Unlike his “imperialist” father Kanishka, Huvishka was a devout Buddhist
who spent the majority of his reign making pilgrimages and founding Buddhist monasteries throughout the kingdom. The imagery
of this coin’s obverse and reverse reflects both this underlying sense of devotion and the syncretic character of Kushan
art. The obverse elephant motif is unique for the gold coinage of the Kushans, although the type is frequent on Huvishka's
copper issues. While the Greeks used the elephant as a symbol of might, to the Indians it was a symbol not only of power and
strength, but also one of natural wisdom and peace. Such qualities made it a natural adjunct for pro-Buddhist Kushan monarchs.
The reverse shows the Buddhist boddhisatva and guardian-guide of the Buddha Vajrapani as Herakles. The choice of the
Greco-Roman hero was a logical one: semi-divine, he underwent the Labors as a spiritual purification, and eventually achieved
spiritual transformation; his innate strength and ability would be appropriate qualities for the Buddha’s protector.
name Kushan derives from the Chinese term Guishuang, used to describe one branch of the Yuezhi, a loose confederation
of Indo-European people who had been living in the Xinjiang Province of modern China. Driven west by Xiongnu between 176 and
160 BC, the five groups of the Yuezhi – the Xiumi, Guishuang (Kushans), Shuangmi, Xidun, and Dumi – reached
the Hellenic kingdom of Baktria by 135 BC. They expelled the ruling Greek dynasties there, forcing these kings further south
to settle along the Indus River. In the following century, the Guishuang forced the other tribes of the Yuezhi into
a tight confederation. Now, as the Guishuang was the predominant power, the entire group became known by that name.
This appellation was Westernized as Kushan, though the Chinese still referred to them as Yuezhi.
the Hellenistic Greeks and Romans, the Kushans were a multi-cultural society, incorporating much of the cultures they ruled
into their own. Like their Baktrian predeccesors, early Kushan coins used Greek legends on the obverse, along with a translation
in the local Karosthi script on the reverse. Beginning with Kanishka I, however, the Kushan language, written in an adaptation
of the Greek alphabet with some local alterations, was used almost exclusively. From the time of Vima Taktu (Soter Megas),
the Kushans also began to adopt Indian cultural elements. Embracing a wide variety of local Indian and Central Asian deities,
they assimilated them with Greco-Roman types already prevalent in the region. Overall, the Kushan pantheon represented a religious
and artistic syncretism of western and eastern elements.
An adept military leader who expanded Kushan power throughout
much of Central Asia, Vima Kadphises was the first Kushan ruler to send a diplomatic mission to Rome, during the reign of
Trajan. Vima Kadphises was also the first Kushan ruler to strike gold coins. Because the Kushans under his reign had extended
their protective control over the Silk Road, the Roman gold they obtained through the trading of luxury items with the Roman
Empire–such as silk, spices, and other exotic goods–provided the metal for the striking of the first Indian gold
coins. In addition to the existing copper and silver denominations, Vima Kadphises introduced three gold denominations: the
dinar (struck on an 8g weight standard), the double dinar, and a fractional quarter dinar.
The reverse type of these
coins, showing the Hindu deity Siva, known to the later Kushans as Oesho, indicates that Vima Kadphises, like his father and
predecessor, Vima Taktu (Soter Megas) embraced the religion of Shaivism, a branch of Hinduism. Shaivists recognized
Siva as the supreme god of the Brahma-Siva-Visnu triad, contrary to the more traditional view that the three deities were
parts of the Trimurti, the three aspects which make up the supreme godhead. Siva is sometimes portrayed as a figure
with a tripartite head and is usually shown in association with Nandi, the bull of happiness and strength. Siva often appears
in an ithyphallic state, recalling the ancient and abstract form of the god: that of a conical or ithyphallic-shaped stone,
or siva lingam, set within a yoni, a round base with a single projecting channel, which together represented
the respective male and female parts and the mystical powers of generation. Likewise, these coins also display the Buddhist
Triratana, or “Three Jewels”, on the reverse, indicating that like his son and successor Kanishka I, Vima
Kadphises was interested in Buddhism.
While the dinars and their fractions were clearly meant to facilitate international
trade, the purpose of the double dinars is less certain. While it is quite possible that they too were used in trade, especially
when larger sums were required, their rarity would seem to indicate that they may have served a more special, possibly ceremonial
function: gifts presented to the king’s favorites as a way of strengthening support for the regime and deposited resources
from which the king could later draw.
Kanishka I, the son and successor of Vima Kadphises, was a fervent Buddhist who
convened a great Buddhist council in Kashmir. Its outcome was the adoption and promotion of Mahayana, or “Greater Vehicle”
Buddhism, which, unlike Theravada Buddhism, allowed for different levels of Buddhist achievement, placed as great an emphasis
on the life of the Buddha as on his teachings, and allowed for the existence of Buddhist “saints”, or bodhisattvas.
Kanishka’s special interest in the Buddha is reflected in his use of the Buddha as a reverse type on his gold and bronze
Huvishka I succeeded his father Kanishka and oversaw a period of consolidation and prosperity. Huvishka was
a patron of art and architecture, and his coins reflect the artistic developments of the time as well as the remarkable religious
and cultural pluralism of the empire. By the mid-third century the Kushan empire began to weaken and fragment. Upon the death
of Vasudeva I in 225 AD, a split into western and eastern halves occurred. The Sasanian Empire under Ardashir I conquered
Baktria and northern India. The southern portion of this territory remained under direct Sasanian control, while in the north
arose the Kushanshahs, or Kushano-Sasanians, Sasanian nobles who ruled the region as vassals. By 270 AD, Kushan control of
the Ganges plain was ceded to the rising Gupta kingdom. By 320 AD, the Gupta Empire was expanding northward, pressing on the
remaining Kushan-held territories. During this period, several rebel leaders and generals appeared, further weakening the
remaining Kushan state. By the middle of the fourth century AD, the former Kushan vassal, Kidara, absorbed the now-moribund
Kushan state and brought it under his control. This new kingdom lasted for only the next century or so, when the Hunnic rulers
and later, the Muslims, incorporated it into their own territories.