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Dionysus god or a leader who conquered India?

Featured The triumph of Dionysus, depicted on a 2nd-century Roman sarcophagus. Dionysus rides in a chariot drawn by panthers; his procession includes elephants and other exotic animals. The triumph of Dionysus, depicted on a 2nd-century Roman sarcophagus. Dionysus rides in a chariot drawn by panthers; his procession includes elephants and other exotic animals.

DIONYSOS (Dionysus), was the great Olympian god of wine, vegetation, pleasure and festivity or a conqueror? Descriptions of ancient writers are telling stories of his adventures in the East: Egypt, Libya, Syria, Phoinicia, Phrygia, Anatolia, and distant reaches of India.

Dionysos was closely identified by the Greeks with a number of Eastern vegetation gods: Egyptian Osiris, Phoenician Tammuz, Arabian Orotalt, Phrygian Sabazios, and the vegetation god of the Indians.

In his speech at a banquet hosted in his honor by Greece President Karolos Papoulias and in his address at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, on 26 April 2007, the President of the Indian Republic. Shri A. P. J. Abdul Kalam referred to exchanges between India and Greece that began well before Alexander's march into India in 326 BC.

Dionysus Indian war
Dionysus adventures: The Indian war


The Indian War of Dionysos is the central theme of 'Nonnus' late classical epic The Dionysiaca. His account of the war is too large to quote here in full.

Strabo, Geography 11. 5. 5 (trans. Jones) (Greek geographer C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"The expedition of Dionysos and Herakles to the country of the Indians looks like a mythical story of later date."

Pausanias, Description of Greece 10. 29. 4 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"Dionysos was, in my opinion . . . the first to invade India, and the first to bridge the river Euphrates. Zeugma (Bridge ) was the name given to that part of the country where the Euphrates was bridged, and at the present day the cable is still preserved with which he spanned the river; it is plaited with branches of the vine and ivy. Both the Greeks and the Egyptians have many legends about Dionysos."

Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 2. 33 (trans. Conybeare) (Greek biography C1st to 2nd A.D.) :
"It is related, anyhow, that Herakles of Egypt and Dionysos after they had overrun the Indian people with their arms, constructed engines of war, and tried to take the place by assault; but the sages [Brahmans], instead of taking the field against them, lay quiet and passive, as it seemed to the enemy; but as soon as the latter approached they were driven off by rockets of fire and thunderbolts which were hurled obliquely from above and fell upon their armour."

Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 2. 6-10 :
"Now the Hellenes disagree with the Indians, and the Indians among themselves, concerning this Dionysos [the wine-god worshipped in India]. For we declare that the Theban Dionysos made an expedition to India in the role of soldier and reveller, and we base our arguments, among other things, on the offering at Delphoi, which is preserved in the treasuries there. And it is a disc of Indian silver bearing the inscription: ‘Dionysos the son of Semele and of Zeus, from the men of India to the Apollon of Delphoi.’" Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 3. 13 : "Now the hill [in India] the summit of which is inhabited by the sages [Brahmans] is, according to the account of our travellers, of about the same height as the Akropolis of Athens; and it rises: straight up from the plain, though its natural position equally secures it from attack for the rock surrounds it on all sides. On many parts of this rock you see traces of cloven feet and outlines of beards and of faces, and here and there impressions of backs as of persons who had slipt - and rolled down. For they say that Dionysos, when he was trying to storm the place together with Herakles, ordered the Panes to attack it, thinking that they would be strong enough to take it by assault; but they were thunderstruck by the sages and fell one, one way, and another, another; and the rocks as it were took the print of the various postures in which they fell and failed."

Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 131 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"When Liber [Dionysos] was leading his army into India, he gave the authority over his Theban kingdom to his nurse Nysus [Seilenos] until he should come back. But after Liber returned from there, Nysus was unwilling to yield the kingdom."

Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 191 :
"At the time when Father Liber [Dionysos] was leading his army into India, Silenus wandered away; Midas entertained him generously, and gave him a guide to conduct him to Liber’s [Dionysos’] company."

Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 20 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"You [Dionysos] hold in thrall the Orient, even those remotest lands where Ganges waters dusky India."

Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 605 ff :
"[Dionysos] conqueror of India."

Seneca, Oedipus 112 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.) :
"Destruction feeds, O Bacchus, on that soldiery of thine [the Theban people], thy comrades to farthest India, who dared to ride on the Eastern plains and plant thy banners on the world’s first edge. The Arabs, blest with their cinnamon groves, they saw, and fleeing horsemen, the backs of the treacherous Parthians, to be feared for their flying shafts; they pierced to the shores of the ruddy sea [the Indian Ocean], whence Phoebus [Helios the sun] discloses his rising beams, opens the gates of day, and with nearer torch darkens the naked Indians."

Seneca, Oedipus 425 ff :
"Seated in thy golden chariot, thy lions with long trappings covered, all the vast coast of the Orient saw thee [Dionysos], both he who drinks of the Ganges [the Indians] and whoever breaks the ice of snowy Araxes [the Skythians]."

