Just under 2,000 years ago, Kushana Emperor Huvishka (r. 155-190 CE) and his ministers faced an unprecedented problem that will perhaps resonate with most heads of government today. It was a global pandemic of smallpox and measles that had originated in the Han Empire of China and was spreading around the known world.
Eerily, like today, the worst affected were the Han Empire (China), the Roman Empire (Italy) and the Parthian Empire (Iran), as a result of international travellers and businessmen contracting and carrying it along the Silk Route. And then the pandemic arrived in the great Kushana Empire that lay right in the middle of the three.
Unlike today, closing international borders and enforcing a strict lockdown was not an option available to Emperor Huvishka and his ministers. All they could do was pray to a divine power whom they believed would save them - Hariti, the Goddess of Smallpox. The sheer number of Kushana-style Hariti sculptures found in the north-western regions of the Indian subcontinent, dating to the reign of Emperor Huvishka, reflects the rising levels of anxiety during this pandemic.
Known as the Antonine Plague of 165-180 CE, after a Roman Emperor whose life it claimed, the pandemic was deadly. Over 15 years, it wiped out almost a quarter of the population in the Roman and the Han empires. International trade collapsed and all the great powers of the time – the Romans, Han, Parthians, Kushanas and Satavahanas – were weakened. While these empires lingered on for another century or two, the world would never be the same.
While multiculturalism and globalisation are buzzwords today, the Kushanas practically embodied these terms, 2,000 years ago. What else would you call a dynasty whose kingdom stretched from the frontiers of China to Mathura and beyond in the Indo-Gangetic plains, who lived in Greek-style cities, patronised Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Vedic deities, and called themselves Kaisara (Caesar) and Devaputra (Son of God)?
The empire of the Kushanas also marked a ‘golden age’ in cultural and economic prosperity in Central Asia and North-West India that would remain unparalleled for a long time to come. The noted historian Craig Benjamin, in his book Empires of Ancient Eurasia, called the Kushana Empire “the Golden Age of ancient Central Asia”.
Surprisingly, and quite unfortunately, the Kushanas did not leave behind any official histories or great texts and, as a result, the history of the dynasty has had to be painstakingly put together by scholars, based on Indian, Roman, Greek, Persian and Chinese sources as well as hoards and finds discovered in the most unlikely places.
Mummies of the Tarim Basin
The Kushanas have their roots in a series of migrations of the Yuezhi people, who in turn can be traced to an ancient tribe that settled in the modern-day Xinjiang region of China, about 5,000 years ago.
The earliest evidence of this migration was uncovered during the Cultural Revolution in China. In the mid-1960s and early-’70s, Chinese archaeologists unearthed a large number of mummies in the Tarim Basin of the Xinjiang province, dating from 1800 BCE to 1st century BCE. News of their discovery created a sensation around the world because the mummies looked ‘European’ – these were the remains of people who had been tall and markedly Caucasian, with blond hair and sharp features. Mitochondrial DNA analysis and further excavation revealed them to be early Indo-Europeans who had spoken the now-extinct Tokharian languages.
Chinese texts from the first millennium BCE speak of ‘white people with long hair’ who lived on the north-eastern frontier of China, and from whom the Chinese bought jade.
The noted historian Victor H Mair, in his research paper Ancient Mummies of the Tarim Basin (1995), stated, “The new finds are also forcing a reexamination of old Chinese books that describe historical or legendary figures of great height, with deep-set blue or green eyes, long noses, full beards, and red or blond hair. Scholars have traditionally scoffed at these accounts, but it now seems that they may be accurate.”
By 645 BCE, Chinese accounts referred to these tribes as the Yuezhi because they supplied jade from the Yuzhi Mountains in North-Central China. Around 175 BCE, the great tribal confederation of nomads called Xingnou defeated the Yuezhi and forced them to migrate out of the Ganshu region and head towards Central Asia. As the Yuezhi moved east, they defeated the Indo-Scythians or Sakas, forcing them to move towards Bactria.
By 100 BCE, the Yuezhi had pushed east once again, defeated the Sakas and taken over the region of Bactria. The Sakas were forced south, towards Mathura, thereby ending the rule of the Indo-Greek kings. And the Yuezhi became masters of the Silk Route that passed through Bactria.
