The Kushan Kingdom (135 B.C. to A.D. 375) was founded in the Bactria region of northern Afghanistan by Yuezhi nomads who migrated there from Xinjiang in present-day western China due to Chinese Han Dynasty campaigns. Once there, they displaced the Greco-Bactrian kingdom and expanded over the Hindu Kush mountains into today’s India and Pakistan. The Kushans controlled parts of Afghanistan and Iran, and in India the realm stretched from Purushapura (modern Peshawar, Pakistan) in the northwest, to Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) in the east, and to Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh) in the south. For a short period, the kingdom reached still farther east, to Pataliputra. The Kushana Kingdom was the crucible of trade among the Indian, Persian, Chinese, and Roman empires and controlled a critical part of the legendary Silk Road. [Source: Library of Congress]

Originally nomadic horsemen, the Kushans were enamored with Greco-Roman culture and converted to Buddhism in the 1st century B.C. The Kushans were patrons of Gandharan art, a synthesis between Greek and Indian styles, and Sanskrit literature. They initiated a new era called Shaka in A.D. 78, and their calendar, which was formally recognized by India for civil purposes starting on March 22, 1957, is still in use.

The Kushans established what is regarded as the first Silk Road kingdom. Operating out of their winter capital of Pursapura, near Peshawar, and a summer capital in Gandhara, they extracted duties from caravans and traded a variety of goods and art work. The Kushans grew wealthy on trade between East and West— that included trade between China and Rome—and helped to spread Buddhism and Buddhist Culture throughout Asia.

Early in the second century A.D. under Kanishka, the most powerful of the Kushan rulers, the empire reached its greatest geographic and cultural breadth to become a center of literature and art. Kanishka extended Kushan control to the mouth of the Indus River on the Arabian Sea, into Kashmir, and into what is today the Chinese-controlled area north of Tibet. Kanishka was a patron of religion and the arts. It was during his reign that Mahayana Buddhism, imported to northern India earlier by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (ca. 260-232 B.C.), reached its zenith in Central Asia.

When the Kushan Empire was at its peak in first three centuries after Christ, it ranked with Rome, China and Parthia as one of the great powers off the world. Ruling over an empire that stretched from the Oxus River in present-day Uzbekistan to the Ganges, the Kushans controlled most of the Ganges valley and an arc that extended through Afghanistan and Central Asia into Xinjiang. It was under their reign that trade routes developed between India, China, Persia, and Rome. Ultimately, however, the empire fragmented into many principalities and was replaced in North India by the resurgent Hindu Gupta Empire while its Afghan territories became tributary to the Persian Sassanid Empire. [Source: Akhilesh Pillalamarri, The National Interest, May 8, 2015]

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index

After Ashoka and the Maurya Empire

After the disintegration of the Mauryan Empire in the second century B.C., South Asia became a collage of regional powers with overlapping boundaries. India's unguarded northwestern border again attracted a series of invaders between 200 B.C. and A.D. 300. As the Aryans had done, the invaders became "Indianized" in the process of their conquest and settlement. Also, this period witnessed remarkable intellectual and artistic achievements inspired by cultural diffusion and syncretism. The Indo-Greeks, or the Bactrians, of the northwest contributed to the development of numismatics; they were followed by another group, the Shakas (or Scythians), from the steppes of Central Asia, who settled in western India. Still other nomadic people, the Yuezhi, who were forced out of the Inner Asian steppes of Mongolia, drove the Shakas out of northwestern India and established the Kushana Kingdom (first century B.C.-third century A.D.). [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Kushana Kingdom controlled parts of Afghanistan and Iran, and in India the realm stretched from Purushapura (modern Peshawar, Pakistan) in the northwest, to Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) in the east, and to Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh) in the south. For a short period, the kingdom reached still farther east, to Pataliputra. The Kushana Kingdom was the crucible of trade among the Indian, Persian, Chinese, and Roman empires and controlled a critical part of the legendary Silk Road. Kanishka, who reigned for two decades starting around A.D. 78, was the most noteworthy Kushana ruler. He converted to Buddhism and convened a great Buddhist council in Kashmir. The Kushanas were patrons of Gandharan art, a synthesis between Greek and Indian styles, and Sanskrit literature. They initiated a new era called Shaka in A.D. 78, and their calendar, which was formally recognized by India for civil purposes starting on March 22, 1957, is still in use. *

Buddhism Spreads Out of India

location of Ashoka Maurya Empire columns in India

Perry Garfinkel wrote in National Geographic: “As Buddhism migrated out of India, it took three routes. To the south, monks brought it by land and sea to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. To the north, they spread the word across Central Asia and along the Silk Road into China, from where it eventually made its way to Korea and Japan. A later wave took Buddhism over the Himalaya to Tibet. In all the countries, local customs and cosmologies were integrated with the Buddhist basics: the magic and masks of demon-fighting lamas in Tibet, the austerity of a Zen monk sitting still as a rock in a perfectly raked Japanese garden. Over centuries Buddhism developed an inclusive style, one reason it has endured so long and in such different cultures. People sometimes compare Buddhism to water: It is still, clear, transparent, and it takes the form and color of the vase into which it's poured.” [Source: Perry Garfinkel, National Geographic, December 2005]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: ““In the first centuryA.D., the Kushans, nomadic warriors from Central Asia, conquered the ancient Gandharan region (which includes parts of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan) and much of northern India. Different styles of art emerged from the two Kushan capitals, one in the Peshawar area of Gandhara and the other at Mathura further southeast in India. The Gandharan style adapted forms from late Hellenistic and Roman art, perhaps a legacy of Alexander the Great’s successors in the area, but largely because the major trade routes from the Roman Empire to India and China passed through the region, bringing peoples and ideas from the West. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <>]

“In Andhra, on the southeastern coast of India, the Ikshvaku kingdom (A.D. 1st– 3rd century) prospered through the exchange of goods from local ports on the sea routes to Rome. There, as in Gandhara, Buddhist merchants and devotees financed the building of stupas decorated with narrative stone reliefs depicting the Buddha in a distinctive fashion. Andhran Buddhist art influenced the art styles of Sri Lanka and images of the Buddha in Andhran style have been found in Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. By the end of this period, Buddhism was spreading along the silk route to China and later to Korea and Japan. Along with written accounts of the Buddha’s teachings (called sutras), monks and merchants carried small portable works of art—mainly sculptures of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and shrines—which greatly influenced early Chinese and Central Asian Buddhist sculpture. <>

The Chinese monk Faxian ventured as far west as India around A.D. 400 to study Buddhism. He traveled from Xian to the west overland and cross into India over Himalayan passes and sailed back to China on route that took him through present-day Indonesia. The the spread of Buddhism—a peaceful process in itself—periodically met with hostility. In China, in A.D. 842, the Tang Emperor Wuzong began to persecute foreign religions. Some 4,600 Buddhist monasteries were annihilated, priceless works of art were destroyed, and about 260,000 monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life.


