Some time in the 7th century AD, Sanskrit writer Bāṇabhaṭṭa did a biography on his patron, emperor Harshavardhana. It was titled Harṣacarīta and is said to be the first biographical work from the subcontinent.
Besides abundant references to the Greeks (as Yavanas, derived from Ionians), the book recounts a curious incident of king Vatsapati being ambushed by soldiers emerging from "the belly of a sham elephant."

This section may or may not have been lifted from an earlier work.
That earlier work comes from a 5th century Theravada Buddhist thinker and theologian named Buddhaghoṣa. Although born and raised in what's today Bihar, Buddhaghoṣa spent most of his time writing and teaching at the Great Monastery of Anurādhapura in Sri Lanka.
More than 200 years before Bāṇabhaṭṭa, Buddhaghoṣa wrote of a wooden mechanical elephant that was pulled by ropes from the inside and that housed as many as 60 soldiers inside.

But even this doesn't seem to be an original idea as we go further back in time.
The British Museum in London houses a metamorphic tablet, possibly part of a stair-riser on a 2nd century Buddhist stupa in Gandhāra (today's Qandhar, Afghanistan). This piece depicts a horse being wheeled toward a doorway guarded by what appears to be a topless girl.
The two men pushing the horse and the one attempting to stop it with a spear, are all dressed in tunics that look less Indian and more Greek. Could very well be the inspiration behind Buddhaghoṣa's and Bāṇabhaṭṭa's elephants? There's more reasons to believe so than one.
But the most striking thing about the Gandhāran relief is that Homer would instantly recognize it as the siege engine he described in Odyssey — the Trojan Horse.

Now the question is, what's an artefact of Greek Mythology doing in the boonies of 2nd century Afghanistan?
For answers, we've to go further back in time. Back to when the region was part of a great Achaemenid Empire. Founded by Cyrus the Great, this was the world's first Persian Empire and although primarily Zoroastrian, comprised of many other faiths and ethnicities.
What we call Afghanistan today was then part of a more or less autonomous entity called Bactria. The Greeks had no notable presence in Asia those days. Maybe a few port colonies along the Aegean, but nothing significant further inland. That would change eventually.
Between these Greek city-states of Asia Minor in the West and Indian subcontinent in the East was the vast stretch of what was then the largest sovereign territory of its time, the Achaemenid Empire.

This stretch included many territories rich in ethnic Greeks.
Now Bactria, despite being part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, continued to be autonomous. Its people had never been a big fan of foreign authority. This didn't bother the Achaemenids who only needed the territory as an exile for political prisoners.
Most of these political prisoners were dissenting Greeks. Take the ethnic Greek city of Barca in Cyrenaica (today part of Libya) for example. Darius I had the entire city exiled to Bactria because they refused to surrender an assassin they were accused of sheltering.
Another similar story comes from Didyma, a Greek sanctuary in Ionia (near İzmir in today's Anatolia). This sanctuary had a prominent temple to Didymeus (another name for Apollo) and a sacred spring administered by the Branchidae, a family of local priests.
When the sanctuary was sacked by Darius I in 494 BC, the entire population of ethnic Greeks was exiled to Bactria.

Didyma and Barca are just two of the many such examples. Over time, Bactria came to have far more ethnic Greeks than Greece itself.
So, for a long time, there was a Greek Empire in Greece, a vibrant but isolated Greek enclave in Bacteria, and a vast Achaemenid expanse between the two.

One 32-year-old from Macedonia was determined to change that. And he finally did.

In 334 BC.

His name, Alexander.
Alexander went down in history as Alexander the Great and the only reason for that is what he accomplished in the decade following 334 BC. During that period, he set out to conquer the "world," world being Macedonia, India, and everything in between. Ambitious.
Ambitious because before he could reach India, there was this formidable Achaemenid Empire to deal with. Took him and his Thracian-Macedonian war machine 10 long years, but the Persians finally fell. By 325 BC, Alexander was at the Hindu Kush, the gateway to India.
By this point, Alexander's Macedonian Empire stretched from Macedonia in the West to Ferghana and Punjab in the East. If Ferghana rings a bell, it's probably as the birthplace of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire.

