History of the Kushan Empire

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history of Kushan Empire

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The history of Kushan empire is something that is difficult to trace as the sources to decipher them are limited. Yet historians have tried to gather useful information from the extant archaeological evidences in the form of coins, inscriptions, manuscripts and statues. In this article, we will talk about Kushan empire as well as the major and minor rulers. We will also discuss about their trade practices and the form of art that developed during the Kushan era.

So, without any delay, let’s start our reading journey! 

About Kushan Empire  

The Yuezhi were Indo-European nomadic pastoralists who resided in Xinjiang and Gansu (North-Western China) during the 1st millennium BCE. After they occupied ancient Bactria, the country was divided into four aristocratic chiefdoms or tribes namely, Xiūmì, Guìshuāng, Shuāngmǐ, Xìdùn and Dūmì (in Chinese history). The Kushan empire is the Guìshuāng as per Chinese history. They migrated to Bactria chiefly because their king was beheaded by Xiongnu. 

The Kushans were even suggested to be of Tocharin and Iranian origins. They ruled majority of the north Indian subcontinent like the Afghanistan, Pakistan, India etc. It was a syncretic empire having multiple belief systems such as Greek, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism etc.  

Founder of the Kushan Empire 

The reign of Kushan rulers started from AD 30 and continued till circa 375. The Kushan empire was contemporaries of the Western Satraps, the Satavahanas and the initial Gupta empire rulers. Let us read about the founder of the Kushan empire in details:  

Kujula Kadphises 

Kujula Kadphises was the founder of the Kushan empire who ruled from 30-80CE. He is supposed to be the son of the Kushan ruler Heraios who first proclaimed himself as the Kushan ruler through coinage. He is responsible for the unification of the Yuezhi confederation in Bactria. Kujula is the great grandfather of the Kushan king Kanishka I (Rabatak inscription) who was the most notable ruler of his times. He is also referred to as Quijiuque in Chinese history. 

Kujula Kadphises invaded Anxi (Parthia), Gaofu (Kabul) and annexed the kingdoms of Puda, Jibin (Kapisha-Gandhara) etc. His conquests were carried out between 45 and 60 CE which rapidly expanded under the rule of his descendants. Under Kujula’s rule, an extensive series of coins were issued. He had two sons, Sadaskana and Vima Taktu. Sadaskana never ruled in his life while Vima Taktu became the next king of the Kushan empire after his father Kujula Kadphises died. Kujula lived for more than 80 years of his life.  

Subsequent rulers of the Kushan Empire 

Vima Taktu 

Vima Taktu succeeded Kujula Kadphises and preceded Vima Kadphises and Kanishka I. Thus, he is the grandfather of Kanishka I. He ruled from 80-105 C.E. Under his rule, the Kushan empire was extended into the north west of South Asia including India, Bactria and China. He hired generals to supervise and lead North Western India following which the Kushan empire became very affluent. Vima Taktu’s name was not initially discovered until historians came across the Rabatak inscription, written by Kanishka. 

Vima Kadphises 

Vima Kadphises was the son of Vima Taktu and the successive king of the Kushan empire. The empire already used silver and copper coinage but under Vima Kadphises, gold coinage were introduced. 

The Kushan empire under Vima prospered because of occupying the central position in trade with China, Central Asia, Alexandria and Antinoch. It also largely enabled the trade of silk, textiles, spices and medicine between China, India and the Western countries because of the well-maintained Silk Road. Majority of Vima’s coins feature the Triratna or Shiva with his trident.  

Kanishka I  

Kanishka I ruled the Kushan empire for 23 years from c. 127 to c. 150. His rule covered all of north India, southwards to Ujjain, Kundina and eastward beyond Pataliputra. His territory had two major capitals Purushapura (Peshawar, North-Western Pakistan) and Mathura (North-India). They even had a summer capital at Bagram (or Kapisa). 

It was because of Harry Falk’s groundbreaking research, Kanishka’s initial period of reign is attributed to be 127 CE. It was under Kanishka’s rule, the empire greatly flourished. He is the most notable king of the Kushan empire. The Mahayana Buddhism also spread across the Karakoram range to China. At the onset of his rule, Kanishka replaced Greek with Bactrian as the official administration language of the Kushan empire.  

