Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Peoples of the empire: The Indians

Geographical definition
Ancient India (Greek "land of the Indos") was regarded as beginning at the Indus Valley, which lies mostly in modern Pakistan.  English Indus derives via Latin from Greek Indos, in turn from Old Persian Hinduš and ultimately Sanskrit Sindhu, meaning simply "river."  Presumably it was regarded as the greatest river in the region.  Most of the valley today forms Pakistan's Sindh and Punjab provinces.

While the Indus Valley had been home to an urban Bronze Age civilization, the India of Classical times began to take shape in the late Vedic period (c. 1000 BC) as Indo-Aryan culture expanded over the Gangetic Plain.

The Achaemenid dynasty corresponds loosely to the Mahājanapada period in Indian tradition, when the north of the country was divided among competing mahā ("major") janapada ("tribal footholds").  Historians consider these traditions to reflect the transformation from Vedic semi-nomadic tribal culture to a settled, farming culture.

The western regions, where the Achaemenids held sway, are not generally counted among the Mahājanapadas.  The Mahābhārata mentions several western kingdoms which are believed to have lain in the Indus Valley prior to Achaemenid times:  Madra in the northeast, Kekeya, Sivi, and Sauvira in the southwest.

Into this situation, Darius the Great invaded in the late 500s BC.  Because Gandhara is mentioned at Behistun, and Hinduš only in his later inscriptions, it is believed that he conquered southward into the subcontinent after 520 when the Behistun inscription was created.  Herodotus says that Darius hired the Carian navigator Scylax of Caryanda to explore the region as a preparation for his invasion.  The events that followed are unknown, but it appears that Darius was at least successful in establishing suzerainty.  Lendering holds this to have occurred in 515.

Herodotus says that India formed the 20th, most populous and wealthiest satrapy in the empire, paying 360 talents of gold dust annually, equivalent to 4,680 talents of silver or nearly a third of the revenues collected from all satrapies.  At the Persepolis apadana, Indians are shown bearing scales (perhaps containing gold dust), a horse and things that resemble double-headed wood axes.  Darius states in his Susa inscription that India was the source for some of the ivory used in the palace's construction.

Though his testimony might lead to a presumption that such a rich land would be an important holding, the literary and archaeological records shows very little evidence of the Achaemenids' presence.  Presumably imperial rule was remote, which implies a high degree of autonomy.

In describing events at the edge of the world known to the Greeks, Herodotus' narrative often becomes strange.  He describes Indians who wear woven bulrushes for clothing, who kill and eat their sick, or others who eat only wild grain.  In one famous passage (III.102) he speaks of ants the size of foxes, who gather gold dust which the Indians in the far north (possibly in modern Afghanistan) were wont to steal, entering the giant anthills furtively and riding away on camelback as soon as the ants smelled them and gave chase.

Hopefully he is more trustworthy on matters closer to home.  He says that Indians fought in the 480 invasion of Greece both as infantry and cavalry under Pharnazathres son of Artabates.  Mardonius selected the entire Indian contingent as part of his residual army.  At Plataea he stationed them to face the Greeks of Hermione, Eretria, Styra and Chalcis.

Much like other eastern parts of the empire, India fades from Western history in the later fifth and fourth centuries.  To what extent the Indus Valley remained in the empire's grasp is unclear.  In the late fifth century the eastern Mahājanapada Maghadha under King Mahapadma Nanda began to conquer and consolidate northern India into the Nanda empire, and by the time of Alexander the Great, had advanced nearly to the edges of the Persian empire.

Indians fought at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331, bringing 15 elephants and a number of chariots, as well as cavalry, who are said to have broken through the Macedonian line late in the battle.

After the Persian empire fell, India became the last frontier of the Alexandrian empire.  Conquering south through Gandhara in 326, he eventually came to the Hydaspes River (modern Jhelum), where Porus (Puru) of Paurava refused to acknowledge Alexander's overlordship.  The two fought a bloody battle in May at the river wherein Porus' army was practically destroyed.  Alexander wanted to keep marching and attack the Nanda empire, but the Macedonian army, now on the very edge of the world known to them, refused to go any farther.

Upon surrendering, Porus was appointed satrap of his former kingdom.  He still held that position at the first partition of Alexander's empire after the conqueror's death in 323.  However, in 317 the Macedonian commander in Taxila, Eudamus, murdered Porus and commandeered his war elephants against the great diadoch Antigonus.  Eudamus lost and was executed, but Antigonus aroused the enmity of the other diadochi, leading to the Third War of the Diadochi.  In the course of this conflict, the eastern part of the empire, including the Indus Valley, was taken by Seleucus.

In the meantime, an aspiring young kshatriya, Chandragupta Maurya, raised an army in the northwest and invaded the Nanda empire, seizing the throne of Magadha in 321.  His new country, the Maurya empire, then began to invade the eastern Alexandrian satrapies.  These attacks culminated in the Seleucid-Mauryan War of 305-303, at the end of which Seleucus ceded his easternmost territories to Chandragupta in exchange for peace so he could focus his attention on the ongoing diadochian conflict.

The ensuing history of the area is far too complex to cover here.  The valley remained culturally and linguistically Indian, although gradually Islamicized, beginning with the invasion of the Ummayad caliphate in the eighth century AD.  The area thereafter became the frontier of the South Asian and Middle Eastern-Islamic worlds under Iranian and Turco-Mongol dynasties like the Mughals, culminating in the partition of the subcontinent into and the formation of a new northwestern state, Pakistan, in 1947.

In the northwest within the Persian sphere of influence the dominant Indian languages were various Middle Indo-Aryan languages, called the prakrits ("natural" or "usual," as contrasted with Sanskrit, "refined" or "composed").  These were not necessarily derived from Sanskrit, but sometimes from closely-related Old Indo-Aryan languages.

The prakrits differed from each other enough that Herodotus described the Indian nations as "none speaking the same language."

Indians in this period followed early Vedic religious traditions that were the precursors of modern Hinduism, though it must be understood that the relationship between ancient and modern Indian religion is very complicated.  The Mahābharata holds that Vedic practices were less strictly adhered to in Madra; rites were less widely held, beef was eaten and the caste system was less rigid.  I would speculate that the same was true in some other areas of the northwest.

In Achaemenid royal art, Indian men are represented iconically in dhotis wrapped in a simple manner, closing in the front and slightly to one side, and belted, along with headbands and thong sandals like those of the Gandharans.  The use of cotton is well-attested.

Herodotus has the Indians entirely as archers, both infantry and cavalry.  They carried "reed bows and iron-tipped reed arrows."  Arrian claims that Indian bows were as tall as the archer and the arrows nearly three cubits (54 inches/137cm) long, and powerful enough to pierce any shield or armor, but I know of no reason to suppose that such equipment was identical to that used centuries earlier.  The Indian at Naqš-e Rostam wears a long sword on a sling, with a mushroom-shaped pommel.

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