The 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
Like 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.
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
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 coinage.
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.