Around 170 BCE, two massive armies left Taxila for the great city of Pataliputra. One army marched through Punjab and the Gangetic plains, while the other headed down the Indus, then up through Malwa, and finally met the other at Pataliputra. These were the Greek armies of ‘Yavanaraja Dimita’, as the Bactrian-Greek ruler Demetrius I was known to Indians.
The Mauryan Empire had collapsed and Pushyamitra Shunga had just seized power after assassinating the last Mauryan ruler, Brihadratha Maurya. Taking advantage of the chaos, Demetrius I set out to complete what Alexander the Great had failed to do achieve – establish a Greek kingdom in India.
One arm of Demetrius’s army under his general Menander marched through Punjab, sacked Saketa (Ayodhya) and Mathura and captured Pataliputra. The other army under Apollodotus marched down the Indus and captured the great city of Ujjain. Pataliputra and Ujjain fell, and with Demetrius at Taxila, Menander at Pataliputra and Apollodotus at Ujjain, the Greeks held three of the most important cities in India at the time.
The dream of ‘Yavanaraja Dimita’ was fulfilled, albeit for a short period. To underline the fact that he was now the ‘Master of India’, Demetrius minted coins that showed him wearing a headdress with an elephant, a symbol most closely associated with India.
We know of this forgotten chapter of Indian history from the unlikeliest of sources – a Sanskrit grammar textbook. In Mahabhasya, a 2nd century BC text on the rules of grammar, Rishi Patanjali engages in a discussion on an ‘imperfective tense’, explaining that “the imperfect should be used to signify an action not witnessed by the speaker but capable of being witnessed by him and known to people in general”. To illustrate his point, he cites two examples. “Arunad Yavanah Saketam” [Yavanas besieged Saketa (Ayodhya)] and “Arunad Yavano Madhyamikam” (Madhyamikas were besieged by the Yavanas).
This has led historians like Dr R G Bhandarkar, Dr R C Mazumdar and others to conclude that there was indeed a Greek invasion of India during the lifetime of Rishi Patanjali. Another Sanskrit text, Gargi Samhita, an astrological work dating to the same time as Mahabhasya, also gives an account of the ‘Yavana’ invasion of Pataliputra.
Who were these ‘Yavanas’ and how did they reach the heart of India?
It is popularly believed that Greek contact with India began with the invasion of Alexander the Great in 327-325 BCE. However, the book Indo-Greeks (1957) by Indian historian and numismatist A K Narain throws some very interesting light on the subject. Much of what we know of the Indo-Greek rulers is only through their coins, and that is what makes Narain’s work so important.
After an extensive study of coins found in Central Asia, Narain concluded that there may have been Greek settlements in Central Asia that predated Alexander. Narain believed that the Persians exiled a number of Greeks to the eastern corners of their empire, where these Greeks intermarried with Persians and established their own settlements. These were the ‘Bactrian Greeks’, known to Indians as ‘Yavanas’. They were different from the ‘Hellenistic Greeks’, who came with Alexander the Great.
What is riveting is that the ‘Greek conquest of India’ is steeped in Greek mythology. Ancient Greeks believed in a popular legend that Dionysus, the Greek God of Wine, travelled the world and taught people how to make wine. One of the most famous of his expeditions was to India, which is said to have lasted several years. In fact, this belief was so widespread that when Alexander the Great reached a settlement called Nysa on the banks of the Indus River, the locals told him that they were the descendants of the Greeks who had come with Dionysus to India!
Another myth also spoke of the conquest of India by Hercules, the son of Zeus. The 1st-century Greek historian Strabo, in his text Geographica, states, “Indians have never been engaged in foreign warfare nor have they ever been invaded or conquered by a foreign power, except by Hercules and Dionysus and lately by the Macedonians”. Perhaps it was this myth of the conquest of India that drew Alexander the Great here in the first place. We shall never know.
Following the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, his vast empire was split between his generals, with his possessions in India, Central Asia and Persia going to Seleucus Nikator. Between 305-302 BCE, Seleucus Nikator invaded India with a view to recapturing the Indian possessions of Alexander that had come under the control of Chandragupta Maurya.
