Decoding the Kushanas



Just outside the coastal city of Lianyungang in Jinagsu province in North-East China is a small, freestanding mountain known as Mount Kongwangshan. Etched into its cliffs are China’s earliest known cliff carvings of the Buddha, dating back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE). What makes these carvings so significant is that the two small, standing images of the Buddha are strikingly similar to the Buddha on a coin issued by Emperor Kanishka (r. 128 – 150 CE), the great Kushana ruler whose empire extended all the way from the Caspian Sea, through parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and down to Pataliputra in the Indo-Gangetic plains in Northern India.

Both on the coin and at Lianyungang, the Buddha is shown wearing a knee-length, Steppe-style robe, with his feet pointing outward. The worshipers also look like Kushanas, decked in typical conical hats and equestrian robes. In the words of historian and Kushana expert, Prof Xinru Liu, “These are Kushana Buddhas”.

Sculpture dated to Kushana period from Gandhara
Sculpture dated to Kushana period from Gandhara|MET Museum (1987.142.1)

These ‘Kushana Buddhas’, among the earliest Buddha images in China, are located in China’s easternmost extremity, almost 2,000 km from the Gandharan region (in present-day Pakistan), which was the centre of Kushana rule (1st to 3rd century CE). In India, Kushana coins and artifacts have been found as far east as Cuttack in coastal Odisha. These discoveries point to the sheer cultural reach the Kushanas had on faraway lands, beyond their domain.

For a dynasty that ruled a vast empire stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Indo-Gangetic plains, there is still so much we don’t know about the Kushanas, even to this day. Historians still differ on the number of Kushana kings, the timeline of their reign, Kushana cities, among other things. It is almost as if each new discovery writes a new chapter in the dynasty’s history.

Prof Xinru Liu and her books
Prof Xinru Liu and her books

For a perspective on the Kushana Dynasty and on the new discoveries available to us, I spoke to New Jersey-based historian Prof Xinru Liu. An expert on the ancient cultural exchange between India and China, Prof Liu has studied the Kushana Dynasty for the last 40 years. She has published her research in a number of books and academic papers that deal with the ancient Silk Road and the spread of Buddhism from India to China. Speaking to Live History India, Prof Liu shares some very interesting insights on the Kushanas and their contributions. Excerpts from the interview...

Rabatak Inscription
Rabatak Inscription|Wikimedia Commons

Akshay Chavan: There was a lot of research on the Kushanas in the 1960s and ’70s. What is the latest research that has helped reshape our understanding of this dynasty?

Xinru Liu: It is not a single research but the accumulation of discoveries and discussions in the last century that gradually form a historical narrative of the coming and fading of Kushana as a state.  Chinese sources record that a Steppe people, the Yuezhi, migrated to the banks of the Amu River and entered Bactria in modern-day Afghanistan, and somehow transited into the Kushana kingdom.

The picture that emerged from numismatic research into the ascension and succession of Kushana kings was puzzling till the discovery of the Rabatak inscription of Kanishka. Archaeological works on Central Asian tracks of the possible migration process of the Yuezhi, and further studies of Chinese records reveal a picture which looks more like the real life of that time. We start to see how the various newcomers and local populations interacted, but not necessarily integrated, to create a unique Kushana polity and culture.

Mes Aynak
Mes Aynak|Wikimedia Commons

Akshay Chavan: Among the new research that has emerged on the Kushanas, what do you think is the most significant discovery and why?

Xinru Liu: The discovery and deciphering of the Rabatak inscription (discovered in 1993 near an ancient hill in Afghanistan) is the most important breakthrough in Kushana studies. It gives Kanishka a voice, thus bringing to life the king, which was somehow a Buddhist legend, as a real historical sovereign in history. The statement that the edict was first written in Greek and translated into Aryan provides the language landscape of the Kushana core region. The Greek language and script persisted all the way during the Kushana regime. Meanwhile, the Bactrian dialect of Persian, called Aryan here, was the language that could be comprehended by most of their subjects in the region.

The discovery of the site of Kalchayan (in modern-day Uzbekistan) on the right bank of the Amu River could be considered a landmark in studying the Yuezhi nomads’ transition to sedentary society. Reliefs in a court-style hall could be a display of battle, where the Yuezhi defeated a local tribe and turned their fortunes around. Surrounding the dynastic temple, a Steppe city composed of tents or houses arose.

The discovery of the copper mine at Mes Aynak, a mountainous area near Kabul in Afghanistan, tells how the government and Buddhist religious institutions managed a real industry.  A cluster of more than a dozen monasteries perched on hilltops over a gigantic copper mine, which had been excavated from the 1st or 2nd century CE, the zenith of the Kushana Empire, till the 7th century, when the Kushanas had long gone.

