When Alexander reached the Indus (326 - 323 B.C.)- "Gold digging ants bigger than foxes"

Folks , 2,323 years is a very long time...this is a very compelling story of how the prime of the ancient Greek youth who came to South Asia as invaders , got completely absorbed and blended into the bloodlines of the Indian Subcontinent...today they are indistinguishable from the local population of the Northwestern regions :-

"The Great Alexander of the West had become the Great Sikandar of the land he marched through - till today a popular name for boys in those regions ."

**From a Hollow Earth perspective , this article has a very interesting comment :-

"Then there was a mention of ‘gold-digging ants that were larger than foxes in size"

When Alexander Reached the Indus (326-323 BCE)

There is an old story mentioned by the 2nd-century Greek historian Arrian -

Advancing with his army towards the great city of Taxila, Alexander chanced upon a group of holy men or sadhus who stamped their feet in front of him. On being asked about their odd behaviour, they addressed Alexander, “O King, every man can possess only so much of the earth’s surface as this we are standing on. You are but human like the rest of us, save that you are always busy and up to no good, traveling so many miles from your home, a nuisance to yourself and to others. Ah well, you will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much of this earth as will suffice to bury you.”

This dramatic encounter, probably more imagined than real, was prophetic. The charge of the Macedonian conqueror, which saw him take over a vast swathe of land from Greece to northwestern India and annihilate the mighty Persian empire, would be brought to an abrupt end in the land the Greeks called Caucasus Indicus or the ‘Hindu Kush’.

At 30, Alexander was spent after years of his gruelling march. His soldiers were even more tired, dejected, confused and desperate to get back home. But the brief encounter that Alexander would have with the land of the Indus would turn out to be a pivotal event in history as the great conqueror turned back, was attacked and humbled, and eventually died.

It was also a point where two great civilizations, that of the Greeks and the Indians, intersected. The encounter left a lasting impression in the way the West saw India - as a land of exotic wealth - and the way the subcontinent viewed the West. It is telling that even today, the very term for foreigners in Sanskrit is Yavana , a word first coined for Ionian Greeks!

3rd century BCE statue of Alexander in Istanbul Archaeology Museum |Wikimedia Commons

The Rise of Alexander

Alexander inherited the throne of the small kingdom of Macedonia, which the Greeks viewed as ‘barbaric’, at the age of 20 after his father Philip II was assassinated in 336 BCE. Philip had been ambitious but he was clearly even more so for his son. Before he breathed his last, he is believed to have said to Alexander, “Carve for yourself another kingdom, because the one I leave for you is too small.” Alexander took his father’s words to heart.

Before the 4th century BCE, Macedonia was a small kingdom outside of the area dominated by the great city-states of Athens, Sparta and Thebes. But even these city-states couldn’t match the might of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Stretching from the Balkans and Eastern Europe in the west to the Indus Valley in the east, it was larger than any previous empire in history.

But the young and ambitious Alexander wasn’t daunted and he led an army against the Persian ruler Darius III and decisively defeated him in 331 BCE. Next, he turned towards the eastern provinces of the Persian Empire. After establishing a series of outposts in Afghanistan, he ventured further into the subcontinent.

Darius I of Persia commissioned Scylax of Caryanda to sail down the Indus river|Wikimedia Commons

Greeks were most definitely aware of the land they called India. The name was first used by them to refer to the country beyond the Indus. The earliest Greek explorer to visit India and write about it was a man named Scylax of Caryanda in 519-516 BCE, on the orders of the Persian emperor Darius I.

At this time, the northern part of the subcontinent was divided into sixteen Mahajanapadas or city-states, quite like those in Greece.

Alexander’s Trail in India

We know a lot about Alexander’s encounter with the subcontinent, thanks to the many Greco-Roman accounts. Some of these had been written by Alexander’s contemporaries who were a part of his military (though most of them don’t survive today). Other accounts came from later Greek historians and scholars who referred to the earlier sources and made notes. These accounts help us stitch together the story of Alexander’s exploits on the subcontinent. There are social commentaries, geographical narrations and interesting observations. Based on these accounts, here’s what happened.