The details of this conflict are not known but the fact that Seleucus Nikator ceded the Hindu Kush, Punjab and parts of Afghanistan to Chandragupta Maurya means that the Mauryans were probably victorious. Seleucus Nikator also gave his daughter Helena in marriage to Chandragupta and appointed Megasthenes as an ambassador in the Mauryan court. Megasthenes became famous for his text Indica, which gives a fascinating account of the India he saw at the time.
Around 250 BCE, the local governor of Bactria, Diodotus declared his independence from the Seleucid Empire founded by Seleucus Nikator, and established the Greco-Bactrian kingdom that maintained close links with the Indian subcontinent. You will not find ‘Bactria’ on modern world maps but it is the ancient name for a region that roughly corresponds with Northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and bound by the Hindu Kush and the Pamir mountains. The Greco-Bactrian kingdom became extremely rich and powerful due to trade and the fertile land of the Amu Darya or Oxus river basin.
The Greco-Bactrians maintained close trade and cultural ties with India, the focal point of which was the city of ‘Ai-Khanum’ (‘Lady Moon’ in Uzbek), earlier known as ‘Alexandria on Oxus’ and ‘Eucratidia’. The city was located in the present-day Takhar province of Northern Afghanistan, at the confluence of the Panj and Kokcha rivers, both tributaries of the Amu Darya, and on the route to India.
The archaeological site of Ai-Khanum was accidentally discovered by an Afghan nobleman named Khan Gholam Serwar Nasher on a hunting trip in the 1960s. While excavations by archaeologists between 1964 and 1978 revealed a magnificent city, sadly the site was extensively looted by the Taliban during the Afghan Civil War. Archaeologists had discovered a great city with a great palace, a large theatre, a gymnasium and various temples including a large temple dedicated to Zeus built in Zoroastrian style.
But it is the coins found at Ai-Khanum that are the most eye-catching. Among the numerous coins found here are those minted by King Agathocles of Bactria (r. 190-180 BCE). These coins are typical Indian-style square coins and depict Indian deities! Historians and numismatists interpret them as forms of Vishnu, Shiva, Balarama, and Lakshmi.
These are the earliest coins that depict Vedic deities. For example, there is a coin depicting Goddess Lakshmi with a Brahmi legend ‘Rajane Agathukleyasasa’ or ‘King Agathocles’. Equally interesting are the coins that depict Balarama-Shankarshana with a mace and a plough, and Vasudeva-Krishna with a shanka (conch) and a Sudarshana Chakra. In addition, there are coins depicting stupas and the Bodhi tree with a railing, which is common Buddhist imagery. This tells us how closely connected the city of Ai-Khanum was to India, culturally.
Emperor Ashoka (304 to 232 BCE) is said to have sent missionaries to the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, where they converted many people to Buddhism. In fact, some of Ashoka’s missionaries were themselves Greek-Buddhist monks.
In Mahavamsha, an epic poem in Pali on the early history of Sri Lanka, there is a reference to how Ashoka sent a ‘Yona’ (Yavana) monk named Dharmarakshita to the Aparanta country (Konkan coast) to preach Buddhism. The Ashokan edict at Kandahar in Afghanistan is written in Greek and Aramaic, which tells us about the large Greek settlement there.
After the death of Ashoka, a series of weak rulers led to the decline of the Mauryan power. In 180 BCE, Brihadhrata Maurya was assassinated by his general Pushyamitra Shunga during a military parade. Taking advantage of the chaos that followed, Greco-Bactrian ruler, Demetrius I invaded India, sending his armies to conquer some of India’s great cities like Mathura, Saketa (Ayodhya) and Pataliputra. While we know that Demetrius was victorious in his campaigns, we don’t know for how long he was able to hold on to these territories.
