The Kushan Empire originally formed
in the 1st century AD in the
territories of ancient Bactria on either side of the middle course of the Oxus
River or Amu Darya in what is now northern Afghanistan, and southern Tajikistan
During the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD the Kushans expanded
across the northern part of the Indian subcontinent at least as far as Saketa
and Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares) where inscriptions have been found dated to
the first few years of era of the most famous Kushan ruler, Kanishka which
apparently began about 127 AD.
The Kushan kings were a branch of the Yuezhi confederation (possibly
intermarried with local families) and they had diplomatic contacts with Rome, Persia
and Han China. While much philosophy, art, and science was created within its
borders, the only textual record we have of the empire's history today comes
from inscriptions and accounts in other languages, particularly Chinese. The
empire declined from 3rd century and fell to the Sassanid empire and Gupta
|A Buddhist devotee in Kushan dress, Mathura, 2nd century.
Chinese sources describe the Guishuang (Ch: 貴霜), i.e.
the "Kushans", as one of the five aristocratic tribes of the Yuezhi,
Yueh-chi or Yüeh-chih in other transcriptions, (Ch: 月氏), a loose confederation
of Indo-European peoples.The Yuezhi are also generally considered as the
easternmost speakers of Indo-European languages, who had been living in the
arid grasslands of eastern Central Asia, in modern-day Xinjiang and Gansu,
possibly speaking versions of the Tocharian language, until they were driven
west by the Xiongnu in 176–160 BC. The five tribes constituting the Yuezhi
are known in Chinese history as Xiūmì (Ch: 休密), Guishuang (Ch: 貴霜),
Shuangmi (Ch: 雙靡),
Xidun (Ch: 肸頓),
and Dūmì (Ch: 都密).
Historian John Keay contextualizes
the movements of the Kushan within a larger setting of mass migrations taking
place in the region:
Chinese sources tell of the construction of the Great Wall
in the third century BC and the repulse of various marauding tribes. Forced to
head west and eventually south, these tribes displaced others in an ethnic
knock-on effect which lasted many decades and spread right across Central Asia.
The Parthians from Iran and the Bactrian Greeks from Bactria had both been
dislodged by the Shakas coming down from somewhere near the Aral Sea. But the
Shakas had in turn been dislodged by the Yueh-chi who had themselves been
driven west to Xinjiang by the Hiung-nu. The last, otherwise the Huns, would
happily not reach India for a long time. But the Yueh-chi continued to press on
the Shakas, and having forced them out of Bactria, it was sections or clans of
these Yueh-chi who next began to move down into India in the second half of the
first century AD."
|Listing of Kushans Royal tamagas
The Yuezhi reached the Hellenic
kingdom of Greco-Bactria, in the Bactrian territory (northernmost Afghanistan
and Uzbekistan) around135 BC. The
displaced Greek dynasties resettled to the southeast in areas of the Hindu Kush
and the Indus basin (in present day Pakistan), occupying the western part of
the Indo-Greek Kingdom.
Some traces remain of the presence of the Kushans in the area of Bactria and
Sogdiana. Archaeological structures are known in Takht-I-Sangin, Surkh Kotal (a
monumental temple), and in the palace of Khalchayan. Various sculptures and
friezes are known, representing horse-riding archers, and significantly men
with artificially deformed skulls, such as the Kushan prince of Khalchayan (a
practice well attested in nomadic Central Asia). The Chinese first referred to
these people as the Yuezhi and said they established the Kushan Empire,
although the relationship between the Yuezhi and the Kushans is still unclear.
On the ruins of ancient Hellenistic cities such as Ai-Khanoum, the Kushans are
known to have built fortresses. The earliest documented ruler, and the first
one to proclaim himself as a Kushan ruler was Heraios. He calls himself a
"Tyrant" on his coins, and also exhibits skull deformation. He may
have been an ally of the Greeks, and he shared the same style of coinage.
Heraios may have been the father of the first Kushan emperor Kujula Kadphises.
