HELLENISTIC INDIA AND THE MAURYAN EMPIRE
In 327 BC Alexander the Great entered the borders of India with his army hoping to conquer the great eastern continent that had been a fabulous country of legend to the Greeks since at least the time of Herodotos. The Father of History described it as a vast desert land full of gold, fantastic tribes of men and giant ants. The Makedonians found India and the Indians to be far less supernatural than they had been led to expect, although the land was very wealthy and the people ready for war. Despite some victories and a favorable alliance with the powerful rajah, Poros (Parvataka or Parvatesha in Sanskrit), India at last broke the formerly undefeated Makedonian army. Alexander would have pushed further into the subcontinent beyond the Punjab but in 325 his weary troops, fearful of the rumors of the strong king of Magadha, mutinied on the bank of the river Hyphasis. The Makedonian king was forced to return west with India largely unconquered.

Alexander left behind agents in order to control the territories that he had overrun and to maintain the alliance with Poros who quickly abused their authority. With the treaty broken thus, Poros joined the cause of Chandragupta (Sandrakottos in Greek) Maurya, (320-298 BC) a powerful rajah who defeated the great Nanda king of Magdha in 323/2 BC. Together they overthrew the remaining Makedonians and lay the foundation for what would become one of the largest empires to ever exist in India. By the time Seleukos I Nikator made his own attempt to annex India in 305 BC the Mauryan Empire of Chandragupta encompassed most of modern Pakistan and India north of the Vindhya mountain range.

Chandragupta met Seleukos in battle somewhere in Gandhara and beat back the forces of the Successor king. A treaty was made between the two rulers in which Seleukos ceded authority over the eastern satrapies of Aria, Arachosia, Gedrosia and the Paropanisadai and Chandragupta gave Seleukos a gift of 500 war elephants. These animals were instrumental in the defeat of Antigonos Monophthalmos in 301 BC. Chandragupta also recieved the hand of a daughter of Seleukos. The kings parted on good terms with Seleukos maintaining an ambassador named Megasthanes at the Mauryan court in Pataliputra. He is our main source for the grandeur of Chandragupta's empire.

According to some traditions, late in his reign Chandragupta converted to Jainism and retired to lead the ascetic life in Shravan Belgola. He is said to have died after a long fast.

While he still lived the reigns of power were passed to his son Bindusara (298-271 BC)who succeeded in expanding the borders of the empire into the Deccan. Bindusara is known to have maintained good relations with Antiochos I Soter.

In 271 BC a brother of Bindusara, Ashoka Vardhana (271-232 BC), claimed the imperial title at Pataliputra, becoming the next great ruler of the Mauryan Empire. His armies marched into southern India, expanding his territory as far as modern Orissa. It is said that during this campaign he became so horrified by the slaughter caused by his men he converted to Buddhism with its creed of care for all living things. Although he tolerated all religions within his empire he strongly championed the Buddhist cause and sent missionaries to the courts of the major Hellenistic kings in Makedonia, Syria and Egypt.

Ashoka composed a great legal code, famous for its tolerance, and had it carved on pillars and rocks throughout the empire.

The Text of Ashoka's First Rock Inscription at Girnar

The period of the Mauryan Empire was one in which Indian culture flourished. Although Chandragupta and his heirs frequently ruled by force, their patronage allowed for the flowering of some of the most influential works of ancient Indian literature. Under their rule both the Arthashastra and the Kama Sutra by Kautilya and Vatasayan, respectively, were written.

Much like the empire of Alexander the Great, once Ashoka died in 232 BC the Mauryan Empire quickly began to collapse into a number of minor kingdoms, each without the strength to reforge the empire founded by Chandragupta.


See a coin of the Mauryan Empire.

All coins are shown actual size and are fully described. For an enlargement and a brief discussion of each coin's historical and iconographic importance please click on the appropriate coin picture.

For more information on Indian history and coinage from the Hellenistic to the Medieval period please visit Dr. Nupam's Webpage for Indian Coins.

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