North in Turmoil: The Saka and Pahlava Waves (100 BCE–100 CE)
A marauding tribe of horsemen from Central Asia founded one of the most successful dynasties in Northern India. These people, the Indo-Scythians, ruled North-West and Central India for 600 years. But what has the Great Wall of China got to do with their – and India’s – story?
They were a confederation of pesky tribal marauders who constantly raided Northern China. Tired of the ever-present threat from these barbarians, the little kingdoms of Northern China – Qin, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Han, Yan and Zhongshan – pushed back by building a series of fortifications to block out the menace. Over centuries, these fortifications would evolve into the Great Wall of China. But did you know that this pushback by China and the fortifications it created had an impact on faraway India?
At the beginning of the first millennium of the Common Era, North India was in turmoil. The central authority of the Mauryans had declined and a number of smaller kingdoms and principalities had emerged. Taking advantage of this, the Indo-Greek or the Yavanas had established their power in North-Western India, making an audacious bid for the prized city of Pataliputra.
But they were to be displaced by even more powerful force. The pushback from China and the ripple effect this had on the tribes across the Central Asian Steppes forced a number of nomadic tribes to migrate to India and make it their home. The most prominent among them were the Indo-Scythians or the Sakas, and the Indo-Parthians or the Pahlavas. Over the next few centuries, they would come into India, embrace it and leave an incredible mark on Indian culture and society. Some would even make their way into the Bible and later renditions of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
The Domino Effect
Around the 3rd century BCE, the Eastern region of the Steppes (today’s Mongolia) was inhabited by nomadic, pastoral people who had formed a far-flung tribal confederation by the name of ‘Xiongnu’. Vicious and volatile, it was the repeated attacks by these Xiongnu nomads on the Northern Chinese kingdoms of Qin, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Han, Yan and Zhongshan, that would force them to build a series of fortifications called ‘the Great Wall of Qi’, which over centuries would take the shape of ‘The Great Wall of China’.
The Shi-Ki and T’sien-Han-Shu, chronicles of the Han dynasty of China composed in the 1st century CE, tell us that the ruler of the Xiongnu, Lao Shang (reigned c. 174–161 BCE), attacked the Yuezhi tribe, who then occupied the rich farming oasis of the Tarim Basin (modern-day Xingjian province of China). The Yeuzhi king was killed and his skull was made into a drinking cup by the Xiongnu.
These chronicles also tell us about the terrible panic that followed. The Yeuzhi tribe, one of the numerous pastoral tribes that inhabited Central Asia, fled to the west, where they came across another tribe, the Wu-Sun, who lived in the Ill river basin and Lake Issykkul (near Kazakhstan’s capital Almaty today). The Yeuzhi killed their king and defeated them around 150 BCE. In what had become a pattern by now, or a ripple effect, the Wu-Sun were pushed further west and south, and it was these tribes who came to be known as the Scythians in the West – and the Sakas in India!
The Sakas, displaced by the Yeuzhi and pushed towards India, went on to defeat the Graeco-Bactrian kingdoms on India’s frontier in Northern Afghanistan. This, in turn, pushed the Indo-Greeks into Punjab. In a short span of time, the Sakas seem to have chased the Graeco-Bactrians into Punjab and defeated them around 145 BCE.
It is said that the Sakas burnt the Greek city of Ai-Khanoum (in present-day Takhar Province of North-Eastern Afghanistan) to the ground. This Saka conquest of the Bactrian-Greek kingdoms on India’s frontier made waves around the world. The 1st century CE Greek Geographer Strabo in his text Geographia, mentions, ‘The nomads who became most famous were those who took away Bactriana from the Greeks – the Asiani (Yeuzhi), the Tochari and the Sacae (Sakas).’
Tracing The Saka Journey
It was the sensational discovery of a gold treasure excavated at Tilla Tepe in Shibargah in Afghanistan that threw light on how powerful the Sakas had become after their conquest of Bactriana. In the summer of 1979, a team led by Soviet archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi excavated rich burials (dating from 1st century BCE to 1st century CE) around the remains of a prehistoric temple. In these burials were massive offerings of gold, much of which was in the Saka style.
