In the last centuries of the first millennium BC northwestern India was once more subjected to a new wave of immigration from Central Asia. In Bactria several tribes clashed in the second century BC and pushed each other towards the fertile lowlands in the south.

By: Ganesh Dutt

Posted on: 26/10/2020 View : 172


The Shakas: new invaders from Central Asia

In the last centuries of the first millennium BC northwestern India was once more subjected to a new wave of immigration from Central Asia. In Bactria several tribes clashed in the second century BC and pushed each other towards the fertile lowlands in the south. This migration began around 170 BC in the eastern region of Central Asia when the nomadic Xiongnu (Hiung-nu) (probably the ancestors of the latter-day Huns) defeated the Yuezhi (Yue-chi) who then moved west where they hit upon a third nomadic tribe, the Sai Wang or Shakas, who in turn moved to the west. According to Chinese reports some of these Shakas directly crossed the mountains and entered the Indus plains whereas others invaded Bactria and eastern Iran. Together with their kinsmen, the Scythians, they became a major threat to the Parthian empire and two Parthian rulers lost their lives in fighting against them. But in the reign of Mithridates II (123 to 88 BC), the Shakas seem to have recognised Parthian suzerainty and some of them settled down in Sakastan (Sistan) in what is now southern Afghanistan. There they intermarried with Scythians and with the local Parthian nobility. Other clans of the Shakas appeared as conquerors in India where they dominated the political scene of the northwest for nearly a century

The first Shaka king in India was Maues. There are various estimates of the dates of his reign, ranging from 94 BC to AD 22. Under him and his successor, Azes I, the Shakas established a large Indian empire including the northwest and parts of central India from Gandhara down to Mathura and Ujjain and all the way to the coast of Saurashtra. The Shakas wiped out the Indo-Greek kingdoms but largely adopted their culture with which they had already become familiar in Bactria. The Shaka kings translated their Iranian title ‘King of Kings’ into Greek (basileus basileon), used the Greek names of the months and issued coins in the Indo-Greek style

A Jaina text of a later period, the Kalakacharyakathanaka, reports that Kalaka went from Ujjain to the country of the Shakas. Kings were called Shahi there and the mightiest king was called Shahanu Shahi. Kalaka stayed with one of those Shahis and when this one, together with ninetyfive others, incurred the displeasure of the Shahanu Shahi, he persuaded them to go to India. They first came to Saurashtra, but in the autumn they moved on to Ujjain and conquered that city. The Shahi became the superior king of that region and thus emerged the dynasty of the Shaka kings. But some time later the king of Malwa, Vikramaditya, revolted and defeated the Shakas and became the superior king. He started a new era. After 135 years, another Shaka king vanquished the dynasty of Vikramaditya and started another new era.2.

Despite this story of the origins of the two Indian eras, the Vikrama era, which started in 58 BC and the more important Shaka era beginning in AD 78 (adopted officially by the government of independent India), historians are still debating the issue. They generally agree that there was no king by the name Vikramaditya of Malwa. The Vikrama era is now believed to be connected with the Shaka king, Azes I. The beginning of the Shaka era is supposed to coincide with the accession to the throne of the great Kushana emperor, Kanishka, the dates of whose reign are still debated.

In other respects the Jaina text seems to reflect the situation in the Shaka period of dominance fairly accurately. The Shaka political system was obviously one of a confederation of chieftains who all had the Persian title Shahi. The text mentions that there were ninety-five of them. The Indian and Persian titles were ‘Great King’ (maharaja) and ‘King of Kings’ (shahanu shahi, or, in Sanskrit rajatiraja) which the Shakas assumed may have reflected their real position rather than an exaggerated image of their own importance. They were primus inter pares as leaders of tribal confederations whose chieftains had the title Shahi. The grandiloquent title ‘King of Kings’ which the Shakas introduced into India, following Persian and Greek precedents, thus implied not a notion of omnipotence but rather the existence of a large number of fairly autonomous small kings. But the Shaka kings also appointed provincial governors called Kshatrapas and Mahakshatrapas (like the Persian satraps), though it is not quite clear how they fitted into the pattern of a tribal confederation. Perhaps some of them—particularly the Mahakshatrapas—may have been members of the royal lineage, but there may also have been local Indian rulers among them whom one accommodated in this way. Such a network of Kshatrapas may have served as a counterweight to too powerful tribal chieftains.

