dress – and possibly kissing.
Cattle from Punjab
At the battle against the Asvanyas (Khamboj), called by the Greeks as Aspasioi /Aspasii /Assakenoi /Aspasio /Hipasii /Assaceni/Assacani, Osii /Asii /Asoi, and Aseni in Greek records, Alexander took some 230,000 Asiatic humped zebu cattle to, says Arrian, improve cattle stock in Macedonia. Indian agriculture was well advanced by that time – and exports of spices, textiles, iron and steel were significant.
Elephants from India
War elephants were rule changers – and Indians were the only significant trainers, users, and owners of war elephants. Alexander’s successor, Seleucos Nicator, considered by Ptolemy as the possible true successor of Alexander, ceded his possessions East of Persia – to Chandraupta Maurya. As a part of the treaty, Chandragupta also gifted Seleucos 500 elephants which proved invaluable in settling the Daidochi Wars – at the Batle of Ipsus.
While the above two are well known, the other two interesting that Greco-Macedonian armies took back to Europe were more cultural. First was the current Macedonain national dress – the ‘salvaria’. The entire North West Indian sub-continent, from Punjab to Afghanistan wears the salwar – which is tubular leggings.
This is a unisex garment – like the sari /dhoti also is. And popular all over India today. Unlike other parts of the world, where women were forced to conform to a male standards and prescriptions of dressing, Indian women were free and dressed like their men did (Feminists note – Indian men were forced to dress, like their women did, since you insist). Unisex clothing, saris and dhotis dominated the Indian plains, and the salwars, in the North West mountain regions of India. The Indo-Scythians used leather leggings – which were helpful in case of long marches on horse backs.
These leggings even today called the salvaria in Macedonia. The Persians at that time had the robes – and purple robes were the sign of royalty. The Greeks wore chitons - and peplos. The Greek fustanella similarly, is very much like tribal costumes worn even today by Gujarathi rabari tribals.
Kissing … and Kamasutra
On kissing, Vaughn Bryant, an anthropologist at Texas A&M, has traced the first recorded kiss back to India, somewhere around 1500 B.C., when early Vedic scriptures start to mention people “sniffing” with their mouths, and later texts describe lovers “setting mouth to mouth.” From there, he hypothesizes, the kiss spread westward when Alexander the Great conquered the Punjab in 326 B.C.