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The Buddhist road

Writing a book about Afghanistan a decade ago, horribly flawed though that book was, has affected my life in various ways. It has drawn me into projects that I trust will be less flawed, like the current one I’m pursuing with Professor Luca Olivieri on the earliest archaeological study of Swat, and in recent weeks my affection for the country has been a cause of great sadness, as I hardly need say. It has also introduced me to some very good friends, among them Owen Humphrys, someone I first met a long time ago while promoting that book.

Back then our conversation was about some remarkable photograph albums of Afghanistan in the 1920s that had belonged to his grandfather. More recently, though, I was delighted to discover that the focus of the book that Prof Olivieri and I are writing, Harold Deane, was also Owen’s great-grandfather. Pure serendipity, and Owen was able to share with me some material related to Deane, including the item I’m going to talk about here.

The item in question is a seven-page handwritten document entitled “Alexander’s Campaign in Afghanistan”. In fact this involves a broad (though in the nineteenth century not unparalleled) definition of Afghanistan, as it relates the Greek and Roman accounts of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in 327 and 326 BC to the territory between the Hindu Kush and the river Indus, today shared between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The document is a letter to Harold Deane, clearly an answer to one that Deane had sent the author, though now lacking the personalised cover sheet it must originally have had, and it is signed “J.W. Mc.Crindle 9 Westhall Gardens Edinburgh.” The letter can be securely dated, on internal evidence, to 1896.

John Watson McCrindle was a former principal of Patna College who also authored a series of books that collected together his translations of all the Greco-Roman texts that described India: Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian (1877); The Commerce and navigation of the Erythraean Sea (1879); Ancient India as described by Ktesias the Knidian (1882); Ancient India as described by Ptolemy (1885); The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great (1893); and Ancient India as described in classical literature (1901). McCrindle’s book on Alexander, published in 1893, by which time he had retired to Edinburgh, had presented the narratives of the Greek and Roman sources separately, but what he offers Deane in this letter is a synthesis of all those sources, McCrindle’s considered view of Alexander’s probable itinerary.

What was also happening in 1896 was that Harold Deane was working on the seminal article on the antiquities of Swat that is the focus of my work with Prof Olivieri, “Note on Udyāna and Gandhāra”, published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society for October 1896. It is clear enough that Deane had sought information from McCrindle as he was writing (or rewriting) this article, in the course of which he concerns himself with Alexander’s itinerary among a number of other things.

This makes McCrindle’s letter to Deane a very interesting piece of evidence for Deane’s thinking as he composed what was a pioneering contribution to the archaeology of Swat and its neighbourhood, and something entirely unanticipated–and for that I’m enormously grateful to Owen. We’ll be publishing the letter properly in the book we’re writing, but here I’m just going to pick out one detail with a view to illustrating “Deane’s thinking”.

Harold Deane was a keen amateur antiquarian and archaeologist, but we need to ask how he came by the knowledge that he imparted in this article for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Swat, after all, was until 1895 a territory entirely beyond British control. But Major Deane was a Political Officer, and in particular he had accompanied a British military force that in 1895 invaded and occupied the lower part of the Swat valley as part of a larger mission to relieve a siege of British nationals in the princely state of Chitral.

As the Chief Political Officer accompanying this force, Deane brought to bear the language skills and familiarity with local culture that he had honed over a decade in similar roles on the North-West Frontier of British India. His article shares observations from before his service with the Chitral Relief Force, but the heart of it relates to the archaeological remains visible in the territory crossed by that force in its march toward Chitral. The most interesting aspect of this work, for me, is the intersection of a paramilitary colonial administrator and a pioneer of archaeological investigation in Swat, both of which Deane could undoubtedly claim to be. These two sides of Harold Deane are ultimately inseparable, but for a fuller discussion of all this you’ll need to read the book when it comes out.

In the meantime, though, there’s one detail in McCrindle’s letter to Deane (as I say, itself a response to an enquiry, or set of enquiries, from Deane) that I find especially suggestive.

This takes the form of a postscript from McCrindle answering a specific enquiry from Deane about the Malakand Pass:

“P.S. With regard to the road by the Malakand Pass. The only passages I can find in Strabo which can refer to it are — Book XV.i.26 “He (Alexr.) turned towards India and towards its western boundaries and the rivers Kôphês & Choaspes. The latter river empties itself into the Kôphes near Plemyrion1 after passing by another city Gorys2 in its course through Bandobênê and Gandaritis.[“] 27. [“]After the river Kôphês follows the Indus. The country lying between these two rivers is occupied by Astakeni (Assakeni) Masiani, Nysaei and Hippasii (Aspasii). Next is the territory of Assakenus where is the city Masoga — the royal residence. Near the Indus is another city Peucolaitis. At this place a bridge which was constructed afforded a passage for the army.[“]

1 v.l. Plêgêrion. 2 v.l. Gôrydalê

These are the only passages in Strabo which can have reference to Alexr.’s route through that part of Afghanistan. In preparing a 6th volume on Ancient India I searched through all Strabo for references to India & Afghanistan. J.W.Mc.C.”

The details here don’t really concern us. But Deane’s interest in Malakand, and interest in finding Malakand in classical texts, is something I find very intriguing. By the time he was writing his article for the Asiatic Society Deane was based in a fort at Malakand, the entrance to Swat at the summit of the Malakand Pass. But Malakand had also been the site of the first major conflict of the campaign to relieve Chitral, when British-Indian forces stormed the difficult approaches to the pass against opposition from the people of Swat. Christian Tripodi in Edge of Empire (2011), p. 85, calls the siege of Chitral “one of those instances of high drama, much like the siege of Mafeking during the Second Anglo-Boer War, that attracted a huge amount of attention throughout the Empire and pandered to public notions of national honour and imperial destiny.” The initial success at Malakand shared much of this perception of its heroic character.

