For over 400 years after the death of the Macedonian Empire Builder, the Great Alexander, large swathes of North West India remained under the influence of the Greeks. A corridor of land from the Punjab to Central Asia through the North West Frontier region acted as a melting pot of Greek and native Indian influences creating a melange of cultures.
After Alexander conquered the north western parts of India and decided to turn back, he handed over the administration of his newly conquered region to his general Selucus Nikator. Following Alexander’s death soon after, in 323 BC, Nikator took charge, only to lose a large chunk of his kingdom, to the east of the Indus river, to Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan Empire. But large parts of Central Asian territories remained in Greek hands.
The rule of Indo-Greeks covers a period of 300 years from the 2nd century BCE to the beginning of the 1st century CE in Northern and Northwestern India. Though this period is mostly lost in the mists of time, one of the biggest windows to this world comes from the coins of the region during this period. In fact we know about as many as 36 Indo-Greek emperors, only through their coinsI
An important figure who emerges through the coins he minted is Demetrios 1. He took advantage of the collapse of the Mauryan Empire after the death of Asoka (Chandragupta Maurya’s grandson) in 232 BCE, invading the North West frontier region in 200 BCE . Known to Indians as Dharmamitra he began the second phase of Indo-Greek rule in India.
Coins form the best source of Information on King Demetrios I. Coins minted in this period show him wearing an elephant headdress to celebrate the Greek victory over the Indus region. For the Greeks, from the time of Alexander, the elephant remained the most potent symbol for India.
Unlike the earlier punch-marked coins, these coins were very finely made. The images of kings have well chiseled features and on the reverse there are images of the gods from the Greek pantheon. Zeus, Athena, and Nike are represented with inscriptions in Greek around the edges.
in 174 BCE, an Indo-Greek King Antialcidas ruled over the region near Taxila (near present day Rawalpindi). His reign assumes importance, not because of what he did but because of the ambassador named Heliodorus, who he sent to the court of King Bhagabhadra at Vidisha. This ambassador became a devotee of Vishnu and erected a pillar known as the Heliodous pillar in Vidisha, which is one of the earliest known references to Vishnu worship.
It is fascinating to note that one of the earliest representations of the Hindu god Krishna and his brother Balaram, is found on Indo-Greek coins. In the ruins of Ai-Khanoum in Afghanistan, six silver coins were discovered belonging to King Agathocles of Bactria who ruled from 190-180 BCE. These coins have an image of Krishna with a chakra or circle on one side and Balaram with a mace on the other. These coins play a very important role in understanding the development of Vaishanava imagery over centuries.
Eventually, as time passed by the Indo-Greek rulers adopted Indian culture and traditions. Menander is the only Greek King to have a clear mention in the Indian literary records and so is the most well known of the Indo-Greek rulers. He converted to Buddhism and is known as King Milinda of the Buddhist text Milindpanha. The book is around a discussion about Buddhism between Menander and the Buddhist philosopher, Nagasena. Menander’s coins have an Indian script - Kharoshti (on the reverse) along with the Greek. His coins are to be found in the region extending from present day Kabul to Mathura near Delhi, showing the range of his influence.
The rule of Indo-Greek kingdom came to an end in 1st century CE but their legacy continued even after they were long gone. Coin auctioneer Mohit Kapoor says “Infact, the coinage introduced by the Indo-Greek rulers had a wide-spread influence on the coinage of the Indian sub-continent for centuries in regards to depiction of the face of the ruler, legends on coins.”