Kushanas, Empire Builders From China



For a period of 120 years in the very distant past - from the 150 CE - 270 CE a large swathe of Northern India was overrun by an audacious tribe that came from Turfan in the Tarim Basin, in the North West China, of today. The Kushanas as we know them, went all the way down to the great city of Pataliputra and lorded over an Empire.

Today, the town of Bagram, around 60 kms from Kabul, is known to the world, for the Bagram Airfield, the largest US Military base in Afghanistan and only makes it to the news for stories of prisoner abuse and suicide bombings. However, two millennia ago, this very town, was the magnificent and wealthy capital of the Kushanas, who ruled over a multi-cultural and multi-religious empire.

It is only through scattered bits and pieces of evidence that archaeologists and epigraphists have unearthed the extent of the Kushana Empire and the greatness of their most famous ruler, Emperor Kanishka.

Maximum Extent of the Kushana Empire 
Maximum Extent of the Kushana Empire |Anirban Sahoo

The extent of the Kushana power and wealth emerged only in 1930s, when a French archaeological team carried out excavations in the town of Bagram and unearthed an astounding hoard , dating to the Kushana period, known to the world as the ‘Bagram Treasure’. Comprised of a remarkable variety of objects such as glass from Egypt, thousands of carved Indian ivories, Roman and Alexandrian sculptures, and silk fragments from China, the find gave a glimpse of what an empire it must have been. Another find that iterated this was the Kushana era inscription found in the Rabatak village of Afghanistan in 1993. It boasted that the Kushana emperors ruled ‘as far as Sri Champa’, a site in the present day Bhagalpur district of Bihar.

Few who read about the Kushanas in Indian history register that they were actually from the North West edge of China. They belonged to the Yueh-Chi tribe that lived in the region close to what was the center of the world at that point… along the periphery of the great silk route.

Migration of the Kushanas from China 
Migration of the Kushanas from China |Wikimedia Commons 

The Kue-shuang or the Kushanas as we know them, migrated towards India from present day Turkmenistan long after they were expelled from their homeland by the Hiung-Nu, another tribe (who later became famous as the Hunas), around the first quarter of the second century BCE. According to Chinese literary sources, the Yeuh-Chi and the Hiung-nu were at constant war and the former were forced to leave the Tarim Basin in 177-178 BCE and were forced to settle in the Amu Darya region of present day Uzbekistan.

What we do know, is that after having dwelled there for about a century, a prince named Kujula Kadphises (15 CE – 70 CE) from the Kue-shuang or Kushana branch of the Yueh-Chi tribe conquered vast parts of Afghanistan, Gandhara and the lower Swat valley in present day Pakistan. This was the beginning of the Kushana Empire. The fall of the Mauryan Empire by this time had left a big political vacuum in the Indian subcontinent and it was only a matter of time - actually quite quickly by the 1st century, that the second Kushana Emperor, Wema Takto would conquer Mathura and large parts of North India.

Gold coin of Emperor Kanishka 
Gold coin of Emperor Kanishka |Coin India 

The Empire reached its greatest extent under Emperor Kanisha, the grandson of Wema Takto, and the son of Wema Kadphises, Under Kanishka’s rule, the Kushana Empire comprised vast land extending from the Aral Sea through areas that include present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan into northern India, as far east as Bhagalpur and as far south as Sanchi. His territory was administered from two capitals: Purushapura (present-day Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan) and Mathura, in northern India.

The remains of the Harwan monastery
The remains of the Harwan monastery|Prashant Mattawan

Kanishka was a great patron of Buddhism. In fact it was during his reign that Buddhism saw a major transformation, with the emergence of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism introduced idol worship of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas and also believed that liberation could be attained by all beings. To reconcile the differences between different Buddhist sects, Emperor Kanishka convened the Fourth Buddhist Council at the Sarwan Monastry near Srinagar.

However, after Kanishka’s time there came a succession of weak rulers. By the mid-4th century, the Empire was broken up and most of the Indian possessions were incorporated in the Gupta Empire. The Kushanas would be forgotten till the 20th century.

The influence from Rome was strong. The Kushana emperors would even  call themselves ‘Kaisara’ , an adaptation of the Roman title ‘Caeser’.
The influence from Rome was strong. The Kushana emperors would even call themselves ‘Kaisara’ , an adaptation of the Roman title ‘Caeser’.|Coin India

However, the contributions of the Kushanas, in amalgamating diverse cultures and economic systems, to create the golden age of Central Asia, cannot be ignored.

The Kushanas adapted the cultural influences of the regions they conquered. They adapted the Greco-Roman influences from Bactria (Central Afghanistan) such as the Greek alphabet, and the coins. For instance coins issued by the first Kushana emperor, Kadphises were close imitations of the Roman coins of Emperor Augustus. The Kushanas would even call themselves ‘Kaisara’ , an adaptation of the Roman title ‘Ceaser’. The conquest of Northern India, led the Kushanas to adopt Indian culture and traditions. A Kushana inscription found in Mathura, describes Wema Takto’s titles as ‘Maharaja Rajadhiraja Devaputra Kushanaputra Vema Takshama’.

Kushanas also appear to have been benevolent rulers and efficient administrators. Archaeological excavations in Uzbekistan as well as near Peshawar in Pakistan have unearth remains of Kushana era irrigation projects and canals. The 12th century chronicler Kalhana, in his ‘Rajatarangini’ mentions the numerous towns and cities in Kashmir, established by the ‘Turushka’ (Kushana) kings.

Remains of the city of Sirsukh built by Kanishka
Remains of the city of Sirsukh built by Kanishka|Pinterest

The vast wealth that Kushanas accumulated through the Silk route trade, led to the flowering of art. And it is from here that we get the best sense of this period of Indian history. They were great connoisseurs of Indian Art, introducing the world to the anthropomorphic image of Buddha. Gold coins were also introduced in India during this period by the Kushanas.

Kanishka’s patronage of art and learning marked the beginning of a cultural renaissance, which would reach its peak under the Guptas. The works of architecture, art and sculpture of his time are found in Mathura, Peshawar, Taxila and Amaravati. The beautiful Sirsukh city in Taxila, with its halls, buildings and monasteries, was built by him.

Standing Buddha sculpture of the Gandhara School of Art 
Standing Buddha sculpture of the Gandhara School of Art |Wikimedia Commons 

The Gandhara and Mathura schools of art were developed during Kanishka’s time. While the Gandhara school of art is characterized by the sculptures having Greek features, the Mathura school of art, in contrast, has those with indigenous features. The most remarkable contribution of the Gandhara School of art is seen in the evolution of the image of Buddha, perhaps an imitation of the Greek God Apollo. The Mathura school images include those of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Vishnu, Shiva, Yakshas, Yakshinis, Jinas etc.

Sadly, fate has not been kind to the Kushana legacy. The political instability in Central Asia and the civil war in Afghanistan played havoc with the Kushana era monuments. A large number of artifacts were either destroyed or sold, during the Taliban rule, including most of the ‘Bagram treasure’. Whatever has survived still remains under threat. Hopefully, all will not be lost!

Meanwhile piece by piece historians, archaeologists and epigraphists are putting together the story of the Kushanas, who once forged a grand Empire.


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