When Alexander arrived in 327 BCE, the north-west of the larger Indian subcontinent was peppered with a number of principalities. Some indulged in long and bitter fighting, while some easily surrendered. For example, the walled city of Astes which was the stronghold of Assakenoi (Ashvakayanas) faced Alexander on the battleground. Another important mention is that of Alexander’s siege of the hill fort of Aornos, which according to Greek tradition, even Greek God Herakles had been unable to take it.

Geography during Alexander’s campaign|Wikimedia Commons

One of Alexander’s more famous encounters was with Ambhi, the King of Taxila. Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus’ 1st-century work Historiae Alexandri Magni describes the encounter. He mentions how Omphis (Ambhi) whose kingdom extended from the Indus to the Hydaspes (Jhelum), reached out to Alexander. Omphis, he says ‘ brought with him six and fifty elephants, and these he gave to Alexander, with great many sheep of an extraordinary size, and 3000 bulls of a valuable breed, highly prized by the rulers of the country.’ With this, he extended a hand of friendship.

Plutarch (c. AD 46 – c. 120 CE), in his Life of Alexander, writes that after welcoming Alexander, the king of Taxila said to him, “Why should we two fight with one another if you have come to take away from us neither our water not our necessary food - the only things about which sensible men ever care to quarrel and fight. As for anything else, call it money or call in property, if I am richer than you, what I have is at your service, but if I have less than you, I would not object to stand debtor to your bounty.”

Ambhi offering gifts to Alexander|Wikimedia Commons

Probably, this is why almost all Greek authors mention in their works that no Indian king has ever invaded another country as they consider it not in accordance with their moral values. Alexander is said to have been overwhelmed by Ambhi’s gesture and not only did he return his title and gifts, but also presented him with a wardrobe of Persian robes, gold and silver vessels, 30 horses and 1,000 talents in gold.

It was now time for Alexander to cross the Indus. It was 326 BCE. The rationale for his further campaigns was his desire to conquer the entire world, which the Greeks then thought, ended in India.

The Battle With Porus

Alexander’s army crossed the Indus and advanced into present-day Punjab in 326 BCE. Here he was faced by Porus (Puru or Paurava), who ruled the region lying between what the Greeks called the Hydaspes (Jhelum) and Acesines (Chenab). The Indian ruler was ready with an army to march against the foreign invader. The size of his army threatened the Macedonians.

On seeing the army, Alexander is said to have remarked, “I see, at last, a danger that matches my courage.”

The Battle of Hydaspes was a mighty one. Stormy weather made it worse. But Alexander’s men were able to defeat the Indian forces. When Porus was taken prisoner, the conqueror asked him how he wished to be treated. Porus replied, “Treat me like a king.”

This answer and Porus’s demeanor impressed Alexander so much that he made him an ally. He gave back his kingdom and further appointed Porus as satrap (governor). He also added to Porus' territory land he did not previously own, towards the south-east, up to the Hyphasis (Beas). Choosing a local ruler helped Alexander control these lands so distant from Greece.

‘Victory coin’ of Alexander minted in Babylon c. 322 BCE. Obverse: Alexander being crowned by Nike. Reverse: Alexander attacking king Porus on his elephant.|Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that Alexander, famed for founding cities in the lands he conquered, most notably Alexandria in Egypt, also founded two on opposite sides of the Hydaspes (Jhelum) river. One was named Bucephala in honour of his horse who had just died and the other was named Nicaea which means ‘victory’.

Arrian mentions that after defeating Porus, Alexander marched eastwards towards the Chenab River, and captured 37 towns: the smallest of these towns had 5,000 or more inhabitants. He also captured the area between the Chenab and Ravi. This, the Greeks thought was the end of the world. They believed that further east lay the Outer Ocean from where they would jump onto their ships, sail through the Indian ocean and return home to Babylon. But when the men were informed about an entirely new portion of the world past the Indus, it came as a shock to them. India was much bigger than any of them had thought!

Onesicritus, who was a helmsman in Alexander’s army, exaggerated and wrote that India was the third of the entire world!

Alexander was filled with a new zeal, to conquer even more land - the great unknown. Unfortunately for him, his army wasn’t. They were exhausted from years of travelling and campaigning. They were worn out and all they wanted was to go back to their families. They refused to go ahead. Also, rumours spread in the camp about the fierce nature of the armies that lay in the Indo-Gangetic plains.

