Crossing the Indus



In the spring of 326 bce Alexander reached the formidable River Indus, the wide, fast-flowing river Arrian describes as "bigger than any river in Europe, a mighty stream which imposes its name upon the country as it flows down to meet the sea".

Arriving at the pre-arranged meeting point at the town of Ohind some 16 miles above Attock, the Macedonian Army was reunited as Alexander met up with Hephaestion and Perdiccas whom he had sent ahead with half his forces to gather supplies and bridge the river.

Although Arrian states that neither Ptolemy nor Aristobulus explain how this was done, he assumes that it must have been achieved by lashing together a large number of small boats in the same way Xerxes had once crossed the Hellespont and Darius the Great both the Bosphorus and Danube (Ister). Across this temporary structure would pass the whole army, consisting of some 64,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry and a baggage train including supplies, siege equipment and camp-followers, which must have stretched for miles.

Once across the Indus, Alexander made his customary sacrifices to the gods as the lands of Taxila stretched before him as far as the River Hydaspes (Jhelum), covering an area Plutarch calculated as the same size as Egypt. Its large and prosperous capital city Taxila (Bhir, 20 miles north-west of Rawalpindi) lay at the junction of three major trade routes from Bactria, Kashmir and the Ganges Valley, and was home to the region's ruler King Omphis (Ambhi), known by his official/dynastic title Taxiles after the name of his city.

Omphis/Taxiles had already pledged support for Alexander in the previous year, and together with his officials and local dignitaries he keenly awaited the Macedonian's arrival into his city, together with the previously hostile Abisares of Kashmir. Amidst great ceremonies, Omphis presented Alexander with 200 silver talents, 3,000 oxen, 10,000 sheep "for sacrificial purposes" together with 30 elephants, 700 Indian cavalry and 5,000 infantry, in return for which Alexander offered him as much of the bordering territories his new ally requested, together with a generous 1,000 talents in coin from his travelling treasury.

Alexander was fortunate that the kingdoms of the Punjab were deeply divided, Taxiles/Omphis being at war with his neighbour King Poros, whose great kingdom lay east across the Hydaspes (Jhelum). Fully aware that united resistance would have made his conquest incredibly difficult, Alexander intended to capitalise on their long-standing feud.

After offering sacrifices "to the gods whom it was his custom to honour", Alexander set up camp on the edge of the city's perimeter and "held a contest of athletics and horsemanship by the river" (Arrian). He appointed the Macedonian Philip as governor of the Taxila district, and during his two month stay also came into contact with local teachers and religious figures, together with a group of local philosophers dubbed the Gymnosophists, or "Naked Philosophers", since they had renounced all worldly possessions and chose to remain apart from the world around them, living at some distance from the city.

Always passionately interested in philosophical teachings, Alexander was keen to make their acquaintance, and through interpreters and Diogenes' student Onesicritus tried unsuccessfully to persuade their chief, Dandamis, to join his advisory staff, so highly did he regard their independent spirit and plain speaking. Yet his fellow philosopher Calanus did join Alexander's entourage, having completed his prescribed four decades of asceticism; free to follow any path he wished, the aged philosopher accompanied Alexander on his return to the west, remaining a close friend until his death at the age of 79.

In the early summer, Alexander received news that India's most powerful king, Poros, had decided against supporting him, his considerable forces gathering on the opposite bank of the River Hydaspes (Jhelum) from where they guarded the crossing into their territory. Alexander sent Coenus back to the Indus with orders to dismantle the boats used by Hephaistion to form the bridgehead, and transport them by ox-cart overland to the River Hydaspes to repeat the operation once the omens were favourable.

The skill and adaptability of Alexander's engineering corps remains unsurpassed by any army in history. Whatever the terrain, from tropical to freezing, scorching desert to waterlogged marshland, they met every challenge they were set and overcame every difficulty they encountered. Whilst their siege towers breached the most impregnable of strongholds, their bridge-building skills were equally outstanding and allowed them to cross ravines and rivers alike.

When Hephaistion and Perdiccas were sent on ahead of Alexander's main force with instructions to bridge the Indus, they took with them the chief engineers. Although neither of his main sources Ptolemy and Aristobulus explains how they managed to achieve this, Arrian states that the great depth of the Indus would have prevented them constructing a permanent bridge in the short time they had. Instead he assumes they must have made a more temporary arrangement by lashing together a large number of small boats, in the name way Herodotus reported Xerxes had crossed the Hellespont and Darius the Great both the Bosphorus and Danube (Ister), and indeed, Arrian's own Roman countrymen would later use to great effect. Whatever form the boat-bridge took, it was certainly sturdy enough to allow at least 76,000 soldiers, their supplies, equipment and endless numbers of camp-followers.

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