The stash consisted of jewellery, crowns, armour and many other spectacular things like gold statues and coins. This led historians and archaeologists to believe that by now the Sakas had become extremely wealthy and powerful as they kept moving west with the huge surplus of the Bactrian-Greek gold that they had seized.
Meanwhile, the Saka march westward continued and they invaded the Parthian kingdom that ruled Iran. Parthian ruler Phaarates II (r. 138-128 BCE) was killed in the fighting. The Sakas eventually settled in today’s Northern Baluchistan, which came to be known as ‘Sakasthan’ or the ‘Land of the Sakas’.
The Sakas entered India via two routes. First, a group of them came in through the Kunjerab Pass (in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir or PoK), and down to Gilgit and Taxila, the same route from China taken by Chinese Buddhist monks Fa Hien (5th century CE) and Hiuen Tsang (7th century CE). This Saka group later invaded Punjab and came down to Mathura. The second group from Sakasthan entered India through the Bolan Pass (not Khyber) and went down to Sindh and Gujarat. This group of Sakas would rule Gujarat, Sindh, Malwa and Rajasthan till the 4th century CE.
Sakas and the Silk Route
But what was it that compelled the Sakas to go deeper and deeper into the Indian subcontinent? It was, of course, the riches and the growing demand for them as the ancient trading highway – the Silk Route – began to take shape.
These were the early days of this transcontinental, international trade route that extended from China all the way to the Roman Empire, with key stops along the way such as Bamiyan in Afghanistan and Khotan and Kashgar in Xinjiang province of China. There has been very little research on the connection of the Sakas to the Silk Route and how this expressway helped them.
An interesting insight comes from noted historian Dr Romila Thapar in her book Early India: From The Origins to AD 1300 (2004). In her book, Thapar explains how the Sakas, being pastoralists, had access to the finest horses which provided them with rapid mobility and enabled them to become conduits of trade. Scattered across the deserts of Western China and Central Asia were fertile oases, where towns and cities had emerged as centres of trade due to earlier Greek and Achaemenid patronage.
The Sakas were essentially men of the saddle and, over time, they made great improvements in bridles, saddles and in the compound bow, which would work decisively in their favour during military campaigns.
Thapar writes, “Nomadic pastoralists were unlikely people to found large kingdoms, but could do so due to their changing relationships with the Oasis. These pastoralists, instead of raiding the Oasis for livestock, began to accept tribute from them. Because of their circuits of herding, and the use of animals to transport goods, they emerged as important conduits to trade and commerce…Horses were traded eastwards, while in exchange silk travelled westwards to be sold in the markets of Central Asia and further.” These were the beginnings of the Silk Route.
Thapar goes on to explain that the attraction of India for the Sakas lay not just in the fertility of the land, but also in the profits of trade from the items it produced. The Roman trade with Central Asia was seen as an avenue to prosperity for these nomads. The Sakas were great patrons, conduits and beneficiaries of international trade and commerce. It was a policy later followed by the Kushanas in North India and the Satavahanas in the Deccan.
Saka Maues of Gandhara
We know of the various Saka kings who ruled North-Western India, thanks to the plethora of numismatic and epigraphic evidence they left behind. The first Saka to rule Indian territories and mint coins was Maues, who ruled from 98/85 BCE to 60/57 BCE. He defeated the Indo-Greek King Apollodotus II and took over the Taxila region. The invasion of Maues took place at a time when the Indo-Greek kingdoms were fragmented and different regions were controlled by different Indo-Greek princes.
There are a number of inscriptions in the Kharoshti script found in North-Western Pakistan, which indicate the route taken by Maues during his invasion of Gandhara. Noted Pakistani historian Ahmad Hassan Dani studied a number of petroglyphs at river crossings at Chilas and Hunza (in PoK) and found that many had been made by Saka soldiers who passed by. These led them to believe that Maues belonged to the group of Sakas that had entered India through the Pamir mountains, then through the Kunjerab Pass in today’s PoK and to Taxila.
