The Kushan Empire

Kushans are among the least studied of Iranian dynasties, mainly due to the conventions of modern historical enquiry which often does not consider them to belong to the history of Iran per se. In addition, their placement in the history of India, another land where they wielded much power, is also in the context of a foreign, invasive force, although due to their publicized patronage of Buddhism, they are better recognized in the context of Indian history. The territory of the Kushans, essentially including Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the rest of northwest India, is today divided among many countries, further rendering their historiography difficult. They are, nonetheless, among the most important and influential of all dynastic systems in the history of greater Iran and Central Asia and deserve a well placed position in the historiography of these regions and cultures.

The history of early Kushans has often been envisioned through a series of movements, supposedly caused by the westward migration of the tribes called the Xiongnu in the Chinese sources and often hypothesized to be the same as the Huns, mentioned in the Roman sources. We further know of the existence of a tribal confederacy known as the Yüehzhi from the Chinese sources. This confederacy, living somewhere around the area of the Tarim basin in modern day Western China (Chinese Turkistan or Xinjiang) are said to be the same as the Tocharoi (Tokharians) of the Greek and Roman sources. The Chinese sources mention that there were five tribes among the confederates of the Yüehzhi, and one of them, named Guishuang in Chinese, is alleged to be the Kushans (based on the adjusted pronunciation of the Chinese characters in Early Middle Chinese).

Whatever the case, we know that sometimes in the second century BCE, the Xiongnu/Hun tribes, forced by the centralizing powers of China, started a westwards movement towards the Tarim region. Supposedly, this westward movement in turn forced the movement of the Yüehzhi further west into Transoxiana, where we first hear of them. In this stage, the Yüehzhi themselves are supposed to have dislodged certain Saka tribes from the area around Issyk Kul, forcing them to attack the borders of the Arsacid Empire around 130 BCE. In the battles that ensued, the Arsacid kings Phraates II and Artabanus I were killed, temporarily putting the Sakas in control of the affairs in eastern Iran. They were, however, eventually contained by Mithridates II in 120’s BCE and settled further south, in the region of mediaeval Sakistan, modern Sistan.

In the meantime, the Yüehzhi had managed to safely settle themselves in Transoxiana where they are referred to by the classical sources as the Tokharians (Gr. Tocharoi) from this point on, and occasionally also confused with the Sakas. From their base in Transoxiana, these Yüehzhi slowly started threatening the Greco-Bactrian kingdom around the end of the second century BCE. Archaeological remains from sites such as Aï Khanoum indicate the abandonment of this site a few decades before the arrival of the Yüehzhi, although fortresses and constructions of the later Kushan period can be recognized since the early periods. By the beginning of the first century BCE, the Yüehzhi had been settled in northern Bactria where the occupation levels of cities such as Termez and Bactra/Balkh can be identified with the Kushan period.

It is during this period that coins (silver tetradrachms, drachms, and their denominations), identified specifically as Kushan (κοþþανον) appear from the mint of Balkh. Traditionally, these coins are attributed to a ruler called Heraios based on the Greek inscriptions on the coins. Calling himself the “tyrant” and the “Kushan”, this ruler is alleged to be the first Kushan king. Recently, however, it has further been suggested that this ruler was indeed none other than Kujula Kadphises, the first Kushan emperor, from whom we have more extensive textual and numismatic evidence.

The dating of the rule of the Kushan kings, however, presents us with a major challenge. The native dating of the Kushan kings was from the reign of Kanishka the Great, the fourth Kushan Emperor. Called the Era of Kanishka, the starting date of this calendar is unfortunately not known to us. Often understood through comparison and in relation with other calendars, the date of the Era of Kanishka, established by Kanishka and mentioned in his inscriptions, is the subject of much controversy in the modern study of Kushan history.

We know, however, that the initial establishment of the Kushan Empire took place in Bactria, were Balkh was used, in continuation of the Greco-Bactrian tradition, as a center for minting tetradrachms and other coins. Termez, as well as the area of Aï Khanoum were also heavily settled and urbanized, with fortresses and urban constructions. Further south, the region around Baghlan was also well settled and an early sanctuary was established in Surkh Kotal.

Kujula Kadphises, the first Kushan emperor, was also its energetic early conqueror. Chinese sources attribute the entry of the Kushans to the southern Hindu-Kush to him, alleging that he was responsible for capturing Kapisa (Kabul) and Gandhara. Establishing another mint in Kapisa, along with Balkh, Kujula Kadphises was also quite prolific in the issuing of silver and bronze coins which have survived and help us in identifying his rule. Based on one of the most accepted arguments for the date of the Era of Kanishka, Kujula Kadphises ruled sometimes in the early first century CE and probably died after the year 50 CE, leaving two sons.

