History of Punjab: 550 BCE – 185 BCE

History of punjabCredits: Pinterest

The realm of Punjab has gone through various but equally significant eras. It is these eminent periods in its history, that have molded Punjab into what it is now. Early civilizations, foreign invasions, ancient Indian empires, Mughals, Sikh rule, colonialism, and the partition that Punjab has undergone through the years, making it a state vastly rich in its past and heritage. 

‘Ancient Period’ is the second significant era in the history of Punjab and its surrounding areas. Intermittent wars between various kingdoms were characteristic of the time, except when they temporarily unified under centralized Indian empires or invading powers. Foreign power invasions were the main feature during this period in Punjab and North India. 


Achaemenid Invasion in Punjab

It starts with the Achaemenid Invasion of the Indus Valley including Punjab in the 6th-4th centuries BCE. The Achaemenid empire was an ancient Iranian empire, based in Western Asia and founded by king Cyrus the Great in the 6th Century BCE. 

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A modern Persian carpet showing Cyrus the Great, seen in Tehran.
Credits: Livius.org

The Achaemenid Conquest of the Indus Valley was a military conquest and governance of the territories of the North-western regions of the Indian Subcontinent. This conquest occurred in two phases. The first invasion was around 535 BCE by Cyrus the Great. He annexed regions west of the Indus River, which formed the eastern border of his empire.

Following the death of Cyrus, Darius the Great established his dynasty and began to reconquer former provinces and to further expand the extent of the empire.

Around 518 BCE Darius crossed the Himalayas into India to initiate the second period of conquest by annexing regions up to the Jhelum River in Punjab. The upper Indus region comprised of Gandhara and Kamboja formed the seventh satrapy (province) of the Achaemenid Empire, while the lower and middle Indus composed of Sindhu and Sauvira constituted the 20th satrapy. 

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Eastern border of the Achaemenid Empire
Credits: WIkipedia

In ancient Greek maps, we find mention of the “mightiest river of all the world”, called the Indos (Indus), and its tributaries, the Hydaspes (Jhelum), Akesines (Chenab), Hydraotis (Ravi), Hesidros (Sutlej) and Hyphasis (Beas). 

The Achaemenid occupation of the Indus Valley decreased over successive rulers and formally ended around the time of Alexander’s Conquest. This gave rise to independent kings such as Porus (ruler of region between Jhelum and Chenab rivers), Ambhi (ruler of region between Indus and Jhelum rivers with capital at Taxila) as well as Gana Sanghas or republics, which confronted Alexander during his Indian Campaign circa 323 BCE. 


Alexander’s Invasion in Punjab

Alexander the Great’s invasion of India began in 327 BCE. After conquering the Achaemenid Empire, Alexander launched his campaign into the Indian subcontinent (now present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan).  After gaining control of the former Achaemenid satrapy of Gandhara, including the city of Taxila, Alexander advanced into Punjab. 

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Source: The Week, illustration by Bara Bhaskaran

Punjab has had a significant link and impact under Alexander the Great of Macedon. The Greek king brought with him many scientific, art, and philosophical knowledge from Greece to India. Punjab was then, divided into smaller states engaged in mutual warfare like aspansian territory in Kabul, Kingdom of Assakenois, Kingdom of Abhisara, Kingdom of Taxila, Kingdom of Porus, etc. The most important of all being, the Kingdom of Porus of Punjab. 


The Battle of Hydaspes

A significant battle in the history of not just Punjab, but also of Indian and Greek history was “The Battle of Hydaspes”. The battle was fought on the Jhelum River in Punjab between  Alexander and the regional King Porus in 326 BCE.  Despite defeating Porus, Alexander was so impressed by the high degree of respect and humble demeanor of king Porus that he allowed him to keep his domain in Punjab. He was also impressed by the use of war elephants by the army commanded by Porus.

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Alexander the great’s army against King Porus’s army.
Credits : Lafz Magazine

Plutarch, an eminent Greek philosopher of that time remarked that the Battle of Jhelum was one of the most difficult battles for Alexander because of the discipline and tenacity displayed by the army commanded by Porus in Punjab.  The battle is historically significant for opening up India to Greek political and cultural influences (Greco Buddhist art), which continued to have an impact for many centuries.

Nicaea, Punjab - Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

The legacy of Alexander in the southern extremity of Punjab was a city named Alexandria.  He established a chain of military posts along the Indus, for commercial and political purposes. However, the battle with Porus had blunted the Macedonians’ courage as it had caused heavy losses for them. After the disheartened and homesick attitude of his troops, Alexander eventually relented, being convinced that it was better to return. At last, Alexander left Punjab in 326 BCE and moved westward back home. 

Even after his departure, the impact of his rule continued. Alexander had established two cities in the Punjab, where he settled people from his multi-national armies, which included a majority of Greeks and Macedonians. These Indo-Greek cities and their associated kingdoms thrived long after Alexander’s departure. After Alexander’s death, the eastern portion of his empire (present-day Syria to Punjab) was inherited by Seleucus I Nicator, the founder of the Seleucid dynasty. However, this empire was disrupted by the ascendancy of the Bactrians. The Bactrian king Demetrius I added Punjab to his Kingdom in the 2nd century BCE.

Mauryan Empire in Punjab

 In 322 BC, a year after Alexander’s death in Babylon, Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha founded the Mauryan Empire in India, with the aid of his advisor Chanakya. The latter had inspired him to free Punjab from the foreign yoke and to establish a powerful empire in India.  Much of Chandragupta’s success is attributed to Chanakya. 

Chandragupta Maurya Empire 320 BCE
The Maurya Empire

Chanakya was also known by the name Kautilya. He was an ancient Indian teacher, philosopher, economist, jurist, and royal advisor born in Takshashila, Jalandhar, Punjab. He wrote the invaluable Arthshastra, an ancient Indian Sanskrit treatise on statecraft, economic policy, and military strategy. The text accounts for the details of his experience in the province of Punjab and Sindh. It was Chanakya, who enrolled the young Chandragupta in the Taxila University. To educate him in the arts, sciences, logic, mathematics, warfare, and administration. With the help of the small Janapadas of Punjab and Sindh, Chandragupta Maurya went on to conquer much of the North West. 

The empire was centralized by the conquest of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, and its capital city was located at Patliputra (modern-day Patna). Chandragupta’s successor was Bimbisara, who also ruled over Punjab. With the assassination of the last Mauryan ruler, Brihadratha by his commander in chief Pushyamitra, some of the provinces like Kalinga attained independence. Punjab, along with most of the Indo Gangetic plain, went under the rule of Pushyamitra’s empire. 

After the Mauryas, their vast united empire gave way to several petty states in India and Afghanistan. Sunga, Kanva, Indo Greeks, Indo Parthians, Scythians, Kushans were some of the dynasties that prevailed in India including Punjab for almost 300 years. 

Also read: History of Punjab: c.3300 – c. 1100 BCE

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