Rise of an Empire
According to the 5th-century chronicle of the Han dynasty, Hou Han Shu, the Yuezhi divided Bactria into five chiefdoms, one of which was called Kuei-shang or Guishang. The Hou Han Shu further states, “More than a hundred years after this [i.e., the Yuezhi migration], the hi-hou (tribal chief) of Kuei-shang, called K’iu-tsiu-k’io, attacked the four other hi-hou; he styled himself king; the name of his kingdom was Kuei-shang. He invaded An-si [Parthia] and seized the territory of Kao-fu [Kabul]; moreover he triumphed over Pu-ta [Gandhara] and Ki-pin [Kashmir] and entirely possessed those kingdoms.”
K’iu-tsiu-k’io was none other than Kujula Kadphises (r. 60-80 CE), the founder of the dynasty that would be known as Kuei-Shang to the Chinese and Kushana to the Western world. Kujula Kadphises ruled in the 1st century CE and was a contemporary of the Indo-Parthian King Gondophares. Over time, he conquered the tiny Indo-Greek and Saka principalities that had survived in North-Western India and laid the foundations of the Kushana Empire.
Kujula Kadphises conquered the bowl-shaped basin on the north-western frontier of India known as Gandhara and established his capital in the city of Taxila-Sirkap, in the modern-day Rawalpindi district of Pakistan. The ancient city had served as the capital to the Indo-Greek as well as Saka rulers.
During archaeological excavations in the Taxila region carried out by Sir John Marshall from 1913 to 1934, 2,633 coins of the Kushana emperors were recovered from the. Most of them, 2,518, belonged to Kujula Kadphises. Interestingly, many of these coins have the Greek god Zeus on one face and the Buddha on the other, perhaps an indication of how readily the Kushanas adapted to the territories they conquered.
With the conquest of the Indo-Greek cities of Bactria and Gandhara, the Kushanas were no longer mere tribal chiefs. They were now emperors and masters of the Silk Route - the commercial and cultural superhighway that connected Han China and India with Parthia and Rome. Kujula Kadphises was Kanshika’s great-grandfather and was succeeded by Vima Taktu (r. 81-100 CE), Kanishka’s grandfather, and then by Vima Kadphises (r. 101-127), Kanishka’s father.
It was Vima Kadphises who wrested Mathura from the Scythian satraps and expanded the empire into the heartland of India. He was the first Kushana emperor to introduce gold coinage, thanks to the immense wealth generated by the trade along the Silk Route.
Masters of the Silk Route
Professor Xinru Liu of The College of New Jersey, who has studied the Kushanas for four decades, explains how they managed to build this vast empire through cultural assimilation, in her book The Silk Road in World History. Originally warrior-nomads, they had become rulers of a highly cultured and complex society. The sheer diversity within the cities of the empire that stretched from Turkmenistan to India, and the vast volumes of international trade that passed through their domains, meant that the Kushanas had to patronise many different languages and scripts and accommodate different religious practices.
Professor Liu writes, “The Kushana kings did not create a typical agricultural empire, with a strong bureaucracy to control every aspect of life. Their administration did not even reach the village level to collect a tax from farmers… They relied on existing local institutions, such as caste hierarchies, traders’ guilds, and religious organizations, to manage daily affairs. They also adopted parts of the political and cultural legacies of former rulers of the regions they now dominated, including the Persians, Greeks, Parthians, and Sakas.”
For example, when the Kushanas conquered the former Greek cities of Ai-Khanoum (in present-day Afghanistan) and Taxila-Sirkap, they simply adapted the grand and opulent Greek temples and palaces for their own use. It was the Kushanas’ cosmopolitan attitude that facilitated the trade that passed through their territory. A good example can be seen in their coins.
The Kushana coins were based on those minted by their largest trading partner – the Roman Empire. These coins have a remarkable resemblance to the aureus, a Roman gold coin. The Kushana coins bore images of Kushana kings as well as numerous deities, including the Sumerian goddess Nana, the Persian gods Oado and Atash, the Hindu gods Vasudeva and Shiva, and the Buddha. There were as many as 23 diverse gods and goddesses on Kushana coinage. The titles of the Kushana kings, inscribed on the coins in various languages, included ‘Shehanshah’, ‘Devaputra’ and ‘Maharaja Rajatiraja’.
