Shak Kushan Dynasty

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Shak / Saka / Kushan Dynasty / शक-कुषाण काल

Amidst hectic and shifting political equations of post-Mauryan era, Central Asia and north-western India witnessed a major upheaval, Great Yuehi-Chi driven out of fertile land in western China migrated towards the Aral Sea. After overthrowing the sakas, they settled in the valley of Oxus,after occupying the Bactrian lands, the great hordes were divided into five principalities. The five Yuezhi tribes 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). At around the beginning of the Christian era, one of the five Yueh-chih chiefs, K'iu-tsiu-k'io, attacked and defeated the others, leaving his clan in control; the Kuei-shang (Kushans).[1] Beginning of the following century, the Yuezhi tribe of the Guishuang (Ch: 貴霜) gained prominence over the others, and welded them into a tight confederation. The name Guishuang was adopted in the West and modified into Kushan to designate the confederation, although the Chinese continued to call them Yuezhi.

Saka (Shaka)

Indo-Scythian Before delving into Kushan dynasty we need to explore the tribe of saka’s who were comtemporaries of kushan dynasty, originally overthrown by Yuehi-Chi clan. The Sakas are a peoples that lived in what is presently known as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Ukraine, and Altai and Siberia in Russia, in the centuries before 300 AD. Considered to be a branch of Scythian by most scholars. Saka [2] is a Persian term, while Scythian is of Greeks. . Sarmatians, Issedones and Massagetae as their neighbours,their language is poorly documented, but appears to be originally members of the Iranian family (though some question whether this applied to all stratas of their society, or only the ruling class at various times). Chinese knew them as the Sai (Chinese: 塞, Old Sinitic *sək). Akkadian’s,knew them as Ashkuza and were closely associated with the Gimirri, who were the Cimmerians known to the ancient Greeks.

Maues with Sirkap as his capital,minted most of his coins in Taxila, probably ruled his conquered territories based on his military might. He otherwise maintained cohabitation with local Greek and Indian communities, often suggested that Maues may have been a Scythian general hired by the Indo-Greeks, who would have briefly siezed power, before the Indo-Greeks managed to take it back ("Crossroads of Asia"). Although Maues and his successors had conquered the areas of Gandhara, as well as the area of Mathura from 85 BCE, Maues failed to conquer the Punjab territories of the Indo-Greeks east of the Jhelum eastern Punjab, which remained under Greek control. Indo-Greeks regained most of their territory after his death. Known mainly through his coins, which are often very closely inspired from Indo-Greek, coinage,Maues represented Greek and Indian deities, and used Greek and Kharoshti in coin legends.Maues took the tile of "Great King of Kings", an exceeded version of a traditional Persian royal title.

Kharaosta Kamuio Kambojaka

The first Indo-Scythian kingdom in the Indian subcontinent spread across the vast expanse of southern part of Pakistan (which they accesses from southern Afghanistan), in the areas from Abiria (Sindh) to Surastrene (Gujarat), from around 110 to 80 BCE. They progressively further moved north into Indo-Greek territory until the conquests of Maues, circa 80 BCE. Eventually the Indo-Scythian established a kingdom in the northwest, based in Taxila, with two Great Satraps, one in Mathura in the east, and one in Surastrene (Gujarat) in the southwest. The Indo-Scythian conquered the area of Mathura in central India, over Indian kings around 60 BCE. Hagamasha and Hagana were few of their satraps and who in turn followed by the Saca Great Satrap Rajuvula.

The Mathura lion capital, an Indo-Scythian sandstone capital in crude style, from Mathura in Central India, and dated to the 1st century CE, describes in kharoshthi the gift of a stupa with a relic of the Buddha, by Queen Nadasi Kasa, the wife of the Indo-Scythian ruler of Mathura, Rajuvula. The capital also mentions the genealogy of several Indo-Scythian satraps of Mathura.

Based on the estimates of relative ages of the various personages portrayed in the Mathura Lion Capital Inscriptions, Dr Stein Konow, Dr R. K. Mukerjee and other noted scholars have concluded that Kharaosta [3] was the father of princess Aiyasi Kamuia, the chief queen (Agra-Mahisi,) of the great Saka. [4]

Rajuvula apparently eliminated the last of the Indo-Greek kings Strato II around 10 CE, and took his capital city, Sagala. The matrimonial alliance of Saka Rajuvula with princess Aiyasi Kamuia of king Moga’s family had considerably enhanced the political clout of Mahakshatrapa Rajuvula. It is clear that Moga's kingdom was to be automatically transferred to Rajuvula’s family since Yuvaraja Kharaosta Kamuio also did not have any issue of his own except Aiyasi Kamuia. This fact was obviously not liked by other Saka chiefs.

