Cultural Plurality In The Indo-Iranian Borderlands
Ranabir Chakravarti
From The Oxus To The Indus: A Political And Cultural Study c. 300 BCE To c. 100 BCE by Suchandra Ghosh Primus Books, New Delhi, 2018, 198 pp., 1150
July 2018, volume 42, No 7

The historian’s engagements with the past—whether remote or recent—with an explanatory orientation, require a clear understanding of the preferred temporal and spatial units. The historian’s choice of a given area and a chronological span is often determined by, inter alia, historiographical issues and debates and evidential wherewithal.  These are methodological issues which the historian BD Chat-topadhyaya once labelled as the burden of historiography and the burden of sources. The other almost invariable compulsion of a historian is to pitch in the nation state or parts thereof as a pivot of historical enquiries. The historical background and the making of a nation state may somehow be captured by this method. But the problem emerges when one delves into the long pre-modern pasts of a country when no nation state existed. After all, the nation state appeared only from the early modern times, from around the 16th-17th centuries—and that too primarily in the specific context of Europe.

The validity of using the parameter of the well defined territorial entity, associated with the nation state, can be and has been critically questioned in the context of pre-modern times. This assumes further  significance in the context of histories of non-European societies and cultures which often have very protracted and rich histories that need not be pegged to the benchmark of a nation state. A typical case in point is the vast land mass of the Indian subcontinent which is often considered almost synonymous with South Asia. Contrary to the recently much flaunted concept of akhand-Bharat (unified India), the subcontinent was never a single and homogenous political, cultural, social and economic unit. It was doubtless a country with identifiable and palpable physical features but without any firm and inflexible boundaries typical of a well defined political entity. If the land, variously called Jambudvipa, Bharatavarsha, India, Hindustan (incidentally the earliest use of this term goes back to 262 CE) and Tien-chu figured in a wide variety of indigenous and non-indigenous sources of ancient times, its obvious physical fringes—marked by the Himalayas and the Hindukush mountains in the north and the sea on  three other sides

—never shut it out from other neighbouring zones. The apparent physical barriers of the Himalayas and the Hindukush, were marked with several porous pockets which continuously encouraged interactions and contacts with West and Central Asia.

In this background is situated Suchandra Ghosh’s well researched book under review here. The focal point of the book is the Indo-Iranian borderlands during roughly two centuries (300-100 BCE), embracing the northwest frontier of the subcontinent and Afghanistan, marked by the Hindukush and two celebrated rivers, the Oxus and the Indus. Hackenyed portrayals of this zone merely projects it as the conduit through which marauding ‘foreigners’ repeatedly threatened the mainland of the subcontinent as invaders. Taking the cue from Romila Thapar, Ghosh rightly questions the applicability of the appellation ‘foreigners’ to the situation of the northwest and the Indo-Iranian borderland. When no nation state was possible, the northwesterners were politically, socio-economically and culturally more tied to the Indo-Iranian borderlands than say, to the Ganga valley which is repeatedly centre-staged in the making of ancient India. The area in question did of course experience wars, invasions and political upheavals which, as Ghosh ably demonstrates, can be seen as political and cultural interactions without the compulsions of the labels like foreigners and indigenous elements. The cultural commonality between Indic and Iranian traditions has a very long history, from the days of pre-literate archaeological cultures to the times of the Rigveda and the Avesta. The ties strengthened when the northwest, Afghanistan and western part of Central Asia came under the occupation of the Achaeminid rulers of Iran for nearly two centuries (c. 6th to late 4th centuries BCE), known from Achaeminid records and Herodotus’s accounts.

The prolonged interplays of Indic and Iranian cultures were impacted by the Macedonian invasion of the late 4th century BCE. Alexander’s destruction of the vast Acahaemind realm brought the Greek elements at the doorstep of the subcontinent; the northwest was the easternmost zone of the Achaeminid empire.  The accounts of Alexander’s world conquest, including his success in the northwest and Indo-Iranian borderlands, have been subject matters of ancient Classical texts and their modern interpreters alike. Ghosh succinctly narrates the story of the short-lived Macedonian military presence that left many cultural legacies for several centuries after. Divided in 11 chapters—none very extensive—this slim book is packed with primary sources (especially  field archaeological, numismatic and epigraphic materials) which are meticulously studied to examine the impact of Hellenism in the Indo-Iranian borderlands. This is a subject trodden by only a handful of experts. As the erudite Foreword by Osmund Bopearachchi states, the author’s familiarity with the latest French researches in this field has immensely enriched the work. Seemingly a compact and fringe zone in terms of the subcontinent, the Indo-Iranian borderland—particularly Bactria (northern Afghinastan)—has been integrated to the South Asian studies by the author.  This is one of the salient features of this book.

The vast territorial possessions of Alexander came to the hands of his generals on account of his premature death and leaving no heir. The western sector, embracing Egypt, North Africa and the Red Sea zone came to the Ptolemaic Greek rulers, while the eastern theatre went to Seleucus and his successors (the Seleucids) who controlled an extensive area covering present day Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and some parts of Central Asia. Both the Ptolemaic and Seleucid rulers were contemporaries to the Mauryas of South Asia (c. 324-185 BCE). The war between Seleucus and Chandragupta Maurya (around 301BCE) led to a treaty that resulted in the Mauryan possession of Paropanisadae (Kabul) and Arachosia (Kandahar). This is best indicated by the Greek and Aramaic inscriptions issued by Asoka precisely in these areas. Ghosh has ably brought out the significance of the use of two non-indigenous scripts and languages (especially the fine quality of Greek language and script at both Taxila and Shar-i-Kuna near Kandahar). This is one of the surest proofs of the cultural pluralities in the Indo-Iranian borderlands where coexisted both Iranian, Semitic and Greek cultural elements. To the author goes the credit of suggesting that there could have been settlements of Greek population even in pre-Alexandrian times. The Achaeminid military successes against Greeks could have led to the shift of some Greek speaking people to the easternmost fringe of the Achaeminid empire. Alexander’s conquests at the cost of the Achaeminids paved the way for the foundation of many cities which left behind a rich historical legacy that has been explored in depth in this book.