Possible extent of the Nanda Empire under its last ruler Dhana Nanda (c. 325 BCE)

The army that they feared so much was that of Dhana Nanda, ruler of Magadha and head of the Nanda dynasty. Greek accounts call him Agrammes, who ruled over the Prasii (Prachya i.e the eastern people) and the Gangadirae (the people of the lower Ganga valley).

Rufus writes that Magadha had 20,000 horsemen, 2,00,000 footmen, 2,000 four-horsed chariots and 3,000 fighting elephants. Plutarch’s numbers go like this - 80,000 horsemen, 2,00,000 footmen, 8,000 war chariots and 6,000 elephants.

Meanwhile, in Alexander’s camp, the soldiers remained adamant. It is said that Alexander sulked for three days in his tent, but he eventually relented.

He turned back after praying to the Gods that no man might be able to overpass the limits which his expedition had reached.

He ordered his fleet to sail along the coast, himself returning by land with the army. Only a fourth of his military force remained.

The Macedonians retreated to the Jhelum and began their journey towards the Indus delta, leaving the territories conquered so recently in the hands of Indian rulers Ambhi, Porus and Abhisara. The areas lying to the west of Punjab were entrusted to satraps (governors) and Macedonian garrisons. On the way back, there were military encounters with ganas (republics) such as the Malloi (Malavas), Oxydrakai (Kshudrakas), Sibae (Shibi) and Agalassoi. Alexander died two years later in Babylon in 323 BCE.

Apart from details of Alexander’s military campaigns, the early accounts give us a fabulous peek into how the Greeks perceived this new land of the Indus, and beyond. The Macedonian army’s first encounter with the inhabitants of the Indus valley shocked them. The people, especially, the skin colour, was nothing like they had seen before. Until then, they only knew of their own kind who had lighter skin and that of the very dark ‘Aethiopians’ whom they had interactions with, in Egypt and North Africa. Interestingly, they settled on the theory that Indians were essentially Ethiopians, but had a significant infusion of Greek blood. This, they argued must have happened when Dionysus, the God of wine, invaded India!

3rd century CE Roman Mosaic ‘Triumph of Dionysus in India’

Arrian, in his 2nd century CE work Indica writes, “From the time of Dionysus to Sandracottus (Chandragupta Maurya) , the Indians counted 153 kings and a period of 6,042 years.”

He also writes, “In ancient times, Indians were nomads...they girt themselves in the skins of the beasts they killed and ate the bark of trees...until Dionysus arrived in their land. When Dionysus arrived, he founded many cities and established their laws...he also taught them to plow the earth once he gave them seeds himself...He also armed them with weapons for war.”

Legends aside, Alexander’s expedition introduced the Greeks to a whole new world, and their descriptions of it were often peppered with exaggeration. For example, Nearchus, who was the naval commander of Alexander’s army wrote about massive trees under which 10,000 people can lay in the shade. This most probably was a reference to the Banyan. He also spoke about trees that had a sweet bark and sweet fruits, which tasted almost like dates.

On the fauna, he was most impressed by the parrot, never seen by the Greeks until now. He wrote about how parrots have ‘a mysterious ability’ to copy human speech. This left Nearchus floored.

Then there was a mention of ‘gold-digging ants that were larger than foxes in size’.

Nearchus also attests to the advancement of medical science in India. He says that at one point when Greek physicians failed to provide remedies for snake-bite to Alexander, the king gathered Indian healers who were also able to cure other diseases and painful conditions.

Arrian, about 400 years later, quotes Nearchus as saying that Indians dye their beards of one hue or the other according to taste - white, blue, green, purple, red. He also mentions that Indians had seven castes - the highest is that of (1) Sophists or philosophers, followed by the (2) tillers of the soil, (3) herdsmen, (4) handicraftsmen and retail dealers, (5) warriors, (6) superintendents or inspectors and the last caste was of the (7) councillors of the state.

Rufus writes, “ ...they have men whom they call philosophers...They think it glorious to anticipate the hour of destiny, and arrange to have themselves burned alive when age has destroyed their activity...They regard death if waited for as a disgrace to their life...They think that the fire is polluted unless the pyre receives the body before the breath has yet left it.”