The successor of Kujula Kadphises on the throne was long known simply as Soter Megas (the great savior) because of the most legible inscriptions on his coins. Although Chinese sources did mention him as Yangaozhen, establishing his name was virtually impossible for historians until the discovery of the Rabatak Inscription in the last two decades. By reading this inscription, in which Kanishka the Great recounts his ancestry, it was established that the name of Kujula Kadphises’ son and successor was Vima Takto. This ruler dominated Transoxiana, Bactria, Kapisa, Gandhara and even further south to northwestern India during the course of his reign and probably had his capital in Balkh and might have established a summer capital near Bagram/Kapisa.

Vima Takto was succeeded by his nephew (according to the Rabatak Inscription) called Vima Kadphises. This emperor was one of the most prolific of the early Kushan rulers, and he firmly established his rule in India, a fact observable through the adoption of Indian cultural icons on his coins. Vima Kadphises is known for introducing gold coins to India which bore, in addition to the Greek/Bactrian names and titles, also a Kharoshti inscription. These coins bear several interesting features which become prominent in the subsequent Kushan coinage, although some had been already in use since the time of Kujula Kadphises. Among these is the use of the image of Shiva and his Bull on the reverse of the coins, as well as the inclusion of the Nandipada symbol (signifying Nandi) on one of the fields of the coin’s reverse. Common on Kushan coins, and indeed in use since the time of Kujula Kadphises, was the use of the “tamgha”, a monographic sign which identified the minting authority of the coins and has been established as being unique to each individual Kushan ruler.

The rule of Vima Kadphises also saw the opening of the doors of the Kushan realm to international contact and exchange, including the centrality of the region for the trade passing through Central Asia. Kushan envoys, also, are reported to have been present among the members of a Chinese embassy sent to the Roman Emperor Trajan at the beginning of the second century CE. By this time, the Kushans had also fully adopted the local Bactrian language, and its Greek based script, as the language and script of their empire. While the original language of the Yüehzhi is unknown, or is alleged to have been Tocharian, both Kushan onomastics and their inscriptions show their whole-hearted embrace of Bactrian, an eastern Iranian language, as their own.  The Kushan territories, however, encompassed many lands beyond Bactria and was, by necessity, quite multicultural and multilingual. This is a fact that is obvious from the Kushan architecture, showing Indian, Buddhist, Iranian, and local Bactrian influences. Additionally, even on Kushan coins, we see the existence of Kharoshti script and Gandharan (an Indo-Aryan language) alongside Bactrian, as well as the presence of Indian gods and symbols with those from the Iranian, Greek and Bactrian milieu.

It was the prosperity of the Kushans, including their increasing international contact and their control of northwestern India that paved the way for the emergence of the most glorious period in their history. The first of the “Great Kushans”, the reign of Kanishka was the beginning of the Golden Age of the Kushans, in both literal and figurative ways. Kanishka was the son of Vima Kadphises and thus the great grandson of Kujula Kadphises, the founder of the dynasty. Upon his accession to the throne, he inherited the control of most of the territories in Central Asia and northwestern India. In his own inscriptions, Kanishka claims that he expanded his rule to all of northern India and even as far south as Pataliputra. Chinese chronicles talk about his battles with the Chinese general Ban Chi’ao, and he seems to have controlled much of the traditional Yüehzhi territories in the Tarim region, allowing him excellent access to the trade routes that passed both to Central Asia and India.

Kanishka’s most prominent capital was at Purushapura (later Pushkalavati, modern Peshawar), just to the south of the Hindu-Kush. Other capitals in Kapisa/Bagram and Mathura were well established, displaying examples of Kanishka’s support for Gandharan Buddhist and Indian arts. Kanishka is often known for his support of the Gandharan and Buddhist art, most prominently displayed in the “Kanishka’s Stupa” in Peshawar. On his coins, as well, Kanishka shows support for various cultures and artistic traditions in the territories under his control. In addition to the Greek and Indian symbols present on his coins and those of his father, he also issued many coins showing the Ardoxšo, Māh (the moon) and Ahura Mazda, as well as a few coins with Buddhist symbolism and the figure of Buddha himself. On most of these coins, the name of the god is also mentioned, commonly in Bactrian, showing the adaptation of the various religio-cultural figures to the Kushans’ own iconography.