Seneca, Phaedra 753 ff :
"Thou, Bacchus [Dionysos], from thyrsus-bearing India, with unshorn locks, perpetually young, thou who frightenest tigers with thy vine-clad spear, and with a turban bindest thy hornèd head."

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 4. 39 (trans. Rackham) (Roman encyclopedia C1st A.D.) :
"[Alexander the Great] even roamed in the tracks of Father Liber [Dionysos] and of Hercules and conquered India."

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 6. 59 :
"From the time of Father Liber's [Dionysos] to Alexandrus the Great's [conquest of India] 153 kings of India are counted in a period of 6451 years and three months."

Nonnus Dionysiaka
Nonnus introduces the war in his epic the Dionysiaca with Zeus sending a message to Rhea, commanding Dionysos to gather armies for an Indian War. With the help of Rhea he then gathers his armies. The introductory passages are quoted here:-

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 12. 394 - 13. 18 (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"After the revels over his [Dionysos'] sweet fruit [wine newly discovered by the young god], Dionysos proudly entered the cave of Kybeleid goddess Rheia [his foster mother], waving bunches of grapes in his flowerloving hand, and taught Maionia the vigil of his feast. Father Zeus sent Iris to the divine halls of Rheia, to inform wakethefray Dionysos, that he must drive out of Asia with his avenging thyrsus the proud race of Indians untaught of justice . . .
At once Rheia Allmother sent out her messenger to gather the host, Pyrrhikhos [one of the Korybantes], the dancer before her loverattle timbrel, to proclaim the warfare of Lyaios under arms. Pyrrhikhos, gathering a varied army for Dionysos, scoured all the settlements of the eternal word [recruiting a fabulous army for Dionysos' campaigns]."

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 14. 1 ff :
"Then [while the armies of Dionysos were mustering around her palace in Phrygia] swiftshoe Rheia haltered the hairy necks of her lions beside their highland manger. She lifted her windfaring foot to run with the breezes, and paddled with her shoes through the airy spaces. So like a wing or a thought she traversed the firmament to south, to north, to west, to the turning-place of dawn, gathering the divine battalions for Lyaios: one all-comprehending summons was sounded for trees and for rivers, one call for Neiades and Hadryades, the troops of the forest. All the divine generations heard the summons of Kybele, and they came together from all sides. From high heaven to the Lydian land Rheia passed aloft with unerring foot, and returning lifted again the mystic torch in the night, warming the air a second time with Mygdonian [Lydian] fire. [She summoned the Kabeiroi, the Daktyloi, the Telkhines, Pholos & Kheiron, the Kyklopes, Panes, Kentauroi, Nymphai etc]."

Dionysus pottery
Dionysus. Roman's Bacchus, god of wine on pottery painting

One of the oldest surviving foreign descriptions of India comes from the Greco-Roman biographer of Alexander the Great, Flavius Arrianus.

He depended upon other Greek sources, such as Niarchus, which are now lost. His short book The Indica, dealt with the Voyage of Alexander's fleet from India to the Near East. Below is his general description of India.

The district west of the river Indus as far as the river Cophen is inhabited by the Astacenians and the Assacenians, Indian tribes. But they are not so tall in stature or so courageous as those who dwell east of the Indus; nor are they so swarthy as the majority of the Indians.

These were in ancient times subject to the Assyrians, afterwards to the Medes and finally they submitted to the Persians, and paid tribute to Cyrus the son of Cambyses as ruler of their land. The Nysaeans are not an Indian race, but descended from the men who came into India with Dionysus--perhaps from those Greeks who were rendered unfit for service in the wars which Dionysus waged with the Indians.

Perhaps also he settled with the Greeks those of the natives who were willing to join his colony. Dionysus named the city itself Nysa, and the land Nysaea, in honour of his nurse Nysa. The mountain near the city, at whose base Nysa was built, is called Meros (thigh) after the misfortune he experienced as soon as he was born. This is the story framed by the poets in regard to Dionysus, and let the writers of legends Grecian and foreign expound it. Among the Assacenians is Massaca, a large city, where also is the stronghold of the land of Assacia; and there is also another large city, Peucelaitis, not far from the Indus. These tribes have been settled west of the Indus as far as the Cophen.

Let me call the country east of the Indus India, and the people Indians. Towards the north of India lies Mount Taurus; but in this land it is no longer called Taurus. This range commences from the sea near Pamphylia, Lycia, and Cilicia and extends as far as the Eastern Sea, dividing the whole of Asia. It is called by various names in different districts; in one part it is called Parapamisus, in another Emodus, in a third Imaus, and probably it has several other names. The Macedonians who accompanied Alexander's expedition called it Caucasus. But this is quite a different Caucasus from that in Scythia. They called it by this name that the report might become current that Alexander had marched even beyond the Caucasus. The river Indus bounds India on the west as far as the Great Sea, into which it discharges its water by two mouths, not near each other like the five mouths of the Ister, but like those of the Nile, by which the Egyptian Delta is formed. Thus also the river Indus forms the Delta of India, which is not smaller than that of Egypt. This delta is called in the Indian tongue Pattala. On the south India is bounded by the Great Sea itself, and the same sea bounds it on the east. The part of the country towards the south near Pattala and the outlets of the Indus was seen by Alexander and the Macedonians and by many Greeks; but into the part towards the east Alexander did not penetrate further than the river Hyphasis. A few authors have described the country as far as the river Ganges, and where are the outlets of that river and near it Palimbothra, the largest city of the Indians.