In accounts of the capture of the Malakand heights and its aftermath, a regular point of reference is an ancient road to the summit of the pass, consistently referred to as a (or the) “Buddhist road”. George Younghusband, in the account of The Relief of Chitral that he wrote with his more famous brother Francis, describes the 60th Rifles happily chancing upon this road as they approached the summit (p. 88), and then its renovation and use after the capture of the pass as a supply route (p. 93). Much later Francis Younghusband recalled the latter activity “on an ancient road made in Buddhist times” when commenting in The Times (May 27th 1926, p. 14c, cf. H. Wang, Aurel Stein in The Times [2002], 84) on Aurel Stein’s purported discovery of Aornos at Pir Sar.

One of the first things the British did when they had captured Malakand was to build the road pictured at the top of this post (by which I travelled to and from Swat a couple of summer ago), and when two years after the capture of Malakand a general uprising, beginning in Swat, spread right along the British Indian frontier, and the fort at Malakand was besieged, an ambitious young soldier/journalist named Winston Churchill regularly refers in The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1897) to a Buddhist road leading to Malakand that lies alongside the modern construction. Here it is on Churchill’s sketch map (top left), and here also, for no very good reason, is my photo from the modern road in 2018, looking in a roughly southerly direction toward Mardan.

It’s clear enough, then, that an ancient/Buddhist road, or one perceived as such, was a familiar feature of the approach to Malakand, and in addition that this old road was what Deane was concerned with when he asked McCrindle about Greek references to “the road by the Malakand pass”. In the event McCrindle is not able to offer him anything very useful, as neither of the texts of Strabo he cites can really refer to it. But why Deane wanted McCrindle’s opinion on the road is still an interesting question, and we Classicists are all-too prepared to speculate on the basis of limited evidence. I for one thought I understood exactly what Deane was wondering about this ancient road.

One difference between Ancient History and studying the late nineteenth century, though, is that the amount of evidence available restricts the need for such classical speculation. In this case another document provides the answer loud and clear, and it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.

Surgeon-Major L. A. Waddell may be best known these days for his quest in search of the landmarks of the Buddha’s life and ministry in northern India and Nepal, undertaken whenever he could secure leave from his official position. His prickly character, not softened by the toxic competition that developed to locate Kapilavastu and Kushinagar, is well conveyed in Charles Allen, The Buddha and Dr Führer: an archaeological scandal (2008).

In 1895, however, just a few months after the storming of the Malakand, Waddell visited Lower Swat, the area occupied by the British, “for the archaeological exploration of this ancient Buddhist land, formally called Udyana, and to secure sculptures for Government.” (In fact he was revisiting Malakand and Swat, since he had himself served in the Chitral Relief Force.) His official report to the government survives, rediscovered by Luca Olivieri, in an archival collection at the fort at Malakand, but that copy lacks the first page. Luckily Waddell was alert to the need to publicise his archaeological discoveries, though, and he published his report independently in issue 1224 of The Academy (October 19th 1895), pp. 321-2.

With reference to the road up to Malakand, he writes:

“On the following day I ascended the Malakand Pass by the so called ‘Buddhist road,’ as it has been lately named. It is an excellent ancient road, comparing favourably with the best mountain roads of the present day. It rises by an easy gradient, and several of its sections are cut deeply through the hard rock. It is quite possible that this may have been on the line of march of Alexander the Great in his invasion of India, as Major Deane suggests. Be this as it may, it is very probable that Asoka, Kanishka, and the powerful kings who held this country, used this road and gave it its present shape.”

Waddell is referring to a conversation with Deane rather than anything Deane had at this stage written, but his recollection clarifies what Deane had in mind (and in the process confirms what I had had in mind): Deane’s hunch was that the ancient route that had facilitated the advance of the British force over Malakand was also the road taken, two millennia before them, by Alexander the Great.

It was no such thing, as McCrindle diplomatically communicated to Deane. But this still amounts to a quintessentially imperial moment. I have blogged before about the European compulsion to find traces of Alexander at and beyond the North-West Frontier: here, for instance; and here is a twist on essentially the same story. Given the education of the men that found themselves there, and the culture of the army officer corps and Political Service, it proved seemingly impossible for British administrators and soldiers to dissociate this space from Alexander’s campaigns.

(C.A. Hagerman’s article, “In the footsteps of the ‘Macedonian conqueror’: Alexander the Great and British India”, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 16 (2009), 344-92, and his book Britain’s Imperial Muse: the Classics, imperialism, and the Indian Empire, 1784-1914 (2013), are very interesting on all of this.)

A general perception of Alexander as a civilizing force, combined with the insecurity inherent in a colonial intervention–the need to convince oneself that alien territory is comprehensible, and that, as a European, one has a right to be there–made him a favoured “charter myth” for British imperial activity in this part of the world. Where Alexander had trodden was a legitimate place for other Europeans also to wander.

But in this instance I think there is another, not unrelated impulse in play, one given particular emphasis by Hagerman. The storming of the Malakand was an action that demanded superlatives: Younghusband & Younghusband’s account makes that abundantly clear. Not far from Malakand Alexander had allegedly stormed the stronghold of Aornos, Mt. Ilam, because Heracles, a Greek hero who had trodden this ground long before Alexander’s Greco-Macedonian invasion, had once tried it (Arrian, Anab. 4.28).

The psychology of the Greeks and the British in Swat has always seemed to me to have much in common. But Harold Deane shared a thought with L. A. Waddell, and perhaps at Waddell’s suggestion wrote to J. W. McCrindle in pursuit of it, and the essence of that thought was that the glorious British capture of Malakand in 1895 was an exploit comparable in some significant sense to the achievements of Alexander the Great himself.