The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Where Was Achaemenid India?
By: David Fleming
Achaemenid Persians escape the historian.
Though they ruled the largest empire of the time for more than two centuries,
much of what we know about them comes not from themselves but from other, often
unsympathetic, observers. The Persians were perfectly capable of writing
but beyond bookkeeping and the anomalous Behistun (Bistun) inscription of Darius
I, the Great they appear to have been
largely indifferent to the preservation of their version of the world.
Achaemenid rulers, satraps, and individuals emerge at irregular and widely
separated intervals across three continents, but we know virtually nothing about
them, particularly in comparison with their predecessors in Mesopotamia and
Egypt and their fractious successors in Greece and Macedonia.
Achaemenid Persians did rule huge tracts of western Asia and neighboring
regions, and their administrative arrangements in Central Asia lasted in one
form or another at least until the coming of Islam.
However, the physical presence of the Achaemenid rulers over this vast extent
remains subtle and difficult to distinguish from that of later groups.
Nowhere were the Achaemenids more unobstrusive than in India. In the territory of modern Afghanistan that was essentially an extension of the Iranian plateau lay the great satrapies of Aria, Arachosia, and Bactria, with their capitals at Herat, Kandahar, and Balkh, respectively. These large provinces were rich and important, and their locations are more or less established to everyone's satisfaction.
when one moves to the "Indian" satrapies at the eastern end of the
empire, the picture becomes much less clear. There were four "Indian"
satrapies, so classified on the basis of similar dress styles in the Persepolis
The small, impoverished satrapies of Gandara and Sattagydia
nestled along the eastern side of Arachosia, on the plains and in the mountain
ranges to the west of the middle Indus, in what is now Pakistan's North West
The larger, but even poorer, satrapy of Maka straggled along the barren coast of
Pakistani and Iranian Baluchistan and was avoided by any traveller who could
take another route.
The little we know about these three satrapies leaves us with an impression of
poverty and backwardness in a harsh environment.
fourth "Indian" satrapy, India
itself, was totally different. Apparently conquered, annexed, or at least
claimed by Darius the Great after 522 BCE
and after the voyage of Skylax of Caryanda to the mouth of the Indus from
Kaspapayros, India was described by
Herodotus as fabulously rich, richer, in fact, than all the other satrapies
together in terms of annual tribute, which was assessed in talents of gold dust
rather than silver,
as was the tribute of all the others. The early imperial period Fortification
Texts from Persepolis frequently mention India as a destination of parties of
travellers. Indian troops marched
with Xerxes's army across the Hellespont and formed some of the contingents
which tried to deflect Alexander's advance at Gaugamela.
Even after two hundred years there was considerable residual loyalty to the
Achaemenid crown in its eastern provinces, although these troops may have been
mercenaries. But we have no mention of India's capital city, virtually no idea
of how its people looked,
no names for its satraps, and practically no notion of how the satrapy (if it
ever was a satrapy) fitted into the imperial system.
where was Achaemenid India? We must begin by deciding whether it existed at all
as an independent entity, an issue debated hotly by Indian scholars. This is not
an idle question. The basis of the debate has been the fact that (1) there was
no historically attested "Achaemenid" presence in the northern Indus
region at the time of Alexander's incursion in the late fourth century BCE, and
(2) there is a complete lack of any identifiable mention of Persians in Indian
texts from the fifth and fourth centuries BCE
historical terms the most important single source is the Astadhyayi of
the Sanskrit grammarian Panini, who was born near Taxila and whose main work was
written in the fifth century BCE
In this work, Panini used geographical examples to illustrate his grammatical
points. He seems not to have mentioned the Achaemenid empire or the Persians,
and his description of governments revealed a preponderance of small,
politically autonomous states in the northern Punjab and the northern Indus
region which did not accord with any notions we might have of centralized
Achaemenid control of the region. He does not mention the satrapal system, and
there are no unmistakably Achaemenid names in his text. Mughal's work in the
region of Multan on the central Indus confirmed that there was little, if any,
archaeological contact in the mid-first millennium BCE between that part of the
Indus and cultures further west, which emphasizes the role of the Indus River as
archaeologists and historians have been divided on the question of Achaemenid
control in India for at least fifty years.
Regrettably, much of the argumentation has stemmed from a priori
assumptions about non-Indian control of the subcontinent. The results of these
searches remain inconclusive, and there has been little help from archaeology.