Kanishka has also been the most prolific Kushan emperor in the production of inscriptions. A major inscription, found in the sanctuary of Surkh Kotal, was our initial introduction to Kushan history indeed, specifying the reasons for the building of the sanctuary itself (which is a fire temple), as well as confirming the establishment of the Era of Kanishka as the official date-keeping calendar of the realm. Kanishka, like Darius the Great before him, names the language he has composed his inscription in, using the same term that Darius had used (Aria). In other inscriptions, Kanishka recounts his conquests and demarcates his empire, clearly showing the extent of his power and influence. It is with Kanishka, indeed, that we understand the position of the Kushans as masters of a true empire.

Based on the widely accepted date for the Era of Kanishka, the great emperor died sometimes around 147 CE, in or around the 20th year of his reign. He was succeeded by his son, Huvishka I, who ascended the throne in the same year. The early years of the reign of Huvishka might have coincided with the reign of a co-ruler, or pretender, named Vasishka, whose name is known from an inscription in central India, although due to the confusing nature of the inscriptions, this might have actually been the Vasishka who followed Kanishka II. Otherwise, the reign of Huvishka in general appears to have been largely peaceful, spent on establishing the Kushan control over northern India and largely moving the center of power to the southern capital of Mathura. This is more evident in the iconography of his coinage which employs more Indian deities and icons, although at least in one coin series, the Egyptian god Serapis is also present, a unique appearance among Kushan coinage. Another significant development on the coins of Huvishka is the devaluation of the currency, causing the weight of his tetradrachms to fall quite low and causing the issuance of many imitations and forgeries.

The successor of Huvishka was named Vasudeva I whose name shows clear Indian influences. Vasudeva is considered to be the last of the great Kushans, and he is also the last Kushan emperor to be mentioned in the Chinese sources, since his reign coincided with the internal troubles in China and the withdrawal of the Chinese from Central Asia. Under his rule, Buddhism seems to have expanded further into Central Asia and this indeed might be the start of the prominence of the religion in Bactria. Politically, Vasudeva’s rule was centered more in the area of Marutha, probably allowing northern incursions into his territories. His coin issues follow the same style as Kanishka, often with Shiva and the bull on the obverse, following the same weight standard mostly of Huvishka.

The reign of Vasudeva I (ca. 191-225) likely coincided with the rise of the Sasanians in western and central Iran (ca. 224 CE). Ardashir I made early incursions into the eastern regions, including Marv and Sakistan, where he issued drachms. This would have brought him in contact with the Kushans. Indeed, Vasudeva’s successor, Kanishka II (ca. 225-245) probably was the emperor who lost the northern parts of his realm to Shapur I (240-272 CE). In his famous inscription in Naqsh-e Rostam (henceforth ŠKZ), Shapur counts the realm of the Kushans (MP Kushan-shahr) including “Purushapura” to be part of his empire, indicating the loss of Kushan control in Bactria and even south of the Hindu-Kush. While the accuracy of this claim, particularly the claim of the control of Purushapura/Peshawar, is sometimes debated, there can be no doubt that Shapur I started issuing coins in Balkh at this time, establishing his control over the region.

From this point on, the Kushans lost  control of Bactria to a cadet branch of the Sasanian dynasty, commonly known as the Kushano-Sasanians. These rulers ruled the region of Bactria, as far as Kapisa and Kandahar in the south, for a hundred years, until the advent of the Iranian Huns in the second half of the fourth century.

Nonetheless, Kanishka II might have had some successes in establishing his rule back over parts of Gandhara and possibly Kapisa, an event which allowed him to establish a second Era of Kanishka on the 100th anniversary of the original one. He also prominently featured Ardoxšo sitting on a throne on the reverse of his coins. Subsequently, the fate of the Kushan emperors after Kanishka II sometimes becomes confusing. Contained to northern India and increasingly subjects to the Gupta emperors, the later Kushans are known from various inscriptions, as well as their coins which essentially continued to be minted in the same style as the Great Kushans.