The world according to Greek geographer Strabo

Greek geographer Strabo in his Geographica written in about 20 BCE describes India as a ‘land of the bizarre.’ He writes of ‘horses with a head of a deer’, ‘men without mouths’, ‘men without noses’, ‘men with one eye’ and so on. Perhaps he can be forgiven for he had never actually visited India and fell prey to Chinese whispers, writing about what he had heard about India from travellers and previous accounts.

Around the time when Alexander left, northern India was in a state of political flux. Most of the Mahajanapadas had either collapsed or were a part of the Nanda Empire. The ones that were independent were seen as too weak. The time was ripe to unite the subcontinent.

Only a year after Alexander died, Chandragupta Maurya founded the Mauryan Empire in India in 322 BCE. It is said that the two may even have met! How they met and what impression they carried of each other can only be imagined!

Extent of Alexander’s Empire

Though Alexander died when he was just 32, unable to rule over the lands he conquered, he left behind a great legacy. First, as the Greek army retreated, his trusted men stayed back to lead new kingdoms and dynasties - from present-day Afghanistan to Egypt. He also took care of assigning his captured kingdoms to able generals. One of them was Seleucus Nicator whose daughter was given in marriage to Chandragupta. His ambassador in the Mauryan court was Megasthenes.

Culture, art, faith and history were shaped as the land that was carved by the sword came to be stitched together by the Greeks who stayed back. In fact, the greatness of Alexander may well lie not just in his ambition, but also his ability to choose the right men, who stayed back and became custodians and ambassadors of the ‘Greek’ way of life.

A thousand years later, the legend of Alexander was still alive in the East, inspiring other ‘Empire Builders’. Allauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, for instance, issued coins by the name ‘Sikandar al Sani’, referring to himself as the ‘second Alexander’.

The Great Alexander of the West had become the Great Sikandar of the land he marched through .


List members , such was the fusion of ancient Greek and Indian culture , that the Yunaani (Sanskrit name for Greece) system of traditional medicine is now considered an ancient Indian system of medicine , even though it originated from ancient Greece . This Yunaani system of traditional Indian medicine is next only to the Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine , in antiquity ! Interestingly , the people of present day Greece themselves consider Yunaani to be more of a traditional Indian (rather than Greek) system of medicine :))



The history of medicine is bound with the history of civilization, representing the complex interactions of human communities, geography and the environment over time. South Asia has always been a vibrant melting pot of interactions between different peoples. Unani (‘Greek’) medicine is based on ancient Hellenic thought (via its interactions with Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian and Persian knowledge). Tibb-i-Unani is Arabic for ‘Greek medicine’, which became Unani as practiced in the Indian Subcontinent, where it was developed and refined through systematic experimentation by renowned scholars. Islamic physicians tested Indian traditional medicines using clinical trials, as a result of which they incorporated a number of indigenous medicines in their own system, advancing and enriching its treasures. The basic Unani framework is timeless, based on human action and intrinsic causes. This paper highlights the subtler and perhaps more important aspects of classical Indian Unani medicine that contributed to the development of the entire body of scientific knowledge. Through an analysis of socio-cultural and historical context, the paper concludes that the contribution of Unani medicine in India lies in: (a) preserving the ancient Greek tradition of medicine; and (b) safeguarding and advancing utilitarian medical science and treatment into the early modern period.



I don't exactly doubt that those unusual creatures, such as horses with the heads of deer, existed in India during the times of Alexander. They were depicted in Egypt, a short distance away, and we have evidence of underground worlds existing below Egypt, as depicted in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. In South India, Dravida Desh, contact with the underworld and reptillian (undergrounders) worship was traditional before the arival of the Aryans from the North, who made cultural impositions on South India.

But strange creatures exist in underground worlds, and India has traditionally had such contacts. So why wouldn't they have shown themselves now and then?


@deandddd , quite true , the biodiversity of those times was vast compared to today & the Greek chroniclers diligently wrote down whatever they saw . Even the sightings of an ape man species in India , (that lived in the trees) was mentioned in the ancient Greek texts...

Sample this description given by Aristobulus - one of Alexander's most trusted cartographers...this gave me such a powerful EPIPHANY - I sense this could well be the MOTHER LODE of Archaeology (see point no. 19 in the article below) !