The coinage of the period, such as that of Rajuvula, tends to become very crude and barbarized in style. The silver content becoming lower and lower,is also very much debased, has been replaced for a higher proportion of bronze, an alloying technique (billon) suggesting less than wealthy finances.

The Inscriptions A and E on the Mathura Lion Capital mention Kharaosta as the Yuvaraya Kharaosta.

He is stated to be legitimate inheritor to the position as King of Kings after king Maues or Moga (Political History of ancient India, 1996, p 397, Dr Raychaudhury). It is agreed unanimously among the scholars that Kharaosta of the Lion Capital Inscriptions is the same Kharaosta whose coins have been studied by Dr Rapson and Dr Luders. Kharaosta’s known coins are of two types, presenting legends in Greek characters on the obverse and in Kharoshthi in the reverse. Some of his coins write Ortas in place of Artas. The coin evidence shows that Kharaosta was not the son of Rajuvula but that of Arta. This also shows that Kharaosta was heir to some other king than Saka Mahakshatrapa Rajuvula.

In fact, Kharaosta was a legitimate heir to king Moga or Maues. Arta was elder brother of king Moga and is said to have died prior to Moga's death. King Moga is stated to have been issueless, hence, Kharaosta Kamuio, his nephew, was indeed the legitimate inheritor to the position as King of Kings for the kingdom of Gandhara. It appears, for some reasons, that Yuvaraja (or Kshatrapa) Kharaosta Kamuio did not avail the position of king of kings after Moga's death, and the vast empire of king Moga went directly to the family of Saka Rajuvula after Moga's death. It is notable that the real heir to Rajuvula was his own son called Sodasa and not Yuvaraja Kharaosta of the Lion Capital Inscriptions.

The Geneology of Kushan dynasty

  1. Heraios (1 – 30 AD)
  2. Kujula Kadphises (30 – 80 AD)
  3. Vima Takto (80 – 105 AD)
  4. Vima Kadphises (105 – 127 AD)
  5. Kanishka I (127 – 147 AD)
  6. Vasishka (151 – 155 AD)
  7. Huvishka (155 – 187 AD)
  8. Vasudeva I (191 – 225 AD)
  9. Kanishka II (226 – 240 AD)
  10. Vashishka (240 – 250 AD)
  11. Kanishka III (255 – 275 AD)
  12. Vasudeva II (290 – 310 AD)
  13. Chhu (310 – 325 AD)
  14. Shaka I (325 – 345 AD)
  15. Kipunada (350 – 375 AD)

Kujula Kadphises

Kujula Kadphises (30-80 AD) established the Kushan dynasty in 78 AD.[5] Kadphises gradually wrested control of southern prosperous region, which is the northwest part of ancient India, Thus began the history of Kushans.[6] Kadphises attacked the regions south of Hindu Kush, conquered Kabul and annexed Gandhara [7] including the kingdom of Taxila.

The Kushans assimilated many customs of the Hellenistic culture of Bactria, where they had settled. They also adapted 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 Kharoshthi legends until the first few years of the reign of Kanishka, and after that date, used Kushan language legends combined with Greek language legends, both of them in the Greek script. Kujula issued an extensive series of coins and fathered at least two sons, Sadaṣkaṇa (who is known from only one inscription, and may never have ruled), and Vima Taktu.

Vima Kadphises

Vima Kadphises, grand son Kujula Kadphises,made Kushan a paramount power of northern India. His reign saw emergence of Kushan empire when he conquored north-western India (modern Punjab). Coins [8] of his era show that his authority extended as far as Benaras and as well as Indus basin. The gold weight standard of approximately eight grams corresponds to that of the Roman coins of the 1st century. Gold bullion from Rome would be melted and used for the Kushan mints, into three denominations: the double stater, the stater, and the quarter starter (or dinara).

His power extended as far as Narmada and Saka Satraps in Malwa and Western India acknowledged his sovereignty. Apparently he came under influence of Hinduism (most likley embraced it for good) and even went to extent of proclaiming himself Mahishwara, another name for Lord Shiva, on his coins (Shiva is a prominent Hindu god). Ample evidences exist of trade with China, cental Asia, Egypt and Rome which converted their economy to very strong,wealthy and prosperous. The usage of gold testifies to the prosperity of the Kushan Empire from the time of Vima, being the center of trade between China, Central Asia and Alexandria [9] and Antioch in the West.

