Friday, 5 April 2013

Imperial mysteries

Heritage By Salma Mahmud
What went through the mind of Alexander the Great when he came to the fabled Punjabi city of Takshashila? Salma Mahmud reconstructs the young Macedonian's dilemma as he consulted Punjabi sages and prepared for battle with the formidable Raja Porus

From The Friday Times / Pakistan/ March 29, 2013


Switch your time machine back to 326 BC, and venture into the flowery meadows of Taxila/Takshashila, and observe a lithe young man of slightly less than average height, with fair, sweet-smelling skin, with golden curls crowning his head, deep-set sharp eyes, alive with intelligent curiosity, wearing a short tunic and Greek sandals. His bare arms and legs are covered with battle scars. He is the son of Zeus, as his mother Olympias always insisted. He strolls around the university area, peeping into various lecture rooms, participating in debates perhaps conducted by one of the Greek faculty members, or simply listening to a class in session. He sorely misses the three years he spent in Mieza, Macedonia, beginning in 343 BC, along with his boon companions, guided by the greatest mind of the time, Aristotle. At the age of 16, Alexander left his ideal student life and moved forward into the real world.
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 Alexander the Great - detail from Roman mosaic The Battle of Issus
Alexander the Great - detail from Roman mosaic The Battle of Issus
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His bare arms and legs are covered with battle scars. He is the son of Zeus

There were shady walks in Mieza as well, and two natural caves, and stone seats out in the open, which was where Aristotle lectured to his select class on Morals and Politics as well as Literature. Remember that Alexander's most treasured possession was Aristotle's personal annotated copy of the Iliad, which he always kept by his bed, and to contain which he procured a beautiful bejewelled casket from King Darius's treasure at Persepolis:

'Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilles...the accursed anger which brought uncounted anguish on the Achaians...and this was the working of Zeus's will...Then there mingled the groaning and crowing of men killed and killing, and the ground ran with blood...'

From Mieza it was a short step towards becoming king at the tender age of twenty. Now, just nine years later, he was about to embark on his last great battle on the banks of the River Jhelum, followed by the bloody siege of Malli, and then it was all over. A mysterious death in Babylon, and the great man was gone, whispering to his loyal courtiers that he should be succeeded by 'the strongest.'

'How many miles to Babylon?' 'Three score miles and ten.'

'Can I get there by candlelight?' 'Yes, and back again...'
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Alexander's most treasured possession was Aristotle's personal annotated copy of the Iliad

Partha Bose, head of an international consulting firm, in his refreshing book Alexander the Great's Art of Strategy, presents a beguiling picture of the 29 year old world conqueror wandering around Takshashila and indulging in a nostalgic reverie. According to Partha Bose, there was a stream of visitors from the university with whom Alexander engaged in serious, substantive discussions. This was the last peaceful and tranquil month in his event-filled life, other than those three student years. Now he spent some time in dealing with his official work, with a large army camped outside the city's ramparts. He must also have sat down with Raja Ambhi and planned strategies for the coming battle with their great adversary Raja Porus, who stood seven feet tall. There is even a strong rumour that he indulged in backtrack diplomacy and visited Raja Porus's camp to parley with him. A fantastic legend is attached to all this manoeuvering, which alleges that his beautiful young Central Asian bride Roxane visited Porus in disguise, tied a rakhi thread around his massive wrist, and made him swear to protect her husband's life. There was a moment during the battle of the Hydaspes when Alexander was at Porus's mercy and Porus spared him. These legends manage to display Porus as a weakling. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
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 Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great - An illustration from The Adventures of Aristotle
Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great - An illustration from The Adventures of Aristotle
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Alexander and the Indian Gymnosophists - a medieval European drawing
Alexander and the Indian Gymnosophists - a medieval European drawing
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This entire confrontation has been very cleverly portrayed by Sohrab Modi in his epic film 'Sikander' (1941), filmed in pure Parsi theatre style. Modi enacted the role of Porus, and Prithviraj Kapur appeared as Alexander. Vanamala was Roxane. The rakhi episode was embellished with a lively song, 'Aaee aaee sajanwa ajab ratiyan.' None of this could have been true as such, but it just goes to show how deeply embedded the entire oeuvre was in sub-continental consciousness. These two kings were unforgettable, with Porus definitely at a moral advantage in Punjabi eyes. He was the patriot and Alexander was the intruder, and their debate in Porus's camp was unique in its biting parries.

