Destruction of Takshashila – a defining moment

Posted in Current Affairs, European History, History, Indo Pak Relations, language, Media by Anuraag Sanghi on August 4, 2009
The theory that Huns destroyed Takshashila in 5th century is a theory with no legs – and a case without evidence. So … then what could have happened?
Julian (?) Monastery, Takshashila

Julian Monastery, Takshashila

The importance of Takshashila

As the oldest university in the world, Takshashila has a special place in the history of the world. More so, in Indian history. It’s destruction (purportedly) at the hands of the Hunas, as proposed by Western historians (and their followers) has been rather facile  – to say the least.

There is evidence that the truth may be otherwise. This post lays out an alternative scenario, but before that let us refresh ourselves with the history of Takshashila.

Takshashila in classical texts, history, geography

The Vayu Purana traces the start of Takshashila, to Taksha, son of  Bharata (brother of Raghu Ram Chandra). Takshashila also finds a mention in Mahabharata – citing Dhaumya, as the acharya of Takshashila. It was at Takshashila, that Vaishampayana made the first recorded narration of the Mahabharata to Janmajeya.

The Gitopdesha from the Mahbharata

The Gitopdesha from the Mahbharata

It finds continued mentions in numerous Jatakas, too. For centuries, across many cultures, stories of Takshashila (and its environs) swirled, like even later,

According to a story contained in the Mujma-t-Tawarikh a twelfth-century Persian translation from the Arabic version of a lost Sanskrit work, thirty thousand Brahmans with their families and retinue had in ancient times been collected from all over India and had been settled in Sindh, under Duryodhana, the King of Hastinapur. (from Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World By André Wink).

The Buddhist anthology of storiesAvadana-shataka mentions that “3.510 millions of stupas were erected at the request of the people of Taxila”.

Students paid upto 1000 coins in advance to receive education at Takshashila – and there were thousands of such students. Students came from all over the world – and paid large sums of money to Indian teachers for education! Kings, brahmans, commoners – all came to study at Takshashila. Its alumni included all the stars of the Indian firmament – Atreya, Pasenadi, Mahali, Patanajali, Jivaka, Panini, Kautilaya, Prasenjita.

Its development and importance lay in the fact that,

Takshashila and Purushpura on either side of the Sindhu river were connected with the Indian trade routes on the Indian side and Central Asian trade routes on the other. Strategically located, Takshashila, the capital of Gandhar, was the terminus of several inland routes and the starting points of the great trade routes connecting India and Central Asia. (from India and Central Asia By J. N. Roy, Braja Bihārī Kumāra, Astha Bharati (Organization)).

Based on subsequent excavation and diggings, it is thought that Takshashila was the oldest city in South Asia – when Alexander landed there. So Takshashila’s historic and cultural importance is too high to become a victim of slip-shod colonial propaganda – posing as history.

Faxian, Fa Hian, Fa Hien

Faxian, Fa Hian, Fa Hien

Chinese travellers to India

An important source for ‘modern’ history, much used by Western historians are the travels of Chinese travellers (like Fa Hian/ Faxain, Huien Tsang /XuanZang). Supposedly 1000 years after death of Gautama Buddha, overlooking some gaping holes in Fa Hian’s travelogue.

How could Fa Hien miss meeting /mentioning Kalidasa – supposedly a contemporary of Fa Hien? In fact, Kalidasa is not mentioned at all in Fa Hian’s account, which supports the hypotheses that Kalidasa preceded Fa Hian. It may be pointed out that since, Kalidasa’s works are artistic rather than religious or philosophical, the lack of Fa Hain’s interest in his works is obvious. But to ignore a man of Kalidasa’s stature and learning?

Then Fa Hian misses the name of the supposed ruling ‘Gupta’ king – a dynasty which ruled over most of South Asia! And it is Fa Hian who is supposedly a significant authority on the Gupta period. Western history labelled the Gupta period as the ‘golden age’ of Indian history – which Fa Hian seems to have completely missed. Similarly when Fa-Hien visited Takshashila in 5th century AD (travelled in India during 399-414 AD), he found nothing. His travelogue makes some cursory mentions of Takshashila.

And that leaves Indian history with some rather big ‘dating’ holes! Is it that Fa hian visited India much after Kalidasa, the Gupta dynasty, the death of Buddha? Maybe a few centuries later, relative to the period in Indian history. Fa Hian’s date is well indexed. So that possibly cannot move much. It is the the corresponding Indic dates which come into question!

Another Chinese traveller, Sung Yun, who had a rather exalted view of his country and its ruler, is largely responsible for overly negative image of the Hunas in ‘modern’ history. Sung-Yun’s peeve – the Huna king did not read the letter from the Wei Tartar king standing, but in a seated position. A modern historian writing on the spread of Buddhism and Buddhist traveller’s tales thinks that,

Like most things India it (Buddhism) suffered somewhat from the invasions of the Huns, who dominated many parts of the northwest from 480 to 530; but the immediate effect of their depredations does not seem to have been very striking. At any rate, the Chinese pilgrim Sung Yun, who travelled through this region in 518-21, gives us a picture in which Buddhism is quite as thriving as it was in Fa-Hien’s time. (from The Pilgrimage of Buddhism and a Buddhist Pilgrimage By James Bissett Pratt, page 111)

Subsequent Chinese travellers to India like I Ching (I Ching or Yi Jing, Yìjìng, Yiqing, I-Tsing or YiChing), were more about Buddhism the religion that it had become, instead of a school of learning and thought. I Ching also recorded details of the works and life of Bhartrhari, the (probably) 5th century grammarian and poet. His take away from India, from Nalanda “in ten years (A.D. 675-685), during which he collected there some 400 Sanskrit texts amounting to 500,000 slokas.”

