These days as I research among Cambridge archives, it was a delight to welcome a Pakistani scholar from Peshawar, a Dr Gul Rahim Khan, who is a numismatics expert, which is the study of ancient coins. Discussions with him made me aware of the missing 500 years of Lahore’s history.
These days there is considerable interest in Punjab’s archives, with scholars from all over invariably complaining about not being able to find rare manuscripts while in Lahore. I jokingly tell them to go to the old horse stables inside the Punjab Secretariat, where one day the letter from Mirza Ghalib pleading with the East India Company for restoration of his royal pension, was found on the floor. The head clerk invariably queries just what do you want with these useless old pieces of paper. In true Lahori style I told him what to do with them. He did not lodge a complaint because the head of department was equally puzzled.
An effort has been made to digitise them after we broke the ‘horse stable story’. But then they are not available online, at least not till the writing of these lines. In any sane society this would be considered blasphemy, a word used with much caution in our pious times. Now one hopes the pursuit of knowledge will get some priority, after all Mr Jinnah wished a fifth of our national wealth be spent on educating the poor.
But in this piece let us go back to the times when the Greeks came to our land. Dr Gul Rahim tells me that for 500 years after Alexander all coins had Greek markings, and that those in Lahore are well established, with proof available in the Lahore Museum. He reels off Greek names of the rulers of Lahore and the Punjab, those influence had had a profound effect on who we are today.
Lahore had Greek rulers, or in the later years Punjabi rulers with considerable Greek DNA. Even today Punjabis have some DNA, and that is to be understood. Then this meant that there was considerable trade between Lahore and Multan and Greece, which documents tell us a lot about. So in this piece let me touch upon ancient coins that were used in the bazaars of Lahore, on the Greek DNA that a lot of Lahoris carry, and on some aspects of trade between Lahore and Greece.
One set of coins that can be seen in the Lahore Museum are of the western Kshatrapa ruler Bhratadarman (278-455 AD), which are basically post-Mauryan which were minted in Gandhara. They have Greek markings on one side. Next comes the Gupta period Kumara Gupta the First (414-295 AD) and these coins, found near Lahore, have Greek on one side and Brahmi on the other. Right up to the Buddhist period, when Lahore was a pure Buddhist city, the silver drachms was used with Greek markings.
Experts tell us that for 500 years till the end of the 300 AD all coins used had Greek markings.
We know that during the Kushan period of Kanishka, they adopted the Bactrian language written in the Greek script. Amazingly this prevailed with the 6th century AD. We have already in a past column referred to Greek markings on the Turk Shahi rulers of Kabul who ruled over Lahore till 850 AD. So Greek coins and script were with us for a fairly long period.
Now let us turn to our DNA. Just what has been the Greek contribution to our genetic construct? The United Nations has carried out two very interesting DNA studies of the people of Pakistan over the last 20 years. The first one was by a Rome-based agency that was tracing the roots of Punjab’s ‘gypsies’. The second survey was a very big exercise that took samples from 100 persons from a segment and Pakistan was divided into 300 segments. So statistically, given a 2.5% variation, it was a reasonably sound methodology.
This was part of a huge study to understand on genetic markers like Y-DNA of the entire subcontinent so as to estimate Greek contribution to the genetic pool. The results were amazing, for on the average it was estimated that Greek markers existed in approximately 15 per cent of the population. The subcontinent as a whole had three per cent contribution, with the KP areas with Afghanistan having as high as 22 per cent. Lahore had an average of just seven per cent, Taxila had 11 per cent and Peshawar a whopping 18 per cent. North Waziristan, where a major battle was fought by Alexander, had a massive 23 per cent. So as the Greeks moved to the east, the genetic contribution decreased, and that makes sense.
Now let us end this piece by mentioning the trade links between Greece and the Punjab, more so Lahore. Naturally, as the military power of the Greeks diminished in the north, it was the discovery of huge markets that saw Greek ships sail up the Indus towards Multan and Lahore.
Manuscripts of the historian Strabo tell us that Greek trade up the Ravi started in the reign of Eudoxus of Cyzicus in 130 BC. These tell us that by the reign of Augustus nearly 120 ships left for India from Myos Hormos, which today could be the Roman port at Al-Qusayr on the Red Sea in Egypt. He says that most of them went up the Indus and its feeding rivers as they were secure for Greek trade. They used gold and incense to purchase spices and cotton fabrics which, according to the chronicler Pliny managed to increase the wealth of traders five-fold.
It seems Greek gold coins influenced those made in the Punjab, especially by the Kushans. Amazingly, there are references that Greek middlemen lived in a lot of Punjab cities. As the Hindu population of the Punjab avoided sailing for religious reasons, it seems almost all the captains of ships were Greek just as all the middlemen were.
Interestingly, a lot of Greek artwork also came to the lands over which Greek influence was dominant. Examples of these can be seen in archaeological excavations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. If you visit the Lahore Museum you will be amazed at the influence of Greek sculptures on that of the subcontinent.
Many moons ago as a student hitch-hiking from Lahore to London, at the Greek border we experienced a sort of ‘culture shock’ as the ceremonial border guards looked almost like the Khyber Rifle dancers of the KP. So it is no surprise that all of us have a wee bit of Greek DNA, our clothes and even our jewellery has traces of Greek artwork. My thanks to Prof Dr Gul Rahim Khan from Peshawar for enlightening me. Now I can dig deeper into world’s unknown.
Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2018