But death halted Alexander's juggernaut abruptly.
Alexander's death also triggered immediate disintegration of the empire he spent his entire youth building. Even after Alexander's conquest, one thing never changed.

Bactria's relative autonomy.

The Bactrians had always been fiercely resistant to external control.
What also didn't change was the remarkably successful Persian practice of tiered bureaucracy. The Achaemenids had divided their empire into smaller administrative units called satrapies. Each satrapy was governed by, well, a satrap.
A quick etymological detour here.

Old Persian satrap later entered Sanskrit as kṣatrapa (क्षत्रप) and itself goes further back to *kšatrám, Proto-Indo-Iranian for "kingdom" and source of words like kṣétra (क्षेत्र) and kṣatriya (क्षत्रिय).

But how? We'll see.
Alexander decided against tampering with a working system and not only allowed the Achaemenid satrapies to continue, he even set up new ones after conquering Bactria and Sogdia. Within these satrapies, he set up more than half a dozen Alexandrias.
Every prominent city Alexander founded, he named it Alexandria. There was one in Egypt (still is). And there were several in and around Bactria — Alexandria on the Caucasus, Alexandria Eschate, Alexandria on the Indus, Alexandria on the Oxus, and so on.
In other to become more acceptable to the Persians, Alexander adopted many Persian customs including proskynesis, a Persian court greeting. He even started dressing up like the Achaemenid royalty and titled himself king of kings, just as Darius had done before him.
Then one day Alexander died. He left behind an empire that spanned the entire known world, except the one bit he couldn't conquer.


He managed to get much of Punjab and the Indus but failed to make further headway thanks to India's trump card — elephants.
Alexander's death triggered a power struggle that saw the emergence of another Macedonian. His name was Seleucus I Nicator. Seleucus had served as general in Alexander's infantry and had ambitions of his own. This was time to realize all of them.
Much of what Alexander had ruled went to Seleucus who then inaugurated a new dynasty of his own.

The Seleucids.

But one region that remained unaffected was Bactria. Sure it came under the new Seleucid Empire, but its autonomy remained largely unaffected.
Alexander's interests in Egypt went to Ptolemy I, another friend from native Macedon. Ptolemy became Egypt's new pharaoh and started his own, Ptolemaic dynasty. Seleucus spent much of his energy trying to oust this man. Understandable given Egypt was a wealthy territory.
Following Alexander's example, Seleucus kept the satrapy system intact. This helped him govern efficiently and focus his efforts in Syria feuding with the Ptolemies.

The wealthiest of his satrapies was a remote Greek enclave between Hindu Kush and Amu Darya — Bactria.
Unlike his predecessor though, Seleucus could never conquer Egypt. Bactria, meanwhile, continued to receive Greek exiles and by now, housed more ethnic Greeks than all of Greece and Macedon. Contemporary historians wrote volumes on the satrap's prosperity.
But Bactria wasn't enough. Just like Alexander, the Seleucids too wanted India. Alexander failed. Seleucus hoped not to. Problem is, someone in India had similar ambitions — to go beyond the Indus.

Before we get to him though, let's quickly rewind to Alexander.
When the Macedonian invaded India, he was confronted by a local king who ruled the small expanse between the Hydaspes (Jhelum) and the Acesines (Chenab). His name was Porus. Now, Alexander didn't exactly lose this battle. Exhausted, yes. But not defeated.
It's this exhaustion why he abandoned his eastward campaign. But not before installing Porus as his satrap (autonomous vassal, according to some sources). A major part of this exhaustion can be attested to Porus' war elephants.
So before his death, Alexander was already a familiar figure in the Indian subcontinent. Indians called him अलक्षेन्द्र (Alakṣendra). Just as the Persians called him Sikandar. His Indian satrapy extended as far east as the Hyphasis (Beas).
Remember how I said earlier that the Old Persian word satrap eventually entered Sanskrit as kṣatrapa (क्षत्रप) which further gave us words like kṣétra (क्षेत्र) and kṣatriya (क्षत्रिय)? Well, this is how it happened. A Persian system introduced into India by a Greek.
When Seleucus entered the scene after Alexander's death, he was eager to expand beyond Beas, something his predecessor couldn't. At the same time, someone in India was eager to extend beyond Beas too. In the opposite direction, of course.
That someone had become king the same year Alexander died, and was the first of a dynasty that would go on to become the largest the subcontinent has ever seen. His name was Chandragupta Maurya.