The ‘end’ of Takshashila

The colonial narrative traces the destruction of Takshashila in 499 AD, by the Hunas (Western history calls them White Huns, Romans called them Ephtalites; Arabs called them the Haytal;  The Chinese Ye Tha). Western ‘historians’ have ascribed the demise of Taxila to the White Huns, a Central Asian, nomadic tribe, roaming between Tibet to Tashkent, practicing polyandry.



Takshashila lying at the cross roads of the Uttarapatha (West calls it The Silk Route) – from Tibet, China, Central Asia, Iran – and India, fell to this mindless savagery, goes the ‘modern’ narrative. But specifically, there is no mention in Chinese, Persian, Indian texts (that I could find) of the Hunas who destroyed Takshashila. So, how and where did this story spring from?

Kanishka, a major Buddhist king, was a Yue Chi, known as Tusharas in India, related to the White Huns. Why would his tribal cousins destroy Takshashila?

History as propaganda

We have the ‘imaginative genius’ of Sir John Marshall to thank for this – a man who was “interested in Alexander’s campaign and in Graeco-Buddhist monuments at Sanchi and Taxila.” Sir John, who was “filled with enthusiasm for anything Greek” was also aware that it was at “Taxila that Alexander the Great halted and refreshed his army before advancing to do battle with Porus.” Not one to stoop below self-aggrandisement, he counts himself among the “few archaeologists now living who have devoted as many years to the excavation of a single site as I have devoted to Taxila.” He lays out the ground for the ‘destroyer White Huns’ theory, describing how

the hordes of Ephthalites or White Huns which swept over Gandhara and the Panjab in the third quarter of the fifth century, carrying ruin and desolation wherever they went. (from Taxila – an illustrated account of archaeological excavations By Sir John Marshall page 76).

Barbara Cartland and Mortimer Wheeler - both imaginative

Barbara Cartland and Mortimer Wheeler - both imaginative

And his evidence for this destruction is,

Thirty two coins, all of them silver, leave no room for doubt it was it was the White Huns who were responsible for the wholesale destruction of the Buddhist sangharamas of Taxila … several skeletons of those who fell in the fight, including one of White Hun, were lying. (ellipsis mine; from Taxila by Sir John Marshall page 791).

Join the gang!

A chorus of historians joined in Sir John’s smear campaign (published between 1940-1951) against the White Huns who were ‘guilty’ of ‘destruction of Takshashila’. Sir John lays the burden of guilt at the doorstep of the Hunas (Western history calls them White Huns, Romans called them Ephtalites; Arabs called them the Haytal;  The Chinese Ye Tha). Not surprising, since both ,

“Indian and foreign archaeologists often invoked invasion /diffusion as tools for explaining away the origins of fully-fledged archaeological cultures ranging in age from the Lower Paleolithic to the early historic period as well as individual traits concerning pottery, technology and other aspects. Africa, West and Central Asia and Europe were the favourite source areas. (From Theory in Archaeology: A World Perspective By Peter J. Ucko, page 132)

Lower Paleolithic is about 250,000 years ago and early historic period in India is 3000 years ago. Based on traveller’s tall tales, we have ‘modern’ historians who have depicted, without any evidence, that the

the White Huns, or Hephtalites, felt a kind of hatred toward Buddhism and strove to destroy all its physical as well as mental manifestations during the fifth century. This is how Taxila brutally vanished. (from Books on fire: the destruction of libraries throughout history By Lucien X. Polastron, Jon Graham page 107-108).

And this is from a book which claims to be a “historical survey of the destruction of knowledge from ancient Babylon and China to modern times”. Another book seeking to capture Central Asian history writes that these Hunas, who came,

sacking monasteries and works of art, and ruining the fine Greco-Buddhic civilization which by then was five centuries old. Persian and Chinese texts agree in their descriptions of the tyranny and vandalism of this horde.” (from The Empire of the Steppes By Rene Grousset, Naomi Walford).

It has been pointed out that

Although the exact relationship between the Buddhist communities of the Peshawar basin and the new Hun dynasty is not entirely clear, there is considerable evidence to suggest that Buddhism continued under Hun rule … (there is) textual evidence to show that Chinese Buddhist pilgrims continued to visit Gandharan sites in the Peshawar Basin into the early sixth century C.E.; The Bhamala main stupa can be compared to the 7th to 8th century cruciform stupas in Kashmir, Afghanistan, and other parts of Central Asia. (from The Buddhist architecture of Gandhāra By Kurt A. Behrendt pages 207-209).

Technically, it was also pointed out that Sir John did not stratify his digs, which creates a dating and sequencing problem. Going with self-aggrandizing nature, Sir John also focussed on ‘glamourous digs’ – without focussing on the connectivity issues.

Alexander in colonial historical narrative

For more on the decline of Takshashila, it is Alexander that we must turn to.

The Alexander mosaic, discovered in Pompeii

The 'Alexander mosaic', discovered in Pompeii

Alexander has long been a vital cog in Western colonial narrative of history. Alexander’s halo gave bragging rights – first to the Greco-Romans and then to the Euro-colonialists.