Mes Aynak: Industrial Centre of the Kushana Empire
About 2,000 years ago, Mes Aynak was one of the most important centres on the Silk Route and the richest region in the Kushana Empire. ‘Mes Aynak’ means ‘Hill of Copper’ in local Dari language and buried here are the largest deposits of copper in Asia. Excavations have revealed remains of a great Kushana industrial township, quite like what Jamshedpur is to India or Pittsburgh to the United States.
It was from here that copper was exported to China and Rome. Located in the Mes Aynak valley are 19 separate archaeological sites including two small forts, a citadel, four fortified monasteries, several Buddhist stupas and a Zoroastrian fire temple, as well as ancient copper workings, smelting workshops, a mint and miners’ habitations. The wealthy copper merchants who lived and traded here seem to have liberally endowed vast monastic complexes and stupas, as can be seen from the more than 400 statues and vast number of other Buddhist artifacts found here.
There’s a strange and tangential 21st-century link. Now a remote, barren site in Afghanistan’s Logar province, an hour’s drive south of Kabul, Mes Aynak is best known as the notorious site of the al-Qaeda training camp where four of the hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks on New York trained.
Two other great Kushana cities were Bamiyan and Bagram. Western scholars call Bamiyan the ‘New York to Mes Aynak’s Pittsburgh’, a financial hub that supported the industrial township. Known more for the great 6th-century Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, this was once a massive trading centre and a hub where Silk Route caravans halted.
Bagram, known today for being home to the largest US airbase in Afghanistan, was once the summer capital of the Kushana Empire. The remains of a Kushana palace were found here in the 1930s, along with a trove of artefacts known as the Bagram Ivories. These include over 1,000 decorative plaques, small figures and inlays carved from ivory and bone, which indicate an ancient trade in luxury goods to and through the Kushana Empire.
Inscription in an Afghan Village
About 270 km north of Kabul, in the Baghlan province of Afghanistan, is a small village called Robatak. It stands desolate, following a horrific massacre of its inhabitants by the Taliban in May 2000. But seven years earlier, it was here that one of the most significant finds relating to the Kushana dynasty was made. In 1993, the Afghan Mujahideen while digging a trench on a nearby hillock stumbled upon an inscription and some historical artifacts. The inscription was photographed by a local British aid worker and the photo sent to the British Museum.
Deciphered by the language historian Nicholas Sims-Williams, it was found to be in the Bactrian and Greek script, from the time of the Kushana Emperor Kanishka (r. 128–150 CE), and proclaimed:
“In the year one it has been proclaimed unto India, unto the whole of the realm of the Kshatriyas, that (as for) them – both the (city of) . . . and the (city of) Saketa (Ayodhya), and the (city of) Kausambi (near Allahabad), and the (city of) Pataliputra (Patna), as far as the (city of) Sri-Campa (in Bhagalpur, Bihar) whatever rulers and other important persons (they might have) he had submitted to (his) will, and he had submitted all India to (his) will.”
This suggests that the Kushana Empire under Kanishka extended all the way from the frontiers of the Caspian Sea to the city of Pataliputra in Bihar. Was Emperor Kanishka exaggerating? Perhaps not. In Uttar Pradesh (UP) alone, there have been 70 excavated sites and 711 explored sites that have yielded Kushana-era artifacts. Large-scale excavations conducted at Kaushambi by the University of Allahabad under archaeologist G R Sharma in the 1970s revealed evidence of a well-planned, prosperous city dating to the 2nd century CE, and evidence that the city had been under Kushana rule. Among other artifacts found here were huge hoards of Kushana coins as well as four Kushana inscriptions and a seal bearing the legend, ‘In service of Maharaja Rajatiraja Devaputra Kanishka’.
The 5th-century Chinese text Fu-fa-tsang-yin-yüan-chuan (History of Buddha’s Successors) talks of Emperor Kanishka’s conquest of Pataliputra, during which he is said to have acquired the Buddha’s begging bowl. The influence of the Kushanas in the Gangetic Plain can be gauged from the fact that hoards of Kushana coins and artefacts have also been found in the remote Rautahat district of Nepal, just across the border from Motihari in Bihar.
