Gangaridai is a term used by the ancient Greek and Roman writers to describe the people or a geographical region of the ancient Indian subcontinent. Some of these writers have stated that Alexander the Great, the king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon withdrew from the Indian subcontinent because of the strong war elephant force of the Gangaridai. A war elephant was an elephant that was trained and guided by humans for combat. The war elephant’s main use was to charge the enemy, break their ranks and instil terror and fear. Elephantry is a term for specific military units using elephant-mounted troops. The writers have variously mentioned Gangaridai as a distinct tribe. However, the geographical region was annexed and governed by the Nanda Empire that ruled in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent during the 4th and possibly the 5th century BCE, at the time.
A number of modern scholars locate Gangaridai in the Ganges Delta of the Bengal region, although, alternative theories do exist. Gange or Ganges, the capital of the Gangaridai (according to Claudius Ptolemy a renowned geographer who wrote many scientific treatises and lived in the Egypt-Roman Empire), has been identified with several sites in the region, including Chandraketugarh near Kolkata and Wari-Bateshwar in Bangladesh.
The earliest surviving description of Gangaridai appears in Bibliotheca historica a work of universal history by the 1st century BCE writer Diodorus Siculus. This account is based on a now-lost work, probably, the writings of either Megasthenes or Hieronymus of Cardia a Greek general and historian from Cardia in Thrace, and a contemporary of Alexander the Great..
In Book 2 of Bibliotheca historica, Diodorus states that the territory of “Gandaridae” (i.e. Gangaridai) was located to the east of the Ganges River, which was 30 stades wide, an ancient system of measurement. He further mentions that no foreign enemy had ever conquered Gandaridae, because of its strong elephant force, and that Alexander the Great advanced up to Ganges after subjugating other Indians, but decided to retreat when he heard that Gandaridae had 4,000 elephants.
River Ganges, which is thirty stades in width, flows from north to south and empties into the ocean, forming the boundary towards the east of the tribe of Gandaridae, which possesses the greatest number of elephants and the largest in size. Consequently no foreign king has ever subdued this country. All alien nations were fearful of both the multitude and the strength of the beasts. In fact even Alexander of Macedon, who had subdued entire Asia, refrained from waging a war on Gandaridae. When he arrived at the Ganges River with his entire army, after his conquest of the rest of the Indians, upon learning that the Gandaridae had four thousand elephants equipped for war he gave up his campaign against them.
In Book 17 of Bibliotheca historica, Diodorus once again describes the Gandaridae, and states that Alexander had to retreat after his soldiers refused to take the expedition against the Gandaridae. The book (17.91.1) also mentions that a nephew of Porus fled to the land of the Gandaridae, although C. Bradford Welles translates the name of this land as “Gandara”.
Once Alexander questioned Phegeus about the country beyond the Indus River, and learned that there was a desert to traverse for twelve days, and then the river called Ganges, which was thirty-two furlongs in width and the deepest of all the Indian rivers. Beyond this in turn dwelt the people of the Tabraesians and the Gandaridae, whose king was Xandrames. He had twenty thousand cavalry, two hundred thousand infantry, two thousand chariots, and four thousand elephants equipped for war. Alexander doubted this information and sent for Porus, and asked him, what was the truth of these reports? Porus assured the king that all the rest of the account was quite correct, but that the king of the Gandaridae was an utterly common and undistinguished character, and was supposed to be the son of a barber. His father had been handsome and was greatly loved by the queen; when she had murdered her husband, the kingdom fell to him.
In Book 18 of Bibliotheca historica, Diodorus describes India as a large kingdom comprising several nations, the largest of which was “Tyndaridae” (which seems to be a scribal error for “Gandaridae”). He further states that a river separated this nation from their neighbouring territory. This 30-stadia wide river was the greatest river in this region of India (Diodorus does not mention the name of the river in this book). He goes on to mention that Alexander did not campaign against this nation, because they had a large number of elephants. The Book 18 description is as follows:
… the first one along the Caucasus is India, a great and populous kingdom, inhabited by many Indian nations, of which the greatest is that of the Gandaridae, against whom Alexander did not aggress a campaign because of the multitude of their elephants. The river Ganges, which is the deepest of the region and has a width of thirty stades, separates this land from the neighbouring part of India. Adjacent to this is the rest of India, which Alexander conquered, irrigated by water from the rivers and most conspicuous for its prosperity. Here were the dominions of Porus and Taxiles, together with many other kingdoms, and through it flows the Indus River, from which the country received its name.