Recently another source of the first importance became available to scholars. These, the Elamite administrative records known as the "Persepolis Fortification Texts," are the single largest source of information about the early phase of the Persian empire to have emerged in years. The vital point about these tablets is that they were not intended for public consumption but for bureaucratic convenience: lies, bombast, and posturing were all very well in public proclamations, but there would be no conceivable reason to preserve them in bookkeepers' files recording ration issues and kept, as they were, in a language and script accessible to few and stored in a capital city rarely visited by the Achaemenid rulers.
the many types of texts identified by Hallock were those he classed as Q Texts,
dealing with the issue of rations to parties of travellers. Hallock recorded 303
separate travel ration texts (PF 1285-1579 and PF 2049-2057), of which 32 were
issues to travellers to the eastern part of the empire, including India.
In addition, another 14 texts
mention men from India.
crucial point of this is that by the later part of Darius the Great' reign
(522-485 BCE), the central bureaucracy treated "India" as just another
destination for imperial travellers. We are not told where it was: obviously,
the bookkeepers knew, or at least dealt with people who knew. But travel to
India was on exactly the same footing in terms of supplies and support as travel
to any other region known to have been in the empire. As far as the writers of
the Fortification Texts were concerned (and they, if anyone, would have known
the facts) India was Achaemenid.
Hallock's work in hand, the debate must shift from whether Achaemenid India
existed at all, to where it was. To be a candidate for the Achaemenid Persian
administrative center in India, an archaeological site must have had certain
specific features. It must obviously have had an occupation dating to the late
sixth or early fifth century BCE It must have been large and complex, and must
have been reasonably centrally located in its district and on major
communication routes. It must also have been the only site of its type in the
vicinity because, by analogy with known Achaemenid administrative centers, it is
highly unlikely that the central administration in Persia would have chosen a
city which was simply one of a large number of similar sites. Our eyes are drawn
irresistibly to the enormous and long-lived site of Taxila, in the northern
Punjab east of the Indus River. This is not an original idea. The site's
principal excavator, John Marshall, proposed this identification in his final
report. However, Marshall's
identification was based on Classical sources and a frankly pro-Western bias,
distressing to many of his Indian readers. There was little in his discussion of
archaeological material that would support such an identification, and
the Elamite evidence was not available to him. Marshall proposed that the Bhir
Mound at Taxilacould have been founded by Darius the Great after about 518 BCE,
although he admitted that he had found no tangible evidence to support this
view. The principal excavations on the Bhir Mound were not conducted with much
regard for stratigraphic recording, and the collected pottery was in any case
published in such a manner as to prevent much in the way of detailed analysis.
The subsequent work of Sharif
was intended to correct this imbalance and to check the stratigraphic sequence
of the earliest large mound in the Taxila area. These broadly succeeded in their
objectives but were of such limited extent that they yielded no information for
the architecture of the Bhir Mound.
treatment of the pottery from the Taxila sites was extraordinarily misleading
because his presentation of the ceramics took the form of a series of pot types
from all the Taxila sites with no regard for stratigraphical and, therefore,
chronological considerations. However, Sharif's more careful excavations
revealed a well-defined collection of grey wares in his two lowest strata,
ceramics that were derived in some degree from the Painted Grey Ware Culture
first studied at Hastinapura and now examined more generally by Tripathi.
The link is important because it confirmed that the earlier material from
Taxila's Bhir Mound was, on the whole, within the northern Indian tradition of
the first millennium BCE It also broadly confirmed the later sixth century BCE
date for the foundation of the Bhir Mound proposed by Marshall, although the
site appears not to have been founded by Achaemenids.
contrast to general north Indian links at the Bhir Mound, there were certain
"Western" pottery styles common to Taxila/Bhir Mound and
contemporaneous sites further north and west, in Swat, across the Indus, and on
to the Iranian plateau. One such pottery style was a highnecked water jar common
throughout the occupation of the Bhir Mound
and found in numerous variants at the northwestern Pakistani site of Balambat,
which possibly had an Achaemenid level, as well as in a slightly later context
at Charsada. The same shape was found
in more secure Achaemenid contexts at Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, Tepe
Yahya Period II in Kerman, and possibly in the Persepolis region and Nad-i Ali
in southeastern Iran.
A second shape found on several northwestern Pakistani sites was a wide shallow
bowl with convex sides.