Dionysus Indian war
Dionysus punishing the pirates of Tyrrhenian Sea (Bardo Museum)

I consider Eratosthenes the Cyrenaean the most trustworthy authority, because he is careful to trace the circumference of the country. This writer says that the side of India has a length of I,529 miles to one going from Mount Taurus, in which are the sources of the Indus, along that river itself as far as the Great Sea and the outlets of the Indus. And opposite this he makes another side from the same mountain to the Eastern Sea scarcely equal to this side; but he makes a peninsula stretch far into the sea to the extent of about 353 miles. Therefore according to him the side of India towards the east would extend I,882 miles. This he considers the breadth of India. The length from west to east as far as the city of Palimbothra he says was measured in schoeni [one schoenus equalled about 5 miles],' and he made a plan of it; for it was the royal road. He says that this extends to 1,176 miles. The districts beyond this have not been so accurately measured. But as many as have recorded rumours say that with the peninsula projecting into the sea it amounts to about I,200 miles. So that the length of India upward is about 2,353 miles. Ctesias the Cnidian says that India is equal to the rest of Asia, but he talks nonsense; and so does Onesicritus, saying that it is the third part of all the earth. Nearchus says that it is a journey of four months through the plain alone of India. To Megasthenes the distance from the east to the west is the breadth of India, which others make its length. He says that where it is shortest it extends 1882 miles, and that from north to south, which is its length according to him, it extends 2,624 miles, where it is narrowest.

In the whole of the rest of Asia there are not so many rivers as in India. The largest are the Ganges and the Indus, from the latter of which the country takes its name. Both of these are larger than the Egyptian Nile and the Scythian Ister, even if their waters came together into one. To me indeed it seems that even the Acesines is larger than the Ister or the Nile, where it falls into the Indus, after having taken up into its stream the Hydaspes, the Hydraotes, and the Hyphasis, so that at this place its breadth is three and one-half miles. Perhaps also many other larger rivers flow in India.

I cannot be sure of the accuracy of any statements about the country beyond the river Hyphasis, because Alexander did not advance further than that river. Of the two largest rivers themselves, the Ganges and the Indus, Megasthenes has stated that the former excels much in size; and so say all other writers who mention it. He says that it rises great from its sources, and that it receives into itself the Cainas, the Erannoboas, and the Cossoanus, all navigable rivers; then the Sonus Sittocatis, and Solomatis, which are also navigable; and besides these the Condochates, Sambus, Magon, Agoranis, and Omalis. A great river the Comminases, and the Cacouthis and Andomatis, which flows from the land of the Madyandinians, an Indian nation, fall into it. In addition to these the Amystis joins the Ganges, near the city of Catadoupe, as do the Oxymagis in the land of the people called Pazalaeans, and the Errenysis in that of the Mathaeans, an Indian nation. Megasthenes says that none of these is inferior to the Maeander, where that river is navigable. He says that the breadth of the Ganges in its narrowest part is about twelve miles; that in many places it forms lakes, so that the land opposite is not visible where it is flat and nowhere stands up in hills. The same is the case with the Indus. The Hydraotes, having received the Hyphasis in the land of the Astrybaeans, the Saranges from that of the Cecians, and the Neudrus from that of the Attacenians, falls into the Acesines in the land of the Cambistholians. The Hydaspes also falls into the Acesines in the land of the Oxydracians, taking with itself the Sinarus in the land of the Arispians. The Acesines joins the Indus in the land of the Mallians. The Toutapus also, a large river, falls into the Acesines. That river, with its water swollen by these, and giving its name to the united stream, itself falls into the Indus and surrenders its name to it. The Cophen falls into the Indus in the land called Peucelaitis, taking with itself the Malantus Soastus, and Garroeas. Below these the Parenus and Saparnus, not far apart, fall into the Indus. The Soanus also falls into it, coming void of any other river from the mountainous land of the Abissarians. Megasthenes says that most of these are navigable. Therefore we ought not to disbelieve that the Ister and the water of the Nile are not comparable with the Indus and the Ganges. We know, indeed, that no river falls into the Nile, but that canals have been cut from it through the land of Egypt. The Ister rises small from its sources, and though it receives many rivers, they are not equal in number to the Indian rivers which flow into the Indus and the Ganges. Very few of the tributaries of the Ister are navigable. Two of these, the Enus and Saus, I know, having seen them myself. The Enus mingles with the Ister on the confines of the country of the Noricans and Rhaetians, and the Saus in the territory of the Paeonians. The place where the Ister and Saus have their confluence is called Taurounus. Some one may know another navigable river which falls into the Ister, but he does not know many I am sure.