In the last decades BC the Shaka empire showed definite signs of decay while the provincial governors became more powerful. Azes II was the last great Shaka king of the Northwest. About AD 20 the Shakas were replaced by the short-lived Indo-Parthian dynasty founded by King Gondopharnes who reigned until AD 46. He seems to have been a provincial governor of Arachosia in southern Afghanistan. Though he managed to conquer the central part of the Shaka domain, the eastern part around Mathura seems to have remained outside his kingdom because the local Shaka Kshatrapas in this region had attained their independence. The same was true of Saurashtra where independent Shaka Kshatrapas still held sway until the time of the Gupta empire.

Gondopharnes appeared in third century AD Christian texts as Gunduphar, King of India, at whose court St Thomas is supposed to have lived, converting many people to Christianity. According to Christian sources of the third century AD which refer to St Thomas (‘Acts of St Thomas’), the saint moved later on to Kerala and finally died the death of a martyr near Madras. These southern activities of St Thomas are less well documented, but there can be no doubt about early Christian contacts with Gondopharnes. In a further mutation of his name (via Armenian ‘Gathaspar’) Gondopharnes became ‘Kaspar’, one of the three magi or Kings of the East who play such an important role in Christian tradition.

The Kushana Empire: a short-lived Asian synthesis

While in the early first century AD Indo-Parthians, Shakas and the remnants of the Indo-Greeks were still fighting each other in India, new invaders were already on their way. The Yuezhi under the leadership of the Kushanas came down from Central Asia and swept away all earlier dynasties of the Northwest in a great campaign of conquest. They established an empire which extended from Central Asia right down to the eastern Gangetic basin. Their earlier encounter with the Shakas whom they displaced in Central Asia has been mentioned above. The Xiongnu, their old enemies, did not leave the Yuezhi in possession of the land they had taken from the Shakas but pushed them further west. Thus they appeared in Bactria only a few decades after the Shakas and took over this territory in the late second century BC. Here in Bactria they seem to have changed their previous nomadic life style and settled down in five large tribal territories with a chieftain (yabgu) at the head of each.

Around the time of the birth of Christ, Kujala Kadphises, Yabgu of the Kuei-shang (Kushana) vanquished the four other yabgus and established the first Kushana kingdom. The history of the further development of this kingdom is recorded in the chronicles of the contemporary Han dynasty of China which were compiled in the fifth century AD. These chronicles report that Kadphises, after uniting the five principalities, proclaimed himself king, attacked the Parthians and conquered Kao-fu (Kabul) and Kipin (Kashmir). When he died, at 80 years of age, his son, Wima Kadphises, so the chronicles state, proceeded to conquer India where he appointed a viceroy. Numismatic research has confirmed these statements in recent times. Several coins of Kadphises I were found which show on one side the name of the last Greek ruler of the valley of Kabul, Hermaios, and on the reverse his own name, Kujala Kada, Prince of the Kushanas. Since the later coins of Kadphises I no longer refer to him as Yabgu but as King (maharaja), the historians assume that Kadphises had earlier recognised the suzerainty of Hermaios until the Parthians or Kadphises himself defeated this monarch.

Wima Kadphises II continued his father’s aggressive policy and conquered northern India all the way down to Mathura or perhaps even up to Varanasi. He changed the standard of the coins which had so far been of the same weight as the Indo-Greek ones by following Roman precedent. The gold of these coins seems to have been procured by melting down Roman coins (aurei) which flooded into the Kushana empire after the discovery of the monsoon passage across the Arabian sea in the first century AD. The Kushana coins are of such high quality that some historians believe that they must have been made by Roman mint masters in the service of the Kushana kings.

