Alexander's invasion of India turned from a heroic entry into a humiliating retreat. Even the ploy of using the rakhi as a Trojan horse did not help the Greeks win against the bravery and skills of Indian soldiers.

If you’ve seen the epic movie Alexander by Oliver Stone, you wouldn’t have missed the noted American director’s commentary at the end where he talks about the battle of Multan. Stone narrates how the great Macedonian warrior single-handedly jumped into combat against 1000 Indian defenders, inspiring his dithering Greek soldiers and commanders to storm the fort.

To the victors go the spoils, so if the Greeks and Macedonians were really victorious, as European accounts narrate, then why did they leave India so soon? After all, over 99% of the country was still unconquered. And why did the retreating army resemble a defeated brood – rather than a triumphant band – trekking across inhospitable areas, losing 60,000 men in the process?

The fact is that Alexander’s Indian campaign was a complete disaster for the Greeks. They were traumatised after the first few battles, losing most of their men in ferocious battles against Indian warriors, the likes of whom they had never encountered before.

In 326 BC the formidable Greek-Macedonian army entered India. It was the first time Europeans and Indians first looked into one another's faces; the first meeting of the two halves of the Aryan race since their forefathers had parted centuries before.

Greek histories record that Alexander’s greatest battle was the Battle of Hydaspes in which he faced King Puru, the Yaduvanshi king of the Paurava kingdom of Punjab. Paurava was a prosperous Indian kingdom on the banks of the river Jhelum, and Puru – described in Greek accounts as Porus and standing over seven feet tall – was a generous monarch. Perhaps, generous to a fault.

Legend has it that ahead of Alexander’s entry into India, his Persian wife Roxana, the daughter of the defeated Persian king Darius, arrived in Paurava to meet King Puru, who was preparing for war against the foreign invader.

Roxana gained access to Puru, and through the bond of rakhi, declared herself his sister. She then begged Puru to spare her husband’s life if he encountered the Macedonian king in battle. The large-hearted Indian king agreed to this bizarre request.

In the autumn of 326BC, the Greek and Paurava armies faced each other across the banks of the river Jhelum in Punjab. By all accounts it was an awe-inspiring spectacle. The Greeks and Macedonians had 34,000 infantry and 7000 cavalry. This number was boosted further by their Persian allies.

Facing this tumultuous force led by the genius of Alexander was the Paurava army of 20,000 infantry, 2000 cavalry and 200 war elephants. Being a comparatively small kingdom by Indian standards, Paurava couldn’t have had such a large standing army, so most of its defenders were most likely hastily drawn-up conscripts.

According to Greek sources, for several days the armies eyeballed each other across the river. They write Alexander could not move his army across the river because it was swollen from the rains. A lamer excuse is not found in history. Alexander’s army had crossed the Hellespont, a 1-8 km wide strip of sea that divides Asia and Europe, and which was well defended by the Persians, so crossing the narrow Jhelum against a much smaller adversary should have been a far easier task.

In reality, the Greek-Macedonian force, after having lost several thousand soldiers fighting much smaller Indian mountain cities, were terrified at the prospect of fighting the fierce Paurava army. They had also heard about the havoc that Indian war elephants were supposed to create among enemy ranks. The modern equivalent of battle tanks, the war elephants also scared the wits out of the Greek horses.

In the Battle of Hydaspes, the Indians fought with bravery and war skills that no other army had shown against the Greeks. In the first charge by the Indians, Puru’s brother Amar killed Alexander’s favourite horse Bucephalus, forcing Alexander to dismount. In all past battles the elite Macedonian bodyguards had not allowed a single enemy soldier to even deliver a scratch on their king's body, let alone slay his mount. Yet in this battle with the Paurava army, Alexander was injured, and the Indians killed Nicaea, one of the leading Greek commanders. And yet, quite illogically, the ancient European writers concluded Alexander won the battle.

According to the Roman historian Marcus Justinus, the battle was savagely fought. Puru challenged Alexander, who charged him on horseback. In the ensuing duel, Alexander fell off his horse and was at the mercy of the Indian king’s spear (and this is where legend meets history) when Puru perhaps remembered his promise to his rakhi sister (very likely a Trojan horse sent in by the Greeks) and spared the Macedonian’s life. Alexander’s bodyguards quickly carried off their king.

The Greeks, of course, claim victory but in reality the result was at best a stalemate. For, if Alexander’s troops failed against the petty regional fiefdoms, how could they have crushed the much stronger army of Puru? Indian and foreign scholars who are re-examining Greek histories are coming to the conclusion that the Greeks probably lost the battle and Alexander sued for peace.

The Greek geographer Strabo complains in the Geographika that all who wrote about Alexander preferred the marvellous to the true. Certainly he alludes to Alexander’s original propaganda to glorify his struggle in the East. He created his own mystified version of the campaign, transforming it into a search for divine traces.

Plutarch, the Greek historian, says of the Battle of Hydaspes: “The combat with Porus took off the edge of the Macedonians' courage, and stayed their further progress into India. For having found it hard enough to defeat an enemy who brought but 20,000 foot and 2000 horse into the field, they thought they had reason to oppose Alexander's design of leading them on to pass the Ganges, on the further side of which was covered with multitudes of enemies.”

Indeed, on the other side of the Ganges was the mighty kingdom of the wily Nandas. They weren't exactly popular in their own kingdom of Magadh, but they commanded one of the largest armies in the world. While Puru had 200 war elephants, the Nandas had 6,000. Imagine the carnage waiting the Greeks.

Still 400km from the Ganges, the Indian heartland, Alexander ordered a retreat to great jubilation among his soldiers. The celebrations were premature. On its way south towards the mouth of the Indus river, Alexander's army was constantly harried by Indian soldiers. When the Greeks pillaged villages, the Indians retaliated but mostly the Indian soldiers simply fell upon the Greeks because they wouldn’t tolerate foreigners invading their country.

Western historians depict the Battle of Hydaspes as a clash of the organised west and the muddling east. That one battle is portrayed as the Greek conquest of India, while the fact is that Alexander merely probed the western extremity of India. Puru was by any reckoning a minor king and doesn’t even merit a mention in Indian accounts.

Alexander’s invasion of India was a popular subject in Greece and Rome for many centuries. The Alexander romance even entered medieval European literature and religion. Much later it became the fountain of inspiration for the colonisation of the east, especially India.

Yet within a few years after Alexander’s retreat, the Indians drove the Greeks out of India. Inspired by the master strategist Chanakya, Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty, defeated Seleucus Necator, Alexander's satrap. This was quite unlike the rest of Alexander’s conquests. The Sassanians, a true-blue Persian dynasty, finally retook Persia 500 years after Alexander. The Parthians were able to depose the Greeks after 250 years. Egypt, of course, never recovered.

Arrian, the Roman biographer of Alexander, says the only ‘victory’ celebration by Alexander’s troops was after the battle with Puru. Surprising – that Alexander’s troops did not celebrate any victory, till the very end of the campaign. Was it, instead, a celebration that they had escaped with their lives?

So, what frightened Alexander’s army? Plutarch says that after the battle with Puru, the badly bruised and rattled Greeks were frightened when they received information that further from Punjab, lay places “where the inhabitants were skilled in agriculture, where there were elephants in yet greater abundance and men were superior in stature and courage”.

No wonder the Greeks never came back.