In the centuries that followed Alexander the Great incursions, India was attacked and occupied by waves of invaders from India, Persia, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Sometimes activities far from India often had a bearing it on it. For example when the horseman tribe Yeuhchi were pushed out of Xinjiang in western China it began moving southward and pushed the Scythians from the Aral Sea area,. The Scythians in turn moved into the Indus Valley and pushed as far east as Delhi around 75 B.C. They conquered the Bactria at Gandhara but in turn were defeated by another group of tribesmen, the Parthains form east of the Caspian Sea. The Parthians endured into the 1st century A.D. They were driven out by the Kushans, cousin of the Yeuhchi.

After the fall of the Mauryas in the 2d century B.C., the Indo-Greek Bactrian kingdom rose to power, but was in turn overrun (c.97 B.C.) by Scythian nomads called Saka and then by the Parthians (c .A.D. 7). The Parthians, of Persian stock, were replaced by the Kushans; the Kushan Kanishka ruled (A.D. 2d century) all of what is now Pakistan from his capital at Peshawar. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

The Yuezhi (Wade-Giles Yüeh-chih, also called Indo-Scyth) were ancient people who ruled in Bactria and India from about 128 B.C. to about B.C. 450 as the Kushan Empire. The Yuezhi are first mentioned in Chinese sources at the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. as nomads living in the western part of Gansu province, northwestern China. When Lao Shang (reigned c. 174–161 B.C.), ruler of the Xiongnu (a powerful people of North China), defeated them and killed their king, the main body of the Yuezhi moved westward into Sogdiana and Bactria, putting an end to Greek rule in both regions. [Source: britannica.com]

The Yuezhi are described in some detail in Chinese historical accounts, in particular the 2nd–1st century B.C. “Records of the Great Historian,” or Shiji, by Sima Qian. One passage goes: The Yuezhi originally lived in the area between the Qilian or Heavenly Mountains and Dunhuang, but after they were defeated by the Xiongnu they moved far away to the west, beyond Dayuan, where they attacked and conquered the people of Daxia and set up the court of their king on the northern bank of the Gui River. A small number of their people who were unable to make the journey west sought refuge among the Qiang barbarians in the Southern Mountains, where they are known as the Lesser Yuezhi. [Source: Account of Dayuan", Shiji, 123]

The area between the Qilian Mountains and Dunhuang lies in the modern Chinese province of Gansu. However some scholars have argued that the mountains referred to are the Tian Shan, placing the original homeland of the Yuezhi 1,000 kilometers further west in the northern part of modern Xinjiang. The archaeologist Lin Meicun further argues that Dunhuang refers to a mountain in the Tian Shan named Dunhong, which is listed in the Classic of Mountains and Seas. [Source: Wikipedia]

Yuezhi and the Xiongnu

Ashoka Buddhist Missions

The Yuezhi, was related linguistically to the ancient nomadic Scythian peoples--who inhabited the steppes north and northeast of the Black Sea and the region east of the Aral Sea--and was therefore Indo-European. The other grouping was the Xiongnu, a nomadic people of uncertain origins. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Although in the course of history other peoples displaced, or became intermingled with, the Yuezhi and the Xiongnu, their activities, conflicts, and internal and external relations established a pattern, with four principal themes, that continued almost unchanged--except for the conquest of Eurasia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries--until the eighteenth century. First, among these four themes, there were constant fierce struggles involving neighboring tribes, engaged in frequently shifting alliances that did not always follow ethnic, racial, or linguistic lines. Second, during periods when China was united and strong, trade with Inner Asian peoples was allowed, and nomadic states either became vassals of the Chinese emperor, or they retreated beyond his reach into the northern steppes; conversely, when China appeared weak, raids were made into rich Chinese lands, sometimes resulting in retaliatory expeditions into Mongolia. Third, occasional, transitory consolidation--of all or of large portions of the region under the control of a conqueror or a coalition of similar tribes--took place; such temporary consolidations could result in a life-or- death struggle between major tribal groupings until one or the other was exterminated or was expelled from the region, or until they joined forces. Fourth, on several occasions, raids into northern China were so vast and successful that the victorious nomads settled in the conquered land, established dynasties, and eventually became absorbed--sinicized--by the more numerous Chinese. *

Within this pattern, the Xiongnu eventually expelled the Yuezhi, who were driven to the southwest to become the Kushans of Iranian, Afghan, and Indian history. In turn, the Xiongnu themselves later were driven west. Their descendants, or possibly another group, continued this westward migration, establishing the Hun Empire, in Central and Eastern Europe, that reached its zenith under Attila. *

The pattern was interrupted abruptly and dramatically late in the twelfth century and throughout the thirteenth century by Chinggis and his descendants. During the consolidation of Mongolia and some of the invasions of northern China, Chinggis created sophisticated military and political organizations, exceeding in skill, efficiency, and vigor the institutions of the most civilized nations of the time. Under him and his immediate successors, the Mongols conquered most of Eurasia. *

Xiongnu and the Yuezhi Exodus

The Xiongnu temporarily abandoned their interest in China and turned their attention westward to the region of the Altai Mountains and Lake Balkash, inhabited by the Yuezhi), an Indo-European-speaking nomadic people who had relocated from China's present-day Gansu Province as a result of their earlier defeat by the Xiongnu. Endemic warfare between these two nomadic peoples reached a climax in the latter part of the third century and the early decades of the second century B.C.; the Xiongnu were triumphant. The Yuezhi then migrated to the southwest where, early in the second century, they began to appear in the Oxus (the modern Amu Darya) Valley, to change the course of history in Bactria, Iran, and eventually India.*

