Alexander in India is a popular book. It was written by an author named William Dalrymple and it is about the Indian campaign of Alexander the Great.
At the Earth’s End, a war rages.
Alexander the Great captured a vast empire in a single decade of battle, as big as the one the Romans subsequently carefully built over hundreds of years. While at least one of his opponents, Darius, King of Persia, was a faint-hearted commander who twice left the field to avoid facing him, Alexander himself earned most of the credit for his triumphs. He was a fearless, inspiring commander who put himself in grave risk on the battlefield, and as a master of strategy and tactics, he had no peers in all of ancient history.
Alexander’s march across India, towards the conclusion of his reign, was one of his most intriguing and romantic expeditions. He confronted King Porus of the Punjab there, at the tip of the world (as the Macedonians thought). Porus was a real and metaphorical giant, standing almost seven feet tall. Alexander’s Macedonian soldiers also met a significant number of elephants for the first time in a major fight, and the massive animals, led by their mahouts, frightened the lines.
The elephants were magnificent in 326 B.C. in the Battle of the Hydaspes, a tributary of the Indus. The animals were handled with caution by Alexander and the Macedonians, who regarded them as dangerous weapons of war. The fight on the Hydaspes (now known as the Jhelum River) devolved into a close-quarters cavalry combat. Although many tactical aspects of the battle are quite clear, there is still considerable disagreement over the role of the squadrons on the Macedonian left and the Indian right, and elephants play a major part in this misunderstanding. It may be able to settle some of the ambiguities by thoroughly studying the fight against Porus and critically examining the Battle of the Hydaspes.
As Alexander prepared to invade India in 326 B.C., he dispatched the majority of the Macedonian army through the Khyber Pass and down into the Indus, led by his close friend and comrade Hephaestion. While the main army marched south into Punjab, the monarch sent some elite infantry, skirmisher, and cavalry troops through a different path farther north to protect the flank. The mobile force under Alexander seized walled villages and strategic strongholds in extremely difficult fighting against fierce Indian hill peoples, including the city of Massaga in the Swat valley and the mountain fortress of Aornos on the upper Indus, which according to Greek mythology, not even Heracles could storm.
Hephaestion had already built a brudge over the Indus when Alexander was ready to rejoin the main army. The Macedonian monarch and his 75,000 soldiers had no idea what was ahead of them. They thought the Indus Valley flowed through a vast desert to the Upper Nile, for example, since crocodiles were found in the Indus’s tributaries, and the Nile was the only other river in the world known to contain crocodiles. India was a country of mystery at the time. The ancient Middle Eastern empire of Mesopotamia traded with India, and Persia had nominal authority over the Indus valley, but to Greeks and Macedonians, India stretched to the horizon and was populated by giants and elephants. Alexander traveled there primarily to complete his conquest of the Persian Empire, but he also had a romantic yearning to go to the furthest reaches of the globe.
One of the most striking aspects of Alexander’s Indian operations is that supply was virtually never an issue. The Indus valley was very rich, with many navigable rivers running through it. As a consequence, gathering supplies was very simple. Alexander’s troops got a supply of supplies delivered all the way from Macedonia while in India. Even though Alexander’s soldiers marched 17,000 miles from Pella, Macedonia’s capital, the efficient logistics system established by Alexander’s father, Philip II, suited the Macedonian army admirably.
Alexander crossed the Indus and advanced into the Punjab on a May day. Because Taxila, the first important city to the east, and its king, whom the Greeks named Taxiles, had already joined Alexander’s side, he expected minimal resistance during the first portion of the march. The Macedonian monarch received messengers from Kashmir and elsewhere before going on to fight the mighty Porus, whose dominion extended 35 miles east of Alexander in India beyond the Hydaspes River. The river was inundated as a result of spring rainfall. To protect his realm from the foreign invader, the Indian potentate had built a strong stronghold on the east bank. He had a 35,000-strong army, including 30,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, 300 war chariots, and 200 elephants.
Alexander understood that sending his horses over the river on rafts into the throng of elephants gathered on the other bank would cause them to panic, so he opted against going head-on. Instead, he marched his army upstream in the dead of night and swooped down on Porus’ flank. Porus may have had enough time to turn his whole line, including elephants, to face the Macedonians, therefore Alexander left a portion of his army behind under General Craterus, with orders to cross the river and assault Porus’s rear if this occurred. Craterus was told not to confront the elephants if Porus had left them on the riverside to guard against a crossing. The Indian monarch had apparently left several elephants beside the river, and Craterus was not involved in the battle until the very end.