Whereas Kadphises I seems to have been close to Buddhism—he calls himself on his coins ‘firm in right conduct’ (dharma thita)—his son seems to have been a devotee of the Hindu god Shiva, because some of his coins clearly show an image of Shiva. There were some other Kushana kings, who were contemporaries of Kadphises II. Inscriptions and coins tell of these kings but do not record their names. Thus an inscription was found at Taxila, dated AD 76, of a king with the grandiloquent title ‘Great King, King of Kings, Son of God, the Kushana’ (maharaja rajatiraja devaputra Kushana). Other coins announce in Greek language a ‘King of Kings, Saviour, the Great’ (basileus basileon soter mages). It is assumed that these inscriptions and coins were produced at the behest of the viceroys whom Kadphises had appointed in India and who have been mentioned in the Chinese chronicles. The titles adopted by the Kushanas show how valiantly they tried to legitimise their rule over all kinds of petty kings and princes. ‘Great King’ (maharaja) was an old Indian title, ‘King of Kings’ (rajatiraja) was of Persian origin and had already been adopted by the Shakas, but the title ‘Son of God’ (devaputra) was a new one. Perhaps it reflected the Kushanas’ understanding of the Chinese ‘mandate of heaven’. The Greek titles basileus and soter were frequently used by the Indo-Greek kings of northwestern India.

Wima Kadphises II was succeeded by Kanishka, the greatest of all Kushana rulers, though there may have been an interval between their reigns filled by some nameless kings. The first references to Kanishka are found in the eastern parts of the Kushana empire in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab, which was probably under the control of rather autonomous viceroys. In two inscriptions of the second and third year of his reign which have been found at Kausambi and Sarnath in the east, he merely calls himself Maharaja Kanishka. Yet in an inscription of the seventh year of his reign at Mathura he gives his title as Maharaja Rajatiraja Devaputra Shahi, a designation which is repeated in an inscription of the eleventh year of his reign in the central Indus valley. All this would indicate that Kanishka first came to power in the east and, after he had seized the centre of the empire which was probably at Mathura, he adopted the full titles of his predecessors.

The vast extension of Kanishka’s empire cannot be adequately outlined. It probably reached from the Oxus in the west to Varanasi in the east and from Kashmir in the north via Malwa right down to the coast of Gujarat in the south. Not much is known about his hold on Central Asia, but there is a reference to the defeat of a Kushana army by the Chinese general, PanChao, at Khotan in the year AD 90. A special aim of both Kadphises II and Kanishka seems to have been to control the trade routes connecting India with Rome, i.e. those land and sea routes which would enable this trade to bypass the Parthians’ routes. This trade must have been very profitable to the Kushanas. Pliny (VI, 10) laments in those days: ‘There is no year in which India does not attract at least 50 million sesterces [Roman coins].’ Yet though fifty-seven out of the sixty-eight finds of Roman coins in the whole of Southern Asia were found in south India, none at all were found in the area of the Kushana empire. This must be due to the fact that the Kushanas as a matter of policy melted down and reissued them. After the debasement of Roman silver coins in AD 63 in the reign of Nero, gold became the most important medium of exchange for the Roman trade with India, and this must have greatly contributed to the rise of the Kushanas to prosperity and power.

Kanishka’s fame is not only based on his military and political success but also on his spiritual merit. The Buddhists rank him together with Ashoka, Menander and Harsha as one of the great Buddhist rulers of India. The great stupa at Peshawar is rated as his greatest contribution to Buddhist monumental architecture. Several Chinese pilgrims have left us descriptions of this stupa and have stated that it was about 600 to 700 feet high. When archaeologists excavated the foundations of this stupa at the beginning of the twentieth century they found that it was 286 feet in diameter. Therefore it must have been one of the great miracles of the ancient world. Kanishka is also supposed to have convened a Buddhist council in Kashmir which stimulated the growth of Mahayana Buddhism. For the development of Indian art it was of great importance that Kanishka not only favoured the Gandhara school of Buddhist art which had grown out of Greek influences but also provided his patronage to the Mathura school of art which set the style of Indian art. This school produced the famous statue of Kanishka of which, unfortunately, only the headless trunk has survived. His dress here shows the typical Central Asian style.

