The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Did Anuradhapura Greeks come east with Alexander?


“The Greeks whom King Pandukabhaya (377-307BCE) settled in the West Gate of Anuradhapura were not second or third generation of Greeks who arrived in NW India but were men who, just two decades ago at the most, left Greek homelands as Alexander’s camp followers and come to Sri Lanka with or in the wake of Alexander’s troops. When their fellow Greeks showed reluctance to push further south, these Greeks apparently had done so.”

Professor Merlin Peris, former Professor of Classics, University of Peradeniya in his latest Mahavamsa series “Mahavamsa Studies 3, Of Silk Routes, Tsunamis and Royal Suicides” has dug deep into areas yet untapped in the Mahavamsa and opened up exciting scenarios of early history. In his opening chapter on “Greeks in the Mahavamsa”, he unravels the mysteries of Greek presence as early as the 4th century BCE ( Before Common Era) and the strategic reaction of the Lankan ruler in dealing with the penetration of Greeks – the greatest conquerors of the period.
Professor Peris, referring to the Greeks identified as Yona in the Mahavamsa, says that they who were accorded a separate quarter in the city, would have constituted the furthest settlement of Greeks of whatever period of time and anywhere in the world in antiquity. ”They came with or soon after Alexander’s victorious troops finding residence in a part of the world that (if at all) may only have been in Alexander’s wild dreams.”
Explaining the setting up of the Greek settlement as a strategic move by Pandukabhaya, Professor Peris quotes from D.P.M. Weerakkody’s “Taprobane: Ancient Sri Lanka as known to the Greeks and the Romans”.

“The establishment of a foreign quarter in the Capital at this early date implies a very prompt reaction on the part of Sri Lanka to the new conditions brought about by Greek penetration into NW India after Alexander the Great and an equally prompt penetration by the Greeks into regions further afield.”

Alexander built fleets when he withdrew his expeditions beyond NW India which made it possible for his navigator – Nearchus to sail even beyond the Indus Delta. Professor Peris says that to such Greeks it would have been no formidable task to have made the voyage to Sri Lanka on the then much-traversed route along the west coast of India and gain information they needed from the well frequented ports along the coast. It is not unlikely that Alexander himself wanted to march down India and to Sri Lanka when he brought troops from Hydespes (Jhelum) to ancient Hypasis (Beas) river. He had to stop when the troops revolted. The furthest Greeks reached thereafter (according to ancient literature) and settled down was in Barukachcha (in present Gujarat.)

The information given on Sri Lanka in the romance of Alexander, written prior to Greek settlements in Sri Lanka by Onesicritus, the lieutenant of Nearchus, may have been available to Alexander himself. The author says that Megasthene, the Greek Ambassador at the Mauryan court at Pataliputra on the other hand, would have got information of Sri Lanka from the Greek settlers. His book had a graphic description of the geography, the people, the elephants and products of Sri Lanka such as pearls larger than those of India and of gold which became the basis of subsequent works on India.

Chronologically, the Greeks poured into India with Alexander’s invasion (327-325BCE.) Following his death, with his General, Seleucus Nicator taking over the conquered Asiatic kingdom (325-303BCE), the Greeks settled down in Bactria (Balkh) and in NW India.
If Pandukabhaya’s reign was from 370-307BCE, Alexander’s invasion and the entire period of Greek rule in India just short of three years (327-303BCE) had taken place during Pandukabhaya’s rule. Therefore, overlooking Mahavamsa’s controversial chronology of Pandukabhaya (born in 437BCE, crowned at the age of 37 (377BCE) and ruled for 70 years (437-307BCE)) if we accept his rule to have existed from 370-307BCE, it appears that the Greeks had made their appearance in India during the last two decades of Pandukabhaya’s rule.

If Pandukabhaya’s city-planning of Anuradhapura began immediately upon his assumption as king and went on for 10 years and in the next 10 years he was setting up village boundaries over the whole island (Mhv. X 103,) Pandukabhaya still had about three decades before the Greeks appeared in India. Professor Peris therefore says that if Pandukabhaya’s city-planning was an ongoing process, it could be surmised that the Greek settlement came in the last two decades of Pandukabhaya’s reign which coincides with the Greek occupation of NW India under Seleucus. The author therefore asks what better time than in these first decades of their advent in India for the Greeks to explore lands beyond?
Having arrived in Buddhist India newly however, they may not have had time to be converted to Buddhism. Contrary to the popular opinion, Professor Peris points out that Mahavamsa holds evidence that the first Europeans to set foot on the island were the Greeks, pre-dating the advent of the three European nations by as much as 18 centuries and less than a century and a half, following the reputed arrival of Vijaya and his group.

As to why the Greeks were identified as Yona, the author says the word originated from among the Persians whose immediate contact with the Greeks was through the Ionians of the island of Ionia. The Greeks as a result were called Youna which in Sanskrit was Yavana and in the Prakrit, Yona. Although Alexander was from the mainland of Macedonia all Greeks who poured into India were called Yona by the Indians, a term followed in the Mahavamsa.

Mahavamsa refers to a delegation of Yona bhikkhus who arrived from “Alasanda” in Anuradhapura to participate in the inauguration ceremony of the building of the Mahathupa, “Alasanda,” the author points out is Alexandria. But Alexander had named 72 cities which he had founded, after him. Agreeing with Geiger however, Professor Peris says that Alexandria referred herein is near Kabul. Referring to the fact that 30,000 Yona bhikkus arrived in Sri Lanka however, he argues that if the delegation comprised 30,000, even if it allowed 100 passengers per ship, it would have required a fleet of 300 for the bhikkhus?

As this group arrived one and a half centuries after the earlier Greeks, the author wonders whether there were any descendants of the first group to meet and greet their fellowmen? If so, did they still speak Greek and prove themselves as useful interpreters? Communication with Buddhist monks however, the author believes, may have been in Pali.

The Mahavamsa also makes the point that the Greeks were among the earliest people, other than the Indians, to convert to Buddhism, even earlier than the people of Sri Lanka. There were learned Yona bhikkhus even heading missions and Greek was used for the spread of the Dhamma in the West, among the Greeks of India as well as in the neighbouring regions.

What is exciting in the present context however is that while the Greek settlement showed the intimate contact the island had experienced with the elite civilization as early as the 4th to the 2nd BCE, it is likely that classical Greek may have been spoken in a little part of the island not far from the West Gate of Anuradhapura many centuries before it found its way into the curricula of our schools and universities. And if these residents remained to merge their identity with the local people, the author wonders whether our earliest ancestors would even have been enriched by the admixture of a streak of Greek blood?

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