Dionysus and Acmi
Mosaic floor from the House of Dionysus at Kato Paphos. It depicts the legend of Dionysos and Akmi, King Ikarios and ''The first men to drink wine''

Whoever wishes to consider the cause of the number and size of the Indian rivers let him consider; it is sufficient for me to have recorded these statements as reports. For Megasthenes has recorded the names of many other rivers, which fall into the eastern and southern external sea, apart from the Ganges and Indus. He says that there are in all fifty-eight Indian rivers, all navigable. But even Megasthenes does not seem to me to have traversed much of the land of the Indians, though he visited more than those who went with Alexander the son of Philip. For he says that he was intimate with Sandracottus, a very great king of the Indians, and with Porus, still greater than he.

This Megasthenes, indeed, says that neither do the Indians wage war with any other men, nor any other men with them; and that Sesostris the Egyptian, having subdued most part of Asia, and having marched with his army as far as Europe, returned back home without attacking India; that Idanthyrsus the Scythian started from Scythia, and subduing many nations in Asia, advanced even into the land of the Egyptians in his victorious career; that Semiramis the Assyrian undertook an expedition into the land the Indians, but that she died before she could complete her plans; and that Alexander alone led an invading army against the Indians. The tale is current that even before Alexander Dionysus led an expedition into India, and subdued the Indians. There is also a vague story about Herades to the same effect. Of the expedition of Dionysus, indeed, the city of Nysa is no mean monument, as also are the mountain Meros, the ivy which grows on this mountain, the Indians themselves also marching into battle to the sound of drums and cymbals, wearing speckled garments like the bacchanals of Dionysus. But of Heracles there are not many memorials. For the statement that Alexander forcibly subdued the rock of Aornus, because Heracles was not able to capture it, seems to me a piece of Macedonian boasting; just as they called the Parapamisus Caucasus, though it has no connection with it. And having observed a certain cave in the land of the Parapamisadians, they said that it was the famous cave of Prometheus, the son of the Titan, in which he was hung for the theft of the fire. And besides, in the land of the Sibians, an Indian race, because they saw the inhabitants clothed in skins, they said that the Sibians were those who had been left behind from the expedition of Heracles. The Sibians also carry cudgels, and the figure of a club was branded upon their oxen; this too they explained to be a commemoration of the club of Heracles. If anyone gives credit to these tales, this must have been another Heracles, neither the Theban, nor the Tyrian, nor the Egyptian; but some great king of a land situated in the interior not far from India

Let this be a digression on my part from the narrative, in order to show that what certain authors have recorded about the Indians on the other side of the Hyphasis does not appear credible; but those who took part in Alexander's expedition as far as the Hyphasis are not altogether unworthy of belief. For Megasthenes also says this about an Indian river, whose name is Silas, that it flows from a spring with the same name as itself through the land of the Silians, who derive their name from the river and the spring; that it supplies water of such a kind that there is nothing which it resists, that nothing either swims or floats upon it, but everything sinks to the bottom; and that water is weaker and more murky than any other. India is visited by rain in the summer, especially the mountains, Parapamisus, Emodus, and the Imaic range, and from these the rivers flow swollen and muddy. In the summer also the plains of India are visited by rain, so that a great part of them are covered with pools; and Alexander's army had to avoid the river Acesines in the middle of the summer, because the water overflowed into the plains. Wherefore from this it is possible to conjecture the cause of the similar condition of the Nile, because it is probable that the mountains of Aethiopia are visited by rain in the summer, and the Nile being filled from them overflows its banks into the Egyptian country.

Therefore the Nile at this season flows in a muddy state, as it would not flow from the melting of snow, or if its water were driven back by the annual winds blowing in the season of summer. Besides, the mountains of Aethiopia would not be snow-beaten on account of the heat. It is not beyond the bounds of probability that Aethiopia is visited by rain as India is-for in other respects India is not unlike Aethiopia, and the Indian rivers produce crocodiles like the Aethiopian and Egyptian Nile. Some of them also produce fish and water-monsters besides, like those of the Nile, except the hippopotamus. Onesicritus says they produce even hippopotami. The looks of the people of India and Aethiopia are not entirely dissimilar. The Indians who live towards the south are more like the Aethiopians, they are black in their faces, and their hair is black; but they are not so flatnosed or so curly-headed as the Aethiopians. The more northern Indians would especially resemble the Egyptians in their bodies.

