Unlike the other countries of Greater Britain, India is no new-discovered land. At a time when our little island was still unknown, still lost in the cold grey mists of the ocean, ships sailed from India's sunny shores, and caravans wound through the sandy deserts laden with silks and muslins, with gold and jewels and spices.
For through long ages India has been a place of trade. The splendours of King Solomon came from out the East. He must have traded with India when he built great ships and sent "his shipmen that had knowledge of the sea" to sail to the far land of Ophir, which perhaps may have been in Africa or equally perhaps the island of Ceylon. From there these ship-men fetched such "great plenty" of gold and precious stones, that "silver was nothing accounted of in the days of Solomon."
The court, too, of many an ancient heathen king and queen was made rich and beautiful by the treasures of the East. Yet little was known of the land of gold and spice, of gems and peacocks. For beside the merchants, who grew rich with their traffickings, few journeyed to India.
But at length, in 327 b.c. , the great Greek conqueror Alexander found his way there. Having subdued Syria, Egypt, and Persia, he next marched to invade the unknown land of gold.
The part of India which Alexander invaded is called the Punjab, or land of the five rivers. At that time it was ruled by a king called Porus. He was overlord of the Punjab, and under him were many other princes. Some of these princes were ready to rebel against Porus, and they welcomed Alexander gladly. But Porus gathered a great army and came marching against the Greek invader.
On one side of a wide river lay the Greeks, on the other side lay the Indians. It seemed impossible for either to cross. But in the darkness of a stormy night Alexander and his men passed over, wading part of the way breast high.
A great battle was fought. For the first time the Greeks met elephants in war. The huge beasts were very terrible to look upon. Their awful trumpetings made the Greek horses shiver and tremble. But Alexander's soldiers were far better drilled and far stronger than the Indians. His horsemen charged the elephants in flank, and they, stung to madness by the Greek darts, turned to flee, trampling many of the soldiers of Porus to death in their fright. The Indian war-chariots stuck fast in the mud. Porus himself was wounded. At length he yielded to the conqueror.
But now that Porus was defeated Alexander was gracious to him, and treated him as one great king and warrior should treat another. Henceforth they became friends.
As Alexander marched through India he fought battles, built altars, and founded cities. One city he called Boukephala in honour of his favourite horse Bucephalus, which died and was buried there. Other cities he called Alexandreia in honour of his own name.
As they journeyed, Alexander and his soldiers saw many new and strange sights. They passed through boundless forests of mighty trees beneath whose branches roosted flocks of wild peacocks. They saw serpents, glittering with golden scales, glide swiftly through the underwood. They stared in wonder at fearful combats of beasts, and told strange stories when they returned home, of dogs that were not afraid to fight with lions, and of ants that dug for gold.
At length Alexander reached the city of Lahore and marched on to the banks of the river Sutlej beyond. He was eager to reach the holy river Ganges and conquer the people there. But his men had grown weary of the hardships of the way, weary of fighting under the burning suns or torrent rains of India, and they begged him to go no further. So, greatly against his will, Alexander turned back.
The Greeks did not return as they had come. They sailed down the rivers Jhelum and Indus. And so little was known of India in those days, that they believed at first that they were upon the Nile and that they would return home by way of Egypt. But they soon discovered their mistake, and after long journeyings reached Macedonia again.
It was only the north of India through which Alexander had marched. He had not really conquered the people, although he left Greek garrisons and Greek rulers behind him, and when he died the people quickly revolted against the rule of Macedonia. So all trace of Alexander and his conquests soon disappeared from India. His altars have vanished and the names of the cities which he founded have been changed. But for long ages the deeds of the great "Secunder," as they called him, lived in the memory of the Indians.
And it is since the time of Alexander that the people of the West have known something of the wonderful land in the East with which they had traded through many centuries.