The American Department of Defense, in its Legacy Program, has a section on Cultural Heritage Training. The use of Alexander’s mythos there is self evident. Between the Greco-Roman historians and the Euro-Colonialists, has sprung an entire industry, to create a mythos surrounding Alexander.

Amongst Alexander’s first actions in India were his attempts to cobble up alliances. His most famous one was with Ambhi – the ruler of Taxila. In India, Alexander had to pay the King of Taxiles, Omphis, (Ambi) 1000 talents of gold (more than 25 tons of gold) – to secure an alliance. To cement this alliance, Alexander ‘gifted’ Ambhi with ‘a wardrobe of Persian robes, gold and silver ornaments, and 30 horses, 1000 talents in cash’. 1000 talents is anywhere between 25,000-60,000 kg of gold! Does this look like Ambhi accepted Alexander as the conqueror of the world – or Alexander ‘persuading’ Ambhi to seal an alliance?

The payment of 1000 talents in gold to Ambhi aroused much envy and outrage in Alexander’s camp. It prompted Meleager, to sarcastically congratulate Alexander for ‘having at least found in India a man worth 1000 talents.’ What seals this incident is Alexander’s retort to Meleager, “that envious men only torment themselves.” (C 8.12.17 & 18).

Black and blue

Instead of the complete capitulation and collaboration that Alexander got from the defeated Achaemenid ruling family of Sisygambis, Stateira, Oxathres (brother of Darius III; also written as oxoathres and oxyathres) et al, the foursome of Bessos, Spitamenes, Datafernes and the Scythians made Alexander’s life miserable. At Gaugamela, it was Bessos and his Indian cavalry, which broke Alexander’s formations. As a 19th century historian reports,

During the three years anterior to the passage of the Indus, Balk (Bactria) was usually Alexander’s headquarters. It was in these countries that he experienced his only serious reverses in the field. (from On the practicability of an invasion of British India By Sir George De Lacy Evans).

The tribes and kshatrapas (satraps) of Indian North West swath, delayed Alexander for nearly three years – before he could step into India. In India, Alexander had to pay the King of Taxiles, Omphis, (Ambi) 1000 talents of gold (more than 25 tons of gold) – to secure an alliance. He had to return the kingdom of Punjab to Porus – purportedly, after winning the battle. His loot and pickings from India were negligible.

To these lean pickings, Alexander’s reaction“the Macedonians frequently massacred the defenders of the city, especially in India.” What was Alexander’s response to a ‘sub-continent occupied by a complex network of peoples and states, who viewed Alexander as a new piece to be played in their complex political chess game.’ Another modern historian, an expert on Greek history writes that ‘the tale of slaughter told in the ancient sources is unparalleled elsewhere in the campaign.’ ( from Ancient Greece By Sarah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan).

The Indian reaction

Alexander and the Indian 'Gymnosophists' - Medieval European drawing

Alexander and the Indian 'Gymnosophists' - Medieval European drawing

Alexander’s massacres in India, a colonial historian informs us (without naming a source), earned him an “epithet … assigned (to) him by the Brahmins of India, The Mighty Murderer.” This Indian Brahmanic characterization of Alexander, commonly taught to English schoolchildren and present in Eglish college texts, as The Mighty Murderer, curiously disappeared from Western-English texts soon after 1860 – and instead now “a positive rose-tinted aura surrounds Alexander” … !

Greek writers report, that Alexander finally realized that it was the Indian Brahmins who had influenced Indian princes to organize and support the Indian war against Alexander. Greek sources cite, after this realization, at ‘The City of Brahmans’, Alexander massacred an estimated 8000-10,000 of these non-combatant Brahmans. His question-answer sessions with the 10 Indian-prisoners-Brahmans (called Gymnosophists by the Greeks), related by Plutarch, shows Alexander asking inane questions – at sea, completely lost.

And arising from this frustration, came Alexander’s wanton massacres at Takshashila – which thereafter limped along for the next 1000 years, but never to fully recover.

Takshashila – the pattern!

One must also recall that Alexander’s behaviour in Babylon – a intellectual freeport, city ‘under the protection’ of code of ‘kidinnu’. The code of ‘kidinnu’ allowed creation of sanctuaries where weapons and arms were not allowed. The religious persecution by Alexander of the Zoroastrians (as per the Zoroastrian accounts) bears out Alexander’s wanton cruelty. As a modern researcher, Jona Lendering writes,

the Zoroastrian tradition is unanimous that Alexander ‘killed several high priests and judges and priests and the masters of the Magians and upholders of the religion’ (Book of Arda Wiraz 1.9),  ‘quenched many sacred fires’ (Great Bundahishn 33.14) and ’caused great devastation (Denkard 4.16 and 7.7.3). This ‘evil-destined and raging villain’ (Denkard 8.pr.20) was not just regarded as a collaborator of Angra Mainyu, but as one one of the calamities that the evil one had sent to earth to destroy what is good. Alexander even received the surname Guzastag, the Accursed, a title that had until then only been used to describe Angra Mainyu. It is possible -perhaps even likely- that several apocalyptic texts from the Avesta were composed during the reign of Alexander.

BCHP 1: Alexander Chronicle (obverse; **) Photo coutesy livius.com

BCHP 1: Alexander Chronicle (obverse; **) Photo coutesy livius.org

A set of Babylonian tablets, published in 1975, the Alexander Chronicles, mention that Alexander killed Kidinnu – most probably the famed Babylonian astronomer.

