Kushān Dynasty Expands into India Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Kushāns expanded trade with China and the Roman Empire and created a brilliant culture, in which the Buddhist religion and art flourished.

Summary of Event

The Kushāns were one of five tribes in a confederation, called Yuezhi in Chinese sources, who moved from Gansu Province in China to western Central Asia about 120 b.c.e. Some scholars suggest that their language was Tokharian, an Indo-European tongue, written fragments of which were found much later (seventh-eighth century c.e.) in several oases in Xinjiang Province of China. They were pushed south from the region of present-day Kazakhstan by the nomads called Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) in Chinese sources. It is not known how or when the tribes settled and mixed with the local population, which had absorbed Hellenic culture from Seleucid, then Greco-Bactrian rulers. In their new homeland, in present-day Uzbekistan, they in turn pushed other tribes, the Śakas (Scythians), south toward India and to southeastern Iran, where the displaced tribes gave their name to the present Iranian province of Sistān (older Sakastan). The Yuezhi gradually accepted Bactrian, the language of the settled people over whom they exercised suzerainty, but almost nothing is known of this part of the world at this time. More than a century after their settlement, it seems that a Yuezhi chief, Sanab or Heraus, as the name or title appears on coins, formed a small state north of the Oxus River (Amu Dar’ya). He may have been the first chief of the tribe called Kushān in the Yuezhi confederation, flourishing at the beginning of the common era. His realm seems to have been in present-day Tajikistan, and his successor may have been Kujūla Kadphises. Kujūla Kadphises Vima Takhto Vima Kadphises I Kanishka Huvishka I Vasudeva I

In the first century of the common era, the leader of the Kushāns, Kujūla Kadphises, united the tribes, together with settled folk, to found a state that extended over most of what is present-day Afghanistan. He died at the age of eighty after a long reign of almost fifty years. His son Vima Takhto suceeded him, but his coins, both silver and copper, bore only a title in Greek, soter megas (great savior), rather than his name. His name and relationship to other rulers were not discovered until 1993, when an inscription was found at a site called Rabatak in Afghanistan. This inscription provided a list of Kushān kings from Kujūla to Kanishka, but without any dates. It also told how Kanishka introduced a new alphabet for writing the Bactrian language. Although the inscription provides a relative chronology of the Kushān rulers, it does not give absolute dates, so the dates of reigns are uncertain.

Vima Kadphises I followed his father and conquered part of northwest India. He was partial to the Indian deity Śiva, as is evident from his coins, although Iranian and Hellenistic deities are also found on the coins. Vima changed the monetary system by striking gold coins instead of silver, but copper coinage continued to circulate locally. The gold coins were struck in similar weight to the Roman aureus, for trade with the Roman Empire expanded greatly under Vima. He extended the Kushān domains to Mathurā in India, although in the west some territory may have been lost to the Parthians.

Kanishka mounted the throne at the death of his father Vima, and according to archaeology, he established royal sanctuaries and placed statues of his ancestors in them. One was at a site called Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan, where the first large Kushān royal inscription was excavated. Under Kanishka, the empire reached its peak, and its extent was from Samarqand in Central Asia, to Sistan in Iran, and to Pataliputra (modern Patna) on the Ganges River.

In the realm of religion, Kanishka departed from his father’s partiality for Indian deities, especially Śiva, and in a spirit of tolerance included many Iranian and Greek deities on his coinage. Whether this was out of consideration for the various religions in his empire or because he believed in a syncretism of the gods is uncertain. The pantheon of deities on the coins suggests a remarkable diversity of religious cults in the empire.

Kanishka continued Vima’s use of gold for coinage, together with copper but not silver. Most important was the change in language on the coins from Greek to Bactrian, probably the language of the settled people rather than the original tongue of the Yuezhi. This is the only Iranian language written in modified Greek characters, and it is possible that this introduction of a new form of writing was in imitation of Darius the Achaemenid, who initiated the writing of Old Persian in cuneiform characters.

Kanishka is mentioned in Buddhist texts as a great patron of Buddhism, and missionaries reached China during his reign. Trade with China flourished under Kanishka, and it is possible that Kushān rule in his reign extended to the oases of Kashgar and Khotan in western China. This was the period of flourishing of the Silk Road across Eurasia, and the Kushān Empire rivaled the Roman Empire, Han Dynasty China, and the Parthian state in power and in culture. The excavations at archaeological sites in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and India have revealed the high level of development of arts and crafts under the Kushāns.

Kanishka introduced a new era of time reckoning, evident from inscriptions, that lasted a century. However, it is not known when the era was founded, which makes the dates of Kanishka’s rule uncertain, and dates suggested for the beginning of his reign range from 78 to 270 c.e. Under Kanishka, the power of the ruler was consolidated and became absolute. He appointed satraps (governors) over various parts of the multiethnic empire and military commanders over army units stationed in the provinces. Under his rule, new cities were founded and older cities enlarged, and irrigation and cultivation of land were greatly increased. It was a time of great prosperity, accompanied by an increase in population.