About 2,300 km northwest of Kaushambi, in the ancient city of Merv in Turkmenistan, archaeologists have found similar Kushana-era coins. This indicates the sheer scale and power of the empire that the once-nomadic Kushanas had established.
About 4,300 km east of the Kushana stronghold of Taxila-Sirkap, in the Jiangsu province on the eastern edges of China, is a hill called Mount Kongwangshan, which has a number of images of the Buddha carved on its cliffs. Highlighting the significance of these images, Professor Liu explains, “Two small standing images of the Buddha are strikingly similar to the Buddha on a Kushana coin issued by Kanishka. Both on the coin and at Lianyungang he is shown wearing a knee-length, steppe-style robe and with his feet pointing outward. In other words, these are Kushana Buddhas. The worshipers also look like Kushanas, with their conical hats and equestrian robes.” Perhaps there is no better example of the soft power of the Kushana Empire.
Devaputra Kanishka and the Transformation of Buddhism
It was under the reign of Kanishka that Buddhism spread from India to large parts of Central Asia and China, making the emperor immortal in Buddhist lore. In many Buddhist texts, such as the Sri-Dharma-Pitaka-Nidana Sutra, the Buddha himself is said to have foretold that a king named Kanishka would rule several centuries later and build great stupas.
To understand the significance of the Kushanas to the spread of Buddhism, it is important to understand a fundamental transformation in Buddhist teachings that took place at this time – the rise of Mahayana Buddhism.
During the early days of Buddhism, the teachings were simple and focused on breaking the cycle of rebirth to achieve nirvana. The Buddhist establishment or the Sangha was dependent on patronage from wealthy merchants, which in turn brought the merchants prestige. But as international trade and commerce expanded under the Kushanas and Buddhism began to spread to newer areas, it faced a peculiar problem.
Concepts like nirvana and rebirth were Indic, and it was difficult for people elsewhere to understand them. Traders, accustomed to material transactions, found little sense in the idea of eliminating material desire. For Buddhism to take root in newer areas, the Buddha had to transform from a philosopher into a ‘god’. In the newer Mahayana form of Buddhism, people could make donations and pray to images of the Buddha and gain religious merit. This helped Buddhism take root in far corners of Asia.
With traders and businessmen making large donations, the Buddhist monasteries transformed into huge commercial establishments, engaging in trade, investment, even manufacturing, in addition to the main goal of promoting Buddhism.
Professor Liu explains that the relationship between the traders and Buddhist establishments was mutually beneficial. While merchants made large donations, the important Mahayana Buddhist texts such as the Lotus Sutra served to increase the value of silks, incense, corals, pearls and lapis lazuli, the very goods that the merchants traded. While earlier Buddhist texts spoke of donations of rice or bread to monasteries, Kushana-era texts specify silks, gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, pearls and red coral.
As the images of Buddha proliferated across the Kushana Empire, two distinct schools of art also emerged at the time – the Gandharan School of Art and the Mathura School of Art.
Kushana Cities Purushapura and Mathura
In the Gandharan region, a bowl-shaped valley now in Pakistan, where the great cities of Taxila-Sirkap, Pushkalavati (modern-day Charsadda) and Purushapura (modern-day Peshawar) flourished during the Kushana period, a distinct culture emerged that had a very strong Greco-Bactrian influence. This was because most of these cities had been established by the Indo-Greeks and Sakas, even if the Kushanas later made them their own. That heritage explains why the images of the Buddha created here resemble those found in Greece and Rome.
Near the beginning of his reign, around 128 CE, Emperor Kanishka shifted his capital from Pushkalavati (Charsadda) to Purushapura (Peshawar). The reasons were strategic. Peshawar sat at the mouth of the Khyber Pass, allowing easy access to Kabul as well as Bactria. The Bara River, a tributary of the Kabul that flowed through here, met Purushapura’s requirements of water for irrigation and for the city’s residents.
Emperor Kanishka is said to have built and endowed a large number of stupas across the Gandhara region, the most prominent of which was just outside his capital Purushapura, in a place known today as Shahji-ki-Dehri.
