The Indian campaign of Alexander the great began in 326 BC. After conquering the Achaemenid Empire of Persia the Macedonian king (and now the great king of the Persian Empire), Alexander, launched a campaign into the Indian subcontinent. The rationale for this campaign is usually said to be Alexander’s desire to conquer the entire known world, which the Greeks thought ended in India.
After gaining control of the former Achaemenid satrapy of Gandhara, including the city of Taxila, Alexander advanced into Punjab. The Battle of the Jhelum River against a regional Indian King, Porus, is considered by many historians, Peter Connolly being one of them, as the most costly battle fought by the armies of Alexander. Subsequently, his army refused to cross the Beas River, fearful of the powerful Nanda Empire which lay to the East along the banks of the Ganges. Therefore, Alexander turned south, advancing through southern Punjab and Sindh, along the way conquering more tribes along the lower Indus River, before returning into the west.
While considering the conquests of Carthage and Rome, Alexander died in Babylon on June 10 or 11, 323 BC. In 321 BC, two years after Alexander’s death, Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha founded the Maurya Empire in India.
After the death of Spitamenes and his marriage to Roxana (Raoxshna in Old Iranian) in 326 BC to cement his relations with his new Central Asian satrapies, Alexander was finally free to turn his attention to India.
Alexander invited all the chieftains of the former satrapy of Gandhara, to come to him and submit to his authority. Ambhi (Greek: Omphis), ruler of Taxila, whose kingdom extended from the Indus to the Jhelum (Greek: Hydaspes), complied. At the end of the spring of 327 BC, Alexander started on his Indian expedition leaving Amyntas behind with 3,500 horse and 10,000 foot soldiers to hold the land of the Bactrians.
The Battle of the Hydaspes River was fought by Alexander in July 326 BC against king Raja Purushottama (Poros) on the Hydaspes River (Jhelum River) in the Punjab, near Bhera. The Hydaspes was the last major battle fought by Alexander. The main train went into what is now modern-day Pakistan through the Khyber Pass, but a smaller force under the personal command of Alexander went via the northern route, resulting in the Siege of Aornos along the way. In early spring of the next year, he combined his forces and allied with Taxiles (also Ambhi), the King of Taxila, against his neighbor, the King of Hydaspes.
Porus was a regional King in India. Arrian writes about Porus, in his own words:
One of the Indian Kings called Porus a man remarkable alike for his personal strength and noble courage, on hearing the report about Alexander, began to prepare for the inevitable. Accordingly, when hostilities broke out, he ordered his army to attack Macedonians from whom he demanded their king, as if he was his private enemy. Alexander lost no time in joining battle, but his horse being wounded in the first charge, he fell headlong to the ground, and was saved by his attendants who hastened up to his assistance.
Porus drew up on the south bank of the Jhelum River, and was set to repel any crossings. The Jhelum River was deep and fast enough that any opposed crossing would probably doom the entire attacking force. Alexander knew that a direct crossing would fail, so he found a suitable crossing, about 27 km (17 mi) upstream of his camp. The name of the place is “Kadee”. Alexander left his general Craterus behind with most of the army while he crossed the river upstream with a strong contingent. Porus sent a small cavalry and chariot force under his son to the crossing.
According to sources, Alexander had already encountered Porus’s son, so the two men were not strangers. Porus’s son killed Alexanders’s horse with one blow, and Alexander fell to the ground. Also writing about this encounter, Arrian adds,
Other writers state that there was a fight at the actual landing between Alexander’s cavalry and a force of Indians commanded by Porus’s son, who was there ready to oppose them with superior numbers, and that in the course of fighting he (Porus’s son) wounded Alexander with his own hand and struck the blow which killed his (Alexander’s) beloved horse Buccaphalus.
The force was easily routed, and according to Arrian, Porus’ son was killed. Porus now saw that the crossing force was larger than he had expected, and decided to face it with the bulk of his army. Porus’s army were poised with cavalry on both flanks, the war elephants in front, and infantry behind the elephants. These war elephants presented an especially difficult situation for Alexander, as they scared the Macedonian horses.
Alexander started the battle by sending horse archers to shower the Porus’s left cavalry wing, and then used his cavalry to destroy Porus’s cavalry. Meanwhile, the Macedonian phalanxes had crossed the river to engage the charge of the war elephants. The Macedonians eventually surrounded Porus’s force.
Diodorus wrote about the battle tactics of war elephants:
Upon this the elephants, applying to good use their prodigious size and strength, killed some of the enemy by trampling under their feet, and crushing their armour and their bones, while upon other they inflicted a terrible death, for they first lifted them aloft with their trunks, which they twisted round their bodies and then dashed them down with great violence to the ground. Many others they deprived in a moment of life by goring then through and through with their tusks.
The fighting style of Porus’ soldiers was described in detail by Arrian:
The foot soldiers carry a bow made of equal length with the man who bears it. This they rest upon the ground, and pressing against it with their left foot thus discharges the arrow, having drawn the string far backwards for the shaft they use is little short for three yards long, and there is nothing can resist an Indian archer’s shot, neither shield nor breast plate, nor any stronger defence if such there be.
According to Curtius Quintus, Alexander towards the end of the day sent a few ambassadors to Porus:
Alexander, anxious to save the life of this great and gallant soldier, sent Texile the Indian to him (to Porus). Texile rode up as near as he dared and requested him to stop his elephant and hear what message Alexander sent him, escape was no longer possible. But Texiles was an old enemy of the Indian King, and Porus turned his elephant and drove at him, to kill him with his lance; and he might indeed have killed him, if he had not spurred his horse out of the way in the nick of the time. Alexander, however, far from resenting this treatment of his messenger, sent a number of others, last of whom was Indian named Meroes, a man he had been told had long been Porus’ friend.
According to Plutarch this was one of Alexander’s hardest battles:
The combat then was of a more mixed kind; but maintained with such obstinacy, that it was not decided till the eighth hour of the day.
Plutarch also wrote that the bitter fighting of the Hydaspes made Alexander’s men hesitant to continue on with the conquest of India, considering that they would potentially face far larger armies than those of Porus if they were to cross the Ganges River.
Porus was one of many local kings who impressed Alexander. Wounded in his shoulder, standing over 2 m (6 ft 7 in) tall, but still on his feet, he was asked by Alexander how he wished to be treated. “Treat me, Alexander, the way a King treats another King”, Porus responded. Other historians question the accuracy of this entire event, noting that Porus would never have said those words.
Alexander did not continue, thus leaving all the headwaters of the Indus River unconquered. He later founded Alexandria Nikaia (Victory), located at the battle site, to commemorate his triumph. He also founded Alexandria Bucephalus on the opposite bank of the river in memory of his much-cherished horse, Bucephalus, who carried Alexander through the Indian subcontinent and died heroically during the Battle of Hydaspes.