Sunday, June 12, 2016

Porus the Great !

Porus the Great !

History has always been one sided. Always written by the victors.  So they say. The vanquished never had a say to begin with. Or maybe they did. Something similar happened on a rainy night in May of 326 BC in the North Western frontier of India (Punjab) on the eastern banks of Hydaspes (Jhelum). Mysteriously, on this rainy night the victors were silent.
Greek writers Arrian, Diodorus, Plutarch write about the battle that was fought on the banks of the river Jhelum between the armies of Alexander, the Macedonian king and Porus, the Paurava king. They tell us how Alexander fought a bloody battle with Porus and subdued him. And then, there is the famous question that Alexander asks Porus “How do you want to be treated?” To which Porus replies “Like a king”. Most historians believe that Alexander won that day, but magnanimously restored the kingdom back to Porus and went on his way back to Persia.
But is it what really happened on that day?  Did Alexander really win that battle with Porus?? If he did, why didn’t he continue his march beyond the Jhelum river?  Why did he return back?  Why is there no mention of this remarkable episode in our Indian records? Why was Porus still ruling his kingdom after he lost? Or was it all a travesty? A beautiful lie created to keep the aura of Alexander glowing? A legend created just to keep the halo of invincibility around Alexander intact? What really happened on that night??
From Persia to India
After defeating Darius and Spitamenes in Persia, Alexander finally turned his undivided attention towards India- his final frontier in his world conquest. The Persians however warned Alexander that their greatest king, Cyrus, who had conquered much of the civilized world, had been killed in a battle with Indian soldiers exactly two centuries before. And in an earlier antiquity, around 811BC, the Assyrian queen Semiramis from Babylon, who had crossed the Indus with 400,000 highly trained troops, escaped with just barely a few survivors, the rest being slaughtered by the Indians. 

Alexander, however,  was adamant on capturing India.  After all, he called himself the son of Zeus and claimed a demi-god status. He had also infamously linked his blood line to two of the greatest mythical heroes of Greek mythology- Achilles and Hercules. Now there’s no turning back. The gods themselves were on his side. How could a mortal ever stand up to him?  
Alexander’s troubles began as soon as he crossed the Indian border. He first faced resistance in the Kunar, Swat, Buner and Peshawar valleys where the Aspasioi and Assakenoi, known in Hindu texts as Ashvayana and Ashvakayana from the famed Kamboja region, stopped his advance. Although small by Indian standards they did not submit before Alexander’s killing machine. The Ashvakayanas offered stubborn resistance from their mountain strongholds of Massaga, Bazira and Ora (Swat valley) and never bowed down. The bloody fighting at Massaga was a prelude to what awaited Alexander further in India.

On the first day after bitter fighting the Macedonians along with their Bactrian mercenaries were forced to retreat with heavy losses. Alexander himself was seriously wounded in the ankle. On the fourth day the king of Massaga was killed but the city refused to surrender. The command of the army went to his old mother Kripa, which brought the entire women of the area into the fighting.  Realising that his plans to storm India were going down at its very gates, Alexander called for a truce. The Ashvakayanas agreed; the old queen was too trusting. Under the terms of the truce the 7000 mercenaries who fought for the Ashakayanas were allowed to leave the city in peace. They did so and camped 80 furlongs away from the town.
According to Diodorus, Alexander never had the intention of letting the mercenaries  go free.  He followed them to their camp site and surrounded them. Diodorus describes the massacre.  “the mercenaries formed themselves into a ring – with their women and children in the centre – so that they could defend themselves from all sides. They did so with a ‘desperate courage’. For their part, the Macedonians were ‘anxious’ not to be outfought by the outnumbered mercenaries. The battle raged and much blood was spilled. Inevitably, given their superior numbers (and the fact that they appear to have been using their sarissas – a long spear six meters in length), the Macedonians gained the upper hand. The Indian women were forced to take the place of the dead and dying men. 

Diodorus describes the event in detail: "...The women, taking up the arms of the fallen, fought side by side with their men. Accordingly, some who had supplied themselves with arms did their best to cover their husbands with their shields, while others, who were without arms, did much to impede the enemy by flinging themselves upon them and catching hold of their shields."They were, Diodorus says, ‘brave beyond their nature’. 