Because the element of surprise was so important, Alexander attempted to mislead and lull Porus in a variety of ways. Alexander started publicly stockpiling huge amounts of provisions to convince the Indian chief that the Macedonians planned to wait for the river to subside. He also put on a show of constructing rafts, which he probably intended to deploy in a direct assault on Porus’ position. Then he gathered his cavalry every night and claimed to be preparing for a river crossing at various locations along the riverside, all the while making a lot of noise and hoopla. Porus first reacted by moving his troops up and down the river night after night; but, when his soldiers became weary of Alexander’s feints, he simply stopped responding.
Finally, after examining the area firsthand, Alexander decided to make a surprise crossing almost seventeen miles upstream. One of the main reasons for choosing this location—Jalalpur—was that there was a huge forested island in the middle of the river, large enough to hide the Macedonian army. The king went off in the night with a crack force of approximately 5,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry, including many of his finest skirmishers, leaving Craterus in the main camp with a major portion of the army and leaving behind someone disguised to seem like him. The fight has been likened to General James Wolfe’s 1759 Quebec campaign, and it stands with Issus (in southern Turkey) and Guagamela (in northern Iraq) as one of Alexander’s most spectacular engagements. Alexander’s Battle of the Hydaspes is considered one of the most daring engagements in history due to the distance Alexander and his men had to travel before coming into contact with the enemy, the extremely difficult nighttime river crossing, and the conflict with the expeditionary force sent by Porus to block the Macedonian advance.
When the Macedonians slipped away from the main camp, they drew back from the riverbank a short distance in order to approach the crossing unobserved. This portion of the deception succeeded effectively since Porus had been duped into believing Alexander’s night exercises were false alarms, and a heavy downpour helped to drown out the soldiers’ noise. When Alexander and his men arrived at their location upriver from Jalalpur, they gathered the boats and rafts that had been transported in parts earlier and prepared to launch them at first light. Modern military historians marvel at Alexander’s engineers’ ability to build a ship big enough to carry a force of 15,000 soldiers and 5,000 horses in parts, although comparable troop movements had been accomplished centuries before by the Assyrians and Persians in the ancient Middle East.
The boats and rafts were completed just as the storm passed, and Alexander personally led the flotilla in a 30-oared boat pulling a raft with royal foot troops. In a small passage between the west bank and the island, the whole army flowed down the river. When the vanguard arrived at the far end of the island, Indian scouts saw it and raced out on horseback to alert Porus of the impending attack. Alexander and his soldiers disembarked on the other side at the island’s far end, believing they had arrived on the east bank. In reality, they’d landed on another river island. They realized their error and started looking for a spot to cross the river, but the water was too high. They eventually discovered a place where they could just make it across. Except for their heads, the horses were completely immersed.
Alexander pushed off swiftly with his cavalry once onshore, instructing the archers to follow as fast as they could and the infantry to march at their regular pace. He thought he had a cavalry advantage against the Indians, and events would show him correct.
Porus was unsure if the imminent crossing was the major assault or a ruse when he got word of it, since there seemed to be a strong Macedonian army opposing him at the base camp. He made a mistake by doing what he did. He dispatched his son to meet the invaders with 2,000 cavalry and 120 chariots, but he wasted so much time due to uncertainty that Alexander had completed the crossing before his forces arrived. Furthermore, the Indian army was much too big for reconnaissance while also being far too little to cope with Alexander’s cavalry. Furthermore, the terrain was too muddy for their chariots. Alexander rushed with his cavalry in waves of assaults that completely demoralized the enemy when he learned the Indians had deployed a fairly substantial army rather than a small reconnaissance group. The Indians lost 400 cavalry and all of their chariots, but Porus’s son was arguably the most significant casualty. This swift and decisive victory boosted Macedonian confidence, allowing Alexander to press on against Porus’ main army. Other Macedonians started to cross the river from hidden places along the west bank while Alexander’s troops marched downstream on the Indian side, greatly increasing the size of his force.
Porus chose to turn his main army towards Alexander after learning of his son’s murder, with the exception of a few elephants left behind to defend the river against a potential passage by Craterus. Porus marched his army upstream over muddy terrain until he reached some dry, sandy land, where he gathered his troops in battle formation. As a result, he handed the offense up to Alexander.
