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

What Connects Indus Valley Civilisation to Bengal? A 2500-YO City Named After A Mythical King

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Several questions surround the identity of mythical King Chandraketu. Was he a valiant king who refused to accept Islam and in turn lost his kingdom? Or was he Sandrocottus, who was documented by ancient Greek explorer Megasthenes in his book Indika? Recent discoveries have leaned towards the latter, with new theories suggesting that while it has always been believed that Sandrocottus was the name Megasthenes used for Chandragupta Maurya, he was talking about his time spent in India with King Chandraketu. However, his historical presence remains ambiguous with several authorities believing he was entirely fictitious. No written records of such a king exists in Bengali medieval literature.

Chandraketugarh (Fort of Chandraketu) remains a lesser known chapter in history. Often called “the city that never existed”, it was once reportedly an important coastal hub in international trade, between 4th Century BCE and 12th Century CE. However, it has since been reduced to a barren mound, with the ruins having spent years being neglected. The archaeological site is over 2,500 years old, and is located near the Bidyadhari River, which is around 35 kilometres north east of Kolkata, in North 24 Parganas, near Berachampa and the Harua Road railhead.

A civilisation shrouded in mystery

Its discovery was chanced upon during construction which was undertaken on adjacent roads. In 1907, local resident Dr Tarak Nath Ghosh approached the local government with a request to look into this site. He also wrote to Albert Henry Longhurst, a British archaeologist and historian, and an official of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). However, Longhurst deemed the site “of no interest”, and the ruins lay forgotten for two years.


In 1909, historian Rakhaldas Banerji—years before he discovered the ruins of Harappa and Mohenjodaro—arrived at the site. He shared similar opinions as Longhurst that the structural remains were little to work upon. But what intrigued him were the artefacts that had been found thus far and presented to him. He published a preliminary report on his findings in Basumati, a Bengali monthly. Almost a decade later, K N Dikshit, then superintendent of the eastern circle of ASI, published a report on the ruins.

In 1955, through efforts taken by several historians and archaeologists, the Ashutosh Museum of Art, Calcutta University, decided to excavate the site. The excavation was carried out between 1955 and 1967 at Khana Mihirer Dhibi, a five-metre high mound at the northeast corner of Berachampa village. This led to the discovery of a giant post-Gupta temple complex, the findings of which proved the existence of a flourishing ancient civilisation which possibly spanned six periods from the pre-Maurya to the Pala dynasty. Then, in 2000, another excavation was undertaken but remained incomplete and its reports were unpublished.

The findings over the years include the aforementioned Khana Mihirer Dhibi, a sub-site which is said to be a structure belonging to the Gupta period, and is named after two notable figures in history. Khana is believed to be the daughter-in-law of astrologer and mathematician Varahamihira, and a notable medieval Bengali language poet and astrologer herself, somewhere between the 9th and 12th centuries CE. The mound discovered in Chandraketugarh had the names of Khana and Mihir (another name by which Varahamihira was known). Varahamihira was believed to be part of emperor Vikramaditya or Chandragupta II’s famed navaratna sabha. Legend goes that because Khana was such an accomplished astrologer that Varahamihira’s career was threatened because she surpassed his accuracy in predictions. The story ends with either Khana’s husband or father-in-law cutting off her tongue to silence her talent.

Other discoveries helped understand several phases, ranging from the Mauryan to the post-Gupta period. Findings included large-sized pots and chalcedony beads possibly dating back to Mauryan times. Semi-precious stones, copper coins, terracotta figurines, cosmetic sticks of bone and ivory, and a steatite casket. Chandraketugarh is the only early historic site that has yielded such a massive amount of terracotta through excavation, so far recorded in eastern India.

A wide variety of figurines, animals, toy-carts, erotic depictions, narrative plaques depicting sceneries of harvest, aquatic motifs, among others, have been unearthed. Some of these terracotta items date back to the Indus Valley Civilisation, and are a window into the ways of life of the people. The female figurines are adorned with intricate headdresses, earrings, pendants, and other accessories that show the stellar craftsmanship of the civilisation.


A victim of neglect

Some historians also identified Chandraketugarh as Gangaridai, one of the four places that Greek philosopher Ptolemy mentions in his work — Geographia. This may suggest that the site had links with Rome and other ancient civilisations, and was part of a wide network of metal trading. The coins unearthed in excavations are telling of this.

After the 2000 excavation, evidence of a 30-foot rectangular fort, dating back to somewhere between the Maurya and Gupta periods, was found. The team also found structural remains of a temple. When the site was abandoned in 2001, it was left vulnerable to several thefts. People have managed to include items unearthed in their collections, and over the years, several artefacts have made their way to international museums such as Musee Guimet in Paris, as well as Sotheby’s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the US displays unprovenanced antiquities from Chandraketugarh, as gifts received from arrested art dealer Subash Kapoor.

In 2016, All-India Trinamool Congress MP, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, raised the issue of Chandraketugarh’s neglect in Parliament and wrote to the Centre as well. “In a place called Chandraketugarh in Berachampa, which is within my constituency of Deganga…Maritime was carried out with Europe 2,000 years ago. Seals, terracotta figurines recovered are getting lost…Mamata Banerjee had formed the Heritage Commission and excavation had started under the Archaeological Survey of India. We were expecting it to become a United Nations heritage site, but the excavation stopped. I draw your notice…and through you, the Hon’ble Minister of Culture, so that this place of heritage should find its place of prominence within our country,” the MP said.

Finally, in 2017, it was announced that a museum would be made to store the findings of Chandraketugarh. Art collector Dilip Maite donated 524 artefacts from his collection to the government for this museum, and their estimated value is around Rs 300 crore ($41 million).

Chandraketugarh finds itself mentioned more in newspapers and the media for these thefts and illegal activities than it ever has in the pages of history. A report by Sahapedia cites several reasons for its neglect. One is the larger problem of archaeological research in India, particularly that of coastal sites. Elements of coastal life are largely different from land-bound areas, right down to the geography. Moreover, owing to the volatile nature of these coasts, where places are often submerged and destroyed, these sites are even more difficult to excavate.

Another reason is the lack of textual or epigraphic material. Sources that mention Gangaridai do not point to a specific location where Chandraketugarh could have been located. No inscriptions with specific names of a place, king, or kingdom have been found either. And the legends surrounding the true identity of King Chandraketu only add to the mystery.

A detailed list of the artefacts uncovered in Chandraketugarh can be found here.