The main focus of the author is to take a close look at the Greek rulers in this zone. Around 230 BCE the Greek rulers of Bactria with its capital at Bactra (Mazar-i-Shariff, Afghanistan), defied their Seleucid overlords and established an independent Greek kingdom in a zone in proximity to the subcontinent. While this kingdom lay to the north of the Hindukush, the Greek rulers gradually began to push to areas to the south of the Hindukush, thereby bringing them even closer to the subcontinent. This is a complex political and dynastic history, often shunned by students of early Indian history, in spite of very rich numismatic, field archaeological and art-historical sources. Ghosh must be credited for bringing out the nuances of politics (and not merely harping on dynastic succession) in relation to cultural practices with a commendable grasp of historiography.

The author traces back the scholarly curiosities about the Greek rule and its cultural impact in the eighteenth century Europe. The 19th and 20th century Europe, experiencing colonial world empires including the British empire, championed the cause of European forays into Asia along with South Asia not only for providing political stability and economic well-being, but also for civilizing Asia in a remote past. WW Tarn’s pioneering work on the Greek rulers in Bactria and later in the areas to the south of the Hindukush belonged to this genre. The upsurge of the national movement in India, eventually leading to the Independence of India, inspired AK Narain to present a diametrically opposite historical narrative that in spite of the undeniable presence of Greek elements in the northwest, India conquered. The author does not follow any of these two major strands of historiography, but seems to approach her theme from the point of cultural transactions in which pluralities are of central importance without that baggage of binaries. The author could have utilized here the methodologies of Romila Thapar on cultural transactions. In an otherwise rich bibliography, Ghosh has not cited this important work of Thapar. Ghosh duly pays attention to the enchanting world of Greek coins issued in the Indo-Iranian borderlands. This is of crucial significance, since as many as 30 Greek rulers are known from coins, while the Classical texts were aware of only eight. The author has rightly pointed out that the memory of this Greek kingdom in Bactria (ending in about 145 BCE) and that of the Greek rulers in South Asia was instrumental in the representation of this area in the later Classical texts of Strabo, Arrian, Justin and Plutarch.  The coins were issued as a marker of sovereignty, as dynastic issues. This left an important imprint on South Asian political culture as prior to c. 200 BCE Indic coins bore no names or portraits of rulers; in that sense, Indic coinage before its exposure to the Greek currency was non-dynastic issuance. The complex historiography of Graeco-Bactrian numismatics of this phase is excellently presented in chapter 3.

Two most enchanting chapters of this book, in the view of this reviewer, are on the Greek city of Aikhanoum, situated on the Oxus and known through excavations by Paul Bernard, and on Relgion and Politics of the Bactrain and Indo-Greek Rulers. Aikhanoum is a typical Greek city with acropolis, necropolis and a gymnasium, far away from mainland Greece. Yet two coins of Agathocles, found from Aikhanoum, offer the earliest iconographic representations of Krishna-Vishnu and his elder brother Balarama. It is therefore no wonder that Heliodorus, an envoy of the Greek ruler, Antialkidas of Taxila, would construct a Garuda pillar, obviously as a Bhagavata, at Vidisa in Madhya Pradesh in the second century BCE. How the depictions of diverse Greek divinities on the reverse of the coins were integral to the legitimation and portrayals of rulers have been expertly dealt with. Ghosh, however, could have drawn more on her mentor’s (this reviewer’s too) landmark work on this subject (B.N. Mukherjee, Numismatic Art of India, 2007). All these Greek and Bactrian rulers were labelled as yavanas in Sanskrit sources, a term, as Ghosh demonstrates, which never denoted only Greeks but non-indigenous peoples who belonged to Hellenistic cultural world.  The author should also take note of the fact that the term Y’vana in Hebrew bore the same connotation. How the term with its root in Ionian reached both the world of Indo-Aryan and Semitic languages is a point to ponder in her future works.

The reviewer would like to raise two points here. In this otherwise finely produced book, the name of Asoka has been repeatedly put with wrong diacritics. Second, the author somehow has chosen to remain silent on two important and relevant points: a) there is no discussion on the Sanskrit treatise, Yavanajataka, on Zodiac signs which drew upon a Greek text and b) there is no discussion on the epigraphic records and art-historical materials in the Karakorum highway. Why was no Greek element at all present in the Karakorum highway that offered a direct access for northern Kashmir to Central Asia? As Brahmi and Kharoshti and Chinese inscriptions abound in the Karakorum highway, is it possible to argue that this route was used by travellers, preachers and merchants of a non-Hellenistic world?

Suchandra Ghosh has competently handled a very complex politico-cultural
issue. Without seeing the history from a
Hellenizing and Hellenistic perspective she has highlighted cultural plurality in the Indo-Iranian borderlands and northwestern subcontinent where the imprints of Hellenistic the culture are impossible to lose sight of.

Ranabir Chakravarti is a retired Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru Univesrity, New Delhi.


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Review Details

Book Name: From The Oxus To The Indus: A Political And Cultural Study c. 300 BCE To c. 100 BCE
Reviewer name: Ranabir Chakravarti
Author name: Suchandra Ghosh
Book Year: 2018
Publisher Name: Primus Books, New Delhi
Book Price: 1150
Book Pages: 198