The Chinese history, the Hou Hanshu, gives an account of the
formation of the Kushan empire based on a report made by the Chinese general Ban
Yong to the Chinese Emperor c. 125 AD:
"More than a hundred years later [than the conquest of Bactria by the
Da Yuezhi], the prince [xihou] of Guishuang (Badakhshan) established
himself as king, and his dynasty was called that of the Guishuang [Kushan]
King. He invaded Anxi [Indo-Parthia], and took the Gaofu (Kabul) region. He
also defeated the whole of the kingdoms of Puda (Paktiya) and Jibin (Kapisha
and Gandhara). Qiujiuque (Kujula Kadphises) was more than eighty years old when
he died. His son, Yangaozhen [probably Vema Tahk(tu) or, possibly, his brother
Sadaṣkaṇa], became king in his place. He defeated Tianzhu [North-western India]
and installed Generals to supervise and lead it. The Yuezhi then became
extremely rich. All the kingdoms call [their king] the Guishuang [Kushan] king,
but the Han call them by their original name, Da Yuezhi
In the following century, the Guishuang (Ch: 貴霜) gained prominence over
the other Yuezhi tribes, and welded them into a tight confederation under yabgu
(Commander) Kujula Kadphises. The name Guishuang was adopted in the West
and modified into Kushan to designate the confederation, although the
Chinese continued to call them Yuezhi.
Gradually wresting control of the area from the Scythian
tribes, the Kushans expanded south into the region traditionally known as Gandhara
(An area lying primarily in Pakistan's Pothowar, and Northwest Frontier
Provinces region but going in an arc to include Kabul valley and part of Qandahar
in Afghanistan) and established twin capitals near present-day Kabul and Peshawar
then known as Kapisa and Pushklavati respectively.
The Kushans adopted elements of the Hellenistic culture of Bactria.
They adopted the Greek alphabet (often corrupted) to suit their own language
(with the additional development of the letter Þ "sh", as in
"Kushan") and soon began minting coinage on the Greek model. On their
coins they used Greek language legends combined with Pali legends (in the Kharoshthi
script), until the first few years of the reign of Kanishka. After that date,
they used Kushan language legends (in an adapted Greek script), combined with
legends in Greek (Greek script) and legends in Pali (Kharoshthi script).
The Kushans are believed to have been predominantly Zoroastrian. However,
from the time of Wima Takto, many Kushans started adopting aspects of Buddhist
culture. Like the Egyptians they absorbed the strong remnants of the Greek
Culture of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, becoming at least partly Hellenised. The
great Kushan emperor Wima Kadphises may have embraced Saivism, as surmised by
coins minted during the period. The following Kushan emperors represented a
wide variety of faiths including Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and possibly Saivism
(a sect of Hinduism).
The rule of the Kushans linked the seagoing trade of the Indian Ocean with
the commerce of the Silk Road through the long-civilized Indus Valley. At the
height of the dynasty, the Kushans loosely oversaw a territory that extended to
the Aral Sea through present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into
The loose unity and comparative peace of such a vast expanse encouraged
long-distance trade, brought Chinese silks to Rome, and created strings of
flourishing urban centers.
Direct archaeological evidence of a Kushan rule of long duration is
basically available in an area stretching from Surkh Kotal, Begram, the summer
capital of the Kushans, Peshawar the capital under Kanishka I, Taxila and Mathura,
the winter capital of the Kushans.
Other areas of probable rule include Khwarezm (Russian archaeological findings).
Kausambi (excavations of the Allahabad University), Sanchi and Sarnath
(inscriptions with names and dates of Kushan kings), Malwa and Maharashtra, Orissa
(imitation of Kushan coins, and large Kushan hoards).
The recently discovered Rabatak inscription confirms the account of the 3rd
century Chinese history, the Weilüe, and inscriptions dated early in the
Kanishka era (incept probably 127 CE), that large Kushan dominions expanded
into in the heartland of northern India in the early 2nd century CE. The lines
4 to 7 of the inscription describe the cities which were under the rule of
Kanishka, among which six names are identifiable: Ujjain, Kundina, Saketa, Kausambi,
Pataliputra, and Champa (although the text is not clear whether Champa was a
possession of Kanishka or just beyond it).
". . . the prince [xihou] of Guishuang, named Qiujiuque [Kujula
Kadphises], attacked and exterminated the four other xihou. He established
himself as king, and his dynasty was called that of the Guishuang [Kushan]
King. He invaded Anxi [Indo-Parthia], and took the Gaofu [Kabul] region. He
also defeated the whole of the kingdoms of Puda [Paktiya] and Jibin [Kapisha
and Gandhara]. Qiujiuque [Kujula Kadphises] was more than eighty years old when
These conquests probably took place sometime between 45 and 60, and laid the
basis for the Kushan Empire which was rapidly expanded by his descendants.