At its peak, the Mauryan Empire covered nearly 2 million square miles.
But that would come later. For now, Chandragupta was keen on snagging as many Greek satrapies around Indus as possible. And snag he did.

By the time of Seleucus, the Chandragupta had already annexed Peithon and Eudemus (earlier held by Porus).
Seleucus wanted them back. The face-off finally came in 305 BC and lasted 2 whole years. Interestingly, this ended in a truce. Seleucus was fascinated by elephants, he knew what they could do to flip a battle. And Chandragupta had those in abundance.
So the two struck a deal. Seleucus gave up all satrapies in the region and accepted Mauryan suzerainty over them; in return, Chandragupta gifted him 500 war elephants. Some accounts also refer to a marriage alliance between Seleucus' daughter and Chandragupta himself.
These elephants proceed instrumental in several Seleucid victories on other fronts, most notably the Battle of Ipsus. A strong alliance with the Mauryans also worked as a natural defense against any possible hostility in the East.

Win-win for all involved.
24 years after this deal, Seleucus died, well, murdered. While preparing for a campaign on Thrace. He was succeeded by his son, Antiochus, the second and last big-ticket Seleucid.

By the time Antiochus died in 261 BC, the Mauryan throne had a new occupant.
We'll come back to the Mauryas a little later. First, something about Bactria. You would recall that this remote satrapy, first Macedonian then Seleucid, had always maintained and fiercely defended its autonomy. After Antiochus' death, it decided to up the ante.
Thus, nearly a decade after Antiochus' death, exploiting an opportune power vacuum, Bactria seceded. With this, satrap Diodotus became King Diodotus I of a new Graeco-Bactrian entity. By now, the territory had developed an unmistakable Hellenic identity.
Concurrent to Antiochus' reign, a tribe of nomadic Scythians called Parni had started pouring into Bactria's neighborhood. These were some of the fiercest warriors and best horsemen between the Hindu Kush and the steppes. And they were now too close for comfort.
Diodotus appreciated the threat these rugged warlords in his backyard posed to his burgeoning kingdom and invested his all into subduing them preemptively.

He was helped in this endeavor by none other than Euthydemus, satrap of neighboring Sogdia.
Although beaten, the Parni didn't go anywhere. Instead, they continued consolidating quietly, working toward a feudal political entity of their own right next to the two Hellenic satrapies. A few years later, Diodotus died and was succeeded by his son, Diodotus II.
The junior acted differently. While his father spent his life fighting the Parni, this one tried the opposite. Hoping for a peaceful outcome, he decided to ally with them and help them set up their own kingdom. By 247 BC, the kingdom was ready.
They named it Parthia. The Parni, from that point on, became Parthians. If the name sounds familiar, it's probably due to the legendary Parthian shot.

This didn't sit well with the Sogdian satrap who had staked his life fighting the same Parthians alongside the senior.
So, to plug any further damage, Diodotus II was duly deposed and Bactria annexed into Sogdia and Ferghana to result in a larger Graeco-Bactrian kingdom under Euthydemus.

This was the end of the Diodotus dynasty and the beginning of Euthydemids.
Coming back to the subcontinent, the Mauryan Empire had coronated a new emperor in 268 BC and 8 years into his reign, he introduced and mainstreamed a brand new religion within his realm.

His name was Ashoka. And the religion was Buddhism.
Ashoka inherited, along with the rest of India, a sizeable population of Greek subjects settled in the Greek satrapies that Seleucus had gifted his grandfather in exchange for elephants.

These Greeks became Buddhist too!
Ashoka died in 232 BC and with him his empire. Well, at least it went into a steady irreversible decline, if not entirely end right away.