The name Kidinnu itself seems to be derived from the Sanskritic word, ‘Krishna’, the Dark One. Was Kidinnu better known by his assumed Sanskritic name? The Indo-Assyrian collaboration, represented by the Babylonian texts and schools give significant weight to this hypotheses.

More questions on the destruction of Takshashila

At the time of Takshashila’s decline in the 5th century, a significant Gupta king was Purugupta – successor of Skandagupta. Written records from Purugupta’s reign are few and far in between, he has been variously named as Vikramaditya, Prakashaditya and of course as Puru /Pura Gupta.

The most authentic link to his reign is the Bhitari seal inscription, (near Ghazipur, in modern UP). The Bhitari seal provided proof of an elongated Gupta reign – than the Skandagupta-was-the-end-of-Gupta dynasty dating. Currently dated between 467 AD, Purugupta’s reign saw many border wars.

Purugupta’s reign saw Vasubandhu, a known teacher of logic and debate, become famous and Huien Tsang reported on the debates based on Vasubandhu’s texts. Today Vasubandhu’s texts exist in Chinese and Tibetan languages – the original Sanskrit volumes remain untraceable. Purugupta also restored the gold grammage in the ‘suvarna’ coins, probably debased in Skandagupta’s time, possibly due to the cost of the fighting the Hunas.

Is it that the Porus identified by the Greeks, Purugupta? Were the marauding soldiers, mentioned in Chinese texts, mercenary soldiers hired by Alexander to replace the ‘deserting’ Greek’ soldiers, on the eve of his Indian ‘campaign’? The dating of the Gupta dynasty to end of the 5th century AD, is probably off by about 800 years.

The Indian defence system

Taksashila’s destruction raises an obvious question! And also important. What did Indian polity do to defend centres of excellence like Takshashila?

To protect such a vibrant and important centre of leaning, the Indian polity had evolved a complex structure across the entire North Western swath. Thus while, within the Indic area, borders and crowns kept changing and shifting, invaders were kept at bay. A system of alliances supporting frontline kingdoms in the entire North West Indian swath was formulated.

For instance, against the Assyrian invasion, led by Semiramis, a minor Indian king, Stabrobates, was supported to beat back the Assyrian invasion. Against Cyrus the Great, Tomyris, a Scythian Queen was supported to massacre Persian invaders. Alexander’s nightmare began immediately, as soon as he crossed from the Persian area into the area governed by the Medes – an Indic area.

Death of Crassus

Death of Crassus

A symbol of these alliances, for instance, was the House of Suren’s traditional rights to install the crown of Persian rulers. Some ancient maps show the Gandhara-Takshashila region as Suren. And it was at the hands of these very Surens that Crassus met his nemessis. At the hands of the Indo-Parthian armies – led by a Suren general.

The Sassanian dynasty was able to wrest back and defend Persian dominions from the Greco-Romans, after setting up an elephants corps in their army – evidenced, for instance, by the carvings at Taq-i-Bustan. At one time, the Sassanian rulers had increased its elephant corps to 12,000 elephants.

End of Crassus

Laurence Oliver as Crassus in Spartacus

Laurence Oliver as Crassus in Spartacus

Less than 300 years after Alexander, Romans came close to Indian border. They were led by Marcus Licinius Crassus – estimated (or allegedly) worth 200,000,000 sestertii. A writer of classical journals estimated that to be worth about 7.6 million in 1860. Inflation adjusted, about 7.6 billions. Source of Crassus’ wealth – slavery, corruption, pillage, bribery et al. Crassus is more famous in history for three things – One, for his wealth, Two – for having crucified thousands of rebellious slaves on the Via Appia, after defeating Spartacus’ Slave Army and Three, as the man who funded the rise of Julius Caesar.

It is his death, that is usually glossed over.

Roman forces retreated, when confronted by Indo-Sassanian armies with Indian elephants. For the next nearly 400 years, Romans were wary of any large expeditions into Indo-Persian territories. 500 years later (nearly), with the help of the Indian elephant corps, the Sassanians stopped the Romans at Persian borders in 363 AD. But it is interesting that the enemies of the daiwas (enemy of devas are the asuras, in Indian scriptures), the Zoroastrians (followers of Ahura Mazda, speculatively Mahishasura) allied themselves with a Suren. A 1000 years later, the Sassanian army, had forgotten their lessons – and could not use their few elephants to full effect, against the Islamic Arabs.

The rise of religion in India

Without access to the ‘Indian thought factory’, after the fall of Takshashila, in 499 AD – by the Huna (dating as per Western history which calls them White Huns, Romans called them Ephtalites; Arabs called them the Haytal;  The Chinese Ye Tha) Buddhism soon became a religion. Buddha in India, was another, in a long line of teachers. But in the rest of world, Buddhism soon became a religion.

The destruction of Takshashila (Taxila) meant that students and scholars would need to travel for an extra 60 days to reach the other Indian Universities of the time. This was a traumatic event in the status of the Indian ethos – even the Asiatic ethos.

The decline of Taksashila marked the destruction, persecution and decline in Indian education, thought and structure. Fewer believers in Indian faith systems made the trip to India. ‘Consumers’ of ideological products from the ‘Indian Thought Factory’,  were left with Desert Bloc alternative products. Buddhism soon became a religion outside India. A few centuries after decline of Takshashila, Nalanda, etc. were also destroyed by Desert Bloc invaders.