The Indian battle order was conventional, with infantry in the middle and cavalry on the wings, with about 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry on each wing. Porus had stationed his elephants 50 feet apart in front of his soldiers in a line extending almost two kilometers, making the situation extremely dangerous. He had stationed squadrons of chariots ahead of the cavalry, 150 on each wing. The elephant screen made Porus’s line virtually impenetrable, even if the chariots were of dubious value against more mobile cavalry. Macedonian horses would be terrified of the enormous creatures, and foot troops would not assault Indian infantry through an elephant screen since the animals could turn around and crush them from behind.
Alexander’s infantry had outrun him, so he slowed his advance to let them to catch up and rest. He chose to win the fight with his cavalry since the middle of the Indian line seemed to be much too strong to breach with infantry. He gathered the majority of his horses on his right flank, confronting the Indian left wing, where Porus’ cavalry was under his command. One of Alexander’s generals, Coenus, was assigned two mounted battalions with a total of approximately 1,000 horses and told to march across the field to the Macedonian left, confronting the Indian right cavalry. That is, at least, how most historians interpret a statement recorded by Arrian, the Greek historian whose account of Alexander’s expedition is the most trustworthy, in the second century A.D.
Coenus was to advance “to [or against] the right,” according to Arrian’s words. There’s a perplexing conundrum that every military historian encounters now and again. Was Arrian implying that Coenus should travel to Alexander’s or the Indian’s right? Arrian must have been referring to Porus’s right in this phrase since he mentioned Porus’s left in the preceding sentence. Most historians, though not all, hold this viewpoint.
Alexander anticipated Porus to shift the Indian right cavalry to its left after massing the majority of his horsemen on his own right wing. According to Coenus’ instructions, if the Indian right cavalry attempted to move to the left, it was to be pursued and struck in the rear. The soldiers of Macedonia were not to attack until the cavalry had begun a rout. The scene was prepared for one of antiquity’s greatest cavalry engagements at this time.
By taking a defensive stance, Porus had given Alexander the initiative; now it was up to the Macedonian monarch to make the first move. Alexander began the fight by sending his mounted archers forward to assault the chariots in front of Porus’ left cavalry after his infantry had rested. The Indian chariots were driven from the field by a swarm of a thousand horse archers. Porus then responded just as Alexander had predicted. He ordered his right cavalry to go across to assist the left, and Coenus, anticipating such a move, swung around behind the Indian right horsemen and swung in behind them just as they joined the Indian left. Porus was obliged to divide his cavalry in half and spin one half around to confront Coenus. At that moment, Alexander sent in his whole cavalry, which panicked and confused the Indians. Alexander ordered his troops forward while the Indian horsemen fell back upon the elephants, and the fight soon devolved into a rout. The elephants panicked when their mahouts were slain by a hail of missiles fired by Macedonian infantrymen. Wave after wave of Macedonian cavalry assaulted the Indians from the left and right. In the words of Arrian:
The elephants had been boxed in by soldiers all around them, with little space to move, and as they blundered about, wheeling and pushing this way and that, they crushed to death as many of their allies as their foes. Many of the animals had been injured, and others, riderless and befuddled, had abandoned their assigned roles and, enraged by pain and terror, had set indiscriminately against friend and foe, spreading carnage in their wake. Because they had more room to maneuver, the Macedonians were able to use their judgment, giving ground when they charged and charging them with their javelins when they turned and lumbered back, whereas the unfortunate Indians, crammed in close among them… found them a more dangerous enemy even than the Macedonians.
“Their charges became feebler; they started to back away, slowly, like ships sailing astern, with nothing worse than trumpetings,” Arrian added when the elephants eventually exhausted. Alexander then encircled them, as well as the Indian cavalry, and ordered his phalanx to lock shields and advance. Many Indians died in the face of this magnificent structure, and the remainder fled. Craterus watched the fight unfold from the west bank of the river, bringing his fresh soldiers over just in time to pursue the exhausted, terrified, and beaten opponent. The Battle of the Hydaspes claimed the lives of 20,000 Indian infantry and 3,000 cavalry, much more than the US Marines lost in more than a month of combat on Iwo Jima during WWII. Porus sacrificed two more sons to the invaders after all the Indian chariots were lost. Alexander’s losses were minor, perhaps as few as 300 soldiers.
