King Porus of Paurava

The Macedonian Empire, 336-323 B.C.
The Macedonian Empire, 336-323 B.C. Public Domain. Courtesy of Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection.

King Porus of Paurava was an important ruler in the Indian subcontinent during the 4th century BCE. Porus fiercely battled Alexander the Great, and not only survived that battle, but made an honorable peace with him and gained an even larger rule in Punjab in what is today Pakistan. Curiously, his story is written in numerous Greek sources (Plutarch, Arrian, Diodorus, and Ptolemy, among others) but barely mentioned in Indian sources, a fact which leads some historians to wonder about the "peaceful" ending.

Who Was Porus?

Porus, also spelled Poros and Puru in Sanskrit, was one of the last members of the dynasty of Puru, a clan known both in India and Iran and said to have originated from Central Asia. The clan families were members of the Parvatiya ("mountaineers") mentioned by Greek writers. Porus ruled over the land between the Hydaspes (Jhelum) and the Acesines rivers in the Punjab region and he first appears in Greek sources in connection with Alexander. The Persian Achaemenid ruler Darius III asked Poros for help defending himself against Alexander after his third disastrous loss at Gaugamela and Arbela in 330 BCE. Instead, Darius's men, sick of losing so many battles, killed him and joined Alexander's forces.

Battle of the Hydaspes River

Mosaic Alexander the Great
Detail of Mosaic Alexander the Great at the Battle of Issus, Pompeii. Getty Images / Leemage/Corbis

In June 326 BCE, Alexander decided to leave Bactria and cross the Jhelum River into Porus's realm. Several of Porus's rivals joined Alexander in his imperial move into the continent; but Alexander was held up at riversedge because it was the rainy season and the river was swollen and turbulent. It didn't stop him for long. Word reached Porus that Alexander had found a place to cross; he sent his son to investigate, but the son and his 2,000 men and 120 chariots were destroyed.

Porus went to meet Alexander himself, bringing 50,000 men, 3,000 calvaries, 1,000 chariots, and 130 war elephants against Alexander's 31,000 (but the numbers vary widely from source to source). Monsoons proved more of an obstacle to the Indian bowmen (who could not use the muddy ground to gain purchase for their longbows) than to the Macedonians who crossed the swollen Hydaspes on pontoons. Alexander's troops gained the upper hand; even the Indian elephants were said to have stampeded their own troops.

Aftermath

Chandragupta
Chandragupta's footprints. Romana Klee/Flickr

According to the Greek reports, the wounded but unbowed King Porus surrendered to Alexander, who made him a satrap (basically a Greek regent) with control over his own kingdom. Alexander continued to advance into India, gaining regions controlled by 15 of Porus's rivals and 5,000 sizable cities and villages. He also founded two cities of Greek soldiers: Nikaia and Boukephala, the last named after his horse Bucephalus, who had died in the battle.

Porus's troops helped Alexander crush the Kathaioi, and Porus was given control over much of the area to the east of his old kingdom. Alexander's advance stopped at the kingdom of Magadha, and he left the subcontinent, leaving Porus as the head of the satrapy in Punjab as far east as the Beas and Sutlej rivers.

It didn't last long. Porus and his rival Chandragupta led a revolt against the remnants of Greek rule, and Porus himself was assassinated between 321 and 315 BCE. Chandragupta would go on to establish the Great Mauryan Empire.

Ancient Writers

Ancient writers about Porus and Alexander the Great at the Hydaspes, who were, unfortunately, not contemporaries of Alexander, are: Arrian (probably best, based on the eyewitness account of Ptolemy), Plutarch, Q. Curtius Rufus, Diodorus, and Marcus Junianus Justinus (Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus). Indian scholars such as Buddha Prakash have wondered if the story of Porus's loss and surrender might have been a more equal decision than the Greek sources would have us beliieve.

During the battle against Porus, Alexander's men encountered poison on the tusks of the elephants. Military History of Ancient India says the tusks were tipped with poison-coated swords, and Adrienne Mayor identifies the poison as Russell's viper venom, as she writes in "The Uses of Snake Venom in Antiquity." Porus himself was said to have been killed by "physical contact with a poisoned girl."

Sources