The excavators in the Swat valley have dated this shape to their Swat Period VI,
or the first half of the first millennium BCE
The shape was present throughout the main occupation of the Bala Hisar at
Charsada and occurred in all levels of the Bhir Mound at Taxila. The shape was
also found at Kandahar but not to the west or north: in both Iran and Central
Asia potters preferred vessels with incurved sides.
these are tentative suggestions rather than solid facts. However, it is
noticeable that some of the early Bhir Mound pottery from Taxila, whose
mid-to-late sixth century BCE date is not in dispute, bears a surprising
resemblance to material from contemporaneous Kandahar and southern Iran, where
an Achaemenid presence is certain. This would indicate that contacts of various
sorts were maintained between the Kandahar region of southern Afghanistan (and
hence to the Iranian plateau proper) and the upper Punjab by way of the Gumal
Pass area. In geographical terms such a direct route between the fertile Punjab
and the important nexus of trade routes meeting at Kandahar eliminated the need
to negotiate the mountainous terrain between modern Ghazni, Gardez, Kabul, and
the Peshawar vale.
It also passed through solidly Achaemenid territory in Sattagydia
and reiterates the importance to the empire of Sattagydia as a way station on
the route to India.
Furthermore, it put the Achaemenid rulers in at least nominal control of a belt
of contiguous territory including the whole of the Kabul River valley, from its
source to its junction with the Indus, which would have allowed movement down
the Kabul River and eventually to the Indian Ocean, as was done by Skylax of
we come back to our original question: Where was Achaemenid India? We know now
that it existed, although we do not know when it ceased to be a part of the
empire. There are apparently no other sites in the region with Taxila's
potential. But where are the Achaemenid remains? And why do we not have more
historical evidence from Indian sources?
question of Achaemenid remains is settled quickly. We simply do not know enough
about eastern Achaemenid architecture to say whether the buildings at Taxila/Bhir
Mound's earliest levels were Achaemenid Persian or not. The only substantial
excavations of an eastern Achaemenid site (Kandahar) remain largely unpublished,
except in preliminary form.
for the silence of Indian historical records, it may be that the Achaemenid
presence east of the Indus was so ephemeral, or so short-lived, that it was
never really noticed, which would tie in with Panini's failure to mention it, as
we noted above. After all, just as Taxila was on the eastern edge of the western
world, it was simultaneously on the western edge of the Indian world, well away
from the central region of the upper Ganges and open to many influences from the
north and west. More excavation at Taxila would help solve the question of
whether the Persian presence in northwestern India was based there, as would
more work with the existing material in the Taxila museum. Until and unless
another contender is found, Taxila's Bhir Mound remains the most plausible
candidate for the capital of Achaemenid India.
David Bivar first introduced me to Achaemenid Iran at the School of Oriental and
African Studies in London and remained both a friendly critic and inspiring
teacher when I went on to Corpus Christi College, his alma mater at Oxford. It
is to him that I owe my continuing interest in the history and culture of the
borderlands between Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and China. I therefore offer
this essay to him to thank him, in a small way, for the guidance and good
example he has provided to me and to many others over his entire career. I also
thank my wife, Monica Barnes, for reading numerous drafts of this paper.
There is no conventional shorthand way to refer to the rulers of the first
Persian empire. To themselves they were "Achaemenids" (Old Persian
[OP] Haxdmanisiyd), based on their clan affiliation and descent from their
eponymous ancestor Haxdmanis (OP) or Achaemenes (Greek), while to the Greeks
and people of the Near East, they were Persians, which merely meant they
came from Persis in southwestern Iran and which was not the whole truth
because many Persians were not Achaemenids. For the purposes of this essay,
the terms "Achaemenid," "Persian," and "Achaemenid
Persian" will be used interchangeably to represent the ruling dynasty
of the Persian empire from the mid-sixth century to 332 B.C.
See G. Windfuhr, "Notes on the Old Persian Signs," Indo-Iranian
Journal 12 (1969-1970), pp. 12125, on the creation of the Persian cuneiform
syllabary and its independence from other cuneiform systems. The Achaemenid
administrators used whatever other languages were appropriate to their
surroundings: for example, Aramaic (R. A. Bowman, Aramaic Ritual Texts from
Persepolis, Oriental Institute Publication 91 [Chicago, 1970]) and Elamite
(R. T. Hallock, Persepolis Fortification Texts, Oriental Institute
Publication 92 [Chicago, 1969]).
R. G. Kent, Old Persian Grammar, Texts, Lexicon, 2d ed. (New Haven, 1953[,
The editio princeps of OP texts (Kent, Persian) contains 96 attested and 8
spurious texts. Subsequent work has revealed very few additional texts, most
of which are laconic and stereotyped building inscriptions.