Megasthenes says that there are in all 118 Indian nations. I myself agree with him that there are many Indian nations; but I am not able to conjecture how he learned the exact number and recorded it, for he only visited a mere fraction of India, nor do many of the races have any intercourse with each other. He says that in ancient times the Indians were nomads, like that section of the Scythians who are not agriculturists, but wandering about on waggons, live at one time in one part of Scythia and at another time in another part, neither inhabiting cities nor consecrating temples to the gods. So the Indians had no cities or temples built for the gods. They clothed themselves in the skins of the wild beasts which they killed, and ate the inner bark of certain trees, which are called tala in the Indian language, and, as upon the tops of palm-trees, there grow upon them things like clews of wool. They also fed upon the flesh of the wild beasts which they caught, eating it raw, until Dionysus came into their country. But when Dionysus came and conquered them, he founded cities and made laws for them, and gave the Indians wine as he had given it to the Greeks.

He also gave them seeds and taught them how to sow them in the earth; so that either Triptolemus did not come to this part when he was sent by Demeter to sow corn through the whole earth, or this Dionysus came to India before Triptolemus and gave to the inhabitants the seeds of cultivated crops. Dionysus first taught them to yoke oxen to the plough, and made most of them become husbandmen instead of being nomads, and armed them with martial weapons. He also taught them to worship the gods, and especially himself with the beating of drums and the clashing of cymbals. He taught the Indians the Satyr-dance which among the Greeks is called the cordax, and to let their hair grow long in honour of the god. He also showed them how to wear the turban, and taught them how to anoint themselves with unguents. Wherefore even to the time of Alexander the Indians still advanced into battle with the sound of cymbals and drums.

When Dionysus had arranged these affairs and was about to leave India, he appointed as king of the land Spatembas, one of his companions, the man most versed in the mysteries of Bacchus. When this man died his son Boudyas succeeded to his kingdom. The father reigned fifty-two years, and the son twenty years. Cradeuas, the son of Boudyas, succeeded to the throne. From this time for the most part the kingdom passed in regular succession from father to son. If at any time direct heirs were wanting, then the Indians appointed kings according to merit. The Heracles, who according to the current report came to India is said, among the Indians themselves, to have sprung from the earth. This Heracles is especially worshipped by the Sourasenians, an Indian nation, in whose land are two great cities, Methora and Cleisobora, and through it flows the navigable river Jobares. Megasthenes says, as the Indians themselves assert, that this Heracles wore a similar dress to that of the Theban Heracles. Very many male children, but only one daughter were born to him in India, for he married many women. The daughter's name was Pandaea, and the land where she was born, and over which Heracles placed her as ruler, was named Pandaea after her. From her father she received 500 elephants, 4,000 cavalry, and 130,000 infantry.

Certain of the Indians tell the following story about Heracles, that when he had passed over every land and sea and had rid them of every evil beast, he found in the sea a woman's ornament, such as up to the present day those who bring wares from India to us still buy with zeal and carry away. In former times the Greeks and now the Romans who are fortunate and wealthy with still greater zeal buy what is called in the Indian tongue the marine pearl. The ornament seemed so fine to Heracles that he collected pearls like this from all the sea and brought them to India to be an adornment for his daughter. Megasthenes says that the mussel of it is caught in nets, and that many of them live in the sea at the same place, like bees, and that the pearl-mussels have a king or queen as bees have. Whoever has the good fortune to capture the king, easily throws the net around the rest of the swarm of pearlmussels, but if the king escapes the fishermen, the others are no longer to be caught by them. The men allow the flesh of those which are caught to rot, but they use the shell for ornament; for among the Indians the pearl is worth thrice its weight in refined gold. This metal is also dug up in India.

Dionysus Indian war
Egyptian garment panel featuring Dionysiac themes, 5th century

In this country, where the daughter of Heracles reigned, the women at seven years of age become marriageable, and the men live forty years at most. In regard to this the following story is told among the Indians. This girl was born to Heracles in his old age, when he perceived that his end was near. He could not find a man worthy to receive his daughter in marriage, and therefore he married her himself when she was seven years old, so that the family born from him and her might supply kings to the Indians. Heracles therefore made her marriageable at that age; and from that time all this race over which Pandaea ruled have this same gift from Heracles. To me it seems that if Heracles was able to accomplish such marvellous things, he would also have been able to make himself longer lived, so that he might marry his daughter at a mature age. But if these statements about the maturity of the girls of this country are correct, to me at any rate they seem to have some analogy with what is said about the age of the men, that the oldest of them do not live beyond forty years. For no doubt the flower of perfect manhood blooms sooner in proportion in those upon whom old age advances quicker, and death with old age; so that among them men of thirty years of age would be, I suppose, fresh, active old men, striplings of twenty years old would be past their early manhood, and the prime of early manhood would be about fifteen years of age. Reasoning from analogy the women would thus become marriageable at seven years of age. For this same Megasthenes has recorded that in this country the fruits ripen quicker than those elsewhere, and sooner waste away.