Travels of Fah-Hian and Sung-Yun, Buddhist pilgrims from China to India (400 …

By Samuel Beal

Hannibal’s Elephants

Posted in Desert Bloc, European History, India by Anuraag Sanghi on August 7, 2008

War elephants were a uniquely Indian innovation – or skill, if you like. So, how did Hannibal get elephants into his Carthaginian armies that invaded – and came within spitting distance of Rome.

Hannibal's Elephants

Hannibal's Elephants

Hannibal’s Campaign Against Rome

In 218 BC, Hannibal from Carthage (near modern Tunis) crossed over the Alps and attacked Rome. The Roman army was surprised. They did not expect any enemy to cross  frozen Alpine ranges and attack them.

And after the surprise, came the terror. Hannibal brought in elephants with his army. Terrorized Romans had no experience against elephants – and no answer either. And how many elephants did Hannibal have?

Hannibal started with 37 elephants. By the time he crossed the Alps, twenty were left. By the time he reached the outskirts of Rome, he was left with just one – Surus.

But, Rome never overcame the surprise of Hannibal’s attack or the terror of elephants. Over the next few years, Hannibal defeated the Roman army in a number of battles. Hannibal’s allies were the Numidians and other African rulers. For the last 2000 years, Western historians have written reams on Hannibal’s campaign – and his elephants.

Recently, (from 1994-2006) a Stanford University team worked on tracing Hannibal’s Alpine Route. During the 12 years, they asked all the questions.

Except the really important ones.

Epirus Elephant Dish

Epirus Elephant Dish

Where Did Hannibal Get The Elephant Idea From

Plutarch narrates that Hannibal had a high opinion of Pyrrhus – and it is speculated that he may have read Pyrrhus’ manual on generalship.

Pyrrhus (of Epirus and Macedon), Alexander’s cousin, used 20 elephants c.280 BC against the Romans. And won a ‘Pyrrhic’ victory.

Another case of terror inspired by elephants. Pausanias, lets the cat out of the bag. He says:

“… being perfectly aware that he (Pyrrhus) was no match for the Romans, he prepared to let loose against them his elephants. The first European to acquire elephants was Alexander, after subduing Porus and the power of the Indians; after his death others of the kings got them but Antigonus more than any; Pyrrhus captured his beasts in the battle with Demetrius. When on this occasion they came in sight the Romans were seized with panic, and did not believe they were animals. [1.12.4] For although the use of ivory in arts and crafts all men obviously have known from of old, the actual beasts, before the Macedonians crossed into Asia, nobody had seen at all except the Indians themselves, the Libyans, and their neighbours.”

Elephant stories – from The Rest Of The World

The interesting story of Ptolemy’s elephants comes from another Greek ‘historian’ Polybius in Raphia (book V)

few only of Ptolemy’s elephants ventured to close with those of the enemy, and now the men in the towers on the back of these beasts made a gallant fight of it, striking with their pikes at close quarters and wounding each other, while the elephants themselves fought still better, putting forth their whole strength and meeting forehead to forehead. The way in which these animals fight is as follows. With their tusks firmly interlocked they shove with all their might, each trying to force the other to give ground, until the one who proves strongest pushes aside the other’s trunk, and then, when he has once made him turn and has him in the flank, he gores him with his tusks as a bull does with his horns. Most of Ptolemy’s elephants, however, declined the combat, as is the habit of African elephants; for unable to stand the smell and the trumpeting of the Indian elephants, and terrified, I suppose, also by their great size and strength, they at once turn tail and take to flight before they get near them.

Two things we know – which Polybius did not.

One – the African elephant is larger than the Indian elephant – not smaller.

Two – African elephants have never been tamed in large enough numbers to be used in wars. In the rare instances, where African elephants have been trained, it has seen the involvement of Indians – both Indian trainers and Indian elephants. But, we are getting ahead of the story.

More on that later …

Indian elephants in battle history

In the battle against the Massagetae, resulting in the defeat and death of Cyrus, against Queen Tomyris, Indian elephants played a crucial role. Thereafter, Persians (then Zoroastrians) did not use elephants for a long time (considered evil by Zoroastrians). Possibly, the outcome against Alexander would have been different, had they used more elephants at Gaugamela – instead of 12-15.

The story of Semiramis the Assyrian Queen and the Indian King Stabrobates by a Greek ‘historian,’ Ctesias (in Diodorus Siculus) is of interest. Apparently, foreign armies used faux’ elephants to frighten enemies.

One of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus Nicator traded in some part of his empire, for 500 elephants. After Alexander’s death, in the ensuing Diadochi wars, at the decisive battle of Ipsus, the Indian elephant unit won back a larger territory for Seleucus than what he had ceded to Chandragupta for obtaining them. It was the Indian elephant unit, that was “largely responsible for the victory which netted him (Seleucos) the province of Asia”.

At Ipsus, the Seleucid army fielded “the largest number of elephants ever to appear on a Hellenistic battlefield” which turned out to be, as a historian describes as the “greatest achievement of war elephants in Hellenistic military history.” And Pyrrhus learnt his lessons, on using elephants, during the Diadochi wars.

At the decisive battle of Ipsus – where it was the Indian elephants that gave Seleucus a victory.