Three of the inscriptions are of the time when he was battling down south towards Taxila. For example, the inscription at Shahdaur (in PoK) indicates that Maues established control over the region of Hazara (in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan) in 90 BCE, and installed a man named Dandin as his satrap. From the two inscriptions near Manshera not far away that date to 87 BCE, we know that he was still fighting to establish his rule in the Taxila region. It is only the copper plate found at Sirsukh (also near Taxila) dated 77 BCE that refers to ‘The Great King of Kings Maues’. Interestingly, his kingdom drove a wedge between the Indo-Greek kings of the Kabul valley and those that ruled Punjab. It is believed that over time, his rule extended till Mathura.
Maues ruled for the next 30 years with his capital at Sirkap-Taxila. He also continued the administration system of the Indo-Greek kings, and issued coins on the patterns of the Indo-Greek rulers. A large number of his coins carry portraits of Greek deities like Nike, Zeus, Artemis and others. Interestingly, according to The Cambridge History of Iran, Maues may have been a Saka mercenary in the service of Indo-Greek kings and who had rebelled against his master.
Soon after Maues’s death, Indo-Greek kings again ruled as indicated by the profusion of coins from Kings Apollodotus II and Hippostratos. It was only in 58 BCE that Saka rule was re-established by Azes I, with his victory over Indo-Greek King Hippostratos. This Saka king left an indelible mark.
In 1869 CE, noted Indian archaeologist Bhagwanal Indraji unearthed what is today known as the ‘Mathura Lion Capital’ (part of a pillar) now in the British Museum. It contains Prakrit inscriptions in the Kharoshti script, which states that it was created on the occasion of the funeral of “the illustrious king Muki and his horse“. The Cambridge History of Iran and many other historians believe ‘King Muki’ refers to the Saka ruler Maues. The ‘his horse’ refers to funerary traditions of Saka horse sacrifice found in Scythian (Saka) burial mounds as far as South Russia.
A Calendar and a Casket
The Saka King Azes I, who succeeded Maues, re-established Saka rule over the Gandhara region, after a brief interlude of around 20 years. The neighbouring provinces were ruled by his powerful governors known as ‘satraps’. For a king of whom we know very little, Azes I left his mark on Indian history in a very big way. He is associated with the start of a new calendar – ‘Azes Era’ or the ‘Old Saka’ calendar, which King Azes I is said to have founded on his accession to the throne between 60 and 55 BCE. Interestingly, this era corresponds with the Hindu calendar used in North India and Nepal, which is called the ‘Vikrama Era’.
Tradition has it that the Vikrama Era was heralded in 58 BCE by King Vikramaditya of Ujjain, to commemorate his victory over the Sakas. But this has been questioned by historians as there are no records of a king named Vikramaditya during this time. Also, we know that this came to be known as the Vikrama Era only in the 8th century CE, almost 800 years later.
The date of the accession of King Azes I around 58 BCE is also confirmed by epigraphic evidence in numerous inscriptions found from Mathura to the Afghan border. A range of historians from the late Sir John Marshall, to Romila Thapar and D C Sirkar believe that the Vikrama Era may have some links with the earlier ‘Azes Era’.
The second significant object that connected with the reign of Azes I is the ‘Bimaran Casket’, now in the British Museum. Also known as the ‘Bimaran reliquary’, this is a small, gold container with Buddhist relics that was found inside Stupa No2 at Bimaran, near Jalalabad in Eastern Afghanistan by British archaeologist Charles Masson around 1833. Inside the casket were numerous coins minted during the reign of King Azes I. Some historians argue that they belong to a king named ‘Azes II’, while others claim there was no such king. What is most significant is that the gold casket had a figural depiction of Buddha (in Greek/Gandhara style), flanked by deities Brahma and Sakra.