Kanishka II was followed by a short lived successor named Vashishka who is known through four inscriptions, including a Kharoshti inscription in the Indus region which establishes the extent of his rule in that region. His successor, Kanishka III, is most famous for using the title Kaisaro (Caesar) on his coins, displaying an awareness of the Roman power and probably declaring some sort of alliance with that power. By this time, Kushan coins were becoming smaller, the flans now visibly smaller than the die size and thus causing some of the legends to be missing from the margins. In this way, there are sometimes only the reverse, Kharoshti inscriptions that make it possible for us to identify the authority. In this way, we can only speculate that a Vasudeva II might have followed Kanishka III. This last king was followed by an authority that minted coins with the name Shaka on the obverse of the coins, either a personal name or a clan title.  This was, effectively, the end of the Kushan rule in northern India which was already dominated by the Gupta emperor, Samudragupta.


Further Reading

Alram, Michael. Nomina Propria Iranica in Nummis, Materialgrundlagen zu den iranischen personennamen auf Antiken Münze. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie, 1986.

Alram, Michael, and D. E. Klimburg-Salter, eds. Coins, Art, and Chronology: Essays on the pre-Islamic History of the Indo-Iranian Borderlands. Vienna: Verlag der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1999.

Basham, A. L. Papers on the Date of Kaniska. Leiden: Brill, 1968.

Bivar, A. D. H. “the History of Eastern Iran.” In Cambridge History of Iran, , edited by E. Yarshater, 181-231. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

———. “Kushan Dynasty i. Dynastic Hisory.” Encyclopaedia Iranica,

Bopearachchi, Osmund, and Marie-Francoise Boussac, eds. Afghanistan Ancien Carrefour Entre L’Est Et L’Ouest . Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2005.

Cribb, J. “The Early Kushan Kings: New Evidence for Chronology. Evidence from the Rabatak Inscription of Kanishka I.” In Coins, Art and Chronology, edited by Michael Alram and D. E. Klimburg-Salter, 177-206. Vienna: Verlag der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1999.

———. “Gandharan Hoards of Kushano-Sasanian and Late Kushan Coppers.” Coin Hoards 6 (1981): 93-108.

———. “Shiva Images on Kushan and Kushano-Sasanian Coins.” Silk Road Art and Archaeology Special Issue (1996): 11-66.

Errington, E., and Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis. From Persepolis to the Punjab, Exploring Ancient Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. London, 2007.

Falk, Harry. “The Yuga of Sphujiddhvaja and the Era of the Kusanas.” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 7 (2001): 121-136.

Frye, Richard N. “Napki Malka and the Kushano-Sasanians.” In Near Eastern Numismatics, Iconography, Epigraphy, and History: Studies in Honor of George C. Miles, edited by Dikran K, Kouymjian. Beirut, 1974.

Fussman, Gerard. “Southern Bactria and Northern India before Islam: A Review of Archaeological Reports.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 116 (Apr.-Jun. 1996): 243-259.

Göbl, R. “The Rabatak Insciption and the date of Kanishka.” In Coins, Art and Chronology, edited by Michael Alram and D. E. Klimburg-Salter, 151-176. Vienna: Verlag der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1999.

Grenet, Frantz, et al. “The Sasanian Relief at Rag-i Bibi.” In After Alexander: Central Asia Before Islam, edited by J. Cribb and Georgina Hermann, 243-267. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Hermann, Georgina. “Shapur I in the East: Reflections from His Victory Reliefs.” In The Art and Archaeology of Ancient Persia: New Light on the Parthian and Sasanian Empires, edited by Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, Robert Hillenbrand, and J. M. Rogers, 38-51. London: I. B. Tauris, 1998.

MacDowall, D. W. “The Interrelation between Indo Parthian and Kushan chronology.” In Histoire et Cultes de l’Asia Centrale Preislamique , edited by P. Bernard and Frantz Grenet. Paris: CNRS, 1991.

Posch, Walter. Bactrien zwischen Griechen und Kuschan. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz , 1995.

Rapin, Claude. “Nomads and the Shaping of Central Asia: from the Early Iron Age to the Kushan Period.” In After Alexander: Central Asia Before Islam, edited by J. Cribb and Georgina Hermann, 29-72. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Sarkhosh Curtis, Vesta, Robert Hillenbrand, and J. M. Rogers, eds. The Art and Archaeology of Ancient Persia: New Light on the Parthian and Sasanian Empires. London: I. B. Tauris, 1998.

Sims-Williams, Nicholas, and J. Cribb. “A New Bactrian Inscription of Kanishka the Great.” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 4 (1995-1996)

Zeimal, E. V. “The Kidarite Kingdom and Central Asia.” In History of Civilisations of Central Asia, edited by B. A. Litvinsky, 119-133. Paris: UNESCO, 1996.


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