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Greeks of India: The Final Stand of Hellenism

By Mr. Arunansh B. Goswami

Greek temple, stupa site in sanchi madhya pradesh india
Greeks of India: The Final Stand of Hellenism. Greek temple, stupa site in sanchi madhya pradesh india Credits: Varada Phadkay/CC BY-SA 4.0

Long ago, when countries were empires and separation of power was a relatively unknown theory, two ancient peoples were experimenting with democracy—or something very similar to democracy. They were the Hellenes and Indians.

By Mr. Arunansh B. Goswami

Greeks and Indians are ancient peoples as we all know. They are two cultures which laid out the foundation of several disciplines of knowledge in their respective parts of the world, and while this may be well-known to many, is it also known that the last Classical Greek- speaking independent kingdom was 5,011 kilometers away from Greece in India?

The truth is that when the existence of sovereign Hellenistic kingdoms spread from North Africa and Asia Minor all the way through to the Persian mainland, Central Asia and the Greek mainland were being obliterated by the rising tide of Rome, Scythians, and Persians among others. The Indo-Greek kingdom of the time was a beacon of hope for the Hellenistic world.

The Greek settlement of Asia was one of the most awe-inspiring societies the ancient world had ever seen, for it was not the natural outcome of an overspill of population, as had been the case with earlier Greek colonization along the shores of the Mediterranean. Instead, it was undertaken deliberately, and, though there was an overspill, it was the kings who benefited from and directed it. The Seleucid idea was to create substance and strength for the framework by filling it out with Greeks, as per scholar William Woodthorpe Tarn.

From Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, Greeks went to India

When Indo-Greeks are referred to, we need to learn more about Greeks of Afghanistan, Balkh or Bactria, as well as Central Asia with the cosmopolitan polis in the region spreading all the way up to the Ferghana Valley where, several years later, Mughal emperor Babur would be born in the family of Amir Timur.

The city of Alexandria Eschate founded by the Macedonian conqueror, Alexander, was located in the Ferghana Valley. Don’t assume that it was Alexander who was at the root of Hellenization of Asia, however—far from it, in fact. The truth is that several years before Alexander the Great even stepped foot in Asia, a vibrant Hellenic zone existed in the region of Bactria.

When Persia was the global superpower during the Achaemenid empire, the Shahenshahs of Persia actively exiled and transported Ionian and North African Greeks to Central Asia and Afghanistan, leading to the gradual Hellenization of the area.

King Darius I deported all Greeks from the city of Barca and Cyrenaica in North Africa for their refusal to hand over accused assassins to the Persians within the walls of their cities. King Xerxes, for one, deported Branchidae, the priests of the spring of Didyma in Ionia, to Asia. Due to several years of Persian rule, the Greek population in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and India increased.

Alexandria Arachosia, Afganistan
Ruins of Alexandria Arachosia (1881). Source: Wikipedia

The Yavanas, or Greeks of India

In India, the Greeks are known by the name Yona in Pali and Yavana in Sanskrit, originating from the word Ionia because the Ionian Greeks were the first to come in contact with Indians, as formerly mentioned, during the deportations and exoduses at the time of Persian rule.

Ionians of Afghanistan developed a separate Hellenic identity from the Seleucids and Macedonians who came with Alexander. Interestingly, what Alexander failed to do, these Greeks of Afghanistan succeeded in doing—they conquered North India.

Alexander’s Macedonian Greeks helped the Indian Mauryas to defeat the Nandas, the Kings of the most prominent Indian city of Pataliputra—now Patna in Bihar—and helped Chandragupta Maurya become the emperor of India. However, they failed in having any influence over him. Rather, Sandracottus defeated Seleukos Nikator, commander in chief of Alexander in 305 CE in Punjab, and won several provinces from the Seleucid Empire. He also married the fifteen to sixteen year old daughter of Seleukos, Helena, and took her back to his capital, Pataliputra.

After the death of Chandragupta, Helena stayed in Pataliputra for a while. Then, during the reign of King Bindusara, son of Chandragupta, she moved back to Macedonia with her half Indian son. Basically, Alexander thus failed in conquering North India. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean the Greeks failed too. They succeeded, in fact!

Demetrius, king of the Indians and Yavanaraja Damaytra of Bbharat

With the vision to do what Alexander could not, Demetrius crossed the Indus and became known as “ The Invincible.” On rare bilingual copper coins of India of the time, as well as on numerous other types of coins, he is referred to as “King Demetrius the Invincible ανίκητος.” Nowhere had any king prior to Demetrius previously assumed this title, as per W.W. Tarn.

It is a poetical word, known in Hesiod and the tragedians, but it is occasionally used in prose and was so used in a famous story. When Alexander visited the oracle of Delphi, the Pythia hailed him “ανίκητος,” or “Invincible,” in other words, and so, this story is likely the origin of Demetrius’ title. He then wore the symbol of Alexander’s power and used the title conferred upon him by Apollo; he was to be a second “Alexander,” so to say.