The Kushan managed to maintain and protect the Silk road, allowing silk, spices, textiles or medicine to move between China, India and the West. In particular, many goods were sent by ship to the Roman empire, creating a return flow of gold coins, Greek wine and slaves. Artefacts found in the Kushan summer capital of Bagram in Afghanistan, indicate works of arts were also imported from all directions. A strong artistic agglomeration was encouraged, as indicated by the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara. Roman history relates the visit of ambassadors from the Indian kings to the court of Trajan (98-117 CE), bearing presents and letters in Greek, which were sent either by Vima Kadphises or his son Kanishka.

Most of Vima's coins feature the Buddhist symbol of the Triratana on the reverse (or possibly Shiva's symbol for Nandi, the Nandipada), together with representations of Shiva, with or without his bull. Archaeological evidence point to 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 [10] the winter capital of the Kushans.

Kanishka,a Kushan of Yuezhi ethnicity, probably spoke an Indo-European language related to Tocharian, and used the Greek script in his inscriptions. Kanishka was the successor of Vima Kadphises [11], as demonstrated by an impressive geneaology of the Kushan kings, known as the Rabatak inscription.

The Rabatak inscription is an inscription written on a rock in the Bactrian language and the Greek script, which was found in 1993 at the site of Rabatak, near Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan. The inscription relates to the rule of the Kushan emperor Kanishka, and gives remarkable clues on the genealogy of the Kushan dynasty. The inscription of Rabatak describes events of the first year of Kanishka in words strikingly reminiscent of those of Darius the Great in the inscription of Bisitun.

"Lines 4-7 of the Rabatak inscription give a list of the chief cities of north India which were controlled by Kanishka. Four of the five names can be identified: Saketa, Kausambi, Pataliputra, and Champa. The wording of the inscription does not make it clear whether Champa is mentioned as belonging to the area ruled by Kanishka or as the first city beyond his eastern border. Even in the latter case, the statement that he ruled northern India as far as Pataliputra is sufficiently striking. The major part of the inscription concerns the foundation of a temple, perhaps at Rabatak itself, which seems to have been an extensive site. Lines 9 and 10 name the divinities who are to be worshipped in the temple. This list is very intriguing. On the one hand it includes two Zoroastrian deities who are never portrayed on the Kushan coinage. On the other hand, it omits many names which are well attested on these same coins, such as Ma, the moon, and Ardukhsh, the goddess of plenty. Above the list of Iranian divinities some words have been added in smaller letters, which seem to identify some or all of them with Indian equivalents such as Mahasena and Visakha apparently the temple was intended to contain statues of kings as well as gods. Kanishka lists four kings: Kujula Kadphises his great- grandfather, Vima Taktu his grandfather, Vima Kadphises his father, and himself, Kanishka. This list is extremely informative. In the first place, it bears witness to the existence of two kings named Vima, rather than one. Several inscriptions previously attributed to Vima Kadphises, notably the Bactrian inscription of Dasht-e Nawur [Slide 7 9KB], can now be ascribed to his father Vima Taktu. In all probability the coins of the anonymous king Soter Megas "the great saviour", which come between Kujula and Vima Kadphises in the numismatic sequence, should also be attributed to this newly-discovered Vima the First. Moreover, the indication that Kujula Kadphises was the great-grandfather of Kanishka evidently has a bearing on the oft-debated issue of the date of Kanishka. The fact that Kanishka belongs to the third generation after Kujula clearly imposes certain limits on the manner in which the early chronology of the Kushans may be reconstructed. " “Source ---New Findings in Ancient Afghanistan --- the Bactrian documents discovered from the Northern Hindu-Kush Prof. Nicholas Sims-Williams (University of London)”


Kanishka ,the greatest emperor of the Kushan dynasty, Kanishka, oversaw an empire extending from Bactria to large parts of India in the 2nd century of the common era, renowned for his military, political, and spiritual achievements. The main capital was at Peshawar (Purushpura) in northwestern Pakistan, with regional capitals at the location of the modern city of Taxila in Pakistan, Begram in Afghanistan and Mathura in India. Though the exact dates of Kanishka’s ruiegn was generally accepted to have flourished during the years of 78 A.D. to 103 A.D., but recent facts have placed him between 128 A.D. and 151 A.D. The Kushan empire was already a powerful force when he became its leader.