Battlefield value of elephants

If the Roman armies could be frightened by twenty of Pyrrhus’ elephants, or Hannibal’s thirty-seven, these war elephants did have significant military value.

Again, if Roman armies could be frightened by 20 elephants of Pyrrhus, or Hannibal’s 37, what happened to Alexander when faced with 100s, if not 1000s of elephants, which were common in Indian armies. To put that in perspective, Chandragupta Maurya had thousands – figures range between 5,000 to 9,000. And how many elephants did Porus’ army have?

200 elephants is the estimate by Greek hagiography.

So, if elephants were so valuable, why did elephant training not take root in other countries? Why were elephant trainers not encouraged? Where did the elephant trainers of Pyrrhus and Hannibal disappear after 100 BC?

Seleucus did set up a centre for elephant training at Apamea, a city named after his Bactrian wife, Apama, manned by Indians. And actually, having learnt their lessons, the Romans, in 163 BC, sent a contingent into Laodicea, Syria, to neutralize this elephant unit and destroy Seleucid navy.

Again there are inconsistent reports about the search for war elephants by the  Greek Ptolemy rulers of Egypt. Ptolemy-I banned the killing of elephants. Ptolemy-II Philadelphus, then supposedly recruited 300 African elephants from modern day Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia – which were delivered to him by the Kushites (Ethiopians).

Supposedly, the Kushites had tamed elephants – though not for war purposes. Apart from the few Kushite elephant riders, Ptolemy II sent special envoys to India to recruit elephant riders. These ill trained elephants and their riders were singularly unsuccessful against the Indian elephants (in the Seleucid army) at Raphia (Polybius in Raphia (book V).

Probably the figure of 300 elephants in Ptolemy’s army was inflated for disinformation purposes. The Kushites did not (possibly) deliver African (usually, larger) elephants, but switched these with small Asian elephants. These smaller animals were probably rejects, going at a discount, from other professional Indian elephant trainers.

Two things that Ptolemy (possibly) did not know – One, elephants (Indian or African) cannot truly be ‘tamed.’ Two, elephants can only be taught to trust and do ‘favors’ for specific elephant trainers. Individual elephants form a life long link with individual trainers.

Alexander – Hagiography and /or Cultural Dacoity?

The mythos surrounding Alexander calls for serious questioning of the sources themselves. What and who are these sources?

Our knowledge of Alexander therefore rests on histories produced long after the fact: a late first-century b.c.e. section of a world history written in Greek by Diodorus of Sicily; a Latin History of Alexander published by the Roman author Quintus Curtius Rufus in the first century c.e.; a biography in Greek by Plutarch of Chaeronea, also produced in the first century c.e.; a history written in Greek by Arrian of Nicomedia sometime in the second century c.e.; and Justin’s third-century c.e. Latin abridgment (Epitome) of a lost Greek secondary account by the first-century author Pompeius Trogus. Each of these five narrative treatments of Alexander’s reign claims to be a serious work of history or biography, but all five contradict one another on fundamental matters and cannot be considered absolutely reliable unless somehow corroborated by other evidence. Beyond these texts, we have little except a compilation of legendary material known as the Greek Alexander Romance, a wildly imaginative work filled with talking trees and other wonders that later thrilled the medieval world. (from Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions By Frank Lee Holt).

This is the foundation on which Westerners have based their version of Indian history. 400 years after Alexander’s death, Arrian’s hagiography is today seen by the Western world as the last word on Alexander. One man’s word as history? This version of history alleges that Alexander conquered India by defeating King Porus. Western historians cannot see the contradiction between a ‘disunited’ India with more than a 100 kings – is suddenly ‘felled’ due to the defeat of one King Porus?

Alexanders shown with elephant headdress

Alexander's shown with elephant headdress

Alexander’s ‘boasts’ about his conquest of India, a super-power then, did get him mileage. Subsequent to his Indian ‘conquest’ Alexander minted elephant coins – which modern Western historians ascribe to his conquest of ‘India’ by winning against Porus.

The significance of these coins itself is questionable. Elephant units, managed by Indians, were a common feature in Central Asian region – and later Greek armies also co-opted elephant units.

These elephant coins could well have been stuck to celebrate Alexander’s victory at Gaugamela over Darius. Elephant coins were also issued by Ptolemy, to lend legitimacy to his rule, showing Alexander wearing an elephant head looking like a mixed Zeus and Ammon.

It also became the butt of comedies. These Greek comedies survive through Roman writers like Plautus’ Curculio – with an ex-India soldier, Therapontigonus Platagidorus, who boasts of his conquest of

the Persians, Paphlagonians, Sinopians, Arabs, Carians, Cretans, Syrians, Rhodes and Lycia, Gobbleollia and Guzzleania, Centaurbattaglia and Onenipplearmia, the whole coast of Libya and the whole of Grapejusqueezia, in fact, a good half of all the nations on earth, have been subdued by him single-handed inside of twenty days

and wants a golden statue – made with melted gold from Philip (of Macedon’s) gold coins. Other such unbelievable accounts were written in Greece and Rome about Alexander’s victory against Porus – “a popular subject in Greece and Rome for many centuries.”

