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The Hellenistic Period in Northern India - Driven By Curiosity
The Hellenistic Period in Northern India
17 th Aug 2013

The world’s first great empire, the Persian Empire, was forged by Cyrus around the year 500 BC. Its dominion spread across much of the ancient world, from modern-day Libya and the Ionian Islands in the west to the river Indus in the east. Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, throwing a spear into the ground, declaring Asia Minor a gift to him from the gods.

In 326 BC, Alexander won a great victory against Porus, an Indian King. Impressed with Porus’ bravery, Alexander appointed him governor of regions around and including Punjab. Alexander’s campaign ended at the river Beas, when his army, reluctant to face yet another huge Indian army, mutinied against him.

After the death of Alexander in 323 BC, waves of Greek immigrants flooded into the eastern reaches of the empire, setting up at least 250 Hellenistic colonies. The trappings of the Athenian way of life reached eastwards, creating a new Greek vernacular, koine, which eventually became modern Greek. Although Hellenism was largely hegemonic, and although it cannot be said that it transformed culture completely in northern India, it certainly did have some modifying effects. Through trade – mostly of pearls, dyes, silk, wool and ivory – the rest of western India became exposed to Hellenistic culture, whilst in the north cities resembling Greek city states flourished with temples, libraries and theatres.

By 180 BC, a multitude of Indo-Greek kings rules north-west India, although one single king never unified the territory. These kings presided over a period of fusion between Greek and Indian cultures, combining Buddhist (which was the predominant religion in the region), Hindu and ancient Greek religious practises, as well as influencing art, architecture and most other areas of culture. It isn’t clear to exactly how great an extent the Indo-Greeks influenced Indian culture into the middle ages and beyond, but it is clear that first Persians and then Greeks occupied themselves with influencing northern India for over half a millennium.

Art dating from the Hellenistic period in northern India reveals that fashion and clothing was also Hellenized. Clothes such as the chiton, a Greek draped garment held on the shoulders by a fibula, and the himation, a heavier drape which served as a cloak over a chiton, were commonly worn. When the himation was used alone, and served both as a chiton and as a cloak, it was called an achiton. The Greek influence on Indian jewellery was also profound, with many elements of Greek styling finding their way into Indian jewellery to this day.

The influence on clothing was not merely received by India, but was also spread from India to the rest of the world. For instance, Chinese explorer Zhang Qian, who visited Bactria around 128 BC, suggests that intense trade with Southern China was going through northern India. 'When I was in Bactria", Zhang Qian reported, "I saw bamboo canes from Qiong and cloth (silk?) made in the province of Shu. When I asked the people how they had gotten such articles, they replied: "Our merchants go buy them in the markets of Shendu (northwestern India). Shendu, they told me, lies several thousand li southeast of Bactria. The people cultivate land, and live much like the people of Bactria.'

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