Though some school of thought suggest that Kanishka may not have been of the same lineage as the Kadphises rulers, various theories propose that he may have been a successful invader from a northern region, such as Khotan in Sinkiang, or that he may have been a leader of an Indian state who emerged victorious from a power struggle after the demise of the Kadphises line. Kanishka, once he assumed power, is credited with evolving a system of co-rule [12], His huge empire was controled by instituting a number of local governments headed by satraps(provincial governors), meridareks (district officers), and strategoi (military governors) appointed by Kanishka. Like many royal rulers, Kanishka claimed a divine heritage. This is reflected in the many titles he adopted from a number of cultures, including King of Kings," Great King," "Son of Heaven," and "Emperor." [13]

There exists no doubts whatsoever about his hold over Central Asia, Chinese records indicate that general Ban Chao fought battles with a Kushan army of 70,000 men led by an otherwise unknown Kushan Viceroy named Xie (Chinese: 謝) near Khotan in 90 CE. Though Ban Chao claimed to be victorious, forcing the Kushans to retreat by use of a scorched-earth policy the region fell to Kushan forces in the early 2nd century. As a result, for a period (until the Chinese regained control c. 127 CE) the territory of the Kushans extended to Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand, which were Chinese dependencies in the Tarim Basin, modern Xinjiang. Several coins of Kanishka have been found in the Tarim Basin.Controlling both the land and sea trade routes between South Asia and Rome seems to have been one of Kanishka's chief imperial goals.

On most of his coins, typically depicted as a bearded man in a long coat and trousers, with flames emanating from his shoulders, Kanishka wears large rounded boots, and is armed with a long sword similar to a scimitar as well as a lance. Frequently seen to be making a sacrifice on a small altar, he presented a forceful image. Combined with artistic influences from the western Greco-Roman and Iranian cultures resulted in the development of a new trend in sculpture that represented Buddhist themes in a more naturalistic, popular style. The emperor Kanishka's religious policies, was also responsible for some impressive architectural accomplishments. In Peshawar he oversaw the construction of a 638-foot tall Buddhist shrine. The building, which was known across Asia for its magnificence, was composed of a five-stage base, a second section comprised of a 13-story structure of carved wood, and the crowning detail of an iron column decorated with umbrellas of gilded copper. Kanishka is well know as an enthusiastic patron of scholarship and the arts who brought scientists and writers to his court.

Kanishka had adopted Buddhism and it was during his period that both Buddhist religion and Greek art reached their zenith which is known under the nomenclature of Gandhara Civilization. It was again during his regime and because of his efforts that Buddhism spread in Central Asia and China. This period is regarded as the most important in the history of Buddhism. His reputation in Buddhist tradition is based mainly on his having convened the 4th Buddhist Council in Kashmir. This council is attributed with having encouraged the spread of Mahayana Buddhism, according to Chinese sources, authorized commentaries on the Buddhist canon were prepared and engraved on copper plates. These texts have survived only in Chinese translations and adaptations.

Kanishka, to systematize the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma texts, apparently gathered five hundred Bhikkhus in Kashmir, headed by Vasumitra, which were translated form earlier Prakrit vernacular languages (such as Gandhari in Kharosthi script) into the classical language of Sanskrit. It is said that during the council three hundred thousand verses and over nine million statements were compiled, a process spanning twelve years. Although the Sarvastivada are no longer extant as an independent school, its traditions were inherited by the Mahayana tradition.

Kanishka was succeeded by Huvishka I, founder of a city Hushka in Kashmir named after him (described by Kalhan in Rajatarangini). Kanishka's and Huvishka's reign, witnessed the zenith of Kushana empire . After Huvishka's reign, Vasudeva I took control of this dynasty which by then had lost control over regions beyond Bactria or perhaps the Bactria itself. The Kushan dynasty had been totally assimilated in Indian culture. Vasudeva I was the last great king of the dynasty when Kushana empire was at it's height of splendor and prosperity. The last of the "Great Kushans”, Vasudeva I (Kushan: Βαζοδηο "Bazodeo", Chinese: 波調 "Bodiao") according to named inscriptions dating from year 64 to 98 of Kanishka’s era.His reign appears to have lasted from 191 to 225 CE. Known as 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 CE.