Diodorus’ account of India in the Book 2 is based on Indica, a book written by the 4th century BCE writer Megasthenes, who actually visited India. Megasthenes’ Indica is now lost, although it has been reconstructed from the writings of Diodorus and other later writers. Scottish educator J. W. McCrindle (1877) attributed Diodorus’ Book 2 passage about the Gangaridai to Megasthenes in his reconstruction of Indica. However, according to historian A. B. Bosworth (1996), Diodorus’ source for the information about the Gangaridai was Hieronymus of Cardia (354–250 BCE), who was a contemporary of Alexander and the main source of information for Diodorus’ Book 18. Bosworth points out that Diodorus describes Ganges as 30 stadia wide, but it is also well-attested by other sources that Megasthenes described the median (or minimum) width of Ganges as 100 stadia. This suggests that Diodorus obtained the information about the Gandaridae from another source, and appended it to Megasthenes’ description of India in Book 2.
The Battle with Porus depressed the spirits of the Macedonians, and made them very unwilling to advance farther into India. Regarding river Ganges they had heard, had a breadth of two and thirty stadia, and a depth of 1000 fathoms, while its farther banks were covered all over with armed men, horses and elephants. It is perceived that the kings of the Gandaritai and the Prasiai were reported to be waiting for Alexander with an army of 80,000 horse, 200,000 foot soldiers, 8,000 war-chariots, and 6,000 fighting elephants.
Geographer Ptolemy (2nd century CE), in his Geography, states that the Gangaridae occupied “all the region about the mouths of the Ganges”. He names a city called Gange as their capital. This suggests that Gange was the name of a city, derived from the name of the river. Based on the city’s name, the Greek writers used the word “Gangaridai” to describe the local people.
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea which is a Greco-Roman document written in Koine Greek also known as Alexandrian dialect, describes, navigation and trading opportunities right from Roman Egyptian ports, like Berenice Troglodytica, an ancient sea port of Egypt, along the coast of the Red Sea, and others along Horn of Africa, the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, including the modern-day Sindh region of Pakistan and up to south-western regions of India, does not mention Gangaridai, but attests the existence of a city that the Greco-Romans described as “Ganges”:
There is a river near it called the Ganges, and it rises and falls just like the Nile. On its bank is a market-town which has the same name as the river, Ganges. Through this place are brought malabathrum—certain cinnamon like aromatic plant leaves and an ointment prepared from those leaves and the Gangetic spikenard—a class of aromatic amber-coloured essential oil and pearls, and muslin of the finest sorts, which are called Gangetic. It is said that there are gold-mines near these places.
Dionysius Periegetes the author of a description of the then known world in Greek hexameter verse in 2nd-3rd century CE mentions “Gargaridae” located near the “gold-bearing Hypanis” (Beas) river. “Gargaridae” is sometimes believed to be a variant of “Gangaridae”, but another theory identifies it with Gandhari people. A. B. Bosworth dismisses Dionysius’ account as “a farrago of nonsense”, noting that he inaccurately describes the Hypanis river as flowing down into the Gangetic plain.
Gangaridai also finds a mention in Greek mythology. In ‘Apollonius of Rhodes’ a Greek author’s Argonautica—an epic poem (3rd century BCE), Datis, a chieftain, leader of the Gangaridae who was in the army of Perses III better known in English as Persia, fought against Aeetes—the famous king of Colchis in Greek mythology during the Colchian civil war. Colchis was situated in modern-day Georgia, on the east of the Black Sea. Aeetes against whom Jason—an ancient Greek mythological hero and the Argonauts—a band of heroes in Greek mythology undertook their expedition in search of the “Golden Fleece—a symbol of authority and kinship. Perses III was the brother of Aeetes and king of the Taurian tribe.
The Roman poet Virgil speaks of the valour of the Gangaridae in his poem Georgics.