From Dionysus to Sandracottus the Indians reckoned 153 kings, and 6,042 years. During all these years they only twice asserted their freedom; the first time they enjoyed it for 300 years, and the second for 120. They say that Dionysus was earlier than Heracles by fifteen generations, and that no other ever invaded India for war, not even Cyrus, the son of Cambyses, though he marched against the Scythians, and in other matters was the most meddlesome of the kings of Asia. However they admit that Alexander came and overcame in battle all the nations whom he visited, and that he would have conquered them all if his army had been willing. But none of the Indians ever marched out of their own country for war, being actuated by a respect for justice.

This also is said, that the Indians do not construct monuments for the dead, for they think that the virtues of men are sufficient to perpetuate their memory after their death, as well as the songs which they sing in their honour. It would not be possible to record with accuracy the number of their cities on account of their multiplicity. Those which are situated near the rivers or the sea are built of wood; for if they were built of brick they could not long endure on account of the rain and because the rivers overflowing their banks fill the plains with water. But those which have been founded in commanding places, lofty and raised above the adjacent country, are built of brick and mortar. The largest city in India, named Palimbothra, is in the land of the Prasians, where is the confluence of the river Erannoboas and the Ganges, which is the greatest of rivers. The Erannoboas would be third of the Indian rivers, being also larger than those elsewhere. But it yields itself up to the Ganges when it has discharged its water into it. Megasthenes says that on one side where it is longest this city extends ten miles in length, and that its breadth is one and threequarters miles; that the city has been surrounded with a ditch in breadth 600 feet, and in depth 45 feet; and that its wall has 570 towers and 64 gates. This is a great thing in India, that all the inhabitants are free, not a single Indian being a slave. In this the Lacedaemonians and the Indians are alike. However the Helots are slaves to the Lacedaemonians and perform servile offices; but among the Indians no other Indian at any rate is a slave.

Alexander in India
Alexander the great in India

All the Indians have been divided into seven castes. Among them are the wise men, fewer in number than the others, but most esteemed in reputation and dignity. For no necessity is incumbent upon them to do any bodily labour; nor do they contribute anything to the commonwealth from the effects of their labour; nor in a word have they any compulsory duty except to offer sacrifices to the gods on behalf of the commonwealth of India. Whoever sacrifices in his private capacity has one of these wise men as a director of the sacrifice, since otherwise he does not offer acceptable sacrifice to the gods. These also are the only Indians skilled in divination; and it is not lawful for anyone to practise the art except for a man who is a wise man. They practise divination in regard to the seasons of the year, and if any calamity befalls the commonwealth. It is not their business to practise their art in regard to the private affairs of individuals, either because the art of divination does not extend to smaller matters, or because it is not worthy of them to labour about such things. Whoever has made three errors in his practise of divination receives no other punishment except that for the future he is compelled to be silent; and there is no one who can compel that man to speak, upon whom the judgment of silence has been passed. These wise men pass their lives naked; in the winter in the sun under the open sky, but in the summer, when the sun holds sway, they live in the meadows and in the marshes under great trees, the shadow of which Nearchus says extends 500 feet all round, and I0,000 men could be shaded under one tree. So large are these trees. They feed on the fruits of the seasons and the inner bark of trees, which is both pleasant and nutritious; not less so than dates.

After these the second caste are the agriculturalists, who are the most numerous class of Indians. These have no martial weapons, nor do they care for deeds of war, but till the soil. They pay dues to the kings or to those cities which are independent. If any war happens to break out among the Indians with each other it is not lawful for them to touch the tillers of the soil, or to lay waste the country itself by destroying the crops. But while others are waging war against each other and slaying each other as they find the chance, they are ploughing in peace and quietness near them, or are gathering in the vintage, or are pruning their vines, or are reaping their crops.

The third caste of Indians are the shepherds and the cowherds, who dwell neither in cities nor in villages; but are nomads and live up and down the mountains. They pay a tax from their flocks and herds. These men also catch birds and hunt wild beasts throughout the land.

The fourth caste is that of the artisans and retail tradesmen. These men perform public duties at their own cost, and pay a tax upon their work, except those who make weapons of war. These receive pay from the commonwealth. In this caste are the shipwrights and sailors who sail up and down the rivers.

Dionysus Indian war
Map of the Great Alexander empire

The fifth caste of the Indians consists of the warriors, who in number come next to the husbandmen and enjoy very great freedom and good cheer. These men practise nothing but warlike exercises. Others make the weapons for them, others provide them with horses; and others serve them in the camp, who groom the horses for them, keep their weapons bright, manage the elephants, keep the chariots in order, and drive the horses. They themselves fight, as long as it is necessary to wage war; but when there is peace, they live with good cheer; and they receive such high pay from the state that they can easily support others from it.

The sixth caste of Indians consists of men who are called overseers. These supervise what is done throughout the country and in the cities, and make reports to the king, where the Indians are ruled by a king, or to the magistrates where the people have a democratic government. It is unlawful for these men to make false reports; but no Indian has incurred the charge of falsehood.

The seventh caste consists of those who assist the king in deliberating on public affairs, or assist the officials in the cities which enjoy a democratic government. This class is small in number, but in wisdom and justice excels all the others. From them are chosen their rulers, governors of provinces, deputies, treasurers, generals, admirals, controllers of expenditure, and superintendents of agriculture.