Shortly before 174 B.C., led by one of Modu's tribal chiefs, the Xiongnu invaded Yuezhi territory in the Gansu region and achieved a crushing victory. Modu boasted in a letter (174 B.C.) to the Han emperor that due to "the excellence of his fighting men, and the strength of his horses, he has succeeded in wiping out the Yuezhi, slaughtering or forcing to submission every number of the tribe." The son of Modu, Laoshang Chanyu, subsequently killed the king of the Yuezhi and, in accordance with nomadic traditions, "made a drinking cup out of his skull." (Shiji 123. Watson 1961:231). [Source: Wikipedia +]

Following Chinese sources, a large part of the Yuezhi people therefore fell under the domination of the Xiongnu, and these may have been the ancestors of the Tocharian speakers attested in the 6th century CE. A very small group of Yuezhi fled south to the territory of the Proto-Tibetan Qiang and came to be known to the Chinese as the "Small Yuezhi". According to the Hanshu, they only numbered around 150 families. +

Finally, a large group of the Yuezhi fled from the Tarim Basin towards the Northwest, first settling in the Ili valley, immediately north of the Tian Shan mountains, where they confronted and defeated the Sai (Sakas or Scythians): "The Yuezhi attacked the king of the Sai who moved a considerable distance to the south and the Yuezhi then occupied his lands" (Han Shu 61 4B). The Sai undertook their own migration, which was to lead them as far as Kashmir, after travelling through a "Suspended Crossing" (probably the Khunjerab Pass between present-day Xinjiang and northern Pakistan). The Sakas ultimately established an Indo-Scythian kingdom in northern India. +

After 155 B.C., the Wusun, in alliance with the Xiongnu and out of revenge from an earlier conflict, managed to dislodge the Yuezhi, forcing them to move south. The Yuezhi crossed the neighbouring urban civilization of the Dayuan in Ferghana and settled on the northern bank of the Oxus, in the region of Transoxiana,in modern-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, just north of the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian kingdom. The Greek city of Alexandria on the Oxus was apparently burnt to the ground by the Yuezhi around 145 B.C. +

Yuezhi Conquer Bactia

The Yuezhi were visited in Transoxiana by a Chinese mission, led by Zhang Qian in 126 B.C., that was seeking an offensive alliance with the Yuezhi to counter the Xiongnu threat to the north. The Yuezhi turned down the request, preferring to stay peacefully where they were rather than to seek revenge. Zhang Qian spent a year with the Yuezhi and in Bactria. He wrote in "the Great Yuezhi live 2,000 or 3,000 li (832–1,247 kilometers) west of Dayuan (Ferghana), north of the Gui (Oxus) river. They are bordered on the south by Daxia (Bactria), on the west by Anxi (Parthia), and on the north by Kangju (beyond the middle Jaxartes). They are a nation of nomads, moving from place to place with their herds, and their customs are like those of the Xiongnu. They have some 100,000 or 200,000 archer warriors." [Source: Shiji 123 <+>]

The Yuezhi were organized into five major tribes, each led by a yabgu, or tribal chief. Although they remained north of the Oxus for a while, they apparently obtained the submission of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom to the south of the Oxus. Describing the Greco-Bactrian kingdom after the conquest by Yuezhi, Zhang Qian wrote: "Daxia (Greco-Bactria) is located over 2,000 li southwest of Dayuan, south of the Gui (Oxus) river. Its people cultivate the land and have cities and houses. Their customs are like those of Ta-Yuan. It has no great ruler but only a number of petty chiefs ruling the various cities. The people are poor in the use of arms and afraid of battle, but they are clever at commerce. After the Great Yuezhi moved west and attacked the lands, the entire country came under their sway. The population of the country is large, numbering some 1,000,000 or more persons. The capital is called the city of Lanshi (Bactra) (modern Balkh) and has a market where all sorts of goods are bought and sold." <+>

On physical types and cultures of Central Asia in 126 B.C., Zhang Qian reported that "although the states from Dayuan west to Anxi (Parthia), speak rather different languages, their customs are generally similar and their languages mutually intelligible. The men have deep-set eyes and profuse beards and whiskers. They are skilful at commerce and will haggle over a fraction of a cent. Women are held in great respect, and the men make decisions on the advice of their women." <+>

In 124 B.C., the Yuezhi were apparently involved in a war against the Parthians. Some time after that the Yuezhi moved south to Bactria, which was conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. and settled by his Greek-Persian successors, the Seleucids. The Greek historian Strabo recorded this event, mistaking the Yuezhi for a Scythian tribe. "Most of the Scythians, beginning from the Caspian Sea, are called Dahae Scythae, and those situated more towards the east Massagetae and Sacae; the rest have the common appellation of Scythians, but each separate tribe has its peculiar name. All, or the greatest part of them, are nomads. The best known tribes are those who deprived the Greeks of Bactriana, the Asii, Pasiani, Tochari, and Sacarauli, who came from the country on the other side of the Jaxartes, opposite the Sacae and Sogdiani." [Source: Strabo, 11-8-1]

The last Greco-Bactrian king, Heliocles I, retreated and moved his capital to the Kabul Valley. The eastern part of Bactria was occupied by Pashtun people. As they settled in Bactria from around 125 B.C., the Yuezhi became Hellenized to some degree, as suggested by their adoption of the Greek alphabet and by some remaining coins, minted in the style of the Greco-Bactrian kings, with the text in Greek. The area of Bactria they settled came to be known as Tokharistan, since the Yuezhi were called Tókharoi by the Greeks. [Source: Wikipedia]

Xiongnu, Kushans and Chinese

In time the Yuezhi made peace with the Xiongnu, Saka and Sogdians. Their descendants, the Kushans, converted to Buddhism in the 1st century B.C. and established a kingdom that embraced parts of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Central Asia. When Kushan was its peak in first three centuries after Christ, it ranked with Rome, China and Parthia as one of the great powers of the world.