20 years earlier a power vacuum had helped Bactria break free from the Seleucids. Now another would help it expand into India.
But before he could accomplish that, Euthydemus died. And before he died, he had done one good thing for his successors — secure peace with the Seleucids. This peace was necessary if they wanted to keep at bay a common threat from the North, the Scythians.
With peace secured in the West and Ashoka dead in the East, the Bactrians made a fresh call on India. This proved easier than thought and by 190 BC, the satrapies Seleucus had given away to Ashoka's grandfather were once again under Greek rule.
Shortly after the annexation of Indian satrapies, the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom suffered an abrupt setback. The Indian campaign had drawn Demetrius I, the king, out of his capital in Bactria for far too long. He spent too much time east of the Indus, not wise those days.
Taking advantage of the situation, a deputy named Eucratides made his move and usurped the Bactrian throne as Eucratides I. Demetrius could never return to Bactria.

This resulted in a split in the Graeco-Bactrian realm.

Now, there was a new Indo-Greek territory.
Just as being isolated from the Greek mainland for far too long helped the Bactrians develop a distinct Hellenic character, an isolation from both Greek mainland and Bactria helped the Greeks in the Indian subcontinent develop their own unique culture.
These Greeks were heavily influenced by not only general Indian traditions but also Ashoka's push for Buddhism.

By 130 BC, the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom fell to what it had feared the most in the past — invaders from the North.

These were the Yuezhi.
The Yuezhi would later gain more prominence and even rule vast tracts in India as the Kushan Empire but we'll not discuss that here.

What this implies is that the Indo-Greek Empire were the only sovereign Greek state in all of Central and South Asia at this point.
And the Greek mainland? Well, all Greek rule there had already ended about 15 years earlier. Now it all belonged to Rome. The only sovereign Greek states that existed on the planet at this point were three independent pockets completely isolated from one another.
One of these was in Egypt, under the Ptolemies. Another in Syria, under the rapidly declining Seleucids. And the third was right here in India — the Indo-Greek Empire, under the erstwhile Euthydemids of Bactria.

Of these, the latter would prove the hardiest.
The Euthydemids may not be as widely known as others like the Seleucids or the Mauryans, but you're far more familiar with one member of this dynasty than you are with any of the Seleucids. This member came from Alexandria on the Caucasus, today's Bagram in Afghanistan.
This Euthydemid was none other than Ménandros Aʹ ho Sōtḗr or Menander I. You know him by his Indian name, Milinda.

Menander moved capital to a city that finds reference in Mahabharata as capital of the Madra Kingdom — the city of Sâgala.
Madra was native to one of Pandu's wives, Madri. The kingdom had flourished until Alexander the Great sacked and razed it during his Indian campaign in 326 BC. Today, we know Sâgala as Sialkot of Pakistan. This is where Menander chose to establish his capital.
Remember Ashoka and his mainstreaming of Buddhism? Well, almost all Greek subjects in the Indian subcontinent had adopted either Buddhism or a synthesis of Buddhism and Greek polytheism as their faith. But only the subjects.
No major Greek ruler had made the switch even though they tolerated the practice. This changed with Menander who became the first Greek monarch to officially convert to Buddhism and actively patronize it as a state religion.
The most concrete account of this conversion comes from Milinda Pañha, a piece of canonical Buddhist text from Khuddaka Nikāya of Suttapiṭaka. It's in Pali, the lingua franca of the time.

This account speaks of a Socratic dialog between Menander and Nāgasena.
Nāgasena was a Buddhist sage from Kashmir who'd himself converted to Buddhism under the influence of Dhammarakkhita, a Greek Buddhist and an emissary of Ashoka's.

This conversation was instrumental in Menander's statesmanship too, securing him much local loyalty.
At his apogee, Menander ruled an empire that stretched as far east as Palibothra or Patliputra (today's Patna). Here, he faced stiff resistance from a local Brahmin tyrant named Puśyamitra who ruled over whatever remained of the once-glorious Mauryan Empire.
Puśyamitra's brutal persecution of Buddhists was in stark contrast with Menander's patronage thereof. However, instead of persisting against Puśyamitra, Menander returned focus on further improving his own kingdom and its quality of life.
Under Menander emerged a unique blend of Buddhism and Greek polytheism that'd later give us the first ever figure of Buddha. If you ever wondered about the curls and other non-Indian features in most Buddhist figures, now you know why.
It took more than 5 centuries and an ethnic for the world to see the first image of Gautam Buddha but we'll come to it later.

