My earliest encounter with the Battle of Hydaspes was way back in kindergarten when I had just learnt to read Hindi – Super Commando Dhruv’s new comic book, quite unusually named Roman Hatyara (The Roman Assassin) had hit the shelves and they were giving away this free poster. Awesomeness was inexpensive those days.
The plot tells us of the battle and the time when Porus was having the upper hand because of his war elephants. Eventually, in bizarre circumstances, the war elephants turned against their own forces after the introduction of a mysterious ‘Roman Assassin’ possessing extraordinary powers and Alexander was able to pull off an improbable victory – way before this man to the right made it his USP…
In the years that followed, I came across this battle quite a few times – history books, interschool quizzes, newspaper editorials and more. The fascination with this battle was just intriguing – not just for me, but the world around me as I saw it. Not without reason I guess, after all, it had several dimensions that could possibly interest you ranging from an epic face-off involving the most powerful western and eastern civilizations of the time to the controversy around the actual victor or even the sheer importance it commands in history books across most countries.
Umpteen books, references and articles later, while I may have read through quite a lot of information that has been documented and preserved – I still continue to be as undecided as I was back in school regarding the actual victor in this battle. Starting with the most contemporary account (which was drafted still over a century after the battle) of Diodorus Siculus to the several accounts written mostly by historians over the last couple of centuries, the lack of Indian texts from the time also make a case for one of the most quoted African proverbs – Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.
While it may be argued using elaborate diagrams such as these…
…on knowledge platforms such as Wikipedia or Quora to underscore Alexander’s strategy and emphatic victory (most of them borrowing heavily from primary accounts written by Diodorus, Arrian, Plutarch, Curtius or Justin) yet the vacuum created by lack of Indian texts and the aftermath of the battle as documented in even these sources cast a cloud of confusion. For example, every single account mentions the alliance between Alexander and the local Indian kings Abhisara (Embisarus) and/or Ambhi (Omphis) to defeat Paurava king Porus on the condition that Alexander would then place Abhisara/Ambhi as ruler(s) of lands controlled by Porus. In the episode that follows, Alexander ends up winning the battle as per western accounts but in a gesture of goodwill allows Porus to remain the ruler of his lands in view of his heroic leadership in the battle.
Now, we aren’t exactly talking about a peace-loving Rama from the Ramayan here and well, even there Ravana has been killed annually ever since at a Dussehra Maidan near you. Therefore, to see Alexander become this benevolent emperor in the heat, humidity and hunger of India (yes, think about what you do to even your best friend in those conditions) is precisely the sort of seed that allows contradicting theories to crop up.
So what do I think actually happened? The most honest answer anyone – well read or not, can give you is ‘I don’t know for sure’. Ironically, when I look back, I somehow found that answer pretty much when I was first coming across this battle – thanks to one of the best Indian movies ever…
While the movie, based largely on Breaking Away, has been one of my favorites because of the fantastic screenplay, the title of the movie is actually a four word synopsis of the climax – ‘he who won would be called Sikandar’. The protagonist, who is pretty much the underdog, snatches a nail-biting and almost impossible victory in the very last seconds of the bicycle race at the end of the movie – and the title refers to him as ‘Sikandar’, the Persian name for Alexander. The name of the movie is actually a common phrase that has been used for as long as anyone can remember. And perhaps it is in this play of words that I see the most probable answer – Did Alexander win? Not very sure – but ‘he who won would be called Alexander’.
True to the phrase, the victor has always been called Alexander. Encore.