Quintus Curitus Rufus a Roman historian possibly of the 1st century CE noted the two nations Gangaridae and Prasil. Agrammes or Xandrammes has been usually identified with Mahāpadma Nanda who was king of both Prasii and Gangaridae. Next came the Ganges, the largest river in all of India, the farther bank of which was inhabited by two nations, the Gangaridae and the Prasii, whose king Agrammes kept in field for guarding the approaches to his country with 20,000 cavalry and 200,000 infantry, besides 2,000 four-horsed chariots, and, what was the most formidable of all, a troop of elephants which he said ran up to the number of 3,000.
Pliny the Elder, another Roman author (23-79 CE) states: The last race situated on the banks of Ganges was that of the Gangarid Calingae. The city where their king lived was called Pertalis. This monarch had 60,000 infantry, 1000 cavalry and 700 elephants always equipped and ready for active service. But almost the entire India and not only those in this district were surpassed in power and glory by the Prasi, with their very large and wealthy city of Palibothra—called Patna, from which some people give the name of Palibothri to the race itself, and indeed to the whole tract of country from the Ganges.
The Wari-Bateshwar ruins of present-day Bangladesh have been identified as a part of Gangaridai. Archaeologists have considered it as the ancient trading hub of Sounagoura mentioned by Claudius Ptolemy.
Archaeologists have considered Chandraketugarh of present-day Indian state West Bengal as the ancient city of Gange, the capital of Gangaridai
The ancient Greek writers provide vague information about the centre of the Gangaridai power. As a result, the later historians have put forward various theories about its location.
Pliny (1st century CE) in his work Natural History, terms the Gangaridai as the novisima gens (nearest people) of the Ganges River. But it cannot be determined from his writings whether he means “nearest to the mouth” or “nearest to the headwaters”. But the later writer Ptolemy (2nd century CE), in his Geography, explicitly locates the Gangaridai near the mouths of the Ganges.
Historian A. B. Bosworth notes that the ancient Latin writers almost always use the word “Gangaridae” to define the people, and associate them with the Prasii people. According to Megasthenes, who actually lived in India, the Prasii people lived near the Ganges. Besides, Pliny explicitly mentions that the Gangaridae lived beside the Ganges, naming their capital as Pertalis. All these evidences suggest that the Gangaridae lived in the Gangetic plains.
Diodorus (1st century BCE) states that the Ganges River formed the eastern boundary of the Gangaridai. Based on Diodorus’s writings and the identification of Ganges with Bhagirathi-Hoogly (a western distributary of Ganges), Gangaridai can be identified with the Rarh region an area in the Indian subcontinent that lies between the Chota Nagpur Plateau on the West and the Ganges Delta on the East.
The Rarh is located to the west of the Bhāgirathi-Hooghly (Ganges) river. However, Plutarch a Greek historian (1st century CE), Curtius a Roman historian (possibly 1st century CE) and Solinus a Latin geographer (3rd century CE), suggest that Gangaridai was located on the eastern banks of the Gangaridai river. Historian R. C. Majumdar theorized that the earlier historians like Diodorus used the word Ganga for the Padma River (an eastern distributary of Ganges).
Pliny names five mouths of the Ganges River, and states that the Gangaridai occupied the entire region about these mouths. He names five mouths of Ganges as Kambyson, Mega, Kamberikon, Pseudostomon and Antebole. The exact present-day locations of these mouths cannot be determined with certainty because of the changing river courses. According to historian D.C. Sircar, the region encompassing these mouths appears to be the region lying between the Bhāgirathi-Hooghly River in the west and the Padma River in the east. This suggests that the Gangaridai territory included the coastal region of present-day West Bengal and Bangladesh, up to the Padma River in the east. Gaurishankar De and Subhradip De believe that the five mouths may refer to the Bidyadhari, Jamuna and other branches of Bhagirathi-Hoogly at the entrance of Bay of Bengal.
According to the archaeologist Dilip Kumar Chakrabarti, the centre of the Gangaridai power was located in vicinity of Adi Ganga (a now dried-up flow of the Hooghly River). Chakrabarti considers Chandraketugarh as the strongest candidate for the centre, followed by Mandirtala both near Kolkata. James Wise believed that Kotalipara in present-day Bangladesh was the capital of Gangaridai. Archaeologist Habibullah Pathan identified the Wari-Bateshwar ruins as the Gangaridai territory.
Besides the above there are many other theories by historians and observers which might be unrelated and insufficiently related.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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