With his kingdom expanding deep into India, Demetrius moved his capital to Sirkap, just opposite the river bank from the city of Taxila (near present-day Peshawar). The ruins of Sirkap show that it was built according to the ‘Hippodamian’ grid-plan characteristic of Greek cities. It was organized around one main avenue and 15 perpendicular streets.
What is fascinating is that at a stupa at Sirkap has the earliest known motif of the ‘Double Headed’ Eagle, which later spread across India as a symbol of royalty. Interestingly, it is today used by the state of Karnataka, in present-day India!
In Indian texts like the Gargi Samhita, King Demetrius is known as ‘Yavanaraja Dimita’ or ‘Dharmamita’. We know very little of Demetrius after his India conquest. He simply disappears from history. King Kharavela of Kalinga, in his Hathigumpha inscription at Udayagiri near Bhubaneshwar, boasts that he was so fearsome that a Yavana (Greek) king or general retreated to Mathura with his demoralized army. The name of the Yavana king is not clear but it contains three letters, and the middle letter can be read as ‘ma’ or ‘mi’. This has led to some historians such as R D Banerji and K P Jayaswal to claim that it refers to ‘Dimita’ or ‘Demetrius’.
The death of Demetrius saw the decline of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. The Yuezhi tribe from China (later known as Kushanas) began to invade Bactria from the north. In the 1st century BCE, King Heliocles moved his capital to the Kabul valley, from where he ruled Punjab. This was the end of the Bactrian-Greek kingdom.
The Greek rulers who ruled from India after the fall of Bactria to the Scythians were called ‘Indo-Greeks’ to distinguish them from the ‘Bactrian Greeks’. The ‘Indo-Greek’ kings ruled much of North India, the most prominent among them being King Menander, the General of Demetrius I, who had marched to Pataliputra. He set up his own kingdom and ruled from Sagala, modern-day Sialkot (in Pakistan’s Punjab).
The Greek geographer Strabo wrote that Menander had “conquered more tribes than Alexander the Great”. The sheer number of his coins found across India has led historians to conclude that he probably presided over a very prosperous empire. But Menander is the most well known Indo-Greek king due to a Buddhist text known as Milinda Panha.
According to Buddhist tradition, King Menander is said to have embraced Buddhism, following a religious discussion with a Buddhist monk named Nagasena. Interestingly, Nagasena is said to have been a disciple of Dharmarakshita, the ‘Yavana’ Buddhist missionary sent by Ashoka to the Konkan. King Menander is said to have had philosophical discussions with Nagasena at Sagala (Sialkot), which were compiled as Milinda Panha or ‘Questions of Milinda (Menander)’. As a fellow Buddhist, the text heaps praise on Menander, stating:
“King of the city of Sâgala in India, Milinda by name, learned, eloquent, wise, and able; and a faithful observer, and that at the right time, of all the various acts of devotion and ceremony enjoined by his own sacred hymns concerning things past, present, and to come. Many were the arts and sciences he knew – holy tradition and secular law; the Sânkhya, Yoga, Nyâya, and Vaisheshika systems of philosophy, arithmetic, music, medicine, the four Vedas, the Purânas, and the Itihâsas, astronomy, magic, causation, and magic spells, the art of war, poetry, conveyancing in a word, the whole nineteen.”
Not just Buddhist sources but even Greek accounts such as that of 1st century CE Greek scholar Plutarch of Chaeronea praise the just rule of Menander and claim that just like Buddha, Menander’s relics too were distributed among different stupas across North-West India.
The Milinda Panha states:
Menander’s greatest legacy was the establishment of Greco-Buddhism, which saw a revival in art that was a unique synthesis of Greek and Buddhist influences. Menander’s successors depicted themselves or their Greek deities forming with the right hand a symbolic gesture identical to the Buddhist vitarka mudra and started to adopt on their coins the Pali title of ‘Dharmikasa’, meaning ‘follower of the Dharma’. During his reign, we see friezes of Greek-looking people appearing on the stupas at Sanchi and Bharhut.
– Did you know that in 1950, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar started an educational college in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, which he named ‘Milind Mahavidyalaya’ after the Indo-Greek King Menander I?