  1. The name Kushan derives from the Chinese term Guishang, used in historical writings to describe one branch of the Yuezhi—a loose confederation of Indo-European people who had been living in northwestern China until they were driven west by another group, the Xiongnu, in 176–160 B.C.
  2. The Mahabharata also associates the Shakas with the Yavanas, Gandharas, Kambojas, Pahlavas, Tusharas, Sabaras, Barbaras etc and addresses them all as the Barbaric tribes of Uttarapatha. In another verse, the same epic groups the Shakas and Kambojas and Khashas and addresses them as the tribes from Udichya i.e north division (5/169/20). Also, the Kishkindha Kanda of the Ramayana locates the Shakas, Kambojas, Yavanas and Paradas in the extreme north-west beyond the Himavat (i.e. Hindukush) (43/12).
  3. Kamuio Kharaosta was in fact, the father-in-law of Mahakshatrapa Rajuvula.
  4. The Sakas were also one of several tribes that conquered India from the northwest, where they established the rule of the Indo-Scythians. The Saka Era is used by the Indian national calendar, a few other Hindu calendars, and the Cambodian Buddhist calendar—its year zero begins near the vernal equinox of 78. See Kushan Empire article for more complex description of Kushan-Scythian dating. Interestingly, the very name of "Cambodia" has been traced to a branch of Indo-Iranian Saka -- the Kambojas, who in turn evidently took their name from the Persian Cambyses. The modern Khmer people of Cambodia are, of course, non-Indo-Iranian in language.
  5. Heraios was probably the first of the Kushan kings. He may have been an ally of the Greeks, and he shared the same style of coinage. Heraios was probably the father of Kujula Kadphises.
  6. The Kushan state acted as a buffer between the Aryan civilization and the nomadic hordes in Central Asia who time to time had overrun the civilized worlds with the sweep of avalanches. Because they occupied the peculiar geographical position a deluge of ideas and goods exchanged between different civilizations
  7. Gandhara , historically a part of India, now situated in NW Pakistan on the banks of the middle Indus River. The region comprised of Taxila and Peshawar as its chief cities, originally a province of the Persian Empire and was reached (327 BC) by Alexander the Great. In the late 4th cent BC, the region passed to Chandragupta, founder of the Maurya empire and under Asoka was converted (mid-3d cent.) to Buddhism. Later a part of Bactria from the late 3d cent. to the 1st cent. BC Under the Kushan dynasty (1st cent.-3d cent. AD). It was under Kanishka , Gandhara developed a noted school of sculpture, consisting mainly of images of Buddha and reliefs representing scenes from Buddhist texts, but with marked Greco-Roman elements of style.
  8. It was the Kushan emperor, Vima Kadaphises who introduced the first gold coins of India.
  9. The Chinese Historical Chronicle of the Hou Hanshu also describes the exchange of goods between northwestern India and the Roman Empire at that time: "To the west (Tiazhu, northwestern india) communicates with Da Qin (the Roman Empire). Precious things from Da Qin can be found there, as well as fine cotton cloths, excellent wool carpets, perfumes of all sorts, sugar loaves, 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 glassware.
  10. In the 6th century BC Mathura became the capital of the Shursen republic (Surasen). Later ruled by the Maurya empire (4th to 2nd centuries BC) and the Sunga dynasty (2nd century BC), It came under the control of Indo-Greeks some time between 180 BC and 100 BC.Briefly reverted to local rule before being conquered by the Indo-Scythians during the 1st century BC. Archaeological evidence seems to indicate that, by 100 BC, a group of Jains living in Mathura . Mathura Art form and cluture reached its Zenith under the Kushan dynasty which had Mathura as one of their capital, the other being Purushpur( Peshawar). The dyanasty had kings with the name of Kadphises, Kanishka, Huvishka and Vasudeva. All the Kushans were patrons of Buddhism except Vasudeo ( mentioned on coins as BAZODEO). Kanishka even hosted the third Buddhist council. The first two being hosted by Ajatshatru and Ashoka the Great. The headless statue of Kanishka is placed in Mathura museum and ranks among the most amazing sculptures unearthed.
  11. A significant amount of what is known about Kanishka was preserved because of his spiritual merit and the Buddhist religious tradition. Along with the Indian king Ashoka, the Indo-Greek king Menander I (Milinda), and Harshavardhana, he is considered one of the greatest Buddhist kings.
  12. reportedly shared his authority with a man named Vashishka, who may/may not have been his son or brother
  13. It is also evident in the Kushan practice of deifying emperors and dedicating temples to them after their death.
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