The Lost Indika

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With a long history of invasion and colonialism, Indians are used to looking at themselves with the gaze of the “other”, especially if we live in an English language- centred universe. 400 years of Eurocentrism has given us a skewed and distorted idea of ourselves. It is worth noting, however, that India’s contacts with the world outside dates to much before this; to thousands of years ago, during the times of the civilisation on the banks of the Sindhu and the Saraswati, and they have been sources of its function as a cradle of universal ideas.

The Christian Western contacts with India are well documented. Here, it will be interesting and instructive to look at pre-Christian ideas and exchanges between India and the West. One of the most important treatises of a visitor from the Western world dates back to Mauryan times.

The oldest and most comprehensive record we have on India comes from Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador from the court of the Seleucid Emperor to that of Chandragupta Maurya. He wrote the Indika, a description of India, based on his sojourn. Megasthenes was a companion of Alexander of Macedon on his short-lived invasion of North Western India and had lived with Sibyrtius, the satrap of Arachosia, after Alexander’s death and during the fight of the Diadochi. On the establishment of friendly relations between Chandragupta and Seleucus, he was sent as an ambassador to Chandragupta’s court by the latter.

Sandrocottus has been mentioned by him in the Indika and has been identified with Chandragupta Maurya, placing the book squarely in fourth century BCE. (A caveat: the dating and chronology of Ancient Indian history is based on some seminal but problematic “identifications” which merit separate study).

Strabo, Arrianus and Klemens of Alexandria tell us most of what we know about Megasthenes’ life. Klemens informs us that he was a contemporary of Seleucus, Strabo that he was sent to Chandragupta Maurya’s court at Pataliputra and Arrian that he lived with Sibyrtius at Arachosia, and frequently visited Chandragupta’s court. Reportedly, he had even met Chandragupta himself.

Indika itself, modelled on Hekataios’ Aegyptiaka , was either in the Attic or Ionian dialect and was divided into four sections. Megasthenes wrote down descriptions of the country, its soil, climate, animals, plants, government, religion, manners of the people, arts, etc. In short, a detailed description from the king to the remotest tribe.

Over time, the book itself was lost. However, Greek and Roman writers— Diodorus, Strabo, Arrian, Eratosthenes, Pliny and many others— have quoted from his book over millennia. Its fragments lay scattered but, in 1846, Professor Schwanbeck of Bonn collected the scattered fragments and published them as a reconstructed Megasthenes’ Indica in Latin and Greek. In 1877, J.W. McCrindle published, for the first time, an authoritative English translation which remains a resource although it has been the subject of many critiques since then. What is the relevance of this book today?

For one, it is the earliest surviving and most comprehensive description of Ancient India by a foreign visitor— the first in the tradition of visitors such as Fa Hien, Hiuen Tsang and Al-Biruni who have provided valuable insights into the position of the country at the relevant time. Apart from its role as an invaluable resource for Indian antiquity, Indika’s influence on other Roman and Greek writers, and on their scientific knowledge, has been immense. It was not written “on the run”, so to speak, as snippets of information from Alexander of Macedon’s other companions were written, but was designed as an encyclopedic study of the country.

When Helena Married Sandrocottus, or Chandragupta Maurya

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The Mauryans remain shrouded in mystery

Can the daughter of a military commander of a far foreign land marry an Indian king who is Vishpurush – poison man?

The most sensible answer to this very interesting note of interrogation may be an emphatic No, but just the contrary took place in one case.

The woman in question, her father a Macedonian and mother an Iranian, married the Vishpurush some 2,300 years ago in Pataliputra, today’s Patna in Bihar.

Very strange! Is it not?

Folklore, archaeological evidence, books in Jainism, Buddhism, Brahmanism and the records of ancient Grecian chroniclers make Helena a character shrouded in mystery.

Her real-life character, however, was a very dominant female character in those ancient days.

Helena was teen-aged when she married Sandrocottos: as the Greeks called Chandragupta Maurya, ruler of the Magadh Empire.

Taking place in 305 BCE, it was the first Indo-Grecian political marriage in the subcontinent.

It was a most turbulent time of history, when the Vishkanyas or poison maidens ruled the diplomatic, political scenario here.