This great stupa was once the tallest in the world. Even in the 5th century CE, the Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-Hien visited and described it as "the highest of all the towers in the terrestrial world". But over the centuries it was reduced to rubble, and no trace of it remains today.
It was only in 1908-09 that the stupa was rediscovered at all, during excavations carried out by the American archaeologist David Brainard Spooner for the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Found inside was the Kanishka Casket, a large copper reliquary that contained three bone fragments believed to be relics of the Buddha. These relics were taken to Mandalay in Burma by the British in 1910 and remain there today.
Located 932 km south of Peshawar was another major city in the Kushana Empire, Mathura. An important trading town on the Dakshinapath, the trade route to the Deccan, Mathura had a large population of Buddhist and Jain merchants, as well as a thriving cult of Vasudeva, an early avatar of Krishna. The school of art that emerged here had a more Indian influence than that of Gandhara. The deities and people depicted in Mathura art had Indian features and wore Indian style clothes, in contrast to the Gandharan school which was heavily inspired by the Greek style.
In what was possibly an attempt to establish his legitimacy as a ruler, Emperor Kanishka and later Kushana kings seem to have stressed their divine origins and built Devakulas, literally ‘temples of the divine family’. In these Devakulas, the patron deities of the Kushana royal family as well as departed Kushana rulers would be worshipped. Archaeologists have uncovered two such temples, one in Mat, a village near Mathura, and another at Surkh Kotal, an archaeological site in Baghlan, Afghanistan.
The Decline of the Kushana Empire
Emperor Kanishka was succeeded by first his son, Vashishka (r. 151-155 CE) , who ruled for a short period of 5 years and then by his other son Huvishka (r. 155-190 CE), during whose reign the world faced the pandemic of smallpox and measles. His reign was a period of consolidation of the empire, which extended from Balkh in Northern Afghanistan to Mathura in India.
There have been studies on how the pandemic led to the decline of the Roman and Han empires. American historian A E R Boak, in his paper Manpower Shortage and the Fall of the Roman Empire (1955), explored how the outbreak of the 165 CE pandemic contributed to a decline in population growth in the Roman Empire, leading the military to draft more peasants and local officials into its ranks, resulting in lower food production and a lack of support for the day-to-day administering of towns and cities, thus weakening Rome’s ability to fend off barbarian invasions.
Similarly, noted Australian historian Rafe de Crespigny has studied how the horrors of the 15-year pandemic in China shattered the faith of the people in the divine mandate of the Han emperors. This led to the rise of faith-healing movements and the Yellow Turban Rebellion of 184 CE, a peasant revolt that contributed to the collapse of the Han Empire.
Strangely, there have been no comparable studies on the pandemic’s toll on the Kushana and Satavahana empires in India. It is a question that is still waiting to be answered.
By the time Emperor Huvishka was succeeded by Emperor Vasudeva I (r. 191-232 CE), the pandemic was over. Vasudeva I was a great patron of Hinduism and Buddhism, especially the Vasudeva cult fast emerging in Mathura. He is also the last Kushana emperor mentioned in Chinese sources.
The end of Vasudeva’s reign coincides with the start of the decline of the Kushana Empire. First, there were the Sassanian invasions of Bactria and what is now Western Pakistan. This was between 230 and 270 CE. To the east, most of the Indian territories, including Mathura, were then lost to the growing Gupta Empire. A series of rulers nicknamed ‘Little Kushanas’ ruled till 350 CE, and then the name disappears from the pages of history.
The Rediscovery of the Kushanas
By the 18th and 19th centuries, all memory of the Kushanas had been lost. The only available references were to a King Kanishka named in Buddhist texts. It was the Great Game of the 19th century, in which the British and Russian empires sought to reassert their power in Central Asia, which led to the rediscovery of the empire.
During this time, a large number of European explorers, spies and adventurers travelled across Central Asia tracing the footsteps of Alexander the Great. They came across a number of coins and artifacts of an unknown dynasty. Coin by coin, inscription by inscription, historians and archaeologists pieced the picture together, to recreate the tale of the Kushanas and their grand empire. How big was it really? Why did it fall? The search for answers to these questions continues to this day.
This article is part of our 'The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.
Find all the stories from this series here.
An effort like this needs your support. No contribution is too small and it will only take a minute. We thank you for pitching in.