For recent analyses of the role of the satrap and the nature of the satrapy
in Achaemenid Iran, see C. Herrenschmidt, "Designation de Empire et
concepts politiques de Darius IeI d'apres les inscriptions en vieux-perse,"
Stlr (1976), pp. 33-65; W. Hinz, Altiranisches Sprachgut der
Nebeniiberlieferiingen: Gottinger Orientforschungen, Reihe 3, Iranica, vol.
3 (Wiesbaden, 1975[; and D. M. Lewis, Sparta and Persia, Cincinnati
Classical Studies, n.s. 1 (Leiden, 1977).
R. N. Frye, The Golden Age of Persia (London, 1975[, pp. 35-37.
OP Haraiva, Harauvatis, and Bdxtris (Kent, Persian, p. 137, DNa 22-4).
Pre-Islamic Herat remains to be explored. For Kandahar see S. W. Helms,
"Excavations at 'The City and Famous Fortress of Kandahar, the Foremost
Place in All of Asia,"' Afghan Studies 3-4 (1982), pp. 1-24. For Balkh
see J.-Cl. Gardin, Ceramiques de Bactres, MDAFA 15 (Paris, 1957).
G. Walser, Die Volkerschaften auf den Reliefs von Persepolis, Teheraner
Forschungen, vol. 2 (Berlin, 1966), pp. 89-95.
OP Gaddra and Oatagus (Kent, Persian, p. 137, DNa 24-5).
For Sattagydia, see D. Fleming, "Achaemenid Sattagydia and the
Geography of Vivana's Campaign (DB III, 54-75)," JRAS (1982.2), pp.
102-12. For Gandara, G. Tucci, "On Swat: The Dards and Connected
Problems," EW, n.s. 27 (1977), pp. 9-103.
The area of Maka is now known as the Makran coast. Apparently, it has always
been poor, and there is little evidence, ecological or otherwise, to suggest
that it was once more prosperous. See G. Le Strange, Lands of the Eastern
Caliphate (London, 1905), p. 329; D. W. Engels, Alexander the Great and the
Logistics of the Macedonian Army (Berkeley, 1978), pp. 114-17.
OP Hindus (Kent, Persian, p. 137, DNa 25.
It is not mentioned in DB but is in the later DNa.
What exactly was intended by Herodotus' tribute list is far from clear. The
argument that the Persepolis reliefs show vassals in the act of paying
tribute at the New Year festival (A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian
Empire [Chicago, 1948], p. 238) remains at most an interesting theory
because we have no written mention of this event taking place. The Indian
tribute was 360 Euboean talents of gold dust per year (Herodotus 3.95). The
whole question of whether anything remotely like this fabulous amount of
precious metal was ever brought from any part of the empire in one year is
too complex to consider here.
Hallock, Fortifications Texts.
Herodotus 7.65; Arrian Anabasis 3.8.
M. D. Roaf, "The Subject Peoples on the Base of the Statue of
Darius," CDAF14 (1974), pp. 73-160.
J. E. Schwartzberg, ed., A Historical Atlas of South Asia, chap. 3,
"From the Vedic through the Classical Age," section IIIB,
"The Pre-Mauryan and Mauryan Periods" (Chicago, 1978), pp. 165-72.
M. R. Mughal, "Excavations at Tulamba, West Pakistan," Pakistan
Archaeology 4 (1967), pp. 41-66.
S. Asthana, "The Period of the Early Historical Culture," chap. 8
of History and Archaeology of India's Contacts with Other Countries from
Earliest Times to 300 B.C. (Delhi, 1976); S. Chattopadhyaya, "The
Achaemenids and India," Indian Historical Quarterly 26.2 ( 1950), pp.
100-17; P. H. L. Eggermont, "Alexander's Campaigns in Sind and
Baluchistan and the Siege of the Brahmin Town of Harmatelia,"
Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 3 (1975); R. C. Majumdar, "Achaemenian
Rule in India," Indian Historical Quarterly 25 (1949), pp. 153-65; A.
V. W. Jackson, "The Persian Dominions in Northern India Down to the
Time of Alexander's Invasion," in Cambridge History of India, vol. 1,
Ancient India, ed. E. J. Rapson (Cambridge, 1935).
Hallock, Fortification Texts, p. 6, points out that most rations were issued
for one day, which meant that there had to have been elaborate supply
arrangements along the entire route, along with reliable and acceptable
means of payment or credit.
Arachosia 8, Aria 4, Bactria 2, India 8, Kerman 6, Gandara 3, and Sagarta 1.