But the women could only delay the inevitable. All those who fought the Macedonians were ‘cut down, winning a glorious death in preference to basely saving their lives at any cost’. Diodorus further says that ‘every form of death and wounds was to be seen’ at this massacre. 

A similar fate awaited the town of Massaga .That night when the citizens of Massaga had gone off to sleep, Alexander’s troops entered the city and massacred the entire citizenry. Plutarch observes that “Alexander’s conduct on the occasion was foul blot on his marital fame”.  

However, the fierce resistance put up by the Indian defenders had reduced the strength – and perhaps the confidence – of the all-conquering Macedonian army. This battle of Massaga would have certainly dampened the already waning spirit of Alexander’s army for sure. If this is any indication of what is to come, then maybe even Zeus cannot save them in the battles ahead.
The Battle on Jhelum
It was the month of May. Early monsoons have swelled the Jhelum. Two armies were lined up alongside its banks on both sides.  On one side was Alexander - One of the world’s greatest military tacticians leading men to the war front – men who would live and die for him and for the glory of Greece. The king on the other side was Porus, the Paurava king, who has surprisingly stood up against him and against all rational thought. Here he was, Alexander the Great, the conqueror of half the world, the destroyer of Persia, the pharaoh of Egypt. Ignorance he thought. Maybe Porus didn’t know who he was. With the King of Taxila, Ambhi groveling at his feet Alexander must have thought the whole of India would offer him the same - nothing more than a meek submission.

For Alexander this was a strange situation to be in. He had convincingly defeated the mighty Darius who had ten times the Macedonian army. He had heard reports that describe Porus as a giant of a man- seven feet tall. Much taller than his stature of a miserly  five feet five inches. Must be a brave man, Alexander thought. But then, Porus’s army was nothing compared to the battle hardy mercenaries that he had gathered - Macedonians, Persians, Bactrians, and generously helped by Ambhi’s army. What possibly could Porus have in his arsenal that led him to challenge the mighty Alexander??
What was Porus thinking? Surely, he must have heard about the brutal exploits of this Macedonian king? Hasn’t he heard about the massacre at Massaga? How kings who stood up to him were executed to teach a lesson to anyone who dared to raise as much as an eyebrow? Maybe he just didn’t know who Alexander was. It looks as though Porus did not care who was on the other side. Maybe, he just loathed the idea that some foreigner was coming in to conquer his motherland. It could be this singular reason for Porus to stand up against Alexander. There is no mention in the history books of any other Indian king offering his help to Porus in this critical battle. Whatever the reason, Porus is now standing on the other side of the mighty Jhelum river ready to defend his land. Till death.
Alexander had planned the crossing of Jhelum river much earlier. He had no problem crossing the Indus 100 miles away from the Jhelum river.Transferring the boats to the Jhelum by land was by no means an easy task. So he had his men break the boats into pieces and had them haul the pieces all the way to the banks of Jhelum. Early monsoon rains had swelled the river and it was deep enough making any attempt at crossing fatal.
Alexander camped in the vicinity of the town of Jhelum on the west banks of the river. Porus drew up on the south bank of the Jhelum river to repel any crossing. Alexander saw that crossing the river at where he camped had little chance of success and tried to find alternative crossings. Alexander came up with a very deceptive strategy here. Every night he moved his mounted troops up and down the river bank while Porus mirrored his movement on the other side. His objective was to confuse and trick Porus. Craterus, Alexander’s general, with most of the army too engaged in numerous ploys to confuse Porus. Both Alexander and Craterus  kept Porus continuously on the move. On every visit to the site of the crossing, Alexander made a detour inland to stay in secrecy. It was also reported that there was an Alexander look-alike who held sway in a mock royal tent near the base. As a result, Porus, 'no longer expecting a sudden attempt under cover of darkness, was lulled into a sense of security'.