Kanishka’s religious policy is reflected in the legends and images of his coins. His far-flung empire contained so many cultures and religious traditions that only a religious syncretism could do justice to this rich heritage. Accordingly Kanishka’s coins show Hindu, Buddhist, Greek, Persian and even Sumerian-Elamite images of gods. Personally Kanishka seems to have shown an inclination towards Buddhism but also towards the Persian cult of Mithras. An inscription at Surkh-Kotal in Bactria which was discovered in 1958 maintains that after Kanishka’s death in the thirtyfirst year of the era which he had started with his accession to the throne, he himself became identified with Mithras. This was probably an attempt by the adherents of Mithras to claim the religious heritage of the great emperor for their cult. Kanishka’s syncretism reminds us of that of Ashoka in an earlier and of Akbar in a later age. Great emperors of India who had a vision beyond the immediate control of the levers of power were bound to try to reconcile the manifold religious ideas represented in their vast realm in the interest of internal peace and consolidation.

Another important element of Kanishka’s heritage was the introduction of a new era which influenced the chronology of the history of India, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. The inscriptions of Kanishka and of his successors are dated according to this new era for the ninety-eight years which followed his accession to the throne. But dating this new era is a knotty problem and historians have yet to reach agreement. Three international Kushana conferences, in London in 1913 and 1960 and at Dushanbe in Soviet Central Asia in 1968, have not settled the debate on this date. In 1913 there was a tendency to equate the beginning of this era with the Vikrama era. Kanishka thus would have acceded the throne in 58 BC. Then there was a new trend to equate it with the Shaka era which begins in AD 78. But in recent decades there has emerged still another school of thought which maintains that the Kanishka era must have begun sometime around AD 120 to 144. This view is supported by the painstaking research of the Austrian numismatist R.Göbl, who noticed a striking similarity between coins of specific Kushana rulers and those of their Roman contemporaries. Göbl established the following parallels: Vima Kadphises/Trajan (AD 98–117), Kanishka/Hadrian (AD 117–138), Huvishka/Antoninus Pius (AD 138–161). This means that the respective Kushana coins could only have been issued after the Roman coins of the emperors mentioned here.3 

When and how Huvishka succeeded Kanishka is not yet quite clear. There are two inscriptions dated in the years 24 and 28 of the Kanishka era and found at Mathura and Sanchi respectively which mention a ruler called Vashishka. There is another inscription at Ara in the northwestern Panjab of the year 41 by a king called Kanishka. From the year 28 to the year 60 there exist a considerable number of inscriptions of Huvishka. Since Vashishka did not issue any coins of his own it is assumed that he ruled together with (his brother?) Huvishka. The Kanishka who was the author of the Ara inscription must have been a second Kanishka. This is also confirmed by the fact that he mentions that his father’s name was Vashishka. For some years he may have shared a condominium with (his uncle?) Huvishka. Under these rulers the Kushana empire seems to have maintained the boundaries established by the first Kanishka. This is confirmed by the inscription at Surkh-Kotal in Bactria in the year 31 and another one at the Wardak monastery near Kabul in the year 51 which mentions Maharaja Rajatiraja Huvishka.

The Ara inscription of Kanishka II is unique in Indian history because of another feature: he added to the usual titles of Maharaja Rajatiraja Devaputra the Roman title Kaisara. He probably did this following the Roman victory over their common enemy, the Parthians. This victory was achieved by Trajan in the years 114 to 117 BC and Mesopotamia and Assyria became Roman provinces for some time. Trajan himself crossed the river Tigris and reached the Persian gulf. It is said that when he saw a ship there which was leaving for India he remembered Alexander’s campaign and exclaimed: ‘Oh, if I were young what would I have better liked to do but to march towards India.’ As Dion Cassius reports in his history of Rome, Trajan had heard much about India because he had received many ambassadors of the ‘barbarians’ and ‘especially of the Indians’. Those who advocate the year AD 78 as the beginning of the Kanishka era would find support in this coincidence of Trajan’s campaign and the assumption of the title Kaisara by Kanishka II. The date of the Ara inscription (41 Kanishka era) would then correspond to AD 119 when the Roman emperor’s success must have been of recent memory in India.