Most important, however, was the great expansion of trade and commerce, fostered by the discovery of the monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean in the first century c.e., which made sailing between India and Egypt directly across the Indian Ocean both shorter and easier. Excavations at the site of Begram in Afghanistan have uncovered carved ivories from India, glass from Alexandria, Chinese mirrors and lacquer boxes, statuettes in bronze and vessels in porphry, plaques in alabaster from the Roman Empire, and objects from nomadic tribes of Central Asia, all evidence of the far-flung trade connections of the empire.

The title “king-of-kings” is found on the coins of the Great Kushāns, probably borrowed from the Greco-Bactrian kings rather than from the Parthians. From the dynastic sanctuaries at Surkh Kotal and Mat, near Mathurā in India, one can infer that a cult of royal ancestors existed in all parts of the empire, similar to that involving Roman emperors.

After Kanishka’s reign, the empire remained stable for a time, although some outlying possessions may have been lost. It is uncertain who the father of Huvishka I was, for a short period passed between the death of Kanishka and the accession of Huvishka. He continued the policies of his predecessors and supported Buddhism, although his coins show an even greater mixture of gods, including Serapis from the pantheon in Alexandria, Egypt. Under the Kushāns, Indian merchants and craftspeople moved to Central Asia, and Indian languages and religions spread with them.

The last ruler of the Great Kushāns was Vasudeva I, who ruled the large empire before it began to disintegrate. About 230 c.e., the Sāsānian ruler Ardashīr I conquered Bactria, the homeland of the Kushāns, and reduced the Kushān king, perhaps a Vasudeva II, to his vassal. Shortly afterward, a Sāsānian prince took control of the region, and Kushān rule came to an end. In India, however, Kushān rule continued, and there are inscriptions of several kings, Kanishka II and III and a Vasishka, but their territory was much reduced as local potentates asserted their independence. It is unknown when Kushān rule came to an end in the subcontinent, but no more than a century after Vasudeva I. The prestige of the Great Kushāns remained, however, such that as late as the twelfth century, rulers of Kashmir claimed descent from the Kushān kings.

Until the discovery of inscriptions of the Kushāns, they were known primarily as the promoters of the art style called Gandharan art, which features a plethora of Buddhist statues and scenes from Buddhist history and legend. Although mainly statues and architectural features have survived, the art also included objects of gold and precious stones such as necklaces, bracelets, and horse trappings. Gandhara was a region on the northwest subcontinent with its main city Taxila, where the early Kushān art style was featured in stone (later artists worked in stucco). This style had its origins in realistic Hellenistic art, mixed with a few Central Asian and Iranian features, and it can best be described as a synthesis of various art styles. In India under the Kushāns, however, another art style evolved with a center at the city of Mathurā. This art was primarily Indian in inspiration, although it too was influenced by Greco-Roman art, especially in its portrayal of humans.


The area of Central Asia, Afghanistan, and northwest India had been dominated by the Hellenistic culture of the Greco-Bactrians, but the Kushāns, with their main ruler Kanishka, created a new syncretic civilization combining Iranian, Indian, nomadic, and Hellenistic cultures, which set a model for the next half millennium. The classical portrayal of Buddha with a sculptured body and head was formed under the Kushāns, and the objects of the primarily Buddhist art called Gandharan became the basis for later Buddhist art throughout Asia. The Kushāns helped develop the Silk Road, which became the leading route for trade between China and Western countries for centuries. In many respects, the Kushān Empire was an eastern counterpart of the Roman Empire.

The later Gupta Dynasty of India (c. 321-c. 550 c.e.) owed much to the culture and organization of the Kushān Empire, and even though the Kushāns are not even mentioned in Greek and Latin writings, they left a legacy in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Kabul, an international center of Kushān studies, established in 1975, attested to the important place of the Kushāns as forefathers of the people of Afghanistan.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frye, Richard. The Heritage of Central Asia. Princeton, N.J.: Marcus Wiener, 1998. A survey of the entire region, placing the Kushāns in relation to other states and cultures of the area.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harmatta, Janos, ed. History of the Civilizations of Central Asia. Vol. 2. Paris: UNESCO, 1994. Detailed chapters on religion, economy, art, and languages of the Kushān Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lohuizen-de Leeuw, J. E. van. The “Scythian” Period: An Approach to the History, Art, Epigraphy, and Paleography of North India from the First Century b.c. to the Third Century a.d. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1949. This work concentrates on the Indian heritage of the Kushāns and examines history and inscriptions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenfeld, John. The Dynastic Arts of the Kushāns. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. The classic study of Kushān art with many illustrations as well as the legacy of the Kushāns in the art of India.
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