Coin of <i>Tyrant, Heroaz [Xihou], Zanab, Kushana</i>
Coin of Tyrant, Heroaz [Xihou], Zanab, Kushana

Akshay Chavan: There are differences among historians about the number of Kushana kings. Do you think there is now a consensus on this?

Xinru Liu: The king list of the Kushana is based on coins the kings issued.  Before Kujula Kadphises unified the various regimes in Bactria into the Kushana polity, there was a king who called himself “Tyrant, Heroaz [Xihou], Zanab, Kushana”. This should be the coin issued by a chief of the Kushana tribe as the hegemon over the many tribes, but not a king ruling the entire region.

After the Sassanids conquered the Kushana Empire in the 3ird century CE, there were several Kushana Shahs.  Therefore, to count the exact number of Kushana kings is impossible. The consensus on the imperial age of the Kushana king list is: Kujula Kadphises, Vima Taktu, a usurper Soter Megas, then Vima Kadphises re-established the dynastic line. After Kanishka I, Hivishka, and Vasudeva, the line became murky.

Statue considered to be of Yuezhi prince Kalchayan
Statue considered to be of Yuezhi prince Kalchayan

Akshay Chavan: In your opinion, what role did the Kushanas play in the ancient cultural connections between India and China?

Xinru Liu: Both agricultural India and China had to face incursions of horse-riding nomads from the Steppe, and both had to mitigate the initial trauma and absorb and integrate the cultures from the Steppe. The migration of the Yuezhi and establishing an empire across the sedentary and horse-riding societies provided a major political entity that played the role of transmitting information and knowledge between India and China. The Kushana Empire held the key position on the Silk Road, the commercial networks of Afro-Eurasia, and therefore extended the vision of Chinese rulers all the way to the Mediterranean.

Kushana images of Buddha
Kushana images of Buddha

Akshay Chavan: You call the Buddhism that emerged during this period “Kushana Buddhism”. Can you explain what you mean by this term?

Xinru Liu:  Buddhist theology and institutions that developed under the Kushana were the early form of Mahayana Buddhism. Sanskrit replaced Pali as the major written language for Buddhist theological texts and literature. Buddha, a teacher as depicted in earlier Buddhist texts, became a god in the Sanskrit texts composed during the Kushana period, and his images were worshipped by the faithful. ‘Bodhisattvas’, which used to be the appellation for figures in Buddha’s former lives, became deities who created heavens to host the devotees who were not ready to go to the state of nirvana.

In the Kushana period, Buddhist monks and nuns largely settled in viharas (monasteries) built around stupas to study, preach and serve society for rituals including funerals. They organised large-scale constructions and had sculptures, statues and wall paintings made to display stories of Buddha’s former lives and his career as a teacher. Drama was performed in Buddhist monasteries to re-enact life stories of the Buddha and his followers.

Buddhists under the Kushanas accepted the Mahayana theology of ‘extreme emptiness’ as preached by theologians such as Nagarjuna but, meanwhile, their religious practices evolved from the cosmopolitan environment of Bactria and Gandhara and were fed by the Silk Road trade that passed through. Buddhism under the Kushana was thus distinguished from Buddhist schools in Eastern India and the Mahayana schools that spread to China and Japan.

Maximum extent of the Kushana Empire
Maximum extent of the Kushana Empire|LHI

Akshay Chavan: The Kushanas were said to have had a winter capital at Mathura (in India) and a summer capital near Peshawar (now in Pakistan). How did the system work? Did the royal court move back and forth?

Xinru Liu:  We do not have literary sources to pin down either Mathura or Purushapura (Peshawar) as capitals of the Kushana Empire. The royal statues found in Mat, near Mathura, came from a Devakula, a dynastic temple which is no longer standing. Also, numerous religious monuments point to Mathura as a political centre and a busy metropolis.

The Kushana kings and princes continued to wear the Steppe-style of robes and trousers and boots as royal regalia, as is obvious from their statues.  Wearing the horse-riding robes was an important symbol to mark their status from the (Central Asian) Steppe. But India is a hot country and the Delhi-Mathura region was especially hot in summer. Even their horses could barely stand the heat.

Historical records of later times show that after conquering sedentary peoples to their south, in India and China, many rulers from the Steppe reserved their cooler homeland as summer retreats. Bagram in Afghanistan could have had a summer palace for the Kushanas, as the treasures discovered there could be a royal collection in a palatial building.  How exactly the court moved up and down is unknown to us.