Commercial relations with China also flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the 1st century B.C.: "The largest of these embassies to foreign states numbered several hundred persons, while even the smaller parties included over 100 members ... In the course of one year anywhere from five to six to over ten parties would be sent out." The Hou Hanshu also records the visit of Yuezhi envoys to the Chinese capital in 2 B.C., who gave oral teachings on Buddhist sutras to a student, suggesting that some Yuezhi already followed the Buddhist faith during the 1st century B.C. [Sources” Shiji, trans. Burton Watson; Baldev Kumar 1973]

A later Chinese annotation in Shiji made by Zhang Shoujie during the early 8th century, quoting Wan Zhen's “Strange Things from the Southern Region”, a now-lost third-century text of from the Wu kingdom, describes the Kushans as living in the same general area north of India, in cities of Greco-Roman style, and with sophisticated handicraft. "The Great Yuezhi [Kushans] is located about seven thousand li (about 3000 km) north of India. Their land is at a high altitude; the climate is dry; the region is remote. The king of the state calls himself "son of heaven". There are so many riding horses in that country that the number often reaches several hundred thousand. City layouts and palaces are quite similar to those of Daqin (the Roman empire). The skin of the people there is reddish white. People are skilful at horse archery. Local products, rarities, treasures, clothing, and upholstery are very good, and even India cannot compare with it." The quotes are dubious, as Wan Zhen probably never visited the Yuezhi kingdom through the Silk Road, though he might have gathered his information from the trading ports in the coastal south. [Source: Wikipedia]

Buddhism and the Kushans

When the Kushans became powerful they showed a great tolerance towards religion, particularly Buddhism, which prospered during their rule. Kanishka, who reigned for two decades starting around A.D. 78, was the most noteworthy Kushana ruler. He converted to Buddhism and convened a great Buddhist council in Kashmir. The first Chinese Buddhist art and the famous Bamiyan statues destroyed by the Taliban were made during this era.

According to PBS: “During this era, the first Buddhist missionaries travelled to China, with two Indian monks founding the first Chinese monastery and spreading the teachings of Buddhism by translating its sacred texts into the local languages.“The Kushans practiced an ecumenical rule, supporting many deities of different religions in their multi-racial empire. The greatest Kushan ruler, King Kanishka, closely affiliated himself to Buddhism, choosing the Mahayana tradition, and thereby influencing the direction of Buddhism in China and Tibet. His enormous stupa, erected in Peshawar was regarded as one of the greatest wonders of the Asian world: it was still standing 500 years later, as described by a Chinese pilgrim in the 7th century CE, though only its foundations survived into modern times.” [Source: PBS, The Story of India, pbs.org/thestoryofindia]

Akhilesh Pillalamarri wrote in The National Interest: "Under the influence of the Kushans, who eventually moved their capitals to Peshawar (in Pakistan) and Mathura (in India), Indian influence, especially Buddhism, became predominant across Central Asia. This tendency reached its height under the Emperor Kanishka (127-151 C.E.) who convened the 4th Buddhist Council—essentially converting Buddhism into a state religion; Kanishka also expanded his empire deep into central India." [Source: Akhilesh Pillalamarri, The National Interest, May 8, 2015]

The Kushans rulers appear to have been Zoroastrians but they had a great many Buddhist subjects. Buddhism reached its peak in the region under King Kanishka in the A.D. 2nd century. Under him Pakistan and Afghanistan became a cradle of Mahayana Buddhism. Numerous stupas and monasteries were built in Gandhara. Attracting pilgrims from as far away as China, they were decorated with statues of Buddha and bodhisattvas and scenes from the life of the historical Buddha and his previous lives. As Mahayana Buddhism developed, Buddha himself became the object of worship.

The Swat Valley was a major center of Tantric Buddhism. Many tantras (manuals for mystical acts) were developed here. From Gandhara Buddhism was carried by traders and pilgrims along the Silk Road into China, Tibet and Central Asia. Buddhist engravings dating back to these period can be seen on rock faces along the Karakoram Highway. Buddhism took hold in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan where it remained strong until the A.D. 10th century.

Kushan art was a unique fusion of Indian, Central Asian, Buddhist and Greco-Roman styles. Particularly noteworthy were the representations of Buddha in the human form. The most famous of these is the famous Fasting Buddha—with its exposed rib cage, skeletal limbs and emaciated features—from Taxila. Earlier Indian styles represented Buddha in the forms of symbols such as a lotus, a tree, a footprint, a wheel or a stupa. Some Gandharan Buddhas have Western features.


location of Gandhara between present-day Kabul Afghanistan and Islamibad Pakistan

Gandhara, occupying present-day Pakistani districts of Swat, Puner and Bajaur, was the main center of Buddhism in Pakistan. Located about 700 miles north of present-day Karachi, it was the easternmost region of the Persian Empire and the westernmost region of the Indian Empire and was a key center of trade between Persia, central Asia and India. Gandhara is the name of an ancient Mahajanapada in northern Pakistan and parts of northern Punjab and Kashmir and eastern Afghanistan. Gandhara was located mainly in the vale of Peshawar, the Potohar plateau and on the northern side of the Kabul River. Its main cities were Peshawar and Taxila.

Gandhara came under strong Buddhist influence when it was absorbed into the Bactrian empire by King Menander, (155-130 B.C.), who converted to Buddhism. Between the 2nd century B.C. and the A.D. 7th century Gandhara was an important Buddhist learning and the religion continued to be practiced there until the 16th century. There were over 1,400 monasteries in the Lower Swat alone. Gandhara was also a major center of Buddhist art. Great Gandhara reliefs and sculpture were produced between A.D. 1 and 400 A.D.[Source: Glorious India <>]

The Kingdom of Gandhara lasted from the 6th Century B.C. to the 11th Century AD. In the sixth to fourth centuries B.C. Gandhara was dominated under the Achaemenid Dynasty of Iran. The successors of Alexander the Great maintained themselves in Bactria and Gandhara from 322 B.C. to about 50 B.C.. Rejoined to India under the Maurya Dynasty, the Gandhara province became the object of intense missionary activity by the Buddhist emperor Asoka (reigned c. 273-232 B.C.). In the A.D. first century the Kushans, a tribe of Scythian stock from north China made themselves masters of Gandhara. Their rule, however, was interrupted by the invasion of the Persian King Shapur I in A.D. 242, and the Buddhist civilization of Gandhara was finally completely destroyed by the White Huns, the Hephthalites, in the sixth century. It was conquered by Mahmood of Ghazni in A.D., the name Gandhara disappearered.

The Buddhist Ruins of Takht-i-Bahi and Neighbouring City Remains at Sahr-i-Bahlol are most characteristic examples of the development of monastic and urban communities in the Gandharan region between the 1st to 7th century AD.