Agathokles commemorative coin for Demetrius
Agathokles commemorative coin for Demetrius, depicting on the obverse side Demetrius “the Invincible” and on the reverse Agathokles “the Righteous”. Credit: CNG Coins

Menander I Sorter, Dhammaraja: The stalwart of Greco-Buddhism

Menander I Soter was an inspiration for the father of the Indian Constitution, and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar named a college after him in the state of Maharashtra in India, called the Milind College in reference to Menander.

Indians call the great King Menander “Milinda,” and he is known as the great Buddhist Greek king of Punjab who first occupied Sagala. Known from the Buddhist text Milindapanha, it is said to have been his capital (now Sialkot, Pakistan), and as Apollodorus says, he crossed the Beas, which is where Alexander had, in fact, turned back.

The Yuga-purana then mentions the Greeks, known as the Yavanas, at Mathura (Muttra) on the Jumna. Records indicate that the Greeks were at Säketa in Awadh, which is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and in Panchala, and according to Apollodorus’s statement, the Greeks reached the Ganges. Finally, as per Apollodorus and the Yuga-purana record, they occupied the capital.

Later records indicate that the Greeks initially took Kusumadjava, or Kusumapura. This is the former name of Pataliputra, the present city of Patna and the capital of the Eastern state of India Bihar.

Menander I Soter Drachm Coin
Menander Soter I Coin. The inscriptions read “Savior King Menander” on both sides: in Greek script on the obverse and in an ancient Indian script, on the reverse. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Strato I Soter and Strato III Philopator: The last independent classical Greek monarch

In the holy city of the Hindu deity Krishna in India, the Indo-Greek King Strato II Soter, king of Euthydemia (Sialkot, Punjab, Pakistan) from the royal family of Diodotus died fighting Rajvula the Indo-Scythian King of Mathura.

In the same year, the last independent classical Greek monarch of the world, Strato III Philopater Dikaios, the king of Punjab India and Pakistani Punjab, died. Afterwards, until the formation of the independent Hellenic Republic of Greece, no Greek king ruled or proclaimed himself a proud Greek, and Byzantines continued to call themselves Romans rather than Greeks.

When the Indian-Greek kingdom was the last stand of independent Hellenism in the world

When the Greek kingdoms around the world were being obliterated by the rising tide of Romans and Steppe Nomads, the Greek Kingdom in India stood as the last bastion of Hellenism.

But let’s put this into perspective chronologically. Alexander’s empire ended in 323 BCE, and the Delian League ended in 404 BCE while the Bosporan Kingdom ended in 370 BCE. The Seleucid Empire ended in 63 BCE while the Antigonid Dynasty ended in 168 BCE. Furthermore, the Attalid dynasty ended in 133 BCE; the Ptolemid Empire ended in 30 BCE, and the Bactrian Greek empire ended in 130 BCE. However, the Greek empire in India lasted for ten years after the birth of Christ, so until 10 AD. Proudly Greek in it’s character and orientation, the Indo-Greek Kingdom was indeed the last independent Classical Greek kingdom in the world.

However, the truth of the matter is that the Hellenic saga did not end in India in 10 AD. The final Greek kings did lose their kingdom that year, but for several years to come, the great Kushan, Shaka, and Parthians in India continued promoting Hellenism using Greek, which had become a sort of lingua franca, to mint coins. Thus, over time, several indigenous kingdoms in Greece became Hellenized.

Given this history, it may be of great interest for Greeks worldwide to pay a visit to the land of the “Indo-Greeks” and to India, which is more than willing to welcome you. If assistance is needed in following the “Greek trail” in India, please feel free to contact the author.

ancient greece buddhism greco-buddhism
A statue of Buddha that shows the clear influence of ancient Greece on Buddhism, compared to an ancient Greek statue. Credit: Greek Reporter illustration

Conclusion

The land of India is the final resting place of classical Hellenism at the holy city of Mathura where countless Hindus go for pilgrimage. It is also the spot where the Indo-Greek king, Strato II Soter (also known as Stratha), passed away. The idols of the Buddha, modeled after Apollo, were first made by Greeks in Asia, and, soon after, almost the entirety of East Asia, China, and Japan, amongst others, began making Buddha idols. Idol worship eventually emerged, becoming a substantial part of Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism.

Several North Indians have Greek genes in them, and certain areas of Himachal Pradesh India in the Himalayas still have villagers who claim to be descendants of Greeks. Migrations, cultural exchanges, and conquests have given us the beautiful Indo-Greek culture and the Gandhara school of art and sculpture. It is hoped that Indians nd Greeks can come together to travel and explore these ancient Indo-Greek sites.

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