On a still moonlit night as you walk along the ancient ruins of Kumhrar, Bulandibagh or the ancient ghats of the river Ganga in today’s Patna, you perhaps will have the eerie feeling of making an imaginary rendezvous with Helena.

In doing so, a swarm of questions come to life.

A Mauryan silver karshapana

It was at Kumhrar that the palace of Chandragupta Maurya once stood. Helena, naturally, would have been there walking under the mango groves with her retinue of dasis: maids meant to serve her.

Incidentally, she brought with her a troupe of women from Persia and Babylon to Pataliputra. Who knows many of these ladies might have married the local people?

Though the Mauryan era had many mysterious characters, Helena perhaps is the mysterious-most. What happened to her after the death of Chandragupta Maurya remains shrouded in mystery. Her history is being researched upon not only in India but in other countries too.

Not only Indians but people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan and Europeans are taking keen interest at her. Let us begin the story with Pakistan.

Faxian imagined in the ruins of Ashoka’s palace

Since Chanakya was a teacher in Taxila and Chandragupta Maurya is believed to have first seen Helena somewhere near Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, they have become subjects of interest to historians of Pakistan. There was also a plan to open an university in the name of Chanakya, believed to be a son of the soil of Taxila.

In fact, the activities of Alexander, Seleukos Nikator whose daughter Helena was, Chanakya and Chandragupta were initially confined to the North West Frontier Province of undivided India. This is the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, dotted with historical relics of these characters today.

Curiosity about Helena is also seen at the Uppsala University of Sweden, which is going to intensify research on the people of Malana and Kanashi villages in Himachal Pradesh, who claim to be of Macedonian origin, thus perhaps the progeny of our beloved Mauryan Empress.

It is believed that some soldiers of Alexander the Great did not return to Greece in 326 BCE but stayed back in present-day Himachal.

Another fact full of suspense is that Helena belonged to the age when Vishkanyas and Vishpurush were a storied feature of the subcontinent and Asia. Her own husband Chandragupta Maurya may have been a Vishpurush.

It is in this backdrop that the celluloid world of Bollywood is showing keen interest in the ancient Mauryan emperors and their wives, including Helena and of course, Chanakya.

Like Helena, her Sandrocottus too was a mystery man. Can you imagine a mighty emperor ending his life by fasting under the tradition of Jain religion? But he did just that. He died of starvation around the age of 56, not the age to die painfully.

Like them, the seniormost minister of the Magadh Empire, Chanakya or Kautilya too is wrapped up in a bundle of mysteries. Just imagine, this Acharya or scholar came to Pataliputra all the way from Taxila to topple the Nanda dynasty in Pataliputra and did it!

More we know about Helena, Chandragupta and Chanakya, the more curious we become. Their lives were so extraordinary that even after 2,300 long years they amaze us. They still live among us!

Chandragupta Maurya and Bhadrabahu

History does not say if Helena was immune to poison or a Vishkanya. But Chandragupta, her husband, was. She was born in the very strange era of poison men and women which today’s generation cannot even imagine.

Daughter of Seleukos Nikator, the Commander-in-Chief of Alexander the Great and ruling Emperor of Persia and his Persian wife, Helena was believed to be around 15 or 16 when she married Chandragupta who was around 39 then.

We do not have an authentic historical record of the marriage but quasi-historical materials point to the fact that Chandragupta had fallen for Helena due to her beauty, and Helena too fell in love with him at the first very sight.

It all happened on the bank of the Jhelum river in an area that now is in Pakistan.

It was in 305 BCE that Seleucus’s army met with Chandragupta Maurya’s in a battle where Seleucus was defeated. As per Chankaya’s advice, Chandragupta Maurya then invited Seleucus for a meeting and proposed the alliance of Helena with Chandragupta.

As their alliance happened after a war treaty, so mostly it is written that ‘the marriage’ was a political alliance between the two states, but a few back the view that they were already in love.

Whatever it was, this marriage undoubtedly was the subcontinent’s first intercontinental political marriage.

But how could a father marry his daughter to a man knowing full well that he was a Vishpurush? Was Helena also a Vishkanya? History is mute here. But in her time, it is said Vishkanyas were there in Persia, Mesopotamia and Babylonia.