Kushan Rulers

Gandhara Buddha scene, 2nd century

“The first Kushan ruler was Kujula Kadphises, who may be identified with the Yabgu of Guishuang named Qiu Jiuque in Hou Han shu (128.9). Numismatic evidence shows that Kujula Kadphises continued to imitate posthumous types of coinage of the last Indo-Greek ruler in central Afghanistan. Other copper coins issued by Kujula Kadphises copy the royal portrait on the obverse from gold coins of the Roman emperor Augustus (31 B.C. - 14 CE). The image of the seated Roman emperor is transformed into a Kushan ruler, who is identified as Kujula Kadphises in Greek and Kharosthi legends. As the Kushans progressed further into northwestern India, Kujula Kadphises adopted the title "Great King, King of Kings" on coins patterned on those of Saka and Parthian rulers. More than 2,500 coins of Kujula Kadphises were found in the latest strata of excavations at the site of Sirkap at Taxila, before the main settlement was shifted to Sirsukh during the period of Kujula Kadphises' successors. Although an absolute chronology is very difficult to establish for the long reign of Kujula Kadphises, numismatic evidence reflects the growth of Kushan hegemony following the reign of the Indo-Parthian ruler Gondophares (after 46 CE). [Source: University of Washington, Simpson Center for the Humanities, washington.edu/silkroad]

“A Bactrian inscription from Rabatak in northern Afghanistan helps to clarify the succession of three generations of Kushan rulers following Kujula Kadphises. Although the name of Vima Taktu as the direct successor of Kujula Kadphises is not entirely clear, the Rabatak inscription confirms that Kujula Kadphises was followed by another ruler before Vima Kadphises, the father of Kanishka. Vima Taktu can be linked with 'Soter Megas' ("Great Savior"), the Kushan ruler who issued a series of coins that follow the coin-types of Kujula Kadphises and precede those of Vima Kadphises Empire between the time of Kujula Kadphises and Vima Kadphises.

“Vima Kadphises introduced the use of gold coinage, perhaps melted down from Roman coins imported to India in exchange for a variety of luxury items. While Roman coins are found in large numbers in southern India and Sri Lanka, their rarity in northwestern India may be due to Kushan reminting begun during the time of Vima Kadphises. Coins issued under Vima Kadphises demonstrate a progression towards more grandiloquent titles and more elaborate iconography than those issued by his Kushan predecessors. Vima Kadphises' coins are also very distinctive because he is portrayed in all his glory as a large man with a huge nose and a wart on one cheek.

Vima Kadphises is credited with the conquest of India (T’ientchieou). This may not be true, if taken literally, but the wide distribution of his coins and the assumption of high-sounding titles like “the great king, king of kings, the lord of all people.. show that his authority extended east of the Indus to the Punjab and possibly also to the United Provinces. He governed his Indian possessions through a Viceroy, to whom has been attributed the large number of copper coins, usually known as the issues of the “Nameless king”, which are quite common in various parts of Northern India. Lastly, it appears from the epithet, Mahesvara, on his coins as also from Nandi and the figure of Siva on their reverse, that Vima Kadphises was probably a devotee of the Hindu god, Siva. Needless to comment on how soon the Kushans succumbed to their Hindu environments. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Kushan Rulers:
Vima Kadphises late A.D. 1st century
Kanishka ca. A.D. 100 - 125
Huviska ca. A.D. 126 - 164
Vasudeva ca. A.D. 164 - 198
Kanishka II ca. A.D. 200 - 220
Vasiska A.D. 220 - 230
Kanishka III. A.D. 240
Later Kushans ca. A.D. 250 - ca. A.D. 300

Kanishka: the Great Kushan King


Kanishka ((reigned c. 127 -147 CE) is indubitably the most striking figure among the Kushan kings of India. A great conqueror and a patron of Buddhism, he combined in himself the military ability of Chandragupta Maurya and the religious zeal of Ashoka. Our knowledge of Kanishka is, however, meagre, and his chronological position urihappily still remains a puzzle to us. It is not known what his connection was with Vima Kadphises. Though the possibility of a brief gap between the two sovereigns cannot be entirely ruled out, their sequence may be regarded as almost certain. The coins of both Kanishka and Vlma Kadphises have been found together at several places (e.g., Benares, Gopalpur Stupa in Gorakhpur district, Begram near Kabul), and they often display “in the field the same four-pronged symbol, and agree accurately in weight and fineness, besides exhibiting a close relationship in the obverse devices.” [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

According to PBS: “King Kanishka was the most powerful ruler of the Kushan Empire. An important new inscription found at Robotak in Afghanistan has provided much more information about his family and ancestors, the dates of his rule, and the extent of his vast Indian empire. Having adopted Buddhism, he influenced the direction of the development of the religion by supporting the Mahayana tradition, and sending missionaries to China, where Buddhism then began to flourish. He also built a great stupa in Peshawar that signaled his support of Buddhism. Kanishka continued his campaigns of conquest to enlarge the Kushan Empire, expanding its boundaries from Afghanistan and Central Asia in the northwest, and Kashmir in the north, to Ujain in central India, Mathura, Kosambi and Benares in the Ganges plain, and Bhagalpur in Bihar, only three hundred miles from the Bay of Bengal. According to later legend, Kanishka was ultimately killed by his own soldiers, who suffocated him in his tent. [Source: PBS, The Story of India, pbs.org/thestoryofindia]

Kanishka’s legacy as a powerful emperor is preserved in inscriptions, textual traditions, archaeological remains, and coins. According to the Rabatak Bactrian inscription, the Kushan realm at the time of Kanishka extended to the cities of Saketa, Kausambi, Pataliputra, and Sri-Campa in the Ganges-Yamuna valley. A colossal statue of Kanishka near Mathura with a Brahmi inscription labeling him "Great King, King of Kings, Son of God, Kanishka" shows that he fulfilled the role of "Universal Emperor" (cakravartin). Kanishka is credited with the construction of an immense stupa described by Chinese pilgrims in Peshawar, where archeological remains of its 87 square meter cruciform foundation have been excavated. Buddhist literary sources portray Kanishka as a major patron of Buddhism modeled after the ideal of Ashoka (see Mauryans essay). Buddhist imagery appears on some of Kanishka's coins, but his coins also depict a wide variety of Iranian, Greek, and Indian gods and goddesses. King Kanishka's stupa was one of the wonders of the world [Source: University of Washington, Simpson Center for the Humanities, washington.edu/silkroad]