It is not lawful for anyone to marry a woman from another caste; for example, for husbandmen to marry from the class of artisans or the reverse. It is not lawful for the same man to exercise two trades, or to exchange from one caste into another; for instance, he may not cease to be a shepherd and become a husbandman, or cease to be an artisan and become a shepherd. Only a man from any caste is allowed by them to become a wise man, because the duties of the wise men are not easy, but the most severely laborious of all.

The Indians hunt other wild animals like the Greeks; but the way they hunt elephants is quite different from any other kind of hunting, because these animals are like no other beasts. They choose a place that is level and exposed to the sun's heat, large enough for a great army to encamp in. They then dig a trench all round it. They make the breadth of this trench about thirty feet, and the depth about twenty-four feet. The earth which they cast up from the ditch they heap up on each bank of the trench and use it in place of a wall. In the mound upon the outer bank of the trench they dig hiding-places for themselves, leaving holes in them, through which the light may enter for them, and to enable them to observe the beasts approaching and charging into the inclosure. There, within the inclosure, they place some three or four female elephants, who are especially tame in spirit, and leave only one entrance, made by bridging over the trench. They cover this with earth and thick turf, in order that the beasts may not notice the bridge and think some trick is being played them. The men, therefore, keep themselves out of the way, lurking in the hiding-places near the trench. The wild elephants by day do not approach inhabited places, but in the night they wander in all directions and graze in droves, following the largest and bravest of their number, just as cows follow the bulls. When they approach the inclosure they hear the noise of the females and discerning them by the scent, they run at full speed towards the inclosed place. Going quite round the bank of the trench, as soon as they light upon the bridge, they rush forward into the inclosure over this. When the men perceive the entrance of the wild elephants, some of them quickly remove the bridge, others run to the neighbouring villages and tell the people that the elephants are shut up in the inclosure. When they hear this they mount the bravest and most tractable of their elephants and drive them towards the inclosure. When they arrive they do not immediately join battle, but allow the wild elephants to be severely distressed with hunger and to be cowed by thirst As soon as they think they are in a weak state, they then place the bridge over again and advance into the inclosure.

At first an obstinate battle is fought between the tame elephants and those that have been caught Soon, as might be expected, the wild ones are overcome, being severely depressed by loss of spirit and want of food. The men, dismounting from the elephants, tie together the feet of the wild ones, which are now exhausted. Then they order the tame ones to chastise them with many blows until they fall to the ground in their severe distress. Standing near them they throw nooses round their necks and mount upon them as they lie on the ground. And in order that they may not shake off their riders or do any other reckless thing, they cut their necks all round with a sharp knife and tie the noose round along the cut; so that on account of the wound they must keep their head and neck quiet; for if they should turn their head round through recklessness, their wound is chafed under the rope. Then at length they keep quiet, and changing their minds of their own accord, they are now led by the tame ones into imprisonment.

Those of them which are quite young, or through badness not worth possessing, are allowed to take themselves off to their own haunts The captives are led into the villages and at first some green reeds and grass are given them to eat. They refuse to eat anything from loss of spirit; and the Indians stand round them and lull them to sleep by singing songs, beating drums and clashing cymbals. For, of all animals, the elephant is most naturally intelligent. Some of them have of their own accord picked up their riders who have been killed in battle and carried them away for burial; others have held the shield over them when lying on the ground; and others have incurred danger on their behalf when they have fallen wounded. One, having killed his rider in a fit of passion died from remorse and dejection of spirit. I myself have seen an elephant playing the cymbals, while others danced. Two cymbals were fastened to the forelegs of the playing elephant, and another to the trunk. With his trunk he struck the cymbal alternately against each of his legs in regular time, and the others moved round him as in a dance. These also walked, raising and bending their front legs alternately in regular time, just as the one who played the cymbals directed them. The female elephant copulates in the season of spring, like the cow or mare, when the air-vents near the temples of the females being opened exhale an odour. She carries her young sixteen months at the least, and eighteen at the most, and brings forth one, like the mare. This she suckles till the eighth year. Those which live longest live for 200 years; but many of them die before that age from disease. If they die from old age they reach that age. When their eyes are sore they are cured by pouring into them cow's milk, and their other diseases by giving them dark-coloured wine to drink. Pork is roasted and the fat is sprinkled upon wounds to effect a cure. The Indians adopt these cures for them.