Kujula issued an extensive series of coins and fathered at least two
sons, Sadaskana (who is known from only
two inscriptions, especially the Rabatak inscription, and apparently never have
ruled), and seemingly Vima Taktu.
Kujula Kadphises was the great grandfather of Kanishka.
Vima Takt[u] (or Tak[to]; Ancient
Yangaozhen) is not mentioned in the Rabatak inscription (Sadashkana is
instead. See also the reference to Sims-William’s article below). He was the
predecessor of Vima Kadphises, and Kanishka I. He expanded the Kushan Empire
into the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. The Hou Hanshu says:
"His son, Yangaozhen [probably Vema Tahk(tu) or,
possibly, his brother Sadaṣkaṇa], became king in his place. He defeated Tianzhu
[North-western India] and installed Generals to supervise and lead it. The
Yuezhi then became extremely rich. All the kingdoms call [their king] the
Guishuang [Kushan] king, but the Han call them by their original name, Da
Vima Kadphises (Kushan language: Οοημο Καδφισης) was a
Kushan emperor from
around 90–100 AD, the son of Sadashkana and the grandson of Kujula Kadphises,
and the father of Kanishka I, as detailed by the Rabatak inscription.
Vima Kadphises added to the Kushan territory by his conquests in Afghanistan
and north-west Pakistan. He issued an extensive series of coins and
inscriptions. He was the first to introduce gold coinage in India, in addition
to the existing copper and silver coinage.
The rule of Kanishka, fifth Kushan king, who flourished for about 13 years
from c. 127. Upon his accession, Kanishka ruled a huge territory
(virtually all of northern India), south to Ujjain and Kundina and east beyond Pataliputra,
according to the Rabatak inscription:
"In the year one, it has been proclaimed unto India,
unto the whole realm of the governing class, including Koonadeano
(Kaundinya< Kundina) and the city of Ozeno (Ozene, Ujjain) and the city of
Zageda (Saketa) and the city of Kozambo (Kausambi) and the city of Palabotro (Pataliputra)
and so long unto (i.e. as far as) the city of Ziri-tambo (Sri-Champa)." Rabatak
inscription, Lines 4–6.
|Offerings found in Bodh Gaya under the Enlightenment Throne of Buddha.
His territory was administered from two capitals: Purushapura (now Peshawar
in northern Pakistan) and Mathura, in northern India. He is also credited
(along with Raja Dab) for building the massive, ancient Fort at Bathinda (Qila
Mubarak), in the modern city of Bathinda, Indian Punjab.
The Kushans also had a summer capital in Bagram (then known as Kapisa),
where the "Begram Treasure", comprising works of art from Greece to
China, has been found. According to the Rabatak inscription, Kanishka was the
son of Vima Kadphises, the grandson of Sadashkana, and the great-grandson of
Kujula Kadphises. Kanishka’s era is now generally accepted to have begun in 127
on the basis of Harry Falk’s ground-breaking research. Kanishka’s era was used
as a calendar reference by the Kushans for about a century, until the decline
of the Kushan realm.
Vāsishka was a Kushan emperor, who seems to have a 20 year
reign following Kanishka. His rule is recorded as far south as Sanchi (near Vidisa),
where several inscriptions in his name have been found, dated to the year 22
(The Sanchi inscription of "Vaksushana" – i. e. Vasishka
Kushana) and year 28 (The Sanchi inscription of Vasaska – i. e. Vasishka)
of the Kanishka era.
Huvishka (Kushan: Οοηϸκι, "Ooishki") was a Kushan
emperor from about 20 years after the death of Kanishka (assumed on the best
evidence available to be in 140 AD) until the succession of Vasudeva I about
thirty years later. His rule was a period of retrenchment and consolidation for
the Empire. In particular he devoted time and effort early in his reign to the
exertion of greater control over the city of Mathura.
Vasudeva I (Kushan: Βαζοδηο "Bazodeo", Chinese: 波調
"Bodiao") was the last of the "Great Kushans." Named
inscriptions dating from year 64 to 98 of Kanishka’s era suggest his reign
extended from at least 191 to 225 AD. He was the last great Kushan emperor, and
the end of his rule coincides with the invasion of the Sassanids as far as
northwestern India, and the establishment of the Indo-Sassanids or Kushanshahs
from around 240 AD.