“The determination of an absolute date for the beginning of the era founded by Kanishka remains unresolved. Since the discovery of the Rabatak inscription, scholarly consensus seems to be shifting away from the traditional date of 78 A.D. for the beginning of the Kanishka era to an early second century date (ca. 100 A.D. or one or two decades later). Dating formulae of inscriptions and stylistic analysis of Kushan period sculptures from Mathura and Gandhara suggests that numerals for hundreds were omitted in epigraphic records written during the time of the later Kushan rulers. Based on the genealogy of early Kushan rulers in the Rabatak inscription and dated inscriptions of Kanishka and his successors, a rough chronology of Kushan rulers can be tentatively proposed:

Numismatic evidence and the.stratification of the remains of Taxila indicate that Kanishka was very close in time to Vlma Kadphises, and indeed succeeded him. With regard to the precise year of the former’s accession, the choice really lies between 78 A.D. and 125 A.D. although other improbable dates, ranging from 5 8 B.C. (Fleet) to 248 A.D. (Dr. R.C. Majumdar), or even 278 A.D. (R.G. Bhandarkar), have been suggested for the event. Without entering here into the details of these intricate and interminable controversies, it appears to us a fairly plausible theory that Kanishka was the the originator of the era of 78 A.D. There can be no doubt that he founded an era, since his reckoning was continued by his successors; and we do not know of any Samvat, current in Northern India, which began at tlje end of the first quarter of the second century A.D. the other date usually proposed for Kanishka’s assumption of the crown. Besides, if Kujula Kadphises digd about the middle of the third quarter of the first century A.D. Kanishka cannot be far removed from this date, as Vima Kadphises, having come after an octogenerian, must have ruled for a short time only. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Kanishka’s Conquests

Takht-i-Bahi stupas and prayer places

The Kushan Empire reached its greatest extent during the reign of Kanishka. He extended his empire from Patna in the east to Bukhara in the west and from the Pamirs in the north to central India, with the capital at Peshawar (then Purushapura).

Kanishka was a warrior and he won many successes in war. He annexed Kashmir to the Kushan empire, and was extremely fond of that pleasant valley. If any credence is to be given to traditions preserved in Chinese and Tibetan works, his arms penetrated as far as Saketa and Magadha, whence he carried off a celebrated Buddhist monk named ASvaghosa. Kanishka is also said to have successfully repulsed the attack of the Parthian king. But his most important engagements were with the Chinese; they resulted' ultimately in the conquest of Kashgar, Khotan, and Yarkand. The Chinese, whose influence in Central Asia had ceased by the end of the first Han dynasty in 23 A.D. reasserted their power half a century later, and made a steady advance westward under General Pan-chao. This was naturally viewed with some concern by the Kushan monarch, who, as a mark of his equality with the Chinese Emperor, demanded the hand of a Chinese princess and adopted the title of Devaputra (“the son of Heaven”). Pan-chao considered it an affront to his master, and accordingly arrested the Kushan envoy. Kanishka then crossed the Pamir to fight against him, but. suffered a severe reverse, and bought peace by paying tribute to China. A few years afterwards Kanishka led another expedition across the Pamirs; victory favoured him this time against Pan-yang, the son of Pan-chao. The Kushan ruler thus avenged his previous defeat, and compelled a feudatory state of __ China to surrender hostages to him. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

The belief that they included a son of the Han Emperor does not, however, appear to be well founded. We learn that these hostages were treated with the utmost consideration, and adequate arrangements were made for their stay in the She-lo-ka monastery in KapiSa (Kafiristan), Gandhara, and at a place called Chlnabhukti in eastern Punjab, during the various seasons of the year. Here, it is said, they introduced the peach and the pear, and their memory continued to be cherished in Xuanzang’s time in the Kapisa monastery, where according to his biographer, Hwui-li, they had made endowments for the repairs and maintenance of the She-lo-ka shrine. The treasure was deposited under the foot of the image of the Great Spirit King (Vaisravana), and once a certain covetous king tried to open it, but was foiled in his attempt by portents. Xuanzang, however, is alleged to have succeeded in doing so after propitiating the “guardian spirit,” and a part of the jewels and gold was then utilised in making necessary repairs in the building of the Vihara. The remainder of the treasure was left to meet future requirements.

Kanishka’s Empire, Court and Government

Birth of Buddha, Kushan ate 2nd century

Kanishka ruled a vast empire. Outside India it certainly comprised Afghanistan, Bactria, Kashgr.r, Khotan, and Yarkand. Its limits in India are, however, hard to determine with precision. The inscriptions of Kanishka’s reign have been discovered in Peshawar, Manikyala (near Rawalpindi), Sui Vihar (Bahawalpur State), Zeda (near Und), Mathura, SravastI, Kosambl, Sarnath; and his coins are found all over Northern India including Bihar and Bengal. Thus, it appears from these findspots and the traditions of his conquests that Kanishka’s Indian possessions consisted of the Punjab, Kashmir, Sind, United Provinces, and perhaps the country still further to the east and the south. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

His Capital: The capital of these far-flung territories was Purusapura or Peshawar. It controlled the main route from Afghanistan to the Indus plains, and was, therefore, of considerable strategic importance.

His Satraps: Scarcely anything is known about Kanishka’s administration. The Sarnath inscription dated in the year 3 or 81 A.D.(P) 1, however, gives us just a glimpse of his Satrapal system in the provinces. We learn that Kharapallana was his Mahaksatrapa, presumably at Mathura, and Vanaspara was governing the eastern regions of Benares as Ksatrapa. It seems reasonable to suppose that the government of other outlying parts of the realm was organised on similar lines.

Kanishka’s Public Works: Like Ashoka, Kanishka was a great builder of Stupas and cities. He erected in his capital a monastery and a huge wooden tower, in which he placed some relics of the Buddha. Several years ago, a casket containing some fragments of bones was unearthed here. The inscription 1 on it furnishes us the interesting information that the Stupa was constructed under the supervision of a Greek architect, named AgiSala or Agesilaos. Kanishka built a town near Taxila, and Kanispor(Kanishkapura), mentioned in the R ajatarangipiy may also have owed its foundation to him.

