The Greeks of India


The Greeks of India

Alexander the Great was an ancient Macedonian ruler and one of history’s greatest military minds who at a young age managed to establish the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen. By 326 BCE, Alexander had successfully conquered territories as far as the north-western frontier of India. However, his Indian sojourn was short lived. After his death, his empire was divided among his generals. The eastern part of the empire which included the north-western parts of the Indian sub-continent Bactria came under the care of Seleucos Nikator. To consolidate his position, Seleucos Nikator struck an alliance with Chandragupta Gupta who represented a fast-rising power in the India. As part of this alliance, Seleucos conceded all the lands to the south of the Hindu Kush mountains to the Mauryans and even gave his daughter's hand in marriage to Chandragupta! The lands to the north of the Hindu Kush mountains were occupied by the Greeks. These Greek rulers are now known as Greco-Bactrian kings. (Bactria in modern-day Afghanistan being the epicentre of their kingdom). The end of the Mauryan Empire in the beginning of the 3rd century BCE, provided an opportunity for successive Greco-Bactrian kings to expand their territories into the Indian mainland. Over the next 200 years, more than 30 Indo-Greek kings blended Hindu, Buddhist and ancient Greek religious practices which resulted in a rich fusion of Indian and Greek influences. This synthesis of Indo-Greek culture had consequences which are still prevalent today in our culture, particularly through Greco-Buddhist art. The term Yavana is used in ancient Indian texts to refer to the Greeks who arrived in India around this time.

Menander I was perhaps the greatest of the Indo-Greek kings. He administered a large empire in the North-western regions of the Indian subcontinent. After conquering Punjab, he established an empire stretching from the Kabul River valley in the west to the Ravi River in the east. Historical records indicate that he launched expeditions southward into Rajasthan and as far east down the Ganga river as Patliputra!

The Indo-Greeks coins mark the first intermingling of Eastern and Western culture in India. Their coins are found in large numbers in the territories ruled by them. The Indo-Greeks introduced several innovations to Indian coinage including double die struck types, portraits and the use of bilingual legends. Indeed, the study of such bilingual coins provided vital clues to the deciphering of the Brahmi and Kharoshthi scripts. The Indo-Greeks initially issued coins to the 'Attic' standard of the Greeks. Their gold coins were known as the Stater and weighed about 8 grams, the silver coins were known as the ‘Drachms’ and ‘Obols’ and weighed about 4 grams and 0.6 grams respectively. Later in their rule, the weight of the Drachm was dropped to about 2.3 grams.

It is unclear how long the Greeks in India managed to maintain a distinct presence in the Indian sub-continent. A slow process of decline, foreign invasions and inter-marriage with local communities perhaps led to their ultimate disappearance as a political entity. The legacy of the Indo-Greeks was felt, however, for several centuries, from the usage of the Greek language, religious practices, art and culture and to their influence on the numismatics of the Indian subcontinent.