By Archana Garodia Gupta and Shruti Garodia
(This is part of the series Make History Fun Again, where the writers introduce historical facts, events and personalities in a fun way for parents to start a conversation with their kids.)
Alexander and his Greek army invaded ancient India in 326 BC. Many of his generals wrote about the astonishing things they saw in ancient India. Here are some of the really interesting tales.
Indian dogs were prized and exported as far as Persia and Greece
Indian dogs were hugely prized in the West. Known for their aggressiveness and ferocity, all the foreign rulers wanted them. They were considered to be fearless in battle, and just a few of them could defeat a full grown lion. Even before the Greeks, there are stories that a later Persian emperor kept so many Indian dogs, that the revenue of four large villages was dedicated purely for their upkeep! Alexander was also gifted 150 of these dogs by a king he conquered. Indian dogs went with the Persian army to invade Greece 2,500 years ago.
Punjab was a huge dense forest with trees 10 storeys high
The Greeks said that across the Jhelum River “the forests extended over an almost boundless tract of country, and abounded with stately trees that rose to an extraordinary height … the climate is tolerable, for the dense shade mitigates the violence of the heat, and copious springs supply the land with an abundance of water.”
They mentioned trees that rose to a height of 100 feet and took four men to clasp it around. For the lands across the river Ravi, they remark,”the banks were covered with a dense forest, abounding with trees not elsewhere seen, and filled with wild peacocks.”
Well, if we visit these regions today, the only abundance we see is of flat, flat land, rolling on endlessly as far as the eye can view, illustrating neatly just how thoroughly we have managed to deforest India through the centuries. The Greeks also wrote that the Indians “regard as gods whatever objects they value, especially trees, to violate which is a capital offence”. This is clearly not the case in modern India, where nature is plundered rather casually!
Indians could just pick ‘wool’ from the trees
Cotton, native to India, was quite a foreign concept to the Greeks, who made their clothes from animal wool or linen from the flax plant. So when they came across cotton, used widely across India, they didn’t know quite how to describe it, saying “The Indians use linen made from flax that grows on trees and this flax is whiter in colour than any other flax, or perhaps the people being black make it look whiter.”
In Public Parades, Indians used songbirds for music
Nearchus said that “When the king shows himself in public, the attendants carry in their hands silver incense burners, and perfume with incense the entire road by which he travels. He lies in a golden palanquin, garnished with pearls, which dangle all around it, and he is robed in fine muslin embroidered with purple and gold. Behind his palanquin follow men at arms and his bodyguards, of whom some carry boughs of trees, on which birds are perched trained to interrupt business with their cries.”
The handsomest man was made king
General Nearchus mentions an Indian region with a most unusual custom, where the kingship was not based on dynasty nor on ability; the most handsome man in the kingdom was crowned ruler! They met king Sophites (Saubhuti?) who was thus chosen.
When Alexander reached the capital, the king appeared before him and “he far surpassed all others in manly beauty.” He was also very well dressed-they describe the richness of his clothes, golden sandals, and profusion of pearls on his body. It is however interesting to note that the handsome king Sophites apparently surrendered without as much as a squeak to Alexander.
There was no dowry and no slavery in Ancient India
The Greeks noted that there was no slavery in that part of India that they saw, saying “This is a great thing in India, that all inhabitants are free, not a single Indian being a slave.” They also mention that “The Indians marry, neither giving nor receiving dowry.”
Indians would break out into song and dance anytime
As Alexander’s army rowed down the Indus in boats while returning from India, instead of running away from the invaders, or attacking them, this is what the Indians did, according to a Greek general!
“The shouting of the rowers and the noise of the rowing were heard by Indians…and these came running down to the river’s bank and accompanied him singing their native songs. For the Indians have always been fond of dancing and singing…”
This spirit clearly continues today in Bollywood
(For more fun journeys through India’s history, check out the newly released two-volume set, The History of India for Children Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, published by Hachette India, which is now available online and in bookstores across the country.)