According to traditions, Kanishka’s court was adorned by abrilliant galaxy of intellectual celebrities and Buddhist leaders like Parsva, Vasumitra, Asvaghosa, Nagarjuna, Caraka, Matriceta, and others. These stories appear almost on a par with the legends associated with VikraSnaditya. The first three are spoken of in connection with the Buddhist Council of Kanishka, but it is doubtful if the rest also were his contemporaries. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Kanishka is said to have met a violent death somewhere in the north at the hands of his own people, who were tired of his incessant hard campaigns. He ruled for at least 23 Years, but, if he is identical with Kanishka of the Ara inscription, his last known date would be the year 41. A headless statue of the king, discovered at Mat in the Mathura district, is one of his tangible relics.

remains of a monastery at Taxila

Kanishka’s Religion and His Impact on Buddhism

Coins do not afford any clear testimony regarding the religious beliefs of Kanishka. If they prove anything, it is his eclecticism, the tendency to honour a strange medley of Greek, Mithraic, Zoroastrian, and Hindu gods. On his coins, which, it may be incidentally noted, always bear legends in the Greek alphabet only, there figure Hcrakles, Serapis, the Sun and the Moon under their Greek names Helios and Selene, Miiro (Sun), Athro (Fire), Nanaia, Siva, etc. Some rare pieces also depict the Buddha (Boddo), seated in the Indian fashion, or standing clad probably in Greek costume. On the other hand, Buddhist authors strongly affirm Kanishka’s faith in the Buddha. They aver that in his unregenerate days Kanishka revelled, like Ashoka, in cruel and impious acts, and he embraced the religion of thb Sakyamuni owing to feelings of profound remorse for his past misdeeds. No doubt, the main purpose of such stories is to emphasise the ennobling influence of Bucfdnism, which could turn base metal into shining gold, but that is no argument for disbelieving the fact of Kanishka’s conversion. His enshrinement of the Buddha’s relics in an exquisite edifice and the convocation of a grand Buddhist Assembly further point in this same direction. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Buddhist Council: The reign of Kanishka is specially important in the history of the Buddhist church, for we learn that, being perplexed in his theological studies, he convened with the permission of his teacher, ParSvika or Paiiva, a council of 500 monks (mahasamghd) y belonging to the Sarvastivadin school, to settle the disputed doctrines. The conference was held at Kundalavana in the delightful vale of Kashmir; its deliberations were guided by Vasumitra, and in his absence ASvaghosa acted as President. Their labours resulted in the compilation of the Vibhasd Sastra and other comprehensive commentaries on the canon, which after being engraved on “sheets of red copper” were sealed and deposited in a Stupa. Who knows these invaluable documents may still lie buried there, and a lucky spade may one day bring them to light? [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Rise of the Mahayana: The appearance of the Buddha along with other deities on Kanishka’s coins clearly indicates that Buddhism had by this time moved far away from its original moorings. While the early Buddhists regarded the Master merely as a human being, a great guide in the journey of life, he was now elevated to the position of a god, accessible to the supplications of his devotees, and attended by “a hierarchy of Bodhisattvas” and other divinities. This led to the inculcation of the doctrine of salvation by faith in the Buddha. Of course, the old ideal of an individual seeking release for himself from the evils of transmigration still persisted, but alongside of it there emerged the conception that every one might aim at, or even rise to, Buddhahood for the deliverance of the world from tribulation. The rituals were also elaborated to satisfy the popular tastes for ceremonial. This modified Buddhism was known as the Mahayana, “the great Vehicle,” in contradistinction to the Hlnayana. “the little Vehicle,” the name used for the primitive teaching. Although definite proof is lacking, there are reasons to believe that the former was nascent, much earlier than the time of Kanishka. It may have owed its origin to the “penetration of Buddhism by Bhaktiy ” or to the spread of Buddhism among the masses, for they required a more catholic religion in place of the icy idealism of the Hlnayana, which could hardly kindle the flame of their devotion. Besides, the introduction of foreign racial elements into the body politic of India, and the interaction of their civilisations, must have quickened the development of this newer Buddhism. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Kanishka’s Successors

Our knowledge regarding the successors of Kanishka is very scanty. It appears, however, from two inscriptions, found in Mathura and Sanchl, that Vasiska was governing these regions in the years 24 and 28. None of his coins has so far come to light, and perhaps he did not issue any.

The dates of Huviska range from the year 31 to 60 of the era founded by Kanishka. Some scholars believe that the latter was followed by Vasiska and Huviska. But this view is doubted, because an inscription, unearthed at Ara (Peshawar district), mentions a Kanishka, son of Vajheska or Vajhespa, as flourishing in the year 41. Now, who was this personage? He was either different from, or identical with, the great Kanishka. In case the former hypothesis is correct, he must have been an independent contemporary of Huviska, or more probably his Viceroy. If, on the other hand, the two Kanishkas are identified, then we shall have to suppose that : Vasiska and Huviska were at f^rjt Viceroys of the great Kanishka; that Vasiska predeceased him; and that Huviska assumed full sovereign powers after the year 41. Whichever theory is accepted, coins and inscriptions testify that Huviska was a powerful prince, and that he maintained the empire intact. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

His authority was doubtless recognised in Kabul, Kashmir, the Punjab, Mathura, perhaps eastern United Provinces, but there is nothing to prove the continuance of the Kushan rule in the lower Indus valley and eastern Malwa. Huviska’s coinage is very artistic, having excellent portraits of the king, and it is also extensive. The types include representations of Herakles, Sarapis (Sarapo); Mithra and Mao, Pharro; Skandha and Vi£akha, and other god's but both the name and the figure of the Buddha are absent. Huviska was, however, not altogether indifferent to Buddhism, for he is said to have built a Buddhist monastery and a temple at Mathura. He also founded a town in Kashmir, called Juskapura or Huviskapura or modern Huskpur or Uskur (Zukur).