Beyond these preparations, Alexander allocated two whole weeks to holding question-answer sessions with the semi-naked wise men of the nearby forest, the Gymnosophists, led by the belligerent sage Mandanis. They wore nothing but loincloths, but that would not have fazed Alexander, who famously danced stark naked around the shrine of Achilles in Troy as a tribute to his favourite Greek hero. Mandanis refused to go to Alexander, and simply lay down on the leaves of the forest floor and said that this was his bed and the fruits of the forest were his diet. He wanted nothing else other than to drink the cool water of the nearby Tamrah stream. However, two of the sages, one of whom was the noted Kalyan, agreed to go along with Alexander's emissary and partake of his royal feast. Each sage stood on one leg while eating. They then took part in a cryptic question-answer session which was an eyeopener.

'A man will be loved if, although he has power, he does not make himself feared'

Raja Porus ruled the land between the River Jhelum and the River Chenab

This event was in the nature of a clash between Western naivety and Eastern subtlety. Roxane who spoke only Sogdian, a Middle Persian language, and who belonged to an ancient civilisation, may well have been present. A most likely spectator would be Kautilya along with his protege Chandragupta Maurya.

Plutarch has given an account of the verbal skirmish, in which Alexander asked all the questions. Here is a brief sample:

'Which will be more numerous, the living or the dead?'

'The living, for the dead no longer exist.'

'Which is the cleverest of beasts?'

'That one with which man is not yet familiar.'

'How may a man make himself loved?'

'A man will be loved if, although he has power, he does not make himself feared.'

'Which existed first, the day or the night?'

'The day was first by one day.'

This last answer surprised Alexander, and when he expressed his feelings he was told by the yogi, 'Impossible questions require impossible answers.'

And thus the skirmish continued. The conversation must either have been monitored by the university's Greek faculty, or perhaps by interpreters who translated the original Punjabi of the yogis into Persian and then Greek. This made it a veritable tower of Babel. No doubt interested students of the university drew near and were witnesses to this historic intellectual encounter.

While Alexander stayed at Takshashila, he was keenly observed by the young Chandragupta Maurya, who was able to learn a good deal about the organisation of the Macedonian troops, which stood him in good stead when he began his own campaign of conquest, making him emperor of the whole of Northern India. Takshashila was thus abuzz with many potentially great personalities, for Kautilya was to become Chandragupta's prime minister, guiding him through many murky pathways along his road to greatness.

Now came the time for the great and final conflict, which marked the beginning of the end for Alexander. Raja Porus ruled the land between the River Jhelum and the River Chenab. After Alexander crossed the Indus in the spring of 326 BC, he was greeted with open arms by King Ambhi (Omphis) at the gates of Taxila. Ambhi had learned a greeting in broken Greek from the faculty at the university with which to welcome the invader.

Ambhi was desperate to gain Alexander's help against his adversary Raja Porus, a ruler who could claim descent from one of the most ancient tribes in the Punjab, the Pauravas, whose lineage stretched back to pre-Vedic times, and who participated in the Battle of the Ten Kings, located on the mythical Saraswati River, and described in the Rigveda in great detail. Subsequently they participated in the grand conflict at Kurukshetra in Eastern Punjab. Kurukshetra was named after King Kuru, the ancestor of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, who fought against each other in the mighty struggle depicted in the Mahabharata. A venerable lineage indeed! So this was the seven foot tall king who awaited Alexander on the banks of the Jhelum River. The battle lasted many hours and was a notably bloody one, with torrential rain pouring down from the heavens above upon the muddy earth beneath. It ended in the most dramatic manner possible, and the coming together of the two adversaries has become almost apocryphical in its telling.

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