Bagram decorative plaque from a chair or throne, ivory, c.100 BCE
Bagram decorative plaque from a chair or throne, ivory, c.100 BCE

Akshay Chavan: The ‘Rabatak inscription’ of Emperor Kanishka claims that the Kushana rule extended till Saketa, Kaushambi and Pataliputra in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Did their rule actually extend deep inside India or was it just their ‘cultural influence’?

Xinru Liu: Kanishka’s vision of his empire was not exactly the territory directly under his control. This is true of all empires: territories expand and shrink. It is likely that the Kushana controlled the Indo-Gangetic plains for quite a period of time. There are indeed a number of urban sites that have been discovered and partially excavated on the entire Ganges plain and even extended to Orissa. Judging from the Kushana coins found in the middle and lower Ganges plain, even though some coins were imitated, it seems that the Kushana Empire at least initiated trade networks in the entire Ganges plain all the way to the Bay of Bengal. Missions sent by the Wu Kingdom in South China in the 3rd century CE also heard about the reputable Kushana horses from residents of South-East Asia. If the Kushanas did not venture out to the Bay of Bengal, navigators from South-East Asia could have reached them from the sea.

Kushana pendant with Goddess Sri Devi
Kushana pendant with Goddess Sri Devi

Akshay Chavan: While the Kushanas were known to be patrons of Buddhism, what do we know of the Hindu/Vedic religion under their rule, considering their coins had Vedic deities and there were rulers named ‘Vasudeva’.

Xinru Liu: The Kushana kings endorsed deities that their subjects worshipped – Zoroastrian, Brahmanic, Buddhist etc. They did this for their legitimacy as rulers of a country of many different cultures. Buddhist institutions expanded from East India to the North-West, to seek the patronage from the Kushana kings and merchants from all over Central Asia and India.

Buddhist art works appealed to an audience of several different languages and brought the stories of the Buddha to faraway lands. It was because Buddhists acknowledged the patronage of Kanishka in their new texts composed in Sanskrit, which were translated into Chinese, that the Kushanas were well known as great patrons of Buddhism.  Kushana kings probably patronised Vedic religion through individual Brahmans, as Vedic religious institutions were hardly visible physically under the Kushanas.

Kushana image of Shiva
Kushana image of Shiva

Akshay Chavan: Since the Kushana Empire largely depended on inland international trade along the Silk Road, what was their relationship like with powers such as the Western Satraps and the Satavahanas, who controlled important ports? Did the Kushanas ever try to gain access to the sea?

Xinru Liu: The Western Satraps were apparently one of the Scythian groups that had migrated from the Central Asian Steppe. Their culture and socio-political structures were similar to that of the Kushanas in many ways. The Kushanas’ encounters with local powers in the West Deccan such as the Satavahanas left inscriptions showing that their patronage of local religious institutions was a way to control.

As the Western Sakas and the Satavahanas became hegemons of the (Gujarat and Deccan) region Buddhist institutions developed along the (Konkan) coast and trade routes facilitated trade with the Kushana core region. The Kushanas already occupied key positions on the Silk Road and should not have felt it imperative to control the North-West Deccan.

Statue of Kanishka from Mathura
Statue of Kanishka from Mathura

Akshay Chavan: Why do you think that a rich and prosperous empire like that of the Kushanas never created monumental buildings, structures or cities such as those built by the Romans, Sassanids, Guptas and the Han Dynasty?

Xinru Liu: The Kushanas did create monumental buildings, structures and cities. Long after the Indus Civilisations abandoned city building, the Kushanas were the best city builders who used bricks for construction. Kushana sites in India have mostly been built on by later builders, thus the excavations have been limited. Even so, archaeologists have discovered quite a few impressive sites, such as Sonkh (also in Mathura district), which could be considered a satellite city of Mathura.

Since Mathura cannot be excavated extensively, Sonkh could serve as a small model of urban structure of the Kushana period. Archaeologists easily identify Kushana urban sites by the special, large, red bricks found all around North India. Buddhist stupas built during the Kushana period were very impressive. The structure of the Kushana dynastic temple at Surkh Kotal (in Afghanistan), though only the foundation is left, looks majestic.

Gold coin of Kanishka with a representation of the Buddha (c.120 CE)
Gold coin of Kanishka with a representation of the Buddha (c.120 CE)

Akshay Chavan: How do you see the shared legacy of the Kushanas in the context of today's geo-political conflicts between countries such as India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics, all of which once constituted their empire?

Xinru Liu: The Kushana Empire encompassed communities from different terrains, climates and ecosystems, and reigned over several persistent and shifting cultural, linguistic and socio-political domains. The Kushanas left most social institutions intact; they patronised religions but did not impose any single religion on all their subjects. All the modern nation-states, which control a share of this complicated region, could learn from their tactics of administration.

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