Alexander meets Diogenes | Houghton Library. MS Typ 207. from the French medieval Manuscript - Les diz moraulx des philosophes. f. 6, Diogenes speaking to Alexander. | Original page at http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:FHCL.HOUGH:795200?n=5

Alexander meets Diogenes | Houghton Library. MS Typ 207. from the French medieval Manuscript - Les diz moraulx des philosophes. f. 6, Diogenes speaking to Alexander. | Original page at http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:FHCL.HOUGH:795200?n=5

Tired soldiers? More like frightened …

Indian archaeology, writers and history do not know of any Porus – or Alexander. Why did Alexander’s undefeated troops, after the Indian campaign, suddenly feel homesick?

What possibly frightened Alexander’s army was the ‘information’ that further lay places

“where there were elephants in yet greater abundance and men were superior in stature and courage

As per Arrian, the only ‘victory’ celebration by Alexander’s troops was after the battle with Porus. Surprising – that Alexander’s troops did not celebrate any victory, till the very end of the campaign.

Was it instead, a celebration of their ‘Great Escape’ from India – with their lives?

During the (nearly) half-year long siege of Tyre, Alexander’s ‘tired’ soldiers’ were reinforced by fresh troops reinforcements from Macedonia. Before his India ‘campaign’, Alexander cashiered thousands of his Greek troops, at Ecbatana, who wished to return home. After the death of Darius, at Ecbatana (330 BC), to all the Greek officers, wishing to return home, Alexander awarded one talent of gold (approx. 25k-60 kg).

Also at Ecbatana, Alexander dismissed the allied Greek troops he had requisitioned thus far under the powers granted him by the Greek league. The official gaol of the invasion, the destruction of the Persian empire in revenge for its attack on Greece, had now been achieved, so the official duties of these troops were fulfilled. (from Alexander the Great By Arrian, James S. Romm, Pamela Mensch)

At this stage, Alexander also inducted into his army, fresh Persian soldiers, trained in Macedonian style of warfare. Again, after his marriage to Roxanne, 10,000 Persian soldiers joined his army.

Hence, the troops left were either fresh or those who decided to stay with Alexander. 326 BC was the year of the battle with Porus. The pleadings of Coenus, that Alexander’s men, “long to see their parents, wives, and children, and their homeland again.” were patently the cries of frightened soldiers.

Once back in the folds of the secure Macedonian Empire, the same ‘tired’ soldiers, joined the mutiny at Opis and revolted after they were released by Alexander, to return to Macedonia.

This demonstrates that reason for the revolt in India, was not home-sickness.


Amongst Alexander’s first actions in India were his attempts to cobble up alliances.

His most famous one was with Ambhi – the ruler of Taxila. In India, Alexander had to pay the King of Taxiles, Omphis, (Ambi) – 1000 talents of gold (more than 25 tons of gold) – to secure an alliance. To cement this alliance, Alexander ‘gifted’ Ambhi with ‘a wardrobe of Persian robes, gold and silver ornaments, and 30 horses, 1000 talents in cash’. 1000 talents is anywhere between 25,000-60,000 kg of gold! Does this look like Ambhi accepted Alexander as the conqueror of the world?

Or Alexander ‘persuading’ Ambhi to seal an alliance?

The payment of 1000 talents in gold to Ambhi aroused much envy and outrage in Alexander’s camp. It prompted Meleager, to sarcastically congratulate Alexander for ‘having at least found in India a man worth 1000 talents.’ What seals this incident is Alexander’s retort to Meleager, “that envious men only torment themselves.” (C 8.12.17 & 18).

Alexander had to return the territory of Punjab to Porus – purportedly, after winning the battle. The lean pickings and small loot from India provoked a vicious  response from Alexander“the Macedonians frequently massacred the defenders of the city, especially in India.”

As Alexander retreated from India, a Mallian force attacked the Macedonian army. In this Mallian attack, Alexander was himself injured – and his very life was in balance for the next many weeks. Greek writers wax about Alexander’s grief at the death of his horse, Bucephalus during the Indian campaign.

Ekkehard, a 12 century Benedictine monk, a participant in the Crusade of 1101, had many such questions, in his updates of Chronicon Universale, (probably co-written by Frutolf of Michelsberg).

Coming so soon after the schism between the Greek and the Roman Church, Ekkehard must also be seen through the prism of Christian Church politics. After all, how could a monk of the Roman Church let go of such a juicy Greek target? Similarly, in 19th century environment, Alexander’s inflation must also be seen in the context of Western colonialism.

After all, colonialism could only work on the basis of ‘Western’ superiority.

After Alexander

By 303 BC, less than a 20 years after Alexander’s death (323 BC), Alexander’s greatest general, Seleucos Nicator, sued for peace with Chandragupta Maurya. Megasthenes was Seleucos’ Greek ambassador at the Indian court. Megasthenes’ account of India (which, allegedly does not exist) was widely quoted by other Greek historians. His account of elephant capture using decoy female elephants was (presumably) known in Greece.

So, where did Hannibal and Pyrrhus get their elephants from?

Elephants obviously cannot be transported over sea – cooped in a cage for weeks or months. This is assuming that strong enough to hold an elephant for 2 weeks to 2 monthscages and holds could have been made – 2000 years ago.

The Only Country That Tamed Elephants

Alexanders Coins Boasting Of His Victory Over Porus

Alexander's Coins Boasting Of His Victory Over Porus

The only country in the world to use elephants, significantly, in peace and war were Indians – for more than nearly 5000 years. Alexander’s turning back at Indian borders was symptomatic of the fear that Indian elephants evoked in the rest of the world.