"At any rate, he says that when he was sent upon a certain mission he saw a country of more than a THOUSAND CITIES , together with villages, that had been deserted because the Indus had abandoned its proper bed, and had turned aside into the other bed on the left that was much deeper, and flowed with precipitous descent like a cataract, so that the Indus no longer watered by its overflows the abandoned country on the right, since that country was now above the level, not only of the new stream, but also of its overflows."

Aristobulus was actually seeing remnants of THE most ancient civilisation , around the mythical Saraswati river (that dried up , as per legend) extolled in the Rig Veda as the greatest river ! Just that he had mistaken that dried up , massive (possibly 10 km wide !) river bed to be a former course of the much smaller Indus...someday the true identity of that mythical Vedic river will be revealed...it's incredible to imagine that in 323 B.C. , those abandoned Vedic cities were still partially visible and NOT totally buried under sand/silt/mud !! Unfortunately , that area (is now a desert) lies in the Bahawalpur district of Pakistan , bordering the Rajasthan state of India . No archaeological excavation has ever been done , because ever since Pakistan got carved out of India in 1947, their government has made that arid region OFF LIMITS to archaeologists :

Actually , Alexander's story has fascinated me since childhood - not because of his success as a conqueror , but because that man had a deep interest in the culture and past of the territories that he captured...he was not just a merciless marauder like Chengez Khan the Mongol , or like the wild Hun tribes , the various "Barbarian Hordes" , or for that matter , the cruel Islamic invaders that BRUTALLY savaged India in later times .

**By the way , the "India" that Alexander invaded is actually Pakistan and Afghanistan of the present day . He couldn't get as far as the (highly truncated) borders of present day India , but then again - on a different note , these recently manmade lines in the sand (SORRY , international borders !) are not quite as permanent as people tend to think :))

Crazy things the Greeks actually saw 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."

Updated: November 1, 2018 10:47:03 am

Indian dogs were hugely prized in the West. (Source: William Percival/Wikimedia Commons)

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.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Alexander the Great – Wall painting in Acre, Israel (Source: Yuval Y/Wikimedia Commons)

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!



More than a thousand cities hidden beneath the sands in Pakistan, and we know where. But the Pakistani government won't let archaeologists go there and do research. Probably they think the results could be threatening to Islam, or some such nonsense. Thus, we don't know our past. And they are the ones who burned the great libraries, too; from Kuwait to India.

The way things are going, I don't know if it even matters. I think civilization on the surface of the Earth (I said "surface") is going to end up being one big "Alas Babylon", and that's it.


@deandddd , you're spot on . There is one particular site in Bahawalpur district of Pakistan called Ganeriwala...it's a non-descript town today , but what lies buried beneath it's soil , could rewrite history text books , no less ! It can put Egypt in the shade - no exaggeration .

It's tragic that shortly after modern archaeologists had discovered the Indus Valley Civilisation (in 1922) , the Indian Subcontinent got partitioned in 1947 . Post that event , archaeologists till date haven't been granted permission by the Pakistan government , to properly excavate & explore those pre-Islamic (Vedic) sites .


Folks , just take a look at the link to this map of the ancient Indus-Saraswati Civilisation in the Northwestern part of South Asia .

Now notice the very high concentration of dots (representing ancient sites) in Bahawalpur district of Pakistan within the Cholistan desert . That was the epicenter of the Vedic civilisation which vanished . Interestingly , the Rig Vedic geography described the massive Saraswati river , as flowing parallel to the smaller Indus river , in a North-East to South-West direction - on it's long journey from the Himalaya mountains to the Arabian Sea .

**By looking at this map , we can exactly correlate the observations of Aristobolus in his report to Alexander , about the "Thousand Cities" that had been abandoned ! These are now completely buried beneath the desert sands....it is a very fine dust , as if from an ancient dried up river bed...! I have myself travelled to that border region (on the Indian side) and held that fine sand in my own hand , watching it gently slip through my fingers - it triggered my intuition and I could imagine how that arid desert may have once been a lush green , water rich , sub-tropical paradise in ancient Vedic times , before the climate of that area changed drastically...almost seemed to me like visions from some past life very long , long ago...!