Another strange fact is that we do not know what she looked like. We know how her father Seleukos Nikator looked as there are coins that represent him distinctly clear. We have stone sculptures that show Chandragupta Maurya. We can have a rough idea about his looks. But nothing is there to know how Helena looked.

Emperors in those days would mint coins after marriage with their wife. But Chandragupta did not do so.

Historical records do not speak much of Helena but ancient chronicles do say she became well-versed in the system of Magadh or today’s Bihar and wielded massive influence in the corridors of power of the Mauryan Empire.

Some local legends in Patna say Helena stayed back in Pataliputra after the death of Chandragupta Maurya, and left for Macedonia a few years later during the reign of Bindusara, son of Chandragupta Maurya from another wife.

Helena, however, had a son who believed to have returned to Macedonia with her. Megasthenes, the Macedonian Ambassador to Pataliputra, also wrote in his book Indica that Helena had a son but did not say much about him.

It is believed Helena’s son’s name was Justin. But Justin is not a traditional Macedonian or Grecian name. Essentially, it sounds Roman. But Helena was Greek, and a Grecian would never name her son after Roman traditions.

A mystery, indeed!

Another mystery about Helena is that nothing practically is heard of her after she went to Macedonia. Why? Again there is a big question mark.

Philip II of Macedon, 386 to 322 BCE

Know How ‘Kalinga’ Derogated Into Racial Slur In South Asian Countries

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Bhubaneswar: The word ‘Kalinga’ has a long and rich history which is a matter of pride for every Odia. But, sadly, over the years it has taken an ugly form of a racial slur in South Asian countries despite a long history of maritime trade and similarity of culture.

Before divulging into its present form, let us take a look back at the history.

History of Kalinga

Kalinga was the most important geographical unit which played a significant role in the formation of ancient Odisha and also in India through the ages. Originally Kalinga was a small state bordering on the Bay of Bengal which consists of present-day Odisha and parts of Andhra Pradesh.

During the 3rd century B.C. the Greek ambassador Megasthenes in his tour of India had mentioned of its superior military strength which was a cause of jealousy for Magadha, Maurya and Bindusar empires. According to the historians the Magadha Emperor Ashoka invaded Kalinga in 261 B.C. and the war led to deaths of nearly one lakh soldiers.

Later, Kalinga rose its fame primarily under King Kharavela who is said to be crowned after Ashoka’s death (the date of crowning is under speculation).

It is important to note here Odisha and South Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have an old connection of maritime trade and have good relations till date. Now one wonders how the name of an extinct state become a racial slur for Indians in the mentioned countries. Let’s go a bit back to understand how a simple reference term became a slang.

Degradation of ‘Kalinga’

Kalinga or ‘Keling’ or ‘Kling’ was initially referred to Indians, in general, in the mentioned countries. It started with a reference to Kalinga Kings where the name was corrupted as per local dialect. The book ‘Sulalatus Salatin’ makes several such references, but never as an insult.

Another school of thought believes the k-word originated from the British and Dutch referring to Indians as ‘Clings’ or ‘Klings’, especially in the contemporary British colonial writings where immigrants from Madras and Coromandel Coast were called ‘Klings’. Thus, the name became synonymous with the south Indians because the k-word was used to describe South Indians instead of Eastern Indians from the Kalinga Kingdom.

As written by Nicholas Belfield in ‘A Descriptive Dictionary of British Malaya’ (1894), ‘Kling’ is defined as a “general term for all the people of Hindustan, and for the country itself”.

Digging into the history a bit more reveals that many Indian were enslaved by the British and they used ‘Keling’ or ‘Kling’ to refer to them who have then went on to become citizens of these South Asian countries. This sounds very similar to another derogatory word ‘Negro’ which is considered equally offensive.

But that is not the case anymore. British colonialism is far over and slavery is illegal. So why have a certain section of society still held on to the k-word while referring to Indians?

The Indians in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia allege that the word is and has always been used to degrade them and make them feel like outcasts. It completely disregards their struggles.

Through this, OMMCOM NEWS hopes to create awareness which may help eradicate a slur which actually should be something to be proud of.