Huvishka  

After the death of Kanishka I, Huvishka took over the Kushan empire. He ruled from c. 150 to c. 180. He was succeeded by Vasudeva I nearly 30 years later. His empire encompassed territories like Balkh in Bactria to Mathura in India. His reign was peaceful that consolidated Kushan power in north India. There are also evidences in the form of manuscript fragment and reliefs that Huvishka was a follower of Mahayana Buddhism.  

Vasudeva I 

Vasudeva I was the last of the “great kings” that ruled over the Kushan empire. His reign started from 190 and ended in 230. After the end of his rule, the Sasanians took over. They established the Indo-Sasanian empire over parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and north western India.  

Kanishka II  

Kanishka II was a minor king who took over the Kushan empire after Vasudeva I. He ruled from 225 C.E to 245 C.E. His territorial extent includes the Peshawar as well as beyond the Hindu Kush as per the Naqsh-e-Rostam inscriptions. The Rag-i-Bibi rock inscriptions further corroborates this view. 

Although Kanishka II lost control of Gandhara and Kapisa to the Kushano-Sassanians, he might have retaken control of them later.  

Vasishka  

Vasishka is the succeeding ruler of the Kushan empire after Kanishka II. He ruled for 20 years from 247 CE to 267 C.E. Several inscriptions like the Sanchi inscription of Vaksushana and the Vasaka have been unearthed that states his territorial rule from Mathura, Sanchi etc. Various statues and their fragments have been recovered from the site of Sanchi bearing his name. The coins during Vasishka’s rule are comparatively smaller and poorer in quality. They even have depictions of the Hindu God, Shiva with his trident. Vasishka’s reign was followed by other “little Kushans” who were inefficient in their rule. Ultimately, the Kushan empire was usurped by the Kidarites.  

Trade and Commerce in Kushan Era 

The Kushan empire was at the central point of the trade relations between Rome and China. As per the French historian Alain Deniélou, the Kushan empire was at “the centre point of major civilizations”. The empire helped in unifying the Silk Road between the Oxus and Ganges rivers and established themselves as the cosmopolitan rulers of northern India. They became highly affluent by trading with Rome and India. They were able to maintain peaceful and friendly relations with other countries that helped in enhancing their prosperity. The Kushans had acquired the art of trade from Bactrians. 

Art in Kushan era 

Similarities have been found between the Kushan art at Khalchayan and the art of Gandhara. The depictions of Kushans from Gandhara are represented with clothing features consisting of a tunic, belt and trousers. They are further represented as the devotees to the Buddha or the Bodhisattva. 

Benjamin Rowled found striking similarity between the head of a Yuezhi prince from Khalchayan and that of the Gandharan Bodhisattvas. Even proximities are found between the Bodhisattvas of Gandhara and the Kushan ruler Heraios. 

The Decline of the Kushan Empire 

The Kushan empire got disintegrated into several semi-independant kingdoms that were attacked by several forces on all sides. After the death of the Kushan king, Vasudeva I, the Kushan empire got divided into two major halves, one on the western and the other on the eastern. The Sasanian empire took over parts of Afghanistan and Sogdiana, Bactria and Gandhara also came under thtalibaneir influence. The territories acquired under the Sasanian king Shapur I are recorded in the inscription of the Naqsh-e-Rostam. The Rag-i-Bibi inscription also provides a similar account. 

The eastern half of the Kushan empire controlled the areas of the Punjab. It was overtaken by the Gupta empire under Samudragupta. The Gupta emperor records himself in the inscription of the Allahabad pillar that he exercised control over the Kushans as the latter surrendered to them. They even offered their daughters for matrimonial alliances to the Gupta kings. The Kushans therefore exercised some control with the presiding emperor as Samudragupta. 

The Kushano-Sasanians lost suzereignty to the Kiderites and the Hephthalites that conquered from the north. 

Final Thought! 

The Kushans ruled for three centuries from AD 30 to 375. The period of reign started with Kujula Kadphises, the founder of the Kushan empire. There were 6 major rulers who were followed by minor rulers and the little Kushans. Under the influence of rulers like Vima Kadphises and Kanishka I, the Kushan trade prospered. A great number of coins were issued but gradually the quality of the coins was debased. Eventually, the empire was disintegrated which brought about an end of the rule of the Kushans.

Hopefully, the article has provided you with useful information regarding the history of the Kushan empire. The summary at the end highlights important points that helps you in understanding the Kushan empire at a glance.

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