The exact date of Huviska’s death is uncertain, but an inscription records that in the year 74 of Kanaka’s reckoning the ruling authority was Vasudeva (Bazodeo of the coins). According to another epigraph, his last known date is 98; so that he may be credited with having reigned for 25 to 30 years. His inscriptions have been found in the Mathura region only, and his coins mostly come from the Punjab and the United Provinces. We may, therefore, reasonably infer that the territories in the northwest and beyond, ruled by his predecessors, had slipped away from the hands of Vasudeva. That he held sway over an attenuated kingdom appears also from the reduction in the number of his coin -types. The coins with the goddess Nanaia are extremely rare, whereas many of them bear on the reverse the figure of Siva with Nandi (bull). The latter class of coins has generally been taken to prove that Vasudeva belonged to the Saiva faith. At any rate, his Sanskritised Hindu name, synonymous with Visnu, attests that the Kushans were by no means averse or impervious to Brahmanical influences. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Kushan Art

According to PBS: “The Kushans built an empire supported by trade on the Silk Road, and lavished their wealth on the arts and on Buddhist monasteries, importing Greek artisans to carve elaborate sculptures depicting the life of the Buddha. This synthesis of western artisans carving eastern subjects became known as Gandharan art. [Source: PBS, The Story of India, pbs.org/thestoryofindia]

Kushan art was a unique fusion of Indian, Central Asian, Buddhist and Greco-Roman styles. Particularly noteworthy were the representations of Buddha in the human form. The most famous of these is the famous Fasting Buddha from Taxila. Earlier Indian styles represented Buddha un the forms of symbols such as a lotus, a tree, a wheel or a stupa.

The Kushans also produced great Greco-Roman-style statuary and jewelry and crafts that incorporated influences from Persia and horsemen from the steppes. Among the artifacts found in Kushan sites are a Roman glass intaglio with images of Hercules at an altar of Jupiter, a Persian-style griffin carved from chalcedon; a gold coin with a breaded king from the Parthian empire, a necklace made with gold wire, featuring a cameo of a ruler; a goil gold with an image of a man and a dharma wheel; A gold Scythian bridle ornament with a panther mauling an antelope: and Chinese Han dynasty mirror with a back featuring Chinese characters arranged around an eight-pointed star.

Kushan Coins, Trade and Influence

According to PBS: “The Kushans also developed a highly ornate and sophisticated system of coinage, with beautiful gold coins depicting rulers and gods in superb detail. Along with new inscriptional finds the coinage has allowed modern scholars to date the Kushan ulers more precisely, and is providing new insight into the events of the era which the great 18th century historian Edward Gibbon called "the happiest time in the history of humanity". [Source: PBS, The Story of India, pbs.org/thestoryofindia]

“During the Kushan period in the first to third centuries CE, political, economic, religious, and cultural contact between South Asia and Central Asia greatly accelerated. Archeological excavations, art historical evidence, coins, and inscriptions directly reflect connections between the establishment of the Kushan Empire, long-distance trade and cultural transmission between the northwestern Indian subcontinent and the silk routes. New material evidence has recently come to light that allows Kushan chronological and genealogical issues to be clarified. These historical developments gain added significance in the context of cross-cultural relations during the early centuries CE. [Source: University of Washington, Simpson Center for the Humanities, washington.edu/silkroad]

“While the evidence from coins and inscriptions at Rabatak and Surkh Kotal clearly shows that the Kushans maintained Iranian religious beliefs and practices, other inscriptions provide abundant evidence of Buddhist patronage by Kushan officials under Kanishka and his successors (see chart below). Buddhism initially spread from Gandhara and Kashmir via the mountains of northern Pakistan and the silk routes of the Tarim Basin to China during the period of the Kushans.

“The Kushans exerted considerable influence in Tarim Basin oases such as Khotan and Kashgar. According to the Hou Han shu, between 87-91 A.D. a Kushan expedition of 70,000 soldiers crossed the Pamirs to Kashgar because a marriage alliance proposed by a Kushan envoy sent to China was refused. In another episode between 114-119 CE, the Kushans installed their own candidate as the ruler of Kashgar after he returned from exile across the Pamirs. Historical annals of the Wei and other Chinese dynasties also contain references to Chinese relations with the Kushans. Coins of Vima Kadphises and Kanishka and bilingual Chinese and Kharosthi coins issued in Khotan in the first and second century A.D. provide numismatic evidence for commerce between the Kushan empire and the Tarim basin. However, direct control of eastern Central Asia by the Kushans was unlikely.

Decline and Fall of the Kushan Empire

The downfall of the Kushans began during the reign of Vasudeva, and in course of time the empire, reared by the genius of Kanishka, broke up into petty principalities under princelings, some of whom bore the name Vasudeva. They are known entirely from their coins on which are written their initials or monograms perpendicularly. According to Dr. Vincent Smith, the “Persianising of the Kushan coinage of Northern India” in the early third century A.D. indicates that the decay of the Kushan power must have been hastened by Persian invasions like the one recorded by Firishta as having been undertaken by the first Sassanian king. The overthrow of these Kushan chieftains must have, however, been largely due to the rise of the Nagas and other native dynasties, which prepared the way for the Guptas for welding Northern India eventually into one miglity empire. But the Kidara Kushans, a branch race, established themselves in the Kabul valley and adjacent lands, and despite the fierce onslaughts of the Hunas in the fifth century A.D. there are traces of their surviyal until about the middle of the ninth century A.D. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

After the dismemberment of the Kushan empire the history of India is mostly enveloped in darkness, which hides from our view the course of events, until we emerge into the light of the Gupta epoch. Occasionally, however, a glimmer reveals the principal scenes and actors during the third and the early part of the fourth century A.D. This was a period when the Nagas or their BharaSiva branch dominated a large part of Northern India. According to the Ptiranas, their chief seats of power were Vidisa, Padmavatl (Padampawaya), Kantipuri (Kantit, Mirzapur district), and Mathura. One of the earliest Naga rulers was Vlrasena, who “re-established Hindu sovereignty” at Mathura, formerly a strong Kushan centre in India. The authority and influence of the BharaSiva Nagas may also be judged from the fact that the marriage of the daughter of the Bharasiva king, Bhavanaga, with the son of Pravarasena Vakataka was considered so important as to be repeated in all the official records of the Vakatakas.

We further learn from them that prior to this matrimonial alliance the BharaSivas had been “anointed to sovereignty with the holy water of the Bhaglrathi (Ganges), which they had acquired with their valour,” and they had performed no less than ten AJvamedha sacrifices. They were thus mighty princes, who flourished after the Rushans and maintained their influence for a long time. Later traces of Naga rule may be found in the Allahabad Pillar inscription, which mentions the defeat of Ganapatinaga and other Naga kings at the hands of Samudragupta. This epigraph gives us, as we shall see below, an idea of the political condition of India about the middle of the fourth century A.D. It may, therefore, be reasonably supposed that some of the royal houses and autonomous clans, mentioned therein, must have risen into prominence considerably earlier. Indeed, they may have sprung up on the ruins of the Kushan power.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2020

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