The Indian texts are PF 1318, 1383, 1397, 1524, 1552, 1556, 1572, 2057.
PF 785, 1317, 1397, 1410, 1425, 1437, 1511, 1525, 1529, 1548, 1552, 1558,
Balkh, Kandahar, and Herat are all relatively isolated, although huge.
Charsada, the ancient Pushkalavati and probable capital of Gandara (M.
Wheeler, Charsada: A Metropolis on the North-West Frontier. Being an Account
of the Excavations of 1958 [Oxford, 1962]), is some distance from the later
Islamic centers of the Peshawar vale.
J. Marshall, Taxila (Cambridge, 1951), pp. 1213.
M. Sharif, "Excavations at Bhir Mound, Taxila," Pakistan
Archaeology 6 (1969).
Marshall, Taxila, pp. 398-438 and pls. 121-31; Sharif, "Excavations at
Bhir Mound," p. 77.
B. K. Thapar, "The Pottery," in B. B. Lal, ed., "Explorations
at Hastinapura and Other Explorations in the Upper Ganga and Sutlej Basins
1950-52," Ancient India 10-11 (1954-1955), pp. 5-151; V. Tripathi, The
Painted Grey Ware: An Iron Age Culture of North India (Delhi, 1976).
Marshall, Taxila, pl. 122-54; Sharif, "Excavations at Bhir Mound,"
fig. 10-8, 9.
A. H. Dani, "Timargarha and Gandhara Grave Culture," Ancient
Pakistan 3 (1967), pp. 1-407, esp. figs. 57-8 and 60-2.
Wheeler, Charsada, p. 54; layer 32 was attributed by Wheeler to the late
fourth to early third centuries B.C.
A. McNicoll, "Excavations at Kandahar, 1975: Second Interim
Report," Afghan Studies 1 (1978), pp. 41-66, esp. fig. 6-3 and possibly
6-4; C. LambergKarlovsky, Excavations at Tepe Yahya, 1967-1969: Progress
Report 1, American School of Prehistoric Research Bulletin 27 (Cambridge,
Mass., 1970), p. 26, fig. 8-K, O; W. A. Sumner, "Cultural Development
in the Kur River Basin, Iran," Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania,
1972, pl. XLII-T[?] [sic]; G. Dales, New Excavations at Nad-i Ali (Sorkh
Dagh), Afghanistan, Research Monograph Series, no. 16, Center for South and
South-East Asian Studies (Berkeley, 1977), pl. 132, Type A1.
. Balambat: Dani, "Timargarha and Gandhara Grave Culture," fig.
58-13, 14, 15; Charsada: Wheeler, Charsada, fig. 11-10; Taxila/Bhir Mound:
Marshall, Taxila, class XV; Sharif, "Excavations at Bhir Mound,"
fig. 11-8; Swat valley: G. Stacul, "Excavation near Ghaligai (1968) and
Chronological Sequence of Protohistorical Cultures in the Swat Valley,"
EW, n.s. 19 /1969), pp. 44-91, esp. fig. 13-A.
Stacul, "Excavation near Ghaligai," p. 85.
D. Whitehouse, "Excavations at Kandahar, 1974: First Interim
Report," Afghan Studies 1 /1978), pp. 9-39, fig. 6-64, 65, 66, 67, 68;
McNicoll, "Excavations at Kandahar, 1975," fig. 5-9; J.-Cl. Gardin
and B. Lyonnet, "La prospection archeologique de la Bactriane orientale
/1974-1978): Premiers resultats," Mesopotamia 13-14 (1978-1979), pp.
99-154 and fig. 10; Dales, "New Excavations at Nad-i Ali (Sorkh Dagh),"
The basic route through the Gumal area is laid out in H. G. Raverty, Notes
on Afghanistan and Parts of Baluchistan (London, 1888), p. 5.
Fleming, "Achaemenid Sattagydia."
A point forcibly made by A. Toynbee, "The Administrative Geography of
the Achaemenid Empire," in A Study of History (London, 1954), vol. 7,
annex VI C(ii)(c)3, p. 640.
An edition of the 1974-1975 seasons is in the final stages of preparation
and will be published by British Archaeological Reports, International
Series, in 1994. The work of the 1976-1978 seasons of Kandahar is available
only in summary form (Helms, "Excavations at 'The City and Famous
Fortress of Kandahar'," and references therein).
This contradicts the conclusion in Fleming, "Achaemenid Sattagydia,"
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