The use of elephants was significant only to Indians. In most of China, elephants became rare by 300 BC. Although the South Han dynasty maintained a small elephant unit in their army, Chinese were never significant users of elephants in armies.

Elephant capture (khedda), training, manuals and terminology originate in India. Elephant riders (mahavats), elephant chairs (howdahs) and elephants in heat (masth) are all Indian terms. From India, elephant management skills, in a limited manner spread, to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and other parts of South East Asia.

Elephant Training

So, who was riding Hannibal’s elephants?

Did Hannibal and Pyrrhus create an elephant training school, get the right recruits, identify the right species, capture wild elephants, tame these wild elephants and induct these elephants into their armies in a short space of a 3-7 years? For a single campaign?

Unlike horses, elephants can’t be ‘broken’ or ‘tamed.’ They cannot also be trained to trust ‘human beings’ as a species – like horses can be trained. In India, elephants have been managed, by skills garnered and conveyed over centuries, for generations, within a small specialized community. The English word, elephant is derived from Sanskrit word for ivory (ibha+danta = elephant+teeth).

Unlike horses, elephants can be ‘ridden’ only by specific individuals. Each elephant has a specific ‘rider(s)’ – and mahavats are not interchangeable. Elephants trust individual mahavats – and this relationship is nurtured for the life time of an elephant.

Did Hannibal and Pyrrhus, create a team of elephant trainers for just a few years? Where were these elephant trainers themselves trained? Where did these trainers subsequently disappear? Since, elephants were such a valuable military advantage, why did Hannibal’s and Pyrrhus’ elephant managers disappear? Why were these skills not transferred considering the obvious commercial value?

African … Libyan … Syrian … decide

Hannibal’s allies were the Numidians (now known as Libyans) and other African rulers. Facilely, Western historians claim that Hannibal used African elephants. We also know that African elephants (even today) are difficult to train. There is the legless theory, that extinct Mesopotamian-Libyan-Syrian breed of elephants, the Elephas maximus asurus, were used, is based on pure speculation. Resting in air, without any archaeological, written, oral, history evidence,

The so-called ‘Syrian elephant’ has been seen by some as a distinct species of the Asian elephant (i.e. E.maximus assurus). However, this identification rests on dubious rounds, namely tusk shape and representations of the animal, e.g. (in the Theban Tomb of Rekhmira, the vizier of Thutmose III (TT100, see below). Osteological work has been limited, but molars found at Ugarit suggest that the elephant of the western Asia was was identical to the living species (E.maximus). (from Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology By Paul T. Nicholson, Ian Shaw).

These Syrian were possibly Indian elephants, obtained by Syrian kings, Seleucus I and Antiochus III – at a high costs. Did this ‘Syrian’ elephant breed, supposedly became extinct, promptly and conveniently, after winning battles and wars, for Pyrrhus and Hannibal around 100 BC?

Another case of a lazy historian, was

paper by John Mathew of the Department of History of Science, Harvard University, in my lap. His paper, titled ‘Nichola Poussin and the vexatious case of the elephants of Hannibal’, wonders why Hannibal chose several Asian elephants for his campaign, including his own Surus. Mathew’s interest in the subject was kindled on seeing a famous painting, from the 1620s, in Harvard’s Fogg Museum. The painting, titled Hannibal Crossing the Alps, was done by a French artist, Nicolas Poussin, and shows Hannibal on an Asian elephant during that epic march.

The reason, Mr.Matthew, why it is Asian elephants (and specifically Indian elephants),  is that war elephants is not everyone’s game. It was a game that only Indians knew how to play! Maybe you (Mr.Matthew) don’t like the answer, but sometimes there are inconvenient answers. Is it the fear, that this answer, may raise many more questions, which possibly stops you from giving the correct answer?

Indus valley seal

Indus valley seal

The Riddle & The Answers …

Question: Quick! What is common between Western (Eurocentric) history and Swiss cheese?

Answer: Easy! They are both full of full of holes.

The simple answer is, Indians (from the sub-continent) or the Hittite stragglers, from the armies and kingdoms of Indo-Aryan Elamite-Hittite-Mittani rulers. The probable source of the Latin word for elephant , luca bos is also derived from the Hittite word, luhabos, meaning ivory. The modern word elephant, is also possibly derived Indic words, ibha+danta – meaning elephant teeth.

These Indians were in Europe with Hannibal and Pyrrhus. Either fighting these battles (as mercenaries) or as elephant riders or training an (improbable) second line of Greek elephant riders. Polybius does mention that it was the Indoi that were riding these elephants – but modern historians take considerable pain to deny this.

John Hoyte on a Indian elephant, Jumbo, through Mount Cenis Pass

John Hoyte on a Indian elephant, Jumbo, through Mount Cenis Pass

The Stanford University has approved a project to work on tracing Hannibal’s Alpine Route. During the 12 years, they asked all the questions – except the really important ones. Another, John Hoyte, British engineering student decided to trace the Alpine route on an elephant – an Indian elephant, called Jumbo, borrowed from the Turin Zoo. Maybe, these questions would be answered if this trek was done on African elephants – clearer answers!

The only country which has a 5000 year history with elephants is India – from Indus Valley to date. In peace and in war. But, Western historians tie themselves in knots denying the Indian connection.

And that strengthens the ‘intellectual export’ from India to Europe theory rather than the ‘Greek miracle’ story.

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