When the Kushanas were at the height of their power in northern India, a branch of the Shakas ruling the area between Saurashtra in Gujarat and Malwa, including Ujjain, in western central India rose to prominence once more. They retained their old Shaka title Kshatrapa and perhaps initially recognised the suzerainty of the Kushanas until they attained a position of regional hegemony under King Rudradaman in the second century AD. Together with the Kushanas in the North and the Shatavahanas in the South, they emerged as the third great power of Indian history at that time. 

Rudradaman is known for his famous Junagadh inscription which is the first Sanskrit rock inscription (Ashoka’s were written in Magadhi and later ones in Prakrit). In this inscription Rudradaman tells about a great tank whose wall was broken by a storm in the year 72 (AD 150). This tank, so he says, had originally been built by a provincial governor (rashtriya), Pushyagupta, under Chandragupta Maurya, and a canal (pranali) had been added to it by a Yavanaraja Tushaspha under Ashoka Maurya.4 This would indicate that a Yavana king served as a governor under Ashoka (though his name, Tushaspha, seems to be of Persian rather than Greek origin). Rudradaman then goes on to tell about the victories he himself attained over the Shatavahana kings and over the tribe of the Yaudehas near present Delhi. This particular reference to a Rudradaman’s northern campaign has been variously interpreted: those who maintain that the Kanishka era began in AD 78 say that the Kushana empire must have declined soon after his death; and those who suggest a later date (around AD 144) for Kanishka’s accession to the throne contend that Rudradaman could not have conducted this campaign at the time when the Kushanas were in full control of northern India.

The last great Kushana emperor was Vasudeva whose inscriptions cover the period from the year 67 to the year 98 of the Kanishka era. He was the first Kushana ruler with an Indian name, an indication of the progressive assimilation of the Kushanas whose coins show more and more images of Hindu gods. There were some more Kushana rulers after Vasudeva, but we know very little about them. They have left no inscriptions, only coins. Moreover, the knotty problem of the Kanishka era does not permit us to correlate foreign reports about India in the age of the Kushanas (such as the Chinese and the Roman ones) with the reign of clearly identifiable Kushana rulers.

In Central Asia and Afghanistan the Kushanas seem to have held sway until the early third century AD. In those regions their rule was only terminated when Ardashir, the founder of the Sassanid dynasty, vanquished the Parthians about AD 226 and then turned against the Kushanas, too. Ardashir I and his successor Shahpur I are credited with the conquest of the whole of Bactria and the rest of the Kushana domain in Central Asia. Their provincial governors had the title Kushana Shah. In the valley of Kabul local Kushana princes could still be traced in the fifth century AD. In northwestern India some Kushana rulers also survived the decline of the western centre of their empire. The famous Allahabad inscription of the Gupta emperor, Samudragupta (about AD 335 to 375), reflects a faint reminiscence of the erstwhile glamour of the Kushanas: among the many rulers who acknowledged Samudragupta’s power he also lists the Daivaputras Shahi Shahanushahis, who were obviously the successors of the great Kanishka.

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HE fortress of Champanir set on a formidable deeply scrapped rock 25 miles from Baroda derives its name from its founder. Jamb or Champa the brilliant and gallant minister of King Wun Raj of Chowra dynasty that ruled in the eighth century. The fortress is also known as Pawan garh or Pavagarh The Castle of Winds pawan meaning wind which continuously blew and blasted it. Know More

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Agni, the sacred fire, must be kept burning throughout a Brahmins life.The Brahmacarin or bachelor - student must perform the samidadhana everyday. After he is married, with Agni as witness, he becomes a grhastha (householder). He must now perform the aupasana in the fire. For the vanaprastha (forest recluse), there is a sacred fire called kaksagni. Know More

MIGRATIONS (Instruments in Indian Sculpture)