Porus had battled valiantly on the back of an elephant, continuing to fight even after his soldiers were defeated, at least until he was wounded in the right shoulder by a missile. Alexander dispatched his Indian buddy Taxiles to bring Porus in after being impressed by the king’s courage, but Porus despised Taxiles and refused to follow him. Alexander then sent one of Porus’s Macedonian companions, who was successful in delivering the Indian monarch to Alexander. Porus responded, “like a king,” when Alexander inquired how he wanted to be treated. Alexander then reinstated the Indian king to the throne and made him a vassal over the Punjab, along with the Taxiles, according to Arrian (the two presumably were reconciled). The Battle of Hydaspes came to a conclusion at this point.
However, there is one point of contention concerning the fight that has never been settled. It involves the passage of cavalry troops from the Macedonian left and Indian right across the field to the other side. Did the Indian right cavalry travel behind or in advance of the Indian line when it was instructed to assist the left wing? Did Coenus follow behind the line, or did he cross the field in front of it, assuming the Indian right raced behind it? Almost every printed battle plan depicts a distinct interpretation of events. Some maps show the Indian right flanking the line, with Coenus following suit. Others depict the Indian cavalry in the rear and Coenus in the front. In a few, both the Indian and Macedonian cavalry are seen wheeling about in front of the Indian line. Finally, only a few writers depict Coenus assaulting from the Macedonian right; these are the historians who interpret Arrian’s disputed phrase “to [or against] the right” as implying a march in that direction. The historian J.R. Hamilton claimed in a study published in 1956 that the Indian cavalry went behind its own line, which is the first significant debate by a scholar since World War II. That has become the accepted viewpoint.
However, there are grounds to think that the Indian cavalry pushed ahead of their own line. One of them is that it would have been shorter and faster if Porus had required assistance on his left quickly. Furthermore, there would have been fewer impediments in front of the line than behind it, making it simpler to go that way. More importantly, Arrian seems to support the notion of a forward march, since it says that the Indian left cavalry advanced ahead of the elephants before being joined by the right cavalry and then being assaulted by the Macedonian left. It makes no sense for the right cavalry to have gone behind the line to join a unit that had assumed a front-line position.
The author delivered a presentation on this issue to cadets and officers at the United States Military Academy at West Point in September 1986. At the conclusion of the speech, many commanders offered another reason why the Indian cavalry had to advance in front of the line: seeing the cavalry retreating would have been very demoralizing to the soldiers stationed close. At the start of the fight, no general worth his salt would have looked to be withdrawing. Modern representations of this renowned fight, it was agreed, are incorrect on this point. Coenus and the Macedonians must have followed the Indian right cavalry in advance of their own line on the field between the two opposing infantry lines.
Alexander’s last major pitched battle was the Battle of the Hydaspes. India turned out to be much larger than the Macedonians had anticipated. They were 800 kilometers south of the Indus River’s mouth, and they hadn’t even seen the Ganges Valley. Alexander marched his army east, still expecting to reach the apex of the world. The soldiers declined to proceed any farther when they reached the Hyphasis, the current Beas River. The humiliated monarch decided to take his troops home after a three-day standoff. There were numerous smaller battles along the road, and he almost died in the siege of an Indian fortress, but no army was ready to risk conventional combat against Alexander again. Unfortunately, most of this excellent force perished while traveling across the Cedrosian desert in southern Persia (now southeast Pakistan and Iran). One of the great marvels of global history is that Alexander survived with any portion of his army. Yes, he was fortunate, but he was also one of the greatest generals in history.
Alexander’s conquests altered the direction of cultural history by resulting in the Hellenistic Age, a synthesis of Greek and ancient Middle Eastern culture; yet, his amorous excursion into India was not politically significant in the long term. He garrisoned India and integrated it into his enormous empire’s administrative network, but his successors were unable to keep it for long. India was nearly as mysterious to the Romans as it had been to the Greeks some hundred years later. This fact does not undermine Alexander’s military accomplishment in any way. In terms of strategy and tactics, he outperforms even Napoleon. The battle for the Punjab is a fantastic example of his unrivaled skill. MHQ
AT THE UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON, ARTHER FERRILL teaches history. The Origins of War and The Fall of the Roman Empire are two of his books.
With the headline: Alexander in India, this essay first appeared in the Autumn 1988 edition (Vol. 1, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History.
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Alexander the Great is well known for his military genius. He led armies across the world and became one of history’s most successful generals. But how did he die? Reference: how does porus die.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who defeated Alexander in India?
Alexander the Great was defeated by King Porus of India.
What happened to Alexander in India?
Alexander was a king of ancient India.
Why did Alexander return from India?
Alexander returned from India because he was homesick.