To put the significance of this casket in context, in the earlier form of Buddhism (Theravada) practiced in India at the time, there were no depictions of Buddha in human form. He is depicted as a stupa, a Bodhi tree, a lion and so on. The general consensus is that it was during the Kushana period (around 150 CE) that the first depiction of Buddha as the Sakya Muni himself, both in Indian and Greek style, began to appear. The discovery and dating of the Bimaran Casket pushes this date back by almost 200 years.
So, while the ‘Mathura’ (Indian) and ‘Gandhara’ (Greek) styles and the prolific representation of the Buddha are attributed to the period of the Kushanas, it might have had its origins in the time of the Saka rulers, who predated them.
After the death of Azes I, the central authority of the Saka kings declined, and powerful local governors known as ‘satraps’ emerged as semi-independent rulers. The last known Saka ruler from the line of Muaes was King Mujatria, who ruled around 10 CE, and is believed to have been overthrown by the Kushanas. But the local Saka satraps continued to rule for over a century, accepting the suzerainty of the Kushanas. Interestingly, the Kushanas were the descendants of the same Yeuzhi tribe who had originally pushed out the Sakas from the Tarim Basin!
The Era of the Satraps
To begin with, the satrapies (governorates) were those at Mathura, Chuksha (in Pakistan’s Punjab) and Bajaur (in Khyber Pakhtunwa region of Pakistan). The most prominent of these were the ‘Northern Satraps’ who ruled from Mathura. The ‘Mathura Lion Capital’ in the British Museum has the names of a number of satraps on it. For instance, we know of the great satrap ‘Mahakshatrapa’ called ‘Rajuvula’, who ruled Mathura around 10 CE. He is said to have invaded the last Indo-Greek kingdom at Sagala (Sialkot) and ended the Indo-Greek rule in India.
He was succeeded by his son Sodasa, in the late 1st century CE. Sodasa was the last of the Indo-Scythian satraps to have minted his own coins. From the inscriptions found at Mathura, it appears that he was a great patron of Buddhism in the region and built a number of stupas. Not just this, in 1890-1891, during excavations at Kankali Tila in Mathura, remains of a rare ‘Jain Stupa’ were also found. Archaeologists also found what is known as a ‘Kankali Tila Tablet’, which is now in the Lucknow museum. This has an inscription that reads ‘Svamisa Mahakṣatrapasa Śodasa’ or the Great Satrap Sodasa. It tells us that not just Buddhism but even Jainism flourished under the Saka rulers.
Sodasa and the earliest surviving Sanskrit inscription in India
Another historically significant aspect of Sodasa’s rule is the ‘Mora Wall Inscription’ found in the village of Mora about 7 miles (11 km) from Mathura. It records the installation of the image of the holy Panchaviras (Five Heroes) of the Vrsnis (ancient Indian clan), including Vasudeva and Krishna at a stone temple.
What makes it so significant is that this inscription, dating back to the rule of Sodasa, is the oldest surviving Sanskrit inscription found in India.
This tells us about the early patronage of Sanskrit by Saka rulers, which would reach great heights under the Sakas of Ujjain in the 2nd century CE. The reference to the Vrisnis and Krishna in the inscription also tells us about the emergence of Vaishnavism in Mathura, under the Saka rulers.
The Saka satraps went on to rule over parts of Sindh, Gujarat and Malwa for the next four centuries and were known as the ‘Western Satraps’. These Western Satraps belonged to a different group of Sakas and were not the ones who had come down from the Pamir Mountains. They are believed to have come down through the Bolan Pass in Baluchistan, into Sindh, after which they established their rule over Gujarat and Malwa, with Ujjain as their capital. The control of the ports of Western India, from Baluchistan right down to Bharuch in Gujarat, made them wealthy and powerful. They would rule till 415 CE, before being defeated by Gupta Emperor Chandragupta II.
For over 600 years, from the 2nd century BCE to the 4th century CE, waves of people pushed deeper and deeper into India, till they reached the Vindhyachal and Satpura ranges and were eventually absorbed into the colourful fabric of the subcontinent. They embraced local ideas, ideals and beliefs, built stupas, temples and viharas, and even entered the Hindu epics and legends. One of them even made his way into the Bible.
But that deserves another story.
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.