After the death of Menander, the Indo-Greek kingdom never regained its glory. There was a long line of 20-odd Indo-Greek kings in Western Punjab, of whom we know very little. In fact, the only legacy they left behind is a bunch of coins. They, however, do help us piece together a loose chronology.
For example, there was even an Indo-Greek Queen Agathokleia, who is said to have ruled parts of Northern India as a regent for her son, Strato I, and minted coins in her own name. She depicted herself as ‘Athena’, the Greek Goddess of War. For the longest time, historians believed she was the widow of King Menander I (Milinda), but recent numismatic evidence has led historians to believe that she was the widow of a later Indo-Greek king, possibly Nicias or Theophilus.
While they have been more or less relegated to the periphery of Indian history, with no mention of the ‘great march’ to the plains… he cultural influence of the Yavanas or Greeks can be found across India. In the heart of India, in Besnagar near Bhopal, you will find the Heliodorus pillar. Around 115 BCE, King Antialkidas sent Heliodorus as his ambassador to the court of the Shunga king Bhagabhadra in Vidisha. A staunch devotee of Vishnu, Heliodorus built a Garuda pillar, where he described himself as a follower of the Bhagavata cult. In a number of cave complexes of Western India, such as Karla, Nashik and Manmodi, you will find references to ‘Yavana’ donors.
Like they had been pushed out of Bactria, the Indo-Greeks began to be pushed out of North-West India as well by the invading Indo-Scythians (the Shakas) around 80 BCE. In Eastern Punjab and Haryana too, they began losing their lands to small entities like Arjunayanas and the Yaudheya Republic.
Perhaps the last reference to Indo-Greek rule in India is what is known as the Yavanarajya inscription, also called the Maghera Well Stone Inscription discovered in the village of Maghera, 17 km north of Mathura in 1988. The inscription mentions a donation for a water well to the community “in the year 116 of the Yavanarajya”. This roughly corresponds to 69 or 70 BCE.
Two things can be deduced from the inscription, the first being that Mathura was still under the rule of the Yavanas (Indo-Greeks) at the time and that the Indo-Greeks had their own calendar. The Yavana Era or the Yona era was earlier thought to have been started by Dmitrius I to commemorate his conquest of India around 186 BCE. But now historians believe it may have begun later, probably 174 BCE.
The Indo-Scythians or Shakas conquered much of North India. Around 10 CE, Rajuvula, the satrap of Mathura, is said to have conquered the last Indo-Greek outpost at Sagala (Sialkot), thereby bringing the ‘Age of Yavanas’ to an end. But their strong cultural legacy continued for centuries. It is interesting how the ‘Yavanarajya’ continued to be a source of legitimacy for centuries. German historian Harry Falk in his paper Ancient Indian Eras: An Overview writes about how, when the Kushana king Kanishka launched his own era around 127 CE, he pegged it to precisely 300 years after the ‘Yavana Era’. Falk argues that Kanishka wanted to link his own rule with that of the Indo-Greeks, who had first linked Central Asia and India.
Today, the Indo-Greeks have been completely forgotten by Indian history, which only remembers Alexander the Great and his conquests. It would be wrong to see these ‘Yavanas’ as outsiders or invaders. Perhaps the best summation of why is explained by historian A K Narain in his book Indo-Greeks, where he states:
”The Indo-Greeks were more influenced by Indian religion and thought than any Hellenistic king by the faith and ideas of the land in which he lived and ruled. No Seleucid (Greek rulers of Persia) ever put Iranian or Babylonian legends on his coinage. No Ptolemy ever used Egyptian (legends) but the Indo-Greeks introduced Indian legends in Indian scripts on their money. Their history is part of the history of India and not of the Hellenistic states; they came, they saw, but India conquered.”
When Alexander Reached the Indus (326-323 BCE)
This article is part of our series ‘Two Thousand Years of India’s History’, where we focus on the period between 600 BCE- 1400 CE, and bring alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.
Find all the stories of this series here.