After the first, countless others followed. New statues are being unearthed to this day in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and Central Asia.
But this wasn't all. Heard of Hercules? Yes, that Roman demigod. Well, he was an import from the Greek mythology where they called him Heracles. This Greek hero found his way into Buddhism too. It soon became a common practice to depict him as Buddha's protector.
This synthesis of Greek and Indian features wasn't limited to art and religion. It extended to every aspect of the Indo-Greek life. Corinthian columns with Buddhist motifs sprouted all over India. They featured Greek gods alongside Buddhist monks and elephants.
Menander's coins were struck with inscriptions in both Pali as well as Greek. They featured both Menander and Athena, the Greek goddess of war.

He even completed several Buddhist stupas started by the Mauryans and built many more including one in Patliputra.
By marrying Buddhism and Greek polytheism, Menander had done what even Alexander failed to do — he conquered India. At least most of the North, if not the rest. That said, this intermingling of the two civilizations came after a long history of mutual suspicion.
The Yavanas, as the Greeks were called in Sanskrit (word borrowed from the Persians via Pāli Yona) were traditionally seen by the Brahmins as barbarians or mleccha. Even the Mahābhārata is less than sympathetic to them.
Menander's adoption of Buddhism further alienated the Brahmins whose primary reservation against the religion was its lack of castes. The Śunga king Puśyamitra intended to resurrect Brahminism and make it the dominant cult of the subcontinent once again.
That was the prime motivation behind his brutalities against his Buddhist subjects and his eventual conflict with Menander. Why the latter retreated before subduing Puśyamitra despite an upper hand, though, is still less than clear.
By now, the Seleucid Empire had suffered heavy setbacks and was now reduced to a rump state in Syria. This state of affairs continued until 63 BC when Pompey the Great led the Romans into the capital, effectively ending the Seleucid reign.
Things weren't looking good in Ptolemaic Egypt either. Cleopatra's death and subsequent power struggle between her Roman partner Mark Antony and Caesar's successor Octavian (later, Emperor Augustus) in 30 BC led to the dynasty's inevitable end.
As for mainland Greece, the once-mighty Macedonia had already fallen to the Roman juggernaut long before Menander entered the scene.

In short, after the Roman conquest of Egypt, the Indo-Greek Empire was the only remaining territory ruled by the Greeks.
Do recall that the Graeco-Bactrian territory had already fallen to the Chinese Yuezhi tribe by 130 BC. By the turn of the millennium, this tribe has snowballed into a formidable new empire that borrowed heavily from the Greeks and even adopted Buddhism.
This Yuezhi empire eventually entered India and brought an end to the Indo-Greek rule in 10 AD. We know this rule as the Kushan Empire and are quite familiar with the most illustrious of its dynasts, Kanishka.

These were later succeeded by the Sassanians and the Guptas.
Earlier we spoke of the first depiction of Buddha in human form. This is when it happened — under the Kushans. In other words, the first time this Indian deity was represented in art it was in Afghanistan (Gandhāra) by an ethnic Chinese people using Greek leitmotif.
Although the Indo-Greek rule ended in 10 AD, the Greek influence didn't. For over a century, Greek remained the official tongue of the Kushan Empire. Even after the switch to Bactrian around 130 AD, Greek continued as the official script until the final switch to Sanskrit.
The Greek influence lasted even longer in the area of numismatics as evident from the Greek inscriptions on coins from the Gupta period.

With time, though, the Greek peoples blended and became homogenous with the Indian population thanks to generations of admixing.
Today, all that remains of this exotic synthesis of traditions is remnants of Greek arts like the Gandhāran Relief and references to the Greek Mythology in seminal texts like Harṣacarita, composed centuries after the Greek rule was gone!


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