The Kushan religious pantheon is extremely varied, as revealed by their
coins and their seals, on which more than 30 different gods appear, belonging
to the Hellenistic, the Iranian, and to a lesser extent the Indian world. Greek
deities, with Greek names are represented on early coins. During Kanishka's
reign, the language of the coinage changes to Bactrian (though it remained in
Greek script for all kings). After Huvishka, only two divinities appear on the
coins: Ardoxsho and Oesho (see details below).
Representation of entities from Greek mythology and Hellenistic syncretism
- Ηλιος (Helios),
Ηφαηστος (Hephaistos), Σαληνη (Selene), Ανημος
(Anemos). Further, the
coins of Huvishka also portray two demi-gods: erakilo Heracles, and
The Indic entities represented on coinage include:
- Βοδδο (boddo,
Βοδδο (metrago boddo, bodhisattava Maitreya)
- Mαασηνo (maaseno,
koμαρo (skando komaro, Skanda Kumara)
Βοδδο (shakamano boddho, Shakyamuni Buddha)
The Iranic entities depicted on coinage include:
- Αρδοχϸο (ardoxsho,
- A?αειχ?o (ashaeixsho,
- Αθϸο (athsho,
- Φαρρο (pharro,
- Λροοασπο (lrooaspa,
(manaobago, Vohu Manah)
- Μαο (mao,
Μιιρο, Μιορο, Μιυρο (mithro and variants,
(mozdooano, Mazda *vana "Mazda the victorious?")
Ναναια, Ναναϸαο (variations of pan-Asiatic nana,
in a Zoroastrian context Aredvi Sura Anahita)
- Οαδο (oado
- Oαxϸo (oaxsho,
(ooromozdo, Ahura Mazda)
- Οραλαγνο (orlagno,
- Τιερο (tiero,
- Οηϸο (oesho),
long considered to represent Indic Shiva, but more recently identified as Avestan
Vayu conflated with Shiva.
- Two copper
coins of Huvishka bear a 'Ganesa' legend, but instead of depicting the
typical theriomorphic figure of Ganesha, have a figure of an archer
holding a full-length bow with string inwards and an arrow. This is
typically a depiction of Rudra, but in the case of these two coins is
generally assumed to represent Shiva.
Several Roman sources describe the visit of ambassadors from
the Kings of Bactria and India during the 2nd century, probably referring to
Historia Augusta, speaking of Emperor Hadrian (117–138) tells:
"Reges Bactrianorum legatos
ad eum, amicitiae petendae causa, supplices miserunt"
"The kings of the Bactrians
sent supplicant ambassadors to him, to seek his friendship."
Also in 138, according to Aurelius Victor (Epitome‚ XV, 4), and Appian
(Praef., 7), Antoninus Pius, successor to Hadrian, received some Indian,
Bactrian (Kushan) and Hyrcanian ambassadors.
The Hou Hanshu reports: "Precious things from Da Qin [the Roman
Empire] can be found there [in Tianzhu or Northwestern India], as well as fine
cotton cloths, fine wool carpets, perfumes of all sorts, sugar candy, pepper,
ginger, and black salt."
The summer capital of the Kushan in Begram has yielded a considerable amount
of goods imported from the Roman Empire, in particular, various types of
After the death of Vasudeva I in 225, the Kushan empire split into western
and eastern halves. The Western Kushans (in Afghanistan) were soon subjugated
by the Persian Sassanid Empire and lost Bactria and other territories. In 248
they were defeated again by the Persians, who deposed the Western dynasty and
replaced them with Persian vassals known as the Kushanshas (or Indo-Sassanids).
The Eastern Kushan kingdom was based in the Punjab. Around 270 their
territories on the Gangetic plain became independent under local dynasties such
as the Yaudheyas. Then in the mid 4th century they were subjugated by the Gupta
Empire under Samudragupta.
In 360 a Kushan vassal named Kidara overthrew the old Kushan dynasty and
established the Kidarite Kingdom. The Kushan style of Kidarite coins indicates
they considered themselves as Kushans. The Kidarite seem to have been rather
prosperous, although on a smaller scale than their Kushan predecessors.
These remnants of the Kushan empire were ultimately wiped out in the 5th
century by the invasions of the White Huns, and later the expansion of Islam.