The migration of Indian musical instruments to the countries surrounding India at an early period forms an interesting subject of study. In pre-Buddhist times, India seems to have had commercial and other relations with Egypt, Sumer and other Middle-Eastern regions. Archaeologists have discovered musical instru¬ ments similar to the yazh of the ancient Tamil country in Egypt and Babylon. Know More


Music and dance have been the chief forms of religious expression in India. The origin of music in India is attributed to gods and goddesses and to mytho¬ logical figures like gandharvas and kinnaras who figure in all the stories and legends connected with the science and practice of music. Know More


Sanskrit treatises on music and literature containing references to musical instruments begin from about the 3rd century B-c* In Barhut, Sanchi, Bhaja, etc., the artists of ancient India have sculptured various types of musical instruments in the scenes depicting the life of the Buddha. Know More


THE Amber Fort near Jaipur is situated on the summit of a hill that commanded the regions lying to the north and south and the narrow passage which joins these two. Its powerful and extensive walls and towers enabled its rulers to prepare themselves for defence from inside. Know More

Instruments in Indian Sculpture

The polished, ivory-ornamented elegance of modern Indian musical instru¬ ments such as the veena, the sitar and the sarod affords little idea as to how primitive were the instruments from which they are descended. Know More


RAO BIKA, the founder of the Rathore principality of Bikaner in Rajasthan, built the fort in 1485 and the city three years later in 1488. According to Tod, a Jit who had the hereditary right on the spot selected by Bika for his capital, said that he would concede it only if his name was associated in perpetuity with the fort. Naira or Nera was the name of the proprietor, which Bika added to his own : thus the name became Bikaner (Bika + Ner). Know More


KUMBHALGARH, situated on a high peak of the westerly range of Aravalli Hills, on the borders of Mewar and Marwar, is a stupendous monument of the military and constructive genius of Maharana Kumbha. In later times his successors repaired to this fortress whenever they found Udaipur unsafe and Chitor untenable. Know More

FORTS OF INDIA (Rajasthan)

TO the rulers of states in Rajasthan, which literally means the Land of Kings and who claimed to be offsprings of the sun, moon or some such phenomenon, freedom was the most precious possession for which they considered no price, no sacrifice big enough. They could not compromise when any demand from their opponents clashed with their sense of self respect. Know More

Importance of Sthala Puranas

In my opinion, the Sthala Puranas not only enables us to have an insight into history but also enrich our knowledge of local culture and local customs. It seems to me that if they are read together in a connected manner they will throw more light on our history than even the 18 major Puranas and Upapuranas. In fact, they fill the gaps in the major Puranas. Know More

Airavatesvara Temple, Darasuram

As one enters the Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram (pi. XI), one finds a large gopura, the upper por¬ tion ofwhich is completely lost but the form ofwhich may be imagined from the complete second (inner) gopura. The larger prakara-wall all around the temple, decorated with couchant bulls at intervals, is in continuation ofthe second gopura Know More


The great monument at Gangaikondacholapuram, the second Brihadisvara Gangaikondacholesvara temple (pi. VI), rears its head nobly and bespeaks the imperial dignity of the capital that Rajendra (1012-44), the son ofRajaraja, established after his victorious march to east India up to the river Ganga. Know More

Sthala Puranas

Even those who respect the Puranas are not prepared to accept that the Sthala Puranas, that is the short Puranas pertaining to particular places,are authentic. If educated people think the [major] Puranas to be nothing but lies, they go so far as to treat the Sthala Puranas as nothing better than rubbish. Know More

FORTS OF INDIA (kot kangra)

KOT KANGRA, in Himachal Pradesh crowns a precipitous rock that dominates the surrounding area. It is surrounded on three sides from inaccessible cliffs and because of its strong position and massive walls, the fort was considered impregnable. And, though it was attacked many times, it could never be taken by storm. Once it withstood a siege for 12 months. Know More


Thanjavur attained prominence under the Cholas in the ninth century, Vijayalaya, the first great ruler of the dynasty (850-71), having captured it and made it his capital. The Brihadisvara temple is a symbol of the greatness of the Chola empire under its author, emperor Rajaraja (985-1012), whose splendour it reflects. Know More

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