Hercules protecting Budha
Heracles depiction of Vajrapani as the protector of the Buddha, 2nd century AD Gandhara

The Indians think the tiger much mightier than the elephant. Nearchus says he saw a tiger's skin, but not the tiger itself; but that the Indians assured him that it is as large as the largest horse, and that no other animal can compare with it in swiftness and strength. When the tiger comes into conflict with an elephant he leaps upon his head and easily strangles him. Those which we see and call tigers are only speckled jackals, but larger than the ordinary jackals. In regard to the ants, Nearchus says that he himself did not see one like those which some other authors have described as existing in India; but that he saw many skins of these animals which had been brought into the Macedonian camp. But Megasthenes asserts that the story of these ants is correct; that these were the animals who dig up gold, not for the sake of the metal itself; but they burrow under the ground from instinct, in order that they may lie hidden in their holes, just as our small ants burrow a little under the ground. These ants are larger than foxes and therefore they burrow a distance proportionate to their size, and throw up the soil. As this contains gold ore the Indians obtain their gold from it. Megasthenes only relates hearsay, and as I myself am unable to say anything more certain than this, I willingly dismiss the story of the ants. Nearchus relates as a wonder that parrots are bred in India, and describes what kind of a bird it is and how it utters human speech; but as I myself have seen many and I know others are acquainted with the bird I shall give no description of it as of a marvel. Nor shall I speak of the size of the monkeys, or how beautiful those of India are, nor how they are caught. For these things are well known, except that monkeys are beautiful anywhere. Nearchus also says speckled serpents are caught, though they are quick in movement; and that Peithon, son of Antigenes, caught one twenty-four feet long. The Indians themselves said that the largest serpents are much larger than this. None of the Greek physicians found any cure for any one who was bitten by an Indian serpent; but the Indians themselves healed those who had been smitten. Nearchus says, besides, that Alexander had collected around him all the Indians who were cleverest in the medical art, and had it proclaimed through the camp that whoever was bitten should come to the king's tent. These men were also curers of other diseases and infirmities. But among the Indians there are not many infirmities, because the seasons there are temperate. If anything worse than usual seized them they communicated with the wise men; who seemed to cure whatever was curable, not without the help of god.

The Indians use linen clothing, as says Nearchus, made from the flax taken from the trees, about which I have already spoken. And this flax is either whiter in colour than any other flax, or the people being black make the flax appear whiter. They have a linen frock reaching down halfway between the knee and the ankle, and a garment which is partly thrown round the shoulders and partly rolled round the head The Indians who are very well-off wear earrings of ivory; for they do not all wear them. Nearchus says that the Indians dye their beards various colours; some that they may appear white as the whitest, others dark blue; others have them red, others purple, and others green. Those who are of any rank have umbrellas held over them in the summer. They wear shoes of white leather, elaborately worked, and the soles of their shoes are many-coloured and raised high, in order that they may appear taller.

The Indians are not all armed in the same way; but their infantry have a bow equal in length to the man who carries it. Placing this downward to the ground and stepping against it with the left foot, they discharge the arrow, drawing the string far back. Their arrows are little less than four and one-half feet long; and nothing can withstand one shot by an Indian archer, neither shield nor breast-plate nor anything else that is strong. They carry on their left arms targets of raw ox-hide, narrower than the men who carry them, but not much inferior in length. Others have Javelins instead of arrows. All wear a sword which is broad, and not less than four and onehalf feet in length. When the battle is at close quarters, a thing which very rarely happens to be the case between Indians, they bring this sword down upon the antagonist with both hands, in order that the blow may be a mighty one. The cavalry have two darts like the darts called saunia, and a shield smaller than that of the infantry. Their horses are not saddled or bridled like those of the Greeks or Gauls; but a piece of raw ox-hide stitched is fastened right round the front of the horse's mouth, and in this there are brass or iron spikes not very sharp, turned inwards. The rich men have ivory spikes. In the mouth their horses have a piece of iron, like a spit, to which the reins are attached. When therefore they draw the rein, the spit curbs the horse and the spikes which are fastened to it prick him and do not allow him to do anything else than obey the rein.

The Indians are spare in body and tall and much lighter than other men. Most of the Indians ride camels, horses, and asses, and those who are well off, elephants. For among the Indians royal personages ride on elephants. Next to this in honour is the four-horsed chariot, third camels. It is no honour to ride on horseback. Their women who are very chaste and would not go astray for any other reward, on the receipt of an elephant have intercourse with the donor. The Indians do not think it disgraceful for them to prostitute themselves for an elephant, and to the women it even seems an honour that their beauty should appear equal in value to an elephant. They marry, neither giving or receiving any dowry, but the fathers bring forward the girls who are of marriageable age and station them in a public place for the man who wins the prize for wrestling, boxing or running, or who has been adjudged winner in any manly contest, to make his choice. The Indians are bread-eaters and agriculturalists, except those who live in the mountains. These live upon the flesh of wild animals.

I think I have given sufficient information about the Indians. I have copied the very well-known statements made by Nearchus and Megasthenes, two esteemed authors. As my design in compiling this book was not to describe the customs of the Indians, but to relate how Alexander's fleet was conveyed from India into Persia, let the preceding portion of it be considered a digression from my narrative.

Excerpted from Arrian, "The Indica" in Anabasis of Alexander, together with the Indica, E. J. Chinnock, tr. (London: Bohn, 1893), ch. 1-16

Last modified onFriday, 16 November 2018 12:31
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