Eventually, on one of those dark nights, Alexander finally made the crossing, about 27 km upstream of his camp to cross the river with his contingent of soldiers. By chance a storm occurred that night which drowned the sounds of the crossing.  Porus upon hearing the news of the crossing sent a small cavalry and a chariot force under his son, also named Porus, to stop Alexander. Young Porus also faced an unexpected disadvantage: his chariots were immobilised by the mud near the shore of the river. It was a deadly battle. Young Porus fought with all his heart but was eventually defeated and killed. At the same time Craterus also crossed the river. Now the Macedonians attacked Porus from both sides.

It was savagely fought battle. The first wave of Porus’s war elephants trampled into the Macedonian army formations, as his archers shot heavy arrows from the long two metre Indian bow. The Macedonian army used the 17 foot long Sarissas to stop the trumpeting elephants upon them. These long Sarissas impaled the elephants to stop their advance.  Immediately after, a second wave of these mighty beasts rushed into the gap created by the first, either trampling the Macedonian soldiers or grabbing them by their trunks and presenting them up for the mounted Indian soldiers to cut or spear them. When the terrified Macedonians pushed back, the Indian infantry charged into the gap.
Alexander too charged into the melee. Before he could lead the charge against Porus, he had to confront with his brother Amar. Amar was no less a warrior than Porus and he charged headlong against Alexander. In the ensuing battle, Amar killed Alexander’s favorite horse Bucephalus, forcing Alexander to dismount. This was no ordinary feat as in battles outside India, the elite Macedonian bodyguards had not allowed a single enemy soldier to deliver so much as a scratch on their king's body, let alone slay his mount. This was a major setback to the morale of the Macedonian army. The Indian troops not only broke into Alexander’s inner cordon, they also killed Nicaea, one of his leading commanders.
Plutarch, the Greek historian and biographer, says there seems to have been nothing wrong with Indian morale. Despite initial setbacks, when their vaunted chariots got stuck in the mud, Porus’s army “rallied and kept resisting the Macedonians with unsurpassable bravery”.

Diodorus wrote about the battle tactics of war elephants - "Upon this the elephants, applying to good use their prodigious size and strength, killed some of the enemy by trampling under their feet, and crushing their armour and their bones, while upon other they inflicted a terrible death, for they first lifted them aloft with their trunks, which they and twisted round their bodies and then dashed them down with great violence to the ground. Many others they deprived in a moment of life by goring then through and through with their tusks
The fighting style of Porus' soldiers was described in detail by Arrian - "the foot soldiers carry a bow made of equal length with the man who bears it. This they rest upon the ground, and pressing against it with their left foot and discharge the arrow, having drawn the string far backwards for the shaft they use is little short for three yards long, and there is nothing can resist an Indian archer's shot, neither shield nor breast plate, nor any stronger defence if such there be."
According to the Roman historian Marcus Justinus, Porus challenged Alexander, who charged him on horseback. In the ensuing duel, Alexander fell off his horse and was at the mercy of the Indian king’s spear. However, Porus dithered for a second and Alexander’s bodyguards rushed in to save their king.

It was pitched battle. What was thought to be a easy victory, turned out to be a decisive battle that Alexander did not foresee.  This was embarrassing. How in the world can this meager Indian army resist his superior armed forces? He had attacked Porus from both flanks  but Porus hasn’t backed down one bit. Infact, the counter attack was more ferocious. He had just lost his favorite horse Bucephalus that had served him in every battle. This battle was everything but, what Alexander expected. He had to change tactics now. He immediately went back to his trusted ruse of a truce offer. 

Here’s what Curtius Quintus says about this offer of truce – “Alexander towards the end of the day sent a few ambassadors to Porus. Alexander, anxious to save the life of this great and gallant soldier, sent Texile the Indian to Porus. Texile rode up as near as he dared and requested Porus to stop his elephant and hear what message Alexander sent him. But Texiles was an old enemy of the Indian King, and Porus turned his elephant and drove at him, to kill him with his lance; and he might indeed have killed him, if Texile had not spurred his horse out of the way in the nick of the time. Alexander, however, far from resenting this treatment of his messenger, sent a number of others, last of whom was Indian named Meroes, a man he had been told had long been Porus's friend".
If we were to believe that Alexander won on that day, this incident does not gel one bit with what transpired on that night. This doesn’t seem like a victory for the Macedonians.  Quite strange that Alexander had to request for a truce. It certainly doesn’t fit the great story line that was conceived about Porus’s defeat.According to Plutarch this was one of Alexander's hardest battle- “the combat then was of a more mixed kind; but maintained with such obstinacy, that it was not decided till the eight hour of the day." 

Plutarch also wrote that the bitter fighting made Alexander's men hesitant to continue on with the conquest of India, considering that they would potentially face far larger armies than those of Porus if they were to cross the Jhelum river. More evidence that the story of Alexander’s great victory was nothing more than a concoction. Far from truth.

Says Plutarch: “The combat with Porus took the edge off the Macedonians’ courage, and stayed their further progress into India. For having found it hard enough to defeat an enemy who brought but 20,000 foot soldiers and 2000 horses  into the battle field, they thought they had reason to oppose Alexander’s design of leading them on to pass the Ganges, on the further side of which was covered with multitudes of enemies.”
If Alexander had a decisive victory on that night, the statements by Arrian, Diodorus and Plutarch would be a lot more effusive in their description of the victory. There seems to be a grudging acceptance of how Porus and his army not only fought bravely but forced Alexander to reach out for a truce. Could the story be just a fa├žade that was created so that Bactria, Persia and other places that Alexander had won on the way to India  did not revolt on the hearing the news of his defeat to Porus??  If Porus was really defeated, how did he end up having his kingdom and more lands?? Didn’t Ambhi join the war with Alexander to annex the Paurava kingdom?? How would Ambhi agree to this? It looks more and more obvious that it wasn’t Alexander who dictated the terms of surrender.  At best it looks like a mutual agreement of peace – if it ever happened. 

More intriguingly, Alexander never went back the same route he came to India. This is completely baffling. Instead he chose to sail on the Indus and march through the deserts of Makran to reach Babylon with his entire army. This is strange. He also splits his army into two and then he himself marches along on the land all the way to Babylon. If the Achaemenid Empire and Bactria were in his control, avoiding them on the way back is mysterious. It was as though the neighbouring kingdoms of Massaga, Aornos knew very well that Alexander had lost the battle with Porus and were gearing up for a revenge attack on the way.  
If we dig deeper into the annals of history it becomes more and more difficult to accept that Porus was defeated. Something’s amiss here.
Shorn of its romanticism the story is hardly believable. Alexander a ruthless warrior who decimated every single enemy in all his conquests is suddenly befriending an Indian king and actually reinstating him back to power. Even after giving his word to Ambhi from Taxila that he would rule over his rival Porus’s kingdom after he defeats him? This doesn’t look plausible one bit. On the contrary, something more logical and closer to truth could have happened on that day. Alexander turned back because something unthinkable transpired – Porus defeated him in the war! 

The legend that was created that day was nothing but a political tool to maintain Alexander’s aura of invincibility to at least his conquered lands of Persia and the rest. Quite surprisingly no contemporary Indian account exists of this remarkable incident which logically begs the question – Did Alexander really win the war with Porus? For the rest of India, maybe this event didn’t even register – either in their minds or in any of the records. For them, it was probably just a border skirmish that was duly repelled. No wonder, we do not find the mention of this great war in any of our historical records.
Infact “the retreat of Alexander after the battle of Hydaspes indicates the catastrophic military defeat of Alexander – not a victory” says Marshal Zhukov, the Russian General. Based on literary evidence supplied by the same Roman and Greek accounts, Alexander could only reach the North West frontiers of India and that his world campaign ended in a not so splendid way. There is no question as to who ended that remarkable journey of Alexander. It was none other than Porus - Porus the Great!
But what is certain - victory or not for Porus, is that one of the greatest armies of the world that decimated and plundered everything in its path never set another foot into India. Porus, the Seven foot four inch giant stopped it dead in its tracks. 

What if Porus failed to stop Alexander? What if the Macedonians conquered Magadha and the whole of India? Well, that’s a moot question now. Porus the Great never let historians ink that “what if” scenario.  
He certainly